Obama Touts the Money We'll Save with Health Reforms, While We Quietly Spend Billions on Bush's Wars

That President Barack Obama's most important domestic policy speech of 2009 coincides almost exactly with the eighth anniversary of 9/11 should not be ignored.

This is because the debates surrounding both health care reform and the war in Afghanistan are dogged by the same questions: What is the cost to the American people? How have our priorities changed? How long can we afford to place political dogma above human life before we are overwhelmed by the consequences?

In Wednesday's speech, Obama did his best to bounce between bipartisanship and big-stick politics. He called out the right's "demagoguery and distortion," only after first mentioning his "Republican friends." He sprinkled assurances of cost-cutting into a critique of the previous administration's fiscal policy. His words about the public option -- easily one of the health care debate's most ferociously contested issues -- were essentially sanded down and smoothed out, docile.

"The public option is only a means to that end," Obama said. "And we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal."

The word "Afghanistan" was only uttered once, when Obama pointed out that the cost of health care over the next 10 years would fall short of the total spent by the United States thus far on its two wars.

The numbers were supposed to be good news -- they meant that one policy priority (seemingly, the more immediate and important one, the one that directly affects 50 million Americans) would not strangle the U.S.'s ability to continue our "good war." Subtly, Obama was assuring Americans that they could win on both fronts.

The subtlety, though, is deceptive. Yes, health care will only cost $900 billion over the next 10 years. But thanks to Obama's decidedly hawkish stance on Afghanistan -- a war nearing its eighth year and conjuring comparisons to Vietnam -- the United States stands to foot a serious bill abroad.

According to the Center for Defense Information, the total cost of the war in Afghanistan will reach $439.8 billion by the end of 2009.

The United States, which spent exactly 10 times more on Afghanistan in 2008 ($140 billion) than it spent in 2002 ($14 billion), increased such efforts by $33 billion in just the last year. Obama's escalation, largely overshadowed by the health reform's incendiary spectacle, has been swift and significant.

It's also showing no signs of slowing down. On Thursday, a Senate subcommittee approved 2010's $636.3 billion defense appropriations bill. Of this, $128.2 billion has been set aside for "overseas contingency operations."

Simple multiplication tells us that the cost of maintaining this rate of defense spending for the next decade would eventually make Afghanistan $300 billion more expensive than the health care overhaul's projected cost.

And that's just dollars and cents. The more implicit (and insidious) cost to maintaining a presence in Afghanistan is ideological.

The U.S.'s approach to war -- one that rationalizes poverty and civilian casualties through flimsy rhetorical attempts at "stabilizing" or "helping" the culture that is being bombed and crippled -- is a mind-set that provokes, not prevents, acts of terrorism.

It should come as no surprise that the U.S.'s most staunchly militaristic neoconservatives, including Karl Rove and William Kristol, have voiced their support for Obama's policy.

These people, who vowed to "kill" even the most moderate of health care tweaks, are now scrambling to champion Obama's decidedly immoderate stance on the war.

So although it's conceivable that the long-overdue act of providing its citizens with affordable health care would gain the United States some form of foreign policy clout, it's also a safe bet that any such influence would be dulled by an ineffectual and imperialistic posture on Afghanistan.

The costs, both tangible and symbolic, outweigh the benefits.

A little way into Obama's health care speech Wednesday, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted, "You lie!" from the Senate floor. His words were the culmination of a month of raucous, town-hall-style meetings in which critics of reform toted guns, made comparisons to Nazism and faxed threats to politicians. The yelling was viewed as offensive: a lapse in the official pomp that is supposed to permeate political processes in Washington.

But it also held significant implications for the new neoconservative war paradigm. Indeed, during the Bush administration, Afghanistan and Iraq were treated as bombastic "shock and awe" fetes -- parades of unabashed American "prowess."

Eight years after 9/11, Wilson's outburst represents the official transition from "shock and awe war narratives" to those of "shock and awe domestic policy" (see also: 'birthers,' Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Senate hearing, etc.).

This switch, which has yanked America's attention away from an increasingly deadly and costly war, is the right's largest triumph of 2009, intentional or not.

In November 1969, President Richard Nixon, enduring a boiling point of criticism over the war in Vietnam, addressed what he called a "silent majority" of pro-war Americans.

"I believe that one of the reasons for the deep division about Vietnam is that many Americans have lost confidence in what their government has told them about our policy," he said. "The American people cannot and should not be asked to support a policy which involves the overriding issues of war and peace unless they know the truth about that policy."

Almost exactly 40 years after these words were uttered, Obama closed his health care speech with the affirmation that Americans "can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test."

Perhaps. But with the country tangled in a seemingly open-ended war -- a war whose disguises manifest in drone attacks and convoluted partial "reforms," as well as domestic "shock and awe" tactics -- one can't help but wonder who makes up the new "silent majority."


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