The anniversary of Barack Obama’s first unofficial State of the Union address has nearly arrived with his administration’s record widely criticized by his own supporters as one of unexpected ineptitude and political incompetence, in astonishing contrast with the foresight, innovation and ability displayed during his campaign for the presidency.

The fatal complacency of the Obama White House and Democratic Party leadership concerning last week’s Massachusetts senatorial election outcome, together with that upset’s probable consequences for health insurance reform legislation, produced a drama in which the president has never seemed a player. He has seemed to have never himself known the reforms he actually wanted, leaving it to Congress and the lobbies to fight over whatever legislation they, undirected, might be able to produce.

In foreign relations, the president recently told Time magazine that he “overestimated our ability to persuade (Israelis and Palestinians to agree to ‘meaningful conversation’) when their politics ran contrary to that.”

This astounding statement by a president of the United States, after nearly 40 years of futile U.S. efforts to convince Israelis and Palestinians to agree — from the time of Henry Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” in the 1970s to the useless 2009 missions to Palestinians and Israelis by George Mitchell — alone disqualifies President Obama as a maker of American Middle Eastern policy.

When he took office, there can hardly have been any American holder of public office who did not understand that the United States had either to tell the Palestinians to give up the two-state solution (and prepare for emigration or apartheid), or to inform Benjamin Netanyahu that it was all over for the settlements, and that if he wished to continue to be Washington’s best friend he must sign, on the spot, that long-negotiated two-state draft agreement whose conditions everyone by now knows by heart.

President Obama’s failure has astonished the international public and left in despair those Americans who can scarcely believe that a whole year has been irresponsibly wasted. By now, there is little or no hope of recovering that promise of national and international reform that had pervaded Western society a year ago, thanks to Obama, persuading a Nobel Peace Prize committee, dizzied by Obama glamour, to award him its prize even as he escalated the most senseless yet of America’s unsuccessful wars in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

In interviews released last Monday (Jan. 25), the two commanders of America’s Iraq war, Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan and David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, each suggested the possibility of peace negotiations with the Taliban within one year.

By then, in Gen. McChrystal’s version, U.S military pressure will have brought the enemy to the negotiating table. Gen. Petraeus spoke of Taliban defections and of signs of openness to reconciliation. (The Hamid Karzai government has thus far rejected such overtures because it is content to have American forces in Kabul to defend the large U.S. bases that it is convinced constitute Washington’s ultimate reason for having occupied Afghanistan and created a client government. Both, it believes, must logically be permanently protected.)

Both generals’ statements rest on the implicit assumption that the Taliban will lose the war. A similar opinion comes from a Pakistani expert on the Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, writing in the New York Review of Books, who says that the Taliban may be ready to talk now because they feel at their strongest, and should profit from this opportunity.

These forecasts all make the unspoken assumption that American forces and bases will indeed remain in Afghanistan, with the United States a permanent presence in the region, so as to provide — Washington is thought to imagine — defense against renewed Islamic radicalism and ultimate U.S. control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

The flimsiness of these assumptions undermines the conclusions drawn from them.

According to a common estimate, the United States now has 1.25 million servicemen and -women on active duty and 700,000 civilians in service and supporting roles, and outsources guard and security duties, some combat (and in the past, at least, some torturing of prisoners) to an unknown number of private and foreign mercenaries. The whole of this force is on 800 to 1,000 bases scattered about the world.

What, ultimately, is this for? Barack Obama would say that it is meant to assure the security of the United States. He has been duped.

The Americans who today are actually at risk from dangers that have a foreign origin are these hundreds of thousands of people stationed around the world, intervening in the political affairs of other societies.

They are fighting in support of one or another internal faction or group inside foreign countries of no actual importance to American interests. They are luckless participants in America’s grand but futile effort to defeat local insurrections and radical groups, nearly all of them inspired by America’s own interventionist policies.

It is this ugly paradox that Barack Obama was elected to recognize and resolve. If he could only do so, he would win the gratitude of his nation — rather than, as now, its reproaches.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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