Saving Obama

"Now, I'd like to speak clearly and candidly to the
American people . . ."

I believe him, with a passionate urgency - this new
president, swept into office on a surge of hope and anger. I believe him
without cynicism. After all, he has a terrifying job to do, a toxic legacy left
to mop up. I cut him slack, listen for the sound, in his words, of the turning
of the ship of state. How does he plan to engage the future? He's an
intelligent and, I think, courageous leader. And he has a global constituency
to back him up. All he has to do is speak to it, clearly and candidly . . .

I was numb to the lies and simplistic rhetoric of George W. Bush.
But when Barack Obama tries to fill those incredibly small shoes, to rev up the
same constituency of true believers (the constituency that didn't vote
for him) and sell the same war - new! improved! - to the American
people, I am not numb. The hope in my heart bursts into flying shrapnel.
You're making a serious mistake, Mr. President.

In honor of the man I voted for, and who, I insist, must assert himself
and address his constituency not just marginally but with the full measure of
his intelligence and compassion, at the heart of what matters - true
global security, the building of a just peace - I take a close look at
Obama's most disappointing performance thus far: his speech last week
"announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and
Pakistan." Here are four ways the president's speech failed his

1. It was simplistic. In the fine old tradition of military
solutions to whatever, which brook no complexity of analysis, he fed us the
same old story of good versus evil, even invoking 9/11. The formula for war
never changes: Hype fear into hysteria, then propose the application of
righteous violence to save the day. The bad guys who pulled off 9/11 are still
in the mountains of Central Asia and they're "planning attacks on
the U.S. homeland." It's as simple as that. We must root them out.

One of the prime assumptions here is that terrorism is subject to
central control, as though aggrieved fanatics all take their orders from a
single source, which can and must be bombed. Evil plans can't be hatched
in London, Paris or New York.

2. The speech affected a selective concern for humanity. American
dead matter most. "Attacks against our troops, our NATO allies, and the
Afghan government have risen steadily. Most painfully, 2008 was the deadliest
year of the war for American forces." Missing from the speech were any
references to the Afghan dead - as many as 8,000 - caused by U.S.
and NATO forces since 2001.

When the suffering of "the Afghan people" is evoked,
the concern is suspect. ". . . a return to Taliban rule would condemn
their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed
economy, and the denial of basic human rights . . . especially (to) women and
girls." Is American compassion limitless or what? Yet women and girls
constitute a high percentage of the collateral damage we churn up.

As Tom Hayden noted recently in The Nation: "Anything
resembling genuine popular democracy in Afghanistan or Pakistan would end the
Western military occupation, or at least the air war, house-to-house roundups,
and mass incarceration at Bagram."

3. The speech, most speciously, presented war itself, as wielded
by the U.S. and its allies, as consequence-free: an apparently surgical
operation that will root entrenched evil from its mountainous redoubt. This
aspect of Obama's speech is least forgivable. It failed to so much as
hint that war is a clumsy tool, that high-tech violence wreaks incalculable
environmental and human havoc, which always overwhelm its short-term strategic

A few days after the speech, Jacques de Maio of the International
Committee of the Red Cross castigated both sides of the conflict for their
indifference to civilian casualties: "My point is that there is no such
thing as a clean war and . . . what's going on in Afghanistan and in
Pakistan right now is an ample demonstration of that," he said. The
agency is anticipating that fighting in the area will displace as many as
140,000 people this year, according to Agence France-Presse.

Obama rode an American - a global - passion for peace
into office, yet he spoke to us about expanding Af-Pak operations as though we
had voted for ignorance and war.

4. The speech called for dialogue only among parties on one side
of the conflict: the U.S. and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There was no mention of communication with the evil Taliban, our former Cold
War ally, and no mention that huge, festering grievances in the Arab world
against the West (the Palestinian situation, for one) are fueling terrorist
activities and merit serious world attention.

The isolation of power has made our president a prisoner of the
Washington establishment, whose "clear and desperate urge," Tom
Engelhardt wrote recently, "is to operate in the known zone, the one in
which the U.S. is always imagined to be part of the solution to any problem on
the planet, never part of the problem itself."

We must demand accountability from the Obama administration
(202-456-1111). It's too late to surrender, again, to cynicism, despair
and more of the same.

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