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A Speech for Endless War

8:37 am in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

On the last night of August, the president used an Oval Office speech to boost a policy of perpetual war.

Hours later, the New York Times front page offered a credulous gloss for the end of “the seven-year American combat mission in Iraq.” The first sentence of the coverage described the speech as saying “that it is now time to turn to pressing problems at home.” The story went on to assert that Obama “used the moment to emphasize that he sees his primary job as addressing the weak economy and other domestic issues — and to make clear that he intends to begin disengaging from the war in Afghanistan next summer.”

But the speech gave no real indication of a shift in priorities from making war to creating jobs. And the oratory “made clear” only the repetition of vague vows to “begin” disengaging from the Afghanistan war next summer. In fact, top administration officials have been signaling that only token military withdrawals are apt to occur in mid-2011, and Obama said nothing to the contrary.

While now trumpeting the nobility of an Iraq war effort that he’d initially disparaged as “dumb,” Barack Obama is polishing a halo over the Afghanistan war, which he touts as very smart. In the process, the Oval Office speech declared that every U.S. war — no matter how mendacious or horrific — is worthy of veneration.

Obama closed the speech with a tribute to “an unbroken line of heroes” stretching “from Khe Sanh to Kandahar — Americans who have fought to see that the lives of our children are better than our own.” His reference to the famous U.S. military outpost in South Vietnam was a chilling expression of affinity for another march of folly.

With his commitment to war in Afghanistan, President Obama is not only on the wrong side of history. He is also now propagating an exculpatory view of any and all U.S. war efforts — as if the immoral can become the magnificent by virtue of patriotic alchemy.

A century ago, William Dean Howells wrote: “What a thing it is to have a country that can’t be wrong, but if it is, is right, anyway!”

During the presidency of George W. Bush, “the war on terror” served as a rationale for establishing warfare as a perennial necessity. The Obama administration may have shelved the phrase, but the basic underlying rationales are firmly in place. With American troop levels in Afghanistan near 100,000, top U.S. officials are ramping up rhetoric about “taking the fight to” the evildoers.

The day before the Oval Office speech, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs talked to reporters about “what this drawdown means to our national security efforts in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia and around the world as we take the fight to Al Qaeda.”

The next morning, Obama declared at Fort Bliss: “A lot of families are now being touched in Afghanistan. We’ve seen casualties go up because we’re taking the fight to Al Qaeda and the Taliban and their allies.” And, for good measure, Obama added that “now, under the command of Gen. Petraeus, we have the troops who are there in a position to start taking the fight to the terrorists.”

If, nine years after 9/11, we are supposed to believe that U.S. forces can now “start” taking the fight to “the terrorists,” this is truly war without end. And that’s the idea.

Nearly eight years ago, in November 2002, retired U.S. Army Gen. William Odom appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program and told viewers: “Terrorism is not an enemy. It cannot be defeated. It’s a tactic. It’s about as sensible to say we declare war on night attacks and expect we’re going to win that war. We’re not going to win the war on terrorism."

With his Aug. 31 speech, Obama became explicit about the relationship between reduced troop levels in Iraq and escalation in Afghanistan. “We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists,” he said. “And because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense.” This is the approach of endless war.

While Obama was declaring that “our most urgent task is to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work,” I went to a National Priorities Project webpage and looked at cost-of-war counters spinning like odometers in manic overdrive. The figures for the “Cost of War in Afghanistan” — already above $329 billion — are now spinning much faster than the ones for war in Iraq.

One day in March 1969, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Our government has become preoccupied with death,” George Wald said, “with the business of killing and being killed.” More than four decades later, how much has really changed?

From Great Man to Great Screwup

4:13 am in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

When the wheels are coming off, it doesn’t do much good to change the driver.

Whatever the name of the commanding general in Afghanistan, the U.S. war effort will continue its carnage and futility.

Between the lines, some news accounts are implying as much. Hours before Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s meeting with President Obama on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that "the firestorm was fueled by increasing doubts — even in the military — that Afghanistan can be won and by crumbling public support for the nine-year war as American casualties rise."

It now does McChrystal little good that news media have trumpeted everything from his Spartan personal habits (scarcely eats or sleeps) to his physical stamina (runs a lot) to his steel-trap alloy of military smarts and scholarship (reads history). Any individual is expendable.

For months, the McChrystal star had been slipping. A few days before the Rolling Stone piece caused a sudden plunge from war-making grace, Time Magazine’s conventional-wisdom weathervane Joe Klein was notably down on McChrystal’s results: "Six months after Barack Obama announced his new Afghan strategy in a speech at West Point, the policy seems stymied."

Now, words like "stymied" and "stalemate" are often applied to the Afghanistan war. But that hardly means the U.S. military is anywhere near withdrawal.

Walter Cronkite used the word "stalemate" in his famous February 1968 declaration to CBS viewers that the Vietnam War couldn’t be won. "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders both in Vietnam and Washington to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds," he said. And: "It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate."

Yet the U.S. war on Vietnam continued for another five years, inflicting more unspeakable horrors on a vast scale.

Like thousands of other U.S. activists, I’ve been warning against escalation of the Afghanistan war for a long time. Opposition has grown, but today the situation isn’t much different than what I described in an article on December 9, 2008: "Bedrock faith in the Pentagon’s massive capacity for inflicting violence is implicit in the nostrums from anointed foreign-policy experts. The echo chamber is echoing: the Afghanistan war is worth the cost that others will pay."

The latest events reflect unwritten rules for top military commanders: Escalating a terrible war is fine. Just don’t say anything mean about your boss.

But the most profound aspects of Rolling Stone’s article "The Runaway General" have little to do with the general. The takeaway is — or should be — that the U.S. war in Afghanistan is an insoluble disaster, while the military rationales that propel it are insatiable. "Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further," the article points out. And "counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war."

There was something plaintive and grimly pathetic about the last words of the New York Times editorial that arrived on desks just hours before the general’s White House meeting with the commander in chief: "Whatever President Obama decides to do about General McChrystal, he needs to get hold of his Afghanistan policy right now."

Like their counterparts at media outlets across the United States, members of the Times editorial board are clinging to the counterinsurgency dream.

But none of such pro-war handwringing makes as much sense as a simple red-white-and-blue bumper sticker that says: "These colors don’t run . . . the world."

Fierce controversy has focused on terminating a runaway general. But the crying need is to terminate a runaway war.