The commendably missing element from Obama's speech

There was no pretense that human rights is our goal, or the likely outcome, in escalating the war

By Glenn Greenwald
December 2, 2009 4:03PM (UTC)
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(updated below - Update II)

Comparing video clips of George Bush's 2002 West Point speech on Afghanistan with the one Barack Obama delivered last night, Rachel Maddow argues that Obama has now embraced the fundamentals of the dreaded "Bush Doctrine":  namely, we will fight wars even in countries that are not posing any threat to us in order to prevent some future threat that may (or may not) emerge.  Rachel makes a persuasive albeit not conclusive case:  like most Obama decisions, last night he incorporated enough of every side and paid homage to conflicting principles such that it's impossible to identify what he really believes ("civilian trials are a fundamental American value and now we'll deny them to many detainees" is quite similar to: "Afghanistan is in our absolute vital interest and we'll start leaving in 18 months").  He's convinced his admirers that this is a form of noble "pragmatism" but, far more often, it appears to be a mishmash of political calculations bereft of principle and plagued by numerous internal contradictions that make it impossible to understand, let alone defend.  Everyone gets to read into it whatever they want to see.


While Obama's speech last night largely comported to what his aides spent days anonymously previewing, there was one (pleasantly) unexpected aspect:  he commendably dispensed with the propagandistic pretext that we are fighting in Afghanistan in order to deliver freedom and democracy to that country and to improve the plight of Afghan women.  Many Democrats (the self-proclaimed "liberal hawks") love to support American wars on the self-righteous ground that we're going to drop enough Freedom Bombs to liberate millions and invade other countries in order to re-make other peoples' cultures for their own good.  In order to maximize support for his escalation, Obama -- like Bush so often did -- could easily have relied on that appeal to our national narcissism and exploited justifiable disgust for the Taliban in order to manipulate "liberal hawks" into supporting this war on human rights grounds.  During the build-up to the speech, it was predicted by several influential Obama advisers that he would do exactly that.  Indeed, when announcing his prior Afghanistan escalation in March, Obama played up the humanitarian rationale for this war.

But there was almost none of that in last night's speech.  As Ben Smith correctly notes, Obama did not even mention -- let alone hype -- the issue of women's rights in Afghanistan.  There were no grandiose claims that the justness of the war derives from our desire to defeat evil, tyrannical extremists and replace them with more humane and democratic leaders.  To the contrary, he was commendably blunt that our true goal is not to improve the lives of Afghan citizens but rather:  "Our overarching goal remains the same:  to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda."  There were no promises to guarantee freedom and human rights to the Afghan people.  To the contrary, he explicitly rejected a mission of broad nation-building "because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost and what we need to achieve to secure our interests"; he said he "refuse[d] to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests"; and even vowed to incorporate the convertible factions of the Taliban into the government. 

Not only did he refrain from those manipulative appeals, he made explicitly clear that we are in Afghanistan to serve our own interests (as he perceives them), not to build a better nation for Afghans.  Nation-building, he said, goes "beyond ... what we need to achieve to secure our interests" and "go beyond our responsibility."  We're there to serve our interests and do nothing else.  That should throw cold water on all on the preening fantasies of all but the blindest and most naive "liberal war supporters" that we're there to help the Afghan people. 


Independent of motive, it is also quite unlikely that helping Afghans will be the unintended result of our ongoing war there.  Just as was true in Iraq -- where we bribed and befriended religious extremists and others we spent years demonizing as "Terrorists," and now protect a government that is extremely oppressive to women, Christians and gays, and brutally violative of human rights in general -- we will do whatever benefits us and serves our interests in Afghanistan, even if that means empowering brutal, oppressive and misogynistic fanatics as long as they are willing to carry out our geopolitical directives.  Many of the warlords and other local religious extremists on whom we're already relying and will now use even more are hardly distinguishable from the Taliban on human rights issues.  We're not there on a charity mission but are there to advance what we think are our interests.  That's why some of the most oppressive governments in the Middle East will continue to be our most stalwart allies. 

I've written many times before why, on security grounds alone, I oppose escalation and even ongoing occupation.  The greatest cause of Terrorism is our endless wars, invasions, bombings, occupations and other means of interfering in the Muslim world, and our escalation will only fuel the anti-American hatred and resentment that -- as even our own Government has recognized -- is the primary fuel of the threat we're supposedly trying to arrest.  For that reason, Obama's escalation is, in my view, more likely to subvert rather than promote the security goals he cites to justify it.

But if Obama's approach -- reflective of the Republican "realists" to whom he seems to listen most -- slays the pervasive, preening "liberal hawk" fantasy that we invade and bomb other countries in order to help them, that will at least be an important value.  With some extremely rare historical exceptions, governments start and wage wars in order to benefit themselves, not to "help" the people in the countries which are being invaded and bombed.  We've proven so many times as to place it beyond dispute that we're more than willing to support and empower foreign leaders who do our bidding regardless of how they treat their own citizens.  That didn't change when we had a swaggering, cowboy-hat-wearing, evangelical moralizer in the Oval Office, and it's not going to change just because he's been replaced by a charming, nice, eloquent, East-Coast-educated Democrat. 


The claim that we must stay in Afghanistan in order to reduce genuine threats to our security is at least cogent, though ultimately very unpersuasive.  But the claim that we're fulfilling some sort of moral responsibility to the plight of Afghans by continuing to occupy, bomb and wage war in their country -- and by imprisoning them en masse with no charges -- is sheer self-glorifying fantasy.  Some credit is due Obama for refusing to promote that fantasy last night when doing so might have helped his case.  Now that the "Commander-in-Chief" who is prosecuting the war has largely dispensed with this fictitious rationale, will other war supporters do so as well?



UPDATE:  Dan Froomkin astutely documents that Obama -- back in January, 2007 -- aggressively criticized Bush officials for failing to address numerous questions about the Iraq Surge Plan which Obama himself has now studiously failed to address.


UPDATE II:  The American Prospect's Adam Serwer makes a vital point about a glaring inconsistency/untruth in Obama's speech, and one could add many examples to his list.

Glenn Greenwald

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