Sacramento needs a foreign policy

Pub date March 22, 2011

OPINION “The country is rich, but not so rich as we have been led to believe. The choice to do one thing may preclude another. In short, we are entering an era of limits.”

Presidential candidate Jerry Brown said that in 1976. Thirty five years later, second-time-around Gov. Jerry Brown has a profound opportunity to finish the thought — by pointing out that we can no longer afford follies like the Afghanistan war.

Any reluctance Brown might feel about discussing foreign policy — an area of responsibility clearly not assigned to the states by the founding fathers, or anyone else’s fathers — must be weighed against his understanding that when it comes to budget matters, the buck stops at the California statehouse — and the other 49 state houses. The feds can print money, but the states can’t.

California famously faces an immediate budget deficit in the $25 billion range. This, while the federal government burns through taxpayers’ money on a war that even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledges as insane. He recently told an audience of West Point cadets: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

The National Priorities Project puts the current cumulative cost of the war to California taxpayers at $48.5 billion. The $110 billion Washington plans on spending in the upcoming year pencils out to another $14 billion from California taxpayers, while they deal with what the California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates will be an annual $20 billion state budget shortfall through 2015-16.

Brown, then, has everything to gain from a serious domestic redirection of funds now squandered in this war, yet runs little risk in going out front for a national movement in that direction. After all, it’s not just Robert Gates having second thoughts: A CNN poll found the U.S. population opposing the war by a 63 percent to 35 percent margin last December. Last month, 24 of the 53 members of the California congressional delegation voted in favor of a budget amendment to cut all but $10 billion of the war’s funding, with the remaining money to be used to withdraw troops.(Jackie Speier voted for; Nancy Pelosi against.) The California Democratic Party called for “a timetable for withdrawal of our military personnel” well over a year ago, and last month the Democratic National Committee told the president to get a move on in ending this war.

When Brown first became governor, best-selling author Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock had posed the question of whether the country was suffering from too much change, too fast — a type of thinking the new governor appeared very much in tune with. In the interim, Naomi Klein has written a less known but probably more important book called The Shock Doctrine. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman describes the “shock doctrine” as an ongoing effort to exploit “crises to push through an agenda that has nothing to do with resolving those crises, and everything to do with imposing” a “vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society.”

As the governor of the largest state in the union, with the nation’s biggest deficit, Jerry Brown is in a unique position to influence the national debate by simply pointing out the elephant in the room: A healthy portion of the nation’s economic crisis will melt away if we will just do today what the secretary of defense says we should do tomorrow — get out of Afghanistan. 2

Former Massachusetts state legislator Tom Gallagher is a San Francisco writer and activist.