On the first day of December last year, Barack Obama stood before the assembled Corps of Cadets at West Point and announced this decision to send another 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan. The president’s nationally televised address was, in many ways, the most honest speech made to the American people by their leader in a generation. Obama conceded that our client state in Afghanistan “has been hampered by corruption” and “has moved backwards.” He told us he had rejected “a more dramatic and open-ended escalation” of the war because that would require setting “goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.” He called on the nation to restore “the connection between our national security and our economy,” since “our prosperity provides a foundation of our power,” which means, therefore, that “our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended—because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.”
It was as if the president were walking back half a century of American overreach and hubris in foreign affairs, back past John F. Kennedy’s inaugural declaration that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Now Obama was finally conceding that there were limits. It was an argument in the very best tradition of American democracy: educational, unshirking, and honest; grounded in history; cognizant of physical realities and limitations, but no less cognizant of human and democratic principles. Had Obama delivered these words soon after he took office, as a prologue to making a major change in our foreign and military policies, they would have justified every hope his liberal supporters had for him.
Instead, of course, these words were merely a code, a belated attempt to reassure us that the policy of escalation Obama had just announced was nothing of the sort. The decision stood: 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. After stating the case for standing down in the most deliberate, accurate, and insightful words possible, our president went ahead and did the wrong thing anyway.
How could this be? It was the question that Obama’s most fervent supporters had been asking themselves for months, as their candidate discarded almost every vision of a new America, a new world, that he had described during his campaign. By the time of his West Point speech, health-care “reform” had already been transformed into yet another scheme to transfer wealth to the richest corporate interests in the country. The stimulus program had been botched, the promised money delayed and diverted from badly needed public projects into unhelpful tax cuts. The banks had been bailed out but not the people, and any significant proposals for repairing our infrastructure, addressing climate change, re-regulating the financial markets, or rebuilding New Orleans were generally acknowledged to be dead letters.
Now, with the president’s decision on Afghanistan, our foreign policy settled back into its familiar pattern of endless war for unknown purposes. To people who had been clamoring for real change in how we work and consume, how we live in the world and with one another, this retreat to the failed policies of the recent past was stunning. No other president in our history had so thoroughly spurned his political base in so short a time.
To understand how this could have happened, it is instructive to pay less attention to what Obama said in his West Point speech and more to where he said it. That is, in front of the designated heirs to an officer class that in recent years has accrued unprecedented influence over policies once thought to be the exclusive domain for elected officials. Obama’s choice of venue provided the perhaps-too–liberal president a reassuringly martial podium, and in doing so, it assured the Pentagon of an outcome its officers had in good part already determined by means of their own scandalously insubordinate intelligence leaks, and a recasting of history that assigned themselves sole credit for whatever “victory” was won in Iraq.
The president had undertaken a similar act of obeisance a few months earlier on Wall Street, where he had gone to plead for the cooperation of the financial sector and was faced with an even less enthusiastic audience of stone-faced officers. Two weeks after the West Point speech, the heads of some of the largest bailed-out banks failed even to show up for what was billed as an important White House conference on loosening lending restrictions and creating jobs, pleading “inclement weather.” And all the while, Republicans were stonewalling the health-care bill that was meant to be the cornerstone of Obama’s legacy.
Despite such receptions, the president continues to press for “bipartisanship” and elite consensus. One of the most charismatic politicians of his time, a man who was able to raise the most money and draw the biggest crowds in American political history, has apparently decided that his new job is to fluff up the generals and bankers and politicians who, not very long ago, were in panicked disarray. Armchair psychologists from the Maureen Dowd School of Political Commentary like to analyze this conversion in terms of the elusive personality of Obama himself. Others prefer to dwell on the surprising ineptitude of his administration. And some simply accept his about-face in terms of the political exigencies of an essentially conservative nation, concluding, wistfully, that Obama is confronted by so many barriers to change—Republican obstructionism, the treachery of this or that Democratic senator, the nature of the Constitution itself—that the country is now ungovernable.
All of which may be true. But it only skims the surface of a greater tidal shift, one that has little to do with Obama himself, and in fact, has inundated the whole of our democratic process. This shift, which is subtle and has been many years in the making, might best be understood by considering a design underlying many of the interrogation techniques we employ at the (still-undisclosed) prison at Guantánamo or at the black sites we will maintain, wherever they are. That is, bringing about the state known as learned helplessness.
The expression dates from a famous set of experiments by Martin Seligman some forty years ago, in which he found that dogs exposed to repeated and seemingly random electric shocks eventually stopped trying to escape those shocks, even when they could very easily do so. This insight gave rise to “no touch” torture, pioneered in large part by he CIA, whose efforts to “break” prisoners, involved all manner of techniques, from the unsavory to the absurd, such as depriving prisoners of sleep for weeks on end, bombarding them with ear-splitting noises, exposing them to extreme heat and cold, shackling them in “stress positions,” tying bras to their heads, making them bark like dogs, and waterboarding them. There is no evidence that such practices enhance the odds that prisoners will provide more useful information to interrogators. It is well established, though that they will make prisoners docile, and so the techniques remain popular.