War and (Nobel) Peace
I suppose we should not begrudge Barack Obama his Nobel Peace Prize, though it represents a radical break in tradition, since he's only had slightly less than nine months to discharge his imperial duties, most concretely through the agency of high explosives in the Hindukush whereas laureates like Henry Kissinger had been diligently slaughtering people across the world for years.
Woodrow Wilson, the liberal imperialist with whom Obama bears some marked affinities, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919, having brought America into the carnage of the First World War. The peace laureate president who preceded him was Teddy Roosevelt, who got the prize in 1906 as reward for sponsorship of the Spanish-American War and ardent bloodletting in the Philippines. Sen. George Hoar's famous denunciation of Roosevelt on the floor of the U.S. Senate in May 1902 was probably what alerted the Nobel Committee to Roosevelt's eligibility for the Peace Prize:
"You have sacrificed nearly 10,000 American lives — the flower of our youth. You have devastated provinces. You have slain uncounted thousands of the people you desire to benefit. You have established reconcentration camps. Your generals are coming home from their harvest bringing sheaves with them, in the shape of other thousands of sick and wounded and insane to drag out miserable lives, wrecked in body and mind. You make the American flag in the eyes of a numerous people the emblem of sacrilege in Christian churches, and of the burning of human dwellings, and of the horror of the water torture. "
On receipt of the prize, Roosevelt promptly dispatched the Great White Fleet (16 U.S. Navy ships of the Atlantic Fleet including four battleships) on a worldwide tour to display Uncle Sam's imperial credentials, anticipating by scarce more than a century, Obama's award, as he prepares to impose Pax Americana on the Hindukush and portions of Pakistan.
It's dawning even on those predisposed to like the guy that when it comes to burning issues, the first black president of the United States truly hates to come down on one side or the other. He dreads making powerful people mad. He won't stand up for his own people when they're being savaged by the nutball right, edges them out, then has his press secretary claim that they jumped of their own accord. This may impress the peaceniks of Oslo, but from the American perspective, he's looking like a wimp.
Obama's Afghan policy evolved on the campaign trail last year as a one-liner designed to deflect charges that he was a 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.
Once ensconced 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 mostly composed of Clinton-era neo-liberal hawks, headed by Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrook. His next step was to eject the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, and install Gen. Stanley McChrystal, best known for running the assassination wing of the military's joint special-operations command. Then he ordered 17,000 new U.S. troops to be deployed to Afghanistan.
It was a fine exhibition of Obama's eerie skill — also demonstrated in the politicking over health reform — in foreclosing his own range of choices and allowing opponents to coalesce and seize the initiative.
At this point, fate handed Obama a golden opportunity. With astounding insolence McChrystal began to conduct a public lobbying campaign for his appeal for 40,000 more troops. His top security rationale for new troops ended up in the hands of Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.
It's clear that McChrystal stepped over the line conclusively in his speech in London at the Institute for Strategic Studies General, where he contemptuously dismissed the "small footprint" counterterrorism strategy proposed by Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. John Kerry, saying that it would lead to Afghanistan becoming Chaos-istan. Obama's National Security Adviser, Gen. Jim Jones, declared that it would have been better that McChrystal's criticisms had come up through the Army's chain of command. That was the moment Obama could have fired McChrystal for MacArthur's offense — insubordination and defiance of civilian control of military policy.
McChrystal is no war hero, like McArthur. People crave some evidence that Obama has steel in his soul. High risk, maybe, but potentially a huge coup for Obama at a fraught political moment, Obama did nothing except further infuriate his liberal base by saying withdrawal isn't an option.
It's all much too late for any sensible policy review. There have been two moments in the last 40 years when life might have improved for ordinary Afghans, particularly women. The first came with the reforming left regime of the late 1970s, destroyed by the warlords with U.S. backing. The second arrived with the US eviction of the Taliban in 2001-2, which was welcomed by many Afghans. But at this stage in the game, simply by definition, no American intervention overseas can be anything other than a ghastly disaster, usually bloodstained. But already the U.S. had too many chits out to the warlords of the Northern Alliance. The U.S. "nation building" apparat is irreversibly corrupt — with a network of $250,000-per-year consultancies, insider contracts, and beyond that, a de facto stake in the drug industry now supply most of the West's heroin and opium.
There's no possible light at the end of any tunnel. The robot war via Predator missiles and other instruments in the arsenal infuriates all Afghans, as wedding parties are blown to bits every weekend. With more troops and mercenaries now in Afghanistan than during the Russian military presence at its peak, there's zero chance for America playing a long-term constructive role in Afghanistan. The U.S. presence is just a recruiting poster for the Taliban.
Last week, Obama invited Republicans, as well as Democrats, to the White House for further review of the options. Obama has let events overtake him, exactly as he allowed the health policy debate to spin out of his control in the summer and early fall. He'll shoot for some sort of lethal semi-compromise on reinforcements, thus feeding the right and angering his liberal supporters. A year from now, he'll be paying the penalty in the mid-term elections, just as Clinton did.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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