History, or the future (however you want to look at it), has a funny way of rearing up and biting leaders who think they know what they’re doing. Take Barack Obama. Only weeks before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, he made a “pragmatic” decision to give way on the expansion of deep-water drilling off US shores in return for political support on his energy bill that might never have added up to much. In the process, he said on camera: “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.” His decision, which left the oil industry’s key lobbying outfit, the American Petroleum Institute, dancing for joy, doesn’t look quite so pragmatic or advantageous now.
The president undoubtedly already rues the day he ever put those words on the historical record. Imagine, however, that, in the same situation, he had done the difficult, unpragmatic thing and said something like: “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs still cause spills and deep-water drilling is simply too dangerous for our planet, so I’ve decided, despite the obvious political problems involved, not to open up new, ever deeper, ever more sensitive or climatically extreme areas off our coasts to the oil industry. And I’m instructing my secretary of the interior to make sure that whatever drilling is already underway is safe.” He’d be in a lot better shape right now, though the Gulf of Mexico wouldn’t.
Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his true-believer government thought that a flotilla of peace activists determined to break the blockade of Gaza by steaming towards it with humanitarian relief supplies would be easy enough to control in the usual tough-guy ways. Call in the military, treat the activists goonishly in international waters, and a lesson would be learned. And indeed, a lesson has been learned—by the Palestinians, the Turks, and others.
In the process, the Israelis managed to turn the Mavi MaMara into the SS Exodus (the famed ship of Jewish refugees assaulted by the British in 1947), the Palestinians into Jews, Gaza into Israel before its establishment, and themselves into the oppressive, imperial Britons. No small trick in a single night. The Israelis will surely rue the day they ordered an assault on the six-ship flotilla in international waters when, if they had let the ships through, nothing much would have happened. In this case, the path of seemingly least resistance—to wield force—may have profoundly changed the international equation to Israel’s disadvantage.
And then, of course, there’s the war in Afghanistan, which is for the time being largely out of American consciousness. On that war, Obama made another assumedly pragmatic decision on entering the Oval Office: it would be politically easier to expand the fighting there, blunt the momentum of the Taliban, and worry about withdrawal later. This, too, passed for pragmatism in Washington, especially for a Democratic president, supposedly vulnerable on national security issues and seeking a second term (something all American presidents desperately desire).
So, on December 1, 2009, he went to West Point and, with a reluctance you could feel—even naming the date in 2011 when his administration would begin a troop drawdown—gave his “surge” speech to the nation. He could have given quite a different speech. (I even wrote a withdrawal speech for him whose key line was: “Ours will be an administration that will stand or fall, as of today, on this essential position: that we ended, rather than extended, two wars.”) He would have taken flak. The media would have been an instant echo chamber of outrage and criticism. But he would have made it through and ended two wars. No such luck.
As a result, sooner or later he’s likely to find himself in political hell. Things are already going poorly in Afghanistan, not so surprising since the war there is the foreign-policy equivalent of a poorly drilled, poorly capped deep-water well in the Gulf of Mexico. The only question is when the spill will begin gushing uncontrollably. Unfortunately, as crackerjack TomDispatch regular William Astore points out, the Obama administration and the US military high command are now hopelessly committed to a gambler’s mentality in Afghanistan, which means that, as things get worse, the war will only expand. Escalating in Pakistan is clearly on the mind of American planners, a move guaranteed to be disastrous (which, of course, never stopped anybody). Extending the timeline for an American stay is another obvious option. Hard as it might have been to launch a withdrawal in December 2009, imagine just how politically difficult it will be, if things get worse, in 2011. Where’s the value of “pragmatism” now?