Either way, we'll be leaving. Thanksgiving week
was remarkable because it may have witnessed the last nails being driven into
the coffin of America's ongoing colonial enterprise. On Tuesday, Afghan President
Hamid Karzai angrily denounced the creation of a parallel carpetbagger government
to be run by the United States and NATO in his country. He demanded a timetable
for the withdrawal of foreign soldiers, noting that his countrymen no longer
understand what the fighting is all about, particularly as they hear of wedding
parties and school outings being blasted by the helicopters and warplanes of
their ostensible allies. Karzai asked rhetorically how the insurgency can keep
getting stronger when most of the world is united in an attempt to defeat it,
and he reiterated his intention to negotiate with the Taliban leaders to bring
On Thanksgiving Day itself, by a narrow margin, the Iraqi parliament voted
for a new status of forces agreement (SOFA) with the United States that will
go into effect on Jan. 1, 2009. The neoconservatives have predictably
declared that the SOFA represents victory, even though they have not read the
document itself, which no one outside of the administration has seen in its
English version. Leaks of the Arabic version and the horse-trading that preceded
the ratification suggest that the final agreement was something less than a
triumph for the Bush White House. Thousands of Iraqis demonstrated against
a continued American presence, and there was virtually no interest in permitting
either the open-ended U.S. military commitment or the immunity for American
forces Washington demanded. U.S. forces reportedly can no longer detain Iraqi
citizens, and both soldiers and contractors will be subject to Iraqi courts
for serious crimes. American troops will be gone from Iraq's cities by June
2009 and completely gone from the country by the end of 2011. The four major
military bases envisioned to maintain a long-term American presence will never
materialize, and the huge embassy on the banks of the Tigris will serve more
as a mausoleum to American ambitions than as a seat of power for a U.S. viceroy.
Intelligence sources are also gloomy in their predictions, with some assessments
indicating that deeply rooted antipathy toward the U.S. presence could drive
American forces out of Iraq sooner rather than later, the SOFA notwithstanding.
Iraq will eventually find its own way forward, though probably with much blood
and suffering, but if there is one thing for sure it is that the United States
will in all likelihood be neither a friend nor an ally to whatever type of
government emerges. Dislike of Washington runs deep in all the political groups
that make up the country, with the exception of the Kurds, who are seeking
to leverage American support into their own independence, an objective strongly
resisted by both Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs. Likewise in Afghanistan the United
States will almost certainly be eventually viewed as just one more in a long
series of invaders, all of whom were eventually defeated and left the country.
That the Afghans are demanding a timetable for Washington to leave and that
the Iraqis have already set a deadline is remarkable, and it speaks to the
declining role and possible irrelevance of the United States to what is going
on in the Near East. If the United States has retained a shred of decency,
then it will hopefully be willing to go when it is asked to do so. Apart from
shoring up the unpopular regimes in place in both Afghanistan and Iraq to permit
some sort of political settlement, Washington is no longer the essential nation
in a region that it had set out to dominate by force of arms seven years ago.
In a regional context, the removal of Saddam Hussein coupled with a blundering
occupation and a failed reconstruction in both Iraq and Afghanistan has reinvigorated
the terrorist threat and has empowered only Iran.
So what does the turn of events in Iraq and Afghanistan mean vis-à-vis
Barack Obama's foreign policy? Obama is only a "peace" candidate
in relative terms, having committed himself to negotiating before he bombs.
He has said that he will stay in Iraq as long as the generals recommend it,
and he has not explicitly disowned the current U.S. policies of preemptive
warfare and nation-building. He appears willing to consider regime change if
it is applied selectively. Ever resolute in his AIPAC-fueled pledge to stop
the Iranian nuclear program, he has also supported intervention in new regions
like Darfur where the United States has no conceivable national interest. He
has even out-Republicaned the Republicans in his pledge to use U.S. troops
to aggressively pursue terrorists inside nuclear-armed Pakistan, an act of
war that would further destabilize that unhappy land.
Wanting to draw down in Iraq and increase troop strength in Afghanistan, Obama
is embracing taking one failed policy and transferring it somewhere else in
hopes that it will succeed. He is also ignoring sage advice. The British and
French have already indicated that the Afghan conflict cannot be won in any
conventional sense, making the NATO commitment to the war questionable, to
say the least. Even Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
has stated that the United States cannot kill its way to victory in Afghanistan,
indicating somewhat obliquely that he does not believe any surge in troop levels
will provide a long-term solution.
The fact is that Barack Obama's foreign policy is just Bush-lite: it embraces
the principle that the judicious use of force is a good thing and that Washington
should properly be the world's policeman. Many Democratic stalwarts, including
party leaders Steny Hoyer, Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi, are at heart interventionists.
Obama's foreign policy team is troubling, most particularly in the choice of
Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff and of Hillary "Obliterate Iran"
Clinton as his secretary of state. There has been some speculation that Obama
is preempting criticism by AIPAC in naming two of the most pro-Israeli hawks
in Congress to key positions, providing him with the political cover that he
needs to pursue a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. The analogy
of Nixon going to China is sometimes cited, suggesting that only someone with
a sustained record of criticism of an adversary would have the political credibility
to take the bold steps necessary to shift the political playing field. But
that analysis ignores a critical element, which is that changing China policy
did not lead to confrontation with a major domestic constituency seeking to
block any agreement. AIPAC would oppose giving anything to the Palestinians
at the expense of Israel, and it has demonstrated that it has a de facto
veto over Washington's Middle East policy. Can anyone truly believe that Hillary
Clinton will take a hard line with Israel, demanding that Tel Aviv stop and
even roll back its settlement activity? Without such a bold step, no viable
peace agreement is possible.
The other Obama foreign policy hypothesis, that Hillary Clinton will serve
as a dutiful and obedient secretary of state carrying out the president's policies
reliably and without demur, is also little more than speculation. On the contrary,
Clinton's history and her thinly veiled ambitions would suggest the opposite,
and her husband, a perpetual loose cannon on deck, also cannot be relied upon
to be a team player. It is much more likely that Obama, recognizing that he
is vulnerable on foreign policy and knowing that he will be watched closely,
has decided to pursue a foreign policy that both AIPAC and Hillary will be
comfortable with, which means that the Palestinians can kiss the next four
years good-bye and Iran better look to its defenses.
Or maybe Obama, an intelligent man who appears to have a conscience, will
quickly discover that Washington no longer has the resources to intervene by
force when and where it chooses. The United States might find itself compelled
to bring home the regiments and aircraft carriers as the burden of empire becomes
insupportable, as in Rudyard Kipling's poem "Recessional"
predicting the end of the British Empire: "Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
is one with Nineveh and Tyre." Iraq and Afghanistan both want the United
States to leave, but on their timetable. Perhaps it would be appropriate to
move that timetable up in America's own national interest and leave now before
Washington truly becomes Nineveh on the Potomac.