Small Demon
May 232009

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:

  1. Idealism is a terrible basis for foreign policy (and probably for life in general);
  2. 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.

May 142009

In Hanoi, you will often see a line of fifteen or twenty cyclos, each with a Japanese or German tourist in it, threading their way through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter. After an initial cyclo ride on my first trip to Vietnam twelve years ago, I have avoided this mode of transport. The colonial symbolism is just a little too strong and too noxious; but yesterday here in Hue I twice took a cyclo back to my hotel from the far side of the river. You have three choices here if you don’t want to walk (and I usually want to walk), but it was terribly hot yesterday. You can take a taxi, a xe om (motorbike taxi), or a cyclo. It’s mostly tourists who use cyclos, but you do see Vietnamese use them sometimes, especially if they have to carry a lot of packages. (There are also freight cyclos, which the driver often has to push rather than pedal, laden with heavy baskets of fruit, or bags of sand, or rebar, etc.) The cyclo drivers are all licensed and work for a couple of companies in Hue, so while working conditions still suck, there is apparently some concern for the drivers’ welfare. Hue is a relatively small place and the distances I traveled weren’t long, but I realized again what a terrible job it is.


The first driver, who brought me back from the citadel in the early afternoon heat was a young guy who didn’t seem to be exerting any effort. We talked in Vietnamese off and on most of the way and he didn’t seem to even be breathing hard. But in the evening, after walking to a restaurant across the river from my hotel, I felt lazy and languid and decided to take another cyclo. There were a bunch parked across from the restaurant and I went up to a kid lounging in the first one to ask for a ride, but he hailed another guy snoozing in his machine back in the shadows. Apparently there is a system of allocation. The young guy took my hotel’s business card and read it to the older guy — maybe his father– then handed it back to me. It only occurred to me as we were driving away that my driver probably couldn’t read. I had walked over Trang Tien bridge several times by the time I was carried over it by this cyclo driver and I had never noticed that it has a distinct arc. My driver was struggling up the incline. We had been talking at first, but now he was breathing hard. After cresting the center of the bridge, we resumed our conversation and he told me that his father had died in the war. The American war. So that’s what you call getting a little perspective on the world.


Apr 242009

Isn’t it just time to quarantine Pakistan? Clearly, the country has not yet figured out what it wants to be and I don’t think the US can really have much effect on that process. Pakistan has the bomb, of course, which makes things more complicated — the world does not need a radical Islamic state armed with nuclear weapons — but I think the current meltdown actually offers the US an opportunity to take a hard look at reality. The Obama administration has shown a real willingness to make pragmatic policy decisions and perhaps they will take a good look at Pakistan and tell themselves the truth. I’m sitting in a hotel room in Hanoi Vietnam as I write this and I’m thinking how American history might have been different had Lyndon Johnson taken a cold-eyed look at the Indochina war and decided to step back. Barack Obama has an opportunity for making a clear-eyed judgment that the US cannot effectively intervene in Pakistan or Afghanistan; that the best we can do is set a fence around those who would do us injury. That fence can be both diplomatic and military — I am not a pacifist — but it must not involve the escalation of the number of American soldiers. The administration ought to let it be known that Pakistan must decide its own direction, but that if one light is turned on in a nuclear facility, it will be instantly destroyed. Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan must all be confronted with existential choices — their choices, not ours. Had the US taken such an existential position during Vietnam’s civil war — for that’s what it was until the US and the Soviets made it a proxy war — Vietnam would probably be a much more democratic place today. Had the US not backed French intervention in 1945, but instead had acceded to Ho Chi Minh’s pleas for a guarantee of Vietnamese sovereignty, Ho Chi Minh might never have turned to the Soviets, whom he distrusted even while admiring Lenin’s treatise on colonialism. If the US had not supported the French return to Indochina in 1945, the Vietnamese would have had to work out for themselves what their political destiny would be. I heard no less an authority than the old revolutionary and compatriot of Ho Chi Minh Huu Ngoc say just today in a lecture that had the French not been allowed back in — with the blessing of the US — that Vietnam would have taken a “capitalist,” Western route, that that was Ho Chi Minh’s preference. As it happens, I think there is a huge dose of revisionist history in that statement, but it is certain that things would not only have been different, but better, had Truman simply told the French to back off after World War II. Now the US needs to tell itself to back off, with the realization that there is literally nothing we can do to determine what sort of society the Pakistanis and the Afghans want to have. Morally it’s none of our business; practically, it’s a hopeless quagmire. All we can do is protect ourselves, which we ought to do vigorously, publicly, and transparently. The Vietnamese posed no threat to the US, except in out imaginations; the Afghans and the Pakistanis pose no threat, except in the case of the Pakistanis’ nuclear arsenal, which ought to stand under the constant threat of annihilation should it be activated.

Aug 272008

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.