Top Banner

blank.gif (59 bytes)

Opinion, August 16, 2010


blank.gif (59 bytes)
Bush left the White House but what else has changed?
By Tony Karon

My seven-year-old daughter wants her train set back. “It’s not fair,” she told me last week. “I gave it all, every train and track, to Obama. And he hasn’t even stopped the war.” She donated the set to a sidewalk sale raising funds for the Obama election campaign two years ago. And he hasn’t delivered on what she considered his most important promise.

Such complaints were dismissed recently by the White House spokesman Robert Gibb as the nagging complaint of a “professional left” who would only be satisfied “when we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon”.(Having to pay US$70 every time she visits the doctor despite having full private insurance coverage, I for one would welcome Canada’s Bolshevik health system.)

But my daughter’s desire to have her trains back highlights what could be a major problem for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. The anti-war Democrats whose activist energy got him nominated and elected feel demoralised and betrayed. Sure, they’ll vote for him in the absence of alternatives, but they’re unlikely to campaign for him. And he’ll struggle to win without their energy.

For too many, Mr Obama has failed to live up to the promise of change. Mr Gibbs says those who think Mr Obama is like George W Bush need to “have their heads read”. Sure, Mr Obama and Mr Bush are very different presidents, but nonetheless, a lot has remained unchanged since the Bush era.

Imagine, for a moment, that the former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon were to suddenly wake from the coma that has gripped him since his stroke in 2006: a quick glance at last week’s headlines might mislead Mr Sharon into believing he hadn’t been out of the loop very long.

Those headlines would read: US troops still needed in Iraq to hedge against civil war and defend borders; American forces require years to wage counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan; New round of military tribunals opens at Guantanamo Bay; Washington presses new sanctions against Iran – but Obama warns all options on the table; George Mitchell is dispatched to the Middle East in vain to restart the peace process.

Needless to say, none of this would be unfamiliar to Mr Sharon. The Israeli leader might even pat himself on the back for teaching the Americans to embrace his country’s tactic of “targeted assassination” of its designated enemies via its unmanned drone aircraft.

But the current US president is one who promised to end his predecessor’s disastrous wars, engage America’s enemies in dialogue and restore the country’s tattered reputation by closing down Guantanamo and allowing civilian justice to take its course with the inmates. On his second day in office, he promised to make achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict an urgent first-term priority.

Instead, Mr Obama shocked his antiwar base by doubling down in the Afghanistan – sending 30,000 more troops to fight a war few believe can be won – and announcing an implausible July 2011 withdrawal date, even though his generals have always made clear that can’t be done in anything more than a symbolic way.

Iraq was simpler because the Bush administration had negotiated an agreement with the Iraqi government that required US troops to leave Iraq’s cities by last summer, and to be out of the country altogether by the end of next year. Mr Obama has just announced the completion of the withdrawal of “combat units”, but there’s plenty of combat ahead for the 50,000 soldiers left behind. And the commander of Iraq’s military last week made clear his forces will require a US presence for another decade. Don’t bet against a new deal being negotiated.

Closing Guantanamo was resisted by the security establishment and Congress; it was not an issue on which Mr Obama appeared ready to fight. So the facility remains open, and the trials continue.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu took advantage of Mr Obama’s aversion to conflict, particularly when it involves a powerful domestic lobby, to push the president’s Middle East agenda back into Mr Netanyahu’s comfort zone. This week, US leverage will be used to press the Palestinian Authority into talks on Mr Netanyahu’s terms, and everyone knows where that leads. Meanwhile, the Israelis and their supporters also appear to be trying to box Mr Obama into confrontation with Iran.

One ray of hope appeared last week when Mr Obama finally broke his silence and defended the right of the Cordoba Foundation to build a mosque near the World Trade Centre, opposition to which has been a rallying point for conservative demagogues. But no sooner had he come under attack from Republicans for backing the plan, Mr Obama retreated, insisting that he backed the foundation’s “right” to build a mosque at the site it owns but would not endorse the “wisdom” of exercising that right.

Again, not much there to persuade idealistic kids to give up their toys or their time to get him re-elected.

But relief may be on the way for the peace camp – not from Mr Obama, but from the economy. Some headlines last week would certainly have shocked an awakening Mr Sharon: US unemployment is hovering at around 10 per cent and could get worse; the economy is slowing again; US cities are beginning to turn off street lights and cut back on everything from fire services to teachers.

The bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is $1 trillion and counting. Some $140 billion – and probably more – will be spent there by the end of this year. Given the state of the US economy, which is not likely to turn around any time soon, and the strategic cost-benefit analysis of both conflicts, America can no longer afford Mr Bush’s wars.

But that realisation is not a happy one for the electorate. Indeed, reluctance to take the consequences of telling the country the harsh truth about the state of American power in the world may be a major reason why Mr Obama has disappointed my daughter.

Tony Karon is a New York analyst who blogs at

back.gif (883 bytes)