Obama Has Finally Got It in Central Asia: Legitimacy Comes Locally from the Bottom Up
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
The most intelligent strategy review on American policy in Central Asia or anywhere else in the world is to be presented by President Barack Obama in early April, 2009, at a summit of world leaders.
According to advance reports, “Key to the strategy will be strengthening village elders and other local leaders as part of an overall shift in emphasis away from the country’s central government.” The Pentagon Press Secretary, Geoff Morrell, has refused to discuss the White House policy review, but stated that Gates is focusing on building local governments to address their own agendas. He remarked to Julian E. Barnes of the Los Angeles Times on March 20th, 2009, that “Building a strong central government in Afghanistan is counter-cultural, counter-historical.”
The single essential prime mover behind this apparent about-face in American policy world-wide is Secretary Robert Gates, who has been advocating this for decades but unfortunately only as a lone voice in the face of the top-down paradigm of all economic development theory. This paradigmatic mindset, in turn, has dominated political and military strategies in a hopeless attempt to impose global stability as the only means to address existential fears of universal chaos.
The possible weakness of this new policy is that it may garner support merely as a tactic to fix the old policy without changing it, exactly as Obama is doing in the field of money, credit, and capital ownership. Letting people build legitimacy from the bottom up rather than trying to impose a faux legitimacy from the top down would be self-defeating if the purpose is later to impose central control after the “enemy” is defeated.
Confusing a strategy with a tactic would put U.S. policy makers on the same track as the Taliban, whose top leaders work from the bottom up but only to impose their own power from the top down as soon as they can liberate Afghanistan from American occupation. The purpose of the new American policy, if it can be sustained at least during the next few weeks until it can be formally revealed at the world summit, must not be to defeat the Taliban, who are potential allies as rivals of the Al Qa’ida foreigners, but to get foreign troops out of Central Asia so that the real power of the Taliban as a legitimate insurgency and of Al Qa’ida as a political bedmate will disappear.
McNamara never understood this in Vietnam half a century ago or anywhere else in the world because he believed that stability must be imposed by experts from a foreign culture, his own. This alienated the Vietnamese nationalists who fought against all occupiers, the Japanese, French, and Americans, and supported the Soviet-run Communists only as a last resort. The only popular Vietnamese leaders in the south, who wanted to unite rather than split their country, were eliminated by the CIA, which captured General Thi, the Commander of I Corps and the only Buddhist general in the South Vietnamese Army, in order to prevent his certain victory in the upcoming sham election to “legitimize” America’s stooge, General Ky. The American “war against Communism” in Vietnam died at that very point, even though the last U.S. troops did not leave until almost a decade later.
The challenge within the think-tank community, which is powerful in Washington, is to overcome the eggheads who for more than a hundred years have failed to understand that countering extremist ideologues through foreign occupation by other extremist ideologues is oxymoronic. The Communists eventually learned this by their own defeat internally, but amazingly Americans never have, at least not until perhaps recently.
The counter-paradigm to the imperialist paradigm that has dominated American foreign policy was described in a single paragraph keynoting a 50-page position paper that Richard Nixon asked me to write for the 1968 presidential campaign. This was prepared as a result of my trip report, at his request, to meet with the heads of the national insurgencies all along the border of China from Vietnam to Nepal in order to determine whether they were about to go Communist and whether the U.S. Air Force strategy to deter this by bombing them made any sense. My conclusion was that any domino effect from Vietnam would materialize only if we tried to bomb them into submission, and that such bombing would only accelerate the advance of the Chinese Communists in their rivalry with the Soviet Union to conquer the world. Fortunately, the facts and conclusions from this field trip “behind enemy lines” were widely publicized both in America and Europe and helped lead to President Johnson’s conclusion that so-called “victory” in Vietnam was impossible and that any effort to stay the course might produce the exact opposite of its purpose.
This single paragraph from forty years ago reads as follows:
“The imposition of centralized secular power as a method of modernization without the concept of community-based coherence and responsibility behind it, the propagation of atomistic individualism as a means to societal transformation without a moral recognition of the value of the individual person, and the accompanying attempt to impose an omnivorous collectivity without an appreciation of the responsibility and value of free community, all combine to create a crisis in identity and authority that has profoundly unsettled the Afro-Asian peoples. The efforts of the mobilizing state to monopolize personal and group loyalties at a single level of the political spectrum, and to diffuse legitimacy downward from the corporate state rather than to permit loyalty and legitimacy to spread upward from the families and communities of individual persons, have tended to cause a radical contraction of the individual away from nature and from other people into the material boundaries of the calculating ego. The primordial loyalties of communal nationalism in the first instance have become a fulcrum either for a passive longing not to belong to any other group or for the blind aggression of defensive self-assertion. Inevitably, the primordial instincts of literally billions of people will bring them to awareness of a higher reality and create a willingness to live for this reality, as well as even to die for it.”
The paragraph and its context may be found in my article, “New Directions for American Foreign Policy: Some Thoughts for Macromodeling,” in Orbis: A Quarterly Journal of World Affairs, Summer 1969, pages 455-475. This has been made accessible electronically in my article, “The Vision of Communitarian Pluralism: The Conflict Between State and Nation,” http://www.theamericanmuslim.org March, 4, 2006. Modern applications are further developed in a follow-on article, “New Directions for American Foreign Policy: Can Communitarian Pluralism Bring Peace through Justice?”, http://www.theamericanmuslim.org Augus,t 19, 2006, with further elucidation in my various articles over the years on the catastrophe of American policy especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Obama is personally wise enough from his own community organizing in Chicago to know that the NeoCons failed because they thought they were liberators or at least pretended to think so. The problem facing him is the fact that the professional wisdom in Washington think-tanks, which has destroyed American leadership around the world, is like a huge ocean-liner that has to be turned around in mid passage in the middle of what may be building into a perfect storm. Only Secretary Gates could possibly manage this, because for decades he has been America’s preeminent expert on counter-terrorism but has never had backing from above.
If President Obama does not continue to back Secretary Gates against the remains of the NeoCon think-tank establishment, this will be the end of both of them. This, in turn, in the worst-case scenario, might bring on the first truly fascist government in the history of America and result eventually in destroying civilization on earth. The best scenario is simple: Obama’s finally got in Central Asia and as a former street fighter in Chicago and successful politician has both the knowledge and the guts to turn the ship around.