Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

USA: Lay off the president, man!

September 28, 2010

Coming from me, a defense of Barack Obama may surprise my readers.  That’s because they may not have read the fine print!  Some of his policies I haven’t exactly agreed with (principally, the expensive health care reform, which at a time of rapidly rising sovereign debt, was imprudent).  I reluctantly supported Obama for president in 2008 because he was the better of the two candidates.  Reluctant because we could have chosen a more experienced hand (read here), especially on economic policy. 

Nevertheless, the president has done an exceptional job in tough times.  He has been lucky both before and after the election, but, judging by the recent grilling from his erstwhile supporters, his luck may be running out. They even talk about Obama losing his mojo.  You can criticize Obama and the Democrats, for sure, but what is the alternative?  The only thing innovative in the Republican Party these days is the Tea Party, and I for one don’t want to be dumbed down by the likes of Sarah Palin and the former witch from Delaware (Christine O’Donnell). As for the more “mainstream” Republicans such as future Speaker Boehner, is the answer really more tax cuts at a time of skyrocketing government debt?

What really gets me about this country is the electorate’s emotional bipolarity.  First Obama is viewed as nearly Jesus Christ, now he’s a bum.  C’mon people!  C’mon Velma Hart!

I cringe at charisma.  The Obama-euphoria of the campaign trail scared me, as many of his supporters failed to think critically about the choice.  Instead they anointed a messianic figure and expected him to deliver paradise.  Obama fanned the flames of euphoria then and is now getting burned.  Today, even though the administration managed to sidestep a 1930s-style economic meltdown by rescuing the banks and providing a huge Keynesian stimulus, we hear from Velma and Company that they’re upset they don’t “feel it yet.”  Jon Stewart is “saddened.”  As I have said before, Americans are spoiled. Unlike citizens in emerging markets, accustomed to crisis, accustomed to lines outside of banks, Americans want it all.  Now they are mad at Obama for only achieving what is humanly possible. He has delivered far more than Bill Clinton did by this time in his administration, and is even delivering on the liberal agenda – for example, by appointing two very young, very liberal female lawyers to the Supreme Court.

Now he is branded as anti-business.  There were a pair of articles in The Economist on this (see below).  I noted in my blog during the 2008 election that it did not make sense to elect a man with no economic policy experience to pilot us through the economic storm, who, as a young man, quit a job as an economic analyst because he didn’t want to become a tool of corporate exploitation.  Two years later, people have noticed that his passion is not for business.  Well, lay off him now.  His policies are not particularly anti-business – this government has spent more bailing out corporations than any previous one.  Furthermore, he is in good company taking on corporate abuse.  Anyone remember Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting?  Finally, if we continue to harp on this anti-business thing, it will become self-fulfilling.  The Obama administration’s credibility growing the economy could be irreparably damaged, which will hurt us all.

It is human to fight the last war.  So, to avert a depression, the Obama administration took actions that were not taken in the thirties.  Yet our undoing will be something unforeseen, and in my view, this is likely to come on the fiscal side.  Government debt is around 90% of GDP and deficits are in the double digits.  With economic growth likely to remain sluggish (economists have declared a “new normal”), it is not far-fetched for the United States to be in a Greek-style sovereign default over the medium term if a road map to solvency is not charted soon.  There are as yet few signs of determination in this administration to deal with this problem (they appointed a panel), not least because of the recent turnover in the economic team.

What I don’t like about Obama is the spin.  Spin is less than truthful.  I know all politicians do it, especially the successful ones. But, Barack Obama ran as a change agent, a post-partisan, and he has been, is, and will probably always be an aggressive left-of-center partisan.  Centrists, such as Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, Norm Coleman, Ben Nelson, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, need not apply.  He admires Ronald Reagan and is his heir in terms of image-making.  Now he is going around the country discussing his Christian faith.  Good timing.  The other side does it too.  It is demoralizing for a centrist like me to hear John Boehner savage Obama’s economic policy record and Obama call Boehner’s Pledge to America irresponsible.  Where lies the truth?  Same thing happened on health care.  The problem is, partisanship wins elections. 

On foreign policy, Obama savaged Bush for adventurism and questionable methods in war.  Yet in office, he has ramped up the use of targeted assassinations, sometimes resulting in the deaths of innocents.  The end justifies the means, the saying goes.  As a candidate, he lashed out at David Petraeus for the “surge” in Iraq; now he has hired him to salvage his Afghan policy.  Yet Obama supporters don’t bat an eye, as they swing from indicting Bush for torture to arguing for the necessity of targeted assassinations.

I would like to see a stronger Republican Party.  The country would benefit from an energetic opposition.  Yet, by shifting toward the loony right, Republicans are squandering the opportunity to harness the country’s frustration.  This could work out in the end for Barack Obama.  Taking a page from the Big Dog’s script in 1994-96 — after the Democrats in Congress suffer a beating this year, Obama finds a “Dick Morris” to guide his policy rightward over the next two years.  The Party of No (GOP) nominates someone or other like Sarah Palin in 2012, and No Drama wangles himself another term.  The country could do worse.

From The Economist, September 23, 2010:

WINSTON CHURCHILL once moaned about the long, dishonourable tradition in politics that sees commerce as a cow to be milked or a dangerous tiger to be shot. Businesses are the generators of the wealth on which incomes, taxation and all else depends; “the strong horse that pulls the whole cart”, as Churchill put it. No sane leader of a country would want businesspeople to think that he was against them, especially at a time when confidence is essential for the recovery. From this perspective, Barack Obama already has a lot to answer for. A president who does so little to counter the idea that he dislikes business is, self-evidently, a worryingly negligent chief executive. No matter that other Western politicians have publicly played with populism more dangerously, from France’s “laissez-faire is dead” president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to Britain’s “capitalism kills competition” business secretary, Vince Cable (see article); no matter that talk on the American right about Mr Obama being a socialist is rot; no matter that Wall Street’s woes are largely of its own making. The evidence that American business thinks the president does not understand Main Street is mounting (see article). A Bloomberg survey this week found that three-quarters of American investors believe he is against business. The bedrock of the tea-party movement is angry small-business owners. The Economist has lost count of the number of prominent chief executives, many of them Democrats, who complain privately that the president does not understand their trade—that he treats them merely as adornments at photocalls and uses teleprompters to talk to them; that he shows scant interest in their views on which tax cuts would persuade them to hire people; that his team is woefully short of anyone who has had to meet a payroll (there are fewer businesspeople in this White House than in any recent administration); and that regulatory uncertainty is hampering their willingness to invest.
Ignorant but not antagonistic That Mr Obama has let it reach this stage is a worry. But negligence is not the same as opposition. True, he has some rhetorical form as an anti-business figure—unlike the previous Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, who could comfortably talk the talk of business. Mr Obama’s life story, as depicted in his autobiography and on the campaign, was one of a man once mired in the sinful private sector (at a company subsequently bought by The Economist), who redeemed himself only by becoming a community organiser; his wife had a similar trajectory. There are the endless digs at Wall Street and Big Pharma, not to mention the beating up of BP. He remains a supporter of “card check”, which would dispense with the need for secret ballots in establishing a trade union. His legislative agenda has centred on helping poorer individuals (the health-care bill, part of the stimulus bill) or reining in banks (the financial-reform bill). The only businesses he has rescued are the huge union-dominated General Motors and Chrysler. Against this, it could have been much worse, especially given the opprobrium that now dogs Wall Street. A president who truly wanted to wage war on business would have hung onto GM, not rushed to return it to the private sector. Card check has not been pushed. The finance bill, though bureaucratic, is not a Wall Street killer. With the exception of a China-bashing tyre tariff and a retreat on Mexican trucks, Mr Obama has eschewed protectionism. A lot of government cash has flowed to businesses, not least through the stimulus package. And above all his policies have helped pull the economy out of recession. So what should he do? The same leftist advisers who have led Mr Obama into his “anti-business” hole are doubtless telling him that it is just a matter of public relations: have a few tycoons to stay in the Lincoln bedroom; celebrate Main Street’s successes, rather than just whining about bonuses; perhaps invite a chief executive to replace Larry Summers, the academic who announced this week that he was standing down as the president’s main economic adviser. Well, maybe. But once again this is advice from people who have never run a business. The main thing that is hurting business is uncertainty. Mr Obama was right to tackle big subjects like health care and Wall Street, but too often the details were left to others. Why, for instance, should a small American firm hire more people when it still does not know the regulations on health care, especially when going above 50 workers will make it liable to insurance premiums or fines? Fiscal policy is even more uncertain, thanks to Mr Obama’s refusal to produce a credible plan to rein in the deficit. Why should any entrepreneur plough money into a new factory when he has no idea what taxes he will eventually be asked to pay? These are questions that business needs answering in a businesslike way—and so does America. Otherwise the horse will not pull the cart.

McChrystal Affair: When Campaign Rhetoric Drives Foreign Policy

September 3, 2010
Obama and his general -- he doesn't look "uncomfortable and intimidated."  Source:
Obama and his general — he doesn’t look “uncomfortable and intimidated.” Source:

Insubordination by top military officers to civilian authority is unacceptable in America.  As presidential biographer Robert Dallek argued in today’s NYTimes, McChrystal’s defiance of his civilian masters may warrant dismissal.  However, there is another important issue here: how hubris on the campaign trail can lead to sub-par policy choices.

President Obama’s decision early in his administration to withdraw US forces from Iraq and build them up in Afghanistan came right out of the commitments he made on the campaign trail.  Obama’s meteoric rise owed a lot to his charisma and natural talents, but also to his successful argument  before the American people, embraced by almost all Democrats, that Bush was a buffoon and his policies failed ones.  Obama savaged W on the campaign trail like no other candidate.  On foreign policy, he argued that Bush had taken his eye off Al Qaeda and the Taliban when he irresponsibly invaded Iraq.  As a result, as president, Obama had little choice but to wade into a war in a country that bled the British and Russians into second-rate powers and is now going badly wrong and causing dissension within NATO. 

This is what happens when foreign policy is written by political hacks.  Orchestrated by bare-knuckles political operative David Axelrod, Obama’s take-no-prisoners 2008 presidential campaign was much like the Rovian strategy criticized by Democrats.  Whatever Bush did was bad; the opposite was thoughtful and insightful.  Notwithstanding his Kennedyesque image, Obama has not been a practitioner of bipartisanship, of new politics, of change we can believe in.  He, like the Kennedys, is an aggressive partisan out to demolish opponents. 

I am not going to re-open the debate about whether or not Iraq should have been invaded.  I believe there are reasonable arguments for and against.  But, the left in this country tends to characterize anyone that supported the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 — on legal, moral and strategic grounds — as virtually a war criminal.  W is unfairly pilloried as such. There is even a play out now putting W up against a war crimes tribunal. 

In November 2008, I supported Barack Obama for president, somewhat belatedly and reluctantly, because I felt he was the better of two sub-par choices (see my blog on the matter). But I have always seen his hubris as his Achilles’ heel.  Here was this guy with virtually no foreign policy experience (not even serious academic study of American Foreign Policy) claiming he was the best choice to run the single superpower’s foreign affairs.  More recently, I wrote, “Barack Obama made the point last year on the campaign trail that, unlike Hillary Clinton, he has good judgment, never supporting an invasion of Iraq, even making a speech to that effect in the Illinois state legislature, where grandstanding on the issue had no policy effect at all.  Putting aside whether we should have invaded Iraq to rid the world of this dictator with bad intentions if not bad weapons, it is a legitimate debate whether we should wind down Iraq, a country central to stability in the Middle East — given its location, ethnicity, and oil wealth, and wind up Afghanistan, arguably a mountainous backwater that has bled imperialists from Russia to Britain to the United States for centuries.  True, instability in Afghanistan triggers instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan.  I said there were good points on both sides of the issue.  I merely wish to get under the teflon a little and question the wisdom of President Obama’s foreign policy choices.”

Now that policy shift is going badly wrong — with the mission failing in Afghanistan and the inconclusive Iraqi elections leaving partisans poised to take up arms, just as US troops are boarding transports out. 

Hubris prevailed when Obama, driven to surpass his predecessors by passing health care reform, left foreign policy priorities floundering for months.  This was reportedly one of McChrystal’s frustrations.  The McChrystal Affair underscores the disarray not only in the president’s “Af-Pak” group, but also in the broader foreign policy team.  Some of the personalities on the president’s team leave something to be desired — notably, Holbrooke and Biden, the former with more conceit than the Commander-in-Chief, the latter a shallow extrovert.  I have long argued that Obama should bring in some experienced hands like Nick Burns, the boyish career foreign service officer who served both Democratic and Republican presidents and was recently Sec. of State Rice’s number three.  

The warning I and others gave about Obama, that rhetoric and inspiring speeches alone cannot govern,  is relevant to the McChrystal Affair.  At issue is the age-old dichotomy between good government and good politics.  President Obama has proven himself  a masterful politician – recasting his failures as Republican ones, snatching political victories from the jaws of defeat, as he did with health care reform.  Obama could even turn the McChrystal Affair into good politics.  He and his Reaganesque image-makers can make the Afghanistan policy look like his Bay of Pigs.  That is, a young president with good intentions is misled by his generals to undertake a failed foreign adventure.  Then, this rightly angry president fires the general in charge, apologizes to the American public on television, becoming the latter’s darling again, and alters the policy course.  Good politics, but good government is trickier. 

Ironically, the man most responsible for Obama’s rise, that is, W, was also a success at politics (i.e. two terms), but fell short at government.  Good government requires experience and advisers other than David Axelrod and Karl Rove.  My optimistic belief is that ultimately good government wins elections.  Bring Nick Burns, and others like him, back…

(From a 6/23/10 blog post.)

Iraq: Learning the art of democracy?

July 19, 2010



  • 18 Jul: Suicide bomber kills 43 in attack on government-backed Sunni militia in Radwaniya near Baghdad
  • 7 Jul: Series of bombings targeting Shia pilgrims attending festival in Baghdad leave more than 40 people dead
  • 20 Jun: 26 killed in twin suicide car bombings close to bank in Baghdad
  • 21 May: Car bombing kills 30 at market in Khalis, Diyala province
  • 10 May: 100 killed in a series of shootings and suicide bombings, including 45 in Hilla, Babil province
  • 23 Apr: 58 killed in wave of bombings in Baghdad
  • 4 Apr: Triple suicide car bombings near embassies in Baghdad kill 41
  • 26 Mar: 40 killed by two bombs in Khalis, Diyala province
  • 7 Mar: 35 killed in attacks across the country on election day

Source:  BBC

The idea of building democracy in the heart of the Middle East, a pillar of neo-con foreign policy, which rode the roller coaster ride of George W. Bush’s unpopularity down, down, down, is perhaps not dead yet in Iraq, even though the Obama administration will be pulling American troops out this year and next.  At what cost democracy is a fair question, but the NYTimes reported today that one Moktada al-Sadr, the fiery anti-American Shia militia leader, may be learning the art of negotiation and compromise so central to a working democracy.  Those who rise to the top of authoritarian systems often have authoritarian personalities, whereas those who rise to the top of democracies are consummate deal-makers, such as Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and even Mitch McConnell and John McCain.

Iraq’s 325-seat parliament is divided, making it difficult for the political parties there to form a government.  The BBC reports that today 43 Sunnis were killed by a suicide bomber, as part of the increased post-election violence threatening to spiral back into the civil war that dissipated in recent years, thanks to the American surge, General Petraeus’s anti-insurgency program, and brave decisions by Sunni insurgents to boot out al-Qaeda.  The BBC chart above catalogues the suicide bombings since the March election that have affected both Sunnis and Shia.

A government requires 163 seats.  Ayad Allawi’s largely Sunni coalition (though Allawi is a secular Shia) won 91 seats, as against Prime Minister Maliki’s 89 seats for his Shia bloc.  The Shia Sadrists hold 39 seats, making the at-times radical cleric a potential kingmaker, and he knows it.  Secular, but not-so-nice Syrian President Assad brokered a meeting between Allawi and Sadr in Damascus, with Sadr traveling from exile in Iran for the meeting (there is an arrest warrant in Iraq from 2004 outstanding against Sadr).  Not only do the parties have to negotiate and compromise with one another, but they also must acquiese to at least some of the desires of regional powers, especially Iran.  America has a say as well, albeit declining.

Have these fellas, fighting a bloody ethnic war for control of this strategic and oil-rich country not long ago, really learned the art of democracy?  Time will tell, but Sadr’s trip to Damascus is a good sign.

Choose: or Patraeus

June 24, 2010
President Obama and General Petraeus.  Source: 
President Obama and General Petraeus. Source:

Mr. President, you can’t have it both ways.  You can’t have General Petraeus come in and save your Afghan policy at the same time as you have been associated with, which called him “General Betray Us” on the pages of the New York Times in 2007.

I don’t want to be the guy always criticizing President Obama – I think in many ways he is doing a good job.  But I cannot help but shine light on hypocrisy in politics, on whichever side of the aisle it occurs.  With Obama, who cultivates an image of new politics and bipartisanship, I feel compelled to draw readers’ attention to misperceptions of the man.

The facts:

– In 2003, funded in part by anti-Bush billionaire George Soros, allowed an ad on its website that compared Bush to Hitler, later claiming they had nothing to do with it.

– In 2007, posted an ad in the New York Times, calling General Petraeus “General Betray Us,” and accusing him of cooking the numbers in order to make President Bush’s surge in Iraq look effective.  Senator (and Candidate) Obama relentlessly criticized the surge in Iraq and its architect, General Petraeus, only later admitting it might have worked and employing a similar strategy as president in Afghanistan.  Candidate Obama in 2007 failed to heed calls to criticize the “General Betray Us” ad.

– On February 1, 2008, endorses Barack Obama for President of the United States, and Obama accepts.

– On June 23, 2010, President Obama calls in General Petraeus to head up the NATO mission in Afghanistan, which involves a surge of troops and counterinsurgency operations, much like what successfully ended the Iraq civil war under Obama’s predecessor.

Can Obama supporters at least admit the hypocrisy please, even if it is true that most politicians do the same?  I know many say, the election is over, forget about what happened in the heat of the campaign.  I say, let’s be fair and hold all politicians accountable for what they do and say on the campaign trail, especially when it affects policy.

Will General Petraeus run for high office one day?  Interesting question…

America: bad film from the declining power – the Oscars

March 8, 2010
C'mon Hollywood, you can do better than that!  Source: Google Images
C’mon Hollywood, you can do better than that! Source: Google Images

A bad year for film in America.  The Hurt Locker was a good anti-war film, but c’mon, Best Picture!  The past year may have been a record year for Hollywood financially, but in terms of art, Tinseltown is in decline.  Bad film.  Bad TV.  Bad Late night.  What we badly need is some insight into the human condition in a compelling narrative.  Perhaps the examination of an individual’s simultaneous capacity for good and evil.  Remember that film, Crash, a few years back?  It won Best Picture — deservedly.  Give us some more of that, Hollywood!

Sure, The Hurt Locker was a compelling profile of a horrible, though heroic, job — dismantling bombs.  And more generally, fighting wars is a horrible, thankless occupation pushed on our young men and women.  But anything deeper on war and peace, Hollywood fails to provide.  Yes, the adrenaline rush and even addiction that war forces on young men is an interesting angle.  But, as one war veteran commented, he did no know anyone who preferred that addiction to wife and son. 

Hollywood never tackles war’s complexities, never attempts to inspire or inform policy makers (and voters) who have to make decisions on war and peace.  What about the numbers of war dead, the reasons for these numbers, and the implications for whether or not America should fight wars?  More than 58 ,000 Americans died in Vietnam, whereas just over 4,400 died in Iraq (and over 30,00o were wounded).  And civilian deaths?   Most estimates put Iraqi civilian deaths due to the war at around 100,000, though other estimates reach as high as 600,000 to 1 million, including in this the result of increased lawlessness since the ending of Saddam Hussein’s regime. 

What about a film of counter-history of what the world would be like with Saddam Hussein still in power?  How many dead then?  What about the fragile democracy slowly taking root in Iraq, what would oppression in Iraq look like today under Saddam by contrast?  What would the civil war in Germany have looked like if the allies had intervened in 1936 when Hitler re-militarized the Rhineland?  Maybe 100,000 Germans dead in a nasty civil war instead of the 60 million who died as a result of WWII, including the genocide of 6 million Jews and millions of Gypsies and other enemies of the Reich.  What would that film have been like?  More fanciful than Avatar?  Certainly more interesting.

Estimates of the deaths in Rwanda where US intervention never took place range from 500,000 to 1 million.  In Darfur, where foreign intervention has been nearly non-existent, estimates of civilian deaths range from 50,000 to over 400,000.  The Congo has been a killing fields as well.  When is it right, or even necessary, to send young American men and women to war, to endure all the horrors shown in The Hurt Locker?  These are interesting questions — what is and what would have been — how much human suffering there has been and how much there might have been.  However, you will never get a deep probing of war and peace from Hollywood.  It is hard to write a narrative that deals with such issues.  Someone brave and creative should try.  If I were in the Academy, I’d take a long look.

Best Actor went to Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart.  I love Jeff Bridges, but a film about a drunken musician who abandons his family and can’t look after a kid in a shopping mall and the irresponsible single mother who loves him!  Just what everyone in countries not friendly to America believes American values are all about!  The music in the film was good, but that was about it.  What about a film about a musician who struggles to avoid addiction and lead a normal life in an environment of rampant substance abuse?  I guess that is boring story.

At least this year, gratuitous violence was not celebrated the way it has been in years past.  The Departed, that piece of trash given us a few years back by that overrated purveyor of violence, Martin Scorsese, was a travesty when it won Best Picture.  I wrote about that in a blog a while back.  Why can’t more films like Crash win?  That film is the epitome of what I am talking about in terms of delivering an interesting insight into the human condition in a compelling narrative.  Angry racist white cop shows his humanity in a car crash by risking his life to save a black woman from a burning vehicle.  That is what it means to be human.  To be complex.  To be simultaneously good and evil.  Friend and foe alike of America should know that the richness of America exists in our arts, in our film, and not just in the two-dimensional characters — usually violent dirtbags — that strut across so many a silver screen and the never-ending flow of rock-em-sock-em action films that reap millions for mediocre people in Lala-land who have the gall to call themselves artists.

Iraq: Just asking the question…

August 19, 2009
Iraqi Foreign Ministry after a bomb attack Wednesday.  Source: NYTimes Iraqi Foreign Ministry after a bomb attack Wednesday. Source: NYTimes

The question is:  Was it the right for the United States to announce its withdrawal from Iraq in order to focus on the war in Afghanistan? 

See this link for a video on the bomb attacks in Iraq.  Attacks in Iraq. Source: NYTimes

Arguments on both sides of the issue are convincing.  Obama got elected by single-mindedly attacking Bush’s policy on Iraq including, until recently, the “surge,” which dramatically reduced internecine violence in that country.  Now, just as he must do on health care reform, the President has to follow through on his election pledges or and others on his left flank will never forgive him.  Yet McCain this time last  year said the job in Iraq wasn’t finished, and the Democrats took his “one hundred years” quote out of context to convince the American people that McCain planned on staying in Iraq for, well, a hundred years.  Now, Iraq may be spinning out of control again, and it may be because of a too-precipitous pullout of American forces.  Barack Obama made the point last year on the campaign trail that, unlike Hillary Clinton, he has good judgment, never supporting an invasion of Iraq, even making a speech to that effect in the Illinois state legislature, where grandstanding on the issue had no policy effect at all.  Putting aside whether we should have invaded Iraq to rid the world of this dictator with bad intentions if not bad weapons, it is a legitimate debate whether we should wind down Iraq, a country central to stability in the Middle East — given its location, ethnicity, and oil wealth, and wind up Afghanistan, arguably a mountainous backwater that has bled imperialists from Russia to Britain to the United States for centuries.  True, instability in Afghanistan triggers instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan.  I said there were good points on both sides of the issue.  I merely wish to get under the teflon a little and question the wisdom of President Obama’s foreign policy choices.

Obama’s Speech to the Muslim World

June 4, 2009

President Obama with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak  Source:  Huffington Post

President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world today, titled “A New Beginning,” was at its best when it explained the grievances of both sides of the Muslim/non-Muslim divide, but much less effective when it dealt with substantive issues, such as Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. 

Like he did so powerfully for Americans in his famous speech on race of March 2008, President Obama in this speech exhorted the citizens of Planet Earth to bridge our differences, understand each other better, and solve our common problems peacefully.  I applaud his effort at launching a new beginning between what he calls Muslim-majority nations and the rest of the world, especially the United States, in order to build a peaceful “alliance of civilizations.” Barack Obama, in his now-famous speech on race (“A More Perfect Union”), drew tens of millions of Americans to his movement, even though arguably he failed to adequately explain his association with his pastor, whose comments had offended Americans and precipitated the speech.  Nevertheless, this kind of speech, which the president is so good at, can work well.  It helped get him elected; and, he believes the power of his personality can solve Huntington’s clash of civilizations.

In spite of the hubris underlying Movement Obama’s appeal to our better angels (his predecessors were incapable of the moral transformation this singular man and his team believe they can accomplish), we all hope it works.  It is foolish to cynically dismiss such important, yet elusive, building blocks of civilization as legitimacy that can win over hearts and minds to good causes.  Charismatic moral leadership can help us pitiful humans stop the slaughter and evolve.   Yet it is likewise naive, though emotionally satisfying, to discount the risks of disillusionment that underlie a phenomenon such as Barack Obama.

The president outlined seven key issues that Muslims and the West must address: the violence of extremists, the Arab-Israeli conflict, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, and economic development.  He definitely covered the major issues, though some of them, while not unimportant, appear more the product of a Democratic focus group, or more accurately, an effort to please a number of constituencies, than issues really critical to a new beginning of peace and cooperation between the West and the Muslim world.  I’ll let the reader decide which ones should be high on the priority list.

Here is a transcript of the speech, but it is worthwhile to have a look at what he said specifically about nuclear weapons and Iran.  Of note is how short this section was, especially when compared to issue number two, the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“The third source of tension is our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons.

This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.

It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.

I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.”

He alludes to the differing perceptions underlying the mistrust between Iran and the West.  He points out  the danger of a nuclear arms race in the region.  And, as he does throughout the speech, he portrays himself as someone who, unlike his predecessors, understands the other side’s point of view.  He understands Muslim frustration over the fact that some countries are allowed to have nuclear weapons, while others are not. 

What is missing in this speech is anything Churchillian.  What is missing is realism…for example, a statement that the U.S. is determined to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by unstable or radical regimes, be they Muslim or not.  The risk of the Obama phenomenon is that his extended hand and emotional understanding will not be backed up by a steely determination to oppose dangerous regimes.  True, he takes a stab at this in his remarks about Al Qaeda and extremism.  However, just as it was nearly impossible for Bush to establish moral authority, it will be challenging for Obama to convey strength and determination, and to inspire respect and, yes, fear among America’s adversaries.  I understand he was addressing Muslims, but still there were no unequivocal statements against the Iranian acquisition of the bomb.  

He acquiesced to the Arab narrative in many ways.  The most salient example was his putting the Arab-Israeli conflict, or as he termed it, “the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world,” as one of his seven key issues causing tension in the region.  It sure is, but why not the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir?  The Shia-Sunni divide was noted, but not as a key cause of tension.  Genocide in Darfur was not mentioned.  Saudi Wahhabism and other sources of extremism in Muslim education were not mentioned. 

The Arab narrative suggests that everything nasty that happens in that part of the world is linked to, if not caused by, Israeli actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians.  Never mind how the rest of the Arab World has treated the Palestinians, refusing to settle these refugees in neighboring countries, the way India and Pakistan settled Hindu and Muslim refugees after their 1948 conflict.  What’s more, the language about Israeli settlements was harsher in this speech than in the past.  The United States does not accept the legitimacy of settlements, and the settlements must stop.  This is quite different from Bush’s statement that after forty years of conflict, forty years of woeful Palestinian (and in most cases, Arab) leadership, some of Israel’s settlements have become a reality on the ground and the subject of negotiation.  Of course, Obama may turn around and tell the Israelis he was only talking about the “growth” of settlements, not the full dismantling of all settlements.  The Obama administration has asked the Israeli government for clarification of its views on settlements, when “clarify” is exactly what Team Obama needs to do on this issue.   

Nevertheless, all in all, it was a valiant effort on the part of President Obama.  I hope he can engender understanding and cooperation through the power of his personality.  His administration has orchestrated this overture to the Muslim world quite well.  The president argued as much in his speech.  He has stuck it to Israel on settlements.  He is pulling out of Iraq. He has called for all nations in the region, and in the world, to give up nuclear weapons.  He is giving humanitarian aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan.  He is launching educational and economic initiatives in the region.  This is the change he offers from Bush’s bluster.  And, he says, the Arab world must do its part.  I hope it works.

More on war…and peace…

April 12, 2009
President Obama meets Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki  Source: AFP
President Obama meets Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki Source: AFP
President Eisenhower and Nikita Krushchev (and Nixon)  Source: PBS
President Eisenhower and Nikita Krushchev (and Nixon) Source: PBS

President Obama said back at the end of February that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011, with most out by August 2010.  His policy is to pull out of Iraq and take American power instead to Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to root out Al Qaeda and do some nation-building there.  There will be ramifications of this policy shift.   One risk, highlighted by those on the right and in a weekend New York Times article, is that the successes of the surge, namely the build-up of the Sunni Awakening Councils that took back Sunni strongholds from Al Qaeda, could be reversed. 

The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has allegedly ramped up arrests of Awakening leaders, while U.S. forces stand by.   President Obama’s policy could leave the Iraqis to slug it out, as perhaps they should.  But, nonetheless, let us be clear on what the ramifications of this policy shift might be:  increased bloodshed and instability in Iraq; Shiite dominance in a sizable power so close to Iran and the Gulf; and, possibly a resurgence of Al Qaeda in the Sunni areas.

General Raymond T. Odierno, America’s top commander in Iraq and a key architect of the surge, weighed in on the issue and with his opinion of President Obama this weekend on John King’s State of the Union:

“He’s our commander-in-chief,” Odierno said.  “As our commander-in-chief, we take direction from him.”  He added:  “He’s very attentive. He listens. He’s incredibly intelligent. He talks through the issues. . . .He makes a decision and then we execute those decisions and that’s all you can expect out of your commander-in-chief. And I’ve been very pleased with the interaction that I’ve been able to have with him.”

In a New York Times column this weekend, Jean Edward Smith argues that President Obama, in handling Iraq, should take a page from President Eisenhower’s decision to end the war in Korea in 1953.  Eisenhower, in spite of the hawks in his own party, decided to negotiate an armistice at the 38th Parallel with the communist adversary.  With 150,000 U.S. war dead, America and the West would reap no gain, nor the flip side, inflict no punishment on the communist aggressor.

Just like Obama did in Iraq last week, Ike went to Korea and had a look for himself and decided it was a stalemate.  When South Korean President Rhee tried to derail the talks with the north, Ike threatened to pull out of Korea entirely, which would have left Rhee to face the communist onslaught himself.  U.S. troops, though reduced in recent years, remain in Korea to this day.

The parallel that Smith makes between Ike and Obama is not compelling.  What the Obama administration plans for Iraq is more akin to the threat Ike made to Rhee (to pull all U.S. troops out) than it is to the Korea policy followed by successive administrations since 1953.  That is, to maintain a U.S. troop presence to help secure South Korea from aggression.  Smith makes a good point that only Ike, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in World War II, could have pushed through such an armistice in Korea.  Had Truman tried this, he might have been impeached.  While President Obama doesn’t have the military stature that Ike had, his Iraq policy is broadly popular.

Ike and Truman both sought a measured response in Korea.  They both sought to contain the extension of communism without triggering a world war with China and the Soviet Union.  MacArthur and others on the Republican right wanted to take the war to the Chinese. (Ike’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles even said the Chinese required “one hell of a licking.”)  Kissinger has argued that the best scenario for U.S. interests would have been something in between what Ike and Truman sought and what the right wing aspired to.  He has argued that U.S. forces should have moved, early in the war, not to the border with China at the Yalu River, which MacArthur did, triggering a massive Chinese response, but to one hundred miles south of that, at the “narrow neck” of the Korean peninsula, a defensible position where the country would have been nearly reunified, with 90% of the population and the capital of the north behind allied lines.  This way the U.S. would still have avoided threatening China, but would have secured a non-communist reunification of Korea.  We wouldn’t have this pesky nuclear arms mess with North Korea today.  But there are no sure bets in war and peace: there is no certainty that the Chinese would have tolerated even Kissinger’s scenario.

Perhaps President Obama should endeavor to find Kissinger’s middle ground in decisions on where to apply U.S. military power.  Reap the maximum advantage without threatening the major powers.  Easy to write, much harder to do.  That’s why I blog…