Obama’s big gamble appears to be paying off. It has become conventional wisdom that when it comes to foreign policy, the Republican nominee is going to have a hard time laying a glove on the President, who ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden, escalated the war in Afghanistan while extending it into Pakistan, helped to end Qaddafi’s regime in Libya whilst placating the autocrats who are our allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and has been bombing Somalia while extending the war on terror to Africa.
Very different, in other words, from John Kerry, who was ferociously smeared by neocons and Karl Rove’s hit-men for his position on the war in Iraq, or Al Gore, whose internationalism was called into question by the non-interventionist version of George W Bush (remember that one? Didn’t last long...). So, commentators seem to be suggesting, this role reversal should cheer Democrats up as we head towards the 2012 election.
But the murder of 16 Afghan civilians last Sunday by a U.S. soldier is a forcible reminder of what Obama’s gamble was. Having been catapulted to national prominence by a speech in opposition to the war in Iraq, Obama could not, in 2007 and 2008, very well have made a U-turn on that war. But Afghanistan was another question altogether, and he embraced the war with a cynical calculation, intent on making it his own to wrong-foot the Republicans and demonstrate his ‘strength’ on national security.
And it has worked, politically at least. The LA Times quotes Obama at a meeting with donors: “When it comes to foreign policy, I’m actually finding it very interesting. The other side, traditionally, seems to feel that Democrats are somehow weak on defense, and they’ve had a little trouble making that argument this year”.
We really should offer President Obama congratulations. At the cost of 1,281 American lives in Afghanistan since he became President (more than were killed in the preceding eight years, 67% of the total U.S. deaths in Afghanistan), and those of thousands of Afghans, he’s made his point.
Perhaps not since LBJ decided to close his eyes and take the plunge into Vietnam lest he be attacked for departing from the Sainted John F Kennedy’s policy has a President made such a chillingly immoral foreign policy calculation based on electoral arithmetic alone (if Christopher Hitchens was correct and Bill Clinton bombed a pharmacy in Sudan to grab headlines during the Lewinsky trial, he’d come close for audacity if not destructiveness). Other decisions (the Contra Scandal, the invasion of Iraq, the spectacular blunders over the Israel-Palestine conflict) have been motivated by ideology or profiteering, but not electioneering. Obama might be coming in for more criticism if his policy aims did not coincide with those of the neocons and if the public wasn’t so tuned out about our war in South Asia. Sadly, we can’t even say that our country is more secure as a by-product of the President’s gamble. So long as we continue to make enemies abroad through our militaristic policy devoid of any real moral purpose, we won’t really have moved beyond where we were on September 12, 2001. Or September 10, for that matter.
The U.S. soldier who broke into people’s houses at night and shot them in cold blood before setting fire to their bodies reportedly had a “breakdown” prior to his killing spree. If it transpires that this “breakdown” was related to his experience of our absurd war in Afghanistan, he will, in his own way, be remembered as another casualty of our hubristic policy and our President’s political opportunism, just as will the thousands of veterans who return home but are never quite able to leave their experiences of war in South Asia behind.
The responses from the U.S. administration were typical. The BBC reported that Obama declared the killing to be “tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan”. The U.S. Ambassador in that country explained that “this deeply appalling incident in no way represents the values of ISAF and coalition troops or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people”.
Of course...no one is accusing the U.S. of having a policy of deliberately ordering the murder of Afghan civilians. But these are the kinds of horrific events that inevitably occur during wars, and which are likely to occur all the more often when that war is one of occupation. This kind of pointless violence is what Obama signed us up for when he decided to take a gamble on this war in aid of his electoral prospects.
Congratulations, Mr President, it’s working just fine.
As an idiot from Texas once tried to say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...”