Gary Wills has written a striking article that Obama should (and is the only potential American president who even might) end the two aggressions and occupations in which the US is engaged, even at the cost of not getting a second term (below). It is a valuable article because it reminds us, even today as the leaks come out about Obama’s decision to escalate, of the chance that he has missed, of the potential he still represents.
Obama’s apparent calculation – to run against the Republicans means to be tough on war as well as pursuing increasingly modest social reforms. And he would thus be a good, he imagines, though not a great President (this rests on the economy not staying collapsed in terms of joblessness, a big if, and of course does enormous harm in the world). On the first dimension - war - he has also just admitted continuing, shamefully, to oppose the international land mine treaty – land mines still murder several thousand children a year – because of Pentagon foolishness about American “security” (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 5, for the story of Bill Clinton’s cowardice on this matter – Obama seems to reach too much to restore Clinton’s harmful policies). Barack has also adopted a number of the twisted anti-legal doctrines of the Bush administration about "state secrets" and so-called military trials for indefinitely detained and tortured prisoners. Even the courage of publically trying 5 Guantanamo prisoners in New York, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed – the administration stands for the rule of law; a decent America has returned - has been rendered evidently hypocritical and foolish by a separate system of military trials for others detained and tortured. Here, Obama has missed possibilities of change which the majority of the American people as well as economic necessity (Representative David Obey of Wisconsin is now challenging escalating the war given the economic facts) would favor.
On the second dimension - reforms - the medical insurance companies have hollowed out the health care bills. If passed, the reform would be an improvement (for instance, eliminating lack of coverage for preexisting conditions), but not nearly the one that seemed possible a few months ago. Obama has also bailed out the big banks, with their monstrous bonuses (scandal here is too weak a word), while doing little for homeowners faced with foreclosure (many of them, blacks whom Obama once served as a community organizer). As President, Obama has changed things for the better and saved us from the very worst (tyranny as well as the likelihood of bombing Natanz and in the short run, initiating a cycle further inflaming and possibly leading to nuclear war in the Middle East). Yet as Wills' article suggests, what Obama is becoming, as President, reflects the mindless competition of two parties, moving ever, short of mass protest from below, to the right. Obama probably will pass a decent health care reform, already has a stimulus for green jobs, will do something international on global warming. Not his hope, Lincoln, he may think, but not the worst…
Perhaps given the influence of imperial thinking among so many (it is hard to believe that the effectiveness of American military power is waning moment by moment, that the choice to leave or stay might not be “ours”), Wills does not mention defeat. But if the US had bombed Natanz as Cheney wanted, Southern Iraq would probably have risen up, the supply lines for American troops would have been cut, and the US would have had to exit Iraq; if economic collapse and major protest from below here couples with further Karzai ineffectuality and corruption, and trouble in Pakistan, the US may have no choice but to withdraw most of its troops in Afghanistan after another year or so of statements about “this war’s necessity.” But Wills hints at a profound point about democracy – that the momentum of two party competition, once again, short of crisis and mass protest, is steadily to the right.
Our regime is dominated by a military-industrial-political-academic (at least think tank “expert”)-media complex. This complex is for war, war and more war (see Must Obama find the right war? here). As Leslie Gelb, former head of the Council on Foreign Relations, has both testified self-critically about Iraq and exemplifies, yet again, just now about Afghanistan, this complex rattles on in the same vein, even though our economy is collapsed, even though millions of people are unemployed. Electoral competition between two major parties, both of which are funded by and seeded with members of this complex, makes an effort to break with the most criminal, murderous, self-destructive and irrational wars beyond the skill even of Obama. Obama probably recognizes, yet will probably acquiesce in the costs, not only in American lives, but in decency and honor as well, of continuing them. It is a dangerous path that he treads. Wall Street recovery does not end the depression for ordinary people. A right-wing commentator has recently suggested that Sarah Palin imitate William Jennings Bryan: I will not be crucified upon the cross of Wall Street. By escalating an indecent occupation, Obama has a very good chance of being a one-term President. I might name the cause of his choice to escalate party competition-motivated. imperial hubris.
For his is not the tragedy of madmen like Cheney and fools like Bush or even of needing to prove “manliness” like Hillary Clinton. Barack is tough, but also bides his time (surveying possibilities and what his opponents do) and is decent. He might be decisive, as Wills suggests, in pulling American troops out. Perhaps what we are seeing starkly are the ideal limits of a decent American Presidency, short of mass revolt. Such revolt is what the country needs. ordinary people are disarmed, to some extent, by Obama’s decency, by the fact that he is the first black President and by the monstrousness of – and peril represented by - the attacks against him.
To see the stark awfulness of Obama’s choice to escalate, to cater to the torturer McChrystals of this world, we should look more deeply at the real situation in the United States. America is broke. In a great public service, David Leonhardt in the Times, echoed by Charles Blow, has identified the figure for unemployment as 17.5% men and women in the workforce, counting those who have given up looking for work and those who have part-time jobs but would gladly take fulltime jobs. That the New York Times underlines this figure has the potential to challenge the dishonest government statistics in which, for example, 4% unemployed, some millions of suffering people, is declared “full employment.” Exceeding Obama’s projections (he imagined with the stimulus, unemployment would hit 8%), the official figure 10.5%. But this is just a gesture at real unemployment which is, as Leonhardt underlines, 2/3 higher.
In addition, a large part of the homeless and jobless are veterans of the Iraq War (some 25% according to figures cited by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. Like Vietnam vets today, they are likely to be the majority of the homeless in American society for the next forty years.
On November 6, 2009, Max Cleland wrote an op-ed on “The Forever War of the Mind” in the Times here. He had lost his limbs in Vietnam and been elected a Senator from Georgia. He was then defeated in 2002 by Saxby Chambliss who said Cleland was “unpatriotic” (leavng aside the military, what are Chambliss’s human credentials?). The 2002 Georgia election was a trial run for computerized voting with no paper records, and showed an odd and sudden shift from polls favoring Cleland by 5 points in the last week to a Chambliss “victory.” Afterwards, Cleland has been revisited in dreams by the horrors of war, he reports; he has fallen again into depression.
These are terrors which do not leave the sufferers (they can be limited, held at bay at times) over a lifetime. That is what soldiering in imperial wars – and very likely even soldiering in self-defense - is about. Nonviolence is a way of saving the world (working to keep it habitable for humans) and each of the soldiers. Cleland also reminds us of the shell-shocked veterans of World War I who were many of the unemployed and homeless in the Depression.
As Cleland does not say (Times op-ed pieces are brief), the greatest moment of heroism and revival for veterans of World War I was the Bonus Army in Washington. The 43,000 protestors who built shacks and demonstrated for weeks, named themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force (17,000 soldiers, their families, and affiliated groups, who protested in Washington, D.C., in the spring and summer of 1932). Walter W. Waters, a former Army sergeant, led it; Marine Major General Smedley Butler supported it. The veterans, many of whom had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression, sought immediate cash payment for Service Certificates granted to them eight years earlier by the Adjusted Service Certificate Law of 1924. Each such certificate, issued to a veteran, had a face value equal to the soldier's promised payment, plus compound interest. The problem was that the certificates (like bonds) would mature twenty years from the original date of issue; thus, the veterans could not redeem their certificates until 1945.
In an episode which should live in infamy, later fabled American generals, Douglas McArthur and George S. Patton, used their troops to suppress the veterans, burning their shacks and beating them. As this example reveals, there has always been a “which side are you on” question about the standing army. The US government has always been leery of the original citizen army suggested by the founders (and other republican theorists over the centuries). After his election, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered members of the Bonus Army work building the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys. In 1935, a great hurricane killed more than two hundred and fifty of these veterans, and evoked public outrage. In 1936 Congress, overriding FDR's veto, enabled veterans to redeem their certificates early.
As the Massachusetts national guard suppressed the 1787 Shays Rebellion (in which poor farmers, mainly veterans of the Revolution, demanded relief from interest payments which threatened their lands), as the police fought against Vietnam Veterans against the War or attacked Iraq Veterans against the War demonstrating outside an Obama-McCain debate (Obama did meet with anti-war vets at the Convention), a standing army – and in Thoreau’s words, a standing government - often turns into the enemy of the soldiers. Revealing the hollowness of wearing little metal flag lapel pins, Bush treated wounded veterans with contempt at Walter Reed. His government could squander billions on Iraq, on Cheney’s Halliburton, Erik Prince and Blackwater, on private companies like CACI to torture, but it could not provide clean hospital rooms - hospital rooms without mold growing on the walls - for the wounded. That the Times printed Cleland’s op-ed is good. But it is the tip of an iceberg about America’s likely future.
As Wills suggests for Cheney/Bush, Johnson and Nixon, Presidents cannot give up on a losing war. Instead, they kick it on to the next occupant of the Oval Office. If a President loses a war, he will be crucified as “soft” on the enemy (almost a woman). That the Soviet Union no longer exists makes no difference to the military-industrial-academic-political-media complex and its patriarchal stupidities. It now has “Islam.” Obama has made significant changes in addressing other countries and peoples with respect and self-restraint. But despite the now widely recognized unilateral madness in the Bush-Cheney years, this complex agitates mechanically, endlessly in Wills’ apt word, for extending even losing wars.
Obama probably recognizes that neither Iraq nor Afgnahistan is sensible (that they are both “dumb wars” in his idiom at an anti-War rally in Chicago some years ago). In the much publicized, much leaked about meetings about escalating the war in Afghanistan, Biden has asked Obama’s questions, I suspect, about whether Pakistan is the real danger (see here). The foolishness and harms of such occupations are demonstrated by the story of an American solider, one other than General Abizaid in Iraq who could speak a local language and puffed himself up as a would be native, He asked a local farmer: “Have you seen any foreign troops around here?” The farmer looked at him. “Yes, you,” he replied.
Every hour of American occupation (and firing off drone missiles to kill civilians in Pakistan from Langley) makes new enemies for Americans. As Obama said in the campaign, sacrificing our values – the Bill of Rights, decency - makes us less secure. Occupying countries and torturing other people – making it clear that the US government is an enemy of the rule of law and human dignity as in the Bush-Cheney administration, but one now extended in important ways by Obama - breeds new enemies at a rapid rate.
Still, Obama represents something different. That America elected a black leader, one as gifted and decent as Obama, testifies to resources in American democracy that no one could have predicted before it happened. But could Obama withdraw from both wars? He has yet to remove even a division from Iraq. though there, the plans for some drawdown are in the works. But as Wills emphasizes, a powerful right will excoriate him, is already unleashing a storm of reaction: the non- or un-American, “other” is "too weak," too shifting, to “man” our military efforts. We need Presidents, it says, who will continue the wars. Perhaps the Republicans can breathe life into General Petraeus to lead their ticket. That might, as Wills suggests, make Obama a one term President. Perhaps that is what Obama’s escalation means to head off. The Republicans are quickly becoming the minority fantasist party of Sarah Palin; it may be that sickly prospect which Obama hopes to defeat by his combination of war and reforms in 2012. His is a weak calculation, not the historic one that Will portends. And if the economy recovers, surely Palin and even Petraeus are as beatable by doing something decent, by reaching for greatness, by standing up and altering self-destructive American imperialism, as by caving in, becoming smaller, “the lesser of two evils.”
Wills rightly celebrates the potential, if unlikely choice of Obama’s, to end two wars. He is the first President, Wills says, one could imagine actually doing the right thing. I might elaborate. There is grave discontent in the American population with unending wars, and the war in Afghanistan. There is fierce anger against Wall Street. Popular anger could give Obama some room to draw down the troops.
But there are two issues here which Wills does not see. Obama is by far the most skillful politician in mainstream politics for many generations. That he would give up being President – make a noble sacrifice – is doubtful. Further, if he had taken in this issue fully, he would never have run for President. What it means to become the American President, even for a decent person, is to murder through war and military aid and the CIA thousands of innocent people. That point is underlined by Kathleen Barry’s moving appeal to Obama’s empathy (see below after Wills' piece; her article has several errors of fact, which I note in brackets, however). She calls for directing it at ordinary people in Afghanistan and Pakistan murdered by American bombs and drones. If an American leader is aggressive about it like Bush or Johnson or Nixon/Kissinger, one can really achieve distinction in the way of mass murder, but there is no escaping doing some. One can try to content oneself – I imagine Obama does – by the good he can do, by the greater evils – and we have seen Cheney and Bush – he heads off. I am grateful to him now – and will be even if he escalates the war in Afghanistan. The apt cries of some radicals against him do not quite take in the seriousness of our situation or what he represents. Still as they see, we do need a mass movement from below to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan.
If Obama does not win a second term, Guantanamos will be back as the emblem of American policy. Obama is already developing the “state secrets” doctrine, establishing executive power (see Jack Balkin’s work on this bipartisan consolidation of a new “legal” regime) and shielding war criminals from any investigation. “We do not torture” is an empty phrase in America as long as we remain in violation of international and domestic law. The torturers like Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and my student Condi Rice and Gonzalez and Yoo remain at large. Other powerful people celebrate them (well, not so much Gonzalez and Yoo at the moment), and pretend that really, they didn’t do anything; really, America is all right. Maintream pundits are at work...If this anti-legality for the American elite is not reversed, the next President can restore Bush-Cheney criminality and go further.
There is, nonetheless, a chance, internationally, and even domestically, for the law to proceed. Over four or eight years, there may be indictments and trials of some of these war criminals. Thre was more than enough evidence before, and Obama, under legal deadlines, released unredacted, the torture memos. There may be enough decent measures taken by Obama – even the weak health care initiative is a vast improvement compared to laissez-faire for the executives of insurance companies, who, by stalling coverage, murder 44,000 people every year according to a recent Harvard study. Even a not vast green jobs initiative, as in the first stimulus, has helped the American economy and the Democrats will probably have to do more (or lose swiftly).
There is still hope that Obama can, vacillatingly, elliptically, a bit like Lincoln, restore the rule of law in America. But one term will not do it. Obama might be good enough to end these wars quickly and get reelected. But greatness is not what he seeks. He may even be reelectable despite escalation, given Republican sectarian self-destructiveness and the possibility that they will nominate a way reactionary, unappetizing (to most of us) candidate. But Wills's column, thoughtful as it is, does not take in the likely continuation in the future of a regime of tyranny, the banishing of habeas corpus (the right of each prisoner to a day in court and not to be tortured, the centerpiece, fought for over centuries, of a system of law as distinct from tyranny). That Obama was elected by a serious movement from below was a miracle. That he alone can or will restore the rule of law has always been doubtful. The complex which would destroy what is good in America (and perhaps destroy the world) is working overtime. To cater to it is currently, in many respects, the “pragmatic” course. Thus, every effort that anti-war, pro-jobs and rule of law people make to open a path of decency for Obama – perhaps to force Obama to adhere to his better instincts, to be Obama - is effort well spent.
Published on Monday, November 23, 2009 by The New York Review of Books
A One-Term President? Why Not, If He Ended an Endless War
by Gary Wills
I am told by people I respect that Barack Obama cannot pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming a one-term president. I think that may be true. The charges from various quarters would be toxic-that he was weak, unpatriotic, sacrificing the sacrifices that have been made, betraying our dead, throwing away all former investments in lives and treasure. All that would indeed be brought against him, and he could have little defense in the quarters where such charges would originate.
These are the arguments that have kept us in losing efforts before. They are the ones that made presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon pass on to their successors in the presidency the draining and self-lacerating Vietnam War. They are the arguments that made President George W. Bush pass on two wars to his successor.
One of the strongest arguments for continued firing up of these wars is that none of these presidents wanted to serve only one term (even Lyndon Johnson, who chose not to run for a second full term). But what justification is there for buying a second presidential term with the lives of hundreds or thousands of young American men and women in the military?
I have great hopes for the Obama presidency, even in his first term, and especially if he could have two terms to realize the exciting new things he aspires to do in the White House. But I would rather see him a one-term president than have him pass on another unwinnable war to the person who will follow him in office.
I know how difficult it will be to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. We go into these places, now, trailing baggage of a deadly sort. There are more hired American contractors in both nations than there are military personnel. What to do with these unaccountable and corrupt bands? We have farmed out so many of our national duties that the contractors, like our banks, have grown too big to be dealt with. Who is to guard our soldiers if not our mercenary bodyguards?
But we had a thousand soldiers wounded in the last three months-a quarter the number of wounded since 2001. These include many lives shattered forever. We sink deeper into blood, with no foreseeable end in sight. Qualified reporters and military officials foresee another ten years in Afghanistan-and their projections usually err on the short side.
The American people now oppose the war, and it is folly to keep up a war without support back home. We will hear predictions of dire consequences if we don't carry out a commitment, and don't yield to demands of the military to expand forces. We heard that for years about Vietnam. But when we did withdraw, the consequences were not as fatal as those we incurred during the years that saw the deaths of over 50,000 of our soldiers and many more Vietnamese. Some leader has to break the spell before costs mount further while our wars are passed from president to president. Among other things, this will give our military a needed chance to repair the wear and tear on men and equipment that the overstretched regular services and the National Guard have suffered, and to make them ready for other challenges.
It is unlikely that we will soon have another president with the moral and rhetorical force to talk us out of a foolish commitment that cannot be sustained without shame and defeat. If it costs him his presidency, what other achievement can match it?
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he would rather be a one-term president than give up on his goals. Here is a goal no other president we can imagine would have a possibility of reaching. Presidents who just kick the can down the road are easy to come by. Lost lives and limbs are not.
© 2009 The New York Review of Books
Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern. His most recent book, What Jesus Meant, was published in 2006.
November 25 CommonDreams.org
Obama's Afghanistan Decision
by Kathleen Barry
Dear President Obama,
Thank you for being an empathetic model of manhood and further, for bringing that quality into the American Presidency. But how do you explain those dead Afghani and Pakistani daughters, mothers, sons and fathers, killed by US forces since you took office, to your own daughters who you want to develop the kind of empathy you have. You are teaching them how to understand the suffering of others. In Ghana you took them to the slave port and said that you wanted them to "engage in the imaginative act of what it would be like if they were snatched away from Mom and Dad and sent to some place they had never seen before." You want them to identify with the suffering of others, "And get them to - to make sure that they are constantly asking themselves questions about whether they are treating people fairly and - and whether they are examining their own behavior and how it affects others."
You have shown how empathy does not conflict with strength, how it enhances rather than diminishes leadership. In this country, you have faced down the health insurance industry from the memory of how your mother suffered at their hands. At the same time, you bring your empathy together with the power of your leadership when a woman at one of your health care forums tells you through her tears of how her insurance company is denying her life-saving treatment. We saw you go to her as you asked her to come forward to you, and watched you embrace her telling her that she was not alone.
As you are making your decision on the fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan, I ask you, are the people there any less deserving of your empathy? When you took office you escalated the U.S. war in Afghanistan and allowed it to expand in Pakistan. By the end of June, over a 1,000 Afghani civilians were killed, 261 alone in the month of May. In other words, more than one-third of the number of people killed in the Al Qaeda attack on the US in 9-11-2001 are dead since January of this year in order to keep America safe, even though they had nothing to do with fighting then or when they died. And with the increase our bombings have caused in recruits to the Taliban, America is not more safe.
While you were telling Americans that you wake up every morning and go to sleep every night thinking of how to keep America safe, you were denying that safety to the families of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. President, you know that the empathy that you so highly value cannot be selective. When you engage it for some, say Americans, and refuse it to others, like Afghanis and Pakistanis, you are telling the world that only Americans lives are of value and that everyone else's lives can be put at risk to protect American lives.
Still you have not lost your empathy or respect for the lives of people in countries the US bombs and attacks. On May 9, in a rare gesture of an American President, you apologized to President Karzai when he met with you in Washington a few days after the US military killed an estimated 140 Afghanis in Farah, 94 of them girls under the age of 18 who had gathered in a compound to take shelter from the fighting. Some villagers said the strikes hit an area which the Taliban had already left and where there was no fighting. You apologized but you did not stop the bombing. In fact, drone strikes on Pakistani villages three days later in South Waziristan killed 8 people. Four days after that, US forces killed 25 civilians in a village in North Waziristan. None were Taliban, none were Al Qaeda. And the drone attacks continue, weekly, daily sometimes.
How will your decision on troop levels and military plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan reflect what you are teaching your daughters about the value of human life? Will you show them the petitions from the women of Afghanistan brought to you by Medea Benjamin from Code Pink? Will you explain to them that Afghan women have asked that you disarm the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Northern Alliance, none of whom have the support of the people?
In your April speech in Islamabad you said that you "have no sympathy and no patience for people who go around blowing up innocent people." If you engage the same kind of empathy you are teaching your daughters with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, you will see that in their daily experiences of US bombings and drone attacks they see the US attacks in the same light that you see the terrorists who attacked the US.
Against a US force of 68,000 troops in Afghanistan before you make your announcement in a few days, Senator John Kerry, when he returned from Iraq last month, told us that there were not more than a thousand hard-core Taliban [sic: Al-Qaida] in Afghanistan. Women in Afghanistan estimate that there are not more than 100. The rest are boys and men who cannot find work, who are angry over the US bombing and occupation of their country, who are driven to fight back against the US military who killed their parents or their children.
How difficult would it be to announce a plan to disarm those "reconcilables" as General Petraeus calls them? To disarm not rearm! Rather than negotiating with the Taliban to sell out women's rights as Hamid Karzai has done, why not pay those fighters who are not hardcore terrorists to go home and restock their shops or rebuild their farms. Then withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan allowing them to protect their people and their country from the small number of hardcore terrorists remaining?
You have expressed your pain and sorrow in phone calls to families of American soldiers who have lost a son or daughter, a husband or wife. But what about the soldiers still there in combat? If you are truly pained by the loss of American soldiers in this war, bring those who are still there in combat home and give them the support to put their lives back together.
Mr. President, it is frightening to look at your advisors and see mostly hawks who are proponents of unending war. From your Vice President [sic – Biden is for moving out of Afghanistan, though for continuing use of CIA drones in Pakistan] to your Secretary of State and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you have surrounded yourself with people who dismiss the cost of human life in war in favor of war. They have left us with the blood of over a million Iraqis on our hands [sic – that is Bush-Cheney; Obama is deescalating in Iraq]. We do not expect empathy from your Generals whom came to their prestigious ranks through the military whose job it is to kill and destroy. They coldly speak of killing civilians as "collateral damage" as if it is not killing, as if human life outside of the United States is as significant as paper clips.
You have shown us that we can expect empathy from you, except in war. Will you close that gap? If you have not turned over the Executive Authority of this country to the Generals as your predecessor had, as it appears that you did when you took office in January, we will expect your decision on troops in Afghanistan to be reflected in your empathy for Afghanis and Pakistani as well as for American soldiers.
We are awaiting your decision on troop levels for Afghanistan. More precisely, we are waiting to see if you or the Generals are running this country as they have been since 2001.
In closing, Mr. President, before announcing your decision, please think hard and long from that place of empathy within you of what it would feel like to receive that call telling you the fate of one of your daughters, the kind of call that far too many Afghanis have received about their boys and girls who are with them no longer.
Kathleen Barry, Ph.D.Kathleen Barry is Professor Emerita of Penn State University, a feminist and sociologist and the author of Unmaking War, Remaking Men forthcoming Spring, 2010.