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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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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