I will not cast my vote for the President during the primary in June (assuming I can work out how to vote from abroad), nor in November’s general election.
The reasons, I suspect, are generational, although in my view they should be good enough for anyone. For many people my age, I suspect that 9/11 was the first really big event that appeared on our horizons. Many people discuss it as a traumatic moment, and I suspect that most of us will remember where we were when we heard the news. I was in the car, being driven by my mother to the bus stop. There being no television at home, our first indication that something serious had occurred came over the radio, and whether it was the confusion on the part of the announcer or the sporadic nature of the news we were getting, the scale of the event still wasn’t clear.
I vividly recall sitting beside a glowering student who boarded the bus in Millville, and hearing him say, “We’re going to nuke the Palestinians. We’re going to turn that place into a parking lot!” He might just as well have been the President, the Cabinet, the Congress and the Joint Chiefs, because he embodied the mentality that prevailed in the months thereafter (although they changed their minds about the target).
And yet, for all its significance, 9/11 was something you couldn’t (and by and large still can’t) discuss intelligently, critically, or thoughtfully in public without censure. For that reason, as large as it looms, I don’t think that it can function as an event that helps us to think about our trajectory as a nation, or as any kind of a model for evaluating our politics or our society.
And so it became that another event, the movements towards which began a year later, is the one which has had the greatest impact on me. The invasion of Iraq, the mangling of the truth which preceded it, and the butchery and destruction which followed, was an affront to decency, honesty, and humanity. It brought out the worst in our politics, whether that be the lying machinations of the neoconservatives in the administration’s cabinet, the offensive accusations slung by Republicans (whether in Congress or in the classroom) against the character of anyone who opposed the march to war, the credulity of leading Democrats who let themselves be pushed into supporting the ruinous farce lest their patriotism be questioned, or the disgusting grovelling of the media, who showed the whole world that they had not a complete set of vertebrae between them.
The conduct of the war became a symbol of corruption, as contracts were handed out. It became a symbol of hubris as we despatched our viceroy to the ruined country to manage reconstruction. And it became a symbol of what it means to wage war, as tens and then hundreds of U.S. soldiers began dying. And Iraqis died in their tens of thousands, for those who cared to notice.
Some sought consolation against the hard facts of war in the idea that our soldiers were doing good work. After all, we had been told that we were going to liberate Iraqis from the iron rule of Saddam Hussein.
And to liberate them, we waged a campaign to Shock and Awe, about which our generals boasted. The repulsive Donald Rumsfeld strutted across the cameras telling us that he had changed warfare.
We destroyed whole neighbourhoods of Baghdad. We apparently found ourselves short of enemies because we bombed Western journalists as well, some have suggested deliberately.
We killed tens of thousands of civilians. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the administration eschewed body counts.
We destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, and gutted its institutions. There were contractors, after all, who wanted to make money from ‘reconstruction’.
And we turned loose trigger-happy defence contractors, accountable to no real law, on Iraqis. Not since the East India Company raped the South Asian subcontinent, or King Leopold perpetrated mass murder and brutality en masse had private militaries been given such leeway. But far from being aberrations, these things, these actions were the essence, the bread and butter—the blood and guts, more appropriately—of neoconservative philosophy, the proponents of which do bear a remarkable resemblance to the men who set up a private kingdom in the Congo during the nineteenth century—not for any high political purpose, for any imperial ideology, but simply for the accumulation of power and wealth.
These are not the actions of liberators. The sacking of cities, the razing of public works, the murdering of civilians; these are the actions of conquering powers throughout all the ages.
And of course Iraqis began to fight back, some of them because they had lost personal power with the fall of Saddam, but most because resisting an imperial power that ransacks your nation and kills your people is what any sensible person anywhere would do. They hadn’t, after all, asked us to come. The only people who’d done the asking were a pack of corrupt expatriates in Europe and the U.S. who had nothing to lose if their erstwhile country was obliterated by American bombs. They could return and strut through the wreckage and re-establish their political and economic power.
Now this might seem a long way from the question of President Obama’s re-election bid. But cast your mind back. It’s probably difficult to recall given what’s transpired since, but Barack Obama was catapulted to national prominence by a fierce and determined speech he made against this “dumb war” waged by the Bush Administration. It is true that once he became a Presidential candidate he declared that he would pursue the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks in the determined way that the Bush Administration had not. But he also promised to review the war in Afghanistan, to roll back the egregious aggrandisement of executive power propounded by Bush and Cheney, and to recast the role of the United States in the world in light of the bloody debacle in Iraq.
And in 2008 Obama was leading a Democratic Party that seemed to recover the voice and purpose that had faltered so badly between 2001 and 2005. So long as its presumed standard-bearers were John Kerry until 2004 and Hillary Clinton thereafter, it would prove incapable of developing a critique of the disastrous mentality that had trapped us in Iraq. The Senate was similarly affected by a kind of moral lockjaw, and it was largely left to Democrats in the House, led by Nancy Pelosi—a far greater progressive than Obama, either of the Clintons, or California’s other prominent Democrat, Dianne Feinstein—to remind us what a terrible mistake Iraq had been. If I always remember where I was on 9/11, the same will be true for the election in 2006, when voters, weary of the war and of the lies and distortions and chest-thumping that accompanied it, repudiated the neoconservatives and all that they stood for.
But 2008 was not 2006, and as Obama set his review of the war in Afghanistan in motion, his game became clear. He was not interested in evaluating whether reinvigorating the war in Afghanistan was good policy, or would accomplish anything for that country or our own in human terms. His primary motivation was to transform foreign policy, in a purely party political sense, into an area of electoral security for him in 2012. And he appeared determined to do so by proving that he could be tougher on terrorists, more callous about the rights of Americans, and less affected by the most elementary instruction of those two savants, Cause and Effect, than even George W Bush.
And so, sometimes pushed and sometimes given cover by other interests, the President launched the Surge in Afghanistan. Who were the people who aided him in this push deeper into war, which included the expansion of our militarism into Pakistan? There were the Congressional Republicans, their mental carapace unscathed by the results of their last military adventure. There was the wing of the Democratic Party which increasingly resembles a neoconservative talking shop (led, I am sorry to say, by California’s own Dianne Feinstein—another Democrat who will not be getting my vote in 2012—and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has performed one of nature’s more spectacular metamorphoses by transforming herself from an ardent progressive in the ‘90s to a blood-stained neocon in the noughts). We mustn’t, of course, forget the generals who appear to think themselves minor deities descended to earth, unbound by constitutional niceties. And then there was the unusual assist by the truly inexplicable granting of a Nobel Peace Prize, during the acceptance of which the President made an impassioned defence of war.
Under George W Bush there was an idealistic and strategic rationale for the war in Afghanistan. It was still a war we should never have fought. The idealism was warped and tainted by its association with what I could almost call the evil of the neoconservatives. And the rationale would not stand up before serious scrutiny (fortunately for Bush and his cronies, the 9/11 attacks killed off critical though as surely as it did those who perished in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon). It was another dumb war, but one which might be justifiable by the events which preceded it (so long, of course, as you closed your eyes to the events that preceded those).
Under Obama, I believe that our decade-old war in Afghanistan has been shorn of even the pretence of idealism or policy ambition. It is purely an exercise in sacrificing the lives of U.S. and NATO troops, and Afghans and Pakistanis of all backgrounds, so that the President doesn’t look “weak” on foreign policy.
I can conceive of no other explanation. Because no person in the possession of even a minority of his or her senses could continue to believe that a war of occupation will lead to enhanced security for the United States. Not when, time and time again, the U.S. military has proven to be the best recruiting sergeant our enemies could ever ask for. Not when U.S. soldiers are pushed to the point where they repeatedly commit atrocities of the worst kind against the people they are ostensibly liberating. Nor can we pretend that we are doing good for Afghans. Obama killed that illusion during his speech announcing the Surge, noting that this was a war about security and nothing more.
And so I will not vote for this President who has betrayed the trust placed in him and who, on perhaps the issue that has most defined the political lives of people of my generation, has steadfastly refused to learn any lessons or to countenance anything like a moral approach to the conduct of our foreign policy.
Some might regard it as self-indulgent to decide how to cast one’s vote based on a single issue. But for many people of my generation, the war in Iraq defined what was wrong with our politics: the refusal to reconsider the militarism of U.S. policy; the ability to manipulate the media; the lying, insinuating attacks on all critics; and the death and destruction which ensued. I have to laugh when I recall how Republicans sought to portray Obama as a naive community organiser, or some kind of idealist from a left-wing tradition. When I look at the President, I see a rather cold-hearted, calculating man, who is willing to see people killed to win himself political capital, just as he is willing to bargain with financiers and polluters whatever the costs to citizens. I simply cannot believe that the President, who is undoubtedly a very intelligent man, genuinely believes that his conduct of the war will make us safer. Defenders of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often remind us that the President and his advisors are privy to intelligence that the rest of us don’t see, and that perhaps he has good reasons for continuing the bloodshed in South Asia.
But I’ll tell you something in return, something that anyone who can read a newspaper or watch a television report should know. We can turn the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates red, and the snows of the Khyber Pass scarlet with the blood of Al Qaeda or any other foe we care to fantasise about. But so long as we behave like a hubristic, militaristic, imperial power, we will continue to earn the fear and loathing, in equal measure, of people around the world, and we will find neither comfort in our role nor long-term safety for our country.
As an idiot from Texas once tried to say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...”