Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Obama’s Vietnam?

Don’t know if you happened to tune in to Charlie Rose last night. He had on Craig Mullaney, Dexter Filkins, Milt Bearden and ABC news correspondent Martha Raddatz talking about the war in Afghanistan.

As I watched I got this sense that I might be having my attention turned to the elephant in the room at long last. The news media at present are focused on Obama’s alleged mistakes, on the Republican insistence that we can and should still live and work the Republican way, and at the devastated economy and the possibility of a decade or more of depression years.

What worries me is that I doubt Obama can fix it. The more I watch the controversy over whether throwing good money after bad money is the solution to the mess the country is in, to use the oversimplified frame so many – and not just Republicans – want to use, the more I despair. The man seems so strong, so intelligent, so capable. The answer to prayers – never mind the powerful symbol he is of an America that apparently can right itself.

But California is about to come off the rails. We are going bankrupt. The State Legislature can’t raise taxes to pay the bills – the Republicans again – and that means we are likely to have to shut down government and works projects that will cost us millions more to start up again once we do get this show on the road. And as goes California in struggling with the economy, so goes the rest of the United States. The Republicans won’t, the Democrats can’t, and we are now beginning to listen to the philosophers who suggest the problem lies with the system. The only way to fix systemic problems with politics is for things to fail. No politician will buck the system to act in the national interest unless it does; essential to the way the system works is that it is based on self, not national, interest.

So the media’s focus on the economic disaster and our apparent inability to fix it is understandable. But in doing so, they may be missing an even larger problem, what some are now referring to as Obama’s Vietnam.

Here’s what I think I hear all or most of the experts agreeing on:

1) We are stymied by our inclination to see the world in terms of national boundaries. We see Afghanistan and Pakistan, but if we messed up in Iraq by not understanding Kurdistan as a nation, we are messing up tenfold in not seeing Pashtunistan as a nation. Not the kind of nation that will sit in the United Nations and act internationally, but the kind that makes a mockery of lines drawn by white-man's-burden-carrying Britain.

2) We keep thinking Pakistan can and should act to control Pashtuns, while Pakistan understands the border lines are a charade and they simply lack the power to act but can’t admit it internationally without losing face.

3) Afghanis and Pakistanis are at the mercy of the Taliban because there is no viable alternative, no traditional democratic habits to fall back on, no secular national identity strong enough to counter them.

4) Afghanistan is a wild mountainous region bigger by far than Iraq. In Iraq, insurgents are largely concentrated (and thus susceptible to bombing and containing). In Afghanistan they are scattered and impossible to manipulate militarily. Apparently the hearts and minds approach is equally elusive; the only effective way to get soldiers to line up on one side or the other seems to be to pay them. But the fact that there is no long-term vision any of them will work for means we can’t buy them; we can only rent them for a time, and once the money stops, so will the loyalty to any American purpose.

5) The British couldn’t have their way in Afghanistan, and neither could the Russians. America still thinks it can. But America has long suffered from a Superman complex. It led them into Vietnam, blind to the reality they were making the same mistake as the French. And into Iraq, blind to the reality the military solution which didn’t work in Vietnam was even less likely to work in Iraq. And now Afghanistan, even though we don’t have the money or the willingness to bleed anymore.

6) The Karzai government is an American illusion which stems from a belief that Afghanistan can be controlled by our puppet working from the capital of a nation state. Which it isn’t. Even if he were not totally useless and corrupt. Which he is.

I’m wondering if our biggest problem isn’t an imperialist belief that this is America’s problem because God gave us the testosterone to make it our problem.

Think how differently things would look if we could persuade the rest of the world that it was their problem, as well.

We have had a cold war with Iran for thirty years because we don't have the humility or wisdom to process the reason productively why they still seethe with resentment at us; Iran’s modern history begins with the fact that we overthrew their government in 1953 and imposed the dictator Shah. We can’t accept responsibility for the Islamic Revolution which followed and the way it (justifiably) terrifies the Israelis and helps to explain their hard line against the Palestinians. And appreciate what fools that makes us in making what should be a friend in the region an enemy. Iran’s interest in fighting the insurgents and the Taliban in Iraq, and in keeping peace in neighboring Kurdistan and Afghanistan, is possibly even stronger than the U.S. interest in those same goals, yet we have them working not with us but against us.

We can’t understand that insisting that Georgia and the Ukraine join the United Nations keeps the Russians enraged at our imperialist ambitions (in opposition to their colonial ambitions, of course), thereby keeping Russia our enemy. Same issue as with Iran. What nation has a stronger interest in keeping everybody calm so it can develop its own economy, so that nuclear weapons do not spread? Why are we working against them and not with them? Russia, some say, has the best intelligence service in the world, superior to ours. Why is it not working for us and not against us?

If there is a solution in Afghanistan, it surely ought to be obvious to us by now that we can’t find it on our own. Pakistan is dead in the water. Iran and Russia are treading water with zero confidence that Americans are people they can work with. Bush and his “bring it on” bravado made it worse, but it didn’t start with him. We simply do a lousy job at pretending we can run an Empire.

Big problem, say all the folks on Charlie Rose. No workable solution, imply all the folks on Charlie Rose.

OK, so the economy is a disaster and it’s touch and go at the moment whether we can fix it. But Obama hasn’t begun to face his real problem, much bigger than the failure of the U.S. economy, the bottomless pit that is Afghanistan. LBJ and his noble war on poverty, his astonishing civil rights successes – all that good stuff he did, and he had to fall on is sword over Vietnam. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan… What will it take to change the system?

We didn’t learn from LBJ’s example. Will we learn from the failure and discrediting of the new Messiah, maybe?

Where will we go if we can’t figure this all out?

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