11 – Helping Obama (21 Jan 09)

and a new Sampiemon column.

     Who in his or her right mind does not want to help Barack Obama succeed as President of the United States? Almost everyone in Europe hopes he does, so is the overwhelming general impression. And Europeans should help him, so write a number of American commentators. They should end their unwillingness to cooperate with Washington. What that means for the liberal hawks, over-represented among them, was conveyed by a Thomas Friedman column shortly after the election.
    This correspondent, who has what must be the most enviable job in contemporary journalism, may not be much as a political analyst, but as a weathervane indicating the direction of the winds of received opinion in Washington he certainly is useful. You wanted Obama, now you have him, and it is therefore time to do something in return, so spoke Friedman to the Europeans. And that something is mainly to send more troops to Afghanistan.
     More misconceived advice for helping Obama is hard to imagine. We do not yet have a clear idea of what his true thoughts are about Afghanistan and what he is being told by relevant advisers. It is a central question among American friends and up-to-date Europeans with whom I speak, and also among Japanese – I am in the midst of them at the moment – who wish him well.
     Throughout the election campaign we all understood that he had to be elected first and thus could not speak his mind for demonstrating good sense on issues that had become simplistic touchstones of political bona-fides in the United States. Well, now he is president he probably still has to be extraordinarily careful not to lay himself open to waves of rightwing indignation and antagonism that may turn his efforts for a spending program – crucial to prevent a bad economy from turning much worse – to nought.
     That would also explain his choice of some cabinet members, which has already prompted expressions of considerable disappointment among many of his most fervent supporters. Using Lyndon Johnson’s memorable adage that it is better to have a camel inside the tent pissing out, than one outside pissing into the tent, as metaphor: the moment Obama shows signs of weakening or “flip-flopping” on Afghanistan, he will invite a herd of camels to converge on his tent. Remember that for much of last year, doubts about Obama’s resolve concerning security related issues were widespread, also among Democrats, and his being portrayed as not quite a convincing commander-in-chief, while nonsensical from a European perspective, was in the United States considered as his main political weakness. The neocons and “liberal hawks” have, moreover, jointly “owned the discussion” on the subject of Afghanistan.
     What does Obama think he can achieve in Afghanistan? It is almost impossible to accept that a person of his intelligence and political acumen has not concluded that this is a mission doomed to absolute failure. What can the military possibly accomplish there? The creation of a functioning government in a country that has never ever had such a government in control of most of it? Of course there are sophisticated Afghanis who plead with the international agencies for the foreigners to stay and help their tragic country, and it will be heart-rending to desert them.
    Does Obama agree with military America that it must have its bases there? But he must have heard that although Afghanistan may not have been the immediate cause of the collapse of the British empire, British misadventures there certainly helped a lot, and Afghanistan as the catalyst of the collapse of the Soviet empire must also be part of his living memory. He may even have read William Pfaff’s column expressing the very real possibility that Afghanistan will become his undoing as successful president, if he persists.
     If the Europeans are truly intent on helping Obama they should not only get out of Afghanistan and tell him to do the same, but also explain that the NATO in its present shape, serving basically to organize European reserve troops for American military purposes, is a liability for everyone, including himself. Europeans are not quite ready to write this in their newspapers as Jan Sampiemon explains in his column, along with other details of the pathological transatlantic relationship, but Germany’s foreign minister, Steinmeier, may be on the right track.
     William Pfaff, who is based in Paris, has written a number of columns that contain the sharpest and most to the point analyses of the NATO of today. Here is his latest. I cannot think of a journalist with a more impeccable track record of getting his diagnoses right than Pfaff, something by which all journalism must be judged. As not all his work is carried by the International Herald Tribune, you do well to go through his archive – it constitutes a history of recent times as no one else has, by my knowledge, yet written. Take this one, on the motives behind Israel’s devastation of Gaza, as an example.