A Political Rant and Ramble on the War

When we initially invaded Afghanistan, I was, cautiously and with mixed feelings, in support of the war. Bush's rhetoric bothered me -- he kept doing things like calling it a "crusade", and I couldn't figure out if that was just stupidity or merely a priveleging of domestic politics over foreign politics. I thought at first that we might have negotiated more with Afghanistan; but of course no one had ever recognized the Taliban junta, and to negotiate with them, particularly using the Shari'a as a negotiating framework as they seemed to be proposing, might have just handed them international legitimacy, which would be a poor message to send to other states thinking about harboring terrorists (it's bad enough how building nukes, as with India and Pakistan, wins you instant legitimacy and respect on the world stage). But in terms of action and of concrete promises, we seemed to be doing the right thing. I am generally a fan of Clinton as a policy architect, but the typical Clintonian response to September 11th would have been a lot of hugging and a bomb lobbed somewhere likely. This kind of "reflexive feel-good bombing", I think, does more to generate hatred of America than a war with some kind of comprehensible goal. Here, we had a reasonable goal - the replacement of the Taliban, whom nobody liked (anybody whose fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is considered a brutal offense against humanity by Iran has clearly got problems) with a democratic, pluralist state with long-term support from its neighbors and the West. We promised not to abandon Afghanistan again; we did a good job building a coalition that included pretty much everybody, from Russia to Iran to the Arab States to Israel. We sent our own ground troops in -- which I think is a critical symbolic gesture if nothing else; an enemy you can shoot at is one you tend to respect more than one that lobs billion-dollar hardware from the stratosphere; and in addition, having the Northern Alliance do all the fighting would mean the Northern Alliance would be in charge afterwards. We made it clear that Pashtun and even "moderate Taliban" would have a place in the successor state. The dropping food thing, while in some sense a bungled gesture -- stopping the aid agencies deprived orders of magnitude more people of food than the drops could make up for, to name just one problem -- was at least an important symbolic gesture that the people of Afghanistan were not the intended targets of the war.  In the first stage of the war, we acted as careful and thorough multilateralists, even while our rhetoric was occassionally unilateralist and asinine.

More globally, I do think much of the violence in the world would be fundamentally addressed by more aggressive anti-poverty and development programs, and I do think America (at home or abroad), in contrast with, say, Switzerland -- compare their drug policies -- prefers expensive, vindictive, dramatic punitive measures to cheap, sensible, undramatic, preventative ones. But it's not an entirely an either/or. The balance between prevention and poilicing is out of whack; but that doesn't mean you don't need policing. Bin Laden did not grow up poor. Terrorism cannot be fought exclusively by enriching people, although enriching people, if done right, is may sometimes be the most cost-effective way to fight it. The most effective way to fight terrorism, as I understand it, is infiltration, which is easiest against terrorists of your own culture (I understand that the FBI was able to thoroughly infiltrate and decapitate the KKK in the 70s; they had enough redneck agents, I suppose). Bludgeoning terrorism-harboring states is a very blunt instrument. But when considering such policy issues, you have to ask, what are the real options? Do nothing? Simply increase international anti-poverty funding? Impose economic sanctions? Sue in the World Court? Fund proxy wars by arming the nearest local group opposed to the people supporting the terrorists? All of these have their own problems. Just as dictators really do pay attention to "world opinion" and those Amnesty International letter campaigns when deciding whom to lock up, they also pay attention to the perceived consequences of harboring terrorists.

My doubts about this war began initially with the name. It is a "War on Terrorism". Leave aside the issue for the moment of "whose terrorism" -- e.g., our funding for various undesireable insurgents in various places. Let'ssay it's a war on terrorists who don't like us: fine. What exactly is a terrorist? 

The definition I prefer is that a terrorist intentionally targets civilians,as many as possible, in order to create terror and panic. The primary target of the attack is civilian. This is a relatively clear definition and allows us to distinguish terrorists from insurgents. Thus, the PKK, the Kurdish group who I believe only attack Turkish military installations, are not terrorists, but insurgents. 

This does lead to some interesting edge cases. A Hamas suicide bomber who blows up a disco full of partying Israeli 19-year-olds is a terrorist; if he attacked the same people that morning at a checkpoint when they were in uniform, he would be merely an insurgent. The bomb at Hiroshima was a terrorist bomb. Nonetheless, I stand by this definition. It is reasonably logical, and it has the virtue of being able to be applied to all sides impartially. It really has to do with the rules of war. It is very useful for a culture (or set of cultures) to have rules of war -- taboos about who may, and who may not be killed, when. Like the sheepdog and the wolf in that old Warner Brothers cartoon who fight to the death, but only after they have punched in for the day, and only until the evening whistle sounds; then they shake hands and say "evening, sam" -- "evening, bill" -- and go home.

So it's useful to have uniforms and say "you may only shoot at the people in these uniforms." It's a ritual, but one that constrains the scope of war. It makes sense and it's worth fighting for.

There's another often used definition of terrorist. The word is used to mean "enemy combatants not belonging to a formal army." By this definition the "War on Terrorism" is not an attempt to enforce the rules of war; rather, it is an admission that "we have some enemies, but we don't really know where they are or what they're called." This seems to me a much more dangerous stance. (It is particularly odd to regard Taliban soldiers, draftees defending their country, as terrorists.)

Pretty quickly in this war, "terrorist" has come to simply be a nonspecific name for "evil person worthy of destruction." Early on in the war it became clear that terrorists were those enemies who had neither the rights of criminals -- to a fair trial -- nor those of enemy soldiers -- to the Geneva convention. Terrorism seems to also encompass supporting terrorism, and what exactly does that mean? The interesting thing is that groups like Hamas run almost all of the orphanages and hospitals in the occupied territories. Is someone in a local mosque in America who preaches a sermon advocating giving to Hamas a terrorist? If he is an immigrant, can he be flown to Guantanamo Bay and detained without trial with a bag over his head? 

In the Gulf War thousands of Iraqi soldiers deserted and were greated with hot meals and respect in the POW camps (or so it was reported). That's a very important image; that's a great asset of the West, that we are seen as just. If we start defending the use of torture and treating prisoners like animals, it destroys a concrete advantage along with our soul.

So the question for me is, what are we fighting for? Is it just power? 

The USA was founded by insurgents who did not belong to a recognized formal army. Our Declaration of Independence actually enshrines the rights of such insurgents to overthrow their government. It says in effect: the powerless will and should fight back.

The people who blew up the WTC towers were abonimable terrorists. (If the guy who attacked the Pentagon had taken an empty plane, he would have been an insurgent). Al-Qaeda should be broken up by force, and I am glad the Taliban are defeated.

But America is treading on very dangerous ground. To the extent that we become about empire -- to the extent that the point of the war is merely to concentrate power in us, to extinguish all opposition -- we approach the place where our reach may exceed our grasp and the days of our empire wane.

What was the "Axis of Evil" speech supposed to be for? How is it possibly in our national interest to undermine Khatami?

The most chilling thing for me so far was the business about nuclear weapons. Apparently it was an internal Pentagon study that was leaked and reported, prompting the White House to say, "we haven't changed our policy on that." The that being, basically, "we can drop nuclear weapons on anyone, at any time, whether they have nuclear weapons or not, whether they are a superpower or just a rinky-dink rogue state; basically anyone who messes with us may get nuked." Reassuring, yes?

How can you call various nations an Axis of Evil for attempting to obtain nuclear weapons, while reserving the right to make a first nuclear strike on a much smaller country with no capability of attacking you back in any serious fashion? 

Unless the usage of "evil" and "good" here is something like "we are good, a priori, hence we can do anything we like in the defense of good, and anyone opposing it is by definition evil."

Anyway, the nuclear thing was the last straw; I have basically lost faith in the people running this war, and their reasons for fighting. I hope Afghanistan becomes stable and prosperous, and I hope our sabre-rattling towards Iraq has some useful effect without alienating the rest of the world and embroiling us in an endless and unwinnable war. I fear, though, that no amount of power will ever satisfy us.