Present at the Destruction

Everybody has a different role to play at a funeral, I guess.

There's the sobby, hysterical, "He's not really dead, everything's just like it used to be!", kinda guy. Think of Reagan or Lil' Bush, desperately trying to resurrect the America of 1955.

There's the chummy, cavalier, "Hey, no worries - I bet they'll be serving some great booze at the wake!", sorta dude. Think of Wild Bill Clinton, with his shades and sax, playing Arsenio.

There's the little kid, more or less completely baffled by the whole life and death thing. Think every Republican voter in America.

And then there's the undertaker. All he's worried about is making sure that the corpse gets removed from the building before it stinks up the joint so bad somebody shuts him down and he loses his job. Think of Barack Obama.

I certainly was the other night, as he gave his Afghanistan speech.

So this is what it feels like to watch an empire fall, eh? This is what it looks like when Goliath goes boom? Ouch. I guess if there's a silver lining, at least we can all say we saw it first hand. We were present at the destruction.

It shows up in economic policy, where a country that was once a dynamo is now an ossified feeding trough, unable to dislodge the gorging pigs from the table, even as they've been gnawing like termites on the wood itself for two or three decades now, and the whole thing is getting ready to splinter into rubble.

It shows up in environmental policy, where the superpower that once pioneered big ideas like democracy, human rights and civil liberties now leads the way toward planetary suicide - lest, alternatively, anyone should lose a nickel or two off their standard of living in the short term.

It shows up in everything from education to prisons to the military to mortgages, where we've become expert at producing nothing, while commodifying and exploiting everything.

It shows up in the national spirit, where no one will sacrifice anything for anyone, where politics has become war for personal spoils, and where we socialize our children to aspire to no higher value than raw aggrandizement and reality TV (an oxymoron if ever there was).

And it was all over Obama's speech on Afghanistan this week, the central theme of which was marketing as a plan for victory what was really a superpower withdrawal in the face of defeat.

Or so it would seem. To be fair, I must admit that I find the Afghanistan question vexing.

I loathe the Taliban, for instance, and they will pretty clearly rule the country again once the US is gone, as they substantially do already. And yet there are many governments in this world I loathe (including, all too often, my own), and it is neither appropriate nor possible for the United States military to be running around replacing those. Nor would I likely be enamored of the replacements, anyhow, which is exactly what the Karzai government is in Afghanistan.

I also don't think it's wise to return al Qaeda to having a free run in Afghanistan. But then I recognize that they essentially have that in Pakistan, and that they're also located in dozens of other countries.

I think more soldiers are necessary to have a chance at establishing non-Taliban security in Afghanistan. But I also suspect that, in another way, every added pair of boots on the ground makes it harder, not easier, to achieve that same goal.

And so on. I could go on, but the short version is that finding the right course for US policy on Afghanistan is a lot harder than for, say, healthcare policy or Wall Street regulation or stem cell research.

If we take Obama at face value (a level of trust which may no longer be at all appropriate given the ugly first year of his presidency), he is adopting a strategy for Afghanistan which rejects three highly unpalatable alternatives. He does not want to maintain the rapidly deteriorating status quo. He does not want to go all-in for a multi-decade, narrowly-focused, military commitment that would further wreck America's national security condition in exchange for also further wrecking our fiscal condition. And he does not want to simply walk away from Afghanistan tomorrow, giving the keys to the country to the Taliban and al Qaeda.

I find it hard to disagree with any of those positions. And I even find his alternative solution - an attempt to hand over the Afghan war to the Afghans - to be an almost compelling choice, but only as the least worst option of all that are on the table, and only potentially so. If this choice actually has no hope of working, and if it only means postponing the inevitable, then of course it would be better to withdraw now. That may well be the case.

Obama is essentially trying to replicate in Afghanistan the Iraqi model, which is essentially trying to replicate in Iraq the model of Vietnamization of the Vietnam War. Let's give credit where credit is due: His West Point speech was the most honest (which is not the same as saying fully honest) and mature rendering of American foreign policy history and challenges uttered in the United States in a very long time. But what he didn't mention is that Vietnamization never worked, and that the essential step of the equivalent program in Iraq has yet to be implemented and yet to be tested.

Here's what he said about Iraq: "Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer, and all of our troops by the end of 2011. That we are doing so is a testament to the character of our men and women in uniform. Thanks to their courage, grit and perseverance, we have given Iraqis a chance to shape their future, and we are successfully leaving Iraq to its people."

Notice the emphasis on extraordinary costs. Notice the emphasis on ending the war 'responsibly', but also clearly on ending it. Notice the de rigeur political cover taken by a president wrapping himself in the bravery of the military. And notice, especially, the redefinition of success in Iraq down to a mere giving of a chance to Iraqis to shape their future (leaving aside the enormous costs the Iraqis have had to pay for that chance, and the many ways in which American actions have actually diminished the probability of succeeding as we go forward). We may be "successfully leaving Iraq", but that isn't necessarily the same as leaving Iraq successfully.

We should also notice, as well, that the probability for success in Iraq is a lot higher - which is not to say high - than in Afghanistan, an impoverished tribal landscape ('country' is probably too strong a word) right out of the thirteenth century, if not the third, and now ruled by an incompetent, corrupt, much loathed and much distrusted dictator (for what other word is there to describe a ruler who steals power through rigged elections?).

The fundamental two problems with the Obama strategy for Afghanistan may well show themselves earlier in Iraq, perhaps even next year. First, imagine you are a nationalist fighter whose goal is to seize power from the occupying power. Why fight today to eject the Americans, when they've already announced they're leaving tomorrow? And you can bet they won't be coming back, either, no matter what happens.

And second, imagine instead you're the leader of a faction bent on crushing another faction within your country. Again, why engage in fighting today when the Americans will get in your way, if you can simply wait another year or two for them to leave?

The first scenario presumes a fairly unified national resistance to an occupying power. That's likely to be Afghanistan, with the Taliban seizing control of the country again. The second scenario envisions a deeply divided country kept from civil war only by the power of a dictator or an occupying army. That may well be Iraq.

Either way, the operative principle is that an America that cannot afford to stay forever in these places merely postpones the denouement of the conflict by its continued presence in the short term.

Addressing critics of his policy in his West Point speech, the president noted that, "there are those who oppose identifying a time-frame for our transition to Afghan responsibility. Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort - one that would commit us to a nation building-project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests."

But, of course, the scenario unmentioned in his speech, and yet probably the most likely, is the one where his arguments about necessity and affordability clash. What happens when we can no longer afford, per Obama, the necessity to guarantee American security from a (potentially even nuclear) attack, also per Obama?

My guess is the very tangible affordability imperative defeats the potential danger consideration, and the US simply leaves. That's when we join other former hegemons on the sad road headed south, including those who died in that "graveyard of empires", Afghanistan.

I'd be pretty surprised if that's not America's destiny. It's still possible that we can pull it out, but all the trend lines are going the wrong way. Our fiscal health is hemorrhaging badly. Our relations with others are violently adolescent. Our environmental condition is suicidal. Worst of all, our political sophistication is rapidly moving from diminished to deprived to deluded. We can no longer identify the worst of our enemies. Indeed, we've gotten in the habit of electing them president. And the only sense in which our so-called opposition party to the nastiest predators in our midst remotely justifies the moniker is in its complete opposition to anything that smacks of boldness.

And there we go. Maybe someone's been messing with all my clocks, but the American Century sure did seem short, as centuries go. It was more like a third-of-a-century, and American influence wasn't even uncontested during that time. Not only was America's much vaunted power during this era a lot more vaunted than it was much, it is now headed toward being neither.

Pity. It didn't have to be this way. This was suicide by stupidity. Death by a thousand nuts.

Or maybe it isn't such a pity. The American empire truly made some contributions to the world, but it's also truly a legitimate question as to whether those outweigh the destruction wrought.

It's fair to say that ours was a more benevolent empire than those of the past, but that is not necessarily to say that it was benevolent.

It may even be the case that we've been better at it that the Chinese will be.

But something tells me that we still won't be missed a lot.

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