Barack Obama may not have come into office pledging to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, but he did pledge one thing: to close the Bush-era prison at Guantánamo within a year. That couldn't have been clearer. And as I wrote back then, it was also a reasonable basis on which to judge whether a democratic administration could do anything significant to roll back our Bush-created Homeland Security Nation and alter American policy abroad.
Now, we have our answer -- and it couldn't be clearer either. No, he can't. Or won't.
Just last week, under the dreary headline "Closing Guantánamo Fades as a Priority," Charlie Savage reported in my hometown paper that "the Obama administration has sidelined efforts to close the Guantánamo prison, making it unlikely that President Obama will fulfill his promise to close it before his term ends in 2013." Admittedly, it would never have been an easy thing to do, not given domestic politics and the outsized fear of terrorism that goes with it. It would, however, have been a lot easier than sweeping away much of the rest of the legacy of the Bush administration: the Global War on Terror, the Department of Homeland Security, the Fear Inc. that now rules our lives and somehow managed to convince us, even with unemployment through the roof and the Gulf of Mexico turning into a dead sea, that the main danger to this country is "terrorism."
As it happens, the only thing the Obama administration seems to have swept away was the name, Global War on Terror. The war itself, like Guantanamo, has proven as unstaunchable as that gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. However named, that "war," the Afghan war, and the CIA's drone war in the Pakistani borderlands have all expanded, while the war in -- or at least occupation of -- Iraq has been shrinking ever so slowly on a schedule the Bush administration set up before it left office.
Perhaps none of this is surprising, not with a holdover Secretary of Defense from the end of the Bush administration, the hawkish Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and a national security advisor who was a friend of John McCain's, and might as easily have been chosen by him for the same post (had he won in 2008). Minus a few speeches and a friendlier attitude toward Russia, it's increasingly hard to tell the difference between Obama's imperial policy abroad and the Bush version of the same.
Meanwhile, at home, we remain scared to death by a fear machine that, 24/7, turns every inept doofus into public enemy number one and seems to create new inept enemies by the week. Meanwhile, we throw billions a month into our $281 billion Afghan war, the latest news from which is this: there are, according to CIA director Leon Panetta, 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and, according to Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, "more than 300" al-Qaeda leaders and operatives in the Pakistani tribal areas. Less than 500 al-Qaeda members in one of the poorest, least accessible places on the planet, that's what we're supposedly mustering our might to fight. That's the "other superpower" of 2010, the mortal enemy against whom we are willing to squander our wealth, even as, at home, our country sags.
It's like one of those nightmares where amorphous monsters chase you through the night. Too bad we can't wake up.