Easy Chair — From the September 2011 issue

A Letter to Barack Obama

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With this sentiment in mind, I would like to suggest a few bold steps President Obama might consider for the good of his soul and that of the nation.


We should bring our troops home from Afghanistan this year. No previous foreign power that has tried to work its will in Afghanistan has succeeded—not Alexander the Great, not the Mongols, not the British, and not the Russians, who, after nine years of fighting, had sent some 25,000 of their soldiers home in coffins. The Soviet treasury was emptied and the Soviet Union collapsed. Even if it were desirable for us to stay a decade more, we simply cannot afford to do so.


We should close all U.S. military bases in the Arab world. American troops in the Middle East incite rather than prevent terrorist attacks against us. We would do well to remember that when Osama bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, he found a large American army in his home country, positioned there to halt a possible Iraqi invasion—a presence that so offended him he denounced the king and his own family for quartering the American “infidels” within the shadow of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. He then returned to Afghanistan to organize Al Qaeda and, later, launch the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.


We should evaluate whether it is necessary to continue other American troop consignments to Europe, South Korea, and elsewhere. When the U.S. Army was sent to Korea in 1950 the deployment was described as a brief police action, but sixty years later our troops are still there. South Korea is now a wealthier, more populous, and more industrialized nation than North Korea, and is fully capable of defending itself. Similarly, U.S. troops in Europe, now numbering 80,000, have been there for half a century. They should be withdrawn, as were the Soviet forces from Eastern Europe under Mikhail Gorbachev.


President Obama should call on the Pentagon to reduce the current military budget of $700 billion—a figure that accounts for almost half of the world’s military expenditures—to $500 billion next year, and then, over the next five years, to $200 billion. In a careful and persuasive study, Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, identifies unneeded and costly programs that could be cut from the Pentagon budget without weakening our security, including the elimination of sophisticated warplanes—all of which, added up, could save a trillion dollars over the next ten years.


The Bush tax cuts for those with higher incomes should be not only repealed but reversed; with an increase in taxes for this bracket, the increased revenues could be used to reduce the national debt. There would, of course, be strong resistance to ending the tax favoritism now enjoyed by the rich, but this bonanza for the few at the top must end.


Savings in military spending could be used to launch valuable public investments, thereby creating jobs and stimulating the entire economy. The administration has expressed support for creating a European-style high-speed rail system in the United States, and indeed we ought to build the fastest, cleanest, and safest passenger- and freight-train system in the world.

The president should also revive the full provisions of the World War II–era G.I. bill, which enabled 7.8 million soldiers to secure a college education at government expense while also receiving a cost-of-living stipend. Having been a bomber pilot during World War II, flying missions over Nazi Germany, I was one of the beneficiaries of the bill, eventually earning a Ph.D. in history at Northwestern University. This program was costly, but the government certainly made its money back, because educated citizens earn more and so pay increased taxes. Now, as we experience a crisis in higher education caused by soaring tuition costs that exclude many working- and middle-class young people, why not offer government-paid higher education and vocational training for all qualified students—both civilian and military?

Another wise public investment would be the expansion of Medicare to all Americans. Some of the recently proposed health-care legislation has been so lengthy and complicated that I am not sure what is contained in it, but we all know what Medicare is. We could reduce the impenetrable legislation to a simple sentence: “Congress hereby extends Medicare to all Americans.” I am at a loss as to why an old codger like me benefits from Medicare while my children and grandchildren do not. To soften the impact of this expansion on the budget, I propose that the program be implemented in steps every two years: the first step including children up to the age of eight; the second, those from nine to eighteen; the third, those from nineteen through thirty; and finally, those from thirty-one through sixty-five. Programs such as Medicare have been in place for years in many advanced countries. My Canadian relatives tell me that any government that tried to do away with their comprehensive medical and hospital care would be promptly expelled from office.

None of this is intended as a criticism of Barack Obama, who had my support when he was a candidate for the United States presidency and who has my support today. I hope that some of the ideas here might help him on the road to greatness. I wish him well on the journey ahead.

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co-wrote "The Way Out of War" in the October 2006 issue of Harper's. A former U.S. congressman, senator, Democratic presidential candidate, and Harper's Magazine Foundation board member, McGovern passed away on October 21, 2012.

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  • amorosotom

    Everything the late senator has proposed makes so much sense. That’s why none of his proposals has a chance.

  • Kevin Nasky, DO

    With regard to #6, the G.I. Bill is more robust than ever. The post-911 G.I. Bill not only pays tuition, but pay an additional sum to cover housing (equivalent to active duty BAH).


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