Photo: US Soldier on Afghan-Pakistan Border
By Steve Weissman
Nov 11, 2008- If state officials across the country ever count all the absentee and provisional ballots, Obama's popular vote might equal his landslide victory in the Electoral College, adding weight to his overwhelming mandate to fix the economy, end our dependence on foreign oil, create green jobs, provide health care and mend our broken schools. But how much will all our votes count if, at a time of reduced resources, the Obama administration allows foreign conflicts to sink his promises on the home front?
Warfare or health care - this could become the defining choice for the new president, far more decisive than whether he will govern from the left or the center.
Will Obama keep America's military commitments and military spending in check? Or will he see his best hopes for America lost in an ever- deepening quagmire in Afghanistan, an unnecessary war with Iran and an absurd arms race with the Russians?
Afghanistan and the frontier areas of Pakistan could prove Obama's biggest test.
During his presidential campaign, he strongly advocated sending in more troops, arguing that we had to finish the war against al-Qaeda that George W. Bush had abandoned in his rush to war against Iraq. This allowed Obama to defend withdrawing troops from Iraq without sounding like a dove, especially when he added that he would attack Osama bin Laden in Pakistani even if the Pakistanis refused to give us permission.
Now, the crunch has come. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban are showing new strength and the small escalation that Obama wanted looks like only a down payment on a major, ongoing commitment of blood and money. Worse, no one who knows anything about Afghanistan believes that a foreign military occupation has any chance of success. To the contrary, the more troops and inevitable killing of civilians, the more the country's Pashtun majority will turn to the Taliban as their national saviors.
So, why play out a losing hand? Obama's answer is that we need to finish off Osama bin Laden and deny al-Qaeda a sanctuary from which to plan future terrorist attacks? Think that through. Making a martyr of Osama will hardly reduce the very real threat of Islamist terrorism, while our current effort could easily drive a nuclear Pakistan into chaos. In any case, those who attacked us on 9/11 did most of their planning in Hamburg, Germany, throwing into question whether remote sanctuaries are the key to the terrorist problem.
For Obama and the rest of us, a better strategy might be to stop thinking like would-be warriors, relying instead on our security services to stop the terrorists while greatly reducing our military footprint in Muslim lands. Add to that an unstinting effort to forge a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Osama bin Ladens of this world will find dwindling support for their blood-thirsty jihad.
Iran poses a different kind of problem, and one that Obama handled at his first press conference with less than his normal aplomb. Asked how he would respond to Iranian president Ahmadinejad's congratulatory message, he stiffly parroted the current policy that an Iranian nuclear weapon and their support of terrorist groups were "unacceptable." So they are. But Obama would have done much better to smile broadly and say that he had received many nice messages from foreign leaders and would reply to them all in due course.
The catch here is that Tel Aviv, the American Israel Political Action Committee and the neocons are trying to force Obama into a corner from which they can push him into a military strike on Iran. His response only encouraged them in their effort while sending Ahmadinejad into another useless tirade. Neither helps deter a disaster in the making.
On one last threat, Obama did much better. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev repeated last week his threat to place nuclear missiles on the border with Poland if the United States insisted on placing anti-missile missiles in that country. Here were the seeds of a costly new nuclear arms race that would benefit neither Russia nor the United States. Obama responded with a simple statement from an adviser that the president- elect had made "no commitment" to plans for a missile defense program in Eastern Europe.
Obama and his team clearly understood the importance of reducing tensions with Russia without needlessly brandishing our military might. Hopefully, they will similarly come to see that "keeping all options on the table" militarily threatens Iran and encourages those Iranians who think they need nuclear weapons to defend their country. That sending more troops into Afghanistan will only fuel a nationalistic resistance. That sending rockets into Pakistan's frontier lands will turn Ahmed No-Pack against his own government. And that all these foreign conflicts will take resources away from the domestic changes Obama has promised American voters.
Not being an isolationist or pacifist, I understand the need for overseas military action in some situations.
But having learned from the war in Vietnam, I also understand the limits of military force against people who do not want to be ruled by a foreign power. That's a lesson of the 1960s that Obama would do well to remember, especially at a time when we can no longer afford both guns and butter.
[A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.]