A consistent stance toward issues with Muslim societies is gradually emerging from the Obama Administration – emerging out of the optimistic fog of early rhetoric. The stance is simple: the U.S. has one big hammer, and that is what will be used to pound on all issues with the Islamic world.
The overwhelming emphasis Obama put on military force in yesterday’s Afghan policy speech is the cornerstone of this unfortunately shortsighted new policy. Surrender to Netanyahu’s right wing leaders of Israel’s project permanently to colonize the West Bank and collectively punish the 1.5 million helpless residents of Gaza for the presence of Hamas (regardless of whether it fires rockets at or observes truces with Israel) is the second foundation stone of this policy. Unremitting pressure on Iran backed up by enough public threats to prevent any Iranian politician who cares about his neck from advocating any compromise is the third foundation stone. And Obama—take note—smoothly tossed Yemen into the mix yesterday in a glib and false implication that Yemen was no more or less than another front in the mythical global attack on the U.S. by al Qua’ida that requires a full U.S. military response.
Of course, the policy is only “new” in the sense that it contradicts Obama’s early rhetoric of sympathetic compromise. All that is now long gone. The ugly neo-con “principles” of wars of choice, preventive war, arrogant dismissal of international law, cynical “collateral damage” (i.e., the murder of innocent civilians caught in the path of the American military machine) are back to haunt us.
Whatever the mistakes of the past, at this moment, an army of sorts is indeed gunning for U.S. soldiers, although only those actually on Afghan soil. Does that mean that today Obama has no alternative but to pour in more forces? Even if more military force may be required to prevent immediate defeat, making force the core of the proposed path to conflict resolution is hardly the only option.
- Obama could have chosen the moral high ground and declared war on Afghan narcotics with a massive economic aid program for farmers and a retargeting of Predators away from the homes of insurgents to the Afghan (Taliban and regime) heroin labs that truly do pose a threat to the world.
- Obama could also have used the power of his office and his remaining charisma to call for the Islamic world to rise up and help their Afghan brothers so as to enable American troops to depart. Thanking Erdogan for his recent efforts to find a compromise way forward in the Mideast and inviting him to lead a similar effort on Afghanistan would have constituted one big step in that direction.
- He could also have put teeth in his Afghan security policy by announcing a program to provide the new Afghan security forces he is training with salaries sufficient to support a family so those recruits could survive without accepting bribes from drug dealers or insurgents.
Sadly, he seems determined to box himself in as a war leader, and those options were ignored. Both Afghan hopes and Obama’s reputation now teeter on a precipice.
In sum, we are back where we have been for a decade: assuming blindly (without questioning) that the appropriate, indeed, the essential response by Washington to every global sign of Islamic political activism must be a military attack.
Is this an overstatement? Look at the evidence:
- Recall the experience of Gaza: Hamas won a democratic election in 2006, after making the historic decision to move from military resistance to participation in the political process only to be robbed of its victory by an Israeli-American plot to provoke Palestinian civil war. Trying once again in 2008, Hamas signed a truce with Israel and, indeed, did a rather good job of living up to its end of the bargain by ending rocket attacks. Israel did not live up to its end, however, because what Israel opposes is not Hamas rockets but the very existence of a Hamas regime and, in particular, the existence of a Hamas regime that is peaceful, integrated in the political process, and successful. I have not noticed any sincere-sounding protests coming out of Washington about Israel’s repressive behavior toward Gaza.
- Washington’s refusal to compromise with Iran to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough that seemed finally within its grasp is the second major piece of evidence that we are back where we were under Bush. Instead of accepting the Iranian foreign minister’s idea of trading Iranian for European uranium on Iranian soil as the essence of victory, Washington rushed to reject the breakthrough. International agents on the ground in Iran conducting uranium transfers would have constituted a great step in the direction of permanent international oversight.
These details do not portray Washington as searching for peace, compromise, a win-win solution for the long term. The details are consistent with a desire for total victory over Muslims who demonstrate any desire for independence. The details are also consistent with a simpleminded obsession with force as the answer. Even if the truth is that Washington simply is overemphasizing the one big tool in its hand, the question remains:
Is the military hammer effective?
One hint might be the continuing carnage in Iraq. Another might be the state of affairs in Afghanistan after eight years of U.S. military intervention. A third might be the dismal social disaster known by the name of “Somalia”—a disaster that started not with “Islamic radicalism” but with Cold War superpower competition that wrecked Somalia’s traditional political system several decades ago. A fourth might be the emergence of radical dissent in other countries, such as Yemen. And a huge fifth might be Gaza, where the most abjectly helpless population on earth nevertheless continues to resist external oppression. A rather different hint might be the conclusion in Ankara that finding a middle ground and taking the diplomatic initiative makes more sense than continuing to lean to the West and follow Washington’s lead.
Once there was a superpower that called radical political opponents “terrorists.” A bitter war was fought. Nevertheless, within one generation, the victorious terrorists and the defeated superpower had already begun to team up and remain the best of friends to this day. The superpower was of course Great Britain and the “terrorists” (yes, London actually used that word) were America’s heroic freedom fighters.
So I am not convinced that all Islamic radical political activists must automatically be labeled as enemies of the U.S. (though the U.S. certainly has the power to make them its enemies). However, even if one does so label them, it may still be the case that the U.S. needs a different approach. Battling Islamic radicalism is like battling with glass. Smash it, and it fractures into millions of very sharp splinters. Maybe the U.S. needs a better tool than a hammer.