Obama's Alternate Universe
As America enters the year 2010 and President Barack Obama his second year in office, the foreign policy landscape presented by American policymakers and media pundits appears to be dominated by two physical problems — Iraq and Afghanistan — which operate in an overarching metaphysical environment loosely defined as a “war on terror.” The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, entering their seventh and ninth years respectively, have consumed America’s attention, treasure and blood without producing anything close to a tangible victory.
What exactly constitutes the “war on terror” has never been adequately defined and, as a result, the United States has been, and continues to be, militarily involved in other regions as well, including Somalia, Kenya, the Philippines and, increasingly, Yemen. The American people today are fatigued, and while their political leadership promises to lead the nation out of the long, dark tunnel of conflict, there continues to be no light emerging in the distance, only the ever-darkening shadows of wars without end or purpose.
While Obama has promised a draw-down of military forces in Iraq, the lack of stability in that nation since the removal of Saddam Hussein precludes any meaningful reduction of troops, and the ever-present potential of renewed civil and sectarian warfare means that whatever troop level is eventually settled upon will be deployed in Iraq for quite some time. Moreover, the Iraq conflict, built as it was on an American policy that sought the alteration of the political character of the Middle East beyond simply removing an Iraqi dictator from power, has drawn the United States inexorably toward conflict with Iraq’s larger neighbor to the east, Iran.
Over the past 20 years Iraq and Iran have been linked in American policy objectives in the Middle East, both in terms of dual containment and dual transformation. Regardless of what rhetoric the Obama administration chooses to hide behind, the underlying characteristic that continues to define America’s Iran policy is regime change. It is not the policy that is subject to debate in Washington, D.C., but rather the means of implementing that policy. The ongoing tension over Iran’s nuclear program is less derived from any real threat such a program poses (it is, in reality, one of the least significant issues facing the United States today in terms of national security concern), but rather the utility that such an artificial crisis serves in facilitating the larger objective: regime change.
Obama’s Iran policy bears a marked similarity to the Iraq policies of the Clinton administration throughout the 1990s, with the specter of weapons of mass destruction used as a screen to hide the true goal. In both cases, the policies were constructed in a manner that gave the United States no viable solution short of open conflict. President Bill Clinton maneuvered around the issue of all-out war, settling for a decade-long “non-war” in the form of CIA covert operations and assassination attempts and enforcement of “no-fly zones,” combined with selective aerial attacks, including the 72-hour “Operation Desert Fox” in December 1998.
President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 was the logical conclusion to an irrational policy begun by Clinton. The situation between the United States and Iran today is directly tied to the Iraq problem, and as such makes use of the same policy tool set that led to the invasion of Iraq.
The failed attempts by the United States to orchestrate a “soft” revolution in Iran, in the form of covert support to pro-Western reformists, have only strengthened the position of the extreme hard-liners the United States seeks to remove from power, in the same way that the continuation of economic sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s only strengthened the regime of Saddam Hussein.
When the Obama administration is finally confronted with the reality that there is no possibility for viable economic sanctions against Iran, and that the reform movement inside Iran will never be able to force a regime change in Tehran, war with Iran, however insane and unpalatable, becomes the only option. In the end, it is not the theocracy in Tehran, or an Iranian nuclear program, that will push America to war with Iran, but rather American policy itself, designed as it is not to solve any tangible problem emerging from Iran, but rather to mollify domestic political pressures at home.
The situation President Obama faces in today’s post-Taliban Afghanistan is similar to the one he faces in Iraq: There is no good policy option for resolving a problem that is defined mostly by the need to manufacture a perception of “victory” for the American people. In Afghanistan, as was the case with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the United States removed a political entity from power and ended up creating a vacuum in the nation’s social, political and economic reality that the American occupier has not been able to fill, no matter how much money has been spent and how many soldiers have been deployed. With the Taliban made politically unacceptable in Washington, D.C., the idea that the Taliban may in fact be politically viable inside Afghanistan will not register among those American officials tasked with bringing stability to that nation.
The war in Afghanistan is further complicated by the fact that, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is inexorably linked to the nebulous concept of a “war of terror,” and in particular the defining moment in this “war”—the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. American politicians, like those they represent, tend to operate in a conventional linear manner, seeking absolute cause-and-effect relationships from even the most complex of problems.As such, when one declares a “war” to exist, there must be a physical manifestation of an enemy, as well as the psychological manifestation of victory. After the 9/11 attacks, the “enemy” took on the form of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in so far as they facilitated the operations of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida by providing sanctuary and logistical support, however indirect. That the Taliban had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 attack never registered in the minds of those U.S. policymakers who morphed the Taliban and al-Qaida into a singular entity, thus dictating a singular solution. The United States will forever be chasing the ghosts of al-Qaida in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, all the while fighting a Taliban enemy that becomes stronger every day the American occupiers operate inside their country among their people.
The “war on terror” has further complicated the Afghanistan situation by drawing in the complicating reality of Pakistan’s Pashtun population and the centuries-old problem of Islamic fundamentalism, which has always existed in the rugged territory of Pakistan’s hinterlands and northwest frontier. The situation unfolding between Afghanistan and Pakistan is far less influenced by the events of 9/11 than by the historical consequences of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the U.S. covert efforts to oppose the Soviet action by supporting Islamic fundamentalist fighters operating out of Pakistan.
In the simplistic formulations emanating from Washington, Pakistan has become a new front in the “war of terror,” and the conflict in Afghanistan has been inexorably linked to an internal Pakistani domestic condition that has existed for centuries. In short, the United States was drawn into Afghanistan through a lack of understanding of the true nature of the problem it faced in the aftermath of 9/11 and is being further drawn into Pakistan by a similar lack of comprehension of the problems in that nation. In both cases, the United States seeks solutions to problems that have been inaccurately defined, which means the solutions being sought solve nothing, and for the most part only further complicate the original problem.
The “war on terror” into which Obama seems to have thrust himself (the most recent manifestation being Yemen) remains the largest obstacle for any rational resolution of America’s problems in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Simply put, so long as the United States seeks an enemy that does not exist, it will always be looking for an enemy in its stead. The “war on terror” has the United States combing the world in search of enemies, and because American policymakers are responsive not to the reality that exists in the world today, but rather the perceptions of an American people largely ignorant of the world in which they live, and paralyzed by the fear such ignorance generates, there will always be countries and causes America will anoint as foe.
The “war on terror” becomes a self-perpetuating problem for which there is no solution. Worse, it is a problem that ultimately will destroy America, not from any actions undertaken by whatever manifestation of “enemy” America conjures up, but rather from the actions undertaken by America itself.
The asymmetrical nature of the “war on terror” allows an individual, or group of individuals, using a thousand dollars worth of explosives and airline tickets to generate a response from America that costs billions of dollars and further erodes the very system of ideals and values that ostensibly define the United States, all the while doing nothing to resolve the original issue.
The most visible example of this disparity is the American response to the 9/11 attacks. At a cost of a few million dollars and 19 lives, al-Qaida compelled the United States to spend a trillion dollars, destroy America’s reputation abroad and eviscerate the Constitution. In this manner, a case can be made that the greatest threat posed to the United States in the prosecution of the “war on terror” is the United States itself.
The solution to these problems rests not in defining new parameters for action, but rather in the definition of the basic problems faced. From an overarching perspective, the United States needs to realize that there is no “war on terror,” and as such no “enemy” for us to close with and destroy. The human condition has always produced those who would seek to do harm to society. Norms and standards have been adopted, in almost universal fashion, that define how humans, organized into communities and nations, should interact in dealing with such deviations. This body of rules and regulations is collectively “the rule of law,” the principle of which defines modern society.
Deviations from the “rule of law” are best dealt with in collective fashion by those who share not only common values but also a common interest in such a resolution. Giving a criminal element, whether in the form of al-Qaida or a drug lord, the status of community or nation by waging “war” against it represents a failure to define the problem properly, leading inevitably to solutions that solve nothing. The answer to 9/11 is not war, but rather the “rule of law.” Until this underlying premise is recognized and adopted by U.S. policymakers, the psychosis of war will continue to corrupt American policy, and with it American society.The inability or unwillingness of American policymakers to accurately define the problems confronting the United States in Iraq/Iran and Afghanistan/Pakistan prevents any meaningful solution to these issues.
The heart of the problems facing the United States in the Middle East lies not in actions taking place in Baghdad or Tehran but rather in Gaza and Tel Aviv. The continued refusal of the United States to address the issue of Palestine and the Palestinians in a manner that reflects the reality of the situation on the ground, rather than the situation that exists inside Washington, as manipulated and interpreted by Israeli interests, means that the tension and unrest this issue generates will never be resolved. The conflicts with Iraq and Iran are, in many ways, simply symptoms of a larger disease represented by the failure of the United States to formulate a sound and realistic policy regarding Palestine. So long as American politicians find themselves constrained by a pro-Israeli lobby that refuses to permit the inclusion of either the concept or reality of Palestine into the lexicon of American foreign policy considerations (beyond simplistic “dual-state” and other demeaning and dishonest formulations), then there can and will be no long-term solution to any other modern Middle Eastern problem. Solving the Palestine-Israel problem wouldn’t by and of itself resolve all outstanding issues. But it would create the foundation of regional stability and rationality upon which all other solutions could be constructed.
In a similar fashion, the United States must stop factoring al-Qaida and a nebulous “war on terror” into the problem it faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan today. As is the case in the Middle East, the problems faced by America in Central Asia are manifested not so much by what is (improperly) acknowledged — i.e., al-Qaida, the Taliban and a “war on terror” — but rather by that which is not. As the instability of Afghanistan pushes the United States deeper and deeper into the quagmire of Pakistan, it becomes clearer by the day that the key to any future American exit from the region runs not through Kabul, but rather Islamabad. As such, the problem faced by the United States cannot be defined as it currently is, in terms of Swat, Waziristan, Baluchistan and other remote areas of Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, but rather a region which American politicians are loath to utter publicly: Kashmir.
The increasing radicalization of Pakistan is not derived from what has been transpiring in its Pashtun regions, or those of Afghanistan, but rather from the cancerous tumor that remains from the messy divorce of India and Pakistan in 1948. Kashmir is the source of Pakistani-Indian enmity, and is the primary reason that each of those two nations has developed a nuclear arsenal aimed at the other’s heartland.
Kashmir serves as the principle motivating force for radical Islam in Pakistan today. Long before Pakistan facilitated American support for Afghan freedom fighters, it was providing training and support for Islamic fundamentalists who served the cause of a unified Kashmir under the flag of Pakistan.
Reducing the influence of radical Islam in Pakistan will never come as a result of any manifestation of American “Af-Pak” policy, but rather through American leadership in recognizing the reality of the unresolved Kashmir situation, and the necessity of resolving this problem in a manner that recognizes Pakistan’s legitimate concerns. However, similar to what Israel does in handling the issue of Palestine, India has been able to leverage its economic and regional influence in a manner that prevents American policymakers from engaging on the issue of Kashmir. Without such an engagement there can never be a resolution of the problems faced by America in Pakistan today.
As America enters 2010, one does not require a crystal ball to forecast that issues pertaining to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the “war on terror” will dominate the headlines throughout the year. And here’s one thing that is less clear but every bit as certain: So long as President Obama fails to recognize that there is no “war on terror” for America to fight, and that the problems in the Middle East and Central Asia cannot be resolved without recognizing the paramount roles of Palestine and Kashmir, respectively, then not only will there be no solution to America’s problems but these problems will only get progressively worse, creating the conditions for the formulation of a series of new “solutions,” none of which will address the problems they are designed to resolve.
Sadly, if this prediction comes true, 2010 will be a very bad year for the American people, and the world as a whole, simply because those who can make a difference are operating in an alternative policy universe governed by the self-serving interests of those who use politically induced fear as a mechanism of placating a public oblivious to the fact that they are sleepwalking ever closer to a demise of their own making. For this we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Scott Ritter was a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He is the author of “Target Iran” (Nation Books, 2007).