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How can Obama be just as wrong as Bush?

Yesterday Barack Obama delivered a major speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I believe that despite its virtues, it is overall an erroneous reading of the world’s geo-political landscape; that his understanding of terrorism is deeply flawed and that his specifics on action in Pakistan should bring a smile to any fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

The speech contains Obama’s boilerplate mixture of poetic flourishes, declarative statements, and heavy-handed hypotheticals [binary positions only, please]. Here are his basic critiques of US foreign policy: Iraq was the wrong war; we did not finish the job in Afghanistan; we lacked international cooperation and diplomacy; we lost the battle for the hearts and minds. In response to these failures he provides a five-pronged policy for his presidency:

When I am President, we will wage the war that has to be won, with a comprehensive strategy with five elements: getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan; developing the capabilities and partnerships we need to take out the terrorists and the world’s most deadly weapons; engaging the world to dry up support for terror and extremism; restoring our values; and securing a more resilient homeland.

I will largely restrict my comments to the first element – leaving Iraq for Pakistan. A couple of casual observation, first: This ‘getting out of Iraq’ business is just not gonna happen as envisioned by many Democrats. Colin Powell told many deliberate lies to this world but he said one thing right: you break it, you own it. However, once Obama suggests that we get our troops out of Iraq only to send them to Pakistan, it makes an ill-advised proposition calamitous. Normally, I would also have cheered the idealism in his speech. For example, he was surely picking up on something I wrote here many moons ago when he stated that:

I will also launch a program of public diplomacy that is a coordinated effort across my Administration, not a small group of political officials at the State Department explaining a misguided war. We will open “America Houses” in cities across the Islamic world, with Internet, libraries, English lessons, stories of America’s Muslims and the strength they add to our country, and vocational programs. Through a new ” America’s Voice Corps” we will recruit, train, and send out into the field talented young Americans who can speak with — and listen to — the people who today hear about us only from our enemies.

But when read in the context of his whole speech, the idealism remains a plain contradiction. Which world will be receptive to America’s Voice Corps after we would have invaded three countries in half a decade?

I have been a fan of Barack Obama’s candidacy for a long while – I am his constituent – but I would have expected this speech to come from Charles Krauthammer. For seven years, millions have been hoping that a change in the White House will be a change in our policies at home and abroad. The hope being that a democratic administration will not start pre-emptive wars nor freeze the world out from our deliberations. Yet, here we stand. Clinton wants to invade Iran and Obama wants to invade Pakistan. It appears that there is unanimity in our political spectrum as far as global terrorism, and our reaction to it, is concerned. We clearly know and understand who our enemy is, what he wants and how will we combat him – no inquiry, no analysis, no knowledge of the local is needed nor required.

Point, if you can, to the difference between this spurious understanding of terrorism from Obama to anything you can find amid the neo-con library. Compare, as well, the blanket and generalized statements, the assertions of fallacies, and the monolithic construction of “their” narratives:

Al Qaeda’s new recruits come from Africa and Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Many come from disaffected communities and disconnected corners of our interconnected world. And it makes you stop and wonder: when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?

We know where extremists thrive. In conflict zones that are incubators of resentment and anarchy. In weak states that cannot control their borders or territory, or meet the basic needs of their people. From Africa to central Asia to the Pacific Rim — nearly 60 countries stand on the brink of conflict or collapse. The extremists encourage the exploitation of these hopeless places on their hate-filled websites.

And we know what the extremists say about us. America is just an occupying Army in Muslim lands, the shadow of a shrouded figure standing on a box at Abu Ghraib, the power behind the throne of a repressive leader. They say we are at war with Islam. That is the whispered line of the extremist who has nothing to offer in this battle of ideas but blame — blame America, blame progress, blame Jews. And often he offers something along with the hate. A sense of empowerment. Maybe an education at a madrasa, some charity for your family, some basic services in the neighborhood. And then: a mission and a gun.

We know we are not who they say we are. America is at war with terrorists who killed on our soil. We are not at war with Islam. America is a compassionate nation that wants a better future for all people. The vast majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims have no use for bin Ladin or his bankrupt ideas. But too often since 9/11, the extremists have defined us, not the other way around.

This theory of global Islamic terrorism – poverty, chaos and conflict, disjunctive communities, the charismatic whisperer – is the one that Bernard Lewis has told and retold millions of times – despite all scholarship and evidence to the contrary. Lewis’ model – derived from the Hashashin of Syria aka the Old Man of the Mountain – has this narrative: Islamdom and Christendom are embroiled in a Crusade. The charismatic Old Man of the Mountain takes poor and abandoned young Muslims, spirits them away to the mountain hiding ground where he has built a paradise of beautiful girls and virginal waters. He feeds them, sends aid to their family, shows them tantalizing glimpses of “Paradise” and brain washes them – with the help of hashish. Eventually, they are given a suicide mission to go kill and gain access to that Paradise they briefly encountered – with virgins etc. Lewis had peddled this particular reading of Islamic terrorism as early as 1991 but it was only after September 2001 that this emerged as the definitive understanding of the “Why do they hate us?” mind-bender. Despite being completely ahistorical, it cleverly explained the appeal and command of someone like Usama b. Laden, confirmed the basic truth of the civilizational clash, and also negated any culpability in the American history.

Needless to say, there is no place for facts in this narrative and the underlining assumptions remain unshakeable. For example, our enemy cannot be rational nor modern – Muhammad Atta or Shahzad Tanveer or Kafeel Ahmed notwithstanding. Why not? Because Modernity and Enlightenment, are forces which, by definition, should have no space for such actions. Consider further, that in Obama’s retelling Abu Gharib is not an actual war crime but something extremists “say” – tripping on Hashish, no doubt. Similarly our occupation of Iraq is not an imperial reality but a mirage of elaborate lies. In effect the “whispers” of the extremists, devoid of any truth, remain the hypnosis of the Old Man of the Mountain. All we have to do is to proclaim them as such – call them out as Lies – and the spell will be broken. The unmistakable conclusion of that narrative, of course escapes Obama and others who still cling to such theories. We will have to end the incubators in London, in Amsterdam, in Madrid, and in Bali – surely by invading these countries which provide a safe haven to these terrorists.

This national discourse comes from a deep Orientalism that has been a staple of our political lives prior to and since that “bright and beautiful Tuesday morning”. It is what enables us to question the sanity and the patriotism of anyone who dares raise the long history of American involvement across the globe as a contributing factor. It enables us to collapse real geographies from Leeds and Glasgow to Karachi and Islamabad into “wind-swept deserts and cave-dotted mountains”.

Pakistan, of course, is the main thrust of Obama’s speech. Here is his declaration: Al Qaeda has a sanctuary in Pakistan.. Note that the word “sanctuary” necessarily implies state protection and safety and that “Pakistan” indeed refers to the entire country. To reinforce his point, he states again, “[Al Qaeda is] training new recruits in Pakistan”. These could easily be the exact words used by Bush to describe Afghanistan right before the US invasion in 2001. And invasion is the only conclusion one can reach when Obama states that he wants to “deploy troops to the “right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. The only way I know of deploying troops to a sovereign nation is by invading said nation.

Obama demands his pre-emptive strike both as justification for WTC attacks and also because Pakistan has not proven a good enough ally:

As President, I would make the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional, and I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters, and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan.

I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.

One should remind Barack Obama, and the US Congress which just passed such a conditional bill, that Pakistan is, in clear and evident fact, fighting a war in Waziristan – with scores of military casualties seemingly every day. One can also remind him that since the Lal Masjid stand off – July 3rd – there have been a dozen suicide bombings across Pakistan killing over 200 civilians – almost keeping pace with Baghdad. One can further remind him that Pakistan has indeed allowed US military strikes on its sovereign territory, even with questionable intelligence. On November 10, 2006, US missiles hit a madrasa in Bajaur aimed at killing the elusive No. 2 of Al Qaeda but managed mainly to kill children. They must all be casualties of Pakistan’s soft focus in the war on terrorism.

To be crystal clear, Obama suggests that a country that is a sovereign nation and ally, that has full nuclear capability, has the ability to carry out nuclear attacks, has the ability to give nuclear technologies to the card-carrying-member-of-the-Axis-of-Evil-next-door Iran, has a unpopular dictator supported and maintained by the United States, has deployed 100,000 troops across its North Western borders, has suffered thousands of casualties – army and civilians – carrying out the Global War on Terror, has seen its cities and deserts flood with the detritus from the forgotten war going on in Afghanistan, but has nonetheless maintained complete compliance by killing and capturing many key members of the Al Qaeda … should be invaded.

I can only conclude that strategically, conceptually, operationally and politically, this is as bad a policy statement as was introduced in March 2003. It ought to be self-evident, according to Obama even, that if invading a country of 30 million, who were under severe sanctions for over a decade, at false pretense was a “wrong war”, then invading a country of 165 million, with nuclear power, could prove a slightly more egregious blunder.

I could plumb further depths of this inanity by showing how flawed Obama is on his reading of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran and how his diplomatically mature outlook fails to even mention India or China – two major powers of the region – but I will stop here.

Instead let’s go back and ask this simple question: How can Obama be just as wrong as Bush? Or more specifically, why is it that the world from Obama’s or Bush’s eyes appears no different.

There is no doubt that there are very real enemies intent on carrying out their own civilizational mission. But instead of focusing on the historical, cultural, religious, or political specificities of these enemies, our public discourse remains intent on reproducing imagined entities – and the deep Orientalism I mentioned above surely plays a significant role in this. This discourse makes potent, global actors out of local thugs. More importantly, it obfuscates any distinction between the local thug and someone like Usama b. Laden. It keeps alive our prejudices and assumptions about Islam. The fact that Bush did not know of the presence of Shi’a and Sunni sects in Islam (in Iraq or in general) is not simply comment on him being dull. He is a sharp man. He has many, many advisors who know and can comprehend ‘difference’. That fact is actually a revelation of our systematic conceptualization of that uniform Other – the Muslim Terrorist. The thought that there may be differences and details and histories simply shouldn’t have occurred to him. It is no surprise that the clash of civilization operates not on differences but on sameness – whether in Us or in Them. When Bush stated, “You are with us or you are against us”, he was not being brash and belligerent, he was being honest.

Similarly the hegemonized ‘imperialism’ of America in the Islamist discourse cannot differentiate between actors near or far, nor can it understand any history, or geo-political narrative. In their discourses centuries of corruption and weakness in Islam will be swept away only by the cleansing power of their militant actions. The Muslim victims, Shi’a or Sunni or anything, are no different from the infidels because they really are no different in their eyes. The West is just as monolithic and undifferentiated. Usama b. Laden will surely flunk a basic history or cultural test of United States. He cannot tell you the difference between a Protestant and a Roman Catholic or between the imperialisms of the Ottoman empire, the British empire or the conceived American empire. Such distinctions are immaterial to his Occidentalism.

All this is no great insight. We cannot explain how we are able to systematically generate a comprehension of the world we inhabit without examining the ways in which we construct our knowledges. Why are we, four years after our indefensible invasion of Iraq and nearly six years after the attack on us, still unable to comprehend our enemies as capable, rational, modern agents? Every new instance of a new cell in our modern cosmopolitans, of a doctor or an engineer blowing himself is met either with universal bewilderment or universal condemnation of the very soul of Islam. Our terrorists, even when they are born in Bradford or housed in Hamburg remain in the wild frontier of our imagination. When terrorism happens in the domestic context, at Virginia Tech for example, we seek pathologies and sickness and material differences. When the same act is repeated in a crowded Baghdad market or a fruit stand in Islamabad, we summarily assign blame to an ever-lengthening chain of transmission that inevitably goes back to the whisperer in caves afar. Islam, we conclude, is still medieval, it needs rationality, science, a reformation.

When Obama refuses to even know the facts of Pakistan or Iran or Saudi Arabia, he is not being careless, he is just re-affirming the dominant discourse of American imperialism. Our actions, pre-emptive or post-partum leave us with nothing more than empty platitudes of God-given Freedom or New Hope. We are reluctant to Know. We do not want to investigate, to learn, or to understand. We insist on our global, flat, and binary world no matter how many facts pile up proving us wrong.

Unless we decide to get Local, to pay attention to local narratives, facts, histories, realities, languages, religions, ethnicities, cultures, etc. we will remain in this deeply flawed discourse. So the answer to my question, how can Obama be just as wrong as Bush, is simple enough: There is only one answer available at the moment.

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