“Now, I’d like to speak clearly and candidly to the American people . . .”
I believe him, with a passionate urgency — this new president, swept into office on a surge of hope and anger. I believe him without cynicism. After all, he has a terrifying job to do, a toxic legacy left to mop up. I cut him slack, listen for the sound, in his words, of the turning of the ship of state. How does he plan to engage the future? He’s an intelligent and, I think, courageous leader. And he has a global constituency to back him up. All he has to do is speak to it, clearly and candidly . . .
I was numb to the lies and simplistic rhetoric of George W. Bush. But when Barack Obama tries to fill those incredibly small shoes, to rev up the same constituency of true believers (the constituency that didn’t vote for him) and sell the same war — new! improved! — to the American people, I am not numb. The hope in my heart bursts into flying shrapnel. You’re making a serious mistake, Mr. President.
In honor of the man I voted for, and who, I insist, must assert himself and address his constituency not just marginally but with the full measure of his intelligence and compassion, at the heart of what matters — true global security, the building of a just peace — I take a close look at Obama’s most disappointing performance thus far: his speech last week “announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Here are four ways the president’s speech failed his constituency:
1. It was simplistic. In the fine old tradition of military solutions to whatever, which brook no complexity of analysis, he fed us the same old story of good versus evil, even invoking 9/11. The formula for war never changes: Hype fear into hysteria, then propose the application of righteous violence to save the day. The bad guys who pulled off 9/11 are still in the mountains of Central Asia and they’re “planning attacks on the U.S. homeland.” It’s as simple as that. We must root them out.
One of the prime assumptions here is that terrorism is subject to central control, as though aggrieved fanatics all take their orders from a single source, which can and must be bombed. Evil plans can’t be hatched in London, Paris or New York.
2. The speech affected a selective concern for humanity. American dead matter most. “Attacks against our troops, our NATO allies, and the Afghan government have risen steadily. Most painfully, 2008 was the deadliest year of the war for American forces.” Missing from the speech were any references to the Afghan dead — as many as 8,000 — caused by U.S. and NATO forces since 2001.
When the suffering of “the Afghan people” is evoked, the concern is suspect. “. . . a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights . . . especially (to) women and girls.” Is American compassion limitless or what? Yet women and girls constitute a high percentage of the collateral damage we churn up.