Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Of the disasters George Bush left to us, the worst is the so-called "war on terror." Couple dozen guys with box-cutters have, it turns out, brought us to our knees. Three trillion dollars, exhausted military, failing economy, inability properly to react to the real threats, stuck in two interminable wars. The word "overreaction" has been redefined for all time.
I'm mindful of two things: first, there is a real threat from terrorists, mainly of the radical Islamic type (give or take a few home-grown crazies like Timothy McVey and Eric Rudolph.) Second, having recklessly invaded Iraq and abandoning Afghanistan at a time when keeping up the pressure likely would have seen a finished job by now, we have to address our obligations there. Which is why what Bush did is so awful: he's left a problem with no obvious solution. Like the economy, but with more death.
Invading countries was never going to wipe out terrorism or terrorists. The Afghanistan war, however, had other justifications, not the least of which was retribution. Iraq, not so much. Whatever the reason for that one -- and I still have no idea what it was -- fighting terrorism was never even remotely credible. Terrorism isn't a place or an army. The invasion was, to put it as kindly as possible, woefully ill-conceived as a response to terrorism.
So what do we do?
The main arguments for staying in Iraq are that if we leave, it will get worse. It will have been for nothing. It will become a haven for terrorists. There will be slaughter. All, really, say pretty much the same thing. But what's the end-point? Is there one? Must we continue the literal and figurative bleeding because of already spilt blood? As much as I agree that having broken the country we have an obligation to repair it, I think it's obvious by now that we've done all we can and more, that our presence is only prolonging the inevitable, whatever the inevitable is. Under Saddam, they had no choice in their future. Now they do. It's time to leave their future to them. It will be what it was always going to be, the minute we invaded. They can choose to cooperate among themselves, or kill each other off. As cold as that seems, the time and blood and treasure we've spent there hasn't altered the need for Iraqis (who never were a natural fit with one another, in a country that was imposed on rather than created by them) finally to figure it out for themselves, whatever "it" is.
If Afghanistan is a different country -- with ancient borders and perpetual tribalism and wars -- the gist is the same: we can't ultimately expect to alter their future, which, in their case, means prevent terrorists from encamping in that region. Contrary to mythology, it was Afghanistan, not Ronald Reagan, that brought down the Soviet Union. Which is why I think Barack Obama is making a mistake sending more troops there.
In the end, it's about protecting ourselves, and whereas there's only a few things over which we have complete control, they are critically important. George Bush got it entirely backwards. And I think it's time for Barack Obama to be as truthful about that as he has been about the economic wreckage.
"War on Terror" was and is a misnomer, a blatant misunderstanding of what we face and what we can do. Terrorism is not an army, and it can't be ended with war. Given what a handful of zealots did on 9/11, and given the catastrophically wrong response which has done more damage by a factor of a billion, it should be obvious. Invading where, fighting whom, could prevent another 9/11? If it were possible -- and the opposite is true, as we've seen -- to eliminate 99% of terrorists with the methods employed by George Bush, we'd still be at roughly equal risk as we were on 9/10/01. The greatest need, then, is not to send in armies; it's to shore up our defenses at home, an approach almost entirely neglected in response to 9/11, except for airport security. Which, it is to be recalled, was royally botched at first as Bush insisted on privatizing it, while resisting the idea of a department of homeland security (which, to my ear, sounds a little too much like "fatherland") and fighting the idea of a 9/11 commission.
Protecting ourselves against terrorism requires a much greater effort at security, of ports, plants, dams. And it requires intelligence gathering. It is, as John Kerry said while the Republicans scoffed, a law enforcement issue. The successes we've had (questionable as they've turned out to be, in many cases) have come from police work. Which is why I happen to have no problem at all with various forms of electronic surveillance; but I see no reason why it can't be done legally. Is our Constitution really that flawed?
Equally important is seeking and getting cooperation from the rest of the world, the likelihood of which increases in proportion to the esteem in which we're held around the world. You're less likely to help someone you hate than someone you respect, whom you see as sharing your goals. Which is perhaps the most devastatingly negative consequence of the Cheney/Bush approach.
So what is there to do? Admit reality. Make the case that we've done it wrong up until now. Keep enough troops in Iraq as is necessary to continue training theirs and to protect ours. In Afghanistan, offer as much humanitarian assistance as is wanted and provide the protection it requires. Continue diplomatic efforts in the region, encourage help from the rest of the world. But recognize that the only people who can stop the Taliban are the Afghans and Pakistanis themselves. Keep up surveillance, fire off a predator missile prn, and fall the hell back. Because it will never end by force; not our force, anyway.
With a tenth of the money spent on the wars, and without the loss of life, we could have beefed up our ability to protect ourselves and be much safer. It's a tragedy that that wasn't our approach from the beginning, but that's not a reason to keep compounding the error.
Speaking that kind of truth would make the response from the right to his economic realism look like a love-fest. And it would take a literal willingness on Obama's part to die for it; because the veiled threats we've seen for months would become overt, and there'd be thousands willing to carry it out. If I have no certainty of the right approach to the impossible problems we've inherited, of that I have no doubt.