Monday, December 7, 2009


I thought President Obama's speech at West Point was well-constructed, and well-delivered. It had the needed tone of seriousness, and conveyed the clear impression that he'd thought deeply about his decision. He outlined the history of our involvement, and made a case for the importance of staying involved. If it's true that a sign of a good contract is that both parties think they got screwed (that's what "they" say, although I could never figure out why it wouldn't also be true if both parties thought they got a great deal), then maybe the fact that no one seems to like it means he came to the best possible solution to an unsolvable and impossible situation.

I wish he'd gone the other way.

The threat of terrorism is real. Al Queda and similar groups, and crazy people (like the one at Fort Hood) influenced by them, represent very real dangers. The question is to what extent we can lower the threat with armies. And the answer, I'm pretty darn sure, is: we can't. Haven't. Won't. The corollary question is to what extent we can change the nature of a country like Afghanistan with soldiers or, for that matter, with good works and intentions. To the first part, the answer is the same as above; to the second, given decades of time and trillions of dollars, the answer is maybe there's an outside chance. At impossible cost.

A few guys living in caves have caused our country to burn trillions of dollars and thousands of lives -- not to mention lives not ended but forever altered. There's something terribly sad that, after all these centuries, the decisions of a few men, whether made in caves of limestone or marble, continue to cause soldiers to kill and be killed, maim and be maimed, believing in their mission, perhaps, but understanding it not at all. And that, in the two current wars, the most hawkish voices arise from the gullets of those least familiar with war, least willing to wage it themselves. Five-Deferment Cheney, not a single one of whose utterances about Iraq proved true, is still given credence and air time. Kristol, Goldberg, Hannity -- none of those guys ever served, though they all were of an age that they could have, when it started. I did serve, I received wounds; and although my experience in Vietnam was far less traumatic than those of many (MOST) others, I think I know a little bit about what war is and what it does. I have a friend, much more conservative than I, who spent his year saving and restoring bodies blown apart. He hates war, too.

But really, that's not the point. War happens, and until humans evolve way further (assuming there's time left in which to do it), it must. The point is that fighting terrorism is not like fighting an invading army. Terrorism isn't a place. It doesn't need caves or countries. Is it reasonable to think that if we filled every hole in the mountains in Af/Pak, terrorism would go away? Can plots be plotted only there? Does calumny come only from caverns?

President Obama said he's willing to be a one-term president if that's what it takes to get health care reform. Would he make the same stand in the response to terrorism? If so, he'd deserve his Peace Prize. Because it might be only he that could do it. It'd be lost on the remaining Republicans (as opposed to true conservatives) and the RWS™. Supporters of Sarah would maintain their current and constant apoplexy, and reason would flow past them like amnion in Texas.

I suppose we can build nations. Arguably, we did in Japan and Germany after WWII. Vanquished, the citizenry of those countries bought in, or, at least, acquiesced. It remains to be seen what we did in Iraq. Whatever we did, was the cost worth it, in terms of our national interest? What argument is there to be made for "saving" Iraq, that can't be made for so many other failed states on the planet? Humanitarian concerns are -- no sarcasm intended -- laudable. In a split-second decision, I might risk drowning to save a kid; but is it a national paradigm? Do we destroy ourselves to rescue others? And that's the issue: is enough at stake to risk more lives and treasure and, possibly, our very existence as a nation? Of that, I'm not convinced. More specifically, even if we turn Afghanistan into Las Vegas East (okay, how about Cleveland?), will we have improved our own security? The President says yes. I'm not convinced. And, absent that "buy in" by Afghanis, nothing lasting will happen.

Also unknowable is how many more terrorists we will create in the fight. Nidal Hasan, it's said, is one. Without doubt, there are many more.

The speech we need to hear is the one that explains what it really takes to respond rationally to the threat of terrorism: the one that says you can't kill crazy; armies can't find and eliminate cells in all parts of the planet. We need to hear the speech that says we protect ourselves best by police work and intelligence gathering, and by regaining our position of respect in the world. By enlisting others, based on their view of us, to reject and to help find those who would do us harm. By changing the paradigm. And by addressing our own problems at home, not the least of which is a broken health care system that's killing, for lack of access, more people every month than died on 9/11, and has been doing so for decades.

I don't doubt that concerns for Pakistan, where the nukes are, are at the heart of Obama's decision. Nor do I claim to have the sort of knowledge needed to assess the risk of those nukes falling into terrorist hands, and to what extent the outcome in Afghanistan affects that risk. I'll admit, therefore, that I'm just talking into the wind. But I wish, when people are sent off to fight for something, to die and be maimed in the name of some executive decision made -- as always -- by those not actually doing the fighting, that it could be crystal clear that there's no alternative. That was, I'd say, the case in WWII. Maybe in Korea. Not, most assuredly, in Vietnam; Grenada; Iraq. Afghanistan? Probably, at first. Now, after eight years of inattention by F-D Cheney?

There's a pretty interesting report in the NYT about the decision-making process. I'm glad it was as deliberative and careful as it was; it seems the antithesis of what we know of (Bush's non-inquiry into) Cheney's decision to invade Iraq. And yet, by definition, if it took that much soul-searching, it's far from a dead certain choice among the options. So why not take the one in which fewer soldiers have to be destroyed? Why not make the case that in a war unlike any other, old tactics no longer apply, that we need to think outside the ammo box?

I think I know what would happen if he did: the RWS™ and those who find their paranoia and shallowness convincing (which seems to be an ever-increasing number) will rend the country apart. If we can't have a conversation about health care reform, the need for which is obvious, without deceitful demagoguery and cynical slime, we sure as hell can't have one about terrorism. The time when our political system can handle such a thing is long and irrevocably gone.

[For a somewhat contrary opinion, or, at least, an article that sheds some light on the strategy which makes it sound plausible, read this.]

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