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Obama as Hamlet


Obama’s approval rating has slipped under 50%. Still, I think most Americans feel somewhat sympathetic towards him as he wrestles with what to do in Afghanistan. That, I think, is how the White House wants us to view this interval: the president is a Hamlet-figure, pacing Air Force One, or the Oval Office, after yet another solemn conference with advisors, genuinely wondering along with the American people whether this mission should be or not be. What Dick Cheney derides as “dithering” is for PR purposes the Man, with his cool rational mind so refreshingly different from that of his predecessor, tortuously undertaking the comprehensive review only he can do.

On November 10 Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that anybody who says Obama has made a decision “doesn’t have in all honesty the slightest idea what they’re talking about. The president’s yet to make a decision” about troop levels. I read that as an effort to encourage the antiwar folks who continue to think kindly of Obama that just maybe he’ll do the right thing and withdraw.

The fact that former general and current U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry recommended against a buildup of forces given the widespread corruption in the Hamid Karzai regime in a memo last week, and that the memo was allowed to leak to the press, may also be a sop to the rational forces calling for an end to the war.

Obama says he’s angrier that Robert Gates about the leak and wants whoever is responsible fired. But the fact that Obama says he will make the decision “with a few weeks” and that NATO has announced that its regular Brussels meeting to discuss troop levels in Afghanistan has been postponed from November 23 to sometime next month suggests that the president may indeed be experiencing some internal conflict about this war he has repeatedly called a “war of necessity.”

That’s really been Obama’s defining foreign policy thesis. For a man without “foreign policy experience” (which of course from a common-sense point of view is not a bad thing) Obama felt from the get-go that he needed to balance his stand against the Iraq War, which was never really more than objection to a “strategic blunder,” with a macho, ringing defense of the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan as a “war of necessity”—the war that George Bush blew by diverting troops and resources to Iraq.

So long as Afghanistan was the Good War to Iraq’s Bad War that may have been a rational political strategy. As recently as his Cairo speech in June Obama told the world that while the Iraq War had been a “war of choice” (a significant admission for the head of state of the aggressor nation in a still ongoing war) Afghanistan was a war of necessity caused by the 9-11 attacks. But since then his own intelligence services have assured him that al-Qaeda has left Afghanistan and U.S. forces aren’t fighting the 9-11 perpetrators there. The U.S. forces and diminishing numbers of demoralized NATO and other allies fight Pashtun nationalists fired up by jihadist spirit. They have gotten stronger with each passing year of the eight year war, and more effective in killing U.S. troops unclear about their mission.

Obama could back off from his defining foreign policy thesis and say, “I was wrong. Actually this war wasn’t necessary at all and I’m pulling out.” He could point out the obvious: that it is an inherited conflict, not his war; that it has lost the support of the American people; that the Afghan regime for which the U.S. fights is hopelessly corrupt and unpopular; that the Afghans want the foreigners out, with Karzai himself calling for a timetable for withdrawal; that the war is dangerously destabilizing nuclear Pakistan and causing the people there as well as Afghanistan to hate the U.S. which is just very dangerous for everyone concerned.

It would be so easy, and there would be enormous support for a clear statement of a withdrawal plan. But it’s widely predicted that Obama will bow to the demand of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for tens of thousands of more troops, raising the issue of who really runs this country and what issues are really involved in Afghanistan. Does the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean, bypassing both Russia and Iran, have anything to do with it?

All the wrestling with the arguments about the absence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the increase in U.S. forces actually strengthening the Taliban and the distastefulness of having American soldiers dying for Karzai’s bogus regime ends when the pale cast of thought turns to serious imperialist geopolitics. Forgive my language but Obama is a traditional bourgeois politician who with his State Department identifies corporate U.S. interests  as “national” interests and probably can be persuaded that they’re worth fighting for. Or rather, using U.S. troops to fight and die for.

Whether he gives McChrystal the 40,000 he wants or a smaller force, it will be  doomed to contribute to the current 922 military fatality figure. Soon 1000 will have died fighting illiterate tribesman deeply angered at their presence in their valleys which have resisted countless ill-considered incursions for over 2300 years. Will the standard-bearer of change and hope still be pacing his office, wrestling with the question then?

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

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