When Will We Ever Learn?
Are there any Americans who don’t want to bring our young men and women home from Iraq and Afghanistan? Unfortunately, yes.
Despite what they say publicly, many generals and admirals who gain power, promotions, and places in history during wartime really don’t want to end major conflicts. They prosper when battles rage, yet are careful to stay safe and snug in their war rooms. When’s the last time we lost a general in combat?
Despite what they may say publicly, many corporate leaders whose firms are enriched by profits from producing guns, bombs, aircraft, tanks and other implements of war do not want wars to end. It doesn’t take long to replenish the arsenal in peacetime, and a full storehouse of armaments significantly diminishes bottom lines of companies making the weapons of war.
The two groups comprise the American military-industrial complex. Isn’t that the very complex Dwight D. Eisenhower, a fairly experienced military man, warned us to beware of when he left the office of President? It is. History now verifies the wisdom of his warning. Our nation is in a precarious financial position because of the huge cost of two wars, yet no one except members of the complex and those duped by them wants to be engaged in those wars.
Some suggest we should simply quit and go home, because neither war can possibly result in benefits worth even a fraction of the costs. Some maintain we must stay as long as necessary to establish democracies, which somehow will promote stability in the volatile Middle East.
Some, like me, think the two wars are distinctly different. We ought to get out of both, but for different reasons and in different ways. A rereading of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, by Fareed Zakaria, a bestseller in 2003-2004, supports some of my beliefs, although the expert and I disagree on a few important points.
A big-time political analyst, Zakaria is considered a liberal by many conservatives because of his dark skin and foreign-sounding name and a conservative by many liberals because of what he says. Born and reared in India, Zakaria seems best categorized as a pragmatist. He discusses real-life pathways to establishing, developing, and nurturing democracies, based on his own experiences and rigorous study of history and political science.
Briefly, he thinks it foolhardy to defeat the bad guys in a country militarily, get the residents to hold elections as soon as possible, and declare that democracy has been established and the citizens will henceforth enjoy the benefits of freedom. Instead, he suggests a much slower process is realistic, with American-style democracy finally arriving thanks mainly to the efforts of the locals, not outsiders. The first steps are to develop basic institutions, especially establishing the rule of law. Then capitalism can begin to flourish, helping the citizens to attain a reasonable standard of living. What Zakaria calls liberal democracy, featuring personal freedoms, guaranteed rights, and citizen participation, then has a good chance to develop.
Zakaria thinks invading Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein was justified because of his evil repression of his own people—no government that followed the tyrant could be as bad. I disagree.
There was no good justification for invading Iraq. With very effective no-fly zones, occasionally effective economic sanctions, and a large segment of world opinion against him, Saddam posed absolutely no threat to us. Nasty as he was within his own borders, he was under control as far as our interests went.
Saddam had destroyed his weapons of mass destruction to protect himself. His secular government was an effective check on theocratic Iran, ruled by some pretty evil guys in their own right who really are a threat to us and some of our allies. He also kept the unruly Kurds in the north occupied with fending his forces off, which probably pleased our Turkish allies. His presence helped stabilize the Middle East far more than his absence has.
That said, there is a chance for democracy to succeed in Iraq, despite horrendous bungling by the U.S. government seemingly designed more to destabilize than stabilize the country. Iraq did have established institutions and rule of law (even repressive law offers a measure of security for the general public). A strong military enforced the rules before we took over and dismantled the most fundamental institutional needs. Rebuilding essential institutions has taken a long time and a huge amount of our taxpayer money, but that part of the task of establishing viable government finally is enjoying some success.
Before and during Saddam’s reign, unlike most Arab countries, Iraq had a large cadre of literate and educated citizens, and was allowing some participation by women and minorities in politics and professional fields. Many of these people fled during the civil war that followed our invasion, but some are back, and educational institutions again are functioning. Much business, except for the vital oil industry, follows western-style capitalism and free enterprise principles. A secular state headed toward classic democracy has a chance there.
We ought to get out of Iraq—soon, but not next week. We ought to do it just about the way we recently started to do it, by setting some dates for major withdrawal events (which the Iraqis demanded). It was to our advantage to do that to motivate the Iraqis to get serious about running their own affairs. We need to stick with the final date—out by the end of 2011. And we need to make sure that is a true “out,” not just a point at which to negotiate extensions.
Once we leave, the Iraqis will resolve their differences either peacefully or by fighting it out, and any outcome will be more beneficial to us than squandering further lives and dollars with a never-ending adventure that should not have begun in the first place. We gain nothing by staying in Iraq any longer than the end of 2011.
To my chagrin, the war I enthusiastically supported (I opposed invading Iraq from the moment the idea arose) has turned out to be the bigger bummer. As part of a majority of Americans, I strongly backed President George W. Bush when he ordered our military forces, with as many NATO allies as he could round up, to attack Afghanistan and topple its government. I believed the radical Islamic state that trained and harbored terrorists deserved the strongest possible retaliation for the dastardly 9/11 attack on our country.
Our military did a great job in Afghanistan, just as it did in Iraq. Our government didn’t make nearly the number of blunders in post-war Afghanistan as it did in Iraq, but as things have turned out the overall strategy imposed on our military was faulty, and our latest strategy adjustment is not working.
Just as we have so long ignored the sound advice of that old leader Dwight Eisenhower, we ignored the counsel of a more recent outstanding military commander, Colin Powell. Powell’s philosophy is that successful military ventures must have a carefully defined and limited mission, including an exit strategy.
We broke Taliban control of the Afghan government and tossed most of them out of the country pretty easily. Then we made the big mistake. We stuck around, hell-bent on killing or civilizing the rest of the Taliban, and finding and prosecuting Osama Bin Laden.
Americans like to personalize their collective enemies. In fact, one man restricted to moving from cave to cave by the threat of a multi-million-dollar reward for his capture is not much of a threat to the United States of America. The reward, plus launching a missile at a cave occasionally, would have been sufficient actions on our part to render him ineffective. And, as for the Taliban, they just melt back into the populace when our forces take some territory and return when we leave.
Afghanistan bears little similarity to Iraq. It consists of a whole lot of illiterate tribal people who could care less who rules in Kabul as long as they are relatively secure, free to cultivate their poppy cash crops, and able to collect pay from whatever rebel force is fending off foreign invaders or battling the central government at any particular time. There never has been a coherent system of national institutions. Evidence is scant any could be developed in the foreseeable future.
We should have gone into Afghanistan as we did. We should have punished the Taliban for their sponsorship of terrorism as we did. We should have put a large price on Bin Laden’s head and made a diligent search for him, as we did. Then we should have brought our people out, leaving the Taliban with a clear message that we’d be right back to kick hell out of them if they sponsored anything that even barely resembled an attack on us or our allies.
Now, we need to put silly politics aside and do what is in our national interest. George W. Bush and company made a major blunder by invading Iraq. Barack Obama and company decided that a troop “surge” coupled with a new territory holding strategy was just the thing needed to triumph in Afghanistan. A surge was a factor in improving the situation in Iraq. It hasn’t worked in Afghanistan, reinforcing the idea that the two wars are radically different. Both Presidents have blundered; these are equal opportunity wars for our top politicians to screw up. Unfortunately, Bush’s blunder cannot be corrected. Obama’s can.
Instead of sticking around for many more years until we can make a phony declaration of victory, we should get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Next Wednesday would not be soon enough. Of course, a little more time than that will be needed to arrange an excuse for withdrawal and plan to get our forces out safely.
A withdrawal excuse is at hand. Officially, we are part of a NATO military mission. We should meet with leaders of our allies, many of whom already are withdrawing, for an up or down vote on total withdrawal. The outcome is assured. We can claim we had no choice but to accept the verdict of our NATO allies and “reluctantly’ leave Afghanistan’s corrupt leaders to search for a new group of outsiders from whom to extort cash. When we go, Afghanistan will return to the dark ages, a regrettable situation for women’s rights and any prospects for religious and other freedoms there, but that is a price we must pay.
There was no hope of establishing a viable national government of any kind in Afghanistan when the British left the feudal country many years ago. There was no hope when the old Soviet Union withdrew massive forces not long ago. There is no hope now, at least not in this century. Staying there is just a waste of lives and cash that is badly needed to protect civilized people from terrorists, to reduce our national debt, and for other useful purposes.
Let’s bring our young heroes home, and soon.