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 Power and Delusions of Grandeur

First the video of United States Marines urinating on bodies of Afghans who had been killed. Then the revelation that copies of the Quran had been burned at Bagram Air Base, which also serves as an American prison camp in Afghanistan. Nearly thirty Afghans and several NATO troops died in the violent reaction. And as I mentioned in my column of March 4, the BBC Kabul correspondent described these events, and the violent public reaction to them, as the tipping point for NATO in the Afghan War.

Just as the U.S. commander Gen. John Allen and President Obama hoped that apologies from them would help calm the situation comes another disaster. If official accounts are to be believed, an American soldier left his base in the middle of the night, entered villagers’ homes, woke up Afghan families from sleep and shot his victims in cold blood. After the killings, the soldier was reported to have turned himself up to U.S. commanders, and was flown out of the country. The accused has since been named as St. Sgt. Robert Bales.

CBS News later quoted Bales’ lawyer as saying that Bales “has an early memory of that evening and has a later of that, but he doesn’t have memory in between.”

Other reports tell a different story, indicating that a group of soldiers was involved. Looking drunk and laughing, they engaged in an orgy of violence, while helicopters hovered above.

The massacre was committed in Kandahar, a province where NATO forces regularly carry out night raids on Afghan homes. They capture and kill men sweepingly described as Taliban, their supporters or sympathizers. Male family members therefore leave their homes at night to escape foreign forces. This explains why 9 of the 16 murdered were children. The rest included at least four women, and five Afghans were wounded. Several bodies were burned.

The massacre of Kandahar has echoes of My Lai––a village in South Vietnam where American troops massacred unarmed civilians including women, children and old people almost exactly 44 years ago, on March 16, 1968. The full horror of the My Lai massacre took time to surface, for many attempts were made to downplay it. Soldiers who had tried to stop the killings were denounced by U.S. Congressmen and received hate mail and death threats. It took thirty years before they were honored. Only one American soldier, Lieutenant William Calley, was punished. He spent just three years under house arrest, despite being given a life sentence.

The conduct of the U.S. authorities following the massacre of Afghans will be under critical scrutiny. Those who must bear ultimate responsibility will have to live with the guilt for years to come. And the carnage will continue to haunt the conscience of many people in America and elsewhere. The general sentiment in Afghanistan had already been turning dangerously hostile to foreign troops. Now, reports from Kabul say that Afghans “have run out of patience.”

In the midst of these events (U.S. Marines urinating on dead bodies in January, Quran burning in February, massacre in March), President Obama decided to invoke a comparison between himself and two of history’s legendary figures, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. To me, the latest events in Afghanistan are dismaying, and the timing of the president’s attempt to invoke parallels with Gandhi and Mandela is sickening. It goes to show what power does to its holder.

Much has been written about the New York fund-raiser, where President Obama gave his address as he sought support for a second term. I repeat the obvious to say that the country he leads has been engaged in a number of wars resulting in deaths and destruction on a vast scale. Their legacies will continue to take a heavy toll. Even when U.S. forces have withdrawn from occupied lands, or high-altitude bombing without deploying American troops on the ground has ceased, we will not know how long and in how many places Obama’s secret wars are waged. In the November 2008 election, he had offered a hope of change for good. It remains as illusive as it was under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Obama and NATO have moved and expanded the war theater––in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Kenya, Somalia and possibly places we are not aware of. His tactics have steadily become more threatening with foes and friends alike, linking ever more war and routine matters of international relations, trade and so forth.

Despite the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq and the Afghan project heading toward an end, there exists a more explosive situation from South Asia to North Africa. The scenario of a major war in the region haunts many. Obama may appear reluctant to attack Iran or Syria. But that clandestine warfare by major powers and their proxies continues is hardly in doubt. The Obama administration’s aggressive, interventionist instinct is on open display. And to draw parallels between himself and great souls such as Gandhi and Mandela is a grotesque parody of their historic struggles.

At the New York fund-raising event, Obama said that “the change we fought for in 2008 hasn’t always happened as fast as we would have liked … real change, big change, is always hard.” Next, making a leap into history, he continued, “Gandhi, Nelson Mandela––what they did was hard. It takes time. It takes more than a single term …”

Corruption infects our world in many forms: material and moral, visible and invisible, direct and indirect. But the underlying motive behind all things corrupt is a strong opportunistic instinct to benefit oneself at the cost of others by allurement or deception. No wonder politics has fallen so much into disrepute. The aphorism of the nineteenth-century English historian Lord Acton that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” has acquired a special meaning today.

Employing his political mantra of “change” and attempting to show likeness with Gandhi’s and Mandela’s life and achievements is one thing. Truth is a different matter. Gandhi never aspired for any political office, never held one, and did not fight any election. After his incarceration in prison for 27 years, Mandela was a reluctant president of South Africa. And he made clear that he would serve only one term while a new generation of successors was groomed.

Above all, Mandela used his presidency to avoid a bloodbath and stabilize the country as apartheid collapsed. Precisely for these reasons, both Gandhi and Mandela were such formidable opponents of the unequal and unjust systems which they fought.

Non-violence was Gandhi’s tool. When violence erupted, Gandhi withdrew his movement against the British. He thought of others, Muslims and Untouchables he called Harijans (Children of God). He paid the ultimate price when a Hindu fundamentalist assassinated him in 1948. Neither Gandhi nor Mandela considered attacking another country, signing assassination orders, exaggerating or inventing facts about people they saw as adversaries.

Mandela’s African National Congress was inspired by Gandhi. But once the organization had realized that South Africa’s vast black majority was up against an apartheid regime whose brutality was exceptional, the ANC did engage in a low-intensity war. And the United States and Britain listed Mandela as a “terrorist.”

President Obama recently justified his drone attacks inside Pakistan by saying that they “have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.” It is impossible not to interpret this as an admission that drones do kill and wound civilians. But it is a minor matter in the president’s eyes. Only a few days ago, the German news magazine Der SPEIGAL said that while under the Bush presidency there was a drone attack every 47 days, the interval now under President Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, is just four days. The Americans have “already executed 2,300 people in this manner.” Nobody has a chance today if this president decides that their time is up.

Gandhi’s agitation for boycott of British goods in favor of home-made products and his advocacy for an austere life were fundamental elements of the anti-globalization movement of his time. His ethos was “to consume less for the uplift of others from poverty and deprivation.” He lived the life he preached, for which Winston Churchill, then leader of the Empire, disparagingly called him the “naked fakir.”

In the world ruled by President Obama today, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were he not in his nineties and so frail, would be his greatest enemies. And they could well have been on Obama’s list for drone attacks. Mercifully that is not the case, and this president can indulge in comfort.

Great people like Gandhi and Mandela use power to curb power. Barack Obama stands among those who use power to accumulate more of it. Therein lies the moral of any comparison in this debate.

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P.S. I have introduced the word killings (instead of murders) in the second paragraph in view of ongoing developments in the case (March 20). CBS News update (May 19 5:53 PM) follows.

Afghanistan: The End Game?

This article was published at History News Network (George Mason University) on June 26, 2011.

When the president of the United States makes a long-awaited statement about matters of war and peace, it is an important moment. President Barack Obama’s announcement on June 22 that he plans to bring 33000 American troops home from Afghanistan in the next fifteen months is another milestone in a long war that is reminiscent of the 1980s, and the Soviet experience in that country at great cost. In February 1986, barely a year after coming to power, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev described Afghanistan as a “bleeding wound” – a legacy of the preceding Kremlin leadership that took the fateful decision to invade that country in December 1979. In Obama’s words, “we have learned anew the profound cost of war.” Nearly 4500 Americans have paid with their lives in Iraq, some 1500 in Afghanistan, and a trillion dollars have been spent on war at a time of rising debt and hard economic times.

It is beyond doubt that policymakers of the first Bush administration (2001–2005), full of hubris and fascination with the “long war,” overstretched the United States. Those errors and the costs they incurred have sapped the will and resources of America and its allies. The full-blown crisis that struck the United States economy, with dire consequences for others, had much to do with America’s long war, even though the banks can hardly escape their share of responsibility for the economic system’s failure. According to the defense and intelligence consultancy STRATFOR, supplying a single gallon of petrol in Afghanistan costs an average of 400 dollars to the U.S. military and sustaining one soldier around a million dollars. With less than eighteen months to go before the November 2012 election, Obama’s primary concern must be the American economy, which shows little sign of improvement.

Obama’s announcement is not without significance, but nor should its significance be exaggerated. His record on the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, trial by military tribunals, torture and extrajudicial killings, drone attacks and other matters of civil liberties inside and outside the United States is mixed. In light of that record, his mind could change anytime between now and November 2012. For those who admired and supported the old-style Soviet regime, Mikhail Gorbachev is an anathema, because his name will forever be associated with the demise of the Soviet state. Gorbachev’s supporters inside the ex-Soviet Union cannot be more than a tiny number. Obama, the leader of the other colossus, still fights for his political career and eventual legacy. However, by now it is clear that President Obama’s actions are not determined by high principles and consistency. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, staked everything to make the Soviet Union a liberal, open and reformed society.

President Obama’s announcement of his drawdown plan between now and summer 2012 is driven by pressing economic needs, as well as political expediency. The total of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan was around 140000 strong at the beginning of June 2011. Even if the withdrawal was completed as planned, the remaining American forces would be around 68000, about the same as before Obama’s “surge,” and foreign troops in excess of 100000 strong. President Obama’s reelection campaign has just got underway. A formidable coalition has emerged in the U.S. Congress advocating a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan, encouraged by opinion polls showing strong support to bring the war to an end.

However, these forces are confronted by the ever powerful military-industrial complex and the Pentagon hierarchy that feel threatened by significant reductions in what they do. Their opposition to Obama’s plan is hardly surprising, nor is it likely that the pressure on the president would cease during this timetable and beyond.

The supreme irony with Obama’s surge is that 2010 was still the bloodiest year on the Afghanistan-Pakistan front and the level of violence shows no sign of abating. A decade of war and the costs thereof seem to have caused a breach between America’s military lobby and at least some of the political establishment. The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces has strengthened President Obama’s “war credentials.” The president can now talk about peace. Only a few days ago, President Karzai of Afghanistan and the U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, probably for different reasons, spoke of talks with the Taliban.

What Washington says London often repeats. Consistent with that pattern, the British Foreign Secretary William Haig proclaimed that his government was also talking with the Taliban. The mainstream media in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, ever hungry for their 24-hour news operations, portrayed those statements as a “disclosure.” The truth about direct and indirect contacts with the Taliban is that there is nothing new in them. The biggest problem for the United States remains persuading the Taliban to stop fighting, possibly accept a role of some sort, and let American military bases with thousands of “non-combatant” troops stay in Afghanistan. Is it possible? That is a million dollar question. 

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