While the great debate over the "stimulus" spending bill was the focus of President Obama’s Monday sermon, some of the questions asked at a subsequent press conference dealt with foreign policy, including a pointed one by CNN’s Ed Henry, and it was a double zinger:
"Thank you, Mr. President. You’ve promised to send more troops to Afghanistan. And since you’ve been very clear about a timetable to withdraw combat troops from Iraq within 16 months, I wonder, what’s your timetable to withdraw troops eventually from Afghanistan?
"And related to that, there’s a Pentagon policy that bans media coverage of the flag-draped coffins from coming in to Dover Air Force Base. And back in 2004, then-Senator Joe Biden said that it was shameful for dead soldiers to be, quote, ‘snuck back into the country under the cover of night.’
"You’ve promised unprecedented transparency, openness in your government. Will you overturn that policy so the American people can see the full human cost of war?"
Hey, who let that guy in here, anyway?
Obama’s answer is a study in obfuscation and chilling sanctimony eerily reminiscent of his predecessor: "Your question is timely," the president averred. "We got reports that four American service members have been killed in Iraq today. And, you know, obviously, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families."
Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t the question been timely for quite some time? After all, U.S. soldiers have been fighting and dying for eight years now in a war with no clear goal except, perhaps, perpetual conflict for its own sake and no visible end. Obama’s fabled calmness is really an uncanny ability to utter nonsense with absolute equanimity.
His entire answer is a peroration consisting of clichés strung together like plastic baubles on a dime-store bracelet. There’s a riff about how you know you’re president when you have to console the families of fallen soldiers. Ye gods, how many times have we heard presidents say this? It sounds like a line cut from a West Wing script. Richard Nixon might have said it. This is the moment when he feels truly presidential when he realizes what a heavy burden it is having absolute power over the conduct of American foreign policy. Or, as Obama puts it: "It reminds you of the responsibilities that you carry in this office and and the consequences of the decisions that you make."
Not that there’s a chance he’d be willing to cede some of that decision-making back to the people’s representatives, where the Constitution says it belongs. You may dimly recall that, under the strictures set down by the Founders, only Congress may declare war. Yet that power, once usurped by a pint-sized haberdasher, was permanently surrendered by Congress. Certainly the majority Obamacrats would never dream of reclaiming it.
Obama refused to say that he’d reject the Bushian policy of keeping cameras away from those coffins, claiming he doesn’t yet "understand all the implications involved." A truly oily evasion, that one, to which the only possible rejoinder is: What are the implications of continuing the policy?
Such a decision would underscore the essential continuity of American foreign policy and chip away at the myth of Obama the great change-maker. This is made all to clear in the rest of his answer, in which he touts the recent Iraqi elections as if they weren’t fraught with fraud and carried out in an atmosphere of intimidation, with the whole country practically put into lockdown. At any rate, elections are now the metric of military success and a sign that we can move on to fresh battlefields, where the battle for Democracy, Goodness, and the American Way is not yet won:
"You do not see that yet in Afghanistan. They’ve got elections coming up, but effectively the national government seems very detached from what’s going on in the surrounding community."
How this is different from any other central government in Afghan history the president does not venture to say. Does he think he’s dealing with, say, France? Afghanistan’s very geography makes it ungovernable, despite what you may hear from those geniuses over at the Center for a New American Security or whatever neoconnish name they’ve dreamed up for the latest incarnation of American supremacism.
It’s amazing how quickly Obama started sounding just like Bush, because, when cornered by this question on the Afghan endgame, he reverted to waving the bloody flag of 9/11, just as his predecessor did in the run-up to war with Iraq, and long after the alleged links between Saddam and 9/11 had been thoroughly debunked. The president claims "you’ve got the Taliban and al-Qaeda operating in the FATA and these border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan," and he promises a "concerted effort to root out these safe havens."
The Taliban in Pakistan are not the problem when the Taliban control a great hunk of Afghanistan proper and the domain of the central government is largely confined to Kabul. Furthermore, we have heard much about the alleged presence of al-Qaeda’s shadowy remnants in Pakistan, yet we have seen no evidence. Nor have we been offered any specifics. It seems to me that the president came pretty close to saying, definitively, that Osama bin Laden is in the tribal areas, without, of course, actually coming out and saying it. If he doesn’t know this to be true, then Obama is doing precisely what Bush and his gang did to gin up a war with Iraq lying.
It always comes back to 9/11:
"The bottom line though and I just want to remember the American people, because this is going to be difficult is this is a situation in which a region served as the base to launch an attack that killed 3,000 Americans."
A whole region? By this same token, then, so did Germany serve as a base for al-Qaeda, since the plotters lived in Hamburg for quite some time, where, presumably, they did their share of plotting. And the original conception of the 9/11 terrorist attacks can be traced back to a meeting held in the year 2000 in Malaysia. Therefore, according to Obama’s logic, these two countries are prime candidates for revenge attacks by the U.S. But this makes about as much sense as invading Italy in order to deprive the Mafia of its "safe haven."
Terrorists don’t need "safe havens" to plan attacks on the U.S. They can do it anywhere. That’s their great advantage: "al-Qaeda" is more of an idea than a real organization. By running with this "safe haven" malarkey, Obama far from being "tough" underestimates the real source and deadly power of the terrorist threat.
"I do not yet have a timetable" for getting out, Obama declared aside from which, you know how these "safe havens" tend to proliferate. Why, no sooner will Afghanistan be pronounced relatively clean of al-Qaeda than those scoundrels will somehow wriggle their way into Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and in all likelihood Uzbekistan giving the U.S. a pretext to intervene in a region of the world our oil companies and other economic interests have long coveted.
One hopeful sign, however, is that he said he doesn’t yet have a timetable. Perhaps a vocal and visible protest against his neo-Bushian foreign policy will help concentrate his mind and speed up the process of timetable-creation.