THE BLOG

Obama and the Middle East: Fundamental Changes or Deja vu?

05/25/2011 12:55 pm ET

It is probably the greatest understatement of 2008 to say that many progressives in the Obama coalition, who played a crucial role in his victory, have been greatly disappointed with his national security team (NST). I do not wish to rehash all the discussions about Obama's NST by the progressives, but one statement that he made when introducing his NST left me dumbfounded. Mr. Obama said that he believes in having "strong personalities and strong opinions," and that he will welcome "vigorous debate" inside the White House.

So, the question is, could Obama not pick even one progressive with "strong opinions" to counter the NST that he has picked, in order to make the debates inside the White House more "vigorous?"

One glaring sign of how "great" are Obama's selections is the praise that he has been receiving for the selection of his cabinet from the far right, the neoconservatives, and the War Party. To begin with, that greatly despised inventor of the even more greatly despised Rovian politics, Carl Rove, called the selections "reassuring." Condoleezza Rice declared, "The country will be in good hands."

Max Boot, the wacky neocon, said, "I am gobsmacked by these appointments... this all but puts an end to the 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq." The "sane" neocon, David Brooks of the New York Times, declared the selections "superb." Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard, the neocons' mouthpiece, declared that the selections indicate, "Surprising continuity on foreign policy between President Bush's second term and the incoming administration .... the expectation is that Obama is set to continue the course set by Bush."

In the Senate, the turncoat Joe Lieberman, whose sole purpose in life seems to be starting a war with Iran, called the selections "virtually perfect," and his pal, John McCain, opined, "I certainly applaud many of the appointments." Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said, "The new administration is off to a good start." Even more disheartening was Mr. Obama's insistence on keeping Lieberman in the Democratic fold, after all of his back-stabbings.

I leave it to others to decide how Obama's NST may perform when it comes to confronting many critical issues around the globe, such as North Korea, and Russia. Here, I only want to describe how his NST sees the Middle East and the area around it, the most strategically important region in the world, where three high-intensity wars - Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestinians - and three low-intensity ones - US-supported attacks on Iran by the armed opposition, the Hezbollah/Israel skirmishes, and Pakistan's internal strife - have been going on for years.

I restrict myself to the conflicts that directly have to do with Iran and its neighbors, as this is the subject I write frequently about.

Iraq: The foundations for invasion of Iraq were laid in October 1998 when the Senate passed unanimously the Iraqi Liberation Act, the House passed it 360-38, and Hillary Clinton was the biggest cheerleader of what her husband and Madeleine Albright were doing to Iraq, including causing the death of 500,000 Iraqi children as a result of tough sanctions. More importantly, did Hillary not vote to authorize war with Iraq without even reading the intelligence report, and declared that Saddam Hussein "has given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al-Qaeda," and that he "has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons"?

General James L. Jones, Mr. Obama's national security advisor, has a solid reputation for being bipartisan, and has said that the war in Iraq has caused the US to "take its eyes off the ball" in Afghanistan. But, when asked about setting a deadline for withdrawal of the US forces from Iraq, did he not tell McCain in a Senate hearing that, "I think deadlines can work against us, and I think a deadline of this magnitude would be against our national interest"? Has he not called for increased defense spending (for what?)? Did the National Review Online not declare his selection "a pretty good sign for hawks, a pretty bad sign for doves"? Perhaps part of the "continuity" that Goldfarb is talking about is that, just as the first national security advisor of George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, had connections to Chevron, so does General Jones.

How about Susan Rice, who will be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations? She did not have to vote for any Iraq war Resolution, so she could claim that she was opposed to the war. But, did she not propagate the lies about Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction? Did she not say in 2002 that, "It is clear that Iraq poses a major threat"?

Joe Biden played a role in the invasion of Iraq that was even more important than that of Hillary Clinton. As the Chair of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee in 2002, Biden refused to bring before the committee objective experts to testify whether Iraq had any WMDs. For example, veteran diplomat Hans von Sponeck, who was the former head of the UN's Iraq program, had expressed his willingness to testify. In July 2002, eight months before invasion of Iraq, von Sponeck wrote in an article posted on Znet, entitled "Call Bush's Bluff," that, "The U.S. Department of Defense and the CIA know perfectly well that today's Iraq poses no threat to anyone in the region, let alone in the United States...."

As a candidate, Mr. Obama said, "I don't want to just end the [Iraq] war, but I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place." So, are we to believe that this bunch, who played a major role in starting the illegal Iraq war, will suddenly undergo a fundamental transformation of mind-set? Not likely.

But, Obama himself seems to have changed his own mind-set. Gone are his proclamations about ending quickly the war he called "dumb" and "rash." He will not end it the way progressives like me think it should end, namely, bringing home every single soldier and all the private contractors. Also gone is his belief that the "surge" was a bad idea. He was forced by McCain and the right to say that the "surge" has succeeded "beyond our wildest dreams." No, it has not. Violence is down simply because fierce religious and ethnic cleansing took place. The Shit'ites killed the Sunnis, or drove them out of their areas, and vice versa, and Iraqi Kurds did that to both. So, the "peace" is actually very fragile.

Afghanistan: Here, every member of Obama's NST agrees with him, and with everyone else: There has to be an escalation - they call it "surge" again - of the war under the NATO guise. This is one promise by the President-Elect that the progressives hope he will not fulfill.

First of all, why are things so bad that even Hamid Karzai, the puppet President and former Unocal lobbyist, feels compelled to say that, "I wish I could intercept the [US] planes that are going to bomb Afghan villages, but that is not in my hands"? Because the Taliban were overthrown but not defeated. It then became what Hillary Clinton herself called "the forgotten front line," left in the hands of the NATO commanders who do not have the foggiest idea about the land, its people, and their religion, culture, history, and traditions. Corruption is rampant, opium production that had been banned by the Taliban is back with vengeance, and there is a huge political vacuum. Under such conditions, a disciplined group like the Taliban - as criminal as it may be - steps forward and can succeed.

Second, the grand illusion is that, Afghanistan - one of the most backward nations on Earth - can blossom into a Western-style democracy. It will not, at least not in our life time, even if the Taliban disappeared tomorrow.

Third, the lack of understanding of that region also makes it difficult to imagine how Obama will not escalate the war, when his Secretary of State will be the same woman who urged Bill Clinton to bomb Yugoslavia in 1999, in order "to defend our way of life" half way around the world! I am sure the same logic will be used to justify the escalation in Afghanistan.

Fourth, the British and the Soviets learned the lesson the hard way, but no one in Obama's NST seems to understand that the war in Afghanistan, and indeed in much of the Middle East, does not have a military solution. The root cause of the decades-old conflict, namely, poverty and illiteracy, must be addressed. If they are, the Taliban or any other extremist group will not find any sympathizers.

What has been happening in Afghanistan is not Obama's fault. But, if he does deliver on his promise of escalating the war in Afghanistan without addressing the root-cause of the conflict, the war will continue for many years to come, without any hope for any tangible results for the people of Afghanistan and the Middle East. Is that what he wants? Or, is this all meant to put US soldiers permanently in Afghanistan, next to Central Asia's vast oil and gas reserves, regardless of what may happen to the people of Afghanistan?

Pakistan: How much does Obama's NST know about Pakistan? As recently as January 2008, Hillary Clinton did not know that former dictator of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, had appointed himself as president for five more years, and was challenging him to put himself up for re-election!

The United States has had a major role in creating the chaos in Pakistan. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks the US has given Pakistan $11 billion in aid, in addition to forgiving its previous debts. 80% of the aid went to the military to supposedly fight the Al-Qaeda. But what has happened? 90% of the military aid has been used to buy advanced weapons and put them at the Pakistan/India border, one of the most unstable border areas in the world. Musharraf also signed peace agreements with the Taliban's sympathizers in the western and northern Pakistan provinces. The result is an unstable nuclear nation with a large number of radicals in its military Inter Services intelligence - the ISI - who support Taliban.

Obama has talked about carrying out "hot pursuits" of the Taliban and their sympathizers in Pakistan. How realistic is that? Pakistan's corrupt President Asif Ali Zardari (the infamous Mr. 10% in the 1990s), who has no base of support in the military, is trapped in the impossible land of trying to please the US, but also not doing anything to upset the radicals in the ISI, who are angry that the US has tilted towards India, and has quietly supported India's establishment of a major presence in Afghanistan, which Pakistan considers as its "backyard" and security asset, not to mention the fact that the US is fighting their creature - the Taliban.

Add to these the fact that everyone in the US military seems inclined to use coercion in dealing with Pakistan, and not giving it the respect that a large sovereign nation and a major "non-NATO ally" of the US deserves. All you have to do to see this is recalling the summoning of Pakistan's military chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to meet with Admiral Mike Mullin and General David Petraeus, without going through the usual political protocol. Is Mr. Obama going to change such attitudes?

Iran: The neocons and the War Party, together with the right-wing of the Democratic Party and the Israel lobby, have staged an all out campaign to convince Barack Obama that Iran is the biggest threat to the US. Obama himself, as well as his NST, routinely talk about Iran's "nuclear weapon program" that the International Atomic Energy Agency has consistently declared to be non-existent.

Hillary Clinton voted for the Kyle-Lieberman Senate Resolution, which Obama called "reckless." The Resolution declared Iran's Revolutionary Guards (IRG) - part of Iran's legitimate armed forces - a foreign terrorist organization. She declared that the US would not just defend Israel, if Iran attacked it, rather it would obliterate Iran.

Since becoming Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates has repeated many times the baseless accusations that Iran is causing trouble in Iraq. He also claimed recently that, "I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate[s] for 30 years." He does not know how to look.

In 1995 Iranian moderates, wishing to re-establish relations with the US, granted a large contract to Conoco to work on an Iranian oil field, but Bill Clinton prevented it from happening. Under former president Mohammad Khatami Iran provided crucial help to the US, when it attacked Afghanistan in the Fall of 2001, by opening its airspace to the US aircrafts and providing intelligence on the Taliban forces, and the forces that it had supported for years, the Northern Alliance, were the first to reach Kabul and overthrow the Taliban government.

Then, during the U.N. talks on the future of Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, Iran's representative Mohammad Javad Zarif met daily with the US envoy James Dobbins, who praised Zarif for preventing the conference from collapsing. Two months later, President Bush, Gates' boss, rewarded Iranian moderates by making Iran a charter member of his imaginary "axis of evil."

In May 2003 the same Iranian moderates made a comprehensive proposal to the US, offering to negotiate all the important issues, recognizing Israel within its pre-1967 war borders, and cutting off material support to Hamas and Hezbollah. The proposal was rejected. That was when Bush's "mission accomplished" banner was everywhere!

Obama has declared repeatedly that he would negotiate with Iran without any pre-conditions, for which he was ridiculed by Hillary Clinton. Now, the same Clinton, who has consistently taken the most hawkish positions on Iran and has threatened Iran with obliteration, is going to implement Obama's Iran policy? The same Hillary Clinton, who voted for declaring the IRG a "terrorist organization," is going to sit across the table from Iran's delegation, made mostly of former and current IRG commanders? With what credibility? This defies logic.

The necons, the War Party and the Israel lobby constantly declare that negotiations with Iran will fail, implying that the US must attack Iran at some point. Even Bush decided that was not a wise idea. Obama, on the other hand, is insisting on Iran giving up its internationally-recognized rights for uranium enrichment - the neocons' demand. No Iranian government would dare to do that. So, if this is going to be the subject of the negotiations without any "pre-conditions," it will indeed fail. In that case, what will Mr. Obama do? Bomb Iran?

True, Obama has said that, "Understand where the vision for change comes from; first and foremost it comes from me. That is my job, to provide in terms of where we are going and to make sure, then, that my team is implementing." But, as Albert Einstein said,

We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Many in Obama's NST had a large role in creating the huge problems in the Middle East. The same characters are supposed to provide him with solutions? An intelligent man like President-Elect Obama should know better.