Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Obama: wise potentate?

Glenn Greenwald points out that Obama's position on state secrecy and torture not only adopts the most authoritarian and extreme positions of the Bush administration, but goes farther by claiming a radical kind of 'sovereign immunity' to ensure that torture victims get no redress and no one ever finds out about it. He also notes that the Department of Justice under Eric Holder now wants total immunity from wiretapping prosecutions. (Greenwald is, though, unduly pleased by the criticisms of Obama that are coming from his 'progressive' supporters. Leave it to Dennis Perrin to notice the cravenness of liberal opinion when it comes to his Highness.) In a typical irony, as Bruce Fein points out, Obama's quest for "czarlike powers" in the 'war on terror' is being resisted legally by a judicial appointee of the Bush administration. So, the Obama doctrine is coming into full focus: no one would want such powers if they didn't intend perpetual war. The administration has taken some constructive positions on Cuba, pledged to close Guantanamo (not Bagram or the secret prisons, obviously), and been slightly less eager to bait Iran than the Bush administration. Reports of differences with Israel are probably exaggerated, but among Obama's advisors are realpolitikers who think it high time the nutty little client-state had its wings clipped, so I wouldn't rule out some change there. However, the administration is doing all this because it is intent on freeing up its hand for a more aggressive policy in southern and central Asia.

For some liberals, social democrats and Greens, Afghanistan was always the 'good war'. It was the good war because it overthrew a hated dictatorship, because it deposed sectarian religious rule, because it liberated women from misogynistic terror, and because it was the proper war of revenge against 'Al Qaeda'. Of course, these excuses for imperial violence are outrageous and ignorant, hedged by simplistic notions about the sociological potency of overwhelming violence, and rooted in uninterrogated assumptions about America as a force for good in the world. Alongside the ersatz emancipationism is an eliminationist approach to designated foes: 'Al Qaeda' are 'evil' and thus must be physically destroyed, (along with tens of thousands of people who are either bombed, shot, starved to death, tortured to a pain-wracked end, or poisoned by Dyncorps). This is mindless of the way in which enemies are created when you start bombing from 20,000 feet. After all, it isn't as if this war has escalated because the Taliban has a huge standing army, or even much social weight. What is called the Taliban is a loose network of groups that are galvanising substantial sectors of the population and, as a result, making military gains. Nonetheless, this perpetual war machine has been mantled in doctrines of 'civilization' (and clashes thereof), which have experienced renewed intellectual glamour in the aughties. Even the most violent exterminationist actions are deemed plausible if what is at stake is nothing less than the future of a 'civilization'.

Today, many pro-Obama liberals are still up for it, despite the fact that the previously low-level battle for control of Afghanistan has morphed into a regional war that could take the US into direct conflict with Pakistan. Obama is dropping the handsome puppet Karzai like so much worthless stock and preparing opinion for a security-state in Afghanistan, the better to deepen the war in the south and east of the country (more US troops are being sent to these regions) and intensify the onslaught in Pakistan. Already, Obama's drones are outkilling Bush's drones, with a reported ratio of fifty dead civilians for every one dead 'Al Qaeda' target. The idea that this is just a war against some small bands of Islamist fighters is nonsense. The main social forces in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, are hostile to the quasi-colonial rule of the Punjab elite, and to its supplications on America's behalf. The NWFP and FATA are ethnic Pashtun, largely, like much of the population across the barely existing border, in southern Afghanistan. The vast majority of those who suffered from Pakistan's own 'war on terror' were non-combatants. Still, Pakistan's elected crime families show no sign of being able to deliver what Obama wants. They cut a deal with its foes a long time ago for fear of losing much of the country, and the government is now embroiled in a bitter row that has seen Nawaz Sharif expelled from the goverment and try to place himself as a figurehead of the lawyers' movement - Sharif, of all people, who has no reason to support a genuinely independent judiciary. Now, since the US military leadership is raising hellfire about some kind of 'Al Qaeda'-led nuclear-tipped state of supreme evil emerging if things continue as they are (a complete fantasy), one expects a US-backed military coup any month now.

And why not? The US has depended on the Pakistani army for fifty years and isn't about to stop now. Ironically, it is the army and its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) that has historically built up the jihadi networks that it has recently been battling, and which remains the main source of institutional support for these outfits. It was the army that protected its Taliban clients by facilitating the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, while allowing the Talibs to retreat to its north-western territories. It is also alleged that the army has maintained and protected groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) long after their legal sell-by date in 2002. True, the Pakistani ruling class has been in a bind since 2001. Prior to that eventful year, the traditional backing for reactionary Islamist groups was highly congruent with its status as a US ally. It has been a dilemma ever since, in which billions of US dollars are at stake. The army has twice struck against the Islamists, once with the Musharraf-ordered attack on the Red Mosque, and again under US pressure with the failed 'Operation Lion Heart'. Each time it has done so, it has damaged its relationship with those jihadi groups and stimulated the insurgency. So, the army's usefulness to the US is severely compromised by its need to retain good relations with America's erstwhile foes. On the other hand, who else could the US turn to? The army remains the most powerful social force in Pakistan. It is not just a powerful security and intelligence apparatus but, as Justin Podur points out in the latest issue of Radical Philosophy, a potent capitalist in its own right with control over corn flakes, real estate, cement, mineral mining, etc. The corrupt political class is no match for the military, and the civil society has only periodically been able to challenge its dominance. Short of an invasion, the Pakistani army are the only game in town.

An invasion of Pakistan, though, is not out of the question. While Obama has discounted such an approach for now, he did indicate his willingness to countenance an invasion in 2007, and he has already embraced the Bush strategy of 'preemptive warfare'. All dynamics in the present war would tend to indicate US boots on Pakistani soil and, according to the Pakistani government, unofficial incursions have already taken place. Given intense competition with Russia over those central Asian energy supplies, given the possible break-up of the NATO alliance if this war fails, and given the need for the US ruling class to shore up its global dominance as its financial system collapses and economic competitiveness takes a dive, the further militarisation of American power seems inevitable. The accumulation of executive power could be a prelude to a more ambitious phase of American expansionism than we have yet seen.