Saving Obama

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

“Now, I’d like to speak clearly and candidly to the American people . . .”

I believe him, with a passionate urgency — this new president, swept into office on a surge of hope and anger. I believe him without cynicism. After all, he has a terrifying job to do, a toxic legacy left to mop up. I cut him slack, listen for the sound, in his words, of the turning of the ship of state. How does he plan to engage the future? He’s an intelligent and, I think, courageous leader. And he has a global constituency to back him up. All he has to do is speak to it, clearly and candidly . . .

I was numb to the lies and simplistic rhetoric of George W. Bush. But when Barack Obama tries to fill those incredibly small shoes, to rev up the same constituency of true believers (the constituency that didn’t vote for him) and sell the same war — new! improved! — to the American people, I am not numb. The hope in my heart bursts into flying shrapnel. You’re making a serious mistake, Mr. President.

In honor of the man I voted for, and who, I insist, must assert himself and address his constituency not just marginally but with the full measure of his intelligence and compassion, at the heart of what matters — true global security, the building of a just peace — I take a close look at Obama’s most disappointing performance thus far: his speech last week “announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Here are four ways the president’s speech failed his constituency:

1. It was simplistic. In the fine old tradition of military solutions to whatever, which brook no complexity of analysis, he fed us the same old story of good versus evil, even invoking 9/11. The formula for war never changes: Hype fear into hysteria, then propose the application of righteous violence to save the day. The bad guys who pulled off 9/11 are still in the mountains of Central Asia and they’re “planning attacks on the U.S. homeland.” It’s as simple as that. We must root them out.

One of the prime assumptions here is that terrorism is subject to central control, as though aggrieved fanatics all take their orders from a single source, which can and must be bombed. Evil plans can’t be hatched in London, Paris or New York.

2. The speech affected a selective concern for humanity. American dead matter most. “Attacks against our troops, our NATO allies, and the Afghan government have risen steadily. Most painfully, 2008 was the deadliest year of the war for American forces.” Missing from the speech were any references to the Afghan dead — as many as 8,000 — caused by U.S. and NATO forces since 2001.

When the suffering of “the Afghan people” is evoked, the concern is suspect. “. . . a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights . . . especially (to) women and girls.” Is American compassion limitless or what? Yet women and girls constitute a high percentage of the collateral damage we churn up.

As Tom Hayden noted recently in The Nation: “Anything resembling genuine popular democracy in Afghanistan or Pakistan would end the Western military occupation, or at least the air war, house-to-house roundups, and mass incarceration at Bagram.”

3. The speech, most speciously, presented war itself, as wielded by the U.S. and its allies, as consequence-free: an apparently surgical operation that will root entrenched evil from its mountainous redoubt. This aspect of Obama’s speech is least forgivable. It failed to so much as hint that war is a clumsy tool, that high-tech violence wreaks incalculable environmental and human havoc, which always overwhelm its short-term strategic aims.

A few days after the speech, Jacques de Maio of the International Committee of the Red Cross castigated both sides of the conflict for their indifference to civilian casualties: “My point is that there is no such thing as a clean war and . . . what’s going on in Afghanistan and in Pakistan right now is an ample demonstration of that,” he said. The agency is anticipating that fighting in the area will displace as many as 140,000 people this year, according to Agence France-Presse.

Obama rode an American — a global — passion for peace into office, yet he spoke to us about expanding Af-Pak operations as though we had voted for ignorance and war.

4. The speech called for dialogue only among parties on one side of the conflict: the U.S. and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was no mention of communication with the evil Taliban, our former Cold War ally, and no mention that huge, festering grievances in the Arab world against the West (the Palestinian situation, for one) are fueling terrorist activities and merit serious world attention.

The isolation of power has made our president a prisoner of the Washington establishment, whose “clear and desperate urge,” Tom Engelhardt wrote recently, “is to operate in the known zone, the one in which the U.S. is always imagined to be part of the solution to any problem on the planet, never part of the problem itself.”

We must demand accountability from the Obama administration (202-456-1111). It’s too late to surrender, again, to cynicism, despair and more of the same.