President Barack Obama’s speech to the West Point graduating class last Saturday was meant to convey a “new” American national security strategy, less evident in his words as in the manner in which the White House pitched the speech to the press, the press following official inspiration.

The “new” strategy emphasizes cooperation with allies and the solicitation of help from other governments, replacing the Bush administration’s aggressive unilateralism and its demand that others declare themselves either for the United States or against it.

However, the overall goals and framework of national policy, as expressed in the speech, were largely unchanged. The speech resounded with all of the things we have been hearing before — since back deep into the 20th century. The United States has been overarmed and overwrought since before the Vietnam War, with governments whose taste for military activism seemed without limit.

By now — as the critic of modern American militarism, Andrew Bacevich, has pungently put it — military action has become the American standard response to international problems, “a normal condition, one to which no plausible alternatives seem to exist. All of this Americans have come to take for granted: it’s who we are and what we do.”

Though the president reiterated his promise of success, the future he outlined at West Point is hard to distinguish from what we have already been through in Iraq, with less than reassuring results.

He said that U.S. forces would again defeat the Taliban, as in 2001:

“Now we must break the momentum of the Taliban insurgency and train Afghan security forces. We have supported the election of a sovereign government … brought hope to the Afghan people — now we must see that their country does not fall prey to our common enemies. …”

“Now even as we fight the wars in front of us, we also have to see the horizon beyond these wars — because unlike a terrorist whose goal is to destroy, our future will be defined by what we build. We have to see that horizon, and to get there we must pursue a strategy of national renewal and global leadership.”

” … America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation — we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don’t.”

He ended with another tribute to the Long Gray Line, and the words “… our destiny is never written for us, it is written by us, and we are ready to lead once more.” Stormy applause followed.

Why applause? These young cadets go off to a war that bears little resemblance to the president’s speech. This is not a crusade against evil but a futile intervention into a foreign society of which we know next to nothing, meant to impose upon it a form of government and a formulary of political values totally different from those traditionally held by its people, attempting to dissuade them from sectarian practices and beliefs which have been theirs since the Middle Ages, and which Americans mostly consider primitive, oppressive, false and an obscurantist threat to mainstream American beliefs.

The source of the insurrection is a movement of religious radicalism within an Islamic system of belief of which most Americans are ignorant and which most dislike or fear.

Why are we doing this? There is no evident practical reason, except as revenge for the 9/11 attacks in the United States, which have had no significant sequel.

The attacks for which al-Qaida (whose connection with the Taliban is religious, not operational) has since claimed credit occurred in countries distant from the United States and in nearly every case were committed by nationals of those countries, usually for reasons having little to do with the United States.

Those attacks attempted inside the United States — the shoe and pants bombers, and the man who parked his car in Times Square loaded with Chinese firecrackers and non-explosive fertilizer — have resembled terrorism by the Three Stooges. If this is the outcome of “terrorist training” in what the president referred to as “safe havens” in the wilds of the Hindu Kush, Americans would seem to have little to worry about.

The president alluded to the NATO allies supporting the United States against the Taliban. Surely the White House is not so out of touch with political realities as to fail to know that the Dutch and Canadians are leaving, and that the British recognize the war as futile and are under powerful domestic political pressure to leave (and are now led by a government of Conservative aristocrats who, unlike Labour politicians, never have liked Yanks that much anyway).

The Germans have to be in Afghanistan because of 1932-1945, but are getting awfully tired of that, and one of these days may go. The French are using their compact contingent of commandos, paras and Foreign Legionnaires for useful if sometimes lethal training and tactical experimentation — reportedly enjoying themselves. The tiny national NATO units are present as an insurance investment in the United States’ eventually going to war to protect them from Russia, or help them recapture lost territories. (The latter failed to pay off for Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008.)

Then there are the Afghan army-in-training and the hopelessly underpaid police, neither of which seem eager to defend their country from their own countrymen. The Pakistanis are involved, who together with the Indians are the only actors in the affair with a serious idea of what they want, which concerns their separate geopolitical interests.

President Obama came to office reputedly with little interest in or knowledge about foreign affairs, and seems thus far to have listened faithfully to what the Washington foreign policy establishment, particularly its members at the Pentagon, have told him. He may eventually discover that the only realistic mission statement is to negotiate with the national actors in the region, compromise and leave them all, as gracefully as possible, to their own affairs.

Visit William Pfaff’s website at

© 2010 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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