David Obey’s Radical Idea

Representative David Obey, the top appropriator in the House, has a hot new letter out expressing deep skepticism about the wisdom of an ambitious COIN mission in Afghanistan. I think some of the points about military strategy are wrongheaded, and I especially think Obey overplays the argument that COIN would be futile. But what he says here is true, profound, and weirdly radical in the context of our present-day bizarre politics:

As an Appropriator I must ask, what will that policy cost and how will we pay for it? We are now in the middle of a fundamental debate over reforming our healthcare system. The President has indicated that it must cost less than $900 billion over ten years and be fully paid for. The Congressional Budget Office has had four committees twisting themselves into knots in order to fit healthcare reform into that limit. CBO is earnestly measuring the cost of each competing healthcare plan. Shouldn’t it be asked to do the same thing with respect to Afghanistan?

And again:

Lastly, after the healthcare reform effort is completed, this country still has four huge long-term challenges that will require a sustained national effort:


1. The need for further action to repair the fragility of our own economy and rebuild the capacity of our economy to provide desperately needed job growth;

2. The need for a long-term commitment to strengthen our national security by dramatically reshaping our energy policy — an effort that will require sustained and meaningful sacrifice by all elements of our society;

3. The need for long-term action to restore fiscal soundness by reining in the federal deficit; and

4. The need for long-term action to extend the fiscal soundness of Social Security and Medicare.

To me, these points about costs and tradeoffs get especially pointed when we start talking about ambitious full-spectrum counterinsurgency. It would do Afghanistan a lot of good to provide better economic opportunities for its population and high-quality effective public services. But they could also use better economic opportunities and effective public services in Baltimore. The citizens of Detroit are lacking in physical security, viable infrastructure, and corruption-free governance.