By William Pfaff
One might think that if Barack Obama believes he can make a success of his new administration by largely reconstituting the Clinton administration, Hillary Clinton included, he should know better than to take on the reckless ambitions and commitments of the George W. Bush administration as well: the government that gave America the Mideast and Asian crises, blunders and humiliations of the past 6 1/2 years.
The world has witnessed a futile, destructive and illegal American invasion of Iraq, a war conducted on false pretenses, supposedly against terrorists, accompanied by worldwide actions that have made American policy in Bush’s “global war on terror” seem to many Muslims an attack on Islamic society itself.
Obama is now taking on the quasi-impossible tasks of bringing to a successful and responsible conclusion the Bush government’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as what shows signs of becoming another military intervention of grave and unforeseeable consequences in Pakistan. He is doing so without challenging the assumptions and goals of Bush administration policy.
It has been the mindset of the Bush administration—and, unfortunately, of much of the neoconservative-influenced foreign policy establishment in Washington—that international society’s problems are reducible to wars that American armies will win. They are wrong on both counts. But some still argue that this is the way to a better and more democratic world.
Obama has no choice but to accept responsibility for these American crises. But why should he accept them on the distorted and even hysterical terms by which the Bush administration has defined world affairs since 2001?
Iraq has been a victim of the United States. Washington had no legal or moral justification for invading the country and destroying its infrastructure, killing an uncounted number of Iraqis and displacing half a million or more to ruined lives while setting off the sectarian conflicts that have wracked the country since 2003.
There is a heavy American responsibility to do no more harm, however well-intentioned. The present volatile situation in the country is for the moment a largely political shoving match between the divided and possibly ephemeral Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his rivals, who include the Shiite radicals of Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Sunni, and largely ex-Baathist, Awakening Movement, sponsored by the U.S. Army to defend Sunni tribal regions against the foreigners of the fundamentalist al-Qaida. In addition, are the two Kurdish movements that together control, and plan to make independent and permanent, a Kurdistan nation incorporating—if they have their way—the oil-rich Kirkuk region.
One can make the political—and moral—argument that as the American invasion is responsible for the Iraqi upheaval, Washington should somehow settle it. The answer is that it’s impossible for Americans to do so. The U.S. cannot do it by continued military occupation and intervention in the country’s affairs.
Only the Iraqis themselves can settle this, and doing so may entail even more religious and ethnic struggle. The neighboring Shiite great power, Iran, will play its cards in the country. The Saudis will play theirs. Israel will do everything in its power to prevent an American withdrawal. All of this will probably add still more tragedies to those of the last six years, but at least the U.S. responsibility will have become only indirect, which is bad enough.
Barack Obama started off his presidential campaign by saying that he would get American troops out of Iraq by mid-2010. That was a strong, simple position that, if resolutely carried out, would make it clear to the Iraqis what they have to do to save themselves, and how long they have in which to do it.
Since the early campaign, the president-elect has been forced to qualify his position, weaken it, blur it, say that actually many U.S. troops probably will stay on, the dates may change, American involvement will continue, and so on. He has been forced back toward the Washington consensus opinion, the centrist and “responsible” position, close to the Bush opinion.
Nearly everyone is against his sticking to his original policy: The Iraq factions all plan to exploit American ambiguities to strengthen their own positions and maneuver the American command to favor them. The Kurds want time to make their proto-Kurdistan even more impregnable (while encouraging their reluctance to deal with Turkish and Iranian hostility to a sovereign Kurdistan, as well as deal realistically with their fellow Iraqis).
In Washington, the Pentagon is against withdrawal on Obama’s terms. It still wants permanent bases in Iraq. It claims Obama’s timetable is logistically impossible. The Republicans will shout “treason” and “betrayal.” American oil companies and the corporations that are already part of the occupation, as well as those that have big ambitions for moving into an American-secured Iraq, will demand that the U.S. stay.
All this must be resisted if Obama is to be his own man. He has to rid himself of George Bush’s folly. He must make Iraq truly independent. If he doesn’t, it could destroy his administration.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.
USAF / Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers