Midst the final day of Netroots Nation — winding up with a bloggers brunch and a future directions policy keynote, after kicking off with an interfaith service, try selling that to the next anarchist convergence — comes the news that Iraqi premier Al-Maliki has “endorsed” Barack Obama’s plan for a 16 month phased withdrawal of troops, and reports that the Baghdad government is “unsettled” by John McCain’s idea of extending the mission a further ninety-eight years and eight months beyond that.

Oh that’s good. That’s so good. Usually after one of these conferences you need deep-tissue massage to unknot your shoulders, which have been corkscrewed tight by the deeply frustrations of nine-sided factional debates about policies that have no chance of being implemented. But this is much better.

Prior to Obama’s tour — he’s in Afghanistan at the moment — there was endless discussion on the airwaves about how this was a lose-lose proposition for him. How could he go to an Iraq that was working and enunciate his policy of withdrawal and his belief that the war had always been a mistake? But if he changed his story, what was left of his platform and differentiation from McCain, to say nothing of his regard amongst supporters? The advantage was all to McCain.

Should have been obvious that that thing was already beginning to turn with Obama’s declaration that he would put 10,000 more troops in Afghanistan, and that that was where the fight was. As the latter country becomes more lethal, Obama’s strategic account is starting to look flexible and responsive, while McCain’s is looking increasingly rigid and unthinking. McCain is still the preferred commander-in-chief but we have seen — in the dishonest palaver about “better economic manager” from News Ltd in the last election — how meaningless these sub-polls are. People probably say McCain’s the better CnC because they feel sorry for the old codger. It’s a consolation prize.

And now Al-Maliki’s deserted him too. The Iraqi prime minister has already backed off from the announcement — apparently a memo sent out in error by the White House — but the damage is done, to the degree that foreign policy news of any complexity is going to make it out of the box.

So much for the politics of Obama’s announcement. As for the policy, it’s a nightmare. If the war in Afghanistan is going to be escalated, then the casualties are going to be Afghan civilians, in their thousands. The forces NATO is lined up against are split into several factions, Taliban is a convenient, inaccurate label, and battle-lines, etc are far from clearly marked. With the US having already committed several multiple fatality bombings of civilians this year, any concerted push to deprive the Taliban of territory would have to involve new rules of engagement.

What Obama is planning in Afghanistan is the next quagmire. And an ineffectual one at that. Ten thousand troops wouldn’t be enough to subdue the place, and US domestic reaction to a dozen casualties in a week in Iraq shows how little tolerance there is for a sustained combat. Ten thousand new troops might be capable of reclaiming a larger area around Kabul, but what are the long term odds of reconstructing a mountain country whose tribal fiefdoms were not even modernised even under aggressive pro-Soviet modernisers between the 50s and 70s? And then under the Soviets themselves? And what happens to the current lull in Iraq when the draw down of troops begins?

You’d have to say there wasn’t much concern for these possibilies being voiced at netroots nation. Grateful as one was that this wasn’t another sort of conference with “speakers confirmed: Dave Spart (USACMPLDK-ML), plus representative of the fascist-imperialist Democratic Party” sort of rundown, the relentless desire to be practical and positive — i.e. to avoid debate and reflection — was pretty striking.

On Sunday in one room I found volunteers making care packages for US troops, (“netroots for the troops”) including not only sox, DVDs etc but also webbing gloves and flashlights — “because military issue flashlights are too heavy to attach to the end of a rifle during a house search”. The possibility that supplying this equipment might be facilitating house searches — and subsuming netroots to the military — didn’t seem to occur to anyone.

Nor was there any discussion in sessions such as “Iraq — the strategic context” as to the nature of both Afghanistan and Iraq, the whole idea of the projection of US power — the assumption was that one war was a disaster, the other worth prosecuting to the full. The only hiccup occurred when a member of Iraq Veterans Against The War got up and quietly informed the panel that the Iraq surge was a lie, that the Maliki government had no control beyond the green zone, and that Afghanistan was much the same — after which there was silence for a second and then things resumed as normal.

Netroots obviously gathers a fairly practical, electorally focused groups of people — nevertheless the degree to which much of the discussion was avoiding any sort of reflection on the morals and politics of the Obama platform was either a measure of the times, or of the desperation to keep the formation together and get the guy into the White House, or both.

The haunting fear for anyone thinking about this is that a President Obama, will prove to be not the Bobby Kennedy who never was, but a combination of Woodrow Wilson and Tony Blair — a persuasive, intelligent military humanitarian who can give intellectual heft to well-managed wars of American interest and alleged noble purpose. Is it possible that a President Obama would take the country where even team Bush refused to go — a messy, chaotic and compromised intervention in Darfur, for example?

Well, time to think about that later, after the blue margaritas from the afterparties wear off. For the possibility that Obama’s tour will wrong-foot McCain on foreign as well as domestic policy is just too, too good not to linger on.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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