To Avoid Old Mistakes, Obama Should Listen to New Voices

by James M. Wall

Barack Obama spent three months of intensive consultation before he arrived at a foregone conclusion: The US will have a military presence in Afghanistan for an indefinite period of time.

For what purpose?  One of the most eloquent speakers to enter the White House could not say. He could only promise us we would “start to withdraw” in July, 2011.

How did we reach this moment?

The New York Times looked back over the past three months.   During his consultation period, the president visited Arlington National Cemetery, wandering “among the chalky white tombstones of those who had fallen in the rugged mountains of Central Asia.”

The Times writes that it put together this story after interviews with many participants in the consultation, checking and cross-checking their responses.

I don’t know about you, but I see the fine hand of some skilled spinners at work in the Times defense of yet another attempt to shape others to our own pattern. Karl Rove has not gone away, he has just been reborn. A Texas Svengali has transformed into a new team of Chicago Svengalis.

For a look at some of their best work, read this piece by Peter Baker of the New York Times

How much their sacrifice weighed on [the president] that Veterans Day last month, he did not say. But his advisers say he was haunted by the human toll as he wrestled with what to do about the eight-year-old war. Just a month earlier, he had mentioned to them his visits to wounded soldiers at the Army hospital in Washington.

“I don’t want to be going to Walter Reed for another eight years,” he said then.

One participant willing to speak on the record was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who told one interviewer:

The president welcomed a full range of opinions and invited contrary points of view. And I thought it was a very healthy experience because people took him up on it. And one thing we didn’t want — to have a decision made and then have somebody say, ‘Oh, by the way.’ No, come forward now or forever hold your peace.

How could the average citizen come forward? This was not a wedding ceremony open to all. With the possible exception of Vice President Joe Biden, the guests were all singing pretty much from the same page.

One guest who had not been invited for consultation was Boston University History Professor Andrew Bacevich, a retired US Army colonel who also specializes in international relations.

In an essay written before the troop increase was announced, Afghanistan – the Proxy War, Bacevich warned the American public against endorsing Obama’s embrace of the Afghanistan strategy proposed by his handpicked commander, General Stanley McChrystal.

In Bacevich’s opinion, the Obama-McChrystal melding was a strategic union that promised not change, but more, much more, of the same old, same old.

On the Planetary Movement website Bacevich argues that a series of troop increases would signal Obama’s embrace of the strategy that had earlier doomed the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.

Bacevich calls that strategy, “armed nation-building”. Bacevich predicted that if Obama opted for a permanent presence in Afghanistan, which he has essentially done, he would embrace the Bush-Cheney doctrine of “open-ended war” responding to “violent jihadism”.

Like Lyndon Johnson, Obama has decided he will confront the enemy by winning “the hearts and minds” of a people in whose hearts and minds there is no longing to grant anything but trouble to foreign powers occupying their land with soldiers, drones and home invasions.

Bacevich warns that Obama is now in danger of becoming yet another warrior president. By choosing the McChrystal plan, he tells the world that the US national security policy will continue the policies employed in Vietnam and Iraq. The American global military presence will intervene any where, any time, when it decides it is in the best interest of the United States to do so.

Today’s enemy is “terrorism”.  In Vietnam, it was Communism. In Iraq it was Saddam Hussein’s terrorism. However the enemy is labeled, what we have here is the Obama-McChrystal version of the “Bush Doctrine” which Sarah Palin so famously could not explain in her campaign television interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson. (“What exactly do you mean by that, Charlie?)

In laymen’s terms, though Charles Gibson did not put it this way, we are talking about your basic American empire-maintenance project that keeps the world safe for the latest edition of the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned us about.

The trouble with the American empire maintenance project is that it needs the agreement and the financial support of the folks at home whose young men and women are sent to distant lands for reasons not even the eloquent Barack Obama has been able to articulate.

There is no call for a war tax; and there is no call for a military draft. As a result, the same volunteers must be sent back to third and fourth tours while back home our domestic economy tanks.

These volunteers will rotate in and out of permanent bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will be permanently surrounded by hostile, resentful citizens.

Are these bases really “permanent”? AP writer Charles J. Hanley asked that question about Iraq in a story printed in the Arizona Daily Star, under this headline: “Huge bases raise question: Is U.S. in Iraq to stay?”

His story begins:

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq — The concrete vanishes into the noonday glare, 2 million cubic feet of it, a mile-long slab that’s now the home of up to 120 U.S. helicopters, a “heli-park” as good as any back in the states.

At another giant base, al-Asad in Iraq’s western desert, the 17,000 troops and workers come and go in a kind of bustling American town, with a Burger King, a Pizza Hut and a car dealership, stop signs, traffic regulations and young bikers clogging the roads.

At a third hub down south, Tallil, they’re planning a new mess hall, one that will seat 6,000 hungry airmen and soldiers for chow.

Why do we need such a presence in countries like Iraq (currently) and Afghanistan (future)? We need them because we are now operating under the McCrystal-Obama doctrine, permanent military bases designed to fight “terrorists” who would do us harm.

Are these bases examples of an American empire hunkering down for the long run? What do you think?

More from AP’s Charles J. Hanley:

In 2005-06, Washington has authorized or proposed almost $1 billion for U.S. military construction in Iraq, as American forces consolidate at Balad, known as Anaconda, and a handful of other installations, big bases under the old regime.

They have already pulled out of 34 of the 110 bases they were holding last March, said Maj. Lee English of the U.S. command’s Base Working Group, planning the consolidation.

“The coalition forces are moving outside the cities while continuing to provide security support to the Iraqi security forces,” English said. The latest budget also allots $39 million for new airfield lighting, air-traffic-control systems and upgrades allowing al-Asad to plug into the Iraqi electricity grid — a typical sign of a long-term base.”

American Empire maintenance always follows the “pacification” of an occupied land. In the case of Afghanistan this is sold to American tax payers as a vital necessity in order to find and eliminate what a senior US intelligence official recently told ABC news was approximately 100 Al Qaeda members remaining in Afghanistan.

(Think what an expenditure of that size could do to the Latin American drug cartels, whose daily shipments of illegal drugs into the US is an ongoing threat to the American public, especially the young.)

Frank Rich noted in his New York Times column (December 6, 2009) that in his speech announcing the troop increase, Obama tried to sell his decision to the American people without admitting that the action lacks the commitment of its two most essential partners,” a corrupt and illegitimate Afghan government, and the American public which has growing doubts about continuing wars in distant lands.

What possible logic led Obama to embrace McChrystalism?  Rich writes that Obama’s speech failed to provide that logic.

We face a greater danger from security breaches at home than we do from a second Al Qaeda 9/11 attack. Rich points to the White House dinner crashers who slipped by the Secret Service. Had they wanted to harm President Obama and his guests, they could have done so.

This was the second time in a month — after the infinitely more alarming bloodbath at Fort Hood — that a supposedly impregnable bastion of post-9/11 American security was easily breached. Yes, the crashers are laughable celebrity wannabes, but there was nothing funny about what they accomplished on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Their ruse wasn’t “reality” television — it was reality, period, with no quotation marks. It was a symbolic indication (and, luckily, only symbolic) of how unbridled irrationality harnessed to sheer will, whether ludicrous in the crashers’ case or homicidal in the instance of the Fort Hood gunman, can penetrate even our most secure fortifications.

We are waging a costly war in a distant land against a Taliban that is no threat to our nation, while Washington dinner crashers and a single homicidal Fort Hood army major easily penetrate our security systems.

In an essay in the Catholic publication Commonweal, Andrew Bacevich asks the question that in Washington “goes not only unanswered, but unasked: What is it about Afghanistan, a country that possesses nothing the US requires that could possibly justify such lavish attention?

Among Democrats and Republicans alike, with few exceptions, Afghanistan’s importance is simply assumed—much the way fifty years ago otherwise intelligent people simply assumed that the United States had a vital interest in ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. As then, so today, the assumption does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

In his introduction to a 2008 edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, Andrew Bacevich writes:

The lesson is clear. It is time for Americans to give up their Messianic dreams and cease their efforts to coerce history in a particular direction. This does not imply a policy of isolationism. It does imply attending less to the world outside of our borders and more to the circumstances within. It means ratcheting down our expectations. Americans need what Niebuhr described as:

A sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of [history’s] perplexities.” (Irony, page 174).

In his own book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Bacevich cites this passage from Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, p. 83:

For all nations, “The desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests. If they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late.”

It is not yet too late for President Obama to reverse course and tell the American people that we can no longer afford to pursue the dream of American exceptionalism in a war that does not involve our ultimate interests.  Nor is it too late for him to tell us that continuing this war will bankrupt this nation, financially and morally.

The picture above of President Obama at Arlington National Cemetery is from The New York Times. The photographer is Luke Sharrett.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
This entry was posted in Religion and politics. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to To Avoid Old Mistakes, Obama Should Listen to New Voices

  1. Many Americans also live under the delusion that the USA is a Christian nation. If that were true, we would lead the way in nuclear disarmament and abolish war.

    Father John Dear wrote:

    “Contrary to what the Pentagon tells us, our God is not a god of war, but the God of peace; not a god of injustice, but the God of justice…

    “The one thing we can say for sure about Jesus is that he practiced active, public, creative non-violence. He called us to love our neighbors; to show compassion toward everyone; to seek justice for the poor; to forgive everyone; to put down the sword; to take up the cross in the struggle for justice and peace; to lay down our lives, to risk our lives if necessary, in love for all humanity, and most of all, to love our enemies. His last words to the community, to the church, to us, as the soldiers dragged him away, could not be clearer or more to the point: Put down the sword.

    “That’s it. We are not allowed to kill. That’s why they run away; they realize he is serious about non-violence…Jesus dies on the cross saying, “The violence stops here in my body, which is given for you. You are forgiven, but from now on, you are not allowed to kill:

    “Violence doesn’t work. War doesn’t work. Violence in response to violence always leads to further violence. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Those who live by the bomb, the gun, the nuclear weapon, will die by bombs, guns and nuclear weapons. You reap what you sow. The means are the ends. What goes around comes around.

    “War can not stop terrorism because war is terrorism. War only sows the seeds for future wars.”

  2. Bill Gepford says:

    Father John Dear is absolutely correct. Especially, if we are a Christian nation, we would be working for peaceful ends non-violently. Regarding those who would advise the president: In order to have a different option presented, there must be a total culture change. Just changing the names of those who advise the president is no guarantee of a culture change, as President Obama’s justification for more war in Afghanistan obviously indicates.

    As many sacred rituals say, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”

  3. Rev. Thomas J. Philipp says:

    Is there any doubt that no matter who is President the military and the defense industry will make the decisions? Can any President stand up and face what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex?

  4. pat wj says:

    It is not just the Christian religion that has nonviolence and respecting our fellow human beings as basic tennants – so does Judiasm, Islam, Buddhism, humanism, all the major world religions – as taught by their leaders. It is people who do violence in the name of a religion, who are traitors to their religions, who give people of other faiths the false impression that some religions are inherently violent. I certainly agree with Father John Dear – and i think he speaks for the true practice of all the faiths – and for people who do not believe in an organized religion, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s