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March 9, 2009

Signs of Progress

And danger

by Justin Raimondo

I suppose progressives and others hopeful for a more rational foreign policy are going to have to be content, for the moment, with crumbs from the presidential table, such as Barack Obama's recent statement to the New York Times that we might consider negotiating with elements of the Taliban. This is, however, not entirely good news, because the counterinsurgency doctrine that animates this proposal aims at replicating our alleged "success" in Iraq, where the U.S. military allied with hard-core Sunni fundamentalists against largely foreign forces said to be affiliated with al-Qaeda. The blowback from this tactic has yet to hit the fan, but you can be sure that when the U.S. military begins to downsize its presence in Iraq, these soldiers of the "Awakening" – armed and subsidized by us – will move to fill the power vacuum and run straight into the Shi'ite militias. The resulting conflict will no doubt cause the Obama administration to think twice about leaving, as the Iraqi government asks us to intervene. Having planted the seeds of the coming civil war, we'll have ample pretext to renegotiate the status of forces agreement.

The two faces of the Obama administration illustrate the principle that foreign policy, far from being formulated with the solving of actual problems in mind, is almost entirely driven by domestic political concerns. On the one hand, we have the Good Obama – the one who says he's going to stop the practice of torture by U.S. military and intelligence personnel – except that Leon Panetta, his pick for CIA chief, says we're going to continue "renditioning" prisoners when we don't want to dirty our own hands by subjecting them to methods that, say, the Egyptians or the Saudis wouldn't blink at.

The Obama administration has made overtures to the Russians that we might be willing to forgo the anti-missile system Bush installed in Eastern Europe, which Moscow is up in arms about. On the other hand, the clueless Hillary Clinton's State Department can't get a decent translator. When she handed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a toy button, she thought it was labeled "reset." The idea was to follow up on Vice President Joe Biden's remarks in Munich, where he suggested that relations between the two countries needed to be reset on a new course – while demurring when asked if Obama intended to drop the missile-shield deployment. For a long moment, as Clinton presented the button to Lavrov, the mask of "competence" slid down to reveal the utter ridiculousness of the Americans: "We worked hard to get the right Russian word," burbled Hillary, smiling her most plastic smile. Her grin vanished as he answered, "You got it wrong." Instead of "reset," the word meant "overcharge." As Politico reports, she came back with

"'In a way, the word that was on the button turns out also to be true,' she argued. Though Lavrov had said that word on the button meant overcharge, Clinton suggested that that peregruzka could also be translated as overload."

I'll tell you what's on overload: my BS detector.

The style of this administration is to speak out of both sides of its mouth while looking over its shoulder at the various constituencies it must appease. The "realist" wing of the Obama administration, centered in the intelligence community and the diplomatic corps, looks to someone like Charles "Chas" Freeman, whose appointment as head of the National Intelligence Council would place him in a key position. Freeman was picked by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, whose spokeswoman made sure to let the Washington Times know that the president had no prior knowledge of the appointment. Freeman's sin, in the eyes of the Lobby, was to promote The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the seminal book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that diagnoses the deforming effects of Israel's American amen corner on our policymaking process.

The president's left-wing supporters want action on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and expectations are high: a new understanding of the "special relationship" is a prerequisite for success. Yet the administration is extraordinarily sensitive to criticism from the Israel lobby, which has gone on a jihad against Freeman, throwing everything in the book at him, and then some. The chosen theme of their hate campaign, in this case, is to portray Freeman as an agent of foreign powers – Saudi Arabia and China, so far. This charge, coming from the Israel lobby, is a hoot and a half – especially when one considers that the first voice to be raised against Freeman belonged to none other than Steve Rosen, the former AIPAC top lobbyist awaiting trial on charges of espionage on behalf of Israel (see this timeline).

Very early on, a struggle for the heart and soul of the Obama administration is taking place within the national security bureaucracy, with the "realists" arrayed against the Lobby and the "national security Democrats" grouped around the Center for a New American Security, the Democratic version of the infamous Project for a New American Century. CNAS appointees are pouring into top Pentagon policy and State Department positions, while the core resistance to the War Party, as in the Bush years, remains in the intelligence sector, in this case Blair's National Intelligence Council.

Change? It's still possible: the War Party, although in charge at State and the Pentagon, is hampered by widespread uneasiness among the president's base at the escalating conflict in Afghanistan and the prospect of a wider conflict in Central Asia. On the other hand, Obama is unlikely to want to take on the Israel lobby so early in his administration.

The Freeman appointment is one test of where we are going: if the Lobby succeeds in derailing it, that will tell us who's still in the driver's seat when it comes to steering our future course. The Lobby is fighting to assert its power of veto, which it exercised effortlessly during the Bush dark ages. Is this the bright dawn of a new day, or will the same old clouds darken our horizon for the next four years? Some indication of where we are headed is due shortly, but in the meantime, it's important to know that your voice is important. We're at a plastic juncture in the history of our foreign policy, one that could go either way. Do I have the audacity to hope? Well, yes, I do. On the other hand – and you knew I was coming to that – the War Party has the advantage, as usual, both in resources and in terms of its influence at the highest levels of the policymaking hierarchy. The playing field isn't level, but, then again, it never is. Nevertheless, the odds are no longer quite so stacked against us, and that's a sign of progress, I'm glad to admit.


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  • Jorge Hirsch is a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego.

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