Bush’s Wine in Obama’s Bottle

By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

President Barack Obama has come up with his own plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And one is amazed at the world of difference between his approach and that of his predecessor. 

The language of genuine respect and empathy America’s 44th president displayed while unveiling his new initiative for Afghanistan and Pakistan couldn’t have been more different from Bush 43. There was no talking down to the “Afghan people” or patronizing ambitions to promote democracy and freedom in the Middle East a la Bush.

Obama talked of a “stronger, smarter and more comprehensive strategy” as he promised to build bridges with this troubled region by committing billions in resources and more civilian and military experts to help the US allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

The new approach of reaching out to Afghanistan and Pakistan, taking the US aid – agriculture, education, jobs, development – to where it can make a real difference to ordinary people just might work. But the very fact that Obama — and the rest of the world – now has to talk of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the same breath is a testament to the total failure of the US-Western policy in the region.

What used to be an Afghan problem has now become a geopolitical nightmare that has not only engulfed the neighboring Pakistan but threatens the entire region.

Having long been an ardent admirer of Obama, I hate to pick holes in my hero’s vision. But the ‘new’ US strategy to deal with the Taliban or al-Qaeda just does not address the problem at the heart of this conflict. 

While the new US leader is right on track in championing more respect and greater concern for the unfortunate people in these countries at the receiving end of the Western war for eight years now, little is likely to change on the ground. 

Let’s face it: The so-called new plan is nothing but Bush’s old wine in Obama’s new bottle. Looks like the pundits who mocked our boundless adulation for Obama and celebration of ‘change in Washington’ were right after all right. They were right when they insisted whoever is in charge in Washington, the US foreign policy seldom changes. 

This is unfortunate considering the great expectations and hopes the new president’s talk of exploring a ‘new way forward’ had spawned across the Muslim world. I hate to spoil the party so early in the day but it seems this administration has become a prisoner of the overarching, disastrous legacy of its predecessor. 

Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks and never asked nor cared what his commanders were doing on the ground. He never troubled himself with mundane questions like what are and ought to be the goals and objectives of the war he ordered in that summer of 2001.

At least in Iraq, the US military establishment had begun thinking in terms of an exit strategy long before Obama arrived with an Iraq exit plan in hand. In Afghanistan’s case though, it seems talking of leaving was nothing short of heresy, even though things have progressively gone from bad to worse with America’s NATO allies suffering the most.

In the run-up to the US presidential vote, Obama himself talked of Afghanistan as ‘a good war’ describing the country as the ‘central front’ in the terror war. But we’d hoped this would change when within hours of taking over from Bush, Obama appointed a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan and ordered a complete rethink of the strategy.

He even asked for candid inputs and honest suggestions from Pakistan and Afghanistan by summoning their diplomats, officials and independent experts to Washington before the administration came up with the new strategy. 

Which is why it’s disappointing to see our prophet of change who promised a revolution at home and around the world is walking, eyes wide shut, into the trap set by the Bushies. Save for a new, euphoric spin by the State Department’s mandarins, there’s little new in Obama’s ‘new’ Af-Pak policy. In fact, it’s set to perpetuate the tattered and failed legacy of a failed presidency. 

By blindly signing on the dotted line drawn by men picked up by Bush and Cheney, Obama is wittingly or unwittingly pitching for the same agenda that has been at the heart of most of the world’s current political and economic woes.

From General David Petraeus, the victor of Iraq surge, to Admiral Mike Mullen to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, this president inherited his entire war cabinet from his predecessor.

Of course, unlike Bush, Obama does not pretend the US is winning the war in Afghanistan. He admits the country is fast slipping away to the insurgents and terrorists. 

But does Obama honestly think his plan offers the key to the conundrum of Afghanistan-Pakistan? The new strategy is supposed to be the outcome of weeks and months of rethink. To most of us though, it looks and sounds like recycled Bushspeak.   "To the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you," said Obama looking directly into the camera, reminding you of a certain ‘with-us-or-against-us’ Texas ranger.

Even the justification for America’s Afghan mission, proffered by the president, sounds eerily familiar. We are in Afghanistan, Obama pointed out reading from the script provided by the Pentagon, because of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington that were planned and executed on the Afghan soil. ‘The US did not choose this war,’ he argued. ‘It was imposed on us.’ He’s got a point there.

This is not ingenious but has the coalition of the willing ever paused for a moment over the past eight years to ponder why those attacks were visited on America in the first place?

It’s not because, as some in the US establishment insisted all these years, they hated the Western way of life. If the US was attacked and is still hated, it’s because of factors that are all too familiar but seldom confronted. 

The US can deal with the mess in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere only when it confronts these uncomfortable home truths.

Is that asking too much of a leader who had his heart and mind in the right place to see through the duplicity of Iraq war? Surely someone whose entire life has been a metaphor for change and the ‘audacity of hope’ can see what the people in Afghanistan and Pakistan or Palestine want or hope for? Or why the murderous al-Qaeda-Taliban squads continue to multiply by the day?

For if Afghanistan and Pakistan are burning today, it’s because the world looked the other way when the land of olives and prophets was burnt down. If I were in Obama’s shoes, I would be looking for the folks and factors that started the fire that is threatening to consume our world.  

– Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: aijaz@khaleejtimes.com.

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