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Medium Read: “Afghanistan: What Could Work”

March 22, 2010

While poking around for things to read about Afghanistan after the capture of Taliban commander Abdul Baradar, I came across this article in the New York Review of Books by Rory Stewart. Going through Obama’s speech announcing and justifying the expansion of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, Stewart explains how, in the speech “Obama’s central–and revolutionary–claim is that our responsibility, our means, and our interests are finite in Afghanistan.” That is, we neither can nor should expect to establish a glittering, efficient, peaceful democracy in a mountainous region halfway around the world.

Stewart goes on to point out the all-or-nothing language that permeates American discussions regarding national security, an aspect of our politics that I believe leads our country away from our best interests:

It is difficult to find the appropriate language to express [Obama’s] insights. A moderate, light policy runs against a natural tendency to invest extravagantly in defending against even minor threats to our national security (the reverse of our systematic tendency to “lowball,” i.e., to undercompensate for, or underprice, risk in our banking system or the environment). This partly reflects a general, ancient view of the “night watchman” state, involved not in internal regulation but in security. It is partly because terrorism seems a much more immediate and horrifying prospect than financial collapse, climate change, or threats to food security and is more directly linked to loss of life (even if the other issues ultimately may kill many more people). And our culture puts a very high value on life (though a higher value on the lives of our own citizens than on those of other nationals).

The act of war has unavoidably absolute direct consequences. Our soldiers die, our enemies die, innocent civilians die. In contrast, while other policy decisions such as, say, lowering income taxes or raising funding for public schools may harm certain people, they can’t be said generally to have caused someone’s death. In light of this, the absolute language which turns every conflict the U.S. engages in a existential one is unsurprising. Risking American lives to protect against a non-existential threat is difficult to justify, as is killing an enemy who doesn’t present an existential threat or civilians in any circumstance.

However, in my view, that absolute language no longer accurately reflects the security questions currently facing our country. 9/11 was a heinous reprehensible crime that demanded retribution but perhaps there was in fact no right way to deal that retribution. We have no way of knowing whether terrorists based in Afghanistan would have successfully attacked the U.S. if we hadn’t invaded. However, we do know that certain actions could have been taken before 9/11 that may have prevented the attacks. One month before the attacks, President Bush received a briefing entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Bush’s head counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke also repeatedly tried to warn the President about Al Qaeda in the months leading up to the attacks. Bush, however, took little or no preventative action. My point isn’t that it’s all Bush’s – for better or worse, that argument has been ceded for historians. However, if there were things we could have done short of war to prevent the 9/11 attacks, perhaps war wasn’t necessary to prevent another 9/11. Obviously, the nonexistent connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq as well as the absence of WMDs in Iraq show that the Iraq War was also not necessary to protect our country.

The truth is that our military spending is about equal to the rest of the world combined, including our allies.

China, Russia and Iran combined spend less than a third of what we spend on our military apparatus – North Korea’s military spending is estimated at $5.0 bil. If their spending was added the proportion would still be the same. Combined, our allies in Europe also spend much more than that (supposedly) threatening quartet. Thus, as the world exists today, there really aren’t any existential threats to the United States. The old wars have disappeared. The question is now, are our modern wars really worth fighting?

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