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"Let me be clear," President Barack Obama is fond of saying. And his desire was on full display two years ago when he announced a "comprehensive, new strategy" for the war in Afghanistan -- but only in the rhetoric.
Obama laced his speech of March 27, 2009, with nine uses of the words "clear" or "clearly," but his protestations about clarity looked more like a smokescreen to obscure the image of him lurching naively into a Vietnam-style quagmire.
After his first "clearly" and just before the first "let me be clear," Obama posed two rhetorical questions to which he promised a clear answer:
"What is our purpose in Afghanistan? ... Why do our men and women still fight and die there? The [American people] deserve a straightforward answer."
But we didn't get one. As a substitute for explanation, we got alliteration -- "a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country."
And mindful that it is now de rigueur to fortify a call to war with some Texas-cowboy rhetoric, like the tough talk from Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam or George W. Bush on any number of occasions, Obama added, "And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you."
His March 2009 speech, given while standing in front of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, represented Obama's explanation for sending about 20,000 more U.S. troops into the Afghan conflict, a number that has since been boosted by another 30,000 or so, to around 100,000 total.
Despite all the claims about clarity, all that was clear to me was that in choosing to escalate the war, Obama may have sealed his political doom -- not to mention sealing a more violent fate for hundreds of occupiers and thousands of indigenous.
Even if there had been some wise grown-ups around to tell him about President Johnson and Vietnam, it is far from clear that Obama would have listened. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Welcome to Vietnam, Mr. President"]
Pleasing the Establishment
Instead, in his March 2009 speech -- and the one on Dec. 1, 2009, at West Point announcing the additional troop buildup -- Obama was following the interests of the pro-war political/media Establishment that still dominates Washington. It remains almost as influential inside his administration as it was inside Bush's.
Hoping to assuage this Establishment, which was a touch nervous by all his campaign talk about "change," Obama offered continuity, from keeping Defense Secretary Gates and the rest of Bush's Pentagon high command to appointing another hawkish Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton for Condoleezza Rice.
Meanwhile, Washington policymakers and intellectuals who had gotten on Bush's wrong side for raising doubts about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were just as unwelcome in the Obama administration.
For instance, there was the case of Paul Pillar, deputy chief of the counter-terrorist center at CIA in the late 1990s, who from 2000 to 2005 held a very senior position as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. He is now director of graduate studies at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program.
Pillar's mild manner cannot obscure the razor sharp judgments that made him a bête noire of the Bush crowd after he retired. But he remains as much of an outsider under Obama.
On Sept. 16, 2009, before the White House decisions on Obama's second escalation, Pillar wrote an incisive op-ed for the Washington Post, entitled "Who's Afraid of a Terrorist Haven?"