The Militarized Surrealism of Barack Obama
Thursday 30 June 2011
It's already gone, having barely outlasted its moment -- just long enough for the media to suggest that no one thought it added up to much.
Okay, it was a little more than the military wanted, something less than Joe Biden would have liked, not enough for the growing crew of anti-war congressional types, but way too much for John McCain, Lindsey Graham, & Co.
Tell me you weren't holding your breath wondering whether the 33,000 surge troops he ordered into
You weren't? Well, if so, you were in good company.
Billed as the beginning of the end of the Afghan War, it should have been big and it couldn't have been smaller. The patented Obama words were meant to soar, starting with a George W. Bush-style invocation of 9/11 and ending with the usual copious blessings upon this country and our military. But on the evidence, they couldn't have fallen flatter. I doubt I was alone in thinking that it was like seeing Ronald Reagan on an unimaginably bad day in an ad captioned "It's never going to be morning again in
If you clicked Obama off that night or let the event slide instantly into your mental trash can, I don't blame you. Still, the president's Afghan remarks shouldn't be sent down the memory hole quite so quickly.
For one thing, while the mainstream media's pundits and talking heads are always raring to discuss his policy remarks, the words that frame them are generally ignored -- and yet the discomfort of the moment can't be separated from them. So start with this
These days he can barely open his mouth without also bowing down before the
Think of these as the triumvirate without which no Obama foreign-policy moment would be complete
I wouldn't claim that Americans had never had such thoughts before, only that presidents didn't feel required to say them in a mantra-like way just about every time they appeared in public. Sometimes, of course, when you feel a compulsion to say the same things ad nauseam, you display weakness, not strength; you reveal the most fantastic of fantasy worlds, not a deeper reality.
The president's recent Afghan remarks were, in this sense, par for the course. As he plugged his plan to bring
"We're a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens. We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination... and when our union is strong no hill is too steep, no horizon is beyond our reach... we are bound together by the creed that is written into our founding documents, and a conviction that the United States of America is a country that can achieve whatever it sets out to accomplish."
I know, I know. You're wondering whether you just mainlined into a Sarah Palin speech and your eyes are glazing over. But hang in there, because that's just a start. For example, in an Obama speech of any sort, what
In a country that now "supports the troops" with bumper-sticker fervor but pays next to no attention to the wars they fight, perhaps Obama is simply striving to be the premier twenty-first-century American. Still, you have to wonder what such presidential fawning, omnipresent enough to be boilerplate, really represents. The strange thing is we hear this sort of thing all the time. And yet no one ever comments on it.
Oh, and let's not forget that no significant White House moment ends these days without the president bestowing God's blessing on the globe's most extraordinary nation and its extraordinary fighters, or as he put it in his Afghan remarks
The day after he revealed his drawdown plan to the nation, the president traveled to
Summoning another tic of this presidential moment (and of the Bush one before it), he told them that they were part of "the finest fighting force in the world." Even that evidently seemed inadequate, so he upped the hyperbole. "I have no greater job," he told them, "nothing gives me more honor than serving as your commander in chief. To all of you who are potentially going to be redeployed, just know that your commander in chief has your back... God bless you, God bless the
As ever, all of this was overlooked. Nowhere did a single commentator wonder, for instance, whether an American president was really supposed to feel that being commander in chief offered greater "honor" than being president of a nation of citizens. In another age, such a statement would have registered as, at best, bizarre. These days, no one even blinks.
And yet who living in this riven, confused, semi-paralyzed country of ours truly believes that, in 2011, Americans can achieve whatever we set out to accomplish? Who thinks that, not having won a war in memory, the US military is incontestably the finest fighting force now or ever (and on a "climb to glory" at that), or that this country is at present specially blessed by God, or that ours is a mission of selfless kindheartedness on planet Earth?
Obama's remarks have no wings these days because they are ever more divorced from reality. Perhaps because this president in fawning mode is such an uncomfortable sight, and because Americans generally feel so ill-at-ease about their relationship to our wars, however, such remarks are neither attacked nor defended, discussed nor debated, but as if by some unspoken agreement simply ignored.
Here, in any case, is what they aren't
The Unreal War
If Obama framed his Afghan remarks in a rhetoric of militarized super-national surrealism, then what he had to say about the future of the war itself was deceptive in the extreme -- not lies perhaps, but full falsehoods half told. Consider just the two most important of them
Unfortunately, it just ain't so. First of all, the real Obama surge was minimally almost 55,000 and possibly 66,000 troops, depending on how you count them. When he came into office in January 2009, there were about 32,000 American troops in
In other words, in September 2012, 14 months from now, only about half the actual troop surge of the Obama years will have been withdrawn. In addition, though seldom discussed, the Obama "surge" was hardly restricted to troops. There was a much ballyhooed "civilian surge" of State Department and aid types that more than tripled the "civilian" effort in
Then there was a major surge of CIA personnel (along with US special operations forces), and there's no indication whatsoever that anyone in Washington intends reductions there, or in the drone surge that went with it. As a troop drawdown begins, CIA agents, those special ops forces, and the drones are clearly slated to remain at or beyond a surge peak.
Finally, there was a surge in private contractors -- hired foreign guns and hired Afghans -- tens of thousands of them. It goes unmentioned, as does the surge in base building, which has yet to end, and the surge in massive citadel-style embassy building in the region, which is assumedly ongoing.
All of this makes mincemeat of the idea that we are in the process of ending the Afghan war. I know the president said, "Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security." And that was a foggy enough formulation that you might be forgiven for imagining more or less everything will be over "by 2014" -- which, by the way, means not January 1st, but December 31st of that year.
If what we know of US plans in
The US general in charge of training the Afghan military recently suggested that his mission wouldn't be done until 2017 (and no one who knows anything about the country believes that an effective Afghan Army will be in place then either). In addition, although the president didn't directly mention this in his speech, the Obama administration has been involved in quiet talks with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to nail down a "strategic partnership" agreement that would allow American troops, spies, and air power to hunker down as "tenants" on some of the giant bases we've built. There they would evidently remain for years, if not decades (as some reports have it).
In other words, on December 31, 2014, if all goes as planned, the US will be girding for years more of wildly expensive war, even if in a slimmed down form. This is the reality, as American planners imagine it, behind the president's speech.
Of course, it's not for nothing that we regularly speak of the best laid plans going awry, something that applies doubly, as in
Though Obama claims that the
The growing unease in
Think, then, of the president's foreign-policy-cum-war speeches as ever more unconvincing attempts to cover the suppurating wound that is
What will he say when the Great American Unraveling truly begins?
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books). You can catch him discussing war American-style and that book in a Timothy MacBain TomCast video by clicking here.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs