So as expected, Obama became the latest American War President this week. He was one already by virtue of being the Commander-In-Chief of an army engaged in two wars. But it was made official because of his embrace (however reluctant it appeared) of the battles he inherited.

So 30,000 more troops and 18 months to “finish the job” that 8 previous years have failed to put on dent on.

What was he thinking?

Well, politically the plan is masterful. Even brilliant. First he acquiessed to the demands of the Generals which endears him to the military brass. But it also allows him to blame them if it all goes haywire in 18 months.

Second the plan relies on a lot of moving parts Obama can only influence from far, but cannot directly control: The Afghan government, the Pakistanis, The NATO allies, the Taliban. And precisely because of that he can blame them anytime it becomes politically expedient, declare victory an leave.

Third the July 2011 timetable, almost a year and a half away from his re-election allows him to play to all political affiliations. To the Republicans he will say “I did not cut and run. I stayed the course and took the fight to the terrorists!”. Even if they complain about the very presence of an exit date (as they are currently doing), they will commend him for fighting on. To the hardcore anti-war Liberals he will say: “I have an exit date. I only decided to stay because we had to win this thing. I am ending it soon as promised and sending our boys home.” He could even order a few brigades home during the year of the election campaign as a show of sincerity.

Finally, he will remind Independents and all voters that he opposed the war in Iraq and is in the process of bringing it to a close along with the Afghan one. But he cannot run from the battle and that’s why, he will say, there are still some American troops occupying two Mid-East countries.

 After the election of course, if he is re-elected, he would then do whatever he wants written in the history books about the Obama Presidency . That’s politics. And for better but mostly for worse, Presidents are politicians first.

In the real world of war and occupation in Afghanistan, people will continue to die and the stupididty of Wednesday’s decision will ring true.

War is awful. Wars of choice are also awful but blatantly wasteful. Years from now, when the NATO armies have gone home and the Afghans are still grappling with their misery and the Al Qaeda terrorists are still terrorizing from some new cave in Namibia or Yemen or from a five-star hotel in a Western capital, we will wonder what all the dying was for. The idea of invading a single country and transforming it as a way of forever preventing a band of supposedly religious maniacs from ever commiting mischief anywhere else in the world was always silly. 30,000 more troops will not change that.

If you happen to have a few minutes, please follow the link below to watch PBS’s Bill Moyers Journal showcasing another President, Lyndon Baines Johnson grappling with the escalation of another war a few decades ago.

 The similarities are eerie.  

http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/11202009/profile.html

Roger Cohen wrote today in the NY Times about an ordinary Israel, as opposed to an exceptional Israel.

I found this column significant in many ways. It captured something that had been the subtext of almost every international discussion of Israel and its actions beyond its legal borders in the last few years.

 As human beings, we usually have clearly defined perceptions of ourselves. In most cases, we are unaware or choose to be unaware of how we are perceived by the world around us. So unfortunately, we end up interacting with the world on the basis of how we see ourselves or how we wish to be seen. Nations do the same. They have national narratives that are sometimes manufactured for social cohesion, sometimes over-idealized versions of real events, sometimes just plain bogus. And unfortunately any external messages directed at them have to get through the thick fabricated glass windows.

Israel, Roger Cohen says in his piece “does not see itself as normal. Rather it lives in a perpetual state of exceptionalism”. So it can have nuclear weapons while demanding that the US help prevent Iran from getting them. It can refrain from signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while demanding that NPT signatories like Iran live up to their obligations. Basic notions such as fairness do not factor in these types of talks because there is the view of “we are rational, THEY are not!” and therefore it follows that “we can be allowed to do things THEY can never be forgiven for doing.”  Now, Israel unlike many other nations on this earth was born out of a tragedy. A great tragedy. But as Cohen rightfully observes, that does not mean it should refrain from  ”deal[ing] with the world as it is, however discomfiting, not the world of yesterday.”

As Cohen quotes in the piece, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has often said that the only way to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons is “for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened .” So what if the US as part of its Iran Strategy tried to convince Israel to go the way of South Africa and get rid of its nuclear weapons as a way of persuading the iranians that their security will not be compromised by not developing a bomb?

The Israelis would never agree to it, of course, but let’s imagine that they did for a second.
Because one important way and I believe the most important way to look at this Iran Nukes conundrum is through the lens of regional control and regional security. Israel has been the “Big Boy” of the Middle-East for the past forty years or so. Egypt reared its head for a bit in the days of Nasser and Sadat. But they were quickly smacked in the Six-Day War and in the Yom Kippur War. They then decided it was best to sign a peace treaty, get a Nobel Peace Prize for Sadat in the bargain and move on. Then Iraq rose slightly with a little help from the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations. They quickly lost their power when Saddam picked a fight with the Ayatollas to start the 8-year long Iran-Iraq war that drained them financially and otherwise. The American invasion of 2003 took care of whatever power was not erased by the UN sanctions that preceded it. The Gulf states (Bahrain, Koweit, Qatar, UAE, Oman) have as much military strength as five African bees.  Yet Israel with a lot of US financial and military help has remained strong.

So now the Iranians look to be on the rise again, paranoid and fearful. They do have valid reasons to be fearful. From Tehran, the Mullahs look to the east and they see NATO troops in Afghanistan (including nuclear armed nations like the US and the UK) and further east, they see Pakistanis with nukes. Indians with nukes. Further west, they see Israelis with nukes. In addition to being in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has a presence in the Gulf States. If you couple this with the constant threats of bombardments as enunciated by both US and Israeli officials, it is no wonder the Iranians want to get nuclear weapons as a way of preventing an externally-imposed regime change.

Some will argue that Iran is not governed by “rational leaders” and therefore cannot be held to the same standard as other nations. I disagree. And I am not alone in this view. Many decades of Iranian peaceful co-existence with its neighbours back me up on this. So does the NY Times’ Roger Cohen in the piece I quoted at the start of this post. “Iran makes rational decisions,” he writes. “Rather than invoking the Holocaust — a distraction — Israel should view Iran coolly [and] understand the hesitancy of Tehran’s nuclear brinksmanship.”

So in many ways, the road towards Obama’s nuclear-free world and therefrore a nuclear-free Middle-East, goes through Tehran as much as it goes through Tel Aviv.

In awarding the Peace Price, the Nobel Committee has gotten it blatantly wrong in the past. Sometimes it failed by omission. Many times it failed to research the complete body of work of the person being honored. Sometimes hope triumphed. And in some small instances, the Prize actually went to all too deserving individuals.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 to Barack Obama on Friday represented perhaps a combination of all these past failures. To understand this, one has to re-examine the body of work of President Obama so far, but also the history of the Prize itself and its past winners through the lens of peace and peace-making. 

In 1938, the Prize was awarded to the International Office for Refugees. However the short list for the following year included one Adolf Hitler. Now, while this seems bizarre today with over seventy years of hindsight, the German Fuhrer was greatly popular as an international figure in 1938. He was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938 and most of the horrendous crimes against humanity for which he is known today were yet to be committed. His desire for continental conquest was well known. So was his racism. Yet the Committee somehow saw him as a peace-loving man worthy of their shortlist.

In 1973, the Peace prize was given to both Henry Kissinger & Le Duc Tho for negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, a war they escalated into Cambodia through Operation Menu and that ended up taking the lives of over 2 million Vietnamese people. Earlier in 1971, the NY Times published the Pentagon Papers that detailed the deception campaign of the Nixon/Kissinger cabal to keep the public uninformed about their war machinations. Whether this history was considered when the Nobel Committee decided on the Prize is anybody’s guess. But as a double dose of irony, on September 11th 1973, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and the CIA would concoct a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected President of Chile: Salvador Allende. And the co-winner of the Prize, Le Duc Tho would refuse it because he did not believe the end of the war with the US meant peace for his country and continued fighting against the south vietnamese until 1975.

In 1960 the Prize went to Albert Lutuli, the ANC President.

In 1964 the Prize went to Martin Luther King, jr.

However Mahatma Gandhi was short-listed five times in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, 1948, but never won. Yet Yasser Arafat & Menachem Begin won The Prize.

In a final tidbit of historical WTF moments, George W. Bush & Tony Blair were both short-listed for The Prize in 2002. So was Hamid Karzai who the British-Pakistani writer Tariq Ali refers to (jokingly, I am sure) as “The Great Puppet of Kabul.”

So this is the history that gave us this year’s selection of Barack Obama.

The Committee said it was for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” But the obvious reply based on the facts of the last 8 months would be: “He has done nothing of the sort!” In a Q&A that followed the announcement, the choice was clarified as a way of nudging Obama to continue the work he started on nuclear non-proliferation and re-including the US in the community of nations.

 Right.

 If Obama is working so hard at worldwide peace-making, why was White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs waffling this week trying to explain why Obama did not seem to want to meet…of all people…The Dalai Lama. Amnesty USA even reported that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decided that China’s human rights record will not top her China agenda. Could all of this dillying and dallying have less to do with peace between China and Tibet and more to do with the $1 trillion dollars the US owes China or the commercial relations that need to be maintained there?

Many have pointed to the recent talks with Iran, the US decision to scrap a European Missile Defense system and the fact that Obama chaired a UN Security Council meeting on Nuclear Non-Proliferation. While those are worthy noises that are a breath of diplomatic fresh air when compared to the idiotic bombast of the previous occupant of the White House, they do not constitute anything worthy of an international prize. It is important to note that Iran has not stopped developing nuclear weapons as a result of anything Obama did or said. On the contrary, because of the recent threats and demands, Iran has actually developed new Uranium enrichment sites. There is also no indication that Russia has reduced its stockpiles of weapons or is prepared to do so because of any action Obama has undertaken either.

The record of the US itself under Obama is still dismal, if peace on earth is the goal. The United States is still occupying two sovereign countries: Iraq and Afghanistan. And one of the first orders Obama issued when his Afghanistan strategy was announced, was to order the deployment of 21,000 new US troops to Afghanistan. And if he is to act on General Stanley McChrystal’s recent request, many more thousands of US soldiers will be shipping out to Afghanistan in the coming weeks and months. Renditions are still taking place. Guantanamo is still open and may not close next year as Obama originally promised. But even if it does close, the Bagram prison in Afghanistan will remain open. And on the same day the Nobel Committee was rewarding Obama, it was announced that the US is preparing a $15 billion military buildup in the Pacific island of Guam.

Some have indicated that Obama’s overtures to the Muslim World have swayed the Nobel Committee. But while Obama has made two speeches in the capitals of two majority-Muslim countries (Turkey and Egypt), he has done nothing to act on any of what he spoke of in the speeches. Netanyahu is still expanding Israeli settlements into Palestinian territory without any fear of US repercussions. Women still can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, a strong US ally. Hamas is still being its violent self. And just as a way of extending more olive branches all around the Middle East, the US has used its position in the UN Human Rights Council to both undermine the Goldstone Commission Report on the Israeli assault on Gaza and force Mahmud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership to defer its adoption.

Finally, to those who say the Nobel Prize is a “down-payment on Obama”, one can just as well say: sometimes down payments can be for purchases that turn out to be worthless.

Maybe one day President Barack Obama will do enough to deserve this prize. We all hope so, given his power as the leader of the so-called Free World. But so far, the amazing promise that drove thousands to fill Grant Park in Chicago on November 4th last year, has only translated into Bush-Lite policies and in the words of one former presidential candidate, “lipstick on a pig.” The Nobel Committee should have spent more time examining the dirty spots on the pig’s back before falling in love with the lipstick.

What are Western soldiers doing in Afghanistan? Is it to “reconstruct” the country as some of our leaders keep telling us? Is it to root out Bin Laden? Does it matter still? Is it in preparation for the impending takeover of Pakistan by the Taliban? Is it to act as a potential shield given the tensions between the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and India and their WMDs?

Listening to recent pronouncements from our leaders, one wonders.

First President Barack Obama admitted to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in a recent interview that a “win” in Afghanistan (I am paraphrasing here) meant preventing the country from becoming a launching pad for attacks on the US and its allies. That is a very scaled down version of the lofty goal of George W. Bush which was among other things transplanting democracy to the Land of Burqas and Poppies.  

Then this week-end, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking to Fareed Zakaria of CNN said: “Frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency! ” Now that is as blunt as anybody can get. Then there are the increasingly reluctant European allies who view this mission as similar to that other doomed one in Iraq.

So why is the West in Afghanistan given all these parameters?

I will venture some explanations here although as a word of caution, I don’t accept these as valid reasons for stationing thousands of troops in a foreign country. I simply think this is what is guiding our leaders’ decisions. So here goes…

I think first there is the WMD factor. India and Pakistan are at loggerheads over Kashmir and other recent entanglements including the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan is increasingly shaky given the military’s power over the executive branch and the Intelligence services’ links to insurgent groups. So since the worse case scenario of this situation is either a nuclear Pakistan leaking secrets to insurgents or a nuclear Pakistan going after a nuclear India, the West deeems it necessary to be present and ready to intervene. Here’s why this does not work however: preventing any conflict between these two countries is a matter of diplomacy. There is no military deterence for nuclear armed enemies. The presence of foreign troops in either of these countries has in the past only served to rally the population againts the foreigners viewed as “invaders”.

2- The perenial “let’s get them there so we don’t have to fight them here” argument: The Taliban is based in Afghanistan & Pakistan. Al Qaeda and other affiliate terror groups are also based in the Middle-East. So if they were to be fought and destroyed as units there, they will cease to be a threat to the West in the West. This argument works if one assumes that the Taliban, Al Qaeda and all the other groups that hold a deep hatred of Western societies are units that once destroyed in a specific geographic location can essentially be eliminated and prevented from threatening societies anywhere. Ever. This assumption however ignores centuries of colonial adventures that prove the exact opposite. Nihilistic organizations or ones that view their mission as their people’s overarching cause tend to be very loosely structured. The guiding principle being their message. Once it catches on, leaders can be killed or jailed, bases can be ransacked, the message lives on. It becomes like a virus that can only be completely destroyed if all the infected victims are located, except as more are located, more are infected.  Think of the FLN in Algeria in the 1960s or the Mau Maus in Kenya in the 1950s or the ANC in South Africa or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Insurgencies work because of their knowledge of  the terrain, of the language, of the culture and customs and their overall ability to hide or resurface depending on the conditions on the ground.  The history of Afghanistan is the blatant proof. That is perhaps why Stephen Harper recognized that they cannot be defeated in their own countries. So one has to wonder: why risk resources and lives trying when there are more pressing problems at home?