It is tempting to see Barack Obama as an antiwar leader because of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
As the next president of the United States, he has to deal with the situation that he will inherit. Events have convinced him that America cannot continue to fight on all four fronts – Iraq, Afghanistan, the global war on terror and the collapsing economy.
He wants to cut his losses on at least two fronts.
In Iraq, he would reduce America’s military presence and possibly end it within a finite period; he would also do away with the most ugly and financially ruinous aspects of the ‘war on terror’. So he says the Guantanamo detention camp will be closed.
The notorious practice of kidnapping and torture of people will have to stop.
However, a few things are not clear.
What will happen to detainees who are clearly innocent?
And how will those who are suspects in the eyes of the United States be tried?
The idea of secret military courts with a different set of rules of prosecution has caused unease among legal experts and human rights organizations. Obama’s interest is focused on Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where he thinks the battle against terrorism has to be fought. But events have overtaken this analysis following the carnage in Mumbai by young gunmen who appear to have come from Pakistan. They highlight a giant web of crises spanning a large area from Palestine to India and illustrate the way in which many crises can become one.
Obama’s global ambition may be limited, but his approach has striking similarities with the one followed in Iraq under George W Bush.
With Robert Gates continuing as defense secretary and General Robert Petraeus as head of the US Central Command overseeing military operations across the Middle East, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is difficult to expect a radical change.
Obama supports a military surge in Afghanistan similar to that seen in Iraq in 2007, when violence in Baghdad and Anbar Province was at its worst. Many in Washington would like to believe that the surge was responsible for a dramatic improvement in the security environment. In fact, suicide attacks and murders continue on a daily basis.
The latest bomb attacks were launched in Baghdad on the very day (December 1, 2008) Obama was to announce his National Security team, which also includes Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Gates and Petraeus are among the architects of the current strategy in Iraq. Its effects are celebrated in Washington, but contested elsewhere for three main reasons.
One, to split Al-Qaeda, the United States decided to finance and arm as many as a hundred thousand tribesmen called the ‘Sons of Iraq’, who patrol large areas in the country.
Two, the move has created Sunni warlords in a country which has a Shi’a majority and a Shi’a-dominated government.
Three, it has reinforced sectarianism.