This past Tuesday, President Obama delivered an address to cadets at the Starfleet Academy in West Point, NY, at least one of whom was repeatedly Asian and female. The subject of the president’s speech was his planned escalation of the war in Afghanistan, with a deployment of an additional 30,000 troops by the middle of 2010, bringing the total close to 100,000 at least until the middle of 2011, when a withdrawal is promised to begin. (Obama has been escalating the war more quietly throughout his term, having already doubled Bush’s commitment.) The speech was perhaps the first time Obama has had to convince the public of a significant policy on which he did not explicitly campaign—and, more notably, the first time he has faced more resistance from his left than his right. What follows are some annotations, measured and—whereas no mainstream commentators have been able to articulate a strong liberal critique of escalation in the face of an (admittedly) stronger humanitarian, legal and strategic case than that presented by Iraq—unmeasured.
(Full disclosure: the author’s brother returned from serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan this past Thanksgiving; while it is unclear whether escalation would mean his re-deployment, the assurances of his unit commanders indicates not. In addition—since people tend to think this sort of thing matters—he (the author) believes the case for escalation is, among the narrow range of foreign policies politically possible in a country with a permanent and disproportionate military establishment, solid. Unless the Taliban destabilizes the Pakistani government and triggers a larger regional war or gains control of a nuclear weapon, in which case it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. So it goes with these things. Like a good liberal, his response to the “success” of the surge in Iraq, as well as the apparent permanence of the neo-liberal order (and concomitant patchiness of that order’s orderliness) has been to assert that to admit even the possibility of a coherent epistemological assessment of strategy with regard to “failed states” is to lay the philosophical groundwork for hegemony.)
“[O]ne of the world’s great religions”—not the world’s greatest (that’s R. Kelly), but not a piddling one, either. According to Mediaite.com, Islam is the #2 religion, but trending upwards.
ON THE SWIFT FALL OF THE TALIBAN
“Within a matter of months, al Qaeda was scattered and many of its operatives were killed. The Taliban was driven from power and pushed back on its heels,” which are located in Pakistan: a very comfortable place and roughly equivalent to—if I may—Europe in Risk; no matter how badly the war in Asia is going, you can always retreat there and regroup for another round, knowing that eventually your opponent will get fed up and quit.
ON IRAQ—POLEMICAL INTERLUDE #1
“Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. [. . .] Thanks to [the American soldier’s] courage, grit and perseverance, we have given Iraqis a chance to shape their future, and we are successfully leaving Iraq to its people.” The only possible irresponsible end having been a withdrawal before the 2007 surge—which Obama opposed, and is now aping. “The chance to shape their future,” of course, could only be our gift of democracy to the people of Iraq, give or take 100,000 (take).
ON THE LEGITIMACY OF THE KARZAI GOVERNMENT
“In Afghanistan, we and our allies have prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election, and—although it was marred by fraud—that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and Constitution.” That a fraudulent election could produce a constitutionally-legitimate government—although it is illogical—is logical.
ON OBAMA’S DELAY IN MAKING A DECISION
“Let me be clear: there has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war.” This window afforded the President sufficient time to consult extensively with a death panel on how many thousands of troops will be asked to play Russian Roulette, an American game show hosted by Mark Walberg (no relation) that ran for two seasons on the Game Show Network from June, 2002 to June, 2003.
ON OBAMA’S INTIMATE KNOWLEDGE OF THE WAGES OF WAR—POLEMICAL INTERLUDE #2
“As President, I have signed a letter of condolence to the family of each American who gives their life in these wars. I have read the letters from the parents and spouses of those who deployed. I have visited our courageous warriors at Walter Reed,” with the exception of Dr. Nidal Malik Hassan, whom Obama has never met and does not resemble in any way, except insofar as they are both well-educated men of Muslim descent who have responded thoughtfully to the deep tragedy of ongoing conflict in Afghanistan by killing more American soldiers than some think necessary.
ON THE GLOBAL THREAT STLL POSED BY AL-QAEDA
“This is not just America’s war. Since 9/11, al-Qaeda’s safe-havens have been the source of attacks against London and Amman and Bali.” The safe-havens in question being not Afghanistan but—respectively, and to the best and most current available knowledge (“Wikipedia”)—London, Iraq and Bali. Which includes 2010’s “Good War”!
ON THE ACTUAL AUDIENCE OF A “DIRECT ADDRESS TO THE AFGHAN PEOPLE,” EIGHT OUT OF 100 OF WHOM EVEN HAVE ACCESS TO A TELEPHONE
ON THE RHETORICAL FUNCTION OF SUCH AN ADDRESS
You, listen: they’re listening to me, which gives me credibility!
ON THE PAKISTANI ELEMENT OF A BROADER REGIONAL STRATEGY—POLEMICAL INTERLUDE #3
“We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries”; the capacity to actually destroy those targets will remain with our fleet of robotic surveillant airplanes, which have been given unlimited right to assassination in the airspace of a separate and sovereign country by a quasi-military government and have, to date, killed around 300 civilians and over 500 “militants.” (The escalation of which policy in lieu of a ground war represents, incidentally, the farthest left mainstream proposal for the future conduct of American policy in the region.)
ON THE PARALLEL OF VIETNAM
“Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.” Unlike Vietnam, this insurgency is capable of retreating not to the jungles of Cambodia, but the mountains of Pakistan—a significantly colder climate, with terrain physically much closer to our airplanes.
ON OTHER SAFE-HAVENS
“Where al-Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold—whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere—they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships” with actors like the Iran-funded radical Shi’a Zaidiyyah rebels in Yemen and the government of Ethiopia in Somalia (which hasn’t killed protesters on a mass scale since 2005).
ON AMERICAN HEGEMONY—POLEMICAL INTERLUDE #4
“Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, through the service and sacrifice of our grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions—from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank—that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings. We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades—a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, markets open, billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, and advancing frontiers of human liberty. For, unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination.” And that’s pretty much where Obama’s speech ended. We hope you’ve liked the last sixty years of American foreign policy; here’s four, eight or—take stock of the current field of politicians—forever more.