Still some 50 days out from inauguration, it's far too early to jump to conclusions about how the new administration will handle war on two fronts, but if you think war on two fronts is a bad idea, there's some writing on the wall that doesn't bode well.
Change has indeed come. America has elected its first president of partly African heritage. That alone stands as a quantum leap forward that no force on earth will ever change. It is nothing short of a collective national triumph. And the man is a bona fide intellectual no less. Intellectuals, of course, being as rare as good decisions at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
While there is ample grist for optimism, only a fatal optimist or a militarist could fail to be concerned about the rough sketch emerging for Iraq and Afghanistan.
At central issue in both campaigns is what President-elect Obama referred to in his remarks in Chicago on December 1 introducing the new national security team as "our global leadership." The concept of American global leadership is not new. It really dates back to a pre-American Civil War notion that US technology, specifically military technology, had become so advanced that we could spread our influence far and wide, and come home with the booty. The world had its notice on July 8, 1853, when Commodore Perry navigated an American war armada into Edo Bay harbor in Tokyo, Japan, on a "diplomatic" mission. There were no diplomats on board. At the point of 66 naval guns, Perry opened Japanese ports to US trade.
For US public relations purposes, American global domination is most often wrapped in positive tones. Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin reminded us continually on the campaign trail that "America should be a force for good in the world." John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps. But Kennedy, among other things, also quietly fomented counterrevolution in Cuba.
If average Americans were blissfully unaware that US global leadership included domination of global resources, that bliss was shattered in 1962 when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara pointed Russian-supplied atomic missiles at the US mainland from Cuba. Castro and Guevara bluntly accused the US of imperialism and ruthless exploitation of Cuba, and many other nations as well. Castro said, "End the philosophy of plunder and the philosophy of war will be ended as well." What Guevara did in his address to the United Nation's General Assembly on December 11, 1964, was issue a worldwide appeal for resistance to US imperialism. Clearly, Castro and Guevara saw their struggle in defensive terms.
In his remarks in Chicago, President-elect Obama seemed torn between a new realization that "our destiny is shared with the world's," and the old view he articulated speaking on behalf of the new security team he was introducing: "I think all of us here share the belief that we have to maintain the strongest military on the planet." He literally seems to be working through the equation in front of the cameras. Early in his prepared remarks, Obama presented a seemingly newly matured view of America's role in the world saying:
"The common thread linking these challenges is the fundamental reality that in the 21st century our destiny is shared with the world's. From our markets to our security, from our public health to our climate, we must act with that understanding that, now more than ever, we have a stake in what happens across the globe. And as we learned so painfully on 9/11, terror cannot be contained by borders, nor safety provided by oceans alone."
But he went on to say:
"And so, in this uncertain world, the time has come for a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century and to seize the opportunities embedded in those challenges. We will strengthen our capacity to defeat our enemies and support our friends. We will renew old alliances and forge new and enduring partnerships. We will show the world once more that America is relentless in the defense of our people, steady in advancing our interests and committed to the ideals that shine as a beacon to the world - democracy and - (audio break) - because American values are America's greatest export to the world."
So, there may be some things he's working through.
Of all the gifts left to Americans by departing commander in chief Bush, the two wars he started in Iraq and Afghanistan are most troubling. The American presidency is an extraordinarily difficult job under any circumstances, but to inherit the job with two botched wars-turned-quagmires underway sets a whole new standard. Regrettably, the working model for an Iraq plan that Obama and team appear to be navigating off of at this early stage seems to have serious flaws. Again from Chicago:
"The SOFA that has been now passed by the Iraqi legislature points us in the right direction. It indicates we are now on a glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq. I will be meeting with not only Secretary Gates but the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanders on the ground to make a determination as to how we move that pace - how we proceed in that withdrawal process.
I believe that 16 months is the right time frame, but, as I've said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders. And my number-one priority is making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase, and that the Iraqi people are well served by a government that is taking on increased responsibility for its own security.
It is a sovereign nation.
What this signals is a transition period in which our mission will be changing. We will have to remain vigilant in making sure that any terrorist elements that remain in Iraq do not become strengthened as a consequence of our drawdown."
The first problem here is that, yes, the occupation of Iraq is about dominating on behalf of large American-based corporations the resources of Iraq, and, yes, the American taxpayer is footing the entire bill. That is not going to last. It is highly unlikely that the US economy can sustain the occupation of Iraq for another 12 months. It might not be sustainable for another six months. A day is rapidly approaching when a critical-mass financial decision in relation to the occupation of Iraq will have to be made.
Next, "reducing our forces" is both vague and potentially fraught with major risk. Ending the war and a full restoration of Iraqi sovereignty is not accomplished by a smaller, kinder, gentler US occupying force it accomplished by ending the US military presence in Iraq. If you read between the lines here, a real withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq doesn't appear to be under consideration.
In addition, any significant "drawdown" of US forces in Iraq would expose the remaining force to an ever-increasing security risk. That leads to dead US soldiers. Obama seems to address this when he refers to "making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase." Unfortunately, the core equation remains the same: smaller force, greater security risk. So, in terms of Iraqi sovereignty and US force security, the current plan appears fundamentally flawed.
This leaves aside all of the war crimes committed against the Iraqi people in order to maintain control by force of their country. Including extra-judicial assassination, indefinite imprisonment without due process, displacement of vast segments of the population, and the list goes on.
In Afghanistan, for whatever reason, everyone on a US national security level seems to have forgotten the lessons that the vastly superior Soviet military learned in Afghanistan two decades ago, i.e., do not leave your military there. It is what military experts have always referred to it as the graveyard of foreign armies.
There seems to be a desire on the part of US military planners to do in Afghanistan now what they "should have" or were "not allowed" to do in 2002. But now is now and then was then. Now, a new strategy must be developed. One that doesn't repeat the mistakes of Mikhail Gorbachev or George W. Bush. The plan currently offered won't pass muster.
The debate in Washington right now is defined by what media pundits have taken to labeling as "Realism." As is the case with any "ism" it has man-made borders. The cornerstones of this brand of realism appear to include:
- A notion that it is an American birthright to lead the world, and profit by doing so.
- A notion that the US can maintain over 700 military bases worldwide and not unify the world in opposition.
- A notion that an Iraqi government, or any government orchestrated, protected and funded by US occupiers can someday be sovereign.
- A notion that the occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan can end well.
Those are clearly false, unsustainable and quite dangerous realisms.