Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Peace President

When the Bush administration signed on to the Status of Forces Agreement last Fall, it acquiesced to the demands of the Iraqi government. No longer Washington’s stooge, the government headed by Nouri al-Maliki called the shots. In signing on, the United States relinquished all the neo-colonial privileges and concessions it imposed on Iraq after the invasion, and agreed to end its occupation by 2011. Although one wouldn’t know it from media accounts or from the representations of U.S. officials, this was an admission of defeat. For their own reasons, most of the relevant players in Iraq were content to have the American occupation continue for a while, as they negotiate their respective positions once the occupation ends. They were also willing not to contradict the American government’s narrative, according to which, by 2011, the U.S. will have done enough “nation building” for Iraqis finally to be able to govern themselves. What the United States gained by the Status of Forces Agreement was a situation that, with ingenuity and deceit and with the active collaboration of the mainstream media, they may be able to depict as a “victory.” The Iraqis were evidently willing to concede on that point, if only because there’s no percentage in humiliating a country that has proven itself all to eager to wage war against them. Thus the United States surrendered in a face-saving way.

But the fact that the United States lost the war Bush started doesn’t mean that the it can’t revisit the scene of its crimes, should the balance of forces in Iraq change in ways that make yet another intervention desirable to whoever is the Commander-in-Chief at the time. The Bush government effectively reserved the right for its successors to try again. Thus 2011 was always more of an aspirational goal than a date certain.

Is it different now that Barack Obama is the Commander-in-Chief? Obama’s February 27 speech at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina appeared to signal the beginning of the end-game in the Iraq War – “combat” troops are to be out in nineteen months (not sixteen, as Obama had promised in the campaign!) and all troops are to be out in 2011, as per Maliki’s agreement with Bush. But like Bush, Obama has left himself wiggle room for keeping troops in Iraq beyond 2011, should it be “necessary” – that is, desirable for furthering what he takes America’s interests to be. Thus the anti-war candidate voters thought they elected has turned out, in this instance at least, to be on the same page as George Bush. The only significant difference is that the Obama plan is explicit on the time-line for withdrawal, though it isn’t clear what difference this makes, given the “flexibility” built into the de facto surrender document, as construed by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Obama wants troops out of Iraq in order to stop the hemorrhaging of taxpayer dollars in times of monumental deficits, but also, mainly, to reposition them to Afghanistan. To their credit, Obama and his national security team acknowledge that Afghanistan could turn into a much worse “quagmire” than Iraq has been; it could be Obama’s Vietnam. But they are willing to take the chance – and, if need be, spill the blood! – ostensibly to deny Al Qaeda the safe haven it enjoyed before the post-9/11 American invasion.

There is a compelling case to be made that the best way to achieve that goal is to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. But Obama and his advisors, along with the hapless General Petraeus and some top brass in the Pentagon and on site, seem determined to take another course. They imagine that an infusion of troops -- accompanied by bribes to local warlords (“counterinsurgency”) -- will set things right enough that the U.S. can leave the mess it stirred up. In other words, they want to do in Afghanistan what they are already doing in Iraq; hoping that by doing so they will be able again to save face.

Even Republicans, the saner ones anyway, realize that this is the best the U.S. can hope for in Afghanistan. Thus, even in this era of spurned “bipartisan” initiatives, they are more on board with Obama’s plan than many Democrats are. Even John McCain voiced support for Obama’s position. Democrats who know better, as many of them do, are still too much in the thrall of that Obama-knows-best frame of mind that took hold after the election to press actively for a peace “we can believe in.” They therefore only squawk, and then go along. This degree of “bipartisan” consensus is not surprising. On foreign policy and military matters, the Greater and Lesser Evil parties differ more on means than on ends.

Though Bush started it, Obama, if he is not careful, will soon own the Afghanistan War. Surely, he understands that it could be his undoing, just as the Vietnam War was LBJ’s. Surely, he understands too how much better it would be for all the relevant players, including the Afghan people, if the United States would just go away. Why then has he dumped the anti-war posture he assumed in the campaign and taken up the cause of permanent war?

I’ve remarked on the reason often in earlier entries: it is that if you’re determined, as both Democrats and Republicans are, to run the world, you can’t afford to look weak or vulnerable. In Afghanistan, the situation is clouded because there is a defensible objective – denying a safe base for terrorists intent on harming the United States. The problem there is not so much the end, as the means. More troops and more fighting will, in all likelihood, produce just the opposite of the desired result. But, no matter. The main thing is that, since we are there now, we can’t leave until a way emerges for us not to look like we are being forced out.

That this conviction is the real cause of Obama’s regretful but determined bellicosity is even more transparent in the Iraq case because there is no plausible objective to be gained by staying there until 2011 or beyond, other than avoiding the appearance of defeat. A strategic retreat – running away to fight another day – is out of the question. Like gangsters intent on maintaining power through sheer intimidation, superpowers must always get their way. The Empire is now in Obama’s hands, and he wants to be sure that it keeps on going under his stewardship.

Those of us who think it urgent that the U.S. abandon its imperial posture, if only to avoid blowback from the intensifying turbulence that America’s wars create, must therefore stand against Obama in this regard. His “base” has never demanded much from him. Even still, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the idea is abroad in the land that Obama knows best. Maybe he does, but he won’t act on what he knows – unless his base gives him no alternative. So far so much of that base remains so mesmerized that the danger is grave.

This is one instance where it would be well to follow the Republicans’ lead. They are nowadays a pitiful lot; their leading “thinkers” make even George Bush look good. The just concluded CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference in Washington showed just how morally and intellectually bankrupt the Grand Old Party has become. But they do know one thing: how to leverage their power. They know how to discipline themselves in order to forge unity, and they understand the value of plain obstinacy. If only “progressives” in the Democratic Party were more like them in these respects, we might just avoid the quagmire towards which Obama is heading.

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