Hope in Times of War
'Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men" is the operative aphorism for this season, but the United States is at war on two fronts with no end in sight. The Iraq war is going better for the United States than it was at this time last year, and Afghanistan is worse. But the reality is that neither war is anywhere near being won.
In Iraq, the United States has created the space it said it needed for political reconciliation, but the Iraqi factions have not used it, because they don't want to reconcile. They want to win. America is left holding up a suit of clothes that Iraqis don't want to wear, and for this the tailors of democracy fight on.
As for Afghanistan, the Taliban continue to make gains, and the government of Hamid Karzai is crippled by corruption, narcotics, and warlords. What might have been, had not so many resources been drained from Afghanistan to fuel Iraq, is a haunting question.
NATO now has the prime responsibility for defending Afghanistan, and one has to wonder what would have happened if the Soviets, in the old days, had sent hundreds of divisions through the Fulda Gap into Western Europe, only to have one NATO partner say: "Oh, we only want to guard the frontier with Switzerland," and another say: "We are more interested in peacekeeping than war-making." America's traditional allies, except for a few, have been a disappointment in Afghanistan.
Alas, the world has not yet been made safe for pacifism. War and resistance were midwives to American nationhood. "Gentlemen may cry peace," said Patrick Henry in 1775. But he asked: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" The Revolution, the Civil War, and especially World War II hold special places in American folklore. World War II was America's last, uncomplicated victory.
As I enter my 50th year in journalism, having reported on at least a dozen armed conflicts around the world, I have become pessimistic about the American imperium, and America's militarization of foreign policy. During the overarching struggle of the post-WWII generation - the Cold War - America was most successful when force, necessarily preserved and at the ready, was not actually used.
America was right to go to war in Korea, but Douglas MacArthur's mission creep to conquer North Korea, instead of simply defending South Korea, ended where it began at the 38th parallel, with China in the war and many thousands unnecessarily dead.
I spent too many years covering the tragic, and in the end inarticulate, struggles in Indochina, with the United States trying to prop up an ancien regime bequeathed to us by the French. Today we fight trying to hold together an entity in Iraq left over from the British Empire.
If the most hopeful stories I ever covered were Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem and the fall of the Berlin Wall, my most depressing was a visit to Baghdad under American occupation.
If military force is to be used, a good example of how to do it was George H. W. Bush's war to save Kuwait; accomplished quickly with a broad international coalition, with sufficient force coupled with limited and achievable goals, even if there were disappointments afterward. The worst by far is his son's invasion of Iraq.
American idealism can, and has, done much good in the world. But seldom have the benefits been worth the costs when liberty, democracy, free markets, and the American way of life were imposed on the point of a bayonet. Mostly this has led to great loss of life and treasure with little to show for it except for a loss of American prestige - and, therefore, a loss of ability to make the world a better place.
America needs to keep engaged in the world, and isolationism is not the answer. But I am forever haunted by Graham Greene's lines to the "Quiet American" who thought that bombs could bring democracy. What people want, says Greene's weary old journalist, is "enough rice. They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want."
© 2007 International Herald Tribune