Obama as Hamlet

Wrestling with the Question of Afghanistan

Obama’s approval rating has slipped under 50%. Still, I think most Americans whether they should or not feel sympathetic towards him as he wrestles with what to do in Afghanistan. That, I think, is how the White House wants us to view this interval: the president is a Hamlet-figure, pacing Air Force One, or the Oval Office, after yet another solemn conference with advisors, genuinely wondering along with the American people whether this mission should be or not be. What Dick Cheney derides as “dithering” is for PR purposes the Man, with his cool rational mind so refreshingly different from that of his predecessor, tortuously undertaking the comprehensive review only he can do.

On November 10 Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that anybody who says Obama has made a decision “doesn’t have in all honesty the slightest idea what they’re talking about. The president’s yet to make a decision” about troop levels. I read that as an effort to encourage the antiwar folks who continue to think kindly of Obama that just maybe he’ll do the right thing and withdraw.

The fact that former general and current U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry recommended against a buildup of forces given the widespread corruption in the Hamid Karzai regime in a memo last week, and that the memo was allowed to leak to the press, may also be a sop to the rational forces calling for an end to the war.

Obama says he’s angrier that Robert Gates about the leak and wants whoever is responsible fired. But the fact that Obama says he will make the decision “with a few weeks” and that NATO has announced that its regular Brussels meeting to discuss troop levels in Afghanistan has been postponed from November 23 to sometime next month suggests that the president may indeed be experiencing some internal conflict about this war he has repeatedly called a “war of necessity.”

That’s really been Obama’s defining foreign policy thesis. For a man without “foreign policy experience” (which of course from a common-sense point of view is not a bad thing) Obama felt from the get-go that he needed to balance his stand against the Iraq War, which was never really more than objection to a “strategic blunder,” with a macho, ringing defense of the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan as a “war of necessity”–the war that George Bush blew by diverting troops and resources to Iraq.

So long as Afghanistan was the Good War to Iraq’s Bad War that may have been a rational political strategy. As recently as his Cairo speech in June Obama told the world that while the Iraq War had been a “war of choice” (a significant admission for the head of state of the aggressor nation in a still ongoing war) Afghanistan was a war of necessity caused by the 9-11 attacks. But since then his own intelligence services have assured him that al-Qaeda has left Afghanistan and U.S. forces aren’t fighting the 9-11 perpetrators there. The U.S. forces and diminishing numbers of demoralized NATO and other allies fight Pashtun nationalists fired up by jihadist spirit. They have gotten stronger with each passing year of the eight year war, and more effective in killing U.S. troops unclear about their mission.

Obama could back off from his defining foreign policy thesis and say, “I was wrong. Actually this war wasn’t necessary at all and I’m pulling out.” He could point out the obvious: that it is an inherited conflict, not his war; that it has lost the support of the American people; that the Afghan regime for which the U.S. fights is hopelessly corrupt and unpopular; that the Afghans want the foreigners out, with Karzai himself calling for a timetable for withdrawal; that the war is dangerously destabilizing nuclear Pakistan and causing the people there as well as Afghanistan to hate the U.S. which is just very dangerous for everyone concerned.

It would be so easy, and there would be enormous support for a clear statement of a withdrawal plan. But it’s widely predicted that Obama will bow to the demand of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for tens of thousands of more troops, raising the issue of who really runs this country and what issues are really involved in Afghanistan. Does the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean, bypassing both Russia and Iran, have anything to do with it?

All the wrestling with the arguments about the absence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the increase in U.S. forces actually strengthening the Taliban and the distastefulness of having American soldiers dying for Karzai’s bogus regime ends when the pale cast of thought turns to serious imperialist geopolitics. Forgive my language but Obama is a traditional bourgeois politician who with his State Department identifies corporate U.S. interests as “national” interests and probably can be persuaded that they’re worth fighting for. Or rather, using U.S. troops to fight and die for.

Whether he gives McChrystal the 40,000 he wants or a smaller force, it will be doomed to contribute to the current 922 military fatality figure. Soon 1000 will have died fighting illiterate tribesman deeply angered at their presence in their valleys which have resisted countless ill-considered incursions for over 2300 years. Will the standard-bearer of change and hope still be pacing his office, wrestling with the question then?

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on November 21st, 2009 at 11:56am #

    Another possible view of Obama’s conflict is that he knows that both wars are, and always were, unwinnable and that the longer the US stays in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the greater will be the political amplitude of the defeats, but he is not sure how to present withdrawal publicly without being eaten for breakfast by the “pro-death” faction.

  2. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on November 21st, 2009 at 2:31pm #

    I don’t think that US aggression will not pay out megabucks for at least a mn people.

  3. Joe said on November 21st, 2009 at 2:49pm #

    The race is on between the military-industrial project /Pentagon and climate change. Will US might and greed grab what’s left of the the earth’s resources before they all run out?
    My money’s not on Obama. I never expected change. The unelected egos running the US are too entrenched.
    But I do know we’re all sick to death of America’s endless wars and bullying.
    Joe, Australia – sadly one of the sycophantic allies

  4. Rehmat said on November 21st, 2009 at 8:07pm #

    To turn the table in Afghanistan – NATO has decided to learn from the “Master of Torture”, Israel.

    Admiral Giampaolo Di Paolo, Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee paid a two-day visit to Zionist state – to learn methods of mass civilian killing, which Israeli army has perfected in Gazzah and Lebanon – to be applied in Afghanistan where NATO is loosing the war against Taliban….

    Palestinization of Afghanistan
    http://rehmat1.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/palestinization-of-afghanistan/

  5. Don Hawkins said on November 22nd, 2009 at 7:51am #

    Mary your forecast is correct on Copenhagen, then what?

  6. Don Hawkins said on November 22nd, 2009 at 3:22pm #

    How about this one? These so called leaders some we see on TV and some we don’t all have one thing in common there human’s. These people are not god’s as god’s are an illusion no such thing. We used to have the Sun God then the big plan one God sort of. It appears we are back to lot’s of little God’s some we see on Wall Street some in Hollywood and some live in Florida at least for a few years more and of course this is the case Worldwide. In the first part of the twenty first century these little God’s have taken illusion to new heights. The last ten years they have managed to stop any progress to move forward with knowledge, reason I guess they feel it’s just better that way. Let me say is there a creator of the known Universe a life form good question and so far stumped the best minds we have. The big plan now is these little God’s go out in style and we the people get to go down the drain in not such slow motion. Sounds simple but anything but as complex illusion is what they use to stay little God’s and in reality human’s something called con artists In 2009 they don’t even have to be that clever anymore just lie like dog’s and then talk about the lies like there important.

    Read this if you wish.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/nov/22/climate-change-emissions-scientist-watson

    Could be the reason why lies is all they got and granted if they don’t own the media Fox New’s comes to mind all they have to do is say do you like that money we give you for commercials? It is simple and made to seem complex. Let’s see what the little God’s have in mind for us in Copenhagen and we already know just more illusion then what? Probably for a few more years just more lies made to seem important and more fancy speeches, oh those fancy speech’s. There is still time if we start now but we are NOT starting NOW. I am watching Fox New’s right now and someone just said don’t lock your money up in long term investments. Ok anything you say. The witting has changed from human’s who do use knowledge and reason and just the next year buckle up the strangeness the lies from the little God’s much more on the way and the truth if you search for it real hard is still out there for NOW. Did you read that from the Guardian is it true of course it’s true but the little God’s in there pursuit of happiness are relentless and so is the Earth the home planet third one from the Sun in the Milky Way Galaxy in the known Universe, oops house arrest ignorance is strength and the next few months we get to see a lot of ignorance.

    The Greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. –Stephen Hawking

    As we let our great prize of collective intellectual capability float down the river into oblivion. mjosef

    “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
    - William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.4

  7. Annie Ladysmith said on November 23rd, 2009 at 12:37am #

    Does anybody get that this guy works for the SAME people BoyBush did?? The AMERICAN PEOPLE were never for this war. The AMERICAN PEOPLE figured out within a relatively short time that the infamous 9/11 was an inside job that had nothing to do with the peasants of Afghanistan or the Taliban who tries to direct them.

    How does anyone think this guy got elected with a nothing degree (LAW), NO birth certificate, and 10 years pissing around Chicago (which is a MESS and a DUMP if there ever was one). The same elite club, and let’s face it we all know who they are by now, and that their patron saint is S. Alinsky, O! YEAH!

    This mulling around looking important is BULLSHIT! This idiot is right on time with the Grand Plan of the globalists, there won’t be any troops coming home, in fact, i guarantee there will be even more sent after another 40,000. The whole POINT to this insanity is to put these troops IN harms way so Americans are left defenseless (except for our citizen militias).

    It has already been decided by these ‘elite’ reptile freeks that America will be sacrificed for the Global ‘Peace’ Plan, he intends to send them, and he intends to send MANY.

  8. b99 said on November 23rd, 2009 at 10:56am #

    annie- Most Americans do NOT believe 9/11 was an inside job. They correctly believe it was carried out by al-Qaeda. Most Americans want the troops home, to the extent that Obama ignores that call, he risks apathy from democratic voters. It’s not as if he has other victories in his pocket.