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The Militarized Surrealism of Barack Obama
Signs of the Great American Unraveling
By Tom Engelhardt
It’s already gone, having barely outlasted its moment — just long enough for the media to suggest that no one thought it added up to much.
Okay, it was a little more than the military wanted, something less than Joe Biden would have liked, not enough for the growing crew of anti-war congressional types, but way too much for John McCain, Lindsey Graham, & Co.
I’m talking about the 13 minutes of “remarks” on “the way forward in Afghanistan” that President Obama delivered in the East Room of the White House two Wednesday nights ago.
Tell me you weren’t holding your breath wondering whether the 33,000 surge troops he ordered into Afghanistan as 2009 ended would be removed in a 12-month, 14-month, or 18-month span. Tell me you weren’t gripped with anxiety about whether 3,000, 5,000, 10,000, or 15,000 American soldiers would come out this year (leaving either 95,000, 93,000, 88,000, or 83,000 behind)?
You weren’t? Well, if so, you were in good company.
Billed as the beginning of the end of the Afghan War, it should have been big and it couldn’t have been smaller. The patented Obama words were meant to soar, starting with a George W. Bush-style invocation of 9/11 and ending with the usual copious blessings upon this country and our military. But on the evidence, they couldn’t have fallen flatter. I doubt I was alone in thinking that it was like seeing Ronald Reagan on an unimaginably bad day in an ad captioned “It’s never going to be morning again in America.”
If you clicked Obama off that night or let the event slide instantly into your mental trash can, I don’t blame you. Still, the president’s Afghan remarks shouldn’t be sent down the memory hole quite so quickly.
For one thing, while the mainstream media’s pundits and talking heads are always raring to discuss his policy remarks, the words that frame them are generally ignored — and yet the discomfort of the moment can’t be separated from them. So start with this: whether by inclination, political calculation, or some mix of the two, our president has become a rhetorical idolator.
These days he can barely open his mouth without also bowing down before the U.S. military in ways that once would have struck Americans as embarrassing, if not incomprehensible. In addition, he regularly prostrates himself before this country’s special mission to the world and never ceases to emphasize that the United States is indeed an exception among nations. Finally, in a way once alien to American presidents, he invokes God’s blessing upon the military and the country as regularly as you brush your teeth.
Think of these as the triumvirate without which no Obama foreign-policy moment would be complete: greatest military, greatest nation, our God. And in this he follows directly, if awkwardly, in Bush’s footsteps.
I wouldn’t claim that Americans had never had such thoughts before, only that presidents didn’t feel required to say them in a mantra-like way just about every time they appeared in public. Sometimes, of course, when you feel a compulsion to say the same things ad nauseam, you display weakness, not strength; you reveal the most fantastic of fantasy worlds, not a deeper reality.
The president’s recent Afghan remarks were, in this sense, par for the course. As he plugged his plan to bring America’s “long wars” to what he called “a responsible end,” he insisted that “[l]ike generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events.” He then painted this flattering word portrait of us:
“We’re a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens. We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination… and when our union is strong no hill is too steep, no horizon is beyond our reach… we are bound together by the creed that is written into our founding documents, and a conviction that the United States of America is a country that can achieve whatever it sets out to accomplish.”
I know, I know. You’re wondering whether you just mainlined into a Sarah Palin speech and your eyes are glazing over. But hang in there, because that’s just a start. For example, in an Obama speech of any sort, what America’s soldiers never lack is the extra adjective. They aren’t just soldiers, but “our extraordinary men and women in uniform.” They aren’t just Americans, but “patriotic Americans.” (Since when did an American president have to describe American soldiers as, of all things, “patriotic”?) And in case you missed the point that, in their extraordinariness and their outsized patriotism they are better than other Americans, he made sure to acknowledge them as the ones we “draw inspiration from.”
In a country that now “supports the troops” with bumper-sticker fervor but pays next to no attention to the wars they fight, perhaps Obama is simply striving to be the premier twenty-first-century American. Still, you have to wonder what such presidential fawning, omnipresent enough to be boilerplate, really represents. The strange thing is we hear this sort of thing all the time. And yet no one ever comments on it.
Oh, and let’s not forget that no significant White House moment ends these days without the president bestowing God’s blessing on the globe’s most extraordinary nation and its extraordinary fighters, or as he put it in his Afghan remarks: “May God bless our troops. And may God bless the United States of America.”
The day after he revealed his drawdown plan to the nation, the president traveled to Ft. Drum in New York State to thank soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division for their multiple deployments to Afghanistan. Before those extraordinary and patriotic Americans, he quite naturally doubled down.
Summoning another tic of this presidential moment (and of the Bush one before it), he told them that they were part of “the finest fighting force in the world.” Even that evidently seemed inadequate, so he upped the hyperbole. “I have no greater job,” he told them, “nothing gives me more honor than serving as your commander in chief. To all of you who are potentially going to be redeployed, just know that your commander in chief has your back… God bless you, God bless the United States of America, climb to glory.”
As ever, all of this was overlooked. Nowhere did a single commentator wonder, for instance, whether an American president was really supposed to feel that being commander in chief offered greater “honor” than being president of a nation of citizens. In another age, such a statement would have registered as, at best, bizarre. These days, no one even blinks.
And yet who living in this riven, confused, semi-paralyzed country of ours truly believes that, in 2011, Americans can achieve whatever we set out to accomplish? Who thinks that, not having won a war in memory, the U.S. military is incontestably the finest fighting force now or ever (and on a “climb to glory” at that), or that this country is at present specially blessed by God, or that ours is a mission of selfless kindheartedness on planet Earth?
Obama’s remarks have no wings these days because they are ever more divorced from reality. Perhaps because this president in fawning mode is such an uncomfortable sight, and because Americans generally feel so ill-at-ease about their relationship to our wars, however, such remarks are neither attacked nor defended, discussed nor debated, but as if by some unspoken agreement simply ignored.
Here, in any case, is what they aren’t: effective rallying cries for a nation in need of unity. Here’s what they may be: strange, defensive artifacts of an imperial power in visible decline, part of what might be imagined as the Great American Unraveling. But hold that thought a moment. After all, the topic of the president’s remarks was Afghanistan.
The Unreal War
If Obama framed his Afghan remarks in a rhetoric of militarized super-national surrealism, then what he had to say about the future of the war itself was deceptive in the extreme — not lies perhaps, but full falsehoods half told. Consider just the two most important of them: that his “surge” consisted only of 33,000 American troops and that “by next summer,” Americans are going to be so on the road to leaving Afghanistan that it isn’t funny.
Unfortunately, it just ain’t so. First of all, the real Obama surge was minimally almost 55,000 and possibly 66,000 troops, depending on how you count them. When he came into office in January 2009, there were about 32,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Another 11,000 had been designated to go in the last days of the Bush administration, but only departed in the first Obama months. In March 2009, the president announced his own “new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan” and dispatched 21,700 more troops. Then, in December 2009 in a televised speech to the nation from West Point, he announced that another 30,000 would be going. (With “support troops,” it turned out to be 33,000.)
In other words, in September 2012, 14 months from now, only about half the actual troop surge of the Obama years will have been withdrawn. In addition, though seldom discussed, the Obama “surge” was hardly restricted to troops. There was a much ballyhooed “civilian surge” of State Department and aid types that more than tripled the “civilian” effort in Afghanistan. Their drawdown was recently addressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but only in the vaguest of terms.
Then there was a major surge of CIA personnel (along with U.S. special operations forces), and there’s no indication whatsoever that anyone in Washington intends reductions there, or in the drone surge that went with it. As a troop drawdown begins, CIA agents, those special ops forces, and the drones are clearly slated to remain at or beyond a surge peak.
Finally, there was a surge in private contractors — hired foreign guns and hired Afghans — tens of thousands of them. It goes unmentioned, as does the surge in base building, which has yet to end, and the surge in massive citadel-style embassy building in the region, which is assumedly ongoing.
All of this makes mincemeat of the idea that we are in the process of ending the Afghan war. I know the president said, “Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.” And that was a foggy enough formulation that you might be forgiven for imagining more or less everything will be over “by 2014” — which, by the way, means not January 1st, but December 31st of that year.
If what we know of U.S. plans in Afghanistan plays out, however, December 31, 2014, will be the date for the departure of the last of the full Obama surge of 64,000 troops. In other words, almost five years after Obama entered office, more than 13 years after the Bush administration launched its invasion, we could find ourselves back to or just below something close to Bush-era troop levels. Tens of thousands of U.S. forces would still be in Afghanistan, some of them “combat troops” officially relabeled (as in Iraq) for less warlike activity. All would be part of an American “support” mission that would include huge numbers of “trainers” for the Afghan security forces and also U.S. special forces operatives and CIA types engaged in “counterterror” activities in the country and region.
The U.S. general in charge of training the Afghan military recently suggested that his mission wouldn’t be done until 2017 (and no one who knows anything about the country believes that an effective Afghan Army will be in place then either). In addition, although the president didn’t directly mention this in his speech, the Obama administration has been involved in quiet talks with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to nail down a “strategic partnership” agreement that would allow American troops, spies, and air power to hunker down as “tenants” on some of the giant bases we’ve built. There they would evidently remain for years, if not decades (as some reports have it).
In other words, on December 31, 2014, if all goes as planned, the U.S. will be girding for years more of wildly expensive war, even if in a slimmed down form. This is the reality, as American planners imagine it, behind the president’s speech.
Of course, it’s not for nothing that we regularly speak of the best laid plans going awry, something that applies doubly, as in Afghanistan, to the worst laid plans. It’s increasingly apparent that our disastrous wars are, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry recently admitted, “unsustainable.” After all, just the cost of providing air conditioning to U.S. personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan — $20 billion a year — is more than NASA’s total budget.
Yes, despite Washington’s long lost dreams of a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East, some of its wars there are still being planned as if for a near-eternity, while others are being intensified. Those wars are still fueled by overblown fears of terrorism; encouraged by a National Security Complex funded to the tune of more than $1.2 trillion annually by an atmosphere of permanent armed crisis; and run by a military that, after a decade of not-so-creative destruction, can’t stop doing what it knows how to do best (which isn’t winning a war).
Though Obama claims that the United States is no empire, all of this gives modern meaning to the term “overstretched empire.” And it’s not really much of a mystery what happens to overextemded imperial powers that find themselves fighting “little” wars they can’t win, while their treasuries head south.
The growing unease in Washington about America’s wars reflects a dawning sense of genuine crisis, a sneaking suspicion even among hawkish Republicans that they preside ineffectually over a great power in precipitous decline.
Think, then, of the president’s foreign-policy-cum-war speeches as ever more unconvincing attempts to cover the suppurating wound that is Washington’s global war policy. If you want to take the temperature of the present crisis, you can do it through Obama’s words. The less they ring true, the more discordant they seem in the face of reality, the more he fawns and repeats his various mantras, the more uncomfortable he makes you feel, the more you have the urge to look away, the deeper the crisis.
What will he say when the Great American Unraveling truly begins?
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt