Friday, December 19, 2008

"I bring from President-elect Obama a message of continuity"

Unlike hope or change, "continuity" is a term that doesn't lend itself to campaign stump speeches or glossy merchandise, so it's understandable that Barack Obama did not overly emphasize the concept in his race against John McCain, whose own dedication to continuity in foreign policy earned him the derogatory nickname "McSame."

But in laying out a national security team heavy on hawkish Iraq war supporters -- like "humanitarian interventionists" Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, and Bush's defense secretary, Robert Gates -- the notion that Obama would usher in a new era of peaceful U.S. relations with the world markedly different from the last eight years is becoming less tenable to maintain each day (not that a candidate who backed unilaterally invading Pakistan and "surging" in Afghanistan ever should have been viewed as an anti-war/peace candidate by his supporters or detractors).

And now that the heated denunciations of Obama as a neo-McGovernite bent on destroying Israel are subsiding, even The New York Times is noting how Obama's administration is likely to provide little more than an attractive veneer to the policies of George W. Bush, as suggested by Obama's future defense secretary during a recent trip overseas:
Mr. Gates's four-day trip was an indication that Mr. Obama would be continuing much of the Bush administration's latest policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least for now: reducing American troops slowly in Iraq but adding some 20,000 next year in Afghanistan.
Mr. Gates, who said he had had discussions with Mr. Obama about both wars, also signaled that Mr. Obama would take a forceful line against Iran.

"The president-elect and his team are under no illusions about Iran's behavior and what Iran has been doing in the region and apparently is doing with some weapons programs," Mr. Gates said Saturday at a regional security conference in Manama, Bahrain, where he stopped between visits to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr. Gates is also a proponent of continuity in national security, a view he underscored to the leaders of the Persian Gulf nations assembled in Manama. "I bring from President-elect Obama a message of continuity and commitment to our friends in the region," he told them.
Though loyal Democratic enthusiasts such as Spencer Ackerman have portrayed Obama's decision to keep on Gates as evidence that the latter has "signed on to Obama's agenda" -- which, according to Ackerman, includes such allegedly "progressive goals for the Middle East like 'responsibly ending the war in Iraq,' 'preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran… [and] seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.'" -- it appears more likely that Obama's agenda is not, in fact, all that different from the second term of the Bush administration.

(I would also question whether "responsibly ending the war in Iraq" -- i.e., keeping tens of thousands of troops there indefinitely -- should qualify as a "progressive" goal. I'd also question whether mere rhetoric should qualify as an "agenda" . . .)

Meanwhile, Gates' comments concerning Iran's worrisome "weapons programs" signals Obama is likely to continue the Bush administration's policy of ignoring factual evidence in favor of politically convenient fear mongering about Tehran. Of course, it's worth noting that according to the International Atomic Energy Agency's November 19 report (pdf), IAEA inspectors have "been able to continue to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran."

The November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran (pdf), the consensus opinion of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, also declares that "Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005." Both reports do suggest questions remain about Iran's nuclear ambitions, though none suggest Tehran is "apparently" working on nuclear weapons as Gates implies.

But as for the larger question of continuity in foreign policy under Obama, conservative columnist George Will dispelled the hope of change in that realm in a piece he recently wrote based on an interview with Gates:
Regarding Iraq, Gates is parsimonious with his confidence, noting that "the multisectarian democracy has not sunk very deep roots yet." He stresses, however, that there is bipartisan congressional support for "a long-term residual presence" of perhaps 40,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and that the president-elect's recent statements have not precluded that. Such a presence "for decades" has, he says, followed major U.S. military operations since 1945, other than in Vietnam. And he says, "Look at how long Britain has had troops in Cyprus."

Regarding Afghanistan, Gates recalls with a flicker of a smile that two decades ago, when "we were the quartermaster for the mujaheddin" fighting the Soviet army, "I was pumping arms across the border to some of the same guys" America is dealing with today. He is encouraged by the "dramatic expansion" of Afghanistan's national army and police. But when asked if Afghanistan has ever had a national government whose writ ran nationwide, he says "no."
Obama's promise to withdraw "combat troops" within 16 months -- based on conditions on the ground, of course -- was always a rather sneaky way of not actually committing to end the war in Iraq. After all, keeping troops there to train Iraqi troops and fight terrorism is the ostensible reason the Bush administration has cited for continuing the occupation, so Obama's pledge never really signaled a substantive change in policy.

Meanwhile, the last part in Will's column concerning Afghanistan is particularly noteworthy for, as Gates readily admits, the American public is being asked to trust U.S. national security to very same people who thought funding Osama & Friends in their war against the Soviets was a good idea. Disturbingly, handing control of foreign policy back to these same old establishment types appears to be exactly what liberal reporters/commenters like Ackerman seem to desire, as liberal (and pro-Iraq war when it was still cool) blogger Matthew Yglesias wrote earlier this year:
My ideas really are basically the ideas that were at the core of the bipartisan, establishment consensus throughout the Cold War years. And they're ideas that could and should have been the key ideas of center-left think tanks in the post-9/11 world. But that's not what actually happened. Instead, a set of ideas that originally existed as a fringe right-wing position wound up being espoused not only by nearly the entire Republican Party but by a huge swathe of the broader establishment. The kind of institutions that you would expect to try to put the country back on an even keel -- The New York Times's foreign affairs columnist, The Washington Post's editorial page, the top foreign policy officials from the second Clinton administration, the Brookings Institution, etc. -- instead hopped aboard George W. Bush's madcap adventure.
While Yglesias may be perplexed as to why all his fellow respected, serious foreign policy thinkers were so quick to hop on the Iraq war bandwagon, the reason so many liberal establishment types supported it is actually rather simple: because they, contrary to the wishes of the Code Pink types, believe in war as an instrument of policy. "Regime change" in Iraq became official U.S. foreign policy under the aforementioned second Clinton administration, after all, and certainly none of the serious types at the Washington Post or Brookings Institution ever objected to the genocidal sanctions regime their fellow humanitarian interventionists imposed on that country.

Is it just me, or is naiveté -- either real or affected -- the only qualification one needs to become a sought-after Beltway commentator?

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