Obama's lame attempt to justify his old, new war

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PARIS -- The remarkable May 23 address by President Barack Obama was primarily an effort to establish the legality of actions taken by himself and his administration, notably the targeted drone killings, to settle his conscience in his continuing prosecution of what George W. Bush named the global war against terror.

The speech lacked a beginning, any establishment of the cause and nature of this "war," and/or a conclusion that offered an intellectually serious and politically realistic plan for bringing the affair to an end. These would have required the president to address truths about the origins and possible escape from the labyrinth of frustration and good/bad intentions and initiatives that make up this involvement of the United States in the affairs of Islamic society. The president left these out because they are politically unacceptable, or unsayable, in the United States today.

They would require recognition that this tangled and largely unsuccessful American engagement in the Middle East and Central Asia is a result of what now are generally recognized as wholly unrealistic American notions of national exception and unique mission in world affairs. It's a result of the strategic interest of Washington in controlling access to Middle Eastern oil, the United Nations' creation in 1947 of a Jewish national home in Mandate Palestine with foreseeable consequences in Arab society and politics, and the normal impulse of the Pentagon to apply indiscriminate power to the solution of such problems as are put before it.

The second unspeakable truth is that any end to the United States' painful and immensely costly and destructive adventures in the Middle East, Asia and increasingly in Africa would require a complete American military withdrawal from Muslim countries.

This would be interpreted by conservative Republicans, liberal interventionists and probably by an overwhelming part of the American foreign policy community as an unacceptable moral and strategic "defeat," although in essential respects, it would not differ from the defeat accepted by the Nixon administration in Vietnam in 1975, leading to national unification under a communist government in 1976, peace in Vietnam if not in Cambodia, within a decade the beginning of economic reforms, and eventually normalized relations with the U.S., Vietnam's membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and a trade agreement with the European Union.

President Obama's announced policy of post-2014 withdrawal of a large part of the American troops now in Afghanistan has already provoked charges of "defeat" in Congress and, in some circles, a demand for Obama's impeachment. Because of Israel's natural interest in an American deployment in the Muslim world that is as extended and aggressive as possible, and its influence in Washington, it is hard to imagine a deliberate American military withdrawal from that region, short of unexpected military catastrophe in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or a war with Iran than ended badly, or in a negotiated settlement that made American withdrawal necessary. These seem unlikely, although not impossible.

Absent a policy of total military withdrawal on terms that allow the atmosphere of violence to dissipate, the Obama administration appears condemned to indefinitely continue the present vain and provocative campaigns against individuals and jihadist groups in the Middle East and Central and West Asia, by drone or otherwise, who thereby will be provided continuing reason to carry out their own operations against the American military and political presence in Islamic countries, as well as inside the United States and its allied nations.

The president's address was intended to clarify and confirm the legality and morality of what he is doing in what now has become his war. It is not a constitutionally declared war, and until now has rested upon the flimsy and increasingly irrelevant legal foundation provided by the September 14, 2001, Congressional joint resolution (known as the AUMF) that authorized the use of military force in response to 9/11.

This was taken by the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration to include assassination, seizure and, in the Bush case, torture of individuals in contravention of international law, unconstitutional imprisonment without due legal process, military actions in violation of other nations' sovereignty and American treaty obligation, and other actions violating American or international law. It includes the inhuman prison at Guantanamo Bay, its now routine force-feeding of protesting prisoners, and its culture of disallowed trial and justice, contaminated evidence, blocked release or repatriation, all for reasons of despicable congressional politicking and vindictiveness. This situation of profound injustice, as the president warned, currently seems likely to become the legacy we leave to a coming generation: that of a nation that incarcerates in apparent perpetuity people charged with no crime, held in an offshore prison, with further torture applied to them to prevent them from ending their own suffering.

The president's conclusions set forth a series of "democratization" projects and foreign aid development proposals of a kind that have consistently proven incapable of producing the expected cultural conversion, with "modernized economies, upgraded education and encouraged entrepreneurship" creating "reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists." That, he said, is "our strategy," a strategy of empty idealism and actual revenge upon an ungrateful world, its final product being only broken lives.

(Visit William Pfaff's Web site for more on his latest book, "The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy" (Walker & Co., $25), at http://www.williampfaff.com.)

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