Obama the Counter-Revolutionary

CounterPunch (March 24, 2011)

In my book Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan (Potomac Books, Inc., 2010), I described Barack Obama’s victory over his Republican opponent John McCain in the November 2008 presidential election as a revolutionary event. Tens of millions of Americans, men and women young and old, lined up patiently to cast their ballots, in the hope of overturning the excesses of the George W. Bush presidency, and bringing a nightmarish episode in American history to an end. The American people had had enough of George W. Bush, one of the most unpopular presidents in history as he left office. He was despised abroad, wreaking enormous damage to America’s moral and political leadership. An event by which the people constitutionally and peacefully voted to overturn the neoconservative Republican order under the Bush administration was nothing short of a “popular revolution.”

Ordinary Americans in extraordinary numbers attested to the term “popular revolution” by donating modest amounts of money – 10, 20, 50 dollars – to the Obama campaign. Among them were low-paid workers, trade unionists, teachers and students. It was their “audacity of hope” – not so much Obama’s – that gave them the belief that they could make the difference in a country tired of war and facing economic disaster. As Obama inched toward the Democratic nomination at the end of a bitter fight with Hillary Clinton, business magnates began to switch to the young pretender. Even then, support from the ordinary American accounted for more.

This widespread support at home, and goodwill abroad, was made possible due to Obama’s promises of disengagement from the Iraq war, which he described as the “wrong war,” (though the Afghan war was the “right war” for him), economic renaissance and setting aside “childish things.” These promises he reaffirmed at his inauguration speech, and promised to begin a dialogue with the Muslim world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.” He devoted his celebrated, but now outdated, speech to mending the broken fences with the Muslim world in June 2009. In sum, Obama promised to transform the way in which his administration would work, and eventually a transformation of the United States of America.

However, I also observed in the same book that “I know of no revolution that has fulfilled all that it promised” in the long run. I mentioned the Soviet Union and China in the last century; Cuba is another example. Countries from the Soviet Central Asia to Central Europe were released from the shackles of Soviet domination as Soviet communism disintegrated. Two decades on, the situation in emerging states leaves a lot to be desired. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan are ruled with brute force by individuals or clans. Georgia, Poland, Romania are only slightly better. Other countries now firmly allied to the West have experienced racist authoritarian backlash.

Back to Obama’s historic victory and the “popular revolution” it was in November 2008. It was the people’s decisive response against George W. Bush’s wars – in Iraq, Afghanistan and the “war on terror” – that provoked resentment and violent opposition, opened up sectarian divisions and created Hobbesian conditions of war of all against all. The consequences were taking an exceptionally high toll in economic, human and political terms. The people’s mandate to Obama, the president, was to pull the United States out of the George W. Bush presidency’s toxic legacy. A year after taking over the presidency, Barack Obama was demonstrating the first signs that a counterrevolution was underway.

Two years on, Barack Obama, once preacher of change and hope, has become a counterrevolutionary. His administration has quickly adopted the imperialist “Project for the New American Century” of the Bush era, discredited, despised and dangerous. He has shamefully gone back on his promise of closing down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, hell on Earth made by torturers’ infamy during the Bush administration. Obama has lifted the suspension on military trials of the remaining detainees, most of them innocent or forced to confess under torture, confessions that reputable courts would not admit as evidence. Reasons given by Obama apologists that the prison camp was not closed because the U.S. Congress did not cooperate are simply not good enough. Scores of Democrats in both houses of Congress were elected on Obama’s coattail in November 2008, before the disaster struck the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections. Where was his “Yes, we can!” rhetoric? Where was leadership? Guantanamo continues to be one of many blots on the United States of America. Compare Guantanamo to Castro’s regime today on the same island of Cuba. It is Washington’s shame.

Many more civilians, including women and children, continue to be massacred in Pakistan and Afghanistan in drone attacks that have escalated since Obama assumed the presidency. Unexplained killings of civilians and humiliation of night raids have proliferated. American death squads have massacred innocent civilians and kept their victims’ body parts as trophies. The latest pictures, just a few of many, published in Germany’s Der Spiegel are another bombshell. The Pentagon is once again “sorry.” These pictures threaten damage to the Obama administration like the Abu Ghraib photos damaged the Bush administration.

Obama’s promise of a dialogue with the Muslim world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect” has turned into an exercise in undisguised hypocrisy no different from George W. Bush’s. Obama’s response to the people’s nonviolent uprising in Egypt was slow. It was designed to ensure that, in the end, the Egyptian military remained in effective control, though Washington came to accept that it would have to abandon an old collaborator, President Hosni Mubarak. Even after the recent referendum, the situation in Egypt remains tenuous and prospects far from certain. Meanwhile the world’s attention has moved elsewhere.

Libya has become Obama’s first foreign military adventure, legal because it is based on a United Nations Security Council resolution but questionable in its legitimacy, as several scholars of international law have pointed out. But hypocrisy, double standards and callous disregard for human life and peoples’ aspirations for freedom in Bahrain and Yemen are there to see. Secretaries of state and defense, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, along with U.S. generals, have hijacked foreign policy, taking the lead before cameras. President Obama these days looks ill at ease, his once soaring rhetoric having abandoned him. He presides over a counterrevolution that is a travesty of promises he made en route to the White House.

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Book Review: Breeding Ground

David Hillstrom (Foreign Policy Journal, March 4, 2011)

The conflict in Afghanistan is now into its fourth decade, with no end in sight.  In spite of the fact that Afghanistan is a poor and landlocked country in Central Asia, the violence there has echoed across the world.  Camps in Afghanistan that trained Islamic fighters during the initial phase of the conflict later produced Islamist radicals who organized terrorist attacks on the US, Madrid and London. These same groups have radicalized public opinion and brought increasing violence to Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Indonesia.  And the wave of violence has most assuredly impacted Pakistan, one of the front line players in the initial conflict, and India, its neighbour and adversary.

The broad outline of the conflict is familiar to anyone who keeps abreast of politics and world affairs. The Soviet Union engineered a coup in Afghanistan to install a friendly government there and later invaded and occupied the country in order to prop up a failing regime. The Mujahidin then began a guerrilla war against the occupation with support from the US, Pakistan, and numerous Arab countries.  Subsequently, when the Cold War ended, the world lost interest in Afghanistan, and it was abandoned in a state of civil war until the Taliban took control. The Taliban offered safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who planned terrorist attacks on the West.  While this is the broad outline of recent history, we appreciate that a more comprehensive understanding requires a much deeper analysis of events.  Deepak Tripathi, the author of The Bush Legacy, has produced a new book, Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism, which provides exactly such an analysis. In his concise yet powerful book he details the interlocking decisions and strategies that inflamed the conflict and produced a new and dangerous historical context.

Tripathi has relied on a broad array of sources, many of them unavailable until recently, including archives of both the US and Soviet governments.  Hence there is ample material in the book to supply a source for further historical study.  As he promises in the acknowledgments, Tripathi’s “analysis goes where the archives take it”, and he pulls no punches. As the story unfolds, Tripathi examines the thinking behind the fateful decisions of the players involved, which resulted in the spiral of violence. But this story unveils a still deeper tragedy.  The US government, in its effort to contain the expansion of communism, was drawn into the ‘Great Game’ that Tsarist Russia and the British empires participated in during the 19th century.  More tragic still, the evidence demonstrates that all the players developed their simplistic strategic goals with only a shallow understanding of Afghanistan’s history and with little regard for the human cost to the Afghan population.

In addition to relating the history of the conflict, Tripathi presents a thesis on the causes underlying the growth of Islamic terrorism. In brief, he says that the phenomenon arose as a consequence of a prolonged period during which a culture of violence prevailed in Afghanistan.  The US, through Pakistan, provided a vast amount of weaponry to the Mujahidin.  Foreign fighters were attracted from the Middle East to participate in the jihad against the communist occupation. And the violence antagonized long silent religious, ethnic, and tribal differences within Afghanistan itself.  These antagonisms created a virtual vortex of descending violence that has nurtured the growth of global Islamic radicalism.  One could argue, of course, as Zbeigniew Brzezinski did in 1998 (p. 64) that the collapse of the Soviet empire was far more important to world history than the rise of the Taliban. But such a view is not only cynical, but now quite obviously short sighted.  And Pakistan, in its attempt to ensure a pacified northern neighbour, has inflamed Pashtun nationalism and Islamic radicalism within its own borders in the so called Federally Administered Tribal Area.

One wonders after reading Tripathi’s rich and insightful book whether the damage can ever be undone, whether Afghanistan might become a peaceful country and Islamic radicalism be tamed.  For his part, Tripathi proposes a shift in US policy toward the use of soft as opposed to hard power.  That is a sensible approach, if one analyzes events from a realpolitik perspective.  As the sole remaining superpower, the US will inevitably exercise its influence in world affairs.  But the line between the use of soft and hard power is fuzzy.  The Soviets initially supported a nearly bloodless coup in Afghanistan, only later to become drawn into a full scale invasion and bloody occupation in order to preserve their gains.  Given the multi-ethnic and tribal structure of Afghan society and the culture of violence that Tripathi has so vividly described, what are the chances that the US will be able to succeed in nation building there?  Whether through the use of soft power or counterinsurgency, the effort would appear doomed.  It seems to me that the real tragedy of history lies precisely in the meddling of world powers in foreign lands, be it through clandestine activities or direct military intervention.  Tripathi sums this up beautifully in his closing quote from Tolstoy, “In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious, even when successful.”

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