Taking a Moral Stand Outside the Obama White House

Washington–Defense Secretary Robert Gates may be the consummate insider bureaucrat and a nice man, but his calling our war in the Pashtun homeland “the meat in the sandwich” begins to get at the real problem of the Afghanistan/Pakistan War.

Besides being a preposterously flippant and insensitive metaphor presumably uttered for the consumption of the more clueless elements of middle America, his sandwich image is as misleading as all the war-selling PR coming out of the Pentagon and the Obama White House.

Robert GatesRobert Gates

Here’s how he described his sandwich: “The Pakistanis come in behind the insurgents from the Pakistani side and, coordinating with us and the Afghans, we’re on the other side.” Of course, he’s referring to what is informally dubbed Pashtunistan, down the middle of which Sir Mortimer Durand drew the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in 1893 to divide and conquer the Pashtun people. The border is a Western illusion. And, of course, the Taliban are largely Pashtun.

What’s misleading is the assumption any part of this war is anything but a US manufactured disaster. WikiLeaks and other revelations have made it clear the Pakistanis are highly reluctant to make military assaults into the Pashtun tribal areas. Last week the Pakistanis even outed the CIA chief running the US drone war there; the man was forced to flee due to threats on his life.

So the Obama administration is increasing its lethal drone attacks and deadly night special operations raids into Pakistan, both of which are highly controversial and contribute to the hatred Pakistanis have for the US.

This increase of US military intervention into Pakistan was announced at a White House press conference last Thursday that focused on the release of a much-anticipated assessment from General David Petraeus on the Afghanistan/Pakistan War.

President Obama spoke about the “significant progress” achieved in “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and preventing its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”

The truth is the war is going badly. To compound that fact, last week Obama’s special ambassador for the war, Richard Holbrook, suddenly died, likely from the stress of his impossible task. Also, two major US intelligence reports – one on Afghanistan and one on Pakistan – flat-out contradicted the assessment’s rosy PR picture.

But then stay calm; there’s the assurance from Vice President Joe Biden: “Come Hell or high water we’ll be out of there by 2014.”

Meanwhile out in the cold

As the press conference was going on in a warm and toasty White House, outside, in a 22-degree snow storm, 500 angry American citizens led by military veterans were crying foul and calling for an end to the war and the killing.

Morally conscious veterans gather against the White House fence to demand an end to war (Grant)Morally conscious veterans gather against the White House fence to demand an end to war (Grant)

Vietnam veteran Elliot Adams, center, locked at the neck to a fence spire (Grant)Vietnam veteran Elliot Adams, center, locked at the neck to a fence spire (Grant)

The demonstration was organized by Veterans For Peace, a 25-year-old group committed to alternatives to war. As I walked around in the falling snow chatting with my fellow VFP friends it was so cold my feet began to hurt.

For refusing to budge from the black iron fence around the White House, 135 men and women were arrested. One Vietnam veteran, Elliot Adams, went so far as to place a heavy U-shaped steel bicycle lock around his neck, attaching himself precariously to a fence spire. They had to saw it off to arrest him.

Daniel Ellsberg, left, and VFP President Mike Ferner (Grant)Daniel Ellsberg, left, and VFP President Mike Ferner (Grant)

Daniel Ellsberg was among those arrested. He spoke about leaking Vietnam War secrets in 1971 in the Pentagon Papers. Naturally, thoughts turned to WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, who reports now suggest is being subjected to the latest no-touch, slow, sensory-deprivation “torture” in a prison at Quantico, Virginia.

Medea Benjamin, founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink, emphasized what may be the most critical issue about the Afghan war, the squandering of US resources toward the destruction of two cultures, one in Afghanistan and Pakistan and one here at home.

Former war correspondent Chris Hedges delivered a powerful secular sermon on the need to morally stand up to state power out of touch with its population even if the numbers were small and the press coverage nonexistent. It was not about Democrats or Republicans – it was about demanding a sane, humane society when the one we have seems headed toward a cliff.

As for the police, they were as nice as one might ask. On their part, Veterans For Peace distributed a card declaring that all participants pledged to be non-violent, friendly and respectful to all — “including police officers.” The arrests were cordial, even for those who chose to be dragged to the “green” natural-gas police bus.

Behind demonstrations like this is the fact huge sections of the American public have consistently opposed wars like the one being escalated in Afghanistan. According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, 60 percent of Americans feel the war there “has not been worth fighting.”

Such polls are ignored and the fate of the current war in Pashtunistan straddling the Afghanistan/Pakistan border is left to General David Petraeus, whose career is deeply invested in keeping the war going. It is a disastrous reality.

Unchallenged in a time of economic distress, our military spends over 50% of our tax resources. To keep this relationship with the tax-paying American public unchallenged, the military relates to citizens in one of two distinct modes: through Secrecy or Public Relations. Real information, as the flap over WikiLeaks makes clear, is deemed subversive.

How we stumble and fall

A lot of politicos and pundits are circling the wagons and damning criticism of Obama coming from the left. With this in mind, is it unfair of military veterans to stand in front of the White House and morally question whether Barack Obama has not become part of the problem in Afghanistan?

A December 11 op-ed by Ishmael Reed in The New York Times was typical of many who suggest criticism of Obama is out of bounds.

Reed is the respected African American author of such admired novels as Mumbo Jumbo and a co-founder of the Before Columbus Foundation and its esteemed American Book Award.

He was annoyed by “progressives [who] criticize President Obama for keeping his cool.” For Reed, abandoning a campaign pledge to not renew tax cuts for people making over $250,000 was Obama “keeping his cool.” To want Obama to stand up to Republicans was naïve and petulant. “When these progressives refer to themselves as Mr. Obama’s base, all they see is themselves.” Reed’s op-ed actually verges on race-baiting within the left.

Why is it wrong to ask the President Of The United States, whatever his race, to, one, stick to a campaign promise and, two, think of poor and working Americans (many of whom are African American) in a long-term structural sense and not just in a short-term political sense?

Iraq veteran Michael Prysner speaks to the crowd (Grant)Iraq veteran Michael Prysner speaks to the crowd (Grant)

In the case of the veterans’ demonstration, what the mostly white progressives standing in the snow in front of the White House actually wanted was for Obama to show the very same “cool” Reed was so delighted with in the tax-cut decision.

What we wanted was for him to abandon his campaign pledge about Afghanistan being his war and “our central focus, the central front, in our battle against terrorism.” Push harder to extract the nation from its quagmires.

To use Obama’s own “hostage” image, in Afghanistan he has chosen to avoid a political fight and remain hostage to a cabal of career generals and right wing militarists. (Many argue he is one of them; I prefer the hostage image.) What the activists at his fence on Thursday were doing was what Franklin Roosevelt famously told demanding activists during the Depression:

“Get out there and make me do it.”

Another African American novelist, Walter Mosley, gets it right in a fine little book called Life Out Of Context. After listening to a speech by an unnamed rightist speaker, he ruminates on the notion of “context,” especially the institutional affiliations and intellectual lineages that bolster a person’s authority.

He cites Colin Powell pointing at yellow dots on a map in his notorious UN speech selling invasion in Iraq.

“While we ordinary folks wondered how smart you have to be to translate a yellow dot into a world-challenging threat, we missed the salient fact – Colin Powell was lying to us.”

After a concert by the musician/activists Hugh Masekela and Harry Belafonte, he ponders African American history and how mixed up it has become – especially for himself, a very popular and successful African American writer.

“We sing a song of freedom while dancing to a tune played by the descendants of our slave ancestor’s owners,” he writes.

“We might have to see ourselves outside of the context of our ex-slavehood and civil rights in a world where murder has taken the place of diplomacy. We might have to see that we have been occupying the role of oppressor instead of the oppressed.”

He soul searches even deeper.

“Civil rights are not informed by Alabama and New York alone. There are people dying and being tortured because of the exigencies of the corporations that we supply with our dollars and by the government we support by being good Democrats. … We are becoming what we have fought so bravely against, and in becoming our enemy, we stumble and fall.”

The demonstration Thursday at the White House was an effort to encourage Americans to wake up and walk the same courageous walk Walter Mosley takes in his fine essay, Life Out Of Context – to open our eyes and really see ourselves in the context of the world. Take to the streets if necessary. Because the Pashtun homeland is not meat in anyone’s sandwich.

“You’ve got to study it, think about it, make a moral stand,” Mosley says. “This making a moral stand is where we stumble and fall.”