Friday, July 23, 2010

The Audacity of Leadership

Amazingly, it was fifty-five years ago that a young senator, John F. Kennedy, wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning biography about eight senators who put their principles above their political ambitions. "Profiles in Courage" recounts the stories of men like John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster.

John F. Kennedy may well have stumbled upon the answer to those who criticize another young president today: "We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve." We, the people, are not speaking loud enough, not when it comes to funding illegal wars..

On Thursday, the Senate passed legislation appropriating another $60 billion to fund the troop surge in Afghanistan. The Senate bill is stripped of $20 billion in domestic spending House Democrats proposed including $10 billion in grants to school districts that are facing teacher layoffs.

As the Seattle Times reports, Defense Secretary Gates is pressuring Congress to pass the measure before their August recess, threatening that failure to do so will result in "thousands" of furloughs at the Pentagon.

Somehow, one can't help but think of two former presidents who would have applauded thousands of Pentagon layoffs: Dwight D. Eisenhower who spoke of a "military industrial complex," and John F. Kennedy who asserted the need for "complete and total disarmament."

The $60 billion the Senate has now slated for Defense, and Defense only could be put to better use. For one thing, it might prevent states like California from furloughing more state workers, and teachers. Instead, the $10 billion the House added on for domestic spending will be spent on more military bases in Afghanistan and foreign aid unless "we, the people" speak up.

When even the most strident proponents of the war in Afghanistan acknowledge that it isn't going well, what does it say about a country that lays off more than two-hundred teachers for "poor performance" in one district alone, Washington, D.C., but leaves in place a Defense Department that has been grossly underachieving. More to the point, since when does a Secretary of Defense get to pressure Congress into passing legislation slated for the Pentagon's pocket?

Now that the Senate has approved financing another "surge," this time in Afghanistan, the bill goes back to the House where only a handful of Democrats will oppose it.

Members of Congress who are now preparing for more debate on the Senate version of this war appropriations bill might be well served by remembering not only "Profiles in Courage," but something else John F. Kennedy once said: "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life."

In the end, as President Kennedy suggests, leadership is in our hands. We have the power to elect, and reelect.

Those Senate Republicans who speak the loudest about the need for fiscal austerity have no qualms allocating many billions of dollars for the merchants of war. By acquiescing to their demands, Democrats are quickly becoming Tweedle Dee to Republican Tweedle Dums.

The party that triumphed in 2008 must now do what it was elected to do, stop beating around the bush (indeed, both Bushes), and quit financing illegal, unpopular wars which compromise not only their political careers, but their principles. They must show that hope isn't audacious; leadership is. It takes courage to see this, and even more courage to act on it.