Yves here. This post makes a critical point that is deliberately obscured in domestic
war mongering discussions of Middle East policy: that invaders and occupiers are never welcomed with open arms (despite Iraq War fantasies to the contrary) and hostility and efforts to make it costly for us to stay should hardly be surprising.
By Gaius Pubius, a professional writer living on the West Coast. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius. Cross posted from AmericaBlog
This is the last of four posts that examine Obama’s big National Security / Drone Strike / War on Terrorism speech. The first three are here:
The first considered Obama’s reaction to the protester; the second considered the folded-back-on-itself aspect of the speech (“I hate the Gitmo force-feeding; stop me before I keep doing it some more”); and the third looked at the drone program and the “War on Terrorism” through the eyes of Chris Hayes and several of his commenters, who concluded that the drone program is hated, yet Obama is spirited in its defense.
There are two more aspects of the speech I want to look at here — Glenn Greenwald’s overview comment about this speech in the context of all Obama speeches, and Guy Saperstein’s perfect capture of the reason Obama’s war-making is a failure, an analysis of the speech I’ve seen nowhere else. (Click to jump to each of these sections.)
Glenn Greenwald: “Seeing What You Want to See”
First Greenwald, writing in The Guardian (all emphasis and some reparagraphing mine):
Obama’s terrorism speech: seeing what you want to see
Some eager-to-believe progressives heralded the speech as a momentous change, but Obama’s actions are often quite different than his rhetoric
The hallmark of a skilled politician is the ability to speak to a group of people holding widely disparate views, and have all of them walk away believing they heard what they wanted to hear. Other than Bill Clinton, I’ve personally never seen a politician even in the same league as Barack Obama when it comes to that ability. His most consequential speeches are shaped by their simultaneous affirmation of conflicting values and even antithetical beliefs, allowing listeners with irreconcilable positions to conclude that Obama agrees with them.
The highly touted speech Obama delivered last week on US terrorism policy was a master class in that technique. If one longed to hear that the end of the “war on terror” is imminent, there are several good passages that will be quite satisfactory. If one wanted to hear that the war will continue indefinitely, perhaps even in expanded form, one could easily have found that. And if one wanted to know that the president who has spent almost five years killing people in multiple countries around the world feels personal “anguish” and moral conflict as he does it, because these issues are so very complicated, this speech will be like a gourmet meal.
But whatever else is true, what should be beyond dispute at this point is that Obama’s speeches have very little to do with Obama’s actions, except to the extent that they often signal what he intends not to do.
I won”t continue, as you can see where this is going. Like myself and Jon Stewart in the first two posts listed at the top, Greenwald questions Obama’s sincerity, yet focuses on the audience, their need to see what they want to see, and Obama’s consummate craftsmanship in giving it to them. It’s sad (and dangerous) that many on the left have come to respond in this way, but there it is.
The rest of Greenwald’s piece is excellent; it looks more broadly at Obama’s value to “guardians of the status quo in placating growing public discontent about their economic insecurity and increasing unequal distribution of power and wealth.” Do read if you’re at all inclined.
Near the end, Greenwald notes, via the inestimable Michael Hastings, what Guy Saperstein has also noted — that the ultimate frame of the war as a fight against “jihadists” is why all related policies are doomed to fail. Hastings, as quoted by Greenwald:
“That speech to me was essentially agreeing with President Bush and Vice President Cheney that we’re in this neo-conservative paradigm, that we’re at war with a jihadist threat that actually is not a nuisance but the most important threat we’re facing today”.
Why does the “war against jihadists” framework doom us to failure? Let’s turn to Saperstein.
Are We Fighting an Ideology, or the Understandable Resistance of Occupied People?
Guy Saperstein is someone not many are familiar with, as much of his work occurs away from the limelight. Yet his influence has been considerable. From his Huffington Post biography:
Guy T. Saperstein graduated law school (UC Berkeley) in 1969, received a poverty law fellowship and represented migrant farmworkers in Colorado; in 1972, he founded a law firm in Oakland which became the largest plaintiffs civil rights law firm in America, in the process successfully prosecuting the largest race, sex and age discrimination class actions in American history. Guy also prosecuted False Claims Act cases against Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. regarding satellite surveillance systems, and against Raytheon, Boeing and TRW regarding the sham National Missile Defense Program. …
In 2006, Guy helped write the “Real Security” plank of the Democratic Party’s New Directions for America, and in 2007, helped found the National Security/Foreign Policy New Ideas Fund, with funding from the Democracy Alliance.
There’s much more in this fascinating biography, but note the last paragraph above. It’s this expertise I want to highlight as you read what follows.
Saperstein points out what is certainly the critical mistake of Obama’s (and America’s) relentless framing of this war. Is the enemy a group of “jihadists” or a large group of angry occupied peoples? Saperstein (via email, reprinted with permission):
This is one of the most important speeches President Obama has ever made, as it represents his first effort to challenge national security orthodoxy in the United States. A fresh approach is badly needed, as the old ways of relying on military power have proven to be both astronomically expensive and almost completely ineffective.
Unfortunately, parts of what Obama said are dangerously inaccurate:
“[W]e must recognize that these threats don’t arise in a vacuum. Most, though not all, of the terrorism we face is fueled by a common ideology – a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against that Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause.”
The meme that terrorism is driven mostly by some form of Muslim ideology was developed and is promoted by conservatives, but it has almost no basis in fact, as studies have shown. Terrorism is driven not by ideology, but by occupation by hostile forces. This has been most famously proven by a conservative scholar, Robert Pape, who examined the motivations of 300+ suicide terrorist bombers, virtually every known act of suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2005, and found that more than 90% of the acts of terrorism were motivated by foreign occupation, not ideology.
Other studies of Osama bin Laden [a Saudi] have shown that while he adhered to a mutated form of Islam, his attack on the World Trade Center was motivated by the role the US plays in propping up the autocratic Saudi Arabian regime—which is a form of occupation.
After Pape’s study, in 2006 the DoD commissioned a study of the roots of terrorism by the RAND Corporation and the Rand study came to exactly the same conclusion as Pape—ideology plays a very small role in fomenting terrorism. The major role is the reaction to occupation, and the Rand report recommended that the most effective way to reduce terrorism in the Middle East would be for the US to vastly reduce its military footprint in the Middle East.
Near as I can tell, both the Pape study and the RAND study have been completely ignored by US policymakers, and Obama’s speech continues the pattern of studied ignorance.
… Indeed, if we fail to understand the roots of terrorism, how can we expect to deal with it effectively over the long-term—which is a major part of Obama’s purpose in making this speech?
Hina Shamsi made the same point in the post that contained the Chris Hayes segments, when she noted hat the drone program is “absolutely hated in the countries where it is being carried out.”
If you have a hard time thinking of cross-border drone strikes as a form of occupation, consider this, my own comment from the same post:
It’s hard to come to grips with that last point from the comfort of your chair — without putting yourself in the shoes of those who constantly watch the skies in fear of soulless, pilotless American planes. If a foreign nation sent a drone to kill someone in your neighbor’s house — in Albuquerque, say, or a Cleveland suburb — and your daughter were visiting at the time, and died … what would be the odds you’d immediately think of revenge?
I’d put those odds at just below 100%, assuming you still had a pulse and weren’t blown up yourself. After all, did not the invasion of Iraq ride a national tidal wave of revenge for piloted attacks against New York and Washington, in other words, “9/11″?
What this says is, they don’t hate us for our freedom, they hate us for our bombs, our support of their dictators, our bases, our need for their oil, our need to make the entire world comply with our desire never to lose and never to change.
Put more simply, is “terrorism” the comforting name we give to what in many cases is, in fact, the growing third-world war against worldwide empire? Is the empire creating its enemies? If so, America is indeed “at a crossroads” — but not the one Obama envisioned.
Saperstein then lays his finger on exactly why this matters, why a change of direction, if it were real and the right one, provides a point of hope:
[E]ven in this mostly great speech, [Obama] fails to come to grips with the gratuitous disaster, the self-inflicted wound, that the Iraq War has been for the US and the huge amount of damage it did to America’s standing in the Middle East. Among other things, the approval of America’s foreign policy in Turkey went from more than 70% to 10% and in Pakistan to 5%, and the war removed Iran’s natural enemy and moved Iraq close to Iran politically …
At great cost, the US has dug a very deep hole for itself and at least Obama wants to stop digging it deeper.
We need to hope he perseveres with real action and that he succeeds.
We can all place odds on whether Obama will persevere; but pressing him to follow through on what this speech starts to acknowledge is critical to America’s success. Put simply, if we continue to frame and fight this endless war as one against “terrorists” — “ideologues” — “jihadists” — we will lose an ever-widening campaign and create a Vietnam-like failure of worldwide proportions. That future is stark, as ever-larger numbers of angry people, justified or not, find each of our vulnerabilities and strike.
Look what 9/11 did — we paid more than $1 trillion and killed tens or hundreds of thousands of people, to avenge 3000 American deaths. And we changed our society (and our air travel) perhaps forever.
What would security in this country look like if someone set off a series of bombs in a group of major shopping malls all in one weekend? When I was in Cairo, every entry into a large building along the Corniche el-Nil — every mall, every office tower, each hotel — meant a security scan and search. Every undercarriage of every car was checked before entering large parking lots. (By the way, Egypt was already perfectly safe; this was Mubarak’s security forces maintaining social control. I walked everywhere, alone, and was never interrupted except by friendly greetings.)
Now imagine America and the American economy if Christmas entry to every Mall of America meant waiting in an airport-style security line? Imagine armed guards at gas stations, with checks for under-car explosives before you could gas up? I won’t add to this list of horrid possibilities — it writes itself.
Bottom Line — Can We Afford not to Engage on “National Security Orthodoxy”?
The choice, as I say, is stark. If we don’t disengage from self-centered hyper-control of the world — if we don’t leave others be — we can never succeed. We’ve reached a tipping point, where an empire of “soft power” will have to decide whether to become an empire of Roman Empire–style hard power (with a homeland of ever-hardened defenses), or back off. Ultimately, this is the question Obama is asking. (And note, the rewards of that empire are not well divided; the barons are taking much more than their share, and openly.)
The speech underplays the devastation of our policies (see Shamsi above) and overplays our self-justification for them (Obama: “this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense”). And as Saperstein aptly notes, it completely misunderstands what motivates our combatants. But unless we want to create and sustain a modern “Fortress America” — a land no one but the privileged will want to live in — I think we need to take this speech as a challenge and a way to push back.
In that sense, Saperstein is right. This speech is the first glimmer of recognition by one of Our Betters that “things aren’t right”. Finally.
Do we trust Obama to follow through on his own? Perhaps Greenwald’s “eager-to-believe progressives” do. I sure don’t, and neither do many of those I quoted in this short series.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take this speech as an opening. It’s a fair statement, that the speech “represents his first effort to challenge national security orthodoxy in the United States.” My suggestion is to take that as a challenge ourselves … and press hard.