Polk: Waiting for the Obama We Elected
Source Juan Cole
Date 09/07/28/09:41

William R. Polk writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment:

PROBABLY LIKE MOST OF you, I am engaged in a daily attempt to make up
my mind about President Obama. I was an early supporter. And as a
former Washington "player," I am aware how difficult is his position.
I began to worry when he failed to grasp what I have seen to be the
early window of opportunity for a new administration -- the first
three months -- when the government is relatively fluid. As the months
have flown by, I have seen that there are many positive things, mainly
in his eloquent addresses on world problems, notably his speech at the
University of Cairo on world pluralism, but also quite a few negative
things. With sadness and alarm I find that my list of the negatives
keeps on growing. Among them are the following:

(1) the commitment to the war in "Af-Pak" which (I believe) will cost
America upwards of $6 trillion [total] but perhaps only a few hundred
casualties since we are relying increasingly on drone bombing. Just
the money costs could derail almost everything Obama's supporters
hoped and thought his administration would do. That amount of money is
roughly half the total yearly income (the GNP) of America. Of course,
it will cost Afghanistan far more. Less dramatic perhaps but more
crucial will be the further breakdown Afghan society, leaving behind
when we ultimately get out an even more demoralized, fractured society
and will probably lead to a coup d'etat in Pakistan, further enhancing
the danger of war between the South Asian countries. The nominal
leaders of Afghanistan (Hamid Karzai) and Pakistan (Asif Ali Zardari)
whom we practically appointed and with whom we have chosen to work are
hated by their people and are human monuments to the potential of
government corruption. (Drugs, traffic in American arms even to
insurgents, shakedowns of citizens, sale of public offices, outright
stealing, kidnap for ransom...the list is long and as an old hand, it
certainly reminds me of South Vietnam.) We now have a window of
opportunity to get out of this looming disaster, but it seems that the
President is determined to "stay the course." Fundamental to my worry
is that I do not hear anyone around the President or he himself saying
things that indicate that they know anything about Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Kashmir or India, much less "Pashtunistan" aka The Northwest
Frontier. Ignorance is rarely a very rewarding guide.

(Parenthetically, I have recently read the British "how to do it"
manual on "Tribal fighting on the Northwest Frontier" by General Sir
Andrew Skeen. Skeen spent his life fighting the Pathans. He warned
British soldiers back in the 1920s that the Pathans were "the finest
individual fighters in the east, really formidable enemies, to despise
whom means sure trouble." My copy is the only one I could find on the
internet. it survived in a British officers' mess library. I doubt
that Messrs Petraeus, McChrystal et al have ever heard of it. It makes
more sense than Patraeus's Counterinsurgency Field Manual.)

(2) the choice of personnel is (to me) baffling:

In the military he has chosen to keep on Bush's Secretary of Defense
(who signed if not wrote the latest version of the
neoconservative-inspired US National Defense Doctrine calling for,
among other things, the "right" of first striking almost anyone we
choose if we don't like them), General David Petraeus whom I regard as
a con man for breathing life into the Vietnam counterinsurgency
program (which has never worked anywhere in the world in the last two
centuries when tried by the British, the Russians, the French, the
Germans or us) and General Stanley McChrystal who makes statements
that sound terrifyingly like the SS. His main claim to fame appears to
have come out of running the prison system in Afghanistan where,
apparently, some of the worst cases of torture happened. Sy Hersh who
just met with him came out of the meeting appalled. These men,
allegedly, have told Obama that he could win the war in Afghanistan
"on the cheap." So when his then principal military adviser gave a
more sober assessment -- nearly half a million men -- Obama fired him
and listened to Petraeus' siren song. Again, as an old hand, I cannot
help remembering Vietnam where we went from 1,700 to half a million
soldiers and still lost.

The Pentagon budget is not only enormous but contains a number of
potential scandals. . . Our overseas bases now cost us over $100
billion yearly. Since the DOD sops up over half of the disposable
resources of the government, Obama must get control of it. His task
will be difficult because the DOD and what President Eisenhower called
the "military industrial complex" have cleverly portioned out the work
and procurement on the program to virtually every congressional
district. Congress will opt for the program even if it bankrupts
America. Congress will be Obama's enemy if he tries any reforms. Even
to try, he will need able advisers and staff. He should certainly know
better than to appoint the foxes to guard the henhouse.

In the State Department activities, the most attractive person is
Senator Mitchell but he does not seem to have any significant power. I
hope I am wrong but he reminds me of my dear friend Governor Chester
Bowles after JFK fired him and used him only for window dressing. The
others have their own agendas. To be generous, one has to say that
Hillary has not yet shown enough to judge, but some of her statements
would be hard to worsen. I assume that she has begun to run for the
presidency in 2012. She reminds me of the wise saying that when a
president assembles his cabinet, he has all his enemies in one room.
Dick Holbrooke has a bully's approach to diplomacy in one of the
touchiest spots in the world. His browbeating, hectoring, shouting
"Balkan" tactics are ill-suited to Central Asia.

In the White House, I think it would be hard to find a worse choice
than the new Special Assistant to the President, Dennis Ross. Three
examples of his skill: a) in the early negotiations between the
Israelis and the Palestinians, when he was supposedly the honest
broker, he took a more disruptive position than even the Israelis,
apparently shocking even them; b) in the build-up to the Iranian
elections he sponsored and organized a program to "electronically
invade" Iran with destabilizing messages trying, more subtly to be
sure than the 1953 CIA-MI6 coup, to "regime change" it. Whatever else
could be said about the "Iran-Syria Operations Group" , it played
right into the hands of Ahmadinejad and the rightwing of the ulama and
the military, giving them a proof text for American interference in
the elections and thus may have backfired since no issue in Iranian
politics is as sensitive as the fear of foreign espionage; (c) just
before his appointment to be the chief honcho on all the Middle East,
Ross published a book whose message was essentially 'let's try a bit
of diplomacy for a short time. Of course it won't work, but it will
justify our attacking.' That is, his approach to peace-seeking is
consistent and negative. Since he is now Obama's point man, we are in
for deeper trouble.

The Vice President, as you know, just reversed the final position of
the Bush administration, where Bush told the Israelis that America
would not approve an attack on Iran: Joe Biden essentially authorized
it, saying what they decided to do was their business, not ours. But
those of you who have read my occasional essays could tick off the
list of potential disasters for America and the Western world such an
attack would bring on. It is patently absurd to suggest that an
Israeli attack (made with our weapons and implicit approval) is not
our business; indeed, regardless of our weapons and our approval, the
long-term consequences for our economy, our position in the world, and
our exposure to terrorism would be almost impossible to exaggerate.

On the CIA I confess I am not a big admirer. It has taken on 3 tasks:
gathering information, evaluating it and performing dirty tricks. It
is usually agreed that over 80%, perhaps more like 95%, of the
information it accumulates comes from sources that you and I can
access if we have the time, energy and interest. Most of the rest
comes from technology (intercepts and code breaking which appear to be
valuable for counter-terrorism but, at least in my experience, are of
near zero value in 'strategy'; on satellite and overflight imagery
much the same can be said.) The second task, evaluation or
"appreciation" is very difficult at best, but the record, at least
during the Bush administration, is pretty poor. It was far better done
then and during the Vietnam war in the tiny Bureau of Intelligence and
Research of the State Department. The third task often leads to
disasters and violates all that America should [not?] stand for. There
are scores of examples to back up this statement, but one that has now
come back to haunt us is the 1953 coup d'etat that destroyed an
elected and popular Iranian government that, had it survived, might
have avoided the 1979 Iranian revolution and relieved us of our
current worries there. We should get out of the business of espionage,
kidnap, torture and murder. Period. The current leadership of the CIA
does not seem to have addressed these issues and President Obama has
gone out of his way to grant a sort of blanket pardon in advance lest
anyone fear that what he did was illegal or, more accurately, knowing
that it was illegal might be called to court.

Back to the President: From my experience with life at the "brink,"
during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I think that the President's
initiatives on cutting back nuclear weapons is perhaps the best thing
he has done so far. True, it is a very modest step, leaving thousands
of "devices" in place on both the Russian and American sides, only
urging Israel which has hundreds of bombs to join the NPT, actually
encouraging India to forge ahead with its nuclear program and so
probably moving inexorably toward at least doubling the number of
nuclear-weapon-armed countries rather than (as I have strenuously
advocated) moving from Russo-American cutbacks to nuclear free areas
and ultimately toward worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons. But, at
least it is a step in the right direction.

That's for foreign affairs.

On domestic affairs, I am really not qualified, but the only senior
man to whom I would give high marks is former Federal Reserve Bank
chairman Paul Volker. I predict that sooner or later, however, several
of the men appointed to handle the financial problems will prove to be
major political embarrassments to Obama. The phrase "no banker left
behind" may prove a potent slogan.

Healthcare is the really tough but literally vital issue. I doubt that
many Americans realize that it takes up about $1 in each $6 in our
economy but that still 50 million Americans are uninsured. A June 2009
poll showed that 85% of the American public said the system either
must be fundamentally changed or totally rebuilt. I think Obama is
right that this is probably the make or break issue of his presidency.
But I do not find a strategy to match his rhetoric. For some reason,
on this issue as on some others, he does not seem to grasp the
potential advocacy -- and educational -- powers of presidency. Too bad
he could not learn from Lyndon Johnson.

On the environment, I see no significant concrete steps. Perhaps on
this issue is the real test of a presidency's fundamental role in a
democracy: educating the public so that it can understand and cope
with the present and the future. I certainly pretend to no particular
wit on the environment, but it doesn't take much wit to see what is
happening. Never-mind what the scientists say, one would have to be
blind not to see what the photographs show us of climate change. And
where does this lead? I think there can be no other answer than a
cutback, either voluntarily or enforced, in our material culture. It
is going to come as a great shock to Americans who have grown up with
SUVs, cheap gasoline, uninsulated houses, and rampant consumerism. We
had better begin to prepare ourselves and for this, the President must
be our shepherd. Arguably, it is much too early in his presidency for
him even to consider this role, but as we look back it was taking on a
comparable role that marked the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

There are, of course, for President Obama as for all previous
presidents, myriads of issues, but one that I believe will haunt him
for his own term and beyond is moral and constitutional: What are we
doing -- and what will we be seen to be doing -- to the vast but
unknown number of prisoners -- terrorists, freedom fighters, accidents
-- we are holding indefinitely, without charges, without recourse to
the courts or that fundamental right in our heritage from the struggle
against tyranny, habeas corpus. What we are doing at Guantanamo,
Bagram and an unknown number of other "secret" prisons is, as the
courts have rightly, if belatedly and guardedly, held, a violation of
our legal system. We don't need the courts to tell us that it
certainly a violation of our moral code. Obama began by urging
transparency on this sordid issue, but he backed off . His Justice
Department is now appealing a US District Court order that the Supreme
Court decision on habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo also applied to
a set of prisoners at Bagram who apparently arrived there by rendition
or who, at least, are non Afghans. Of course, the most sordid issue is
the evidence of sodomy, rape and torture captured in the photograph
collection that Obama first wanted to release and then changed his
mind. Those who profess to know say that what these pictures show is
truly horrible. Some have compared them to the vivid record the Nazis
kept of their sadism. Even pragmatically, since they are known --
indeed known worldwide -- it is questionable to say the least that
hiding them will protect our reputation. For what little it is worth,
my opinion is that making a clean breast of the evil and making an
apology -- as we have repeatedly urged other countries to do in
comparable cases -- would be or could be the beginning of the
resurrection of America.

So it is that I read with further dismay . . . [a recent] article in
The Washington Post [entitled] . . . "U.S. Rebuffs U.N. Requests for
Guantanamo Visits, Data on CIA Prisons. . . "

# # #

I am waiting for the Obama we elected to show up. I hope this drama
does not follow Samuel Beckett's script.

William R. Polk was the member of the Policy Planning Council
responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia from
1961 to 1965 and then professor of history at the University of
Chicago where he founded the Middle Eastern Studies Center. He was
also president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International
Affairs. His most recent book is Violent Politics: A History of
Insurgency, Terrorism & Guerrilla Warfare from the American Revolution
to Iraq (New York: HarperCollins, paper edn. 2008).

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