Editor’s Page

Barack Obama’s Road – to Folly or to Wisdom?

Wisdom has built her house,
She has hewn her seven pillars.

Proverbs 9,1

Barack Obama is winding down the war in Iraq. Fine. But he’s also escalating the one in Afghanistan. Is this wise or foolish? History is awash with examples of foolish wars. Both the British and the Soviet empires tried to subdue Afghanistan and straggled out after huge losses in men and treasure with their tails between their legs. But we can go back much farther and ask why the Trojans dragged that ridiculous and suspicious-looking horse inside their walls despite every indication of a Greek trick. Why did George III insist on antagonizing the American colonists against intelligent advice (now called “intelligence”) that the results would be disastrous for Great Britain? Why did Charles XII, Napoleon and Hitler invade Russia when they should have known that such adventures had always led to defeat? Why did Montezuma with a ferocious army of 300,000 meekly succumb to the less than godly handful of Spanish conquistadores? Why did the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages abuse the faithful to the extent that the Reformation ensued? Why did Chiang Kai-shek lose China instead of reforming his abuses? Why in the First World War did the French leave their left flank practically defenseless and attack to the east? Why did one of the smartest presidents the U.S. ever had acquiesce to the Bay of Pigs invasion? Why did the United States persist for so many years in Vietnam after the French gave up? I suppose many more examples could be gleaned from Google, but we don’t need them to think of the present: Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Of the two, Iraq presents the greatest folly. Didn’t anyone ask: Saddam Hussein – and then what? Of course they did, but the bumbling president and his advisors weren’t listening to the few who warned that it wasn’t going to be that easy; they only listened to the generals and the CIA, who said it would be a cakewalk. I suspect that from the beginning, from the Trojan horse to Iraq, those in power were listening to their generals. Kennedy learned from his mistakes: will President Obama learn as well, before it’s too late?     

Steve Cole in the New York Times: “The miscalculations across five Administrations are by now generally understood: near-unequivocal support for anti-American militias during the nineteen-eighties; averted eyes as Pakistan pursued its covert nuclear ambitions; the abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal; the failure to recognize the menace of Al Qaeda during the nineteen-nineties; erratic investments in Pakistan’s democracy, economy, and civil society; and, most recently, a war in Afghanistan after 9/11 which did not defeat Al Qaeda or the Taliban but chased them into Pakistan, where they regrouped and have proceeded to destabilize a country now endowed with atomic bombs.”

The U.S. continues to bomb Al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And why not? What else can they do? The Taliban and/or Al Qaeda groups are composed of dedicated, fanatically religious, vicious fighters from tribal backgrounds who know nothing else but war – their kind of war in their own extremely inhospitable (to anyone else) terrain. And they are desperate. American soldiers are none of these things. They are in the military because it’s a relatively good paying job involving little or no work with medical coverage and good early retirement benefits. At home many of them would be unemployed or scraping the bottom of the job barrel. Most couldn’t care less about Afghanistan or Iraq and are hoping to get out alive without serious wounds – physical or psychological. (I wrote “most” – there are always exceptions.) But bombing has caused thousands of deaths and mutilations in the innocent civilian population; it always has, everywhere; it is inevitable. The U.S. government says they are sorry about such “collateral damage” and are making every effort to avoid killing and mutilating civilians. They blame the Taliban, who hide among civilians. Along with the torture of prisoners, bombing has resulted in a shift from pro-American feeling in Iraq and Afghanistan to despair and loathing of Americans – a sentiment shared to a certain extent by the rest of the world.

Now President Obama is cranking up the war in Afghanistan, including the usual devastating but ineffective bombing forays. Folly? Yes, it seems so. So why is he doing it, along with several others things which are offending his supporters and encouraging his domestic opponents (read: Republicans and the “religious” right) - refusing to reveal the latest prisoner abuse pictures, taking too long to close Gitmo, refusing to prosecute Bush administration criminals? Is he repeating the follies of his predecessors since the Trojan War, believing his generals, or does he have a joker up his sleeve?  

We know that Obama is very smart and we still hope that his heart is in the right place. So I’m going to go out on a limb and offer a possible explanation. Maybe he’s even smarter than we realized and is playing the political game with exquisite finesse. The torture photos will be revealed sooner or later, probably by court order, despite the military cry that they will “hurt our soldiers”. But Obama can say to the patriotic electorate that he didn’t reveal them. The generals have insisted that the troops must remain in Iraq at least until the elections in December. Come December and the elections, if Iraq is relatively stable the withdrawal can commence. That would be the best, but improbable case. If things are the same there or worse, Obama can say, okay, I listened to them and they were wrong (as usual) so we’re getting out. In other words, he’s playing his cards in a way that avoids alienating the part of the American population most susceptible to jingoism – and leave Fox News sputtering with rage. The liberal left is already screaming bloody murder, but they will stick; they have nowhere else to go. Now even the Democrats in Congress are denying him the money needed to close the Guantanamo prison, fearing the fury of their constituents who, the Republicans say, do not want convicted terrorists in the U.S. even if they are housed in maximum security prisons. What folly! What disgracefully dishonorable behavior! But Barack is cool; his objective is to be able to accomplish idealistic goals through pragmatism, goals which otherwise would be impossible to attain. If this is the case, it is the opposite of folly; it is wisdom.

Frank Thomas Smith                        

P.S. I just watched Obama's extraordinary speech in Cairo (May 29) to the Muslim world and to the world in general. It was literally steeped in wisdom. If the goals he urged can be even partially achieved, if his moral resolve can be matched by pragmatic action, it will be remembered as one of most important impulses of modern times.