He donned a leather bomber’s jacket with an Air Force One logo on it, got up in front of a boisterous crowd of about 2,000 military personnel in a hangar at Bagram Air Base, and gave a tub-thumping, “support the troops” campaign speech. I’m talking about Barack Obama on his six-hour visit to “Afghanistan.” Of course, any presidential trip to “the front” is always essentially a domestic political phenomenon destined to trump all other news and be covered uncritically. In this case, it was undoubtedly part of the post-health-care run-up to election 2010, emphasizing an area—the Afghan War—in which Americans are, at the moment, remarkably supportive of the president’s policies.
Starting with that bomber’s jacket, the event had a certain eerie similarity to George W. Bush’s visits to Iraq. As Bush once swore that we would never step down until the Iraqis had stepped up, so Obama declared his war to be “absolutely essential.” General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, even claimed that the president had used the long-absent (but patented) Bush word “victory” in his meeting with Hamid Karzai. Above all, whatever the talk about beginning to draw down his surge troops in mid-2011—and he has so far committed more than 50,000 American troops to that country—when it comes to the Afghan War, the president seemed to signal that we are still on Pentagon time.
Particularly striking was his assurance that, while there would be “difficult days ahead… we also know this: The United States of America does not quit once it starts on something… [T]he American armed services does not quit, we keep at it, we persevere, and together with our partners we will prevail. I am absolutely confident of that.” He assured his listeners, and assumedly Americans at home, that we will “finish the job” (however undefined), and made another promise as well: “I’m looking forward,” he told the troops, “to returning to Afghanistan many times in the years to come.”
Many times in the years to come. Think about that and fasten your seatbelt. The U.S. evidently isn’t about to leave Afghanistan anytime soon. The president seems to have set his watch to the Pentagon’s clock, which means that, in terrible financial times, he is going to continue investing staggering sums of our money long-term in a perilous war in a distant land with terrible supply lines and no infrastructure. This represents a perfect Paul-Kennedy-style working definition of “imperial overstretch.” Contrast this with the China-on-the-move that Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, describes here. If the word “folly” doesn’t come to mind, what does?