Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

01 December 2009

President Obama’s War Speech

Tonight the President did what he had to do. He told us what we already knew: the nation he most wants to build is our own. Yet like Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson before him, he felt the pull of destiny.

Where that pull will lead is still unknown. Harry Truman’s war produced the economic miracle of South Korea, an object lesson in democracy and free markets for the entire world. Lyndon Johnson’s produced the first abject American defeat in history.

The tragic irony of Johnson’s war is that its end result—the Vietnam of today—bears no resemblance to what leaders feared at the time. While hardly South Korea, Vietnam is becoming a modern, market-based economy under the increasingly incongruous banner of so-called Communism. In that respect it is much like China, a nation that we can all thank God was too big and powerful for rash action on our part.

Perhaps the President was right in rejecting the Vietnam analogy. There are many differences between Afghanistan today and Vietnam forty years ago. But the greatest lesson of Vietnam still rings true: neither our fears nor our pride proved justified. The sky didn’t fall when we “lost” Vietnam. Vietnam has done pretty well among the community of nations all by itself, without our help.

A man of rare intelligence, judgment and humility, the President seems to have taken those lessons to heart, even while rejecting the analogy. The most striking thing about his speech was its limits: limits in objectives, limits in time, and limits in patience for reforms on the part of our Afghan “partner.”

There was no talk of great deeds and “victory,” let alone glory. The notion of war as glory vanished with the nineteenth century and the advent of industrialized slaughter. World War I drove the lesson home, with its mounds of corpses in trenches—rotting monuments to the eternal glory of kings and emperors.

Today we fight not for glory, nor territory, nor flag, nor pride, but to preserve and strengthen a fragile international system that has brought more prosperity and happiness to more people than ever since time began. That’s why so many allies are with us, despite their doubts. Our modern co-dependent globe is increasingly vulnerable to violent extremists. Someone must fight them, and destiny has forced us to wear the mantle.

The President understands how heavy is that cloak of responsibility and hardship. The smile that lights up rooms made no appearance during his speech.

If there is such a thing as the “central front on the war on terror,” it is in that border region of Pakistan where Al Qaeda and Mullah Omar are hiding. They think they are close enough in miles and years to capture some of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and make themselves invincible—fanatics with the power of gods. No president could ignore that threat or fail to do everything he could to meet it. My own hope is that our “surge” will meet Pakistan’s just at the border, having cleansed the land of these apostles of doom, at least for the time being.

And so the President did what he had to do. He authorized a surge without which Pakistan’s first serious assault on extremists might wither and die. He showed the “resolve . . . unwavering” that every decent Afghan needs to resist terror and join the world community. He promised the aid and training that Afghans needs to build their own security and find a peaceful, prosperous life after thirty years of war. And he proposed an early exit, to keep both his own political party intact and his program to rebuild America on track.

That proposal, too, was carefully hedged. Any exit in 2011 will depend on “conditions on the ground.” Anyone who has followed the President understands that he acts on facts, evidence and data, not preconceptions or ideology. So his exit “timetable” is a goal, nothing more. Whether he can make it real depends upon the skill and luck of our superb military forces, whom the President has given 90% of what they asked for.

But all the gossip about this false “deadline” was beside the point. The speech’s most important point was the following sentence: “We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens.”

The Taliban are not all our enemy. Some are. Many are not. Many think they are but might be persuaded to change their minds.

Most Taliban are illiterate farmers, former soldiers or mujahedeen. If they can read at all, then know only the Quran. If you gave them a globe and asked them to locate New York, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles—let alone Poughkeepsie or Peoria—they could not do it if their lives depended on it. All they want is peace and stability in their homeland. They turn to Islamic law because its promise, on paper, is the only law (besides the gun) that they have known for thirty years.

We lost in Vietnam because we badly misjudged a national liberation movement that the Communists had commandeered. The President said as much tonight. But the Taliban are the closest thing Afghanistan has had to a national liberation movement during the last thirty years. If we want to lose, the best thing we can do is declare them our enemy and fight them as such. If we want to win, we must neutralize their most extreme elements and co-opt the rest.

Our military leaders seem to understand this point. One hopes the President’s constant reference to “the Taliban” was for American ears only, a sop to members of his own party who need to be reminded why we are in this war and to our right wing, which has fully internalized Dubya’s demonization of the Taliban. If we are have any chance of success at a reasonable cost, our military forces on the ground must deal with Taliban when they can. Some day we may have to explain why our “partner” (the Karzai government) is inviting them to assume political power.

None of that should matter to us if Al Qaeda and its terrorist training camps are gone and the remaining Taliban limit their ambitions to governing Afghanistan. The Pakistanis can take care of themselves, at least with our indirect help.

So exorcise them how he will, the ghosts of Vietnam are not yet done with President Obama. David Brooks summons them every time he moans about the “moral atrocity” of a Taliban takeover. For those of us of a certain age, those words eerily recall the “lawless, Godless, atheist” Vietcong.

Nations that go to war to impose their morality on others have a limited future, especially in the twenty-first century. If we want to retain our national sanity and regain a semblance of our former greatness, we should not go to war every time someone somewhere in the world commits what we see as a moral atrocity. We should go to war only to protect our own clear interests and (if the cost is limited and bearable) to help our friends protect theirs. We ought to observe these laws of life especially carefully after our economic collapse.

Our interests in Afghanistan are simple and limited. They are: (1) to capture or kill the remaining perpetrators of 9/11; (2) to shut down their training camps and bases of operation; and (3) to insure that the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan are willing and able to prevent their return. As long as all of us keep these goals in mind, we may have a chance to meet our objectives at a cost in lives, money and attention low enough to avoid destroying any chance we still may have of arresting our continuing national decline.

The President’s speech was a good beginning. But the trail of war is long and steep. Intoxicating dreams of “victory” and “glory” beckon us toward slippage on either side.

Let us hope our President keeps his sobriety and humility and stays on the wagon for the duration. Lyndon Johnson didn’t. His otherwise good soul no doubt turns in torment for that single big mistake.


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