President Obama’s Muse?

President Obama

Since last week’s Nobel Prize ceremony, Reinhold Niebuhr, the most influential American theologian of the 20th century, has been given insufficient attention from the mainstream media.

President Obama often calls Reinhold Niebuhr his “favorite philosopher” and his “favorite theologian.” Slate magazine and various editorial writers of the mainstream media termed President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech a “faithful reflection” of Niebuhr’s political philosophy. George Packer, in this week’s New Yorker magazine, said that the spirit of Niebuhr “presided over the Nobel address.” Not really!

Niebuhr warned against the “dangerous dreams of managing history.” There is probably no better example of the global powers trying to manage history than Afghanistan, home of the “Great Game,” where Alexander the Great, Queen Victoria, Leonid Brezhnev and, now, Barack Obama have tried to manage the ethnic and tribal communities of this region.

Obama’s Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has been one of the leading managers of Afghan tribalism over the past three decades. In the 1980s, along with CIA Director William Casey, Gates promoted the covert action that supplied military assistance to the most fundamentalist members of the anti-Soviet mujahideen; the Pakistani intelligence services acted as the conduit for this aid.

In doing so, the CIA helped to forge the Pakistani-mujahideen connection, which led to the installation of the fundamentalist Taliban government in Kabul in 1996. In his memoir, “From the Shadows,” Gates called this the greatest covert action in the history of the CIA. Not really! Evaluating the success of an enterprise must take into consideration the consequences.

President Obama is now promoting a surge of troops, contractors, clandestine operators, infrastructure construction and so-called coalition members to defeat the very fundamentalists that Casey and Gates helped to create.

A year ago, Gates told the Association of the US Army that “reviving public services, rebuilding infrastructure and promoting good governance” had become soldiers’ business. According to Gates, “All these so-called nontraditional capabilities have moved into the mainstream of military thinking, planning, and strategy – where they must stay.”

In other words, Gates believes that military power is the all-purpose answer to any geopolitical challenge. Hence, the military will serve as the pointy end of a spear for nation-building. Not really!

A half a century ago, Niebuhr warned that the “trustful acceptance of false solutions for our perplexing problems adds a touch of pathos to the tragedy of our age.”

Indeed, with the United States facing severe domestic problems as well as international challenges from an unstable nuclear state (Pakistan) and an irrational near-nuclear state (Iran), President Obama has committed the future expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars to Afghanistan, a corrupt backwater that has drawn the attention of too many outsiders and earned the sobriquet of the “graveyard of empires.” If the United States were to disappear from Afghanistan, then anti-Taliban tribes (Tajik, Ukbek and Hazara) and neighbors (Iran, Russia and Central Asian nations) would have to sort out the consequences.

This civil war has been raging for 36 years and, now, President Obama believes that the presence of additional American forces will change that fact. Not really! The military leaves a large and brutal footprint – never welcomed by an occupied land. US covert assistance to the anti-Taliban warlords, tribal groups and nations would be far more effective against the Taliban. Let’s not forget that fewer than 500 military and CIA special forces in October-November 1991 routed al-Qaeda and overthrew the Taliban government; more than 100,000 US forces in 2010 will have little success in a counterinsurgency capacity against a growing Taliban force with a Pakistani sanctuary.

Fifty years ago, Niebuhr warned that the United States had become “strangely enamored with military might,” and President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex. A year ago, former President Bill Clinton lectured the Democratic convention about the “power of our example,” and not the “example of our power.”

But President Obama cited American exceptionalism at the Oslo ceremony, failing to understand the negative implications of that term to the international community and to many American progressives. At the same time, the United States has demonstrated a lack of progress in dealing with genocide; Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have ignored the crimes that have taken place in Darfur, the Congo and Rwanda. Millions of innocent civilians have died in these places, where European forces and US logistical support could have made a difference.

President Obama could mount an international assistance campaign to repair the damage of Israel’s reckless use of military power against Gaza last year, but he is disinclined for all the worst reasons. Twenty-two days of Israeli bombing has left children suffering from malnutrition, the destruction of major water and sanitation infrastructure and many people still living in tents. Israel denies access for reconstruction materials, including cement, irrigation pipes and glass for windows. Meanwhile, the Obama administration maintains the fiction of a peace process with the feckless trips of a secretary of state and a so-called czar for the Middle East. Niebuhr would not have approved.

President Obama has succumbed to what Niebuhr termed the “false security to which all men are tempted” – the security of power. The president used Oslo to declare Afghanistan a just war, without defining the Afghan threat to US security. His numerous references to a coalition of foreign forces are, in fact, a good example of the kind of pseudo-internationalism that Niebuhr warned against. The small contingents sent by such countries as Macedonia, Georgia and Montenegro merely add to the problems for US forces that have to provide force protection for undermanned and poorly trained foreign forces. President Obama’s inaugural address appeared to challenge President George W. Bush’s long-term “war on terrorism;” his West Point speech, however, appeared to accept the Bush doctrine.

Fifty years ago, Niebuhr described a United States that was “frantically avoiding recognition of the imperialism which we in fact exercise.” In arguing that the United States was helping “underwrite global security for more than sixty years,” President Obama ignored lessons learned in the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Iraq and, now, Afghanistan. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” Niebuhr would have found the president’s speech in Oslo unreasonable.

Andrew Becevich warned a year ago that the United States, believing that it was unique among history’s great powers, was following the “well worn path taken by others, blind to the perils that it courts through its own feckless behavior.”

President Obama’s inaugural address promised so much; thus far his vision has been limited and his political courage, as Sen. Russ Feingold noted in criticisms revolving around health care reform, lacking.