Will Obama’s Wars Come Back to Bite Him?
Can President Obama lose in November? The consensus among those who claim to know is No, unless the economy tanks again; and this, the cognoscenti say, is unlikely to happen. Therefore barring improbable contingencies, Obama will win a second term. The rationale is seldom stated, but is plain as can be: Obama will win because Mitt Romney will be his opponent.
Romney will win the election for Obama because, for reasons too obvious to enumerate, nearly everyone – left, right and center – finds him repellent. And, in case that isn’t enough, by parroting his rivals’ positions, his views — the ones he holds when addressing theocrats and Tea Partiers; in other words, Republican primary voters — are repugnant to all but the most reactionary among us.
To be sure, Romney is the preferred candidate of corporate predators and Wall Street banksters, though one must wonder why they don’t just fall in behind their man in the White House already. And there are some wealthy old-fashioned Republican types who like Romney well enough, though even they must be irked by his pandering to the riffraff the party establishment recruited to get their men (and the occasional women) elected. But, in the precincts of the wealthy, greed conquers all, and so they can live with cultural contradictions if it helps to fatten their purses.
The riffraff are another story. The worst among them hate the very idea of an African-American president, and they hate “liberals” almost as much. Combine them with Republican voters who are lesser evilists of a more benign kind and any Republican nominee, even one despised by the base, can count on wracking up a respectable tally. But Romney, as much as any of the others, will need “moderates” on his side to win, and there’s almost no chance that they’ll be there for him.
This is why, Obama should sail through in November, despite having accomplished almost nothing worthwhile in his first term, despite having disappointed every constituency that fell under his spell four years ago, and notwithstanding the fact that he has been even worse than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in matters pertaining to the rule of law and Constitutional restrictions on executive power. His base, the pundits agree, has nowhere else to go, and neither do those “independents” he has tried so hard to attract. At least he’s not repellent, and he doesn’t present himself as a Santorum wannabe.
The pundits are surely right about this. But Obama’s way forward is not nearly as certain as they think because more than just bad economic news could put Romney over the top. Obama’s wars – even the ones he didn’t start are his by now! — could come back to bite him. So far, he’s warded off that threat successfully, though there are already signs of trouble, and it’s a long time between now and November.
Afghanistan seems to be the main problem right now, but by far the biggest bullet for Obama to dodge is a war against Iran. That would be another self-defeating Middle East war, worse by orders of magnitude than the “stupid” one, as Obama described it, against Iraq. The American empire has been taking aim at Iran, off and on, since even before the Iranian Revolution, but the conflict has so far remained at a “low intensity” level. If Obama wants to benefit from the Romney candidacy, while still demonizing the Iranian regime, he had better make sure that it stays that way.
No one can come up with any legitimate reason, real or contrived, for a war against Iran – unless we have come to the point that we now fight wars to disarm states we don’t like, even when they do not threaten us and probably never can. Not even the flacks leading the war chorus in the media or Congressional warmongers of the John McCain-Lindsey Graham-Joe Lieberman variety can find a justification for war that is not transparently specious.
A war against Iran is on the agenda now for one reason only: because Israel wants it, and because what Israel wants, the Israel lobby does its best to make sure Israel gets. They usually succeed too, since they have almost the entire Congress and most of the institutions that shape public opinion in their pocket or, at least, on their side.
For the time being, though, Obama seems to have dodged the bullet, by shamelessly buying the Israelis off with offers of weapons of a kind that seem calculated to enhance their capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities; the quid pro quo being that they hold off until the election. Since Israel is perhaps the most bellicose state on the planet, more disposed to use military force even than the United States, Obama’s way of dealing with his Israel lobby-Iran problem imperils the entire region and the world beyond. But it just might work – for Obama.
He can only hope that it is not the Netanyahu government’s idea – and therefore AIPAC’s — to replace him with a Republican. No doubt, they would love a President Gingrich – his first decision in office, he claims, would be to move the U.S, embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Would his second be to make his patron, Sheldon Adelson, ambassador to the Jewish state? One can imagine how grateful Netanyahu would then be – in return, who knows, he might even offer Adelson a concession to build a casino next to the Dome of the Rock.
Santorum would be almost as good. The tech savvy Netanyahu has undoubtedly checked him out on Google and discovered a personal affinity.
But with a Romney candidacy an all but sure thing, Obama can rest easy. The Israelis have as much reason to distrust Romney as everyone else does; perhaps more since, as a Mormon, he can be presumed to believe that his people are the ones who are truly chosen. This conviction might make him less disposed than evangelical Protestants or Catholics like Rick Santorum to march in step with the Zionist line on the Promised Land.
But whichever party the Israeli government prefers for the United States, the fact remains that their main motive is not to put someone even more subservient than Obama in the White House, but to put Iran down – not because an Iranian bomb, much less an Iranian capacity to build a bomb, poses an “existential threat” to Israel, no informed observer believes that, but because a nuclear Iran would hamper nuclear Israel’s capacity to do what it wants militarily in the region.
Israel has a long history of affecting American-Iranian relations. In the 1980s, when revolutionary fervor still ran high in Iran and when both official and popular anti-American attitudes were stronger than they now are, Israel, seeing Iraq as the “existential threat” of the day and Iran as an enemy of its enemy, induced the United States to take more friendly measures towards Iran than it otherwise would – Reagan’s bizarre Iran-Contra adventures being the best known and most egregious example.
It was only after the 1991 Bush War against Iraq, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Israel decided that Iran is its paramount enemy. Until then, the Israel lobby’s main concern was to assure that the U.S. would help Israel stifle the Palestinian national movement. That mission was so successful that, by now, even AIPAC has moved on. Iran, Israel’s one time best friend in the Middle East, is now the main object of their machinations.
Having reflexively slipped into anti-Iranian mode two decades ago, the American political class, more than ever in the Israel lobby’s sway, is now ratcheting up its anti-Iranian animosity. As happens so often where Israel is concerned, the tail obediently wags the dog.
Needless to say, the Israel lobby didn’t have a hard sell. Enmity towards Iran has been a factor in American politics at least since the hostage crisis that brought down Jimmy Carter’s presidency. But there is little doubt that American-Iranian relations would not be in their present sorry state but for the influence AIPAC and its sister-organizations wield in our political life.
Even so, an Iran War, which would be as devastating for Obama’s electoral prospects as for the entire world, can probably be averted, at least for now. It is Obama’s other wars that are more likely to come back to bite him.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were lost before he took office. Obama’s role, much like Nixon’s in Vietnam, has been to assure that the empire not lose face. In much the way that Obama is the beneficiary of extraordinary good luck in having Romney for an opponent, he has also been spectacularly lucky so far in his efforts to avoid the spectacle of helicopter airlifts from the American embassy’s copious roof. For this, he has (and, for the time being, still has) the complex vicissitudes of Iraqi politics to thank.
But the fact remains that the U.S. lost the Iraq War and that, in doing so, it not only devastated the country and its people but also tore apart the political fabric of the Iraqi state. There will be hell to pay for this eventually. But probably not before November; not if Obama’s luck holds.
Afghanistan is another story. That lost cause was effectively out of mind when Obama took office; by appointing a commission or two for cover, he could easily have let the war lapse and brought the troops home. But he was too eager to establish his own credibility as an effective projector of the empire’s military might to stand down right away; especially not in a war that, by his lights, had never been “stupid.” Add to that, his fondness for militarized drones and daring-do special operations and we are where we now are.
Not having a clue about what a war in Afghanistan involved and, for all practical purposes, mindless of the fact that both the British and then the Russian empires met defeat there, Obama fell victim to hapless intelligence “experts” and to generals intent on succeeding where their Vietnam era predecessors had failed. This is why, under Obama’s watch, “counterinsurgency” will be the empire’s undoing yet again.
Unfortunately, though, this time around, it looks as if there will be no counterpart to the “Vietnam syndrome” that, for a brief period, saved the United States and the world from a great deal of harm. If there is a way to get out of Afghanistan and still save face, count on Obama to find it.
But, as is already evident, in the process, he has made himself hostage to “rogue” soldiers, wanton perpetrators of murder and mayhem. It was inevitable. How, after all, could all of the economic conscripts who comprise a vast army of occupation keep it all together long enough to win “the hearts and minds” of the people they are there to keep in tow? Put them repeatedly and for long periods of time in situations where they are both the victims and perpetrators of brutal atrocities and the consequences will be impossible to suppress.
By now, even Newt Gingrich thinks enough is enough, and Santorum seems to agree; where those two go, Romney follows. Obama, the Nobel laureate, is the most hawkish of the lot.
This is ironic, but it is also to be expected of a president who takes his role as steward of the empire seriously. A shrewder leader might nevertheless find a way to do what both self-interest and morality require. A more courageous one might as well. But, from Day One, Obama has shown himself to be inept at governance and as spineless as they come. And so he can only hope that, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, his luck continues to hold.
As for his other wars, the ones the world barely knows about because they are fought just on the Commander-in-Chief’s prerogative with drones and special ops forces, and without boots on the ground that might arouse opposition at home, only time will tell. A few conspicuous “mistakes” could come back to bite him there as well.
On the whole, though, the odds are that Obama’s wars won’t do in his electoral prospects, and that Romney’s awfulness will win the election for the Democrats. However, it’s far from a done deal. In war more than in almost any other human activity, events easily get out of hand and beyond control. If Obama loses this time around, most likely this will be why.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.