Thinking Outside the Box: What Obama Could Have Said

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Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

Much of the American public is skeptical about the value of Obama's plan, announced in his address of December 1, to send another 30,000 U.S. troops to fight an apparently endless war in Afghanistan, and with good reason.  If, after eight years of sending U.S. and NATO soldiers to wage this war, al Qaeda maintains its foothold in the region, the Taliban is stronger, Afghanistan is more unstable, corruption is rife, and anti-Americanism is on the rise, why should we expect a better outcome when we do more of the same?

The major problem is that the President's action fails to go beyond traditional thinking about how to relate to overseas strife.  Indeed, Obama's response to the messy situation the United States faces in Afghanistan is reminiscent of how an imperial or military leader would have responded a few thousand years ago.  Have we learned nothing over these intervening years?

Instead of resorting to outdated thinking, what if Obama had drawn upon modern instruments of international and interpersonal relations?  What if he had adopted a program of change in the way the United States relates to the world?  In that case, he could have delivered a speech – not at West Point (a symbol of the old thinking) but at the United Nations (a symbol of the new) – and said:

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Fellow representatives of the world community. 

A bloody war currently rages in the nation of Afghanistan.  Although the United States has contributed to this situation, many nations have been involved in invading, fostering violence in, and occupying that country.  Furthermore, Afghanistan's own people are engaged in a vicious civil war.  For these reasons, and also because no single nation has sufficient wisdom, resources, or legitimacy to deal with this crisis, I have turned to U.N. Security Council and the U.N. Secretary-General to help me resolve this crisis in a fair and peaceful manner.

As a result, we have agreed on the following program.

First, in the following three months, the United Nations will dispatch 100,000 peacekeeping troops to Afghanistan.  These peacekeeping troops will replace all foreign forces in that nation.  As this process moves forward, NATO troops will not engage in attacks on hostile forces, and will open fire only if attacked.  Similarly, the U.N. peacekeeping forces will not seek out military engagements, but will simply keep contending Afghan forces separated and maintain security.

Second, a U.N. Reconciliation Commission will call together the major political forces in Afghan life, including the Taliban, for negotiations on a peaceful settlement of their disputes.  Following the establishment of an agreed framework for this settlement, a free election will take place for an Afghan government of national unity, with election monitoring done by the United Nations.

While these processes are taking place, the United Nations – with assistance from U.S. and other intelligence agencies and from criminal justice specialists – will arrest al Qaeda leaders and ready them for trial by the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

In addition, to help repair a war-ravaged nation, the U.S. government and the governments of other wealthy nations will provide massive funding for the construction of schools, health care facilities, and irrigation projects in Afghanistan.  This will help demonstrate their good will toward the Afghan people, will provide millions of Afghans with gainful employment, and will improve their lives to the extent that they will be encouraged to turn from violence, terror, and opium production to peaceful and productive pursuits.

Furthermore, the U.S. government and the governments of other wealthy nations will dispatch thousands of teachers, doctors, nurses, and agronomists to staff these new facilities.  These governments will also provide large numbers of psychologists and social workers to deal with the war-inflicted trauma suffered by the Afghan people and to help improve interpersonal relations among previously feuding groups.

We realize that these measures will not provide an instant remedy for the tragic situation in Afghanistan.  But we do believe that they will lower the level of violence and address that country's major problems.

Indeed, if these measures prove successful, they can provide a model for useful international action in areas of violent conflict elsewhere in the world.

Surely this is a better way to use our knowledge and resources than to squander them on endless wars and destruction.  So let us work together creatively and cooperatively to build a better society for the people of Afghanistan and for all people around the globe.

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But, of course, this was not the kind of speech Obama made.  He was not thinking outside the box.

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    More Comments:

    Lewis Bernstein - 12/11/2009

    Ah yes Professor Wittner, let us cure religious fanaticism with psychology and social workers. After all it's just a way to medicalize another problem. To understand the roots to jihadism (an integral part of Islam) you might want to examine an old book by Norman Cohn--Pursuit of the Millennium.

    Arnold Shcherban - 12/7/2009

    Excellent rhetoric and advise... neither of the US presidents would/will ever follow. Why? Because imperialist mentality is undivided and essential part of the American political philosophy and ideology - the direct consequence of the economic and financial principles a modern state capitalism has been built on. The principles both major American political parties most loyally adhere to.
    Since Obama has never intended to "change" the above ones, I
    (with many other unbiased observers)
    never expected him to make any dramatic changes (the ones you advised
    him on) either in US domestic or - even less - in foreign policy.

    Billy Pilgrim - 12/7/2009

    Obama's definitely in a box, but it doesn't date back thousands of years, only to 2001; and stepping out of that box doesn't require warping into the almost sci-fi "reality" of Prof. Wittner's U.N. scenario. The box Obama is in Bush's Global War on Terror.

    From the very outset Obama framed his remarks as a strategy "to bring this war to a successful conclusion." He repeated Bush's false assertion that the U.S. was forced into the war, when in fact Bush jumped eagerly on the chance to be a war president and rode that horse mercilessly for all it was worth. The entire Global War on Terror is based on the Big Lie Bush used to justify that ride - that 9/11 "was an act of war." In fact it was nothing of the kind, only a cowardly act of criminals - overwhelmingly Saudi Arabian - who represent no sovereign nation. Obama did nothing to correct that lie with the truth. He also completely muffed his chance to to repudiate the failed and immoral Bush Doctrine of preemptive war, the brazen conceit of "if you're not with us, you're against us." If ever there was something that needed to be set straight for Hope and Change, that's it. All Hope and Change, however, died last week at West Point.

    The tragedy is that Obama wasn't even in Bush's box to begin with. He ran on Hope and Change, and was elected mainly as an alternative to Bush. He climbed into the box on his own after being elected.

    He could have lived up to his promise of Change and Hope right from West Point, by giving us a new Obama Doctrine.

    "If you're not against us, you're with us. We're already all in this together against terror. Together, all the sovereign nations of the world will pursue terrorists as the cowardly criminals they are. The U.S., however, will never again attack any sovereign nation with military force on a "pre-emptive" basis. It was wrong to attack Iraq, but not because it was a distraction from Afghanistan. The attack on Iraq was an extension of the Bush Doctrine, not a diversion from it. It's the Bush Doctrine itself that was a departure from the true American spirit. It was just as wrong to attack Afghanistan as it would have been to attack Saudi Arabia because the majority of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudis.

    "To heal the divisions that have split the country, we must go back to 9/11. We must accept that it was NOT an act of war, but a cowardly crime, and nothing more. I will not ask one more U.S. soldier to pursue the failed policy of the Bush Doctrine. Might does not make right, and right does not make might. The "War On Terror" ends here. As of tonight, we are completely re-defining our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are not there to make war, but like the great American hero Greg Mortensen in Pakistan, to do whatever we can to help. We will stay only if we are asked to stay, only if we are welcome, and only for as long as we are welcome. You can call this, if you will, the Obama Doctrine: We're all in this together against terror. If you're not against us, you're with us. We will never again confuse terrorism with a sovereign state, or an indigenous movement. No one will ever again have cause to confuse American military action with either a campaign of revenge or an excuse to extend American economic power in the world by facilitating the appropriation of another country's assets."

    Unfortunately, Obama simply isn't up to delivering the Hope and Change that speech would represent. It's not, however, because he's Ghengis Kahn. It's simply because he's decided to be Bush III. Obama's main skill is rational compromise. He sold that skill as Hope and Change from the crazed neocon cowboy rhetoric of the Bush/Cheney years, and we elected him on that basis. But now that he's in the Oval Office, he's compromising with the very rhetoric we elected him to Change. And it can't be done. Obama's silken-worded purse holds nothing but Bush's ugly sow's ear.