A "team of rivals" is how the Obama administration is being portrayed by the head-over-heels media, which started out by likening the new president to Lincoln and may end up comparing him favorably to God. A more appropriate phrase would be "team of retreads": Hillary at State, Gates still at Defense, and all the usual suspects lording it over their regional fiefdoms.
The appointment of George Mitchell, whose success at helping settle the Irish imbroglio suggests some skill at managing impossible situations, has evoked hope in those who pine for a more open-mined and evenhanded approach to the problem of Palestine. It is a hope I share.
Yet I’m not optimistic, for two very good reasons: Dennis Ross, whose appointment as plenipotentiary for Middle Eastern affairs seems to undercut what is likely to be the Mitchell approach, and Richard Holbrooke, whose dual domain of Afghanistan and Pakistan will be the focus of U.S. military action in the coming years. Specifically, more than 14 years at least, that’s what Holbrooke told us in a pre-election piece in Foreign Affairs magazine:
"The situation in Afghanistan is far from hopeless. But as the war enters its eighth year, Americans should be told the truth: it will last a long time longer than the United States’ longest war to date, the 14-year conflict (1961-75) in Vietnam."
Which raises the question: why weren’t we told the truth in the first place? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall Obama ever "promising" to keep fighting in Afghanistan for over 14 years do you?
It’s true he emphasized the "neglect" of the Afghan front, which has supposedly suffered on account of the Bushian obsession with Iraq but a war longer than the Vietnam conflict? No one ever voted for Obama in gleeful anticipation of such a prospect, yet, if Holbrooke is right, that is going to be the signature issue that defines his presidency.
Obama plans on doubling U.S. forces in Afghanistan, bringing the total up to some 70,000 and with more, you can be sure, on the way. We are told that Obama’s magical diplomatic skills will compel the Europeans to do their part, with NATO taking the lead. Yet Afghanistan is not the former Yugoslavia, and if Holbrooke thinks he can impose a new Dayton on the rebel Afghans and the increasingly resentful Pakistanis, he is apt to run up against the same brick wall that has stymied would-be conquerors for 2,000 years, including the Soviets, the British, and Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde. The Europeans know this, and they won’t be too eager to jump into the fray.
A Vietnam-style counterinsurgency conflict spreading across the Afghan-Pakistan border and reaching into the wilds of Central Asia would dwarf the present quagmire in Iraq by several degrees of magnitude. Yet Obama was and still is touted as a peacemaker and an agent of "change." Unfortunately, it’s a change for the worse.
I mean this in the narrow sense, in terms of his foreign policy, but domestic and foreign policy are indistinguishable when you’re an empire, as Garet Garrett trenchantly observed more than half a century ago. You can be sure domestic politics and not any real "crisis" is what’s pushing us further down the path to perpetual war and unrestrained militarism. In spite of the hopes of millions, three political imperatives militate against a peaceful U.S. foreign policy in the age of Obama.
The first is a need for Obama to prove his "toughness" that test Joe Biden predicted, shortly after the election, is sure to come, and there’s no doubt about what the new president has to prove, and to whom. In spite of their straitened circumstances, the political and financial elites that run this country still like to think of themselves as the keepers of world order, and Washington the center of an empire on which the sun will never set. Failure to act "tough" would bring down a firestorm of criticism on his head and lose him the support of key constituencies, e.g., the mainstream media and the hawks in his own party.
The second is a perceived need to increase government spending on anything and everything. When they run out of pork-barrel projects to fund or when the corruption gets too obvious, whichever comes first they’ll turn to military spending. Obama has already pledged to increase the military budget, and you can bet that, with the costs of the coming Afghan-Pakistani-Central Asian conflagration, "defense" appropriations are bound to go through the roof. Military Keynesianism will unite Democrats and Republicans, liberals and neoconservatives, in a happy orgy of spending and borrowing that will, ultimately, lead to bankruptcy.
What our ruling elites are counting on is that the foreigners who hold our debt will never call it in and demand payment they’ll be content with 3 percent interest without ever getting back a bit of their principal. This seems an unwarranted assumption, unless you’re the most militarily powerful nation on earth, in which case special consideration will be given. Yet economic laws cannot be violated indefinitely and with impunity: the drain of resources occasioned by our Iraqi adventure did much to suck the lifeblood from our already overtaxed economy. Just think what a decades-long conflict in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and god-knows-where-else will do to our finances.
Yet according to the Keynesian militarists, any kind of government spending is good, so war is a boost for the economy. Why, it’s just another sort of jobs program. This, of course, is nonsense: war destroys resources, both material and human, and produces nothing but horror and evil. The war-is-good-for-business fallacy is just a morally deranged variant of the broken-window fallacy so skillfully demolished by Henry Hazlitt. However, with free-market economics of the sort espoused by Hazlitt so unfashionable these days, it’s highly unlikely that this particular delusion will be easily dispelled.
The third major factor tending toward militarism is that wartime atmospherics fit Obama’s domestic program to a tee. Already we are hearing the rhetoric of war applied to the economic front, in the hopes that the same sense of obligatory "unity" will be imposed on potential critics and soften, if not silence, naysayers. As the "war on recession" enlists an army of cheerleaders and would-be block captains, the scapegoat of a foreign enemy is a welcome diversion from deteriorating conditions on the home front.
If Holbrooke is right and we are headed for a major war that will make Iraq pale in comparison, then he may be wrong about how long it’ll last. Because the war he envisions will amount to a final spasm of unrestrained violence, a wholly destructive and futile assertion of our rapidly failing imperial pretensions. Longer than Vietnam? I give it five years, at the most, at the end of which we’ll be licking our wounds and frantically signaling an "exit strategy."