Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Breathless in Washington
By Tom Engelhardt
On the day that Americans turned out in near record numbers to vote, another
record was being set halfway around the world. In Afghanistan, a US Air Force
strike wiped out about 40 people in a wedding party. This represented at least
the sixth wedding party eradicated by American air power in Afghanistan and
Iraq since December 2001.
American planes have, in fact, taken out two brides in the past seven months.
And don't try to bury your dead or mark their deaths ceremonially either,
because funerals have been hit as well. Mind you, the planes, which have
conducted 31% more air strikes in Afghanistan in support of US troops this
year, and the missile-armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) now making
almost daily strikes across the border in Pakistan, remain part of George W
Bush's air force, but only until January 21, 2009. Then, they - and all the
brides and grooms of Afghanistan and in the Pakistani borderlands who care to
have something more than the smallest of private weddings - officially become
the property of president Barack Obama.
That's a sobering thought. He is, in fact, inheriting from the Bush
administration a widening war in the region, as well as an exceedingly tenuous
situation in devastated, still thoroughly factionalized, sectarian and
increasingly Iranian-influenced Iraq. There, the US is, in actuality,
increasingly friendless and less powerful than ever. The last allies from the
infamous "coalition of the willing" are now rushing for the door. The South
Koreans, Hungarians and Bulgarians - I'll bet you didn't even know the latter
two had a few troops left in Iraq - are going home this year; the rump British
force in the south will probably be out by next summer.
The Iraqis are beginning to truly go their own way (or, more accurately, ways);
and yet, in January, when Obama enters office, there will still be more
American troops in Iraq than there were in April 2003 when Baghdad fell.
Winning an election with an anti-war label, Obama has promised - kinda - to end
the American war there and bring the troops - sorta, mostly - home. But even
after his planned 16-month withdrawal of US "combat brigades", which may not be
welcomed by his commanders in the field, including former Iraq commander, now
Central Command head General David Petraeus, there are still plenty of
combative non-combat forces, which will be labeled "residual" and left behind
to fight "al-Qaeda".
Then, there are all those "advisors" still there to train Iraqi forces, the
guards for the giant bases the Bush administration built in the country, the
many thousands of armed private security contractors from companies like
Blackwater, and of course, the 1,000 "diplomats" who are to staff the newly
opened US Embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone, possibly the largest embassy on the
And while the new president turns to domestic matters, it's quite possible that
significant parts of his foreign policy could be left to the oversight of
future vice president Joe Biden who, in case anyone has forgotten, proposed a
plan for Iraq back in 2007 so filled with imperial hubris that it still
startles. In a Caesarian moment, he recommended that the US - not Iraqis -
functionally divide the country into three parts. Although he preferred to call
it a "federal system", it was, for all intents and purposes, a de facto
If Iraq remains a sorry tale of American destruction and dysfunction without,
as yet, a discernable end in sight, Afghanistan may prove Iraq squared. And
there, candidate Obama expressed no desire to wind the war down and withdraw
American troops. Quite the opposite, during the election campaign he plunked
hard for escalation, something the US's North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) allies are sure not to be too enthusiastic about. According to the Obama
plan, many more American troops (if available, itself an open question) are to
be poured into the country in what would essentially be a massive "surge"
strategy by yet another occupant of the Oval Office. Assumedly, the new Afghan
policy would be aided and abetted by those Central Intelligence Agency-run UAVs
directed toward Pakistan to hunt down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and pals,
while undoubtedly further destabilizing a shaky ally.
When it comes to rising civilian casualties from US air strikes in their
countries, both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali
Zardari have already used their congratulatory phone calls to president-elect
Obama to plead for an end to the attacks, which produce both a profusion of
dead bodies and a profusion of live, vengeful enemies. Both have done the same
with the Bush administration, Karzai to the point of tears.
The US military argues that the use of air power is necessary in the face of a
spreading, ever-more dangerous Taliban insurgency largely because there are too
few boots on the ground. "If we got more boots on the ground, we would not have
to rely as much on airstrikes", was the way army Brigadier General Michael
Tucker, deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, put it. But rest
assured, as the boots multiply on increasingly hostile ground, the military
will discover it needs more, not less, air power to back more troops in more
So, after January 20, expect Obama to take possession of Bush's disastrous
Afghan war; and unless he is far more skilled than Alexander the Great, British
empire builders and the Russians, his war, too, will continue to rage without
ever becoming a raging success.
Finally, president-elect Obama accepted the overall framework of a global "war
on terror" during his presidential campaign. This "war" lies at the heart of
the Bush administration's fantasy world of war that has set all-too-real
expanses of the planet aflame. Its dangers were further highlighted this week
by the New York Times, which revealed that secret orders in the spring of 2004
gave the US military "new authority to attack the [al-]Qaeda terrorist network
anywhere in the world, and a more sweeping mandate to conduct operations in
countries not at war with the United States".
At least 12 such attacks have been carried out since then by special operations
forces on Pakistan, Somalia, most recently Syria, and other unnamed countries.
Signed off by former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush, and built on
recently by current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, these secret orders
enshrine the Pentagon's right to ignore international boundaries, or the
sovereignty of nations, in an endless global "war" of choice against small,
scattered bands of terrorists.
As Inter Press Service reporter Jim Lobe pointed out recently, a "series of
interlocking grand bargains" in what the neo-conservatives used to call "the
Greater Middle East" or the "arc of instability" might be available to an Obama
administration capable of genuinely new thinking (see
Two, three, many 'grand bargains'?, Asia Times Online, Nov 3). These,
he wrote, would be "backed by the relevant regional players as well as major
global powers - aimed at pacifying Afghanistan; integrating Iran into a new
regional security structure; promoting reconciliation in Iraq; and launching a
credible process to negotiate a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab
If, however, Obama accepts a "war on terror" framework, as he already seems to
have, as well as those "residual" forces in Iraq, while pumping up the war in
Afghanistan, he may quickly find himself playing by Rumsfeld rules, whether or
not he revokes those specific orders. In fact, left alone in Washington, backed
by the normal national security types, he may soon find himself locked into all
sorts of unpalatable situations, as once happened to another Democratic
president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who opted to escalate an inherited war in
Vietnam when what he most wanted to do was focus on domestic policy.
Previews for a political zombie movie
Domestically, it's clear enough that we are about to leave the age of Bush - in
tone and policy - but what that leave-taking will consist of is still an open
question. This is especially so given a cratering economy and the pot-holed
road ahead. It is a moment when Obama has, not surprisingly, begun to emphasize
continuity and reassurance alongside his campaign theme of "change we can
All you had to do was look at that array of former US president Bill
Clinton-era economic types and chief executive officers behind Obama at his
first news conference to think: been there, done that. The full photo of his
economic team that day offered a striking profile of pre-Bush Washington and
the Washington Consensus, and so a hint of the Democratic world the new
president will walk into on January 20, 2009.
How about former Treasury secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, those
kings of 1990s globalization, or even the towering former Fed chief from the
first Bush era, Paul Volcker? Didn't that have the look of previews for a
political zombie movie, a lineup of the undead? As head of the New America
Foundation Steve Clemons has been writing recently, the economic team looks
suspiciously as if it were preparing for a "Clinton 3.0" moment.
You could scan that gathering and not see a genuine rogue thinker in sight; no
off-the-reservation figures who might represent a breath of fresh air and fresh
thinking (other than, being hopeful, the president-elect himself). Clemons
offers an interesting list of just some obvious names left off stage: "Paul
Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, James Galbraith, Leo Hindery,