Obama Fights to Win as America’s Stock Falls: Heading for a Hollow Victory

CounterPunch, September 26, 2012

Important commitments have kept me from my writing interest for some time, but events never wait. We have run into greater turbulence following the appearance of a blasphemous film, Innocence of Muslims, about the Prophet Mohammad. The film was supposed to have been made by a convicted fraudster living in California, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, and was promoted by Florida Pastor Terry Jones, previously involved in the burning of the Quran. That the causes of turmoil lie closer to us may be too unpalatable to accept for many in Western societies. Sadly it is true. When passions run high and it is difficult to see clearly, calm reflection, not ritual condemnation, is preferable. As the thirteenth-century mystic poet and theologian Jalaluddin Rumi wrote, then is time to “close both eyes to see with the other eye.”

The November 2012 elections in the United States are upon us. In the age of ceaseless electioneering, America’s domestic politics determine its behavior abroad, and leave little scope for reflection on anything other than votes and power. This major fault line in the American political system gives extremist individuals and fringe groups a voice far louder than their size would suggest. Their capacity to radicalize the population is significant. They push some moderate figures seeking power to take more extreme positions. Other voices are muted for fear of damaging their political careers. What happens in America thus affects the rest of the world. The phenomenon is unsustainable, but will continue wreaking havoc for as long as it lasts. Islamophobia does exist in Europe, too. But the scale of Christian fundamentalism and the anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States is quite different.

A decade after the United States launched its hegemonic venture under the “war on terror” umbrella, Washington faces an unprecedented challenge to its authority in the Middle East and beyond. The assassination of the American ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, and attacks on Western embassies in other places, are difficult to explain away simply by apportioning blame on a few Muslim extremists.

That open hostility expressed by violent means involves relatively small crowds is not in dispute. The more important and worrying aspect of the anti-U.S. protests is their worldwide dimension, and the depth of disapproval of America’s conduct by moderate Muslims and non-Muslims alike. A Pew survey of global attitudes, published in June 2012, shows a collapse in support for the Obama administration’s international policies, even in Europe and Japan.

The message from the rest of the world to Obama on his drone attacks and his “Kill List” is stark. Of twenty countries where people were asked, only in two there were more respondents who approved killing by drones than those who disapproved. Those countries were the United States and India.

According to Pew, there remains a widespread perception that the United States acts unilaterally and does not consider the interests of other countries. On one hand, many think America’s economic clout is in decline. On the other, people around the globe overwhelmingly oppose the way the United States uses its military power in international affairs. They include people in Germany, France, Italy, Poland and Japan. As Obama fights to win in November his second and final term against a bumbling Republican opponent, Washington’s credibility and moral standing are sinking. It is this trend which perhaps explains the strength of challenge to America’s authority more than anything else.

Another investigation, this time by academics of Stanford and New York universities, puts the blame on President Obama for the escalation of CIA drone attacks in which groups are selected by remote analysis of “pattern of life.” The “dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killings’ of terrorists.” But the report concludes that “this narrative is false.” The number of ‘high-level’ militants as a percentage of total casualties is only about 2% of [deaths]. “The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims.” Residents in remote tribal areas across the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier are “afraid to attend weddings and funerals.”

Developments such as these provide the logic of popular antagonism against the United States across continents. A decade on, the “war on terror” has extended far beyond the Taliban and al Qaeda. As America prepares for a retreat from Afghanistan, NATO troops in that country live in fear not only of the enemy, but Afghans who were supposed to be their allies. Antagonists who challenge the United States come from many sections of populations in Africa, the Middle East, rest of Asia and Europe. They are both militants and moderates who may not see eye to eye with each other on tactics, but their goals are similar. The stakes are high, the prospects gloomy. Barack Obama, a prisoner of forces that have historically ruled America, is unlikely to heed the message from the wider world for as long as he is in the White House. Unlikely, too, is the prospect of the anti-US tide turning.

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On War, Humiliation and the Making of History

CounterPunchJune 18, 2012; The Nation, June 20, 2012

The “global war on terror” started by President George W. Bush more than a decade ago has taken a new and more sinister turn. Now we know that Barack Obama, the current president, goes through the profiles of people he wants eliminated (New York Times, May 29, 2012). He decides their fate in escalating drone wars in a growing number of countries.

Those to be killed may or may not be combatants engaged in war against America. They may or may not even be involved in an armed struggle against a brutal dictatorship which is America’s regional proxy. Mere age of others or their relationship and proximity to the “target” in a loose tribal community can be enough to be given the label of “militant”––a crime punishable by death. In Obama’s world, what else could their motive be if they were in the same area as a “terrorist?” It is a license to kill at will.

But never underestimate the cost of humiliation. For in war victory is never clean, because it empowers the vanquished or their successors to struggle in the future. Recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world confirm this, often unheeded, lesson of history. From Alexander the Great, king of the Macedonian Empire, nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago to date, imperial powers far afield have sent their rampaging armies to conquer and to humiliate the populations of vast fertile lands, cradles of civilization, close to the four great rivers, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Indus and the Hwang He. What has transpired forms a pattern.

Those lands include modern Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the South Asian subcontinent, Pakistan and India in particular. Amid extreme volatility in this region, there has existed something consistent. Alexander’s campaign of conquest finally ran out of steam on the banks of the Hydaspes, modern-day Jhelum river in India and Pakistan. Exhausted, his troops mutinied, refusing to march any further. The rebellion continued later at Opis, a Babylonian city on the east bank of the Tigris, where Alexander gave a stirring speech admonishing his troops. But his rhetoric failed.

Elsewhere in the Kunar and Swat valleys, tribes put up extraordinary resistance forewarning one of history’s greatest military geniuses. However, the message from those uprisings was not enough for Alexander to overcome his hubris. After the Battle of Hydaspes, he retreated to Persia, leaving governors he had appointed in charge. They, too, misbehaved. Alexander was exhausted, injured, his aura of invincibility having abandoned him. Alexander became even more brutal. He retreated to Persia and died three years later. A remark attributed to him at the time: “I am dying from the treatment of too many physicians.”

The hills and valleys of Swat and Kunar, together with lands of the vast region of South and West Asia, have been subjected to repeated invasions through the centuries. The soil is soaked in blood spilled in violence between invaders and defenders, communities and tribes, whose fortunes and failings have attracted eagle-eyed predators far and near. The soil is fertile for resistance as it is for agriculture. Foreign armies have found this to their detriment time and again.

Subjugation by external forces renders victims helpless, but consolidates their long-term resolve. It breeds local resistance to foreign occupiers and their culture. It results in the colonization of lands occupied by foreign troops, mercenaries, and those wearing civilian hats as administrators and advisers. They engage in activities to extract and sell local assets, manufactured and agricultural goods through market mechanisms created and managed by themselves, not by those who owned them in the first place. Or they use the location of occupied lands to extend their control further.

In Chapter V of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli discussed three ways to hold newly acquired states that once had their own sovereign laws. His methods were: by devastating them; going and living there in person; or by letting them keep their own laws, extracting tribute and setting up an oligarchy which will keep the state friendly. Machiavelli’s work is associated with corrupt, manipulative and totalitarian government.

Examples are provided by Spartans and Romans. The Spartans ruled Athens and Thebes through the oligarchies they established there, although in the end they lost them. The Romans, in order to hold Capua, Carthage, and Numantia, destroyed them and so never lost them. They wanted to rule Greece almost as the Spartans did, freely, under its own laws, but they did not succeed. So, in order to maintain their power, they destroyed many cities in that province.

Five centuries after, Machiavellianism, a mishmash of cunning and duplicity, lives on–– despised if words of condemnation were to be believed, but witnessed extensively in practice.

Since the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Soviet communism, the terms of the United States-led Western military campaign for unrestrained access to petroleum and other strategic resources have altered. War today is fought for “freedom” against “terrorism” when both terms remain highly contested. Definitions, when attempted, are arbitrary, incoherent and irrational. The right to use unreserved force under the pretext of “self-defense” for the powerful has superseded the underdog’s right to self-defense and to resist.

We hear the absurd logic of brute military power couched in legal jargon. As an example, the rights of the Israeli state prevail over the basic rights of the Palestinians. Israel is allowed to have its clandestine nuclear weapons program, but no other country in the region. Elections in Iran are “fraudulent” in the absence of irrefutable evidence. But polls are “acceptable” in Afghanistan where plenty of evidence of fraud exists. High-altitude bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and drone attacks killing civilians posthumously described as “militants” or “terrorists” are justified in the “war on terror.” Talk is rare of “night raids”–– a euphemism for breaking into Afghans’ homes at night. Those at the receiving end of such treatment see it as humiliation under foreign occupation.

Loss of possessions is one thing, loss of dignity is quite another. There exists an inverse relationship between humiliation and pride. Take away a people’s dignity and they will be ever more determined to take revenge in the form that their culture and values dictate when the opportunity arises. History has repeatedly shown that the price of great power intervention is high; national humiliation caused to the victim leaves a legacy that haunts the intervenor and tempts the conqueror to resort to even more force.

The dynamic of the victor-vanquished relationship is that the fewer means the humiliated has, the more precious his honor becomes, and the stronger and more determined his retaliatory instinct is. Imperial powers like Britain and Russia––and more recently the United States––have intervened at will in the oil-rich Middle East and surroundings for resources and access to waterways. The legacy of imperial subjugation continues in the form of conflict and social upheaval.

At the advent of the twenty-first century, a decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States tried to reshape the region in President George W. Bush’s vision. The world’s greatest military power found the spirit of resistance in the peoples radicalized by past interventions as strong as ever. When Bush left the White House in January 2009, America was involved in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, exhausted and in deep economic crisis. Under the Obama presidency, the “war on terror” has been expanded and the economic crisis is deeper, not only for America, but for the entire industrialized world.

Unchecked military power and hubris, seeking pleasure in the abuse and humiliation of others, are corrosive. They take the perpetrator on a path of infamy leading to the abuser’s own humiliation.

War is history’s revenge.

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