I have to feel sorry for my progressive friends, of whom there are a few, who had so much hope for the new administration, and were convinced that the election of Barack Obama would lead to a significant shift in American foreign policy. One can hardly blame them for their election night elation: after all, eight years of relentless militarism and knee-jerk belligerence were finally over, and a new day was dawning – or so they thought.
Since it would be in dubious taste to say "I told you so," I’ll refrain and simply note the facts: the Obama administration has been a major disappointment to self-described liberals and Democratic party activists (outside the unions) on a wide range of issues, including not just foreign policy but also civil liberties and healthcare "reform."
During the presidential election campaign, candidate Obama tore into the Bush administration’s reckless disregard for civil liberties. On his campaign web site, he promised he would:
"Revise the PATRIOT Act. Barack Obama believes that we must provide law enforcement the tools it needs to investigate, disrupt, and capture terrorists, but he also believes we need real oversight to avoid jeopardizing the rights and ideals of all Americans. There is no reason we cannot fight terrorism while maintaining our civil liberties. Unfortunately, the current administration has abused the powers given to it by the PATRIOT Act. A March 2007 Justice Department audit found the FBI improperly and, in some cases, illegally used the PATRIOT Act to secretly obtain personal information about American citizens. As president, Barack Obama would revisit the PATRIOT Act to ensure that there is real and robust oversight of tools like National Security Letters, sneak-and-peek searches, and the use of the material witness provision."
Yet the National Security letters provision of the Act is one of three the Obama-ites are insisting must be reauthorized, virtually unchanged. What this entails is giving the FBI the power to coerce Internet service providers, banks, credit reporting companies, and even libraries into surrendering any and all information about individuals targeted by the feds as a potential "terrorist." In effect, the government now has access to a vast pool of sensitive data which could be – and has been — used to compile dossiers on American citizens not accused of any crime. Adding insult to the injury done to what is left of our liberties, this provision of the Patriot Act makes it a federal crime for the recipient of a National Security letter to reveal that he has indeed received such a letter. Tyranny operates best in the dark – at least in its first stages.
Candidate Obama also came out against warrantless wiretaps:
"Eliminate Warrantless Wiretaps. Barack Obama opposed the Bush Administration’s initial policy on warrantless wiretaps because it crossed the line between protecting our national security and eroding the civil liberties of America citizens. As president, Obama would update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to provide greater oversight and accountability to the congressional intelligence committees to prevent future threats to the rule of law."
This is yet another Bush-era "anti-terrorist" innovation that the Obama-ites are intent on retaining, and they have gotten the alleged "liberals" in the Senate to go along with it, in spite of earlier criticisms by some, such as Sen. Patrick Leahy. Now that the Good Guys are in power, they want the same "tools" used to undermine the Constitution that the Bush administration demanded and got with very little opposition, you’ll recall, from the Democrats.
Another provision, the "material support" statute, makes it a crime to give "material support" to "terrorist" groups, including not just al-Qaeda, but any and all groups and causes disfavored by the US government. The form of "support" can be "intangible," i.e. intellectual support, and it need not be intentional. Commentary on current affairs that criticizes, say, the US occupation of Afghanistan could be defined as "intangible" support to the terrorist cause – and land the author in jail. It is another question entirely as to whether Obama’s Justice Department would actually prosecute such a case, but this provision does indeed give them the option – which they clearly want to retain.
These reversals are not all that inexplicable when one considers the course the administration is taking in the foreign policy realm. After all, the President can hardly fulfill another of his campaign promises – reorienting the "war on terrorism" away from the Iraqi front and towards the Afghan front – and not expect an increased threat of terrorism. If you are going to invade and occupy Afghanistan – and routinely launch attacks on the soil of Pakistan – it is hardly surprising that these folks will be motivated to strike back. As Garet Garrett, the remarkably prescient conservative critic of global interventionism, put it half a century ago:
"Is it security you want? There is no security at the top of the world."
We can have an empire, or we can have our old republic back. We cannot have both.
Pay no attention to the daily soap opera of Obama’s public agony over the decision to escalate the Afghan war: this is public relations leading up to the inevitable decision to go along with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Afghan "surge." Washington is all atwitter over Afghan envoy Karl Eikenberry’s leaking of his two cables to the White House cautioning Obama on sending more troops to support a corrupt government in thrall to drug-dealers and warlords: but Eikenberry, you’ll recall, is a former commander of the Afghan troops, now retired, who was eased out by the President. The decision to escalate has already been made, according to CBS News. All this buzz about "dissent" in the ranks and Obama’s doubts is just a way to set up the narrative that people like Andrew Sullivan, with characteristic willingness to suspend disbelief, have readily embraced. What the Republicans are attacking as "dithering," says Sullivan, is instead "a relentless empiricism," evidence that in this White House "we actually have an adult prepared to allow the various choices in front of us be fully explored."
Yet the President is hardly going to abandon his stance, adopted during the campaign and elaborated ever since, that Afghanistan is "the right battleground," that we can’t allow any "safe havens," and that the Bushies "neglected" the Afghan front but the Obama-ites won’t. Withdrawal, as he and his minions have said often enough, is not an option, so the question remains: how does he sell the Afghan adventure to a war-weary, economically challenged nation?
It’s all a question of marketing, and knowing your audience: liberals and progressives wouldn’t rally around the philosophical "idealism" of the neocon-controlled Bush administration, which took the rightness of its "liberation" theology (and it was a theology) for granted. In order to appeal to his core constituency in the media and the white-wine-and-brie crowd, Obama must position himself as a thoughtful "pragmatist," who has sincerely mobilized his brain trust to concentrate on the problem of Afghanistan, and – after much give-and-take – has come up with an honest solution.
Self-described "progressives" are particularly prone to bow before the rule of the experts: this, after all, is the very heart of their economic and social doctrines, which hold that the mass of humanity can (and must) be uplifted by all-wise technocrats and government officials, who, naturally, have everyone’s best interests at heart.
By the way, the same argument-from-authority is being made to address objections to the administration’s healthcare "reform" project, coming from the left as well as the right: we are told that the "experts" agree forcing everyone to buy insurance and providing the insurance industry with a captive market is the best way to drive down costs and provide healthcare for those who can’t afford it. So what if it sounds counterintuitive. You’re not an expert – so what do you know?
This "the experts agree" narrative gives the Obama-ites an out: when the inevitable occurs, they can always say no one knew we would fail. That, you’ll recall, is the excuse the Bushies gave when we invaded Iraq and found no "weapons of mass destruction." Yes, they wailed, but everybody thought the weapons were there: it wasn’t just us, but the intelligence agencies of our allies, and even many war opponents (not including Antiwar.com). We couldn’t have known: no one could have known.
But of course they could have known if they’d listened to Scott Ritter, not to mention the views expressed in this space. In the Afghan case, you could have known if they’d studied a little history – say, the history of the Soviet Union’s unsuccessful attempt to pacify Afghanistan and set up a puppet government. They could have known if they’d listened to Matthew Hoh, who recently resigned his position with the Foreign Service in protest over the administration’s policies in Afghanistan. They could have know if they hadn’t been locked into a number of easily disproved assumptions, such as the conceit that we can have sufficient knowledge of and influence over Afghan society to effectively control what goes on over there.
This last is the core reason why the warlords of Washington will never relinquish their Afghan domain voluntarily, without being militarily defeated and driven out as they were in Vietnam. The Obama administration is specifically committed to the idea that the US government can and should determine what is best not only for its own citizens but for the inhabitants of the rest of the world. Washington’s only god is power, and their every act is an act of worship at its altar. Which is why, in spite of whatever good intentions they might have started out with, in the end the Obama-ites are no different from their Republican predecessors – and the sooner "progressives" and other well-meaning fans of this administration reconcile themselves to this fact, the more likely they are to understand current events.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I’ve been asked by The Hill – Capitol Hill’s newspaper of record — to comment regularly on current issues, and the first installment appears here. Check out their web site for future contributions.
Well, it looks like we at Antiwar.com are in for yet another long fundraising campaign, which is so far producing little-better-than-average results. In my last column, I promised that, after a short respite, I would start hectoring you again – and here I am, more than fulfilling that pledge.
If today’s column wasn’t enough, I want to underscore the dangers posed by the Obama administration to the prospect of a more peaceful world. It is precisely because of his reputation as a liberal-slash-progressive that President Obama is well-positioned to sell a policy of relentless war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan – for the same reason Richard M. Nixon was able to sell America’s tilt toward China during the cold war years. Hoping Obama will deliver on his domestic promises, all too many progressives can be counted on to look the other way if the primary victims of his foreign policy are foreigners. As for the reality that our empire-building project is bankrupting the country – well, as another great "progressive" once put it, we shouldn’t worry about the national debt because, after all, we only "owe it to ourselves."
Just as it took years for the left-wing of the Democratic party to wake up to the tragedy of Vietnam, so the same holds true for the ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan. We here at Antiwar.com, not being partisans, nor even very "progressive" by any measure, are not handicapped in our critique of a war-making President who seems intent on repeating the mistakes of LBJ. In the beginning, we paid a price for that: a large number of our supporters, who voted for Obama, were displeased by our criticisms of his foreign policy, and said so. Undeterred, we responded by stepping up our attack – and events, unfortunately, are confirming our instincts.
The mainstream media, which is openly supportive of the President, is giving him a pass on foreign policy, as in all things. The conservatives, of course, are criticizing him for not being militaristic enough. Who, then, is left to critique his interventionist policies?
That’s our job, and we’re doing it. Now we need our readers and supporters to help us continue our work. Because we can’t do it alone: we need your help. It’s just that simple. So don’t just sit there: contribute today.