Sunday, October 31, 2010
Sunday, October 24, 2010
In hindsight, perhaps I did not think hard enough about a couple of basic issues: (1) how closely is stopping the Taliban's momentum etc. linked, in a practical sense, to the goal of disrupting and defeating al-Qaeda?; and (2) if the answer to (1) is "not very closely," then why is the U.S. committing so many resources to fighting the Taliban in the first place? Put more simply: would it make it any real difference to U.S. national security if the Taliban re-took the essential levers of power (such as they are) in the country and re-established themselves as the government in Kabul? I am more and more inclined to think the answer is no it wouldn't, in which case it becomes more and more difficult to justify the current U.S./ISAF policy.
In a recent post on his blog, Stephen Walt writes:
As our numbers fall [i.e., when U.S. troops start to be drawn down, starting presumably some time in 2011], the Taliban will regroup, Pakistan will help rearm them covertly, and the struggle for power in Afghanistan will resume. Afghanistan's fate will once again be primarily in the hands of the Afghan people and the nearby neighbors who meddle there for their own reasons. I don't know who will win, but it actually won't matter very much for U.S. national security interests. [emphasis added]
If who wins doesn't matter very much for U.S. national security interests, then I, for one, will find it increasingly hard to watch on the NewsHour those photos and names of U.S. military personnel who have been killed. I'm willing to stipulate that the Taliban leadership is a nasty and repressive lot and that a victory for them would be bad (to put it mildly) for Afghan democrats (small "d") and for women, among others. But the sacrifice of American lives at the scale on which it is occurring can only be justified if American vital national security interests are at stake. If, as Walt suggests, the U.S. is eventually going to concoct a fig-leaf peace settlement and then persuade ourselves that we won (if, indeed, this is the best possible outcome given current conditions), it would probably be better to get out right now.
Historical analogies are easy to misuse, and I have been wary of analogies between Afghanistan and Vietnam. (After all, the misuse of historical analogies contributed to the U.S. getting into Vietnam in the first place.) However, it's worth recalling that whatever one thought of the 1973 Vietnam peace agreement, it was never in the cards that, once U.S. forces had left Vietnam, they would be re-introduced to prevent the 'fall' of Saigon. The Kissinger-Nixon strategy of pursuing "peace with honor" -- hugely costly in terms of Vietnamese and American lives, and costly too for the Cambodians and Laotians -- appears pointless (indeed, flatly immoral) in retrospect. Walt is worried that we have forgotten this piece of history (among others). I continue to be wary of historical analogies when they are mobilized for use in policy debates, but one can be wary of analogies and at the same time acknowledge that there is some wisdom in Santayana's dictum that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
The independence movements of the post-1945 world that led to the end of Europe’s African and Asian empires were driven by the rhetoric that had guided the Allies’ own struggle against Germany and Japan: democracy, freedom, equality. This [i.e., the conflict between colonial powers and independence movements] wasn’t a conflict between values. It was a conflict of interests couched in terms of the same values. (p. 80)
Smuts was also a believer in international organization. Among other things, he was a main drafter of the preamble to the UN Charter, which listed among the organization’s purposes the reaffirmation of “faith in fundamental human rights, …the dignity and worth of the human person, …the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small….” Mazower asks: “How could the new world body’s commitment to universal rights owe more than a little to the participation of a man whose segregationist policies back home paved the way for the apartheid state?” (No Enchanted Palace, p. 19) The answer – or at least an answer – is that for Smuts, and for some others involved in the UN’s founding, “fundamental human rights” did not in fact mean universal rights. Adhering to an “evolutionist paradigm of cosmic harmony under beneficent white guidance” (p. 57), Smuts saw “differential degrees of freedom and differential treatment of groups by the state [as] not merely reasonable but necessary for human progress.” (p. 64) As a young man, Smuts “had talked easily about the mission of ‘half a million whites’ to lift up ‘the vast dead weight of immemorial barbarism and animal savagery to the light and blessing of ordered civilisation,’” and he hoped the UN would be “a force for world order, under whose umbrella the British Empire – with South Africa as its principal dynamic agent on the continent – could continue to carry out its civilizing work.” (p. 65)
Note: For more on Smuts, see the sources listed in Mazower's notes. Also, Richard Toye's Churchill's Empire (Henry Holt, 2010) contains a couple of references to Smuts from a somewhat different perspective.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Look, it would be a disaster if Rand Paul were elected to the Senate, and I guess you do what you have to do (within certain elastic limits) to try to ensure that doesn't happen. On the other hand, I honestly don't give a flying **** what Rand Paul did in college. If he had had sexual intercourse with a mountain goat while engaging in lewd acts with a gibbon, I would regard it as irrelevant to his fitness to be a U.S. Senator.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
The name of Theodore Roosevelt (class of 1880 at Harvard) is invoked at the very beginning of the movie The Social Network. The actor playing Mark Zuckerberg confidently, if a tad bizarrely, informs his girlfriend that TR’s membership in the Porcellian Club is what ensured his eventual accession to the presidency of the U.S.
Theodore Roosevelt – who as a Harvard undergraduate spent on club fees and clothes in two years a sum of money that would have sustained the average American family of the time for six years* -- is in some ways (but only some) a fitting patron saint for this movie, whose themes of money and class would not have been foreign to him. However, the only character in the movie that TR would really have understood is the rower who is reluctant to sue Zuckerberg because that’s not what “gentlemen of Harvard” do. The rest of the movie -- including the computers, the drugs, the parties, and the sexual situations – would have been, it is pretty safe to say, either incomprehensible or shocking (or both) to TR. That’s not a criticism of The Social Network, of course, but it is an indication of how much certain aspects of the world have changed in the last 125 years.
As for the movie on its own terms: it’s entertaining – especially the scene in which the actor playing Larry Summers appears – but I would take most of it with a few grains of salt.
*Kim Townsend, Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others (paperback ed., Harvard Univ. Press, 1998), p. 259. For TR's views on masculinity, race, etc., in historical context, see Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity (Vintage Bks., 2005), pp. 355ff.
Friday, October 15, 2010
If U.S. mayors could be fired or otherwise removed for gridlock, Washington, D.C. would not have the same mayor for more than a few weeks at a time.