Slaying one's hobgoblins and all that

>> Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I confess to being a little but baffled by this Gallup Poll about the war in Afghanistan. What I think it means is that the war has gone on for too damn long, to no damn purpose, and that the American people are tired of dealing with a country whose people seem bound and determined to slaughter each other as a kind of statement of national identity. And it's not as though the margin of difference is overwhelming; the difference is one percentage point after 12 years of fighting. But what puzzles me is this. Fifty-nine percent of Democrats, and 36 percent of Republicans, think that sending troops into Afghanistan was a bad idea in the first place. This indicates to me that some serious historical amnesia is at work here.
The Politics Blog, Esquire, February 19th, 2014.

I love Charlie Pierce's politics blog, but I confess to being confused by his confusion.  I don't think there's historical amnesia at play so much as there's an ongoing sober reevaluation of America's longest war.

Pierce is absolutely right, I think, when he points out that any American President--even Al Gore--would have done something to Afghanistan after the September 11th, 2001 attacks.  If anything, he may actually understate the case, seeing as how Democrats have a long and dubious history of not wanting to look like wusses in Foreign Policy--see also Truman, Harry S. and Korea; Johnson, Lyndon B. and Vietnam, et al..  Not only that, but Democrats also have a bit of a history with military adventurism in the service of international interventionism--see also Wilson, Woodrow and pretty much his entire foreign policy; Roosevelt, Franklin D. and Lend-Lease, Roosevelt, Franklin D. and Panay Incident, etc..  (I might hasten to add a "for-better-or-worse" to that last bit, seeing as how Wilson was an asshole but FDR ultimately on the side of the angels.)

So it's kind of a given, I think, that any President would have done something retaliatory to Afghanistan after 9/11, and I'd add that a Democrat would be more likely to do it with some chest-thumping and extreme prejudice than a Republican for assorted historical and political reasons, notwithstanding how bloody well that worked out for poor Lyndon Baines.  But once the blood cools and things settle down, why is it any surprise that Americans would look back and say, "Oh... oops," about how that played out?

There's actually two takes on that.  The first is that there were certainly Americans who thought going into Afghanistan was a mistake from the get-go; my Dad, for one, thought the whole thing was a mess from the moment President Bush delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban to turn over al Qaeda or else, when the Taliban had exactly no chance of being able to comply even if they wanted to.  Those folks have been consistent and vindicated.  One suspects from his headline that Charles Pierce might be one of them--"Why Didn't We Listen To Alexander The Great?" (or to Queen Victoria or to Leonid Brezhnev, for that matter?), indeed.  The second is that there were those--I'm embarrassed, now, to count myself amongst them--who thought doing something about the festering wound Afghanistan had turned into following the Soviet withdrawal might actually be a good idea, only to have that idea blow up in their--our--faces.

I think it's that second category that represents the great and gradual shift that appears to baffle Pierce.  It's basically moot at this point whether the Afghanistan intervention failed because it was always a bad idea (right, Vizzini?) or because the Bush Administration turned right around and spread the country thin by invading Iraq for no legitimate reason.  I can say that there was a window of time, there, where hearing news reports on NPR (for instance) about how Afghan movie theatres were opening for the first time since 1996 and about how girls were being allowed to go to school for a change made one feel a little good about the use of force in Afghanistan.  One doesn't want to go off the rails and compare the awful Taliban too closely to the even-awfuler you-know-whos who rhyme with "Yahtzee", although the Taliban was and is pretty damn awful; but, anyway, it felt like this country was part of a liberation, on the right side of history, finally risking blood and treasure on something worthwhile that would improve the general lot of humanity and the specific lots of all the people who were no longer in the yoke of a tyrannical theocracy.

It's just that, you know, that window--which really was wonderful, and even a leftie like me had to give Bush grudging credit for his role in prying it open--closed.  And hard.  With our fingers in the damn thing.  So naturally you wonder if it was worth opening in the first place, especially since it appears that all that wonderful freedom has blown away like so much smoke on the wind and the Afghans and Americans who had to die for it remain dead with little, maybe even no, lasting benefit to anybody.

Deciding you were wrong and admitting it isn't amnesia.  It's learning.  I screwed the proverbial pooch on Afghanistan.  (Dad, you were right, okay, don't rub it in.)  Our intentions may have been good, but, you know, the road to Hell and all that.  There may have been some good out of it for just a little while, and maybe things will eventually sort out better for everyone (though it hardly seems likely), but yeah, I can't say the price was worth it.  The last grudging defense I can offer for my prior position is that maybe a better President wouldn't have invaded Iraq, and maybe would have planned out the war in Afghanistan a little better, and maybe a better Congress would have taken whatever necessary steps--actually budgeting for a war and occupation, for instance--to make the thing work.  I write that, but for all I know there's nothing anyone could have done to make the thing work out right, and so no point in trying to draw up a list of hypotheticals that leads to an imaginary alternate history where little girls in Afghanistan ride genetically-engineered rainbow unicorns to film school or whatever and nobody shoots anybody or blows them up into tiny pieces.  I can up my cliché count by mentioning that whole thing about wishes and beggars and horses.  You go to war with the President you have, anyway.  More wishes and horses.

If there's anything puzzling, it's not that increasing numbers of liberals who supported the war in Afghanistan now have completely justified buyer's remorse and admit we should never have made a down payment and probably ought to be looking to dump the lemon we stuck ourselves with.  (Sorry, little girls in Afghanistan.  We wish we could give you shiny new schoolhouses and could stick all the religious zealots into some kind of colony ship for morons like the one in Restaurant At The End Of The Universe.  But we're exhausted and sad and can't count each fallen sparrow anymore.)  What might be puzzling is that there are so many Republicans who surely must know the country got itself a lemon but, goddammit, they're going to drive that thing until the bottom falls out and then they'll Fred Flintsone it if they have to, and the whole time they'll insist it's the best goddamn car in the world, runs like a piece of Heaven on Earth, everyone ought to be so lucky as to have a set of wheels (or wheel--or, you know, like a millstone round the neck, but vulcanized) like this one.  Might be puzzling, except there's a large contingent over there--not all of them, but way too many--who apparently wouldn't admit a mistake even if doing so would get them a cash prize and a medal for humility.  I.e. it's not that puzzling, even if it's the kind of thing you can't help shaking your head over no matter how often you see it happening.  These are folks who don't just have small minds haunted by foolish consistencies: these are folks who have been known to dress those hobgoblins up in purple and gold finery and parade them around like the surly gnomes are Oberon and Titania undertaking a grand tour of the Athenian countryside.

For my part, I made a terrible mistake.  Maybe I was just doomed to make it, maybe I should have known better, maybe I was a dumbass.  Could be I still am, though I'd like to think I learned enough not to stick my pecker in the fire next time.  (Sorry, trying to channel LBJ, master of the vulgar metaphor, with that one.)  Anyway, I remember what I said then, I know what I'm saying now.  (And if I knew then what I know now....)  There shouldn't be anything puzzling about a man admitting he got it wrong and people died who shouldn't have; I wish it could be undone.


vince Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 8:14:00 PM EST  

I think that it's at least possible that, had Bush concentrated on Afghanistan with sufficient resources, including humanitarian resources, the outcome might have been different.

Of course, there's no way to know for sure.

Random Michelle K Friday, February 21, 2014 at 3:32:00 PM EST  

Vince, I think, has the right of it.

Afghanistan was a problem. But more importantly, we were justified in our actions, and had the support of the world community.

Where things went pear-shaped is when Bush invaded Iraq.

Once that happened, we lost focus in Afghanistan,

But more importantly, we no longer held the moral high ground.

That lack of a moral high ground was what caused us to screw the pooch in Afghanistan. Caused our allies in the area to become our enemies, and generally turned us from a sympathetic country back into the Great Satan.

I don't claim to be able to see the future, but it was quite clear to me at the time that acting in Iraq would lead to a quagmire in Afghanistan--there is no way it couldn't.

After Afghanistan the world--yea even Iran--believed that we were harmed and had the right to defend ourselves. (They held candlelight vigils for us in Iran after 9/11? The president of Iran (can't remember his name) reached out of the US and Bush replied with his damned Axis of Evil speech).

(One thought from 2004 was here: formatting is for crap. Sorry)

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