Tuesday, May 5, 2009

100 days: Danger ahead for Obama


How the US President handles Afghanistan and Iraq will define his legacy

Anthony Painter

“IF YOU can’t see the angles no more, you’re in trouble,” narrates Al Pacino’s eponymous anti-hero in the classic 1993 gangster movie Carlito’s Way. This is the problem with on-the-spot assessments of United States President Barack Obama’s first 100 days: We can’t see all the angles.

It would seem that if you are not a conservative, then you approve of the President’s performance thus far — Mr Obama’s average approval ratings have barely shifted since he entered office. It is easy to see why. On the economy, environment, international security and international relations, the administration already has considerable achievements. The stimulus bill, bilateral agreement with Russia, Iraq troop draw-down, the G20 success and the decision to close Guantanamo Bay within a year, all stand out.

But past experience shows that what is not seen in a 100-day period can be just as critical as what is. In 1933, Mr Franklin Roosevelt treated the economic situation as purely domestic, failing to confront both protectionism and Germany’s debt burden in the World Economic Conference. That meant that the world continued its meandering way toward war.

So what are the angles that could come back to bite Mr Obama? The obvious examples are Afghanistan and the Middle East.

In Afghanistan, despite shifting his strategy to a more Powell Doctrine-esque approach with containable objectives, there does not seem to be any limit to how deep the US could get sucked in. When placed alongside political instability in Pakistan, that conflict has the potential to ignite further. With Iran seemingly getting closer to harnessing the technology needed for an operational nuclear weapon, that region has the potential to go in many directions, some of them very concerning indeed.

But perhaps something closer to home poses just as great a fundamental political risk to Mr Obama, and it is as a result of his own action. He is to be applauded for releasing the Department of Justice memos on torture. At last, there can be honest discussion about what happened and who sanctioned it.

But by stopping there he has played into the hands of leading neoconservative members of the Bush administration. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has been clever in planting the seed that by publishing the memos, along with the plans to close Guantanamo, Mr Obama is playing into the hands of terrorists.

In case of another terrorist attack on US interests, the neoconservatives could question the President’s ability to protect the nation. This is politically toxic for the Obama administration, and they have not done nearly enough to shield themselves from it.

By releasing only some of the memos, the charge that torture works could stick. It enables Mr Cheney, as a case in point, to make reference to other documents that allegedly exist and prove the efficacy of torture in safeguarding national security. The only way to counteract this argument is to flush the lot out in a quasi-judicial process presided over by an independent chairperson.

An independent commission would decisively break with the repulsive actions of the Bush administration and demonstrate clearly who was responsible and the little that was achieved through torture at enormous cost to national security.

The neoconservatives have forced the President’s hand. If he fails to convene an independent commission then, like Carlito Brigante, he could be left dreaming of the Caribbean while failing to spot the deadly angle. For all that he has achieved in his 100 days, this is one risk that needs to be confronted urgently. Perhaps the publication of new photos of torture in Afghanistan and Iraq on May 28 by the Department of Defense will be the perfect time to make the announcement.


From TODAY, World – Friday, 01-May-2009


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