Obama's Prague speech was a bold, creative, world-shaking, epochal address whose full import will only be understood many years hence by future historians, declared no less than Juan Cole. But the good professor seems to have mislaid his laser pointer -- the sharp-focused beam that just a week ago skewered Obama for his outright lies and Cheneyesque manipulations in announcing his "comprehensive strategy" to escalate and expand the "Af-Pak War". Indeed, just two days before Obama's pseudo-epiphany in Prague, Cole was accurately delineating the folly and falsehoods permeating Obama's Afghanistan policies.
Yet like so many, Cole seemed dazzled by Obama's nuclear boilerplate, hailing the president as "among the more creative and bold leaders the world has seen in the past half-century." (Admittedly, that is a mighty low bar.) Cole even found some reason to hope that that Obama would follow the logic of his disarmament rhetoric and somehow force Israel to give up its arsenal of nuclear weapons. But there was nothing in Obama's speech that had not been said dozens if not hundreds of times before by American presidents from both parties, going back decades: We pledge "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." Nuclear proliferation must be stopped. Rogue states can't have nuclear bombs. We will work with the Russians to reduce our stockpiles. What president has ever said otherwise? Has there ever been a U.S. president since the atomic evisceration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who has not made an impassioned plea to rid the world of these terrible weapons?
And of course, the brute fact is that the United States is bound by solemn treaty to work toward the reduction and eventual elimination of its nuclear arsenal. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obliges the government of the United States "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures" to bring about complete nuclear disarmament in the world. Obama's "bold," "new" vision is, quite simply, part of his job description; or rather, a legal requirement for his office.
But what celebrants dazzled by Obama's assertion that he is "committed" (that great weasel-word of the high and mighty) to doing what he is obligated to do failed to notice -- or at least failed to highlight -- were Obama's other well-worn bromides in the speech: the ones where he makes the ritual declaration of America's continuing readiness to whip out the nukes at a moment's notice -- and to carry on with the decades-long, ever-expanding boondoggle of the "missile defense shield." As The Times reports:
Mr Obama said: “Make no mistake: as long as these weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defence to our allies.”
He added that the continued threat from Iran, as well as the North Korean test launch, underlined the need for the missile shield that the US, much to the dismay of Moscow, plans to base in the Czech Republic and Poland.
In other words, as long as any other nation has nuclear weapons, the United States will keep its own nukes primed and ready and rarin' to go. And of course, as long as the United States retains its weapons, then other nations will also keep their arsenals, in the never-to-be-discounted event that they might become an "adversary" of the United States or one of its allies. This neat little dynamic means that we will never see "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" -- no matter how many world-shaking, epoch-making speeches are delivered in the shadow of Kafka's Castle.
The "missile shield" is of course another spur to nuclear proliferation, as the United States steadily rings the globes with an advanced weapons system that can just as easily be used for offensive operations as for its putative "defense" function. Come to think of it, it is actually only effective as an offensive system, because, despite decades of war pork and rigged tests, the missile "shield" is singularly unable to shoot down incoming missiles. Again, if some nuclear-armed nation was installing such a system on your frontier, you might want to hang on to your own nukes too -- or get some if you didn't have any yet.
Epochal epiphanies and kairotic events should be made of sterner stuff. That old hard rain is still looming on the horizon.
Gordon added after a pause: "It has often happened in history that a lofty ideal has degenerated into crude materialism. Thus Greece gave way to Rome, and the Russian Enlightenment has become the Russian Revolution. There is a great difference between the two periods. Blok says somewhere: "We, the children of Russia's terrible years." Blok meant this in a metaphorical, figurative sense. The children were not children, but the sons, the heirs, the intelligentsia, and the terrors were not terrible but sent from above, apocalyptic; that's quite different. Now the metaphorical has become literal, children are children and the terrors are terrible, and there you have the difference." -- Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago
The hard rain of nuclear war remains metaphorical (except for the remaining survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan). But there is another hard rain of death -- death without metaphor, the thing itself -- falling on the villages of Pakistan from the literally faceless, literally soulless remote-control drones of the American military. In undeclared, unsanctioned acts of war, they are sent across the border to fire heavy missiles, usually on undefended villages, and almost always on residential areas.
The targets -- we are told -- are "militants" of various stripes, but of course the robot drones -- often controlled by "pilots" safely ensconced on military bases thousands of miles away, often in the leafy suburbs of the Homeland itself -- cannot climb down out of the sky, walk through the ruins, and identify the dead. Pakistanis on the ground can see the bodies, however; they are the ones pulling out the viscera-smeared corpses of women and children -- and innocent men as well; contrary to the near-universal belief among America's bipartisan Terror Warriors, every adult male of Muslim background is not a terrorist, and their deaths by drone do not automatically constitute a successful "kill" of a militant.
In considering the ramifications of Obama's escalation of the drone war, we understandably tend to focus on the individual attacks themselves: pinpoint, quickly in, quickly out, over and done with. And even if we denounce the inevitable "collateral damage" when a house or group of houses is destroyed, or when the wrong target is struck, the small scale of each individual attack still leaves the impression of a contained, localized phenomenon. But this is a gross distortion of the reality. For the purpose and nature of a terrorist attack is not just the destruction of an immediate target; the point is to engender widespread fear and chaos: Where will the next strike come? When will it come? Who will die next time?
(And make no mistake: a drone assault on an isolated, defenseless village is a quintessential terrorist attack, designed to induce terror, punish the enemy and force change by deadly violence. It is in no way comparable to any traditional notion of honorable combat. It is simply industrialized, corporatized, computerized slaughter.)
So the effects of Obama's drone war are not limited to the few houses destroyed here and there. The attacks have spawned, or greatly added to, a humanitarian catastrophe that remains largely hidden from the world -- and certainly from the well-wadded Western "liberals" who cheer Obama's savvy toughness in the "good war" on the Af-Pak front. As The Times reports, almost a million people have been driven from their homes in Pakistan's Tribal Areas to escape the American drones, and the bombs of Washington's Pakistani proxies:
American drone attacks on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan are causing a massive humanitarian emergency, Pakistani officials claimed after a new attack yesterday killed 13 people.
The dead and injured included foreign militants, but women and children were also killed when two missiles hit a house in the village of Data Khel, near the Afghan border, according to local officials.
As many as 1m people have fled their homes in the Tribal Areas to escape attacks by the unmanned spy planes as well as bombings by the Pakistani army....
So far 546,000 have registered as internally displaced people (IDPs) according to figures provided by Rabia Ali, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Maqbool Shah Roghani, administrator for IDPs at the Commission for Afghan Refugees. The commissioner’s office says there are thousands more unregistered people who have taken refuge with relatives and friends or who are in rented accommodation.
Jamil Amjad, the commissioner in charge of the refugees, says the government is running short of resources to feed and shelter such large numbers. A fortnight ago two refugees were killed and six injured in clashes with police during protests over shortages of water, food and tents.
On the road outside Kacha Garhi camp, eight-year-old Zafarullah and his little brother are among a number of children begging for coins and scraps. “I want to go back to my village and school,” he said.
With the attacks increasing, refugees have little hope of returning home and conditions in the camps will worsen as summer approaches and the temperatures soar.
Much of the worst damage has been done by Pakistani forces urged by their funders in Washington to step up attacks on their countrymen:
Baksha Zeb lost everything when his village, Anayat Kalay in Bajaur, was demolished by Pakistani forces. His eight-year-old son is a kidney patient needing dialysis and he has been left with no means to pay. “Our houses have been flattened, our cattle killed and our farms and crops destroyed,” he complained. “There is not a single structure in my village still standing. There is no way we can go back.”
He sold his taxi to pay for food for his family and treatment for his son but the money has almost run out. “God bestowed me with a son after 15 years of marriage,” he said. “Now I have no job and I don’t know how we will survive.”
Pakistani forces say they have killed 1,500 militants since launching antiTaliban operations in Bajaur in August. Locals who fled claim that only civilians were killed. Zeb said he saw dozens of his friends and relatives killed. Villagers were forced to leave bodies unburied as they fled.
In the political schizophrenia induced in a state forced to serve a foreign master's interests as well as its own, the Pakistani government has alternated between savage attacks in Washington's service and sudden truces and peace deals with militant groups. But even when the local bombs stop falling, the American drones keep sailing across the border in ever-increasing numbers, keeping the people of the region locked in fear and on the run.
As each passing week of the American drone campaign brings yet another harvest of civilian deaths, more and more Pakistanis are radicalized, and the government -- the nuclear-armed government -- grows ever more shaky. If the state structure in Pakistan ultimately breaks apart from the pressures of the Terror War, its nuclear arsenal will be up for grabs. Thus the attacks ordered by Obama in Pakistan are escalating the threat of exactly the kind of nuclear instability that he decried in Prague.
"I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard...."
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This story was published on April 7, 2009.