Who Can Keep Us Safe?
After more than thirty years, a tale from Vietnam still sticks in my mind. Somewhere near Hanoi, a Viet Cong soldier received his orders. He strapped a heavy, bulky missile to his back. Then he set out alone on the Ho Chi Minh Trail—a long, jungle footpath from Hanoi to the battlefields around what used to be Saigon.
The soldier had little more than his rifle, a small pack of rations, and the missile. He lived on snakes, rats, other wildlife and local plants. Through oppressive heat and monsoons, he found his way to the designated spot to deliver his burden. It took him nearly a year.
When he arrived, the commander accepted the missile and fired it at our forces. Then he told the solider to go back and get another.
We know this story because the solider defected at that point. Our own media told his tale.
When I read the story, I knew the war was lost for us. Why? Because our own troops, brave though they were, would never endure that sort of privation. They were fighting for abstractions like “freedom” and against “Communism.” They were far from home, in a country about whose language and culture they knew nothing. The South Vietnamese regime for which they were ostensibly fighting was visibly oppressive, corrupt and rotten. In contrast, the North Vietnamese were fighting for their homes, their country, their people and their liberation. They had been doing so for decades.
Lyndon Johnson’s tragedy was that he understood none of this. He was a good pol, perhaps a great pol. He got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed less than two years after Governor George Wallace (of Alabama), in his inaugural address, had proclaimed, “segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.”
To achieve that legislative feat, Johnson cajoled, bullied and twisted arms as only Johnson could do. He was a big, crude, vulgar and overbearing man. He used to brag that he had everyone’s “pecker in my pocket.” (Most members of Congress were male in those days.) He got the Act passed and struck an important blow for equal rights and social progress.
But Vietnam was Johnson’s Achilles heel.
The most astute observers understood why. Johnson thought and acted as if Ho Chi Minh (North Vietnam’s leader) could be cajoled and bullied like the Southern segregationists. Just apply a little more pressure—bomb a little more—and he’ll come around, Johnson thought. Johnson never really understood that he was up against a foreign culture that played by different rules. Ho Chi Minh and his people were in the game for keeps, and Minh was not about to bargain like an American pol.
George W. Bush has not half Lyndon Johnson’s intelligence or skill. Not surprisingly, he made the same mistake. Once Saddam was deposed, he thought, Iraqis would welcome our troops as liberators, just as the French and Italians did in World War II.
But Iraq is not Italy, the Middle East is not Europe, and Arabic is not a Romance language. Despite over four years of deadly demonstration to the contrary, Bush still holds the pipe dream that, with a little pressure, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites will make a compact as if they were members of Congress or Alabamans, Floridians, and Georgians settling water rights.
They’re not. They are members of three foreign cultures whose languages, religions and history the best of our experts barely understand. They have grievances whose longevity exceeds our country’s entire history by a factor of five. They play by different rules.
With the relative wisdom of General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker and Secretary Gates, we may yet avoid a total loss in Iraq. We may end up with some kind of “soft” or de facto partition that allows the three groups to achieve security, develop economically, and perhaps someday get along. I have suggested that we mount a mini-Marshall Plan for Shiite Iraq to that end. But whatever emerges from chaotic Iraq, under the best of circumstances, will be nothing like the unified, democratic, constitutional, federal state that Bush imagined.
These sorry histories make one thing clear. Knowledge of Washington politics—even success in practicing it—is no advantage in serious conflicts with foreign cultures. It is an impediment. The habits of mind that a good Washington pol develops over decades are precisely the wrong habits to win a conflict in an alien culture.
To succeed in conflict within foreign cultures, you have to do what business people call thinking “outside the box.” You have to stick your head in that other world and keep it there until you’ve won. You have to know your enemy.
Unlike Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan are battles we cannot afford to lose. With the possible exception of Japan’s, they are the most alien cultures within which we have ever waged serious conflict. They have lots of folks who appear to enjoy dying for the sheer privilege of killing us. Their religious doctrines and schisms, which are even now under distortion and evolution, are something only the Muslims and experts among us can hope to understand.
So who can best get his or her mind in shape to lead such a fight intelligently? George W. Bush, who can barely speak his own language or get along with his own Congress? Mitt Romney, with his business-school ways, profit-and-loss tallies, and button-down consultants? Hillary Clinton, who will be 61 in 2009, has spent all her life as a student of Washington politics, and is still studying?
There is only one leading candidate for president who has any hope of providing the imagination, insight and understanding of our enemies that we need to win the battles we must win. He is Senator Barack Obama.
There are four reasons why he’s the only one. First and foremost, he has youth. He will be 47 on inauguration day. He will still be young enough to grow, change and learn. He will not have become so accustomed to the ways of Washington that our rules and culture are reflex for him. He will be able to think outside the box.
Second, Obama has x-ray vision into people’s souls. If you read his first book, Dreams from My Father, you will find uncanny insight into who people are, how they think and what motivates them. If Obama were not a politician, he could probably win a Nobel Prize for literature. All politicians have to have some degree of human understanding and empathy, but Obama is off the scale.
Third, Obama has direct and early experience with foreign cultures. He lived in Indonesia during part of his formative years. While still young, he was precocious enough to absorb some fundamental differences in culture. His first book describes them. Later, as an adult, he had the unusual experience of an extended visit with his deceased father’s family in Kenya. The combination of family ties and foreign culture gave him unique insights into cultural differences, all of which he describes with superb sensitivity in his book. The existence and importance of cultural differences were engraved in his soul from an early age.
Finally, Obama is one of the most intelligent people ever to grace American politics. I have written enough about his brains on this blog not to need to elaborate. Suffice it to say here that imagination and intelligence usually go together, and a leader needs both in abundance to win a conflict in an alien culture.
This analysis is not just theory. Over five months ago, on August 1, 2007, Obama gave a major speech on terrorism and foreign policy. In it, he suggested that we go after Al Qaeda in Pakistan. He understood that Musharraf and his military might not have our bests interests at heart, or might not be capable of dealing with the terrorist threat.
Hillary Clinton dismissed Obama's suggestion as showing his “inexperience.” Yet just this morning, the New York Times reported on the Bush Administration’s new plan for covert operations in Pakistan.
The Administration now believes that Al Qaeda is hell bent on destabilizing Pakistan and perhaps getting its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Apparently it took an assassination and near-meltdown in Pakistani politics to get George W. Bush to see what Obama saw five months ago, under very different circumstances. Whether Hillary Clinton gets the point even now is unclear.
We lost in Vietnam, and we are in grave danger of losing in Iraq, because our leaders tried to wage war with foreign cultures as if they were still in Washington. That “strategy” didn’t work and never will.
Only one of our current candidates has the youth, insight, brains and flexibility to understand our enemies and win our battle with terrorists at minimum cost, delay and suffering. Electing a good Washington pol to oversee these unprecedented conflicts is not the safest choice. As our own history shows, it is the most dangerous.