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Barack Obama

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Leaving Afghanistan

10 May 2011

Leaving Afghanistan

By Gwynne Dyer

 “With a single bound, our hero was free”, as writers of pulp fiction used to say when they saved their hero from some implausible but inescapable peril. Barack Obama could now free himself from Afghanistan with a single bound, if he had the nerve.

The death of Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda, matters little in practical terms, but Obama could use it as a means of deflating the grossly exaggerated “terrorist threat” that legitimises the bloated American security establishment. He could also use it to escape from the war in Afghanistan.

If he acted in the next few months, while his success in killing the terrorist-in-chief still makes him politically unassailable on military matters, he could start moving U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, and even begin to cut the Homeland Security Department down to size. His political enemies would accuse him of being “soft on defence”, but right now the accusation would not stick.

The HSD’s reason for being is the “terrorist threat”. Drive home the point that bin Laden is dead, and that there has been no terrorist attack in the West at even 1/50 the scale of the 9/11 attacks for the past five years, and its budget becomes very vulnerable.

Obama promised in 2009 that the first of the 30,000 extra U.S. troops he sent to Afghanistan in that year will be withdrawn this July. It would be harder to get the remaining 70,000 American troops and the 50,000 other foreign troops out—but it is now within his reach.

Since it is politically impossible for a U.S. president to acknowledge military defeat, for half a century the default method for extracting American troops from lost wars has been to “declare a victory and leave”. It was pioneered by Henry Kissinger in the Vietnam era, it worked for the junior Bush in Iraq, and Obama could use it to get out of Afghanistan.

It just has to look like a victory of sorts until one or two years after all the American troops are gone, so that when the roof falls in, it no longer looks like the Americans’ fault. Kissinger talked about the need for a “decent interval” between the departure of U.S. troops and whatever disasters might ensue in Vietnam, and the concept applies equally to Obama and Afghanistan.

The case for getting Western troops out of Afghanistan now rests on three arguments. Firstly, that the Taliban, the Islamist radicals who governed the country until 2001 and are now fighting Western troops there, were never America’s enemies. Al-Qaeda (which was almost entirely Arab in those days) abused their hospitality by planning its attacks in Afghanistan, but no Afghan has ever been involved in a terrorist attack against the West.

Secondly, the Taliban never controlled the minority areas of the country even during their five years in power, so why assume that they will conquer the whole country if Western troops leave? President Hamid Karzai’s deeply corrupt and widely hated government would certainly fall, but Afghanistan’s future would probably be decided, as usual, by a combination of fighting and bargaining between the major ethnic groups.

And thirdly, Western troops will obviously leave eventually. Whether they leave sooner or later, roughly the same events will happen after they go. Those events are unlikely to pose a threat to the security of any Western country—so why not leave now, and spare some tens of thousands of lives?

This last argument is of course disputed by the U.S. military, who insist (as soldiers usually do) that victory is attainable if they are only given enough resources and time. But Karzai’s government is beyond salvage, and this month’s strikingly successful Taliban attacks in Kandahar city discredit the claim that pro-government forces are “making progress” in “restoring security”.

Western armies have fought dozens of wars in the Third World since the European empires began to collapse 60 years ago, and they lost almost every one. The local nationalists (who sometimes calling themselves Marxists or Islamists) cannot beat the foreign armies in open battle, but they can go on fighting longer and take far higher casualties.

Afghanistan fits the model. When a delegation from Central Asia visited a U.S. base in Afghanistan, one of the delegates was a former Soviet general who had fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. He listened patiently as eager young American officers explained how new technology and a new emphasis on “winning hearts and minds” would defeat the insurgency.

Finally his patience snapped. “We tried all that when we were here and it didn’t work then, so why should it work now?” he asked. Answer: it won’t.

Osama bin Laden’s death has given Obama a chance to leave Afghanistan without humiliation. Just wait a couple of months to guard against the improbable contingency of a big terrorist revenge attack, and then start bringing the troops home. Once the Taliban are convinced that he is really leaving, they would probably even give him a “decent interval”.

Will this actually happen? Probably not, for in terms of domestic U.S. politics it would be a gamble, and Barack Obama is not a gambler.


The Dream of Justice

18 April 2009

The Dream of Justice

By Gwynne Dyer

“I don’t look like Halle Berry,” said Whoopie Goldberg in a recent interview. “But chances are, she’s going to end up looking like me.” Barack Obama doesn’t look much like Gerald Ford either, but what are the chances that Obama will end up looking like Ford?

Gerald Ford, who unexpectedly became US president after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974, gave Nixon a presidential pardon a few months later. If Nixon had been tried by the courts for the various offences he was accused of (and the tapes were there as evidence), he would have faced serious jail time — but it would have torn the United States apart.

On the other hand, issuing that pardon probably cost Gerry Ford the 1976 election, because somehow in the public’s mind it implicated him in Nixon’s crimes. In effect, Barack Obama has just pardoned all the torturers who worked for the Bush administration. To what extent will that erode his support among those voters who really believed that he would put justice ahead of pragmatism?

True, Obama has not pardoned the senior people who set the policy and the lawyers who wrote the legal defence for it, but they will clearly never face a court as long as he is in office. This seems like good politics to White House strategists at the moment — who needs a years-long court battle (with an uncertain outcome) to punish crimes that were committed years ago? — but it could come back and bite them.

It was useful to publish the actual memos that the Bush administration’s lawyers wrote arguing that a variety of coercive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, were legal. Some gentle souls will be shocked by the detailed descriptions of the techniques that the Central Intelligence Agency was authorised to use on detainees — although in fact much worse things were done to those unlucky enough to be “renditioned” for torture by various US allies.

But many people believe that “useful” isn’t enough. What these memos show is that between 2003 and 2008 US government agents were authorised to use at least one technique — waterboarding — that the same government had clearly defined as torture sixty years before, when the shoe was on the other foot.

At the end of the Second World War, US military tribunals treated Japanese officers who had ordered or carried out waterboarding on Allied prisoners of war as war criminals, and sentenced those found guilty of this form of torture (the Japanese called it the “water cure”) to punishments ranging from fifteen years at hard labour to death by hanging. By contrast, Barack Obama has declared that CIA agents who used the same technique will be guaranteed immunity for their actions. This can hardly be called justice.

On the other hand, did you really expect the US government to judge its own employees today by the same standards that it applied long ago to the soldiers of a foreign government that had surrendered unconditionally?

Did you really think that Barack Obama was going to unleash a legal process that would inevitably work its way up the chain of command and end by indicting George W. Bush and Dick Cheney?

The United States is not a defeated power under foreign military occupation, and it is not going to put itself through all that. The torture has apparently now stopped in prisons that are under direct American control, and one hopes that serious efforts are being made by the US government to retrieve those detainees whom the Bush administration “renditioned” to other governments for much worse tortures, but that’s as far as it’s going to go.

We dream of a just world, but any grown-up knows that real life is very unfair. Good people suffer, the wicked prosper, and most crimes go unpunished. When the criminals are the servants of a government that has gone off the rails, it is even harder to punish the guilty because most of them can argue that they were only obeying orders. Moreover, the new government, faced with the decision to prosecute the criminals or not, will always put the stability and security of its own rule first.

That is why the new democratic government that came to power in 1994 in South Africa after the long nightmare of apartheid chose to create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where former torturers and murderers were granted amnesty in return for full confessions, instead of seeking vengeance through the courts. Even less was done after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, despite the long and ghastly history of human rights abuses under the Communist regime.

There has been no change of regime in the United States, just a change of administration. The great majority of the military and civilian employees of the US government who must turn President Obama’s policies into actions are the very same people who previously did the same for former president George W. Bush. So Obama changes the policy on torture, symbolically condemns it by publishing the memos — and stops there.

The alternative — to seek justice for the victims of abuse even if the heavens fall — would probably cost him victory in a dozen other political battles over the next few years. Like most of us, he probably dreams of justice, but he has to deal with reality.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“We dream…regime”)

Obama and Iran

22 March 2009

Obama and Iran

 By Gwynne Dyer

You have to admire Barack Obama’s attempt to re-open the lines of communication with Iran — but you don’t have to admire it much. Iran’s real leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was certainly not impressed: “Our nation cannot be talked to like this. In the same congratulatory message they (the Obama administration) accuse the Iranian nation of supporting terrorism, pursuing nuclear arms, and such things. What has changed?”

Not much, it would seem. Amidst all the soft soap about the wonders of Iranian culture that took up most of President Obama’s message to Iranians last week, what stood out was his remark that while Iran should take its “rightful place in the community of nations,..that place cannot be reached through terror or arms.” The measure of Iran’s greatness, he added, is not “the capacity to destroy”.

This is a subtler re-statement of the same accusations that the Bush administration has been making for years: that Iran supports terrorism by providing arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories, and that it is secretly working on nuclear weapons. To Iranian ears, he sounds like George W. Bush with better manners.

This is a pity, because he is more than that. He has dropped the Bush policy of threatening to attack Iran (“all options are on the table”), at least so long as his administration is committed to the current track of diplomacy. He has also effectively blocked an Israeli attack, since Israel would not do that without Washington’s permission. The world is already a safer place.

But most Iranians do not accept these accusations as legitimate, and they are sick of hearing them. So forget for a moment the almost universal assumption in the Western media that they are true, and consider the evidence.

Iran certainly does supply weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are defined by the US State Department as “terrorist organisations.”

But then the US State Department also defined Nelson Mandela as a terrorist for his support of armed confrontation with apartheid — yet it mysteriously failed to call Ronald Reagan a terrorist when he armed the “contras” against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

Hamas and Hezbollah are deeply unattractive organisations, but then so are most other nationalist movements fighting foreign occupation. In the former British empire alone, Irgun in Israel, Mau Mau in Kenya, EOKA in Cyprus and the IRA in Northern Ireland all employed brutal terrorism in their struggles — but their leaders all ended up having tea with the Queen. And Yasser Arafat of the PLO ended up on the White House lawn shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin.

As the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, said in response to Barack Obama’s speech, official US contact with his movement is only “a matter of time.” In fact, the diplomatic feelers are already out, although it will be some time before Washington admits it.

In 2006 Hamas won the only really free and fair election ever held by the Palestinians, and today it governs a well-defined tract of territory, the Gaza Strip (albeit one under permanent siege by Israel).

Hezbollah has seats in the Lebanese parliament, and is part of the country’s “National Unity” government. Supporting them puts Iran in direct opposition to current US policy, but it does not make it a “terrorist”


As for the nuclear weapons allegations, who knows? Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran has signed, member states may develop the full nuclear fuel cycle. Indeed, they can even get help from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), so long as they accept close inspection to ensure that they do not enrich the nuclear fuel from 20 percent pure (good enough for reactors) to 90 percent pure (“weapons-grade”).

Iran has basically abided by those rules, but the major Western powers distrust its intentions. That’s why they moved the case from the IAEA to the United Nations Security Council, a political body where they can just declare Iran a threat to the peace and demand that it stop doing what the NPT says it is free to do, provided the safeguards are observed:

enriching nuclear fuel.

Given all the excited talk, you’d think there must be some proof of Iran’s alleged plan to make nuclear weapons, but in fact there is none. Indeed, a National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 2007 by the sixteen US intelligence agencies stated flatly that Iran was not currently pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

In a more recent assessment earlier this month Dennis Blair, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: “Although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Tehran, at a minimum, is keeping open the option to develop them.” That is a fair assessment of the reality — and it is perfectly legal for Iran to keep its options open in that way.

Iran is not a rogue state. It is an unusual country, partly democratic but ultimately under the rule of religious leaders whose world view is very different from that of most other people. But that does not mean that they are “mad mullahs”, or bent on national suicide via nuclear war. Barack Obama is right to try to restart a conversation that has been suspended for far too long, but he needs to back up and start again.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Hamas…Palestinians”)