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Obama in Pakistan : Critical Readings in Foreign Policy

February 4, 2009

Who can honestly say that they were surprised when President Obama decided to bomb Pakistani villages along the Afghan border?

Certainly not I.  During the election campaign, Obama made it clear that he saw Iraq as a distraction from the vital strategic problem posed by Afghanistan’s slide back into Taliban control.  Obama made it clear that while his position differs substantially from that of the Bush regime – particularly regarding Iraq and the importance of diplomatic engagement, even with America’s apparent ‘enemies’ – he accepts the over-arching vision of the world embedded in Bush’s War on Terror.  But does he really?

As beautifully explained in Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares (2004), the War on Terror posits the existence of an existential threat to Western civilisation.  Drawing from the same kinds of worse-case-scenario thinking that concocted an entirely fictional global Communist conspiracy, the War on Terror suggests that the West is full of shadowy terrorist cells held together by the Al Qaeda network and Osama bin Laden’s deep pockets.  Afghanistan is a potent component of WoT mythology as it forms a kind of terrorist garden of eden, a cradle of militant Islamist society where people go to be trained, equipped and psychologically prepared for the waging of a great war against the West.  Any leader who buys into WoT mythology is forced to make Afghanistan his main focus as, without Afghanistan, terrorists will lack a spawning point.

The left-leaning commentariat has reacted to Obama’s bombing with alarm.  A recent episode of Bill Moyers’ Journal saw the historian Marilyn Young and the LBJ-era Pentagon official Pierre Sprey comparing the decision to spread the war to Johnson’s decision to start bombing North Vietnam.  Personally, I think a better comparison is Nixon’s decision to start bombing Cambodia and Laos.

I agree that this was a foolish thing to do.  The drones reportedly killed about twenty people but when seen as a piece of political theatre, it will most likely have much wider consequences both in terms of alienating even more of the global Islamic community, and in terms of putting pressure on the already unstable government of Asif Ali Zardari.  Indeed, the shock-waves of Obama’s airstrikes are being felt both at home and abroad as Pentagon Hawks write encouraging memos and the Indian government starts to worry about US involvement in Kashmir.

Might we be seeing the next evolution of the War on Terror?  Afghanistan’s role as a spawning point for terrorists is due to the fact that it was a largely lawless, quasi-failed state whose government turned a blind eye to training camps, encouraged by sympathetic elements in neighbouring governments.  But what makes Afghanistan so special?  Obama seems to have identified the Pashtun lands in Pakistan as a similarly lawless territory and the same might also be said about Kashmir or even Sudan.  If Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan is motivated by a genuine belief that denying terrorists space for training camps prevents terrorist attrocities then there is nothing (other than logistics and public opinion) preventing the US from opening up a universal war on every state containing Islamic elements.

What I am saying is that if you want to be pessimistic over Obama’s air-strikes then using LBJ’s escalation in Vietnam as a template might prove a touch conservative.

However, the study of Foreign Affairs is never as simple as this.

Foreign policy is almost never formed of a pure ideology or set of beliefs about the way the world functions.  With the exception of Nixon and Kissinger’s Great Power diplomacy and the Neoconservative warping of the state’s intelligence gathering capabilities, most US government’s foreign policies have been cobbled together on the hoof as a reaction partly to external events and partly to internal pressures.  Indeed, the Clinton administration was particularly noted for its responsiveness to internal pressures as vocal domestic critics (including, most notably, the Neoconservative Think Tank Project for the New American Century) forced the regime into a series of shows of force ranging from air strikes in Africa and Iraq to the publication of the Counterproliferation Initiative and a State of the Union address warning of Saddam Hussein’s attempts to acquire WMD.  These shows of force served to legitimise the Bush Doctrine by softening up public opinion and familiarising the American people with the ‘threat’ of ‘rogue states’ and WMD and were completely at odds with Clinton’s more liberal foreign policy goals such as humanitarian intervention in Somalia, Rwanda, Former Yugoslavia and Haiti, not to mention attempts at solving long-standing diplomatic problems such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Any attempt to cobble together Clinton’s foreign policy into a grand vision that could be used for predictive purposes was doomed to failure from the start. It is possible to draw on evidence that would paint Clinton as a beligerant simpleton, a intellectual paralysed by indecision, a weak leader terrified by bad press and a liberal internationalist who kept his feet on the ground.  The text of Clinton’s presidency supports all of these interpretations but the truth is arguably more complex than any of these.

I would argue that the same is true of Obama’s foreign policy.

Clausewitz famously wrote that “War is the continuation of politics by other means”, this signifies that military action is not something that happens once politics fails, it is something that is a part of the political process.  At no time was this clearer than during the Cold War where billions were spent developing weapons systems that would never be used except as forms of political symbolism.  When the Soviet premiers waved from the Kremlin balcony as ICBMs rolled by on trucks, they were publicising not only their personal strength but also their willingness to use nuclear weapons.  In order for mutually assured destruction to work, it was paramount that the different sides believe each other willing, and even eager to launch nuclear weapons at their opponents.  Weakness might invite a first strike as the opponent launched banking on the fact that the other side might not be willing to return fire.

The same can be said of Obama’s air-strikes in Pakistan.

By bombing a Pashtun village, Obama has shown that he is not affraid to use force and that the insane logic of the War on Terror still holds sway over him.  By sacrificing one village, he has signalled to the world that while he is willing to talk to America’s enemies, he is no pacifist.  Given that Clinton’s foreign policy was thought up as much by the right-wing commentariat as by the government itself, an initial show of force is a good way of buying a more doveish regime some diplomatic breathing room.

The evidence at this point equally supports seeing Obama as an inexperienced fool who has latched onto the previous administration’s diplomatic inertia as it does seeing him as a man who believes in the power of diplomacy and who grasps the political realities of being a dove in a nation of ignorant and ideological hawks.  The truth will only out once Obama leaves office but he should be aware that the line between those two caricatures is dangerously thin.

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