Nudging Obama

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Afghanistan: Obama Capitulates to the War Makers

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Afghanistan: Obama Capitulates to the War Makers

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Is that a halo around Obama's head? Back in May, when this photo  was taken, some people thought he deserved one. Now, if his plan gets  congressional funding, he'll soon have over 100,000 troops in  Afghanistan. No halos for war makers!  AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK

Is that a halo around Obama’s head? Back in May, when this photo was taken, some people thought he deserved one. Now, if his plan gets congressional funding, he’ll soon have over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. No halos for war makers! AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK

Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan represents a decisive endorsement of the strategy of domination. Instead of using his presidency to challenge the ideology of the war makers, Obama has become one of the most brilliant and nuanced articulators of the “war as the path to peace” worldview. It is essentially the same argument that was used to defend the Cold War, the war in Vietnam, and the projection of U.S. military power around the world for the past sixty-five years.

“We must begin,” Obama told the world on December 10, 2009, while receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm, “by acknowledging the hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

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Obama doesn’t tell us why he thinks this is true, except to point to the past. Now imagine if a leader had said, “We will not eradicate … in our lifetime” and substitute in that blank space any of the following: slavery, sexism, apartheid, segregation, hunger, environmental destruction, child abuse, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, or any other global evil. Many of us would probably say, “Whoa, you might be right — we can’t know for sure — but certainly whether you are right or not on any of these issues will be affected by whether you prioritize the abolition of these problems. If our leaders start by assuming that x, y, or z cannot be abolished, they will likely put less energy into doing so than they might, so this kind of diagnosis becomes self-fulfilling.”

In his Nobel Prize speech, Obama acknowledges that his position is in stark contrast to that of Martin Luther King Jr. when King was awarded the Nobel Prize. Then he jumps to the Moral Man and Immoral Society approach championed by Reinhold Niebuhr and subsequently used by conservatives and neoconservatives to justify the Cold War and the war in Vietnam: what is moral for an individual is not necessarily what is moral for a society. According to this view, a nation must be guided by self-interest and the need to defend its own citizens, not the self-interest of the whole planet (though in the twenty-first century our self-interest depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet — a point that Obama does not consider). So, Obama goes on, “As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [King and Gandhi’s] example alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.”

We recognize that the president of the United States has a special responsibility to defend the United States from attack. We have never been doctrinaire pacifists — but then again, neither were King and Gandhi (both of them recognized circumstances in which they might not oppose the use of force). But we do believe that in most circumstances, the threat of force against us must be overwhelmingly clear, the danger immediate, and all other potential strategies besides war must have been exhaustively tried. None of these is the case with regard to Afghanistan.

In fact, Obama would be hard pressed to convince objective observers that there is an immediate threat to the American people that could not be resolved by ending poverty in the Middle East, from Gaza to Afghanistan. Without trying that approach, Obama is on weak ground to argue that he is applying “just war” theory.

But in Stockholm, Obama wasn’t considering the strategy of generosity. The only alternative he considers is one of total nonviolence a la his caricature of King and Gandhi, and that one he dismisses by warning: “Make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history: the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

The Meaning of “Evil”

There is so much ideological baggage built into these sentences it is hard to disentangle them. First, there is the religious/metaphysical belief that “Evil” exists in the world. This is a claim that has been substantially challenged by many of us, and which I take on in The Left Hand of God. Many spiritual progressives acknowledge that evil acts have happened and that young children often inherit personalities, character structures, and ideological frameworks from people who have acted in evil ways or who have supported institutions or religious and secular practices that have embodied evil. First and foremost, they inherit a propensity to solve problems through violence.

Living in a world based on an unequal distribution of food, housing, and security — in a world where some of the powerful media glorify violence, and where various branches of secular and religious ideologies preach a philosophy of self-interest and domination over others — encourages us to think and act in hurtful ways. But that is very different from ontologizing Evil as an “existent reality.” For a fuller discussion of this issue, please read Erich Fromm’s 1973 classic The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. From our standpoint, there is much to do to reduce evil actions and ideas that encourage evil practices and institutions that inflict hurt on others, but that is different from insisting that there is such an entity in the world as Evil. We can develop individual and social practices, institutions, and therapies to reduce evil actions or ideas or institutions, whereas Evil seems like a metaphysical category that cannot be eliminated, and hence provides the justification for a militarism that itself perpetuates and expands immoral and destructive violence and hurtfulness.

When Nonviolence Does Work

Next, there is Obama’s reference to Hitler, which once again gives Hitler the victory of allowing his existence to become the reason why we must act in similar ways to his, showering violence on innocent civilians (and yes, the United States did that extensively in Iraq; and in the past year, the Obama administration has been responsible for the murder of hundreds more civilians through its use of drones to pick out “suspected” terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan).

And no, it is not obvious that Hitler could not have been stopped through nonviolence and generosity. That would not have worked when he was using the German army to invade neighboring countries, starting in 1938. But it was not too late in 1924, and possibly not even in 1933 or 1934. Had the victorious allies after World War I initiated a Marshall Plan for Europe and followed through with generosity and genuine caring for the well-being of everyone affected by that war, and had progressive movements in Europe been aligned with the worldviews of a Martin Buber and a Mahatma Gandhi rather than the worldviews of Stalin, Trotsky, and nationalist-oriented social democratic parties, then yes, Hitler could have been stopped through nonviolence.

The absurdity of comparing the estimated one hundred terrorists of al-Qaida in Afghanistan in 2010 (people who have almost no weapons and no access to atomic bombs) with the power of the German army when Hitler could not have been stopped by nonviolence (namely after 1938) reeks of intellectual sloppiness, if not of dishonesty. Isn’t it time for us to recognize that not every threat to American power (or for that matter, to Israeli security) is Hitler?

A defender of military escalation could now argue, “Sure, they don’t have Hitler’s power yet, but certainly they would like to have it, and they might eventually overthrow the government of Pakistan and get their hands on nuclear weapons.” Yes, they might. But so might China decide that in order to gain greater economic power it should use its atomic weapons against the United States. Or Israel might decide that to protect itself from the possibility that Iran might get and use atomic weapons it would be best for Israel to make a preemptive strike on Iran. In fact, the basic strategic argument for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its stranglehold on Gaza is that if Palestinians ever get real power, they might use it against Israel. And in fact, that was the argument used by whites to maintain power over Blacks in South Africa.

The Torah makes clear when dealing with this issue that there needs to be an act through which this “might” starts to become an “is.” It says if a person comes toward you with the intent of killing you, you have the right to kill first. But the intent is necessary but not sufficient. The person must be in the act of fulfilling his intention. The reason should be obvious: people or even the rulers of nations may have fantasies of eliminating other states, peoples, religions, or ethnic groups, but until they act to make that murder actual, their fantasies or desires are not sufficient grounds for preemptive action.

What Gives the United States the Right to Intervene?

What grounds did we have for a violent attack on the Taliban? The Taliban did not strike the United States but rather, according to the official story, it was al-Qaida. Al-Qaida was given shelter by the Taliban, who did not recognize the right of the United States to put al-Qaida leaders on trial. The United States then intervened militarily and put al-Qaida on the run by overthrowing the Taliban government. But it was not the Taliban who executed an attack on the United States.

True enough, the Taliban often engage in evil acts of violence, particularly against women seeking equality and rights. But so too does the government of China in regard to Tibetans; the government of Russia in regard to Chechnyans; the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria in regard to their own populations; and the government of Israel in regard to Palestinians. In short, we can wish other countries had different systems or different leaders, but that is different from claiming that our wishes provide a sufficient justification for violent intervention. To take another example: the United States incarcerates between 2 million and 3 million people at any given time, thus denying freedom to more people than any other society on earth. Many of the prisoners’ “crimes” turn out to be motivated by a desire to feed their families in the face of stark material deprivation. Many others are incarcerated due to the application of universal standards (like anti-drug laws) in a racist manner (giving jail time to people from communities of color while providing alternative treatment modalities to whites). How would we feel if China or some other soon-to-be-powerful country someday decides that in order to bring freedom and justice to our society, it must use its most sophisticated weapons to overthrow the repressive government of the United States and stop it from abusing human rights?

Maybe there are circumstances where that could be justified. World War II was one such. The Hutu and Tutsi massacres in Rwanda were another such moment. But we’d want to see very careful limits on such interventions. They should be a product of open democratic debate and should only occur if a majority of the people in the countries seeking to intervene are convinced of the morality of such an intervention. And military interventions should only occur after adequate and serious efforts to involve the countries of the world, and those representing a majority of the world’s population should agree to such an intervention.

The United States has no right to appoint itself the policeman of the world’s moral ills, particularly given our “dirty hands” with regard to past interventions. Our interventions are often motivated by economic and military-power desires that have nothing to do with the moral gloss our leaders put on these interventions. If the United States took a few years to urge other countries of the world to build an international force to protect the rights of women in Afghanistan, and if it promised to leave and let that force be the enforcers of human rights, it would have a much better case for involvement should such a force be impossible to create. But the United States has only asked the countries of the world to join under its own military ventures, and these are rightfully suspect.

President Obama has used his massive credibility with liberals to persuade a section of them to support his war. Before his speech, a majority of Americans opposed the war (please remember that in case anyone tries to tell you “Americans are intrinsically militarists”). Over 54 percent opposed the war until a supposedly progressive president made an unequivocal intellectual and policy commitment to pursuing it, and then his majority was only possible because of the many conservatives and Christian fundamentalists who have always been soft on violence against others. Now the New York Times has come around, largely on the basis of seeing how his Nobel Prize acceptance speech insisted that even while engaging the war against “a vicious adversary that abides by no rules,” Obama claimed that the United States must remain “a standard-bearer in the conduct of war.” This is a stretch, at best, seeing as the Obama administration has allowed “extraordinary rendition” of suspected enemy combatants, has failed to prosecute the CIA employees who allowed Blackwater thugs to murder Iraqis alongside the military, and has authorized the drones that have killed large families and civilian gatherings.

What the United States Should Do

The United States should turn to the UN and seek an international force with the mission of a) holding an honest election in which the Taliban would be invited to participate; b) protecting institutions of civil society; and c) creating safety in the major cities of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the United States should lend support to regional negotiations and to a broader settlement of the disputes between India and Pakistan, which continue to stoke the violence in Afghanistan. Most important, the U.S. government should launch a Global Marshall Plan with its first focus on the Middle East (from Gaza through Afghanistan), including massive humanitarian aid to the desperately poor Afghan population. The ability to deliver such aid would be enhanced if it were not perceived as intermingled with military occupation by the United States.

At the core of our approach is a recognition that “the enemy” is often a projection of our own worst fantasies on others, who in turn are projecting their worst fantasies on us. American leaders, like most political leaders on the planet, seem incapable of imagining how the world looks from the perspective of the hungry, the relatively powerless, or those who have been subjected to outsiders trying to impose their regimes, economic systems, and worldviews. Obama has failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam: one cannot win a war against a population that has been fighting for many decades for its own independence. No matter what America’s stated war aims, the people of Afghanistan perceive the American military presence as generating far more violence and destruction than they faced before the United States got involved. As Senator Russ Feingold put it, ” I think (our presence) is increasing the extremism and increasing the resentment toward the United States.”

Indeed, what Feingold predicts has already happened. According to a letter from a recent visitor to Afghanistan:

After eight years of misguided bombing raids to kill Taliban who are living in villages surrounded by civilians, we have created a new multi-headed enemy. Today the Taliban are different from the original fundamentalists who waged a war in the name of Islam. According to the director of the Peace and Reconciliation process in Kabul only about 10 percent to 15 percent of Taliban are ideologically motivated today. The rest are a combination of poor villagers angry at U.S. bombing, out of work youth, former militia, drug smugglers, plain thugs, and those from the countryside who distrust any national government, no matter whose it is.

Most of these people, observers in Kabul believe, would put down their weapons if offered money, land, jobs, and personal security.

A statement from the Campaign for Peace and Democracy that dozens of peace activists and I signed in October 2009 pointed out that U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan must be viewed in the context of a global military system much more massive and far-flung than most Americans realize. Officially, over 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilian employees are stationed in approximately 900 military facilities in forty-six countries and territories — and the actual numbers are far greater. In the words of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, U.S. military spending of more than $600 billion a year “adds up to about what the entire rest of the world combined spends on defense.”

So it is not unreasonable to notice that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan have been part of a comprehensive effort to assert U.S. strategic power and credibility, in the Central and South Asian region and globally — the power to control energy supplies, to overawe rivals, to intervene wherever Washington deems necessary, and to engage other countries in U.S. power projection. Since 2001, the United States has established nineteen bases in Afghanistan and neighboring countries, inserting a military presence into an area that Russia and China also seek to influence.

Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

The argument that the United States must stay involved in Afghanistan to protect women from oppressive variants of Islamic fundamentalism is compelling but ultimately not persuasive: women’s situation under the Karzai regime remains horrific. President Karzai signed a disgraceful law earlier this year applying to Shia women that gives a husband the right to withdraw basic maintenance from his wife, including food, if she refuses to obey his sexual demands. It grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers, and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work. If the Karzai government in Afghanistan, bolstered by the Obama war, manages to stay in power, women will continue to face massive denial of human rights, though better than the situation they would face if the Taliban win.

My comrade Arthur Waskow suggested — partly tongue-in-cheek, but partly to encourage thinking outside the box — that we call a conference of the independent women’s organizations in Afghanistan. Organizers could offer micro-loans for grassroots economic development to any ten women who apply as a group (loans ranging from $1,000 to $5,000). And they could offer ten revolvers and 1,000 bullets to each group of women: one gun and fifty bullets for each woman for target practice, and fifty bullets for defense against anyone who comes to assail them for being uppity. If any women’s group chooses not to receive the guns but to take their chances on nonviolence, their micro-loan doubles. Then the United States leaves — generals, predators, drones, and all — except for continuing contact with the micro-loan organizations.

A similar plan has been suggested for all of Afghanistan — to offer massive financial aid to those Taliban who put down their guns and join a peaceful effort to stabilize the country. It would be far cheaper than the kind of open-ended commitment the Obama administration is making to Afghanistan. I would welcome an international intervention, sans NATO, with the sole aim of providing protection for the women of Afghanistan.

A Better Strategy for Homeland Security

One reason why many spiritual and religious activists celebrated the outcome of the 2008 election was the perception fostered by the Obama campaign that the new president really understood that militarism and the use of force to achieve American objectives should be relegated to the dustbin of history, at least until every nonviolent strategy has been exhaustively tried. Indeed, in his private meeting with me in 2006, Obama explicitly embraced the Tikkun/NSP perspective that a strategy of generosity would necessarily be more effective than a strategy of domination.

The Tikkun/NSP strategy was given teeth by the vice chair of the Progressive Caucus of the House of Representatives, Keith Ellison, who has worked with us to develop a Domestic and Global Marshall Plan (DGMP). Under this plan, the United States would lead the advanced industrial societies of the world in committing between 1 percent and 2 percent of its Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty to end global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care, and to repair the global environment. This strategy for “homeland security” would be far more effective than the futile strategy of domination against countries that might at some future time pose a threat to the United States.

Now that Obama has decided to escalate the war in Afghanistan, many of Obama’s most fervent supporters — including the many religious and spiritual progressives who believed he would turn our foreign policy away from militarism and toward creating a more caring world economic system — are expressing dismay to each other. Spiritual progressives have long known what Obama seems not yet to have absorbed in a serious way: that the path to peace must be a path of peace, and that you cannot bomb and kill your way to security. Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan has left us feeling bleak and betrayed.

The “American Depressions” portrayed on the cover of this issue of Tikkun are not only about the over 10 percent of the population unable to find work. They involve a psychic and spiritual depression. Having allowed ourselves to hope that the Obama administration would unequivocally commit to a new worldview, masses of Americans who supported Obama are now filled with confusion and despair.

We spiritual progressives should not allow ourselves to succumb to this depression. We must continue to help Americans (including our political leaders) to recognize “the other” as fundamentally another part of ourselves. We are one human race. The illusions of our fundamental differences that supposedly justify us in war making must be overcome. We face a major challenge in saving our planet from the consequences of our own destructiveness. War is not the way to achieve the new consciousness that is needed to save the human race, so every possible nonviolent means must be used to avoid war before it has started, and to stop it now that it is being escalated. But as Congressman Keith Ellison points out in an interview in this issue of Tikkun, this is not a time to give in to despair. King didn’t, Gandhi didn’t, and we must not either.

We know full well that the military-industrial complex and the forces on Wall Street and in the media are certain to ridicule such efforts and to repress those who take them seriously. We continue to believe that deep inside Obama would like to be part of a different kind of world, but advisers have convinced him that a military path is the only “realistic one.” Our task remains to provide concrete alternative ways of thinking and policy development. That’s why it is so important that you come to join us at our conferences (February 15 for one day in San Francisco, and June 11-14 in Washington, D.C. For more info, visit http://www.tikkun.org/conference). We will continue to be a bastion of hope and a visionary advocate about how to achieve safety and security for all the people of the world and for our endangered planet.

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Written by bearmarketnews

January 6, 2010 at 4:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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