Obama’s Ambiguities and Distractions

Progressive writer Randolph Bourne once wrote that “war is the health of the state.” This is true in the sense that the government can use war to distract citizens from domestic problems and conflicts by uniting subjects in common support and admiration of the government and its supposedly necessary or noble military activity. At a 2002 anti-war rally in Chicago, President Obama made just this point in reference to Bush’s war in Iraq: “What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war.”

Now the Obama administration seems to be taking a page out of Rove’s playbook—drawing attention away from the flaws in Obama’s foreign policy and diverting it toward his domestic goals. The administration’s “historic” domestic projects and administration officials’ public condemnations of oil and insurance executives excite the public. Obama’s War on Terror, for some reason, does not.

The media have also failed to scrutinize Obama’s foreign policy. In a recent address from the Oval Office, Obama misleadingly announced the so-called “end” of America’s “combat mission” in Iraq. Major TV networks discussed the event for an hour or two and then, mysteriously, a war that provoked years of controversy went out of fashion, taking a backseat to the latest round of Israel-Palestine peace talks.

In his address, as in his campaign promises, President Obama took advantage of the ambiguity of the military distinction between combat and non-combat forces. All remaining U.S. troops are entitled to take pre-emptive action against any perceived threat. Furthermore, plenty of so-called non-combat soldiers have fought on a regular basis, and many supposedly non-combat missions like “training” and “advising” Iraqi police are in practice indistinguishable from combat missions. Even as the U.S. military withdraws two-thirds of its forces, the State Department is doubling the use of private contractors (a.k.a. mercenaries) in Iraq, a trend that we can reasonably expect to continue past the Dec. 2011 withdrawal deadline.

We should not be surprised if such sophisticated, government-speak half-truths are used to shroud the total withdrawal timeline. President Obama chose this particular date to demonstrate American compliance with the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement. The agreement, however, makes this deadline highly negotiable, and the Obama administration is likely to view it that way too, especially considering the permanent presence of a handful of military bases in Iraq and the apparent instability of Iraq’s current political arrangement.

And what about the forgotten war in Afghanistan? When WikiLeaks recently received a batch of secret military documents documenting various military scandals in Afghanistan, the New York Times’ front-page article on the event focused on the evidence of Pakistan sabotaging the American war effort. The more significant revelation, in my opinion, was a list of hundreds of publicly unrecorded civilian deaths. One would think that such a revelation would remind the media and the general public that things like random, pointless civilian deaths have marred Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan—just as repeated drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan have done similar damage.

And what happened to the Guantnamo Bay controversy? Overnight, liberals went from posing as the defenders of civil liberties, wildly protesting Bush’s brazen wartime government, to mindlessly acquiescing to Obama’s extension of the previous administration’s Guantnamo policy. On the basis of the language of the Iraq War Resolution, Obama has defended the right of the federal government to detain perceived terrorists indefinitely and without due process. He has used this legal interpretation to justify the detention of many Guantnamo inmates and the continued existence of the Bagram Air Base detention center in Afghanistan.

Obama’s foreign policy, at least by the standards applied by liberals to George W. Bush, is outrageous. Nevertheless, because Democratic politicians and Obama supporters refrain from criticizing the current administration’s foreign policy, because the only opposition party is generally unsympathetic to the anti-war position, and because of the preoccupation of American citizens with domestic economic problems, Obama’s foreign policy threatens to remain free from substantive public criticism.

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