Obama’s West Point War Speech: A Quick Response

Like a Judas of old
You lie and deceive…
You hide in your mansions
While young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And gets buried in the mud
– Bob Dylan, "Masters of War," 1962
War President Barack Obama’s Afghan "surge" address from West Point [1] last night was unsurprising, given the fact that, as Alexander Cockburn has noted, "Obama has…surrounded himself with the same breed of intellectuals who persuaded Lyndon Johnson to escalate the [ Vietnam ] war." [2] As Tom Engelhardt has pointed out, Obama’s "civilian advisors" on Afghanistan include a large number of military men, all predisposed by career background and philosophy to advocate increased force levels. Did it really make sense to be surprised, Engelhardt wondered more than two months ago, that Obama would opt for more troops, money, and war when the president had "turn[ed] crucial war decisions over to the military…functionally turn[ing] our foreign policy over to them as well?" [3]
The decision to escalate was never much in doubt.
Security Council Trickery
If there was anything surprising about Obama’s December 1st address, it was the extent to which he was willing to distort history on behalf of his militaristic policy.  "Just days after 9/11," Obama proclaimed last night (I am writing on the morning of Wednesday, December 2, 2009), "Congress authorized the use of force against al Qaeda and those who harbored them — an authorization that continues to this day…For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5 – the commitment that says an attack on one member nation is an attack on all. And the United Nations Security Council endorsed the use of all necessary steps to respond to the 9/11 attacks. America , our allies and the world were acting as one to destroy al Qaeda’s terrorist network and to protect our common security."[4]
Obama clearly meant here to create the false impression that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorized the Bush administration’s attack on Afghanistan in October, 2001).  But the UNSC did no such thing since the attack met none of the UN’s criteria for legitimate self-defense.  The United States ‘ attack on Afghanistan met none of the standard international moral and legal criteria for justifiable self-defense and occurred without reasonable consultation with the United Nations Security Council.
As the prominent U.S. legal scholar Marjorie Cohn noted in July of 2008, "The invasion of Afghanistan was as illegal as the invasion of Iraq ."  The U.N. Charter requires member states to settle international disputes by peaceful means.  Nations are permitted to use military force only in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. After 9/11, the Council passed two resolutions, neither of which authorized the use of military force in Afghanistan .
Assaulting that country was not legitimate self-defense under article 51 of the Charter since the jetliner assaults were criminal attacks, not "armed attacks" by another country. Afghanistan did not attack the U.S. and 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia . Furthermore, there was no "imminent threat of an armed attack on the United States after September 11 or Bush would not have waited three weeks before initiating his October 2001 bombing campaign." As Cohn added, international law requires that "The necessity for self-defense must be ‘instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.’ This classic principle of self-defense in international law has been affirmed by the Nuremberg Tribunal and the U.N. General Assembly."[5]
"The World According to Washington"
The suggestion that human civilization ("the world") was united in support for Washington ‘s attack on Afghanistan is completely incorrect.  An international Gallup poll released after the U.S. bombing began showed that global opposition was overwhelming. In 34 of the 37 countries Gallup surveyed, majorities opposed a military attack on Afghanistan , preferring that 9/11 be treated as a criminal matter rather than as a pretext for war. Even in the U.S. , just 54% supported war. [6] "In Latin America, which has some experience with US behavior," Noam Chomsky noted (in a 2008 column titled "The World According to Washington"), "support [for the U.S. assault] ranged from 2% in Mexico, to 18% in Panama, and that support was conditional on the culprits being identified (they still weren’t eight months later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported) and civilian targets being spared (they were attacked at once). There was an overwhelming preference in the world for diplomatic/judicial measures, rejected out of hand by [ Washington , claiming to represent] ‘the world.’"[7]
"Only After the Taliban Refused to Turn Over bin Laden"
"Under the banner of this domestic unity and international legitimacy – and only after the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden — we sent our troops into Afghanistan " [8], Obama said.  This was completely false. In the actual history that occurred, the U.S. refused to respond to the Taliban government’s offer to turn bin-Laden over to a foreign government for a trial once elementary evidence pointing to his guilt was presented.  The U.S. deliberately made sure that bin Laden would not be turned over through legal and diplomatic channels because (quite frankly) the Bush administration wanted war and did not wish to follow the UN Charter’s requirement that nations pursue "all means short of force before taking military action" (Rahul Mahajan).[9]
"Safe Haven" Mythology
Six times in his war speech Obama used the phrase "safe haven." Afghanistan , Obama wants the American people to think, is a "safe haven" for past and potential future terror attacks on the"homeland." This, too, is deceptive. As Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Stephen Walt noted in an August 2009 Foreign Policy essay, Obama’s "safe haven myth" rests on the fundamentally flawed premise that al Qaeda or its many and various imitators couldn’t just as effectively plot and conduct future terror attacks from any of a large number of other locations, including Western Europe and the U.S. itself. At the same time, Walt observed, Obama’s expanded engagement in the "ambitious social and political reconstruction and re-engineering of Afghanistan and perhaps even Pakistan, trying, with slight chances of success," to creating a centralized democratic state in the former country, was reinforcing al Qaeda’s core claim that the West’s and the above all the United States’ presence in South Asia was about imperial control.  The more the U.S. is seen as "trying to restructure their societies along lines that we think are appropriate," Walt notes, "the more we play into the narrative that they use to try and attract support and recruit people in Afghanistan itself." [10]
"The United States is Broken…Yet we’re Nation-Building in Afghanistan ."
The president said nothing in his address about the tens of thousands of private military contractors deployed by the Pentagon in Afghanistan (57 percent of the U.S. force presence there at the end of last June!) [11] or about the deadly, largely secret Predator drone war he has dramatically escalated against Afghan and Pakistani "terrorists" and civilians [12].
He also failed to mention the absurdity of his decision to spend untold billions more dollars on a futile, massively expensive colonial operation abroad as misery and destitution expanded at home.  The domestic social uplift and opportunity cost of his imperial policy – the twisted misplacement of resources that Martin Luther King, Jr., described in the late 1960s as symptomatic of America’s "spiritual death" [13] – is certainly enormous.  By the White House’s own  calculations, the Afghan escalation is going to cost $1 million a year per every single new soldier deployed [14] – a giant investment that could be diverted to meet growing unmet social needs across the U.S. 
Echoing Dr. King’s late-1960s sermons and speeches against the U.S. military state’s "perverted priorities," New York Times columnist Bob Herbert marked the day of Obama’s West Point Address with an eloquent lament: 
"the president has arrived at a decision that never was much in doubt, and that will prove to be a tragic mistake. It was also, for the president, the easier option."
"It would have been much more difficult for Mr. Obama to look this troubled nation in the eye and explain why it is in our best interest to begin winding down the permanent state of warfare left to us by the Bush and Cheney regime. It would have taken real courage for the commander in chief to stop feeding our young troops into the relentless meat grinder of Afghanistan, to face up to the terrible toll the war is taking – on the troops themselves and in very insidious ways on the nation as a whole."
"More soldiers committed suicide this year than in any year for which we have complete records. But the military is now able to meet its recruitment goals because the young men and women who are signing up can’t find jobs in civilian life. The United States is broken – school systems are deteriorating, the economy is in shambles, homelessness and poverty rates are expanding – yet we’re nation-building in Afghanistan , sending economically distressed young people over there by the tens of thousands at an annual cost of a million dollars each." [15]
"A Chance to Shape Their Future"
Of course, "nation-building" is a euphemism for imperial assault and occupation.  Loot at the unimaginable devastation – more than 1 million plus killed before their time, millions more injured and displaced, and massive social and technical infrastructure destroyed – "we" (our unelected agents of Empire) have inflicted on crippled Iraq, about which Obama had the noxious imperial chutzpah to say the following last night: "Thanks to [U.S. troops’] courage, grit and perseverance, we have given Iraqis a chance to shape their future." [16]
Yes, you read that correctly: "we have given Iraqis a chance to shape their future."
Call it Empire and Inequality [17] Re-Branded. Combined and interrelated, mutually reinforcing, and caught up in a dark, dialectically inseparable duet of destruction…the forces of domestic disparity and imperial violence continue their dangerous, viciously circular dalliance of death. "Like Bush’s America ," John Pilger notes, "Obama’s America is run by some very dangerous people" [18].
Paul Street is a writer, author, activist and speaker based in Iowa City , IA.  He is the author of many books and articles, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 ( Boulder , CO : Paradigm, 2004) and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis ( New York : Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). His  next book Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power, will be released next year. Street will speak next week (twice) in the Twin Cities on the topic "Does Obama Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?" at 7 pm, December 9 (Wednesday, at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN) and (Thursday) and at 7 pm, December 10, 2009 (at the University of Minnesota). The location for the December 9th event (Macalester) is Humanities Room 226 (map:
www.macalester.edu/about/mapbyalpha.html. The location for the December 10th event (U of Minnesota ) is University of Minnesota , West Bank Blegen Hall Room 010 (map: www.umn.edu/twincities/maps/BlegH/index.html)
1. George W. Bush also liked to make militaristic pronouncements from military settings like West Point, Annapolis , the Carlisle War College , and the USS Abraham Lincoln.
2. Alexander Cockburn, "War and Peace," CounterPunch (October 9, 2009), read at
3. Tom Engelhardt, "A Military That Wants its Way," TomDispatch (September 24, 2009), read at,
4. "Text of Obama’s Speech on Afghanistan " (December 1, 2009), read at
5. Marjorie Cohn, "End the Occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan ," ZNet (July 30, 2008), read at
http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/18303.   "Resolutions 1368 and 1373 condemned the September 11 attacks, and ordered the freezing of assets; the criminalizing of terrorist activity; the prevention of the commission of and support for terrorist attacks; the taking of necessary steps to prevent the commission of terrorist activity, including the sharing of information; and urged ratification and enforcement of the international conventions against terrorism."
6. Abid Aslam, "Polls Question Support for Military Campaign, Inter Press Service, October 8, 2001; Gallup International, Gallup International Poll on Terrorism " (September 2001); Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, "’ Obama’s Foreign Policy Report Card’: Juan Cole Grades His President — and Very Positively," MR Zine (November 9, 2009), read at mrzine.monthlyreview.org/ hp091109.html
7. Noam Chomsky, "The World According to Washington ," Asia Times (February 28, 2008).
8. "Text of Obama’s Speech on Afghanistan ."
9. See Rahul Mahajan, The New Crusade: America ‘s War on Terrorism ( New York : Monthly Review, 2002), 28-31; Noam Chomsky, Hegemony Over Survival: America ‘s Quest for Global Dominance ( New York : Metropolitan, 2003), 198-202. 
10.  Stephen Walt, "The Safe Haven Myth," Foreign Policy (August 18, 2009), read at
http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/08/18/the_safe_haven_myth ; Stephen Walt, interview by Amy Goodman, "Democracy Now," August 25, 2009, read at http://www.democracynow.org/2009/8/25/the_safe_haven_myth_harvard_prof.  See also Paul R. Pillar, "Whose Afraid of a Terrorist Safe Haven?" Washington Post, September 16, 2009, read at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/15/AR2009091502977_pf.html  "By utilizing networks such as the Internet," Pillar noted, "terrorists’ organizations have become more network-like, not beholden to any one headquarters." A significant jihadist terrorist threat to the United States is alive, Pillar argues, but "that does not mean it will consist of attacks instigated and commanded from a South Asian haven, or that it will require a haven at all. Al-Qaeda’s role in that threat is now less one of commander than of ideological lodestar, and for that role a haven is almost meaningless." Pillar was deputy chief of the counterterrorist center at the CIA from 1997 to 1999. He is director of graduate studies at Georgetown University ‘s Security Studies Program
1l. Congressional Research Service, "Department of Defense Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan : Background and Analysis," CRS Report number R40764, September 21, 2009,
12. For a chilling account see Jane Mayer, "The Predator War," The New Yorker (October 26, 2009).
13. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."  Martin Luther King Jr., "A Time to Break the Silence," Riverside Church , New York City, April 4. 1967
14. Christi Parsons and Julian E. Barnes, "Pricing an Afghanistan Troop Build Up is No Simple Calculation," Los Angeles Times, November 23, 2009.
15. Bob Herbert, "A Tragic Mistake," New York Times, December 1, 2009.
16. "Text of Obama’s Speech on Afghanistan "
17. Please see Street, Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 ( Boulder , CO : Paradigm, 2004) – written at the height of self-described "war president" George W. Bush’s reign, but equally applicable to the first year of the "progressive" presidency of Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
18 John Pilger, "Media Lies and the War Drive Against Iran," Pakistan Daily, October 15, 2009, read at

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