The War President’s Options

GEORGE W. Bush did not think long and hard before unleashing his nation’s formidable military might on Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. 


It’s more than likely that he wasn’t given to thinking long and hard about anything. But in this particular case, most Americans were fairly sanguine about the motivating mixture of vengeance and retribution. Only one member of Congress had the courage to question the wisdom of this course of action.


True, a couple of Bush’s closest aides wondered aloud whether, given that Afghanistan didn’t boast too many obvious targets, it might be a better idea to attack Iraq instead. Just for the hell of it. The Cheney-Rumsfeld brainwave was overruled, albeit only temporarily.


A few years later, once the battle plans for Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere were no longer a figment of Dick and Donald’s fevered imagination, an up-and-coming politician from Chicago told an antiwar rally that while he didn’t oppose all wars, he was dead set against stupid ones.


Before long this politician was catapulted into the national limelight as an unlikely contender for the White House. His opposition to the Iraq war helped Barack Obama wrest the Democratic presidential nomination from Hillary Clinton, who now serves under him as secretary of state. Throughout the campaign, however, he made it clear that he saw the conflict in Afghanistan in a rather different light.


In the run-up to his inauguration, when Obama consulted the top military brass on the Afghan war, he was evidently mortified to discover that they did not have an exit plan. Nearly a year later, there is still no sign of one. Soon after his swearing-in, Obama ordered 16,000 more troops into Afghanistan. He is now under pressure from the Pentagon to deploy another 40,000.


The president cannot be accused of inconsistency on Afghanistan, but nor can it convincingly be claimed that he has a clear-cut vision of what needs to be done and how it might be achieved. The rhetoric about defeating terrorism, although couched in more articulate terms, is not substantially different from Bush’s empty boasts. It’s hardly a secret that the capture of Al Qaeda members or associates has been accomplished almost exclusively through police action.


At the same time, surely Obama couldn’t be unaware that the past eight years of warfare have substantially augmented the level of resistance, not least on the basis of straightforward nationalism rather than morbid Islamist fantasies. US press reports suggest that even some Karzai government employees spend their weekends fighting alongside the Taliban.


The recent election debacle could only have served to cement opposition to the Western military occupation. But what the Obama administration should find even more alarming is growing antagonism towards the war within the US: opinion polls suggest that a clear majority of Americans now disapprove of their nation’s role in Afghanistan.


It was relatively easy for most of them to avert their gaze when their nation’s bombers turned weddings into funerals in a far-off land. Body bags draped in American flags are harder to ignore. But doubts among the Democrats and even within the White House about the potential efficacy of a large-scale troop surge point to the creeping realisation that additional violence is hardly likely to prove decisive in the complex Afghan environment.


A variety of antiwar demonstrations planned for coming months are intended to press home the message that the war in Afghanistan now lacks popular sanction. By and large, the participants are bound to be Americans who voted for Obama last November. Most of them remain keen on him making a success of his presidency -unlike the embittered core of the movement against modest healthcare reforms.


Former president Jimmy Carter was rewarded with a rap on the knuckles by the White House when he offered the opinion that the virulent opposition to Obama’s proposed changes to medical insurance was essentially grounded in racism. Bill Clinton has declared the trend to be a revival of the “vast rightwing conspiracy” that sought to derail his presidency. Might it be a combination of the two?


Principled opposition to Obama’s proposals is, of course, possible, but there’s plenty of cause for apprehension when those who presume to have some sort of rationale for resisting the changes make no effort to distance themselves from the perverse racists who resent the fact that their ancestors lost the Civil War a century and a half ago, and who are psychologically unable to deal with the idea of an African-American in the White House.


The Republican Party, in allowing itself to be led by the nose by media rottweilers such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, has literally gone to the dogs. But if Obama is wondering why his supporters haven’t taken to the streets to counter the free-flowing neofascist insults from the far right of the political spectrum, he ought to realise that limp half-measures such as his health bill are unlikely to enthuse anyone.


Nor have his administration’s efforts to shore up capitalism by bandaging its self-inflicted wounds gone down too well with those who expected a stronger contrast between this administration and the previous regime. The response to protests in Pittsburgh during the weekend’s G20 summit can only serve to deepen doubts on that score.


If Obama is convinced that his incremental health reforms enjoy the popular seal of approval, it’s hardly unreasonable to expect him to view the stupid conflict in Afghanistan in the same light.


This doesn’t mean there isn’t a worthy war to be waged – a war that won’t require warplanes and guns. But half-baked ideas and eloquent turns of phrase won’t suffice as ammunition. It calls for action on a number of fronts. It calls for strategies and tactics designed to combat bigotry and ignorance. And it needs to be fought on American soil.


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