Sunday, December 13, 2009

War or Peace President?

In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last December 10, President Barack Obama argued that sending more US troops to Afghanistan was justified to protect the world from terrorism and extremism.

This is what Obama actually said during his acceptance speech. “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.”

Obama is resonating exactly like his predecessor, prompting his critics to accuse him as simply rehashing the Bush doctrine.

To paraphrase one critic, Obama is not only continuing Bush’s war but he’s also sounding more like him, except that he’s using more eloquent words this time. But they are after the same tragic result: “endless wars of choice.”

Listening to Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan at West Point, I was struck with his arguments in rebutting the comparison to Vietnam. Obama mentioned that unlike in Vietnam, the United States is joined by its allies in the war against terror in Afghanistan. This is utterly a lie. The first rally I attended was in 1965 (Obama was only four years old that year) as a young student when I joined an anti-war demonstration in Manila to protest the decision of the Philippine government to send a military contingent to Vietnam. Australia, New Zealand and South Korea also provided non-trivial assistance in the form of ground troops. My future brother-in-law who had just received his green card at that time was also drafted by the US army and served a year in the medical corps in Vietnam.

Obama has now joined the ranks of American presidents who have become unwitting tools of the American military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned several decades ago. In order to justify sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, Obama has completely recycled the Bush administration’s myths about the war on terror. He had painted the United States as an altruistic power, forced into a global war for democracy by the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

In 2001, Obama said that US invaded Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda – though most of the September 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, a major US ally in the Middle East. After driving Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan but failing to dismantle its terrorist base which simply moved to the Pakistan border, Obama still has to manage a plausible answer to this question: why is it necessary to send more troops in Afghanistan when Al Qaeda operatives are in their strongholds in Pakistan?

According to US military advisers, Al Qaeda has been substantially reduced to roughly 100 operatives. Would this justify whether Taliban or Al Qaeda pose the same existential threat to America today that it did on 9/11? Or would the terrorist enemies the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan be so stupid to remain frozen in the Afghan mountains and villages knowing there will be more American troops this time? Obama himself has acknowledged that Al Qaeda has established safe havens in other places like Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Are these the next targets for US invasion?

The United States in Vietnam was falsely following the theory that the spread of world communism to a single country would inevitably lead to its spread to a continent. They were proven wrong. This time the United States has recycled the old theory, now in the form of world terrorism which is in the heart of Afghanistan according to the US government, that if not defeated, terror will stay and spread to other nations. But one thing is certain: the Afghanistan theatre of operations will not be over in 2011 as Obama would like it to happen. The United States will obviously be fighting immensely costly wars in other regions of the world, in Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Asia.

On the other hand, Afghanistan, which is known as one of the world’s most treacherous backwaters, could be a graveyard for another empire. In the past two centuries, both Soviet and British invaders have been forced to beat bloody retreats from Afghanistan. Or more than two millennia earlier, it was here that Alexander the Great’s empire crumbled when it had trouble crossing the Khyber Pass in 326 B.C.

From the Middle Ages on, waves of invading Mongols, Mughal rulers of India, and Persians have swept through the area, but the Afghan tribes have always proved fractious and hard to rule. In the words of Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty that ruled much of central Asia in the 1500s, “Afghanistan has not been and never will be conquered, and will never surrender to anyone.”

History will test Obama’s decision to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, and whether he is pursuing a just war in crushing a relentless Taliban insurgency or in pursuit of Al Qaeda will depend on how ably his military commanders can conquer this graveyard of empires.

They may learn in a roundabout way how the real graveyard of the Soviet empire was dug in the Kremlin, where absolute power insulated its leaders from reality beyond its walls. The Afghan war was only one of many causes of discontent and dissolution within the once-powerful Soviet political apparatus. The American people now confront a similar crisis. It is not surprising that a greedy political and economic system that won’t provide health care to its citizens is also resorting to war and militarism in a desperate effort to feed its insatiable appetite for growth and profit. To call the escalation of the Afghan war just under this kind of dispensation is very un-Obama. In the end, it’s the military policy of the United States that will fill up its own graveyard, not that of Afghanistan, as Americans begin to organize for the collapse of their empire.

St. Thomas Aquinas in Part Two of his Summa Theologica offered as a third condition for a just war that it be waged with the right intention, i.e., it aims at “the advancement of good, or avoidance of evil.” After 2011 or a year before Obama runs for re-election for the presidency of the United States, we will see if his prudential consideration for escalating the Afghan conflict was a moral and just one.

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