I’m not much of a Roger Cohen fan — he strikes me as an ideological opportunist, a flag blowing first one way then the other — but the dateline of this column attracted my attention, of course. The Quiet American is the best single piece of fiction about Vietnam you are likely to read (Tim O’Brien’s stories in The Things they Carried come a close second only because they focus so closely on the war rather than the situation of the war), an exacting portrait of a murderous idealism. Cohen’s column uses Graham Greene’s novel to make a pair of important points:
- Idealism is a terrible basis for foreign policy (and probably for life in general);
- It is possible to engage with countries and cultures with whom we have fundamental disagreements.
Neither of these is particularly profound seperately, but taken together in the context of Vietnam’s relationship to our current wars, they constitute an effective analytical blade. If the US could use this pair of ideas to rationalize complete withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is entirely possible that in twenty or thirty years we could have relationships with those countries similar to the one we have with now with Vietnam. But that would require leaving off the conventional and deeply ingrained belief in American exceptionalism — a form of idealism — and taking up a kind of realism that lacks immediate emotional punch but that would pay off in the long run. And if we’re going to exit in two years or six or ten, why not now? Like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are going to have to set their own political, social, and cultural parameters: the hard truth is that there is little or nothing the US can do to influence those choices.
Going to war in Iraq was such an obviously bad choice I’m still amazed that some otherwise rational people supported it. The choice to go to war in Afghanistan was — to me, at least — more difficult & I initially supported it, with reservations. (Based mostly on my sense of the deep tarpit of evil at the heart of the Bush administration.) I am now convinced that the decision to go to war in Afghanistan was as bad as the decision to go to war in Iraq. (In retrospect, at least, I don’t agree with Quiggin that the Afghan war was inevitable & understandable because the US needed to “lash out.”) This was all brought into sharp focus for me while reading this post by John Quiggen at Crooked Timber & the responses to it. I recommend the discussion:
Perhaps with more competent management the Taleban could have been defeated by now, and Al Qaeda put out of business in the region. But they haven’t been and it is time to admit that a military victory over the Taleban insurgency is now unlikely whether or not it might have been achieved in the past. As with the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, it’s time to look harder at offering both a part in the political process and plenty of cash to those willing to abandon the insurgency.
Quiggen begins by noting that things have been going “better than expected” in Iraq over the last year & this is the narrative that the Bush administration & the McCain campaign have carefully built around “the surge,” with the implication that they had been right all along. It’s an attractive & even natural narrative & one that is hard to counter, even though it is untrue. Things are “better” in Iraq, compared to what? Police recruits are still regularly targeted, markets are still bombed, many Iraqis still can’t return to their old neighborhoods because they have been ethnically segregated. And what do we have to show for the effort? Thousands of American dead & an unstable country that is concluding oil contracts with China & Russia even as they give us a timeline for getting out. So, even if one were to approve Dick Cheney’s realpolitik approach, we’re fucked.
This is going to be the main problem faced by the Obama campaign* over the next two months — what is the alternative narrative (and how do you advance it) in the face of such an attractive although untrue story? The “we’re fucked” narrative above does not play to the electorate’s predilection for chest-thumping self-aggrandizement & sentimental militarism.
*Note: Despite my various disappointments with Obama’s politics, the alternative is simply too grim to contemplate. Watching closely over the last three weeks or so, it is possible to predict that the first & most pressing foreign policy problem that a McCain administration would take up would be the question of whether to go to war first with Russia or Iran.
Anyone who lived through the Vietnam war era in the US will feel a startling sense that history is cycling back over familiar ground when reading this NY Times piece about timetables for the withdrawal of American forces. The laughably transparent but straight-faced explanations of al-Malaki’s clear meaning reprise the greatest hits of LBJ, Westmorland, McNamara, & Nixon. Josh Marshall offers a clear analysis of the White House response here. The wonder is that reporters don’t simply burst out laughing when they are fed this kind of crap. My sense, however, is that journalism has moved, culturally, from skepticism & incredulity at the mendacity of US government & military spokesmodels to fawning credulity. The Times article does not mention that the al-Maliki “walk back” was issued, not by the Iraqi government, but by the American military. The Associated Press, uncharacteristically, gets it right. And even the chronically unreliable New Republic nails down the issue. Finally, here is a little history lesson regarding John McCain, Vietnam, & the myth of “victory” from Joe Conason.