William Pfaff: Are Obama’s Hands Tied by Forces Beyond His Control?

Historians in the News

[Visit William Pfaff’s Web site for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.]

A splendid and courageous new book, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War,” by Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University (and for many years previously, the U.S. Army), describes with lucidity the degree to which the power of the American presidency over war and peace has been weakened in our day, and, in important respects, superseded....

Bacevich writes about the American Strategic Air Command, as hyper-organized by Gen. Curtis LeMay, with an initial mission in 1948 to deter Soviet attack on the U.S. with 29 wartime B-29 bombers, only half of them operational, and the handful of nuclear bombs the U.S. had managed to manufacture. By 1970, LeMay’s SAC was capable of delivering more than 10,000 nuclear attacks across the entire Soviet bloc. What use could a sane American president make of that force? (One remembers Peter Sellers, as the U.S. president in “Dr. Strangelove,” announcing to his Soviet counterpart, Dmitri, that a nuclear attack was underway, saying, “Well, listen, Dmitri, how do you think I feel about it?”)

When Barack Obama was elected president with a pledge to fight the “right war” in Afghanistan, he undoubtedly expected Defense Secretary Robert Gates to set out a range of options from negotiations with the Taliban to nuclear war, with comprehensive analyses. Instead it would seem he was presented one plan, already in operation, of troop “surge” as in Iraq, to be followed by “counterinsurgency” as set forth by the general commanding, David Petraeus—heavily publicized as a dramatic new war-winning strategy.

Could he refuse? The Republicans were against him, the Pentagon contemptuous of a military innocent, a former “community organizer” and “civil rights lawyer.” The press was in full cry for victory in Afghanistan. Obama would have risked a mob at the White House....

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