War cries from a defeated man

by Alexander Cockburn

Ritual trumphalism about America’s righteous mission in the closing sentences of his speech did not dispel the distinct impression during President Obama’s 33-minute address to cadets at West Point Tuesday night that we were listening to a man defeated by the challenge of justifying the dispatch of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

Obama didn’t make the case and he pleased few. The liberals seethed as they heard him say that it is “in our vital national interest” to send 30,000 more troops to a mission they regard as doomed from the get go.

The cheers of the right at the news of the deployment died in their throats as they heard his next line, “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”

No mature American, seasoned in the ineradicable graft flourishing down the decades in almost every major American city, believes a pledge that corruption will be banished from Afghanistan in a year and a half, or that Karzai has any credibility as the wielder of the cleansing broom.

Each proposition of Obama’s rationale collapses at the first prod, starting with the comparison with the conclusion of America’s mission in Iraq. It’s taken as axiomatic in Washington that the “surge” in Iraq worked — that the extra troops demanded of President Bush by Gen. Petraeus turned the tide.

But what truly turned the tide in Iraq was the victory of the Shi’a in Baghdad and other major cities in their bloody civil war with the Sunni, the majority of whose fighters then saw they had no alternative but to forge an alliance with the hated occupiers and garland the tanks they had been trying to blow up only weeks earlier.

Prime Minister Maliki has at his disposal a large and seemingly loyal army and extensive trained militia by Alexander Cockburn and police force to sustain columnist and guard the Iraqi state. The Afghan army is ragtag, barely trained, mostly illiterate and rife with desertion — disproportionately manned and commanded by Tajiks, whom the Pashtuns despise. The police depend for their living on bribes. As University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole points out, “the entire province of Qunduz north of the capital only has 800 police for a population of nearly a million. In contrast, the similarly-sized San Francisco has over 2,000 police officers and rather fewer armed militants.”

Core to Obama’s argument for intervention is the claim he made at West Point that the fundamental objective of destroying al-Qaida can only be achieved by destroying their hosts, the Taliban, and that this enterprise requires more troops. But there is evidence that across the recent months of infighting over America’s options, Obama and his White House national security advisers themselves had no confidence in this proposition.

In the struggle between the White House and Gen.

McChrystal, the Pentagon and its Defense Secretary, Robert Gates (a holdover from the Bush years), Obama’s security adviser Gen. James Jones mooted to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post the question of why al-Qaida would want to move out of its present sanctuary in Pakistan to the uncertainties of Afghanistan.

McChrystalpromptly struck back in his London speech to the Institute of StrategicStudies: “When the Taliban has success, that provides sanctuary fromwhich al-Qaida can operate transnationally.”

Days later, the New York Times reportedthat “senior administration officials” were saying privately thatObama’s national security team was now “arguing that the Taliban inAfghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States.”

Detailingthis semi-covert struggle, the Washington-based national securityanalyst Gareth Porter argues that Obama was boxed in by an alliance ofGates and Secretary of State Clinton plus McChrystal and Admiral MikeMullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in “a textbookdemonstration of how the national security apparatus ensures that itspolicy preference on issues of military force prevail in the WhiteHouse.”

ThoughPorter makes a decent case, this may be giving a bit too much comfortto those disconsolate but ever hopeful liberals arguing that therereally is a “good Obama” battling away against the darker forces. In alarger time-frame, if anyone boxed himself in on Afghanistan, it wasObama who spent a lot of the campaign last year seeking to deflectMcCain’s charges that he was a quitter on Iraq, by proclaiming thatAmerica’s true battlefield lay in Afghanistan.

Therewere other unusual down-key notes in the speech. Obama is probably thefirst president of the United States to declare flatly that “we can’tsimply afford to ignore the price of these wars…. That’s why ourtroop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended: because thenation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”

Contrastthat to the budgetary bravado of President Kennedy proclaiming in hisinaugural address in 1961 that “we shall pay any price, bear anyburden… in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Inthe wake of the speech, the Democrats were glum, well aware that thewar is relatively unpopular and they will be saddled with it throughthe 2010 midterm elections and that Obama will unhesitatingly turn toRepublicans in Congress to get the necessary vote for the money tofinance the widening war. From the left came pledges to revive theantiwar movement, dormant these past two years.

TheAmerican political landscape dosn’t offer too much comfort to Obama. OnWednesday came tidings of a rightleft alliance in Congress, challengingthe reappointment of Ben Bernanke for a second term as chairman of theFederal Reserve, a slap in the face not only for Bernanke but for Obama.

Indemanding a hold on Bernanke’s reappointment, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I)of Vermont said, “The American people overwhelmingly voted last yearfor a change in our national priorities to put the interests ofordinary people ahead of the greed of Wall Street and the wealthy few.What the American people did not bargain for was another four years forone of the key architects of the Bush economy.”

Thepresident could scarcely exult publicly at one piece of good news,since it comes at the expense of the lives of four police officers inTacoma, Wash. shot dead by Maurice Clemmons, an apparently mad blackman who had a very lengthy prison sentence commuted nine years ago byMike Huckabee when the latter was governor of Arkansas.

Huckabee’spardons were estimable, but the prospects of him winning the Republicannomination in 2012 have now shriveled, sparing Obama a witty andresourceful opponent. Obama is no doubt more comfortable with thethought that his opponent might conceivably be Sarah Palin.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. Copyright 2009 Creators.Com