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Dec. 2 2009 - 12:23 pm | 14 views | 3 recommendations | 4 comments

Afghanistan: Obama drops the human rights case, but where does that leave us?

A former U.S. official and friend emailed me this afternoon, noting that Obama “didn’t mention women’s rights” once in his speech last night on Afghanistan. This friend thought that was a bad thing. Glenn Greenwald makes the same observation, but says it’s actually good that Obama has dispensed with “the propagandistic pretext that we are fighting in Afghanistan in order to deliver freedom and democracy to that country and to improve the plight of Afghan women.”  GG continues:

Many Democrats (the self-proclaimed “liberal hawks”) love to support American wars on the self-righteous ground that we’re going to drop enough Freedom Bombs to liberate millions and invade other countries in order to re-make other peoples’ cultures for their own good.  In order to maximize support for his escalation, Obama — like Bush so often did — could easily have relied on that appeal to our national narcissism and exploited justifiable disgust for the Taliban in order to manipulate “liberal hawks” into supporting this war on human rights grounds.

As I said the other day in a radio interview, I think the liberal hawk-human rights case trotted out for war in Iraq, then reprised to justify an escalation in Afghanistan, is and was delusional. Human rights of the “local nationals” are never really an important factor in our country’s decision-making over these wars. The primary use for human rights rhetoric  has been to dupe the liberal hawks(or let them dupe themselves) into supporting whatever massively violent policy is on the table. You see this a lot especially when someone suggests we withdraw from Afghanistan–’what about the children, what about the women, we can’t abandon them’ the hawks cry, like it’s an episode of South Park. But, anyone with any sense should recognize by now that Washington and our military leadership don’t give a dang about the people in these foreign lands. Never have, never will. Certainly not as human beings. The concern for the native populations goes only as far as it suits our interests. For instance, we want to cut down on civilian deaths in Afghanistan now, not for moral reasons, but because we’ve found it to be counter-productive in our counterinsurgency strategy.

Anyway.

Once we abandon this human rights argument–albeit a fiction all along–what has Obama left us with? My answer: a fuzzy policy that’s pretty similiar to Bush’s democracy promotion under different language, with a bunch off added contradictions.

On the one hand, Obama says were are going to nation build, prop up civilian institutions in Kabul, fight corruption, demand free and fair elections. On the other hand, Obama said last night that he “refuses to set goals that go beyond our responsiblity,”ie things we can realistically accomplish. A swipe, it appears, at the wild rhetoric of the Bush years. But what’s the point of demanding democratic institutions if you’re not demanding democracy? It’s sort of like saying ‘yeah, a democracy would be nice, but we’ll take whatever kind of stability we can get.’ This may be our true goal, but it’s still being obscured and confused in Obama’s policy. Because Obama is still  claiming we won’t take whatever kind of stability we can get.  He in fact added a significant and profoundly unrealistic caveat that it can’t involve “corrupt” political leaders in Kabul. (Hah!)

It’s a kind of half-assed realism to go along with our half baked colonialism–a realism without the guts to just say, ‘Hell, give us a warlord or a dictator that can protect our interests without too much hassle.’

Why can’t Obama say that? He can’t say it because the ideological architecture of both wars is still built on a misguided premise that the best way to protect ourselves from radical Muslim terrorists is to invade countries and create democracies and human-rights loving societies in the Arab and Arab-looking world. The neocon and liberal hawk argument was that we needed to spread freedom to make ourselves safe, that once we gave ‘them’ a taste of ballot boxes and campaign promises, they’d think twice about strapping on a suicide vest. (Sure, this ignored the history of all the terrorist movements that developed in free societies, but hey.) The “safe haven” theory is the latest, more ‘realistic,’ rehash of this argument. (We have to ensure a stable and kind of free Afghanistan/Iraq/Pakistan so they never harbor terrorists again…) Our goal in Afghanistan is to get a government that will look after our security interests, but we also still want it to have the trappings of a democracy…

So where does all this leave us? Well, right back in Afghanistan, for many more confused years to come.


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  1. collapse expand

    Hi Michael

    While I am a womens rights advocate to the extreme. Taking womens issues off the table is honest and reality of war. Our own military doesn’t yet acknowledge the role women play in todays military and find sexual and physical abuse issues hard for them (the miltary) to dealing with. Let alone the role of women in a country where women are less then second class citzens.

    It begs the Question how do they fight for womens rights when their own house is made of glass?

    Keeping the mission clear actually will helps women in the long run. If we can do some nation building IE educate, help to create jobs (even if it is as an Afghanistan police). Then poverty will lessen (just barely). Women will be able to meet some basic needs for their children and themselves. It is hard to stand up for ones self when basics like food water and safety are in short supply.

    So I think getting the mission done (what ever that is) will be the best thing for womens rights. You don’t need to proclaim it as a reason for war. Women do not want war in their name.

  2. collapse expand

    I thought we were there to kill osama bin laden…did barack hussein obama mention osama in his war speech?

  3. collapse expand

    Like that half-assed realism to go with our half-baked colonialism. Nice line.

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    I'm the author of "I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story" and a regular contributor to GQ. Previously, I was the Baghdad correspondent for Newsweek magazine. My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, Foreign Policy, the L.A. Times, and other publications of repute. This blog will focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other newsy foreign-ish things.

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