Listen: Afghanistan

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Articles, US Foreign Policy

Particularly over the last eight years, the United States was one big mouth. We lectured the world. We berated the world. We threatened and wheedled and roared. From the world’s perspective, however, the United States was like the teacher in the Peanuts comic strip: an incomprehensible wah-wah sound in the background. You generally ignored this voice of authority — so predictable, so monotonous, so deafening — unless it happened to pick on you.

President Barack Obama has promised a different style of leadership. On election night, he promised to listen to America in all of its many voices. In dubbing the new president Listener-in-Chief, the Boston Globe praised Obama’s “healthy capacity to listen” and suggested that his oversized ears, which editorial cartoonists love to exaggerate, ultimately work in his favor.

This capacity to listen is evident in Obama’s books. Unusual for a politician, Obama is able to reproduce the actual voices of other people, recreating memorable characters from his earlier life. In a recent lecture, novelist Zadie Smith suggested that Obama’s ability to speak in tongues is connected to his own multiracial makeup. Obama can, like Walt Whitman in his poem “Song of Myself,” legitimately claim to “contain multitudes.” As a result, “the new president doesn’t just speak for his people,” Smith observed. “He can speak them.” Before this act of speaking in tongues, however, comes the act of listening in tongues. Obama listens to the chorus in his head (Kansas, Kenya, Hawaii, Indonesia), which enables him to hear the chorus outside.

In his first month in office, the Big Ear in the White House has deputized his trusted advisors to listen on his behalf all over the world. Vice President Joe Biden went off to Europe, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured Asia, and envoys George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke went off to their designated regions. These trips featured speeches, of course, but they were also designed to make allies and even adversaries feel listened to.

So, given all this new attention to the fine art of listening, why is President Obama so unable to hear the word “quagmire” when he turns his attention to Afghanistan? His ability to listen to people apparently doesn’t extend to Afghans, who aren’t enthusiastic at all about the increased number of U.S. troops heading to their country.

According to a recent BBC/ABC poll, Afghan perceptions of the United States have dropped precipitously from an 83% favorable rating in 2005 to a 47% favorable rating today. “In more than a dozen interviews across the capital this week, Afghans said that instead of helping to defeat the insurgents and quell the violence that has engulfed their country, more foreign troops will exacerbate the problem,” The Washington Post reported over the weekend.

This week at Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), you can hear directly from Sakena Yacoobi, who heads up the Afghan Institute for Learning, which has offices in Kabul and Herat as well as Peshawar, Pakistan. “If the United States really wants to help stabilize our country, I would tell President Obama that the United States should direct its resources to planning, developing the infrastructure, and providing jobs for the people of Afghanistan and region,” Yacoobi told FPIF contributor Preeti Mangala Shekar and FPIF senior analyst Christine Ahn in an interview. “If people have enough to eat, a job, money to support their family, then they would not resort to suicide bombing, blowing themselves up and innocent people. Countries need some sort of national security — but most foreign troops are not primarily focused on protecting women and children. Their focus is on beating the enemy, which is very different, and ordinary citizens become collateral damage in the process.”

In their review of past U.S. mistakes in its Afghan policy, The U.S. and Afghan Tragedy, FPIF contributor Khushal Arsala and FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes conclude that “escalating the war, as National Security Advisor Jim Jones has been encouraging, will likely make matters worse. At the same time, simply abandoning the country — as the United States did after the overthrow of Afghanistan’s Communist government soon after the Soviet withdrawal 20 years ago — would lead to another set of serious problems.”

There is certainly much clamor from the political center that Afghanistan is the right war to fight and the surge the right strategy to take. The folks at Center for American Progress are spinning the surge as not only the fulfillment of a campaign pledge but “the beginning of the drawdown in Iraq, where these troops were originally headed.” If we view U.S. wars abroad as a zero-sum game — troops withdrawn from one place only to be redeployed to another — then we’ll truly be locked in permanent global conflict.

Fortunately, the U.S. peace movement has been raising its voice on Afghanistan. Check out the commentary and analysis at United for Peace and Justice has an Afghanistan Working Group. Peace Action is mobilizing against the surge. Friends Committee on National Legislation also has a new campaign up and running. If you want to get the word out more personally, join with loyal World Beat reader Alan McConnell and sell No Afghan War buttons. He’s selling the buttons to raise money to buy and distribute yard signs with the same message.

After eight years of deafness, the White House is now listening. When it comes to Afghanistan, we just have to speak a little louder.

Voices Elsewhere

The people of Venezuela spoke recently when they handed Hugo Chavez a victory in his bid to change the constitution. As a result of the referendum, which he won 54% to 45%, Chavez can run again for office in 2012. That puts him on the same schedule as the U.S. president. Victory has made Chavez more conciliatory toward the United States. Last month, Chavez said that Obama has “the same stench” as the White House’s previous inhabitant.

But after the referendum, as FPIF contributor Joshua Frens-String writes in Venezuelan Term Limits, “Chávez remarked that ‘any day is propitious for talking with President Barack Obama.’ After the Sunday vote, the State Department praised the ‘civic spirit’ of Venezuelans.”

A little further to the south, meanwhile, the World Social Forum brought together 100,000 people in Belém, Brazil last month. Social activists from around the world gathered at the edge of the Amazon rain forest to listen, talk, and strategize.

FPIF contributor Janet Redman sent us a Postcard from…Belém. “Critics have assailed the World Social Forum for clinging to its ambiguous identity as a ‘process’ for sharing alternatives to the status quo that lacks a concrete platform for action,” she writes. “But this year’s tone of urgency — from climate change to the multiple threats to indigenous lands and cultures — and the sense of possibility created by the financial meltdown and accompanying global economic crisis have generated the collective will to coordinate more closely.”

FPIF, February 24, 2009

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