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December 14th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: Facing the truth about President Obama (Part 3)

Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS

During his acceptance speech in Oslo when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama said, “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world.” Few would disagree with him on this issue. However, President Obama’s analysis of the evil in the world falls far short of the breadth and depth of understanding I expect from a person of his intellect, experience, education, and resources.

While evil takes many forms, the aspects most at play in the Middle East include a virulent, radical, fundamentalist Islam and American ignorance of local cultures clashing with American foreign policy. Obama’s failure to recognize the role played by the United States in trying to bend the Middle East to its control destroys any hope of finding a lasting stability in that part of the world. As the noted and politically-conservative historian Andrew Bacevich wrote recently, “Sending U.S. troops to fight interminable wars in distant countries does more to inflame than to extinguish the resentments giving rise to violent anti-Western jihadism.”

Americans do not appreciate the family and tribal allegiances that connect people in much of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have such a militaristic world view that we automatically look for military solutions when others are more appropriate and more likely to be successful. As Scot Atran, an anthropologist who has studied cultures in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, explains, “… outsiders who ignore local group dynamics tend to ride roughshod over values they don’t grasp.” This cultural blindness usually leads to disastrous consequences.

But views like those of Bacevich and Atran, and my own, do not call for American isolationism. To the contrary, America has a moral obligation to be involved, at least indirectly, in helping to rebuild the damage done by our militarism in the Middle East for the last half-century. The failure to recognize that obligation is the failure to acknowledge the destructive role the US has played around the world in its desire for the world’s resources to benefit the multinational corporations that control our foreign policy and use our military for their own ends.

The opposite of isolationism is not war. Instead of sending more troops, we can find ways through tribal elders and indigenous groups to provide educational opportunity, build infrastructure, contribute to life-sustaining agriculture, improve access to water resources, and help satisfy the basic needs of the people we have oppressed by our military and economic power. But this development must be done on their terms, not ours. We might not like the decisions they make, but we have no right to control those decisions. Afghans have as much right to autonomy as Americans have.

The world view that President Obama took to Oslo undergirds many of the policy differences I have with him. It is a world view that will assure endless war, rather than Middle East stability. The Taliban does not threaten America, but it will kill our troops if we continue on the present course, and, by appealing to tribal, nationalistic, and religious values, it will attract more Afghans and Pakistanis to its cause in fighting the common enemy that America has become.

In other foreign policy developments in recent weeks, President Obama has failed to oppose the continued production and stockpiling of land-mines by the US, which has 10 to 15 million of them. We have not used them, apparently, since the 1991 Gulf War, but worldwide 5,000 people each year are killed or wounded by them. Under Obama’s presidency, the US has refused to sign an international agreement banning the manufacture, stockpiling, and use of land mines. During the last 22 years, 156 other nations have signed the treaty, including every country in NATO. Twelve years ago the Nobel Peace Prize went to an American in a joint award of the prize for her work against land-mines, providing yet another irony in the award of the prize to President Obama this year.

Recently, we learned that President Obama has allowed a “black jail” at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to remain open. Access to prisoners is denied to the International Committee of the Red Cross in violation of our international human rights obligations. While Obama signed an order eliminating black sites operated by the CIA, the order did not affect the Bagram site, which is operated by Special Operations forces. A similar facility continues to operate at Balad Air Base in Iraq. Torture of prisoners in these facilities has been reported by detainees who have been released from the facilities.

While President Obama has eased travel and economic restrictions with Cuba, he has done nothing to establish normal relations with that country, a change in policy long overdue as we approach twenty years since the end of the cold war with communism. Normal relations with Cuba could benefit both the US and Cuba, a country that has made great strides in educating its people and providing quality health care, against enormous odds. Normalization of US-Cuba relations would ease political tensions with many of our neighbors in Central and South America, as well.

President Obama promised to close the prison at Guantanamo, where torture and denial of basic human rights flourished during the last administration. While he has taken steps to fulfill that promise, it evidently is not a priority and he will not meet his own deadline of closing it in January 2010, a delay that calls into question his whole-hearted support for human rights.

In spite of noble words about disapproving torture and his commitment “to taking concrete actions against torture and to address the needs of its victims,” President Obama has steadfastly refused to take any action to redress Dick Cheney’s admitted approval of the torture of 36 detainees, including waterboarding, or the torture meted out under the direct authorization of President Bush, former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and others.

This past week, the Obama Justice Department took John Yoo’s side in a lawsuit over holding Yoo accountable for providing the Bush administration a legal justification for torturing detainees. Jose Padilla, a US citizen, who was arrested in 2002 for allegedly planning terrorist activity, was detained in a Navy jail on US soil for three years as an enemy combatant and was tortured as a direct result of a legal memorandum by Yoo authorizing such torture. The legal advice John Yoo gave is actionable under the principles followed at Nuremberg after World War II, as noted by constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley, who pointed out this past week that Nuremberg tribunals found “lawyers and judges … guilty of war crimes in their legal advice and opinions.” They included Nazi legal advisers Wolfgang Mettgenberg, Guenther Joel, and Wilhelm von Ammon.

Obama’s Justice Department has also tried to have lawsuits dismissed under a “state secrets” argument, just as the Bush administration did on a regular basis. Obama promised that his administration would be transparent. So far, it has been instead transparently hypocritical with respect to civil rights lawsuits brought by “war on terror” detainees. It has used the “state secrets” argument to keep from revealing details about the US torture of such detainees. Obama has also refused to release photos of the torture of detainees by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, in spite of an earlier promise to do so.

These are some of the most egregious examples of foreign policy-related positions of the Obama administration that are troubling to Americans who favor a non-militaristic role for America in the world, and who support the rule of law and transparency in government. They show that the US does not abide by the code of legal conduct it claims to follow. In fact, contrary to President Obama’s assertions in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo, US actions are not far different from those of our adversaries. We abide by rules only when it is convenient to do so. The President’s principled words are belied by his policies both here and abroad.

There is an increasingly large gap between the Obama administration’s rhetoric on accountability and values, and the reality of what he and his administration are doing. The Bush administration would not have done much worse on these matters.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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17 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Facing the truth about President Obama (Part 3)

  1. The Left’s criticism of the President’s Oslo address shows what a dangerous deal he made riding a wave of populism into office. If he shows the least bit of determination and resolve, he will be attacked by the many divergent interest groups who put him there. He took cheap rhetorical shots at the sitting President to score political points, but now that he sleeps with the same fears, his actions appear remarkably like those he criticised. Unfortunately, instability in the Middle East is a threat to our existence as a free nation, and instability in the Middle East is something Obama (and even W) inherited. For a decade I have heard those opposed to US involvenment in the Middle East warn that our presence would cause us greater threat at home, yet in that same period, no foreign-born attack has been forthcoming. It is amazing how distracted Islamic militants have been trying to make sure they survive to each week’s end. The American military is a force for good, and their brave sacrifice has kept us safe and free. Thank you President Obama for giving a speech appropriately recognizing the justice in their sacrifice.

  2. Andrew Bacevich is hardly a leftist. Had I quoted Noam Chomsky, that description might have applied.

  3. True in part Lamar, but your quote from Bacevich was not specifically about the Oslo address. You employed it to make a broader point that I have heard from the Left (not an insulting term, broadly, those who voted for Carter the second time) in regard to the speech.
    Always enjoy your pieces; rarely agree with your pieces.

  4. So this is the President that the American People have chosen? A president that laughs at the Noble Peace Prize with saying, Oh I will get another if I do more bombing. How non-peaceful. More like Piece-less.

    When will the People of this Country rule their own country again? Is it so far away from us wanting no more Caesar? When will the Opposing forces disappear and when will our People Stand up for what they need? What will it take for the People to finally just say Enough! We just want our country and enough with the military already!! Not everything thinks in a military state of mind in this country.

    Why are we here people? Is it not to be who we are? If we have that, why can’t any other person living anywhere else in the world, have that right as well. To be themselves. In peace.

    No country or person has the right to hurt anyone.

  5. Not that it matters, but I did not support Carter for a second term. I don’t see the War in Afghanistan as a right-left issue, but a top-down issue. At the top are those with the power to control US decision-making. At the bottom are those who share Eisenhower’s (not a leftist) fear of the dominance of the military-industrial complex, which drives war for its own purposes, and the rest of us who contend with fear-mongering (though Obama’s was not as bad as Bush’s, he used fear, also in his Oslo speech) to continue this war and will be compelled to pay for it over the next several generations and are in opposition to. Veterans groups, families of veterans and soldiers, as well as more traditional liberal groups are calling for this war to end, but they are at the bottom of this equation. It is the multi-national corporations who control our government who are benefiting from this war’s continuation and are at the top. With respect to this war, Obama could be Bush. They are interchangeable as heads of state when it comes to war. Just as Lyndon Johnson was wrong about the world dominance of communism if we lost in Vietnam, Obama is wrong about the importance of Afghanistan in combatting terrorism.

  6. Breanah, the more brilliant portions of the Oslo address verbalised the idea that peace is sometimes best achieved and maintained in the long term through justified uses of force. As George Weigel observed historically, “the justified use of proportionate and discriminate armed force was always understood to be in the pursuit of peace, which was the fruit of justice, security, and freedom.” Obama cautiously endorsed the idea of Just War and a broader vision of peace in the World even if it means short periods without peace as Americans. What is gained if we remain peaceful while others advance their cause through violence or by violating others human rights? What peace is that? Would we be more peaceful had we remained on the sidleine as Hitler exterminated millions of Jews in Europe and beyond? I say no and that standing up to abuse and violence with force as a last resort is an obligation we owe others out of love.
    Lamar, I don’t necessarily see the war in Afghanistan as a right/left issue either, but all the criticism seems to come from one direction. I consider the appropriate question to be whether our continued involvement advances the interests of justice, security and freedom. Do you feel it does none of these?

  7. I can’t accept the notion that the US should go around the world engaging in wars to provide justice and freedom to the world. If we do so, it will destroy this country financially and morally. Security is, of course, a rational basis for war, but I cannot accept preemptive or preventive war as implemented by both Bush and Obama (and Clinton to a more limited extent). The security of this country is not at risk from the Taliban. They never had any interest in attacking the US or engaging in terrorism against the US. They harbored some people over 8 years ago who did attack the US, and they were deposed and the terrorists routed. Occupying that country forever is what will be required to keep the Taliban (an indigenous movement) from never gaining a foothole in Afghanistan, but it is difficult to see that the Taliban (without al Queda) presents any greater danger to the US than the corrupt, drug-producing regime of our puppet Karzai. They did not allow al Queda in their country becasue of animosity toward the US. This core group of al Queda were the remnants of the mujahideen that we supported to fight the Soviets. Following tribal custom, they were guests in Afghanistan. To do harm to guests was culturally repugnant to them. This cultural misunderstanding on our part made us approach the problem of al Queda the wrong way from the start. We only understand the world in terms of power and military might, a decidedly authoritarian propensity.

    This war and occupation is opposed by Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, clear evidence that one’s position on it is not a left-right issue. What is at issue is the role of the US in the world. Nearly 45 years ago, I wrote a column (when I was in college) arguing against a “pax Americana”. Nothing that has happened since has convinced me that we should be at perpetual war, which is what would be required if our standard is to advance the interests of “justice, security, and freedom” around the world. We now spend more on our military than all of the rest of the world combined. We do not need to do so if our focus is on security from actual threats.

    If you applied the rationale you suggest for war – freedom, justice, and security – to the people of this country, every American would have a good home, education, food, health care, social stability, and a job commensurate with their ability. Why should we be willing to do for the rest of the world what we don’t do for our own people? The answer seems to be that most wars are fought to benefit the multi-national corporations (by securing natural resources they need and opening markets for their goods) and to give our professional military officers a chance to practice their professions and rise in stature as a result. The cult of militarism that Eisenhower warned us about is a very real threat to the security and existence of this country. Given Eisenhower’s stature in the US, I would think that more Americans would be willing to heed his words. If we ignore them, we will decline as surely as have all the empires that have gone before.

  8. One must first accept that our foreign policy in the middle east is, our enemy’s enemy is our friend. Cases in point, Iraq v. Iran and the mujahadeen (now the Taliban) v. the Russians. One must second accept the fact that prior to the invasion of Iraq, it was a secular state. It will never be that again. One mus finally accept that the current war in Afganistan is essentially a civil war between the Pashtun & the Tajik.

  9. Lamar, yours is a very isolationist view of the United States role in international affairs. The only justification you will allow for the use of US force is for the security of the mainland. Further, the only threat you seem to recognize is a present threat. Leaving the Taliban undisturbed up until 2001 provided a launching pad for the attacks on NYC. Now, they are in disarray so you feel the threat is not immediate or present enough to justify military action, but you do not seem to acknowledge that their disarray should be credited to our military action. In the absence of further action, they will reconstitute in Afghanistan (and possibly Pakistan) and once again provide fertile ground for those determined to do us harm.

    Further, justice, freedom and security work together (thus the conjunctive). Few would argue that we engage the military to promote freedom alone, or justice alone. Instead, military action is often required to protect freedom, justice AND security, and facing such threats promotes peace. All of that is not to say Afghanistan satisfies these criteria, but I do believe that the President addressed the war through the proper prism in his Oslo address.

    I do not understand your social justice parallel. Military action is never proper within our borders. The solutions and the scope of the solutions for domestic problems is decidedly different in type; likewise, we are not taking military action abroad to insure the world has no homeless or has full employment.

    I find Kucinich and Paul’s agreement unremarkable as both are populists, and populists of all persuasions often find common ground in opposing military action.

  10. John – The Taliban is not and has never been an enemy of the US. To conflate them with al Queda is simply an historical mistake. I am not and have never been an isolationist, but I do think the founders understood the problems inherent in engaging in foreign military adventures and they thought that they had protected against that by giving Congress the power to declare war. Unfortunately, a succession of increasing powerful executives have found ways to intimidate the Congress into acquiescing in undeclared wars. Those of us who agree with the founders are often called unpatriotic, cowardly, appeasers, isolationists. Concisely put, we engage in these wars to advance the empire. I believe that we should engage in the rest of the world in ways other than to achieve military hegemony, mainly because I am not an imperialist.

    Imperialism, defined by the Dictionary of Human Geography, is “the creation and maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural and territorial relationship, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination.” This describes most of our foreign policy for over a hundred years and excludes WW II.

  11. The Taliban provided Al Queda safe harbor and a base from which they launched attacks on the USS Cole, our embassy and the WTC. But for the Taliban, these attacks would not have happened.

    Which of these four doesn’t fit in the series: unpatriotic, cowardly, appeasers, isolationists. To be clear, I would never call you any of the other three. Maybe I shouldn’t have used any label, because even isolationist may carry with it more than is applicable. Similarly laden with unintended meaning — “imperialist.” By the definition you provided, I don’t know that the Afghanistan War fits. By another definition — “[t]he policy of expanding a nation’s authority by territorial acquisition or by establishing economic and political hegemony over other nations” (Am. Heritage, 3d), I am sure that it does not. Nothing about US Afghanistan policy is attempting to grow our territory or hegemony; in fact, we get nothing out of the War other than a possible peace dividend down the line. There is no enslaving, no resource plundering, no colonization, etc.

    As to the Founders, optimistic as they were, they probably couldn’t envision a world where the US was the sole military superpower, and wars were certainly different in citizen burden and goal. What the Founders could envision is a power-hungry executive branch, so they put safeguards in place. Congress still has the power of the purse and it is Congress’ duty to defund a conflict it finds unjust. When they choose not to, they are complicit in the conflict despite any public words to the contrary.

    Right now, we are the sole superpower; this is the World we face, and our choice is to accept our position and use it for good (to be exceptional if you will) or shrink back and fight the fires when they come ashore. History will judge us on the option we choose and hold us to a high standard, to whom much is given much is expected. UN resolutions have no power when they are ignored, and no resolution ever saved or liberated a life unless someone promised force if the words were ignored. I am encouraged that Obama is beginning to understand even his eloquence is empty unless he embraces his position and strives to be exceptional.

  12. John what military tactic would you endorse for the sole superpower to defeat a collective of religous zealots? I would suggest that the occupation of two countries, both almost certain to sink further into civil war upon our departure (and if you post that we have to stay there forever…) is not it.

  13. John – I don’t want to continue to go back and forth on these issues, but I think this discussion has served to narrow and focus the scope of our disagreements. I don’t accept this American exceptionalism idea you mentioned. It is a figment of the imagination of people who generally have ulterior motives, none of which I ascribe to you. No representative body has declared that the US is the savior of the world and must fight wars whenever and wherever some government behaves horribly.

    On a practical level, our military members and their families cannot take constant warfare. It breaks the human spirit and the human body and destroys both individuals and families. Both the suicide rate and the divorce rate in our military have reached record proportions. No other segment of our society is called upon for such sacrifice. Morally, what we are doing under the banner of American exceptionalism cannot be justified. When you consider that military leaders are now admitting that we will have to occupy Afghanistan for 10 to 15 years to accomplish the goals announced by Obama in his escalation speech (assuming that they can be accomplished, which I doubt). I can’t see why any American would be willing to spend this country into further debt, if not bankruptcy, which is what this policy calls for. The cost of the Soviets’ war in Afghanistan contributed greatly to its demise. It can and will do the same to us if we persist in this policy.

    I do agree that Congress is complicit in not putting a stop to the profligate spending on war. There are only a few representatives and senators willing to try to put a stop to the bleeding of our economy. If the cost of this war, not only in money, but in lost and mangled lives, was shared widely throughout our social structure, such wars would not happen. If real unemployment were not around 17%, there would be few young people ready to become warriors for pay, but that’s another topic for another day.

  14. Mr. Hankins- Thank you for your article. I am (still) a big supporter of Obama. I appreciate his thoroughness before making a decision and his patient confidence after setting long term goals. It is a nice respite from our previous president.

    I felt discombobulated after Obama’s Afghanistan address. Even though I knew his stance (he was honest about his intentions during his campaign); when he verbalized his plan, I was upset. I have always felt that our wars are rarely altruistic. I agree with your article. I guess what I wanted to share was my angst as I wrestled with making Obama’s reasoning behind his decision to send troops mesh with my anti-war convictions. I really did wonder that maybe I really am too naive. (I had a flashback to the day when I realized that anarchy would never happen in the USA.) Your article was what I needed to remind me that peaceful solutions are practical, save lives, and appreciated by many.

  15. Mr. McGlothlin- So USA is the “sole superpower’? Do you believe that children in other countries are sitting down to current event lessons and bowing down to us as “sole super powers” and that the world revolves around us? And if you really believe that, does that make you feel macho? Are you so ethnocentric (or egocentric) that you think that other countries admire us for our military aggressiveness? How would you feel if Japan or Iraq set up a base in San Marcos? The base residents would not have to abide by our laws; we would have to grin and bear their presence as they kept an eye on our citizens against potential acts of crimes against their countries. We would be a convenient location if Mexico ever declared war on them.

    I am also tired of the “fight them over there or over here” line. (fight the fires when they come ashore) We already have terrorist acts over here: school shootings, family and random massacres, and yes even Al Qaeda crimes. We “harbor” more criminals (potential domestic mass shooters) in our own society than there are Al Qaeda members. Well, we also seem to be a “breeding ground”for Al Qaeda gang members here re: the latest Pakistan incident. Should other countries come invade us? Maybe Pakistan should set up a base here…

  16. Mona, the US is the only remaining (sole) military superpower. We plow more resources into our military than the rest of the world and we are the only military capable of fighting multiple wars in multiple theatres simultaneously. It is not a position of moral authority or reverance as you hypothesize, and it should not be a source of bravado (macho?). It is simply a reality after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Few equate their nation’s military might with their own ethnic heritage (ethnocentric?) or self-worth (egocentric?). You are seeing shadows; I do not fit your caricature.
    War is a terrible thing, but conflicts are eternal and lasting peace cannot be achieved without strength. If you feel that no war is just and that we do not have any responsibility to push for peace by fighting injustice and threats to security and liberty abroad, then we will not agree. I respect your opinion and love you no less.

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