"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."


April 16, 2009

"Don't pay any attention to what the little shits on the campuses do," President Lyndon Baines Johnson told Under Secretary of State George Ball in 1965.  "The great beast is the reactionary elements in this country."

These words appear halfway through At Canaan's Edge, the third and final volume of Taylor Branch's massive history of the King Years.  The first volume has often been cited as one of Barack Obama's favorite books (New York Times, January 18, 2009).  We don't know whether Obama went on to read the third volume, published in 2006 as he began to organize his presidential campaign.  But the approach he's taking to foreign policy and national security policy suggests he did.  In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Barack Obama has devised a policy rationale that appeases the country's reactionary elements.

On March 27, 2009, President Obama presented a "white paper" that laid out a "comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan."  The U.S. is said to be pursuing a "vital national security interest."  "In Pakistan, al Qaeda and other groups of jihadist terrorists are planning new terror attacks" against "the U.S. homeland," and in Afghanistan, the Taliban "seeks to reestablish their old sanctuaries."  "Therefore," the paper declares, "the core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan."  If the plan fails, we are told, then a "vital national security interest" will be compromised.  The problem of resistance is attributed to a failure to communicate the U.S.'s good intentions, and a "strategic communications program" and an expensive jobs program in both countries are parts of the "new strategy."

But just such an implausible argument was offered for deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s.  In fact, national security interests in Southeast Asia were few, as the aftermath of American defeat demonstrated.  What the president is really committing the U.S. to, as its own military briefings assert, is a war against an ethnic resistance movement of the Pashtun people.  A four-page list of several dozen of the program's "needs" fails to identify a single group, region, or sector of Afghanistan or Pakistan that sympathizes with or that will promote American interests in the region.

Opinion is as hostile to the U.S. in Pakistan as it was in Vietnam.  A 2007 poll of 907 "Pakistani urban adults" by the U.S. Institute of Peace found that more than any other threat to Pakistan, the U.S. military presence in Asia was regarded with alarm, with 72% viewing this as a "critical threat."  Only 6% considered the U.S. military presence "not important" as a threat to Pakistan.  Only 34% viewed Islamist militants in the tribal areas as a "critical threat."

Like "Communism" in the 1960s, "Islamism" is a political form taken by nationalist or ethnic resistance to American-led Western imperialism.  The American "Afpak" project is as foredoomed to failure as was the American project in Vietnam.  What's more, the belief that the U.S. (in league with India and Israel) is plotting to disarm and even destroy Pakistan is widespread among Pakistani élites.

So why are we in Afghanistan?  "[N]ever reading the words 'Afghanistan' and 'oil' in the same sentence is still a source of endless amusement for me," wrote Pepe Escobar in Asia Times Online on the day before President Obama's new strategy was promulgated.  Having followed what he calls the New Great Game in Central Asia for almost two decades, the 54-year-old Brazilian journalist is not one to be deceived by President Obama's adoption of 9/11 rhetoric to justify U.S. escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  What Escobar sees is a "high-stakes, hardcore geopolitical game that follows what flows along the pipelines of the planet."

This game, which continues because the American people permit it to continue, seems likely to go on for the rest of our lives, the rest of our children's lives, and the rest of our children's children's lives, unto the third and to the fourth generation.  But to assuage American sensibilities, it is being sold to the public as a "campaign against extremists who wish to do us harm," as the Pentagon press secretary put it recently.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is ramping up drone attacks.  John McCreary, a senior intelligence analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency until his retirement in 2006, said this week that President Obama's war in Pakistan is "escalating and having ripple effects that are incalculable."  Among other things, he said, "the attacks 'ensure that successive generations of Pakistani military officers will be viscerally anti-American.'"

Frankly, we suspect the president's heart isn't really in his new policy.  In Barack Obama's voice we seem to hear echoes of what Thomas Merton called "the Unspeakable."  The Unspeakable—by which Merton meant "the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss" (cited by James W. Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008], p. xvii).

Has Barack Obama ever really aspired to combat the institutions of the corporate national security state that for half a century and more have been strangling the Republic?  Would his campaign have succeeded if he had?  National security institutions continue to grow and proliferate, maintaining their death grip on the levers of American power.  Groups and individuals challenge them, and the truth is that more than half the population sympathizes with those challenges.  Yet those groups and individuals are systematically marginalized in politics and in the media.

Barack Obama knows all this.  Perhaps, given John F. Kennedy's experience, he has concluded that he would not survive combat with the national security state.  Meanwhile, most of us Americans live in a condition Jim Douglass calls "citizen deceit," pretending for our own peace of mind that we have little to do with such unpleasant facts as the news that "about 500 civilians" have been killed in Pakistan in the last several months by drone attacks (New York Times, April 15, 2009).  If we take cognizance of them at all, we console ourselves with the thought that "many of those killed" were probably bad guys anyway, who, we read in the Times, "cannot be deemed entirely innocent."




"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."