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Entries in Vietnam (2)


A Gut Reaction to The Obama Inaugural Speech

Related Post: And on the Eighth Day - Hopes and Fears Over the Obama Foreign Policy

It is a strange feeling watching this day, sitting amidst technology which gives access to numerous television channels, Internet streams, and Twitter.

On the one hand, no amount of detachment --- not even the challenge of writing a live blog and providing a running analysis --- could separate me from the excitement and the enthusiasm of today. I have said this as a pro forma for media interviews but today I believed it, "Growing up in Alabama in the midst of the racial issues of the 1960s and 1970s, I never dreamed that I would see an African-American become President of the United States."

And those hundreds of thousands on the Mall not only were in the midst of a realised dream but in the midst of hope. In the middle of an economic crisis, in the middle of a foreign-policy mess from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Middle East, facing the unknown extent of climate change, they took in and radiated hope. A hope for most that, after the division and destruction and turmoil of the last eight years, light would come out of darkness.

Obama's speech was not a great speech, by his standards; there were too many formulae that had to be laid out: the tributes to America's greatness but also the warnings of recent drift, the possibilities of freedom but the need to achieve it and protect it, the responsibilties of citizenship. These had to be carred across general references to the economy, social issues, America's common defense, foreign policy.

But, working to and laying out those formulae, Obama offered his flourishes: the reference that, 60 years after his father was refused service in a restaurant, he was taking "the sacred oath" of the Presidency, the tribute to both "fallen heroes" and those who served by taking in the dispossessed when the levees broke, the invocation "“This is the price and promise of our citizenship….This is the meaning of our liberty.” And I must add that it was wonderful, both for hope and a bit of retribution, that the cameras cut away to former President Bush as Obama said:

We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine drafted a charter of ideals which inspired the world...[which] assured the rule of law and the rights of man.

On the other hand....

When I go back to the keyboard, rewind the video, glance at the world via Internet feeds, I have a great concern.

US Presidents have to talk tough. American political culture doesn't accept Presidential weaklings (did you notice Jimmy Carter on the platform?) in either rhetoric or action. So Obama had to combine the offers of friendship with the warning that, if you oppose the US, "we will defeat you". He had to speak of common dangers to the planet but also to affirm that, in addressing those challenges, "America must lead". He directly addressed "the Muslim world" for a relationship based "on mutual trust and respect" but also chastised those who are corrupt and deceitful. He offered peace but only "if you will unclench your fist".

This speech --- in the revival of hope, the call for unity, the offer of friendship, and the warning to America's enemies --- is a descendant of John F. Kennedy's famous 1961 Inaugural. And thus it should be noted that, while the Kennedy Administration could be commemorated for its calls for global development and progress, it could also be remembered for the confrontations that included the Bay of Pigs and the escalation of the disastrous involvement in Vietnam.

Is Obama's invocation of "America", one which stemmed from and added to the hope of today, one that is going to be offered to others, both friend and foe? Or will it be delivered in the terms of "you lead, we follow"? Freedom is a wonderful concept, but in the current conflicts that always face the Obama Administration, it is an abstraction beyond political, economic, and military realities.

So part of the concern is that, on the day after the Inauguration, the rhetoric of today has to meet the reality of what has happened in Israel, Palestine, and Gaza in the last month. It is that his reference to the Muslim world with trust and respect but also with a response to the "clenched fist" must define itself with the troubled relationship with Iran. It is that Obama's warning "we will defeat you" has to confront the complexity of the unrest in Pakistan. It is that, with a broken United Nations and damage to the notion of international co-operation, "America must lead" has to address the response of others that "America must listen". It is that his promise that the United States will abide by "a Charter of law" has to negotiate through the legal and political challenges that will threaten his promise to close Guantanamo Bay (not to mention, his silence on other American detention facilities such as Camp Bagram in Afghanistan).

And, at the end of this day, I note --- very narrowly, perhaps, but I believe pertinently --- that Obama only moved beyond generalities to refer specifically to two other countries. He promised that the United States would leave Iraq to its people, an allusion to the timetable for the withdrawal of US combat troops (but not, it should be noted, all troops). And he immediately followed that with an American commitment to the "security of Afghanistan".

I hope I'm wrong. But, for all the hope of a new America, the rhetoric that precedes and underpins this America --- the rhetoric of our vigiliance, our "common defense" against enemies, our extension of freedom --- means that Barack Hussein Obama will double the US troop level in Afghanistan from 30,000 to 60,000. And when he does so, with many crowing that he is simply following Bush's War on Terror rather than rejecting it, with others declaring that our liberalism requires such interventions, he will open Pandora's Box on his own war.

I hope I'm wrong. But if that happens, it will be hard to reach back to the hope of today. Hard to reach back not because we didn't believe in the vision of this historic moment, but because we did.

Simon Toner: Obama Dashes into an Afghanistan Quagmire

Simon Toner from Dublin is very worried that, days before his inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama is creating his first foreign-policy nightmare: Afghanistan.

Many supporters of Barack Obama were disheartened by his endorsement, toward the end of his presidential campaign, of an Iraq-like surge for Afghanistan. Some of those people might have gained solace from the news that, according to yesterday's Washington Post, the incoming administration has now acknowledged that the surge is unlikely to significantly change the state of play in Afghanistan.

It's a false consolation. Far from making the obvious conclusion that it might be best not to pursue a surge which will fail, the Obama administration still intends to send 30,000 additional troops, doubling the US presence in the country. The reason? Not because it will work, but in to buy time for the US and its NATO allies to develop a successful strategy.

"We have no strategic plan. We never had one," a "senior US military commander" says. This is a significant admission and a disturbing one. According to the article, the Pentagon and military are not even certain if the correct strategy to follow is conventional war or "the population security strategy", pursued since early 2007 in Iraq.

Certainly the latter approach would be more effective but even this will have little impact on the fostering of properly functioning institutions that can meet the needs of the Afghan people or address the other important issues that Obama acknowledges. Thus the US is getting deeper into the Afghan quagmire, doubling the number of troops but admitting that it has no strategy for success.

Yes, there are echoes of Vietnam here. From 1961-65 Presidents Kennedy and Johnson continued to commit more troops to South Vietnam, simply to stave off defeat and prop up the failing Saigon regime rather than to pursue a coherent strategy. Unfortunately, in the coming months we may have a repeat. We could end up with more than 60,000 US troops in Afghanistan and still no strategy; not to mention an exit strategy.

As Vietnam and Iraq taught us, it is far easier to get into a war than to get out of one.