Charisma and the Imperial Presidency
by Tom Engelhardt
Before a camera they can do no wrong. And the president himself, well, if you didn’t watch his speech in Cairo, you should have. The guy’s impressive. Truly. He can speak to multiple audiences — Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, as well as a staggering range of Americans — and somehow just about everyone comes away hearing something they like, feeling he’s somehow on their side. And it doesn’t even feel like pandering. It feels like thoughtfulness. It feels like intelligence.
For all I know — and the test of this is still a long, treacherous way off — Barack Obama may turn out to be the best pure politician we’ve seen since at least Ronald Reagan, if not Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He seems to have Roosevelt’s same unreadable ability to listen and make you believe he’s with you (no matter what he’s actually going to do), which is a skill not to be whistled at.
Right now, he and his people are picking off the last Republican moderates via a little party-switching and some well-crafted appointments, and so driving that party and its conservative base absolutely nuts, if not into extreme southern isolation. In this sense, his first Supreme Court pick was little short of a political stroke of brilliance, whatever she turns out to do on the bench. Whether the opposition “wins” (which they won’t) or loses in any attempt to block her nomination, they stand to further alienate a key voting bloc, Hispanics. Now 9% of voters, Hispanics went for Obama in the last election by a staggering 35-point margin. Next time their heft might even bring solidly red-state Texas closer to in-play status in the two-party system. In other words, the president has left his opponents in a situation where they can’t win for losing.
Mix Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan…
All this is little short of amazing, particularly if put into even the most modest historical context.
If, in a Star-Trekkian mode — hand me the “red matter,” Mr. Spock! — you could transport yourself back to early 2003 and tell just about any American what’s coming, you might have found yourself institutionalized. If you had said that the new norm would be a black president with Reagan-like popularity, Kennedy-like charisma, and Roosevelt-like skills in the political arena, leading a majority Democratic Congress in search of universal health care, solutions to global warming, energy conservation, and bullet trains, your listener might, at best, have responded with his or her own joke: “A priest, a rabbi, and a penguin walk into a bar…”
After all, back then, before two “hurricanes” — the invasion of Iraq and Katrina — began the process of turning our American world upside down, the Bush administration seemed to be riding ever higher globally and the Republican Party even higher than that at home. Back then, the neocons were consumed with imperial dreams of shock-and-awe-style eternal global conquest and domination (“Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”); and the President’s “brain,” Karl Rove, now exiled to the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, was convinced that he was nailing down a domestic Pax Republicana for generations to come.
And at that moment, who would have denied that things would turn out just that way? So don’t let anyone tell you that history doesn’t have its surprises. A black guy with the middle name of “Hussein,” a liberal Chicago politician from — in a phrase Republicans then regularly spit out, as if saying “Democratic” was too much effort — the “Democrat Party”? I don’t think so.
And yet, in mid-June 2009, less than five months into the Obama presidency, can you even remember that era before the dawn of time when people were wondering what it would be like for an African-American family to inhabit the White House? Would American voters allow it? Could Americans take it?
All that said, let’s not forget reality. Barack Obama did not win an election to be president of Goodwill Industries, or the YMCA, or the Ford Foundation. He may be remarkable in many ways, but he is also president of the United States which means that he is head honcho for the globe’s single great garrison state which now, to a significant extent, lives off war and the preparations for future war.
He is today the proprietor of — to speak only of the region extending from North Africa to the Chinese border that the Bush loyalists used to call “the Greater Middle East” — American bases, or facilities, or prepositioned military material (or all of the above) at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, in Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq (and Iraqi Kurdistan), Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan (where the U.S. military and the CIA share Pakistani military facilities), and a major Air Force facility on the British-controlled Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
Some U.S. bases in these countries are microscopic and solitary, but others like Camp Victory or Balad Air Base, both in Iraq, are gigantic installations in a web of embedded bases. According to an expert on the subject, Chalmers Johnson, the Pentagon’s most recent official count of U.S. “sites” (i.e. bases) abroad is 761, but that does not include “espionage bases, those located in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and miscellaneous facilities in places considered too sensitive to discuss or which the Pentagon for its own reasons chooses to exclude — e.g. in Israel, Kosovo, or Jordan.”
In January when he entered the Oval Office, Barack Obama also inherited the largest embassy on Earth, built in Baghdad by the Bush administration to imperial proportions as a regional command center. It now houses what are politely referred to as 1,000 “diplomats.” Recent news reports indicate that such a project wasn’t just an aberration of the Bush era. Another embassy, just as gigantic, expected to house “a large military and intelligence contingent,” will be constructed by the Obama administration in its new war capital, Islamabad, Pakistan. Once the usual cost overruns are added in, it may turn out be the first billion-dollar embassy. Each of these command centers will, assumedly, anchor the American presence in the Greater Middle East.
Barack Obama is also now the commander-in-chief of 11 aircraft carrier strike groups, which regularly patrol the planet’s sea lanes. He sits atop a U.S. Intelligence Community (yes, that’s what our intelligence crew like to call themselves) of at least 16 squabbling, overlapping agencies, heavily Pentagonized, and often at each other’s throats. They have a cumulative hush-hush budget of perhaps $50 billion or more. (Imagine a power so obsessively consumed by the very idea of “intelligence” that it is willing to support 16 sizeable separate outfits doing such work, and that’s not even counting various smaller offices dedicated to intelligence activities.)
The new president will preside over a country which now ponies up almost half the world’s total military expenditures. His 2010 estimated Pentagon budget will be marginally higher than the last staggering one from the Bush years at $664 billion. (The real figure, once military funds stowed away in places like the Department of Energy are included, is actually significantly larger.)
He now inhabits a Washington in which deep-thinking consists of a pundit like Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution whining that these bloated sums are, in fact, too little to “maintain” U.S. forces (a budgetary increase of 7-8% per year for the next decade would, he claims, be just adequate); in which forward-looking means Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reorienting military spending toward preparations for fighting one, two, many Afghanistans; and in which out-of-the-box, futuristic thinking means letting the blue-skies crew at DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) loose on far-out problems like how to turn “programmable matter” into future Transformer-like weapons of war.
While Obama enthusiasts can take pride in the appointment of some out-of-the-box thinkers in domestic areas, including energy, health, and the science of the environment, in two crucial areas his appointments are pure old-line Washington and have been so from the first post-election transitional moments. His key economic players and advisors are largely a crew of former Clintonistas, or Clintonista wannabes or protégés like Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner. They are distinctly inside-the-boxers, some of them responsible for the thinking that, in the 1990s, led directly to this catastrophic economic moment.
As for foreign policy, had the November election results been reversed, Obama’s top team of today could just as easily have been appointed by Senator John McCain. National Security Advisor James Jones was actually a McCain friend, Gates someone he admired, and Hillary Clinton a figure he could well have picked for a top post after a narrow election victory, had he decided to reach out to the Democrats. As a group, Obama’s key foreign policy figures and advisors are traditional players in the national security state and pre-Bush-style Washington guardians of American power, thinking globally in familiar ways.
And let’s be careful not to put all of this in the passive voice either when it comes to the new president. In both of these areas, he may have felt somewhat unsure of himself and so slotted in the old guard around him as a kind of political protection. Nonetheless, this hasn’t just happened to him. He didn’t just inherit the presidency. He went for it. And he isn’t just sitting atop it. He’s actively using it. He’s wielding power. In foreign policy terms, he’s settling in — and despite his Cairo speech and various hints of change on subjects like relations with Iran, in largely predictable ways.
He may, for example, have declared a sunshine policy when it comes to transparency in government, but in his war policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, his imperial avatar is already plunging deep into the dark, distinctly opaque valley of death. He’s just appointed a general, Stanley A. McChrystal, as his Afghan commander. From 2003-2008, McChrystal ran a special operations outfit in Iraq (and then Afghanistan) so secret that the Pentagon avoided mention of it. In those years, its operatives were torturing, abusing, and killing Iraqis as part of a systematic targeted assassination program on a large scale. It was, for those who remember the Vietnam era, a mini-Phoenix program in which possibly hundreds of enemies were assassinated: al-Qaeda-in-Iraq types, but also Sunni insurgents, and Sadrists (not to speak of others, since informers always settle scores and turn over their own personal enemies as well).
Although he’s now being touted in the press as the man to bring the real deal in counterinsurgency to Afghanistan (and “protect” the Afghan population in the bargain), his actual field is “counter-terrorism.” He spoke the right words to Congress during his recent confirmation hearings, but pay no attention.
The team he’s now assembling in Washington to lead his operations in Afghanistan (and someday maybe Pakistan) tells you what you really need to know. It’s filled with special operations types. The expertise of his chosen key lieutenants is, above all, in special ops work. At the same time, reports Rowan Scarborough at Fox News, an extra 1,000 special operations troops are now being “quietly” dispatched to Afghanistan, bringing the total number there to about 5,000. Keep in mind that it’s been the special operations forces, with their kick-down-the-door night raids and air strikes, who have been involved in the most notorious incidents of civilian slaughter, which continue to enrage Afghans.
Note, by the way, that while the president is surging into Afghanistan 21,000 troops and advisors (as well as those special ops forces), ever more civilian diplomats and advisors, and ever larger infusions of money, there is now to be a command surge as well. General McChrystal, according to a recent New York Times article, has “been given carte blanche to handpick a dream team of subordinates, including many Special Operations veterans… [He] is assembling a corps of 400 officers and soldiers who will rotate between the United States and Afghanistan for a minimum of three years. That kind of commitment to one theater of combat is unknown in the military today outside Special Operations, but reflects an approach being imported by General McChrystal, who spent five years in charge of secret commando teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Like the new mega-embassy in Pakistan, this figure — the Spartans, after all, only needed 300 warriors at Thermopylae — tells us a great deal about the top-heavy manner in which the planet’s super-garrison state fights its wars.
So, this is now truly Obama’s war, about to be run by his chosen general, a figure from the dark side. Expect, then, from our sunshine president’s men an ever bloodier secret campaign of so-called counter-terror (though it’s essence is likely to be terror, pure and simple), as befits an imperial power trying to hang on to the Eastern reaches of the Greater Middle East.
The new crew aren’t counterinsurgency warriors, but — a term that has only recently entered our press — “manhunters.” And don’t forget, President Obama is now presiding over an expanding war in which “manhunters” engaging in systematic assassination programs will not only be on the ground but, thanks to the CIA’s escalating program of targeted assassination by robot aircraft, in the skies over the Pakistani tribal borderlands.
For those who care to remember, it was into counter-terrorism and an orgy of manhunting, abuse, and killing that the Vietnam era version of “counterinsurgency” dissolved as well.
Into the Charnel House of History
A neologism coined for the expanding Afghan war has recently come into widespread use: Af-Pak (for Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater of Operations). But the coining of neologisms shouldn’t just be left to those in Washington, so let me suggest one that hints at one possible new world over which our newest president may unexpectedly preside: Ir-Af-Pak. Let it stand, conveniently, for the Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater of Operations — a neologism that catches the perilously expansionist and devolutionary possibilities of our moment.
Media organizations in increasingly tight financial straits sense the explosive nature of this expansionist moment and, even as they are fleeing Iraq (and former bureaus in so many other places), like the president, they are doubling down and piling into Afghanistan and Pakistan. But don’t count Iraq pacified yet. It remains an uneasy, dangerous, explosive place as, in fact, does the Greater Middle East. Worse yet, the Af-Pak War may not itself be done expanding. It could still, for instance, seep into one or more of the Central Asian ‘stans, among other places, and already has made it into catastrophic Somalia, while a shaky Yemen could be swept into the grim festivities.
Finally, let’s return to that “dream team” being put together by Obama’s man in Afghanistan. That team of Spartans, according to the New York Times, is being formed with, minimally, a three-year horizon. This in itself is striking. After all, the Afghan War started in November 2001. So when the shortest possible Afghan tour of duty of the 400 is over, it will have been going on for more than 10½ years — and no one dares to predict that, three years from now, the war will actually be at an end.
Looked at another way, the figure cited should probably not be one decade, but three. After all, our Afghan adventure began in 1980, when, in the jihad against the Soviets, we were supporting some of the very same fundamentalist figures now allied with the Taliban and fighting us in Afghanistan — just as, once upon a time, we looked positively upon the Taliban; just as, once, we looked positively upon Saddam Hussein, who was for a while seen as our potential bulwark in the Middle East against the fundamentalist Islamic Republic of Iran. (Remarkably enough, only Iran has, until this moment, retained its position as our regional enemy over these decades.)
What a record, then, of blood and war, of great power politics and imperial hubris, of support for the heinous (including various fundamentalist groups and grim, authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes who remain our allies to this day). What a tale of imperial power frittered away and treasure squandered. Truly, Rudyard Kipling would have been able to do something with this.
As for me, I find myself in awe of these decades of folly. Thirty years in Afghanistan, it staggers the imagination. What tricks does that land play with the minds of imperial Great-Gamers? Maybe it has something to do with those poppies. Who knows? I’m no Kipling, but I am aware that this sorry tale has taken up almost half of my lifetime with no end in sight.
In the meantime, our new president has loosed the manhunters. His manhunters. This is where charisma disappears into the charnel house of history. Watch out.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
[Note for readers: Credit where credit’s due: the neologism, “Ir-Af-Pak,” is actually the invention of Jonathan Schell. A small bow of appreciation to him for handing it off to me and another bow to Jim Peck for some inspired suggestions. Thanks as well to Alfred McCoy for helping to bring me up to speed on the meaning of General McChrystal’s Iraq activities. In addition, the filmmaker Robert Greenwald’s website Rethink Afghanistan (also the name of his new film) is starting to post clips about Afghan casualties of the U.S. air war. These will be incorporated into part four of his Afghan War film, being released part by part on-line. Because we see so little of this, these initial clips are sobering and well worth viewing. To do so, click here, here, and here.]
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt