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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Borde-nough: Obama still thinking checkmate

Published: March 6, 2009
Section: Opinions

<i>PHOTO from internet source</i>

PHOTO from internet source

The most important rule in chess is associated with the only word that chess reliably contributes to everyone’s vocabulary – checkmate. A player wins if the other player’s king is threatened and escape is impossible.

Chess metaphors are understandably often used in discussions of war. But the rules of chess and war are very different – especially that checkmate rule. In war, even if there is a king to threaten, threatening him may not mean victory. Killing him might just lead to his replacement; trashing his country might draw in its friends; destroying his army and slaughtering his people might leave behind ideas that will bring new recruits to his cause.

Leaders play a role in choosing what objectives will be required for victory, and by choosing wisely, they can help bring victory into sight if not into grasp. But leaders don’t control these objectives fully. Some objectives may be unavoidable, and not a matter of choice. Other objectives might change during the course of the war, sometimes beyond a leader’s control or even outside of his awareness. And, God knows, leaders can choose objectives unwisely. With everything reduced to black and white, with only 64 squares to consider, and with the opponent’s king in plain view, checkmate looks easily obtainable compared with victory in war – whatever victory means.

But that doesn’t stop people, or presidents, from thinking that the checkmate rule, or something like it, applies in war as it does in chess. President Bush routinely behaved as though war had a checkmate rule. Almost eight years ago, he declared a worldwide “war on terror.” The precise objectives in this war and even the precise opponents were unknown and unknowable at the time, and remain so in large part. But even without any way of defining victory, the United States has continued to spend money and lives in the name of this war, and America’s military and even society has been retooled to fight it. It is as though throwing people and money into this “war” and casting other defense priorities and civil liberties aside were themselves the criteria for victory.

Again, almost six years ago, Bush gleefully tipped over the Iraqi government’s ‘king’ and declared that the US had “prevailed” in Iraq in front of a famous sign that read “Mission Accomplished.” But fighting in Iraq has continued, as has the pattern of massive spending without a sense of what victory would entail that has characterized the War on Terror. Bush’s “surge,” his policy of heightened troop deployments and spending in Iraq (which even today has left both the size of the Iraq deployment and US allocations for Iraq higher than they would otherwise have been), is now credited by some with what is said to be the “progress” witnessed in Iraq. But the surge failed to identify objectives the attainment of which would make for American victory in Iraq. Absent objectives, claims of progress seem dubious.

Rather than progress, I suspect that the surge will one day be remembered as a crude violation of the public trust, in which the president borrowed a fortune to temporarily bury the Iraq mess in a pile of money to try to make his administration’s and his party’s house appear as orderly as possible. This expensive green carpet, or Oriental rug, if you will, in light of the Chinese bond purchases that financed it, cannot forever conceal what was swept beneath it.

Neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan, nor in the supposedly wider War on Terror, did the Bush administration ever clearly articulate what victory meant, even as they continued to throw blood and treasure at it. The words of the late diplomat George Kennan, spoken in response to a question asked at Senate hearings in 1966 about the possibility of US victory in the then-escalating war in Vietnam, could have answered a similar query in our own time about victory in our current wars: Kennan did “not know what the word ‘win’” meant in “these circumstances.”

Nor did Bush ever appear to consider the other option open to him: standing up and walking away from the table. Hard as it is for some people to imagine, there is no requirement that every American war end in something called victory – especially when the alternative is not something called defeat. Indeed, America has not prevailed in all its wars. Vietnam is an example. That war was a painful experience for those who lived through it, and a grave sin against those who did not. But the important thing was that, with or without victory, the war did end.

Where would our country be if there had not been sufficient political will to end the war and to overcome the sentiments of hawks like Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of State Dean Rusk? In language that has continued to resonate among those for whom honor perversely requires killing, Rusk continued to insist even after leaving office that to abandon the US mission in Vietnam was to sheepishly “cut and run.” There is no telling how many lives and opportunities were saved by America’s belated departure.

Does President Obama believe in a checkmate rule? Would he ever walk away from the table? My heart tells me that it’s still too early to tell, but alas, I think that Obama will continue to play at war and will use an only slightly amended version of Bush’s rulebook. The changes he’s making are not in the section of the rules about winning the game. Instead, he’s tinkering with the parts about game pieces and where to put them on the board. It will take a year and a half to make the switch, but eventually only 50,000 troops will be stationed in Iraq. They’ll be called “support” troops rather than “combat” troops. “And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government,” as the President said on Feb. 27, “I intend to remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.”

By focusing on Iraq, Obama’s speech convinced much of the public that he plans to leave Iraq. He has succeeded, as Bush never could, in making Americans hopeful. But his focus misled the public. Obama downplayed the fact that his removal of troops from Iraq is part of a reshuffling of those troops that will send yet-undisclosed numbers of them to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he noted benignly that America would be “refocusing” its efforts. Recent Russian revelations that Obama sought a deal swapping American ABM systems in Europe for Russian help in isolating Iran diplomatically give rise to the scary thought that Obama might actually make good on Bush’s old threats to expand US military operations to include Iran – threats that Obama renewed to little fanfare in his Feb. 27 speech, when he spoke of a “strategy to use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

But perhaps Obama, for all this talk, would consider leaving this awful game behind. His changes in the designation of the troops and his reference to the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq seemed to many to suggest that he wanted to withdraw from Iraq, victory or no. But troops can be