“Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart” by Tom Engelhardt

TomDispatch deserves to be bookmarked the Internet “favorites” menu of everyone interested in US public policy, foreign and domestic.  He presents essays from a wide range of fascinating experts.  And he has valuable insights himself, when he takes his pen in hand.  Here are excerpts from his latest essay.  It’s worth reading in full.

Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart“, Tom Engelhardt, posted at TomDispatch, 12 November 2008

On the day that Americans turned out in near record numbers to vote, a record was set halfway around the world. In Afghanistan, a U.S. Air Force strike wiped out about 40 people in a wedding party. This represented at least the sixth wedding party eradicated by American air power in Afghanistan and Iraq since December 2001.

American planes have, in fact, taken out two brides in the last seven months. And don’t try to bury your dead or mark their deaths ceremonially either, because funerals have been hit as well. Mind you, those planes, which have conducted 31% more air strikes in Afghanistan in support of U.S. troops this year, and the missile-armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)now making almost daily strikes across the border in Pakistan, remain part of George W. Bush’s Air Force, but only until January 21, 2009. Then, they — and all the brides and grooms of Afghanistan and in the Pakistani borderlands who care to have something more than the smallest of private weddings — officially become the property of President Barack Obama.

That’s a sobering thought.


He is, in fact, inheriting from the Bush administration a widening war in the region, as well as an exceedingly tenuous situation in devastated, still thoroughly factionalized, sectarian, and increasingly Iranian-influenced Iraq. There, the U.S. is, in actuality, increasingly friendless and ever less powerful. The last allies from the infamous “coalition of the willing” are now rushing for the door. The South Koreans, Hungarians, and Bulgarians — I’ll bet you didn’t even know the latter two had a few troops left in Iraq — are going home this year; the rump British force in the south will probably be out by next summer. …


If Iraq remains a sorry tale of American destruction and dysfunction without, as yet, a discernible end in sight, Afghanistan may prove Iraq squared.

And there, candidate Obama expressed no desire to wind the war down and withdraw American troops. Quite the opposite, during the election campaign he plunked hard for escalation, something our NATO allies are sure not to be too enthusiasticabout. According to the Obama plan, many more American troops (if available, itself an open question) are to be poured into the country in what would essentially be a massive “surge strategy” by yet another occupant of the Oval Office. Assumedly, the new Afghan policy would be aided and abetted by those CIA-run UAVs directed toward Pakistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and pals, while undoubtedly further destabilizing a shaky ally.

When it comes to rising civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes in their countries, both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari have already used their congratulatory phone calls to President-elect Obama to plead for an end to the attacks, which produce both a profusion of dead bodies and a profusion of live, vengeful enemies. Both have done the same with the Bush administration, Karzai to the point of tears.

The U.S. military argues that the use of air power is necessary in the face of a spreading, ever more dangerous, Taliban insurgency largely because there are too few boots on the ground. (“If we got more boots on the ground, we would not have to rely as much on airstrikes” was the way Army Brig. Gen. Michael Tucker, deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, put it.) But rest assured, as the boots multiply on increasingly hostile ground, the military will discover it needs more, not less, air power to back more troops in more trouble.

So, after January 20th, expect Obama to take possession of George Bush’s disastrous Afghan War; and unless he is far more skilled than Alexander the Great, British empire builders, and the Russians, his war, too, will continue to rage without ever becoming a raging success.

The War on Terror

Finally, President-elect Obama accepted the overall framework of a “Global War on Terror” during his presidential campaign. This “war” lies at the heart of the Bush administration’s fantasy world of war that has set all-too-real expanses of the planet aflame. Its dangers were further highlighted this week by the New York Times, which revealed that secret orders in the spring of 2004 gave the U.S. military “new authority to attack the Qaeda terrorist network anywhere in the world, and a more sweeping mandate to conduct operations in countries not at war with the United States.”

At least twelve such attacks have been carried out since then by Special Operations forces on Pakistan, Somalia, most recently Syria, and other unnamed countries. Signed by Donald Rumsfeld, signed off on by President Bush, built-upon recently by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, these secret orders enshrine the Pentagon’s right to ignore international boundaries, or the sovereignty of nations, in an endless global “war” of choice against small, scattered bands of terrorists.

As reporter Jim Lobe pointed out recently, a “series of interlocking grand bargains” in what the neoconservatives used to call “the Greater Middle East” or the “arc of instability” might be available to an Obama administration capable of genuinely new thinking. These, he wrote, would be “backed by the relevant regional players as well as major global powers — aimed at pacifying Afghanistan; integrating Iran into a new regional security structure; promoting reconciliation in Iraq; and launching a credible process to negotiate a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world.”

If, however, Obama accepts a War on Terror framework, as he already seems to have, as well as those “residual” forces in Iraq, while pumping up the war in Afghanistan, he may quickly find himself playing by Rumsfeld rules, whether or not he revokes those specific orders. In fact, left alone in Washington, backed by the normal national security types, he may soon find himself locked into all sorts of unpalatable situations, as once happened to another Democratic president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who opted to escalate an inherited war when what he most wanted to do was focus on domestic policy

Domestic Affairs

… {Go to TomDispatch to read the article in full.}

Concluding thoughts, about Washington

… It’s a natural reaction — and certainly a commonplace media reaction at the moment — to want to give Barack Obama a “chance.” Back off those critical comments, people now say. Fair’s fair. Give the President-elect a little “breathing space.” After all, the election is barely over, he’s not even in office, he hasn’t had his first 100 days, and already the criticism has begun.

But those who say this don’t understand Washington — or, in the case of various media figures and pundits, perhaps understand it all too well.

Political Washington is a conspiracy — in the original sense of the word: “to breathe the same air.” In that sense, there is no air in Washington that isn’t stale enough to choke a president. Send Obama there alone, give him that “breathing space,” don’t start demanding the quick ending of wars or anything else, and you’re not doing him, or the American people, any favors. Quite the opposite, you’re consigning him to suffocation.

Leave Obama to them and he’ll break your heart. If you do, then blame yourself, not him; but better than blaming anyone, pitch your own tent on the public commons and make some noise. Let him know that Washington’s isn’t the only consensus around, that Americans really do want our troops to come home, that we actually are looking for “change we can believe in,” which would include a less weaponized, less imperial American world, based on a reinvigorated idea of defense, not aggression, and on the Constitution, not leftover Rumsfeld rules or a bogus Global War on Terror.

About Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years, has recently been published.


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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

FM posts looking at the future Obama Administration:

  1. What do blogs do for America?, 26 February 2008 — As our problems reach critical dimensions and our economy sinks into what is (at best) a severe recession, our national leadership will likely move into the hands of someone with astonishingly little capacity to govern. 
  2. A look at the next phase of the Iraq War: 2009-2012, 1 March 2008 — What is next in Iraq?  None of the leading candidates have expressed any intention of leaving Iraq – except in the distant and vague future.  Obama has been quite explicit about his intention to continue the war.
  3. Our metastable Empire, built on a foundation of clay, 3 March 2008 — We can elect leaders with vast ambitions (foreign for McCain, domestic for Obama), but can no longer afford them. 
  4. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008 — The Presidential campaign rolls on in the seventh year since 9/11, with the only debate about the Long War being in which nations America should fight. We see this even in the speeches of Senator Obama.
  5. American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties, 18 May 2008 – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.
  6. President Obama, an Muslim apostate?, 2 June 2008 — Nope.
  7. Is Obama running for the office of Chief Shaman?, 6 June 2008 — Weirdness from our next President.
  8. Does America need a charismatic President?, 15 July 2008
  9. More about charisma, by Don Vandergriff…(#2 in the “getting ready for Obama” series), 16 July 2008 — About charisma:  know it before you buy it!
  10. Obama might be the shaman that America needs, 17 July 2008 — At what point does criticism of Obama’s charisma and rhetoric become criticism of leadership itself — and blind faith in technocratic solutions so loved by policy nerds?
  11. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008 — Obama’s statement about America may be the simple truth; this may be why so many find it disturbing.
  12. These days all American Presidents are War Presidents (part 2), 13 September 2008
  13. Biden’s gaffes are a threat to American’s complacency!, 13 September 2008
  14. The evil of socialism approaches!, 22 October 2008 — Economic crisis … a leftist radical President … Can socialism be avoided, or is it our destined fate?

10 thoughts on ““Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart” by Tom Engelhardt”

  1. Juan Cole and other Middle East scholars and retired military figures published an open letter on Informed Comment today outlining a sane approach to Iran and the ME. I wonder why Cole — this eminently clear-headed and visible writer — was not included among the dozens of foreign policy advisors on Obama’s team?

    If Hillary C. indeed becomes Secretary of State, the direst predictions about Obama’s foriegn policy directions are probably justified.

  2. Alas, too true. Obama appears to be backing away from his “immediate withdrawal” language in Iraq. “CNN Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre also reported Nov. 7 that Obama ‘gave himself some wiggle room’ to respond to military demands for more flexibility. McIntyre said he had ‘pledged to consult U.S. commanders and adjust as necessary’.” “Wiggle room” and “adjust as necessary” are weasel words that could all too easily wind up meaning “we’re bogged down in Iraq for 4 more years.”

    Meanwhile, as William S. Lind pointed out, Obama eappears committed to following a disastrous course of pursuing the Taliban into Pakistan adn widening the war in Afghanistan, which weakens the already shaky Pakistani government. If the government of Pakistan loses its credibility and legitimacy because it can’t keep the U.S. from violating its borders at will, Al Qaeda has a good shot at taking over Pakistan…which gives them access to nuclear weapons.

    It’s easy to imagine Obama and the Democrats getting bogged down in failed and unwinnable wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan until 2012. At that point, the Republicans can reinvent themselves and ride in as the alleged “saviors” who will save America from the doomed unwinnable wars the Republicans themselves starts.

    If this sounds far-fetched, remember: it happened before. Democrats started the war in Viet Nam, the Republicans got trapped in it, and the Democrats rode to the rescue in the form of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, promising to the end the long national nightmare.

  3. As I have noted elsewhere, foreign financing, including particularly Mideast sovereign wealth funds, are going to have no small say in what the United States will do.

    The idea that the Obama administration would be able to continue the Global War on Terror would require vastly different economic circumstances than anything actually likely to occur.

  4. Duncan: In other words, the GWOT was a project (or fantasy) that was only possible when the US was the sole superpower. Once we’ve lost that status, we will only be able to manage much more modest “spheres of interest” actions.

  5. Athiest — What I remember is that Nixon began pulling troops out of Vietnam in 1969 — “Vietnamization” was the term. He widened the scope of US air actions to equal the scope of North Vietnamese actions. Did this amount to actually widening the war? Forsan, non forsan.

    Re. Obama and Iraq, what I perceive is that a phased withdrawal is now acceptable to all parties, and the president-elect — having carried his main point — is willing to be more accommodating with regard to the schedule.

  6. Senaca, on Kevin Drum’s blog I just called it the “Let’s Cook Up Another Cold War So We Can Justify Our Military” strategy.

    It will be interesting to see if we can replace it with anything so coherent as a “sphere’s of influence” strategy.

  7. Duncan: that’s what it’s been all along, a transparent replay of the Cold War — “Cold War, the Sequel” in Hollywood parlance. “Humanitarian intervention”, which was all we could come up with for Yugoslavia, was hardly adequate for the big military build-up we had in mind.

  8. Wedding parties celebrate by blasting a few (hundred) rounds into the sky which can amount to inviting death from above. At least the US has aircraft and has some idea what’s being hit. The ill equipped British rely on artillery from 10 miles away and, as the Afghan’s have been complaining about, are killing a lot of people by accident

  9. The smart American leader is the one who avoids nuclear brinksmanship by acting like he’s totally crazy enough to push the button. So too for religious screaming me me’s. If he shows how rational and temperate he is, he invites a punch in the nose a’ la Biden’s “test” scenario. Give the guy some credit, he’s not stupid.

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