A blog by Barry Edelson

The Case for War


Why We Need to Stay in Afghanistan

A man walks down the street, minding his own business, when he happens to see an elderly woman being mugged at gunpoint by a young man. He looks around but sees no one else in sight to whom he can appeal for assistance. He has a gun in his own pocket. He ponders the situation for a moment, weighing the harm to the victim against the risk to himself if he should choose to get involved. He concludes, "I can't protect everyone," and he moves on.

Such is the simplistic and imprecise analogy to which the weighty matter of American military involvement overseas is frequently reduced. "We can't be the world's policeman" is the grotesque phrase wielded by everyone from isolationist conservatives and pacifist liberals to generally indifferent people of all political persuasions to justify their unwillingness to commit U.S. forces to distant conflicts. As if these forces were theirs personally to deploy. As if a local crime spree were the same as the brutal, systematic repression of an entire national population. As if the most powerful nation in the world can ever claim to be merely minding its own business. As if events had not indisputably demonstrated that our own safety frequently depends on the outcome of disputes among distant peoples.

At an earlier time in our history, these arguments could have been said to be hypothetical. But one would have thought that the bombing of Pearl Harbor would have sufficed to wake Americans up permanently to the unending dangers of the world. Indeed, for the generation that ran the country and the armed forces for the three or four decades after World War II, the specter of fascist and communist expansionism was sufficient to tip the balance excitedly in the other direction, leading to all manner of ill-considered interventions. Not too long after the after-effects of these contradictory evils, isolationism and adventurism, had begun to disappear into a haze of self-satisfied prosperity, the world came crashing into us again, literally, on September 11, 2001. Once again, one would have thought that such a traumatic event would have been enough to keep us focused for more than a few years on the perils of a complex world riven by extreme ideologies.

As President Obama contemplates what to do next in Afghanistan, reasonable people ought to be horrified to hear any suggestion about withdrawal from that region. That members of the so-called Democratic leadership in Congress are actively promoting the idea of pulling our troops out altogether should be a cause for alarm and wonderment. Even if we could overlook the strategic folly of such a move for our own sakes, what does it say about these so-called liberals, who once bemoaned the suffering of Afghans during the course of Soviet occupation and 20 subsequent years of civil war, and who later loudly denounced the treatment of women and girls in particular by the Taliban, that they would abandon them yet again to the same fate?

The extreme lengths to which Americans will go to demonize their political adversaries is, in its way, as dangerous as the extremism of our real enemies. That George W. Bush did much to outrage the world and add fuel to the fire of anti-American hostility did not mean that the fire was not already burning. The perceived illegitimacy of Bush's election in 2000 blinded too many on the left to the real and persistent threat of totalitarian Islam. It also led to some inexcusable finger-pointing about Iraq. The bungling of the occupation and the Bush administration's criminal inability to own up to its mistakes says absolutely nothing about the imperative of facing down an Iraq that virtually everyone on the planet believed to have been actively seeking nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

The argument against intervention that we hear time and again is that America can't be everywhere and solve every problem in the world. But stating the obvious is not a substitute for a well-considered and clearly defined foreign policy. It is inarguably true that America cannot fight 20 or 30 wars effectively at the same time, which is the minimum number we would have to undertake if we were to invade and occupy every country run by a vicious dictator. But when a tyrant's inhumanity towards his own subjects is systematic, pervasive and widely documented, and he sets himself in opposition to us at the same time, then we are faced with circumstances in which the exercise of American power may be justified as necessary. One of Bush's biggest mistakes in advance of the Iraq war was emphasizing the selfish reasons for invasion at the expense of the moral ones. He often cited Saddam Hussein's "rape rooms" and "torture chambers" in his public speeches, but these assertions were not balanced with the forceful argument he chose to make before the United Nations. Saddam was both Stalinist in his ruthlessness and a self-proclaimed enemy of the United States. Even without the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of one so devoid of conscience, the moral case for war was powerful, and should have been made powerfully. Had Bush and his neocon acolytes not spent the previous two years sticking their proverbial thumb into the world's eye at every opportunity, and doing their level best to show their disdain for the rule of law and standards of decency, it is a case that could easily have been made.

It is bad enough to see a book by Pat Buchanan staring at us from book store shelves, announcing the remarkable discovery that World War II could have been avoided entirely had the British managed to figure out how to appease Hitler properly. He challenges us to imagine how much better off the world would have been if we had allowed Nazi Germany to run rampant over all of Europe and Imperial Japan to swallow Asia. Well, we expect this sort of isolationist nonsense from bigots and unreformed fascists, even 70 years after the fact. But it is even more disheartening that, after only eight years, public support for the fight against extremism is already fading. Whether it be right-wing ideologues or leftist naifs who propose that we curl up inside our North American cocoon and leave the world to its own troubles, the rest of us ought to have the sense and fortitude to resist the rewriting of such recent and searing history. Nor should we be reassured by the strong support for a troop build-up among Republicans who never met a war they didn't like. Unquestioning support for military intervention is no more desirable than knee-jerk opposition to it.

Past is prologue, and whatever Obama may decide about strategy and troop deployments in Afghanistan, it seems clear that the one option that is, thankfully, off the table is a unilateral withdrawal. With nuclear-armed Pakistan now under threat from the very Islamic extremists that it once foolishly sponsored, and with the Taliban and al-Qaeda willing to hide out indefinitely in the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, we might as well write our own death certificate as disengage completely from the most volatile and dangerous place on the planet. Allowing the Taliban to overrun Afghanistan once again, to re-open a safe haven for their ideological brethren in al-Qaeda, and to brutalize the population through the most extreme and violent religious movement currently in operation, would be nothing less than shameful. This is not a case of being the world's policeman: we were the ones who were mugged on 9/11. This a war of self-defense, and a moral cause to boot. That so many Americans are incapable of sustaining that commitment after only eight years is a far deeper problem than how many troops we should commit to the fight.

October 18, 2009

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