War and (Nobel) peace
I suppose we should not begrudgeBarack Obama his Nobel Peace Prize,though it represents a radical break intradition, since he’s only had slightlyless than nine months to discharge hisimperial duties, most concretely throughthe agency of high explosives in theHindukush whereas laureates like HenryKissinger had been diligently slaughteringpeople across the world for years.Woodrow Wilson, the liberal imperialistwith whom Obama bears somemarked affinities, won the Nobel PeacePrize in 1919, having brought Americainto the carnage of the First WorldWar. The peace laureate president whopreceded him was Teddy Roosevelt,who got the prize in 1906 as reward forsponsorship of the Spanish-AmericanWar and ardent bloodletting in thePhilippines. Sen. George Hoar’s famousdenunciation of Roosevelt on the floorof the US Senate in May 1902 was probablywhat alerted the Nobel Committeeto Roosevelt’s eligibility for the PeacePrize:“You have sacrificed nearly 10,000American lives — the flower of ouryouth. You have devastated provinces.You have slain uncounted thousands ofthe people you desire to benefit. Youhave established reconcentration camps.Your generals are coming home fromtheir harvest bringing sheaves with them,in the shape of other thousands of sickand wounded and insane to drag outmiserable lives, wrecked in body andmind. You make the American flag in theeyes of a numerous people the emblemof sacrilege in Christian churches, and ofthe burning of human dwellings, and ofthe horror of the water torture.”On receipt of the prize, Rooseveltpromptly dispatched the Great WhiteFleet (16 US Navy ships of the AtlanticFleet including four battleships) on aworldwide tour to display Uncle Sam’simperial credentials, anticipating byscarce more than a century Obama’saward as he prepares to impose PaxAmericana on the Hindukush and portionsof Pakistan.It’s dawning even on those predisposedto like the guy that when itcomes to burning issues, the first blackpresident of the United States truly hatesto come down on one side or the other.He dreads making powerful peoplemad. He won’t stand up for his ownpeople when they’re being savaged bythe nutball right, edges them out, thenhas his press secretary claim that theyjumped of their own accord. This mayimpress the peaceniks of Oslo, but fromthe American perspective, he’s lookinglike a wimp.Obama’s Afghan policy evolved onthe campaign trail last year as a one-linerdesigned to deflect charges that he wasa peacenik on Iraq. Not so, he cried. The Global War on Terror was being fought in the wrong place. His pledge was to hunt down and “kill” Osama bin Laden.
Onceensconced in the Oval Office Obama, invoking “bipartisanship,”instantly nailed a white flag to the mast by keeping on Robert Gates,Bush’s secretary of defense. He formed a foreign policy team mostlycomposed of Clinton-era neo-liberal hawks, headed by Hillary Clintonand Richard Holbrook. His next step was to eject the US commander inAfghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, and install Gen. Stanley McChrystal,best known for running the assassination wing of the military’s jointspecial-operations command. Then he ordered 17,000 new US troops to bedeployed to Afghanistan.
Itwas a fine exhibition of Obama’s eerie skill — also demonstrated in thepoliticking over health reform — in foreclosing his own range ofchoices and allowing opponents to coalesce and seize the initiative.If, on his second day in office, he’d announced a full and completereview of US aims in Afghanistan, with no option left off the table,he’d have had some purchase on the situation. But the months drifted byand finally the worsening situation forced a review of Afghan policy,precisely when Obama’s poll numbers were dropping, the war lobbyheartened and the liberals already dejected by Obama’s surrender toGoldman Sachs and Wall Street and disastrous efforts in the healthfight.
At thispoint, fate handed Obama a golden opportunity. With astoundinginsolence McChrystal began to conduct a public lobbying campaign forhis appeal for 40,000 more troops. His top security rationale for newtroops ended up in the hands of Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.
It’sclear that McChrystal stepped over the line conclusively in his speechin London at the Institute for Strategic Studies General, where hecontemptuously dismissed the “small footprint” counterterrorismstrategy proposed by Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. John Kerry,saying that it would lead to Afghanistan becoming Chaos-istan. Obama’sNational Security Adviser, Gen. Jim Jones, declared that it would havebeen better that McChrystal’s criticisms had come up through the Army’schain of command. That was the moment Obama could have fired McChrystalfor MacArthur’s offense — insubordination and defiance of civiliancontrol of military policy.
McChrystalis no war hero, like McArthur. People crave some evidence that Obamahas steel in his soul. High risk, maybe, but potentially a huge coupfor Obama at a fraught political moment, Obama did nothing exceptfurther infuriate his liberal base by saying withdrawal isn’t an option.
It’sall much too late for any sensible policy review. There have been twomoments in the last 40 years when life might have improved for ordinaryAfghans, particularly women. The first came with the reforming leftregime of the late 1970s, destroyed by the warlords with US backing.The second arrived with the US eviction of the Taliban in 2001-2, whichwas welcomed by many Afghans. But at this stage in the game, simply bydefinition, no American intervention overseas can be anything otherthan a ghastly disaster, usually bloodstained. But already the US hadtoo many chits out to the warlords of the Northern Alliance. The US“nation building” apparat is irreversibly corrupt — with a network of$250,000-per-year consultancies, insider contracts, and beyond that, ade facto stake in the drug industry now supply most of the West’sheroin and opium.
There’sno possible light at the end of any tunnel. The robot war via Predatormissiles and other instruments in the arsenal infuriates all Afghans,as wedding parties are blown to bits every weekend. With more troopsand mercenaries now in Afghanistan than during the Russian militarypresence at its peak, there’s zero chance for America playing along-term constructive role in Afghanistan. The US presence is just arecruiting poster for the Taliban.
Lastweek, Obama invited Republicans, as well as Democrats, to the WhiteHouse for further review of the options. Obama has let events overtakehim, exactly as he allowed the health policy debate to spin out of hiscontrol in the summer and early fall. He’ll shoot for some sort oflethal semi-compromise on reinforcements, thus feeding the right andangering his liberal supporters. A year from now, he’ll be paying thepenalty in the midterm elections, just as Clinton did.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch.
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