The Beat Goes OnBy Prof. Michael Brenner • Jun 14th, 2009 • Category: Politics, Worth A Second Look • 5 Comments
Rooted dogma is tenacious – especially when well fertilized by fear. America’s ‘War on Terror’ is going at full throttle after briefly pausing in neutral during the presidential transition. For all the talk of ‘change’ there is nothing different about how the Obama administration either defines the country’s interests or its audacious global strategy for advancing them. Washington remains dedicated to rooting out ‘terror’ wherever radical Islamist groups raise their heads. The scope is astonishingly broad: Mali to Somalia to Palestine to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and every place in between. The unchanging means are mainly generous applications of military might. The prospects for ‘success’ are as dim at the goal is ambitious – especially so since we have been given no crisp statement of what ‘success’ amounts to, other than eliminating from vast territories on two continents anyone whom we decide is a danger to the United States.
This outcome should not surprise us. Barack Obama is a conventional thinker on every matter of consequence, be it foreign affairs, the financial meltdown, or the use and misuse of the intelligence apparatus. He seems never to have encountered an establishment to which he does not instinctively tip his cap in respect. He promised us a bigger war in Afghanistan; we have gotten it. He promised us more aggressive action in Pakistan; we have gotten it. He vowed to protect America by every means possible from our enemies; he has been unstinting in using all available methods to that end regardless of the price. The only promises he has not fulfilled are to end the United States’ combat role in Iraq and to place firm, transparent restrictions on illegal or libertarian compromised actions by the Executive Branch. In Iraq, he is engaging in the masquerade of relabeling American combat brigades as support and training units. On the exercise of police powers, he has gone to court repeatedly to defend the practices introduced by the Bush presidency while blocking Congressional initiatives to curb them. On no occasion has the president seen fit to spell out candidly the justification, the premises, and the risks attached to these policies. A decent respect for his fellow Americans, and to posterity, command that he do so,
Fear of the elusive enemy that we have named ‘international terrorism’ since 9/11 is still the driving force. Obama has pronounced its destruction the top priority of his administration, albeit toning down some of his predecessor’s overheated rhetoric. He has not qualified the inflated importance it has been given. Our massive commitment in this cause is accepted by Americans for only one reason: the lingering dread that it could happen again. The connections between any plausible, concrete threat and our sweeping actions remain as obscure as ever. The possibility that our actions may actually increase the danger is ignored. Blind trust and faith join with fear as substitutes for the prudent deliberations of a mature democracy.
Other dubious ingredients of our project to make the world safe for America are still in place. They are as simple as they are objectionable. They also are familiar. One, the United States has the ability to work its will wherever so long as we are united and dedicated. Two, we are able to arrange the political affairs of other peoples however alien in culture and tradition. Three, a world built according to our design and managed by us is both attainable and in everyone’s interest. Four, countries as diverse as Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia and China will come to see the truth of the above if we are persuasive enough and high-minded in our enlightened thinking. They too will view the world through the terrorism optic. Five, the future of NATO will be decided amidst the poppy fields of Helmand Province; and perhaps the fate of the West itself in the high valleys of the Hindu Kush.
Americans’ uncritical readiness to subscribe to these propositions testifies to our enduring conviction in American exceptionalism and the power of positive thinking. It confirms as well an exceptional capacity for self-delusion. Despite the Iraq fiasco, and serial failures elsewhere in the Greater Middle East, the nation’s political class is almost as one in thinking that we can make it work in Afghanistan – on the second or third try. This belief is compounded of several small delusions. To cite an example: Afghans – unlike Iraqis – really do not mind our occupying their country since we got rid of the Taliban for them. It is apiece with other chimeras in the region, e.g. if we brutalize the Palestinians enough they will abandon Hamas for Mr. Abbas.
Games of make-believe are for kids – not great powers.
This assessment is not offered as realism or idealism, certainly not as neo-isolationism. It is a plea for honesty. If indeed there is a convincing case to be made that it is a vital national interest to pursue the ‘war on terror’ around the globe, and to infringe on our freedoms at home, let that case be made clearly and dispassionately. Let there be a genuine public debate. Let us make the elementary distinction between aspiring to everything we want to be and everything we can be. We owe ourselves nothing less. If the conclusion favors going forward, let us do so with eyes wide open. Instead, we are embarking on another magic mystery tour – with goals as elusive as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
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Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics.
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