How many tomorrows have they given away?
How many compared to yesterday?
How many more without any reward?
How many more can they afford?
— Bob Dylan, “2×2”
And now it is here. The new “surge” in Afghanistan is underway – the second surge launched by the progressive president in his first year in office. Barack Obama’s speech, and the policies embraced in it, and the sinister implications underlying it, are all abysmally awful. They are a death warrant not only for the thousands of Afghan and Pakistani civilians who will be killed in the intensified conflict, but also for the countless thousands of innocents yet to die in the coming generations of a world roiled and destabilized by an out-of-control empire.
Already the evil effects of America’s decades-long campaign of violent domination of world affairs will carry on far into the future – even if this campaign were brought to a sudden halt right now. Every one of us – and our children, and our grandchildren – will have to live with terrible consequences of the corrupt and murderous imperial project. There is no escaping this fate. But each day that the imperial project goes forward makes those consequences more horrific, more atrocious, and extends them deeper into the substrate of human existence, and farther and farther into the future.
And as Barack Obama’s speech shows, we are plowing ahead on this insane, inhuman course. We are not even attempting to begin to find ways to slow or mitigate the imperial cancer, much less stop it outright; we are just stomping the pedal to the floor, screeching full-throttle to the depths of hell. This is a terrible, sickening moment in American history, yet another fatal turning point in the nation’s slow and agonizing demise.
As you might expect, Arthur Silber has provided a deep and thorough analysis of Obama’s speech in a genuinely masterful piece entitled, aptly, “A Deadly Liar and Manipulator.” I will excerpt some of this essay, but you will cheat yourself of much important insight if you don’t read it in full. – Silber rightly notes the most immediate and glaring falsehood in Obama’s speech, a piece of howling mendacity so transparent that even the New York Times felt compelled to acknowledge the “seemingly contradictory goals of expanding American involvement in the war even as he sought to bring it to a close.” Silber nails the deeper truth behind this “contradiction”:
Obama made very clear that he purportedly intends to extricate us from Central Asia by involving us in increasingly complex ways in the affairs of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you think that is a glaringly obvious contradiction, you’re entirely correct. How exactly do you leave that region of the world more quickly by involving yourself in ever more complicated and numerous ways? The answer is that you don’t. But as my previous article stated, we aren’t leaving. Obama and the U.S. government are not unlike the dreaded house guest who insistently tells you he’s going home in just another week or two — honestly, he is, and how could you possibly not believe him? — even as he redecorates your extra bedroom at notable cost and takes over several of your closets for many of his most precious belongings. You hear his words, and you see what he does — and your heart sinks as you realize that a life of independence, a life that is yours, is gone.
Consider the extent of our ongoing involvement in all aspects of life in Afghanistan:
Second, we will work with our partners, the UN, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security.
This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over. President Karzai’s inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction. And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance. We will support Afghan Ministries, Governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. And we will also focus our assistance in areas – such as agriculture – that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.
Were Obama and the U.S. appointed dictator of Afghanistan? I seem to have missed that bit of news. Almost immediately after that passage, Obama said: “So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand – America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country.”
This is the advantage of holding a gun to someone’s head: your victim isn’t about to call you a goddamned liar when you can pull the trigger at any moment.
Silber then details Obama’s extensive list of the many ways that he promises America will remain enmeshed in the affairs of Pakistan forever, and notes:
If you think we’re leaving this part of the world any time soon, or perhaps even in your lifetime, you’ll believe anything. But that’s all right: lots of Americans do precisely that.
Pakistan is indeed key to this imperial enterprise. As the New York Times noted, beyond Obama’s florid yet flaccid rhetoric (which even a diehard fan like Joan Walsh called “the worst major speech of his presidency”), there is a much darker component to his second surge:
Administration officials said that Mr. Obama had signed off on a plan by the Central Intelligence Agency to expand C.I.A. activities in Pakistan. The plan calls for more strikes against militants by drone aircraft, sending additional spies to Pakistan and securing a White House commitment to bulk up the C.I.A.’s budget for operations inside the country.
Expanding the dirty war in Pakistan — where the overwhelming majority of the people are incensed by the American military and CIA presence in their country — is absolute madness…if what you really want to do is cure the “cancer” of extremism in the region, or “unleash the great potential” of the Pakistani people. Only an idiot could genuinely believe that murdering civilians and conducting “black ops” all over the country could somehow establish “security and prosperity” in Pakistan; and Obama is no idiot. But he, like all the mandarins of our ruling class, is counting on the fact that you are an idiot.
In the speech, and the PR seeding that surrounded it, Obama and his mouthpieces stress the “success” of the Bush Regime’s “surge” in Iraq as an encouraging model for the escalation in Afghanistan. Putting aside the fact that Obama already launched a surge in Afghanistan earlier this year that was just as big as Bush’s escalation in Iraq but has proved such a singular failure that he is now launching an even bigger surge, the truth is that the Iraq “surge” had almost nothing to do with the abatement of horrific violence in that conquered land. As we have noted here very often, the “surge” was in fact the final act of a protracted civil war, in which the United States actively abetted the vast ethnic cleansing of Sunni Muslims on behalf of the extremist Shiite parties empowered by the American invasion. As Juan Cole notes:
The simple fact of the matter is that in 2006 and 2007 the Shiite militias and government troops decisively won the civil war in Baghdad. They ethnically cleansed the Sunni Arabs from the capital, creating a massive refugee problem in Jordan and Syria. Baghdad went from being a mixed city to being 85 to 90 percent Shiite, as a team at Columbia University recently charted. The killing was thereafter so much reduced because there were few mixed neighborhoods left. Even the willingness of Sunni Arabs to join pro-American Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq militias that took on Sunni extremist groups derived in some important part from this fear of being ethnically cleansed.
Cole also notes the instrumental role played by Iran in getting the breakaway Mahdi Army Shiite militia to stand down and cooperate with the American-installed government. In any case, none of the political, social, economic, religious or ethnic circumstances in Iraq apply in Afghanistan. Cole again:
In Iraq, for all its acts of stupidity, the Bush-Cheney regime at least backed the majority, the Shiites. With 60 percent of the population, the Shiites were always likely to win the civil war produced by the power vacuum left by Washington’s defeat of Saddam Hussein and his feared Republican Guards tank corps.
In Afghanistan, the major allies of the U.S. and NATO have been the national minorities — the Sunni Tajiks, the Shiite Hazaras, and the Uzbeks. Admittedly, they are joined by pro-Karzai Pashtuns, but Pashtun support for the U.S. and NATO is clearly dwindling. Obama’s surge of U.S. troops into Helmand and Qandahar could easily provoke a Pashtun backlash. The Pashtuns are thus not analogous to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. They are a plurality of the population, not a minority, and they have not lost the low-intensity civil war in which the country is embroiled. Nor have they been ethnically cleansed under the current government. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq threw in the towel, joined in elections, and even formed pro-American militias only as it became clear that the Shiites were routing them. The Pashtuns are not in that position.
Standing up an Afghanistan security force is a key element of Obama’s plan, as it was a central strategy in Iraq for the Bush administration and its allies. Doing so in Afghanistan, however, is a far more daunting task than in Iraq… [In the U.S.-built Afghan “National” Army], in the year ending September, one in four had quit or deserted. Only ten percent of troops are literate. (In contrast, 74 percent of Iraqis can read and write.) One in every six Afghan soldiers is alleged to be a drug addict.
The military is, moreover, anything but national. The new report to Congress reveals that the army is disproportionately drawn from and commanded by officers of the Tajik ethnic group, who are 41 percent of the trained troops but only a quarter of the population. The Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group, at 42 percent, are only a third of the troops… Many Pashtun clansmen are fiercely proud and independent, and would be humiliated by having Tajik soldiers lord it over them… The only thing worse than Tajik dominance would be what the Tajiks brought along with them — Western Christian soldiers outfitted like astronauts. Ironically, the Tajik dominance of the old 1980s communist government of Afghanistan, and their alliance with Russian troops, were among the reasons that impelled the Pashtuns to mount a Muslim insurgency in the first place.
So Obama’s plan is to follow a strategy that has been proven over and over again to enflame Pashtun resistance and intensify violent ethnic conflict across Afghanistan. Again, only an idiot could actually believe such a policy would be an effective step toward achieving the goals mouthed by Obama in his speech. Perhaps the only thing that does Obama even a modicum of credit, relatively speaking, was the dull, glazed delivery of his address to the cadets; somewhere deep inside him, there was an actual human being who could not wholly hide the fact that he was speaking murderous bullshit — and knew that it was murderous bullshit.
But let’s not get carried away in the credit department. For the fact remains that Obama has embarked on a course of deep, far-reverberating evil, and that he has done this knowingly, willingly, deliberately after months of contemplation and despite every opportunity to do otherwise. And he has done so with a speech that, as Silber notes, was replete with lies and moral corruption.
Here Silber’s analysis pierces through to the heart of darkness in the speech, and in the imperial enterprise as a whole:
Look at the final section that begins, “Finally, we must draw on the strength of our values…” Obama tells a series of notable lies here, starting with his very next sentence: “That is why we must promote our values by living them at home – which is why I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” Guantanamo “will close,” at some future date that forever recedes from the present. And Obama may have said the words that “prohibit torture” — but Bush said the same words, to the same effect. In fact, Obama has emphatically not ended the practice of torture: as proof, consult this article and this one.
Scott Horton at Harper’s has more on this theme:
But in the debate over troop commitments, there’s an important question about U.S. operations in Afghanistan that risks being overlooked: Why are we running a secret prison there?
On his second day in office, Obama acted on one of his campaign pledges by issuing an order … designed to shut down secret prisons and ban Bush-era torture practices, and directing that the Red Cross would have access to any detainees. But when we wade into it, the order turns out to be less than meets the eye. Only CIA prisons are shut down. Prisons operated by the Department of Defense remain in place…
Disclosures over the past weekend suggest that there are serious problems in a detention facility operated by the Pentagon’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the same outfit linked to executive assassinations, predator drone attacks contracted out to Blackwater, and similar controversies. Here’s the Washington Post account:
Two Afghan teenagers held in U.S. detention north of Kabul this year said they were beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement in concrete cells for at least two weeks while undergoing daily interrogation about their alleged links to the Taliban. … The two teenagers — Issa Mohammad, 17, and Abdul Rashid, who said he is younger than 16 — said in interviews this week that they were punched and slapped in the face by their captors during their time at Bagram air base, where they were held in individual cells. Rashid said his interrogator forced him to look at pornography alongside a photograph of his mother.
The techniques described–enforced nudity, sleep deprivation, extended isolation, and sexual humiliation—all belong to the palette approved and used by the Bush Administration. But didn’t Obama ban these techniques? That’s not entirely clear….
Actually, as Silber and his sources show, it is entirely clear: torture continues under Obama — who, after all, personally appointed a notorious operator of secret JSCOC prisons and commander of death squads and dirty war ops in Iraq, Stanley McChrystal, as his very own top commander in Afghanistan. Obama knows what is going on in Bagram, and he knows exactly what he is getting — and what he is foisting on the Afghan people — by putting McChrystal in charge of the occupation.
And still deeper, still darker, with Silber [and see his original piece for the important links]:
Obama’s description of the unique role played by the United States tells the usual story of “American exceptionalism.” We might appreciate the uniformity of the ruling class’s view on this point, captured in this passage from earlier tonight:
Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and 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.
This is indistinguishable from the views of Irving Kristol, widely considered the “godfather” of the neoconservative movement, views which I recently recalled in this piece. For Kristol as for Obama, the impersonal, unanswerable forces of history have placed this “special burden” on America’s shoulders. We don’t want to run the world, but no one else is sufficiently special or unique to do the job; as Kristol so wretchedly and dishonestly put it, it was all just “our bad luck.” We had to do it — for the good of everyone who lives on Earth. This is the all-purpose disinfectant for crimes of staggering magnitude: the U.S. murders more than a million innocent Iraqis, but we did it for the Iraqis’ “own good”; we torture, but we only do it because our enemies leave us no choice — and we learn very early that the infliction of pain is the path to moral improvement, most especially for the improvement of those weaker than ourselves.
Silber also scores the indeed “breathtaking lies” in this passage of Obama’s speech:
For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for – and what we continue to fight for – is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.
You might object to these proclamations by pointing out, as one singularly contradictory fact, that the U.S. maintains a global empire of military bases. Your objection is easily parried by the earlier part of the argument: But don’t you see we don’t want to do this? This isn’t what we would choose, if the world would only behave itself.
Silber concludes by examining the final paragraphs of Obama’s speech, passages which Silber says “causes me to conclude that Obama is an extraordinarily dangerous man, and a manipulator of the first order.” In his lamed attempt at a stirring crescendo, Obama waves the bloody flag of 9/11:
I also know that we, as a country, cannot sustain our [world] leadership nor navigate the momentous challenges of our time if we allow ourselves to be split asunder by the same rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse.
It is easy to forget that when this war began, we were united – bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear.
This clapped-out treacle — which sounds like George W. Bush at his most rote and robotic — leads to a call for similar unity to back this new escalation of a nakedly imperial war. Says Obama:
I believe with every fiber of my being that we – as Americans – can still come together behind a common purpose. For our values are not simply words written into parchment – they are a creed that calls us together, and that has carried us through the darkest of storms as one nation, one people.
America – we are passing through a time of great trial. And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering.
While most people will consider these words, for good or bad, as rhetorical flourishes, Silber finds a deeper, malevolent implication behind them:
Read this sentence again: “But I also know that we, as a country, cannot sustain our leadership nor navigate the momentous challenges of our time if we allow ourselves to be split asunder by the same rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse.”
To make certain you understand him, Obama makes the same point a moment later: “I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again. I believe with every fiber of my being that we – as Americans – can still come together behind a common purpose.”
Obama has put us all on notice: if we disagree with his policies, if we condemn the endless series of aggressive wars waged by the U.S., we are imperiling the strength and security of the United States itself. If we dare to criticize him or the actions of the U.S. government, we are displaying “rancor and cynicism and partisanship” that will “split asunder” the absolutely necessary national “unity.” If we challenge Obama on any point of importance, we are “poisoning” the “national discourse.”
In other words: disagreement on any matter of moment is not only dangerous, but illegitimate and even immoral. And if you consider the logical end of this argument, and what has happened before in American history (see this post about what happened during both World Wars, under Democratic presidents), there is a further meaning: such disagreement may well be criminal.
No, I am not saying that Obama makes this full argument in explicit terms. He hasn’t — not yet. But look at the meaning of what he has said — and consider the principles upon which that view rests, and where those principles can lead. … When Bush or others in his administration made efforts in this direction, they were quickly condemned. If McCain had offered similar statements, he would almost certainly have been similarly condemned, out of primitive partisanship if for no other reason. But who will object when Obama makes such statements?
For Silber has identified one of the prime dangers of Obama’s presidency: it has “gutted whatever effective opposition might have existed. To their eternal shame, the Democrats never opposed Bush in any way that mattered — but at least the *possibility of opposition had not been obliterated entirely. In the near term and probably for longer, that possibility now appears to have been extinguished.”
And by opposition, Silber does not mean the partisan braying of whatever imperialist faction happens to be out of power, but, as he wrote before the election, he is referring to:
meaningful political opposition for good — that is, opposition that might significantly alter the existing system without destroying it (if that is at all possible, which I am almost entirely convinced it is not). But the resentments, the anger and possibly even the hatred [engendered by the system] will remain, and they may grow. What happens then?
We are seeing the result of a now completely disarmed and co-opted opposition to empire even as we speak. We are seeing the rise of religious and political extremism, of vague, inchoate apprehensions among large swathes of the population that they are being badly screwed — apprehensions that are seized upon and twisted by manipulative elites into irrational diversions (Obama as a socialist!!), nationalist aggression, sexual obsession and religious intolerance. The only goal of these manipulations, of course, is to return the manipulators to full imperial power, while protecting the deeply corrupt system of dominance and privilege as as whole.
But let us not be exceptionalists. The utter degradation of American society by our bipartisan imperialists is a tragedy, but only for those of us who happen to be Americans. The full force of Obama’s imperial manipulations — like those of his predecessors — will fall like a ravaging fire on the innocent, the defenseless, the vulnerable and the oppressed in foreign lands. These policies, these horrific, sick-making “continuities,” will engender untold suffering, unabated anger, rising hatred, and more violence, more brutality, more barbarism, both in the perpetrators and the victims, for years, for decades, for generations to come.
Let no one be in any doubt. What Barack Obama announced on Tuesday is yet another vast, painful, wrenching defeat for all humanity, for the very idea of what it means to be human, for the progress of our whole wretched, imperfect, self-lacerating species. Everything that is best in us is driven back, beaten down, lacerated and abandoned by such defeats. How many more can we afford?