Barack Obama often seems to be channeling John F. Kennedy, and while this thrills liberals to no end and most Americans of a certain age, no matter what their politics it scares me, and ought to scare you.
The Kennedy-esque cadences of Obama’s rhetorical style, the soaring phrases, the high-minded spirit of noblesse oblige, the occasional scariness pay any price, bear any burden? send a chill of déjà-vu down the spine, and, for me, at least, it isn’t a pleasant feeling.
Memory, at least insofar as it involves individuals, tends to blur the bad and exaggerate the good: we forget the Bay of Pigs, we pass over in silence Kennedy’s over-the-top cold war rhetoric, ignoring his perfervid vow to “pay any price, bear any burden” in the pursuit of “freedom” from South Korea to South Vietnam. In regard to the latter, Kennedy early on endorsed the drive to establish an American beachhead in Southeast Asia, rationalizing it by invoking the rhetoric of the cold war. The American military mission in Vietnam, he averred, was “a finger in the dike” without which the red tide would spill into the basin of Burma, menace Malaysia, and infiltrate Indonesia. A familiar story, one that belongs wholly to the realm of fantasy, and has been our ruin more than once, and yet this “domino theory” remains one of the enduring myths of interventionism, accepted by both Republicans and Democrats as the basic premise of American foreign policy.
Obama’s recent speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars evokes many of the themes expressed by Kennedy in his earliest speeches, in which the young Democratic congressman criticized the Eisenhower administration for taking a purely military approach to the problem of Communism in Southeast Asia: he emphasized the all-sided nature of the worldwide struggle against Communist totalitarianism, pointing out that it required coordinated political, economic, and diplomatic efforts, and that there could be no purely military victory in Vietnam. However, he was firmly committed to the policy of intervention. During the Kennedy administration the seeds planted by Eisenhower’s “advisors” sprouted into a full-fledged counterinsurgency effort, and the war radically escalated: the Kennedy “surge” was far more dramatic than anything George W. Bush has yet tried to pull off.
By the way, the myth that Kennedy was going to pull us out of the Vietnamese quagmire, had he lived, is not borne out by the facts. To the end, he remained committed, at least in public, to the myth that the “loss” of Vietnam (was it ever ours to begin with?) would involve a whole series of disasters for the United States none of which panned out. President Kennedy’s last written speech on the subject warns us that “we dare not tire” of the burden: he planned to ask for an increase in military aid, and was clearly headed down the road of deepening involvement.
In any case, the Kennedy-esque undertone of Obama’s campaign is made quite explicit:
“I will also launch a program of public diplomacy that is a coordinated effort across my Administration, not a small group of political officials at the State Department explaining a misguided war. We will open ‘America Houses’ in cities across the Islamic world, with Internet, libraries, English lessons, stories of America’s Muslims and the strength they add to our country, and vocational programs. Through a new ‘America’s Voice Corps’ we will recruit, train, and send out into the field talented young Americans who can speak with and listen to the people who today hear about us only from our enemies.”
Shades of the Peace Corps, and the “idealism” of exporting “Americanism” worldwide, “selling” ourselves and our way of life to a grateful world.
Rather more ominous, however, is the prospect that, instead of explaining “a misguided war,” the Obama administration will be rallying the nation around the “right” war against Pakistan.
“When I am President, we will wage the war that has to be won, with a comprehensive strategy with five elements: getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
This has been the Democratic mantra, the supposedly “smart” way to achieve the same ends proclaimed by Bush, and that is “victory” in the war on terrorism. We’re supposedly fighting the wrong war: that has been the argument made by the “national security” Democrats for quite some time, and what Obama is expressing isn’t controversial in these circles.
The base, however, is horrified, and this could be the one big gaffe that sinks Obama’s ship and cedes the antiwar niche in the Democratic primaries to someone else. Obama, it appears, has peaked too soon and, most of all, in his own mind. He’s acting like he’s on a par with Hillary Clinton, when in reality she’s dominating the field. It’s too soon to start proving he can be tough: that’s Hillary’s hurdle, not his. Obama’s job is to prove himself to the base, and rack up some early victories: he’s the insurgent, after all.
Politics aside, the implications of Obama’s remarks are quite ominous, as he really seems to have it in for the one dependable US ally in the region, General/”President” Pervez Musharraf, or Mushie, as I think of him for some reason, although he is anything but. No one has captured more al-Qaeda leaders than the Pakistanis, and for their efforts which surpass our own they have taken great risks: the General has survived a number of assassination attempts, and his entire government is standing on some very shaky ground, not only at home but in Washington, where they have been subjected to the rising complaints of armchair critics. Obama is not alone in demanding that Musharraf crack down on the so-called tribal areas that border Afghanistan wild country that no central government has ever administered with any degree of authority.
Complaining about the lack of order and government control over Pakistan’s tribal areas is like complaining about the weather: it is something people do for lack of anything better to say. Yet that doesn’t stop anyone from engaging in such inane conversation, or even inanely and “idealistically” trying to patent a weather control device. Just send in Obama’s invention, the “America’s Voice Corps,” and tens of thousands of American troops:
“Above all, I will send a clear message: we will not repeat the mistake of the past, when we turned our back on Afghanistan following Soviet withdrawal. As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared. And today, that security is most threatened by the al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan. al-Qaeda terrorists train, travel, and maintain global communications in this safe-haven. The Taliban pursues a hit and run strategy, striking in Afghanistan, then skulking across the border to safety.”
Obama has it exactly backwards: Our initial intervention, and not withdrawing our largely covert presence in Afghanistan, is what led to 9/11. We turned our back on what we had created in Afghanistan the worldwide Islamist network that later morphed into al-Qaeda.
More bad news for Obama’s antiwar supporters: Obama has his own version of “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” or else what does he mean when he says “the security of Afghanistan and America is shared”? If avoiding another terrorist attack on American soil depends on how well we can maintain the “security” of Afghanistan, then, fer chrissakes, I say let’s head for the underground bunkers and start stocking up on canned food.
The conventional wisdom is that Osama bin Laden and his coterie are holed up in the wilds of Waziristan, and Obama paints an almost panoramic portrait of “wind-swept deserts and cave-dotted mountains,” a harsh land peopled by “tribes that see borders as nothing more than lines on a map” ah, a tribe of realists! “and governments as forces that come and go” yes, and they’re historians, too, as well as being throwbacks to an earlier time: “There are blood ties deeper than alliances of convenience, and pockets of extremism that follow religion to violence.” All in all, “It’s a tough place” and here I can see where Obama must have thrust out his chin, and, in that Kennedy-like pay-any-price-bear-any-burden tone of voice, gravely intoned:
“But that is no excuse. There must be no safe-haven for terrorists who threaten America. We cannot fail to act because action is hard.”
No excuses: get cracking. We have a war to fight. In this election, we don’t get to choose between war and peace: we only have a choice of theaters.
But why pick on Pakistan? Obama speaks as if he definitely knows where Osama is hiding, or at least the great majority of his chief lieutenants, but how sure is he about this? There are plenty of rumors, but as for solid intelligence I tend to be skeptical. If Obama knows something more specific than the broadly stated accusations he has hurled at the government of Pakistan, he has an obligation to either put up or shut up. After all, does he not realize how this is being received in Pakistan, where Musharraf’s position is increasingly precarious: does he think his comments have helped or hurt U.S. interests in the country?
It’s outrageously irresponsible and unseemly of Obama to overtly threaten anyone, least of all the one country we cannot allow to fall into the hands of bin Laden and his allies. Pakistan, after all, has nukes, and unless we want al-Qaeda joining the nuclear club, major American political figures of Obama’s stature need to be especially careful about what they say. It’s ironic that Obama committed this extraordinary faux pas in a speech that was supposed to make him sound “presidential” and yet a more un-presidential provocation would be very hard to invent.
Another irony: the first third or so of his speech is pitched to antiwar Democrats, and is filled with quite accurate and even heartfelt criticism of the Iraq war. Obama bears down on the deceptions that led the nation down the path to disaster, and points the finger not just at the execution but the very conception of the “regime change” agenda as applied to Iraq. Yet he stands this critique on its head when it comes to Afghanistan and especially Pakistan. Suddenly, there are no “excuses.” Don’t tell him it’s “too hard.” With the repetition of such words as “tough,” “hard,” etc. ad nauseum, we are being telegraphed a none-too-subtle message: he’s ready to rumble. If I were Pakistani, and Obama somehow made it to the White House, I’d head for the hills.
Obama represents a strain of Wilsonian internationalism that is threaded through with good old American pragmatism: thus we get the soaring rhetoric and the faux-realism of his program to get at the supposed “roots” of terrorism and dry up its sources of support. Poverty is singled out for special attention, as well as the lack of “secular” education to compete with the religious madrassas he says this in the same breath he declares we must assure Muslim peoples that we aren’t at war with Islam. Well, then, which is it: under President Obama, will we or will we not promote secularism in the Muslim world?
As for poverty being a leading cause of terrorism: it just isn’t so. Terrorists are highly motivated and usually highly educated, relatively affluent individuals, from the middle and upper classes: the exemplar is bin Laden himself, who comes from one of the wealthiest families in Saudi Arabia.
Throughout his speech, Obama conjures up the metaphor of a child looking up at a helicopter himself, flying overhead and seeing “thousands of desperate faces.” In the face of so much misery,
“It makes you stop and wonder: when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?”
No need to wonder what they’ll feel when those helicopters descend on Pakistan, where a supposedly “limited” incursion into the tribal areas is bound to unravel the rest of the country. Then President Obama will announce a “surge” of his own, and the Republicans will be converts to skepticism. And as the Washington power players engage in this elaborate dance, on the ground in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and perhaps even Iran don’t forget Obama hasn’t ruled out bombing Tehran civilians and American soldiers will be dying. And they won’t come home until Afghanistan a country that has always been wild, and which is practically synonymous with anarchy attains full “security.”
Lately, Obama has been attacking Hillary as “Bush lite” when it comes to foreign policy, yet he is one to talk. His threat to attack Pakistan is a clear reiteration of Bush’s preemptive war doctrine, to wit:
“But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al-Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”
Yes, we may indeed have let bin Laden get away when we had him cornered, but there is no recapturing that moment, and the lost opportunity with it. Bin Laden has long since disappeared, and al-Qaeda’s fighters and top cadre have spread out not only into the wilds of Pakistan, but no doubt throughout Central Asia, dispersing worldwide to found new components of what has become a global network. Obama would make the same mistake in the Afghan/Pakistani arena that Bush did in Iraq: there would be no real change in policy, but merely a change of locales.
Is the US mainland really in physical danger because the Taliban and the remnants of al-Qaeda are holed up in mountains thousands of miles away? Must we control every cave, every mountaintop in Waziristan before American mothers can feel safe in walking their prams down the street?
It’s the old “domino theory” that we used to hear about during the Vietnam era. Only now it isn’t just Burma, or India, that we have to worry about: it’s the homeland that’s in danger, this time. If we don’t fight them in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even Pakistan, according to some they’ll soon be suicide-bombing our malls and setting off nuclear devices in American cities. The politics of fear, while mainly utilized by the Republicans up to now, is a bipartisan phenomenon, and Obama has lately taken the rhetorical threat-level to an orangey shade of red.
Obama’s policy of striking where we have “actionable intelligence” would have us charging our way clear across the Middle East and into Central Asia, a fool’s errand that would do much more harm than good. In which case we wouldn’t need to speculate as to how ordinary people in the region feel looking up at an American helicopter: we would know, for sure, that it was pure hate. And who could blame them?
Withdraw from Iraq and invade Pakistan. Oh, and also impose an Iraq-like occupation on Afghanistan, without calling it that, of course. This is the foreign policy platform of the leading “antiwar” candidate in the Democratic primary. Surely the antiwar “base” of the Democratic party can do better than Obama. If not, then it’s time to pack it in, forget about having a rational foreign policy, and resign ourselves to perpetual war.