Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Our Obligation To Afghanistan

A thoughtful word from a knowledgeable friend. I wrote:
I'm having difficulty discovering my sense of our moral obligation to the Afghan people above and beyond the obligation all wealthy, powerful peoples have toward those who aren't. We're at war because Afghanistan's Taliban government nurtured and empowered a terrorist movement that mounted a devastating attack against the United States. President Bush's 2001 intervention was for our sake, not Afghanistan's. If we had focused more single-mindedly on the Taliban rather than going to war in Iraq as well, the situation might be better today, or perhaps not. Afghans are famously resistant to foreign influence and manipulation.
He replied:
Don't you think we have an additional obligation to countries we used as proxies in our (successful) global conflict against Soviet communism? Particularly when we conducted said proxy war so poorly (allowing Pakistan to dictate the distribution of arms and aid to fundamentalist forces, in order to keep any subsequent Afghan government weak, while the more pro-U.S. forces, which I have reason to believe RN favored, where left in the cold). Particularly when, having won a Soviet defeat that was a major contribution to the collapse of the USSR, we walked away from devastated Afghanistan, where, in the wake of our dishonorable disengagement, the Taliban rose (again, through Pakistan's nefarious influence).
By the way, those two Pakistan references should highlight the canard in that line about "Afghans are famously resistant to foreign influence and manipulation." Except when they aren't, which is, historically, when Afghanistan is weak, which occurs when it is divided, as it is now, awaiting yet another American absquatulation and the inevitable interference of neighbors, which will likely not be in America's interests. Please abandon that tired line about Afghan resistance, which belongs in the rhetorical junkpile of conservative doozies such as "they've been fighting for thousands of years," invariably intoned whenever a foreign conflict gets complicated and the isolationist delusion rises.


MK said...

Afghanistan is a military, foreign relations, and a political problem. Of the three, I wouldn’t discount the difficulty of the last (not that you have). When RN inherited the Vietnam War from LBJ, he dealt with war opponents, hawks (largely in his own party but also a few in the other), and the Silent Majority, the large group of U.S. citizens who were anxious and concerned about the war, but generally were predisposed to letting the President set and carry out policies which would lead, they hoped, to stability and drawdowns.

Difficult as that environment was, what Obama faces domestically may be even more so. Prominent hawks inexplicably attack the President and his supporters in their effort to encourage Republicans and Independents to support a hawkish approach, rather than working to encourage an environment where Obama might lean towards the options they favor. It’s as if potential political advantage trumps success in the goals they push for.

This shows up in comments made this week at the launch of Bill Kristol’s and Liz Cheney’s advocacy group, Keep America Safe. Can you imagine any of the small number of Democratic Vietnam War hawks saying of the party in power during RN’s term what Kristol did this week? “’The Left has dozens of organizations and tens of millions of dollars dedicated to undercutting the war on terror,’ said Kristol, a seasoned partisan warrior. ‘The good guys need some help too.’” Given that the group hopes to get Independents to listen to them, my thought was, “What a way to undermine your rollout.” The whole idea that there is only one way to keep America safe and that it can be achieved by bullying and hectoring the 78% of Americans who don’t identify as Republicans is mind boggling to me. Why have skills for advocacy and outreach atrophied as badly as they have? Surely there are other plays in the playbook.

There are thoughtful examinations of the Afghanistan quandary at sites such as this one and elsewhere. But how many people, especially Republicans, are reading or watching them? TV, too, has changed since RN’s day, when viewers watched news on CBS, NBC, and ABC and occasional “White Papers” and documentaries on domestic issues and foreign affairs. Now we have niche tv. In an article at The Daily Beast to which Jonathan at TNN linked yesterday, John Batchelor argued that while it draws Republican viewers, Fox shouldn’t be equated with the Republican Party, although many of its critics do that: “Ailes knows how to make the confusion of the news into a nervous and strangely comforting comic opera. Most of the Fox News day’s production is a reading of helter-skelter bulletins into a coherent narrative consistent with themes of super-patriotism, progress, profit, and paranoia. In the evening, Fox News becomes a variety show of cattiness, gossip, chants, and whoppers. Recently Fox News has added the theme of “Survivalism for Dummies,” though this subplot could soon slip into an extended version of the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

He added of the shows Fox broadcasts after 5 p.m., “None of what goes on in the evening has anything to do with government. The president and the Congress are discussed as omnipresent villains in a fairytale that begins with a happy kingdom of worthies, introduces an ogre, a witch, and a curse, and then interviews champions to come forward to rescue the frightened children and save the USA. All the while, Ming the Merciless, aka Rupert Murdoch, rakes up the ratings and the bucks.”

With the noise from the Cheney group and Roger Ailes’s Fox and the cries of disappointment in Obama from some doves on the left, it’s harder than in RN’s day for thoughtful discussions of the sort you’re having here to gain attention or traction among the general public. RN benefited from a “let’s hope he succeeds for America’s sake” Silent Majority. It’s much harder for Obama to point to voices from such a group on Afghanistan, given the present day political environment.

MK said...

Just to make this clear -- I'm not saying there isn't a Silent Majority now whose members aren't crossing their fingers and hoping Obama succeeds in his foreign policy and defense objectives. Some current polls actually give Obama his highest approval numbers in foregin policy. It's just that if you look at the Internet and cable, the voices that predominate are the Cheneys and the Kristols and the Fox hosts on one side and people such as Markos and Arianna (who is calling for Biden to resign in protest if his advice on Afghanistan doesn't prevail) and the FDL bloggers on the other. Behind the scenes, there is a lot more nuance but public forums to display that are few and far between. I tried for some time to encourage bloggers at The New Nixon to establish a legacy for RN with a project to educate people about how government really works. I argued that it makes no sense for writers at TNN to plead for a nuanced and objective assessment of RN without working also to establish that for assessment of his successor (Clinton, Bush, Obama). Unfortunately, I gave up on that this week, there just didn't seem to be any takers.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK; as always, a pleasure to read your thoughtful posts.

I continue to believe that, at least in foreign and war policy, name-calling, whether on the left or right, tends to get traction only when that great American pragmatic middle (call it Silent Majority or not) can't quite name its own preferred policy.

And I'm with them. Only thanks to my respect for my little blog's hyper-informed, anonymous contributor on Afghanistan could I even be tempted away from my belief that the terrorist threat from Afghanistan is probably not substantial enough to justify the the presence of and risk to all those troops. I'm just one voter. Polls suggest many more share my discomfort.

Sure, it's also tempting to conclude that Obama must be wrong because he's a liberal Democrat or hiding some sinister purpose, but that strikes me as a lazy voter's refuge, and a unconscionable one when so many lives are at stake. It's just as unforgivable, in my view, to undermine him on this issue in order to achieve a political benefit.

Maybe this time, the Silent Majority is silent because they just don't know for sure and aren't willing to give their leaders the benefit of the doubt (a consequence, perhaps, of post-Vietnam-Watergate realism about authority figures). And if they don't speak, then the voices on the left (which tend always to say come home) and the hawkish right (which always say stay) will be the only ones we hear.