01 December 2009
Obama's War Begins
The President is expected to announce a new deployment of 30,000 Americans to Afghanistan for what reporters are calling an "endgame" to the war against the Taliban. He can be expected to argue that doing this is essential to American national security. That argument depends on the premise that a Taliban restoration would make terrorist attacks on the United States significantly more likely. It might be reasonable to ask whether historians now believe that the safe haven provided for Osama bin Laden by the Taliban prior to the 2001 invasion was necessary to the success of the September attacks on New York and Washington. A secondary argument might be that a Taliban victory would destabilize Pakistan and put that country's nuclear weapons within reach of Islamic extremists. Those weapons are most immediately a threat to India, but an American politician will want to argue that a jihadist regime in Pakistan would distribute nukes to terrorists. This was the argument against allowing Saddam Hussein to acquire nukes or other WMD, and remains the most compelling argument against Iran's acquisition of such ordinance. A common subtext is the presumed undeterrability of Muslim nations. Pakistan is deterred by India, in the first place, and by the reasonable assumption that any act of nuclear terrorism worldwide could be blamed on a theoretical jihadist regime. Iran is theoretically deterred by Israel and by a similar assumption of culpability should any of their terrorist clients use nukes at some future point. Before the invasion of Iraq it was argued that, even in the worst case, Saddam was deterred in the same way, but advocates of invasion argued that he, not even a religious fanatic, could not be dependably deterred. Around the world, Muslim hostility toward the United States and our allies is attributed to superstitious fanaticism or simple insanity. The implicit assumption is that there is no good reason for them to be hostile (instead, they "hate our freedom" or crave a Caliphate out of sheer criminal lust for power). Thus Americans can convince themselves that there is nothing that needs to be negotiated between the U.S. and Muslim nations -- which is a good thing if you believe that there is nothing negotiable in the American stance toward the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent. Once you assume that Islamists are undeterrable and impossible to negotiate with, you can only feel secure if they renounce their ambitions or are crushed to the brink of annihilation. And you'll probably prefer crushing them since you can't trust the word of such fanatics that they renounce their insane agenda of conquest. To the extent that Americans think this way, they'll expect nothing short of the extermination of the Taliban from Obama's escalation of the Afghan war. Any promises or demonstrations of a more stable Afghan government will appear chimerical as long as people believe that the Taliban is still out there. But given so many Americans' need to believe that the world is full of bogeymen who envy them and want their stuff, what evidence would satisfy them that the Taliban has been defeated? The nearest thing to objective proof would be a decisive decline in attacks on Americans, which requires Americans to be there for the sake of the experiment. This, I thought, was George W. Bush's unspoken if not unconscious strategy in Iraq: to sacrifice American lives until an exhausted enemy realized that American will was stronger than theirs. Obama now apparently intends to adopt Gen. Petreus's counterinsurgency principles as practiced in the 2007 Surge, the object being to secure territory rather than kill the enemy. I worry that this will be a counterintuitive approach if Americans believe that their own security depends on killing terrorists. Obama's war is likely to please no one unless it includes some dramatic coup that would convince American observers that a mortal blow has been struck. Republicans will second-guess every step he takes (as is their prerogative), while leftists, old-school conservatives and many libertarians will most likely renew their opposition to the War on Terror as a whole. It seems to me that all this could be avoided if we treated Muslims like any other foreigners, but Islamophobia is at least as real as "Islamofascism." One can't be discussed without the other, and trying to blame one on the other is a chicken-and-egg enterprise. Maybe there won't be any answer until Americans start asking themselves "Why do we hate them?"