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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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the Political and
A Reply to Elliot Benjamin's
“Obama and the War in Afghanistan”
Note: Damn that Elliot Benjamin! I wrote this great rebuttal to his initial piece on Obama and Afghanistan and he went and did me one better, he rethought his whole stance in the face of counterevidence and, doing what no one ever does, changed his mind! An extraordinary guy. Well, I think my piece might still be informative anyway.
An alternative vision of integrality has radical implications.
Eliott Benjamin's article on President Obama's Afghanistan policy exemplifies a pervasive and problematic way of being political. Like many Americans, Benjamin is too focused on a politician's self-presentation and uses it as a substitute for being informed. Acknowledging one's ignorance of certain issues is fine, but we don't have to replace that ignorance with emotional idealizations of politicians. Specifically, our admiration of Obama's considerable intelligence and charisma is no substitute for an assessment of the results of his actions.
I will describe the pitfalls of allowing political images and a politician's character to determine one's political views; offer a different perspective on Obama's Afghan policy; and suggest a radical integral political perspective on the US war in Afghanistan.
CHARACTER VS. REALITY
Benjamin is impressed with Obama's “intelligence, idealism, sincerity, and wisdom.” But we shouldn't care about Obama's self-presentation and effective rhetoric except to the degree that they allow him to affect outcomes. Understanding what is happening politically has very little to do with the self-presentation of politicians. What we need to look at are the effects of a politician's policies and the variety of factors that determine those policies such as political funding, power differentials, elite versus mass interests, economic motivators of action, geo-political struggles, mainstream assumptions and the facts those assumptions ignore. The worst thing a citizen can do is try to size up a candidate's character and then decide to trust them or not. What a citizen needs to do is find out what the consequences of a candidate's past actions have been and extrapolate into the future.
Benjamin writes that “Obama's greatest strength has proven to be his ardent commitment to reaching out to all parties in a form of innovative compromise, walking the path of moderation and setting priorities that can be achieved through concrete practical steps.”
What are the examples of this? Abandoning the single-payer healthcare option and the weaker “public option” without a fight? Continuing Bush-era government secrecy and the suspension of habeas corpus? His giveaway of trillions of dollars to the Wall Street allies of his economic team? His weak and delayed attempt at economic regulatory reform? The paltry carbon reduction offer at the Copenhagen climate change summit? Allowing Israel to continue the annexation of Palestinian land with no consequences?
Of course the negative actions Obama has taken shouldn't occlude the positives. Any assessment of a politician should tally the goods and the bads. Obama has taken positive actions and reminded us of the important difference between Democrats and Republicans. He lifted bans on stem cell research and the funding of overseas family planning organizations that provide abortions. He ended the White House denial of global climate change. He signed an order closing CIA “black sites” or secret prisons. And he got economic stimulus money through Congress when the world financial system was on the verge of collapse.
I haven't been disappointed with Obama because his record, the source of his funding and his rhetoric indicated he'd be a pro-business, Clintonian-triangulator, which means he would opt for the compromises of a centrist and not do the work necessary to develop coalitions to try to get progressive policies enacted. We don't want someone who just hugs the middle and calls it transcendence, we want someone who will lead and struggle and use his power to enact progressive policies (assuming of course that one's politics are progressive).
In my estimation the results of Obama's policies so far have been mixed with more negatives than positives. But regardless of one's politics, and so one's evaluation of Obama, we should all use the results of a politician's actions to judge their performance.
AFGHANISTAN AND FALSE HOPES
Benjamin's piece focuses on Obama's Afghanistan policy and the recent speech he gave outlining his plan. Benjamin writes that:
True to Obama's great strength as an innovative compromiser, he has now come up with a plan that he hopes will generate the support of both liberals and conservatives: essentially the plan of significantly increasing more troops to be sent to Afghanistan while articulating an exit plan to begin in 18 months.
Obama didn't articulate an “exit plan” to begin in 18 months. As Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies notes:
The 18-month timeline references only the "beginning" of transferring U.S. troops out of Afghanistan; there was no reference to finishing transfer of all troops out of Afghanistan and ending the occupation. The words "exit" or "exit strategy" do not appear in the speech, and the word "withdraw" appears only in a reference to what the U.S. will NOT do.
And when Obama's administration started taking heat for mentioning even this limp “transfer,” his minions – Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton and James Jones - went on the weekend political talk shows and retreated even further. The L.A. Times reported that:
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates denied Sunday that President Obama had set an "exit strategy" for Afghanistan, and he forecast [sic] that only a "handful" of U.S. troops may leave the country in July 2011, when a withdrawal is due to begin.
Since a speech is a political intervention designed to accomplish a purpose, I figured that Obama knew that a majority of Americans want the war to end (55-57% in recent polls) and so put a vague statement about beginning to transfer troops to placate them. I see it as Obama's compromise solution to a political problem. The war is unpopular, but he is creating policy that attempts to benefit elite interests and so wants to maintain US power in the region. He doesn't want to look cowardly and hurt the Democrats, but he has to hint at a vague date in the future when he might begin withdrawing to placate the majority of Americans who want the war to end.
Benjamin betrays a distressing credulity when he writes that:
Obama has held fast to his strong commitment of not engaging the United States in an endless war, and has justified his decision to send 30,000+ additional troops to Afghanistan partially as a feasible way to train Afghanistan soldiers to take over their own battle in the fastest amount of time possible. He argued that bringing out troops home at the present time would seriously jeopardize our national security, as he said that the network of terrorists under the auspices of Al Qaeda are still at large and primarily based on the outskirts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When any politician makes an assertion - even a handsome, intelligent and articulate one like Obama - we should ask: Are these things true? I've already quoted Phyllis Bennis's view of Obama's supposed pledge to exit Afghanistan and the backpedaling on that pledge of his highest-ranking cabinet members.
Further we should ask: Who are these “Afghanistan soldiers” who we are training” to take over their own battle”? Will they be the minority Tajiks and Uzbeks who are engaged in a civil war with the majority Pashtuns? It was acknowledged even within the administration by Foreign Service officer and former marine Matthew Hoh that we have intervened on “what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war”. Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that he did not agree with Hoh that the war was not worth fighting but did say that "I agreed with much of his analysis."
And are the remnants of Al Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border really the threat Obama makes them out to be? Al Qaeda's Af-Pak organization has been greatly weakened, but Al Qaeda or their jihadi sympathizers can set up anywhere. (Hoh notes in his resignation letter that Al-Qaeda already exists in “Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc.” and that “the London and Madrid bombings, were primarily planned and organized in Western Europe.”)
What about the alternative view that sees the whole Bush administration's concocted “war on terror” as a way to: find an enemy, generate fear, and harness public opinion for the projection of US power in an oil-rich region that our leaders want to control? The loss of the Communist menace was a great blow to the US political and military establishment. The “war on terror,” like the need for “humanitarian intervention” and “the war on drugs” serve particular institutional purposes when an economy is, in part, dependent upon a military-style Keynesianism.
An alternative view and strategy sees fundamentalists bent on harming the US as more akin to organized crime, to be dealt with through international intelligence and police work and protections that do not violate civil liberties, as well as changes in US foreign policy that don't alienate large swaths of people.
Benjamin believes that “the situation as it stands today is one where I must agree with Obama that the most important consideration is to limit as much as possible the effectiveness of Al Qaeda and their network of terrorists to wreak havoc on the United States and the world.”
What about limiting the effectiveness of US state terrorism which has been responsible for more civilian deaths than Al Qaeda or any fundamentalist group could dream of? Benjamin is buying into the whole us vs. them mentality. Yes, Al Qaeda is a deadly group but nowhere near as deadly as the US military. We must stop and protect ourselves and others from both.
The interference in making a proper assessment of Obama's Afghanistan policy is also due to Benjamin's personal expertise regarding religious cults:
My strength of knowledge is by no means in my knowledge of world politics, or where Al Qaeda is primarily hiding out, or how feasible it is to communicate peacefully with the more moderate of the Taliban. But I do know and understand well the severe dangers of religious cultists, as I have experienced and written about many modern religious groups in the context of their level of cult dangers (Benjamin, 2005a, 2005b). The suicide bomber terrorists who believe they are gaining everlasting heavenly life by ending their earthly lives and the lives of innocent others are religious cultists in the most dangerous extreme form imaginable.
Yet current mainstream reports say that most Taliban aren't interested in a global Islamic crusade and are motivated by nationalism and tribalism. If you base your views on Bush-Obama myths of the Taliban being global jihadi terrorists you're not going to act rightly in the world. As a recent article reporting the analysis of US intelligence assessments states:
Nearly all of the insurgents battling US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are not religiously motivated Taliban and Al Qaeda warriors, but a new generation of tribal fighters vying for control of territory, mineral wealth, and smuggling routes, according to summaries of new US intelligence reports.
Some of the major insurgent groups, including one responsible for a spate of recent American casualties, actually opposed the Taliban's harsh Islamic government in Afghanistan during the 1990s, according to the reports, described by US officials under the condition they not be identified.
“Ninety percent is a tribal, localized insurgency,'' said one US intelligence official in Washington who helped draft the assessments. “Ten percent are hardcore ideologues fighting for the Taliban.''
US commanders and politicians often loosely refer to the enemy as the Taliban or Al Qaeda, giving rise to the image of holy warriors seeking to spread a fundamentalist form of Islam. But the mostly ethnic Pashtun fighters are often deeply connected by family and social ties to the valleys and mountains where they are fighting, and they see themselves as opposing the United States be cause it is an occupying power, the officials and analysts said.
Yet these are the people that our troops are going to be fighting with the inevitable deaths to civilians, insurgents, animals and property.
THE PERSONAL IS NOT THE POLITICAL
Benjamin describes the personal nature of his reaction to Obama. He writes that “seeing Obama give his televised speech about Afghanistan once again has had the magnetic effect upon me of wanting to believe in him, wanting to believe in his integrity, wisdom, and ability to truly get the job done.”
It's good that Benjamin recognizes these urges to believe in Obama, but what he should do is fight these urges and ally not with politicians but with other people involved in promoting progressive causes. When I see Obama speak I too am impressed and get a lump in my throat, but I remember to retain my skepticism. I make sure that I distinguish his rhetoric from his actions and their results.
Benjamin's past political disappointments lead him to question his trust in Obama and toward the position I'm advocating. He writes: “But for me the vital question is to decide what I believe in regard to his superb speeches; i.e. do I agree with his logic and strategies and decisions.”
Benjamin is here questioning his admiring acquiescence to the superficialities of a talented persona. Sadly though he decides in favor of false hope: “But then something inside of me does not let me give up on the possibility of wisdom, sincerity, and idealism coming together in a political candidate.”
So he succumbs again to a politician's grandiloquence and does not follow his wise friend Stevie who 'vows that he will never again be “taken in” by the charm, intelligence, and polished idealistic speeches of a political candidate.' But being disappointed in politicians is a part of gaining political wisdom. One can be disappointed in politicians and still engage in effecting change. The danger is succumbing to political cynicism.
And finally, Benjamin asserts a kind of messianic spectatorism:
“Obama is now generally considered to be the most powerful person in the world, and I deeply hope that his intelligence, wisdom, courage, and pragmatism will find its way into saving our country and the world from disaster.”
This is a terribly self-deluding and disempowering position to take. Empowered citizens do not put their faith in leaders to do the right thing. They are involved with others to pressure leaders do the right things. We aren't Obama's audience, we're his watchdog.
If Elliot Benjamin's article on Obama's policy toward Afghanistan is, as he says, an example of an integral view, integral theory doesn't have much to offer except a perpetuation of the status quo. Benjamin seems like a good person but his way of approaching politics is a recipe for disempowerment and disappointment. Benjamin's view is the same as a centrist Democratic-Republican view. Is that what we hope for from an integral perspective?
An alternative vision of integrality has radical implications. It would include and integrate excluded perspectives, facts and history, like the views of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Afghan people, the American public, and the people and governments of other countries. What do we find if we look at these un-integrated perspectives? The Taliban is not mostly made up of global Islamic jihadists, but nationalistic, tribal mercenaries and locals. Al Qaeda, while certainly being motivated by an authoritarian fundamentalism and a deadly military program, also has some legitimate criticisms regarding US foreign policy. A majority of the Afghan people - as best we can tell - would like the US to leave their country and do not want rule by the US-backed warlords who we put back in power. The American people, a majority of whom oppose the Afghan occupation, are significantly underrepresented in the American mainstream press. And populations around the globe by a large majority oppose our and their governments' Afghan occupation. Since we want to be integral and these perspectives are from an overwhelming majority of the people of the world, let's create an integral perspective that accounts for them too.
A robust integral perspective can integrate seemingly contradictory political positions. We Westerners can: protect ourselves while abiding by international and domestic law; pursue and prosecute jihadi and elite (e.g. Bush, Cheney, etc) wrong-doers; not promote our relatively weak enemies into monumental global terrorists; and have the enlightened insight to wonder how and why human beings - with many basic needs and desires like our own - believe in and commit violent acts. Currently, in the US mainstream media, to even suggest that we incorporate an understanding of the motives of our enemies is dismissed as weakness and capitulation. A truly integral approach would have the courage to integrate all of these elements into a more enlightened and effective understanding.
It's so easy to fall into an easy alliance with our preferred political parties and their political heroes. But we must continually remind ourselves that a politician's presentations - whether false or sincere, intelligent or stupid - are a minor part of deciding whether to support his or her policies.
- Phyllis Bennis, “Obama's Afghanistan Escalation: An Assessment,” The Huffington Post, 12/3/09.
- Paul Richter, “Robert Gates Says that Afghanistan Withdrawal Will Be Gradual,” L.A.Times, 12/7/09.
- Matthew Hoh, “Resignation Letter”.
- Karen DeYoung, “US Official Resigns Over Afghan War,” The Washington Post, 10/27/09.
- Hoh, “Resignation.”
- See David N. Gibbs, First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt U. Press, 2009) and the classic work by Seymour Melman, The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline, (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1974).
- Bryan Bender, “Taliban Not Main Afghan Enemy, Few Militants Driven By Religion Report Says,” The Boston Globe, 10/9/09.
- For some inconvenient facts which contradict Obama's assertions see Patrick Cockburn, “The March of Folly,” 12/7/09, and Paul Street, “Obama's West Point War Speech,” 12/3/09.
- This based on polling before Obama's speech. Obama's speech did create an increase in support for the Afghan escalation, but since there was no equally publicized rebuttal to Obama it is a skewed result.