Thursday, November 19, 2009
I represented the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship at a White House security council briefing on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Twenty or so representatives from Protestant, Catholic and Muslim groups were in the room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (former Old Executive Office Building, former State Department, former War Department) next door to the West Wing.
The briefing was an off-the-record meeting as part of President Obama's "listening tour" as he deliberates U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Because it was off the record, I'll note only that we were asked by the security council staff to tell them exactly what you would say to the president were he in the room because they are the ones who will bring him the information and recommendations on policy and how to articulate it.
There was, as one of the staffers noted to me afterward, remarkable agreement among the faith groups. We want the military operations to end. We want American troops to be withdrawn as quickly as possible. We want aid operations to be supported. We want the U.S. to engage the region diplomatically and culturally.
None of that is any surprise, nor is it breaking any confidence to repeat those broad strokes.
When my turn to speak came, well into the 75 minutes we had, I simply said that the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship would underscore and amplify most of what had already been said, and that we would add only the strong encouragement to the president to be mindful of history as he makes this decision.
In particular, be mindful of the dismal history of military counter-insurgency efforts. They simply do not work, and 20th-century history is dotted with examples of their failures, most strikingly in this instance, the oft-noted failure of the Soviet Union in the same mountains fighting the same insurgents.
Moreover, be mindful of the history and cultures in the places where we are engaged. We have a long, sad history of ignorance dating back to our failure to engage and understand the history and culture of the indigenous people on our own continent and extending on through our military efforts in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and Asia. That ignorance, too often combined with an imperial arrogance, has led us down some long, dark, and deadly paths.
Finally, be mindful of our own history. The last time an American president tried to take on such serious domestic issues -- poverty, health care -- the effort was derailed by the costly war in Vietnam.
Of course, recalling President Johnson also brought to my mind his inelegant remark that he would rather have his political adversaries "in the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in," and left me wondering if the religious peace groups are simply being co-opted by the administration. On the other hand, after eight long years of walking on the other side of the fence being utterly ignored, it was refreshing to be invited in to share our perspective.
All of that, however, is neither here nor there, because the highlight of the meeting was at the very beginning when Kal Penn walked in. House fans know him as Doctor Kutner. Political junkies know that he walked away from his lucrative acting career to work in the White House Office of Public Liaison. In that role, he was at the meeting to take notes.
I did not get a chance to speak with him, though I considered feigning some strange and serious malady and asking him for a diagnosis. Seriously though, I did want to congratulate him for setting aside his career for a while to work for something he believes in. Whatever one thinks of the president, it's always pretty cool to see someone make a significant sacrifice -- in this case, financial -- to work for the common good.
Oh, and the bottom line of the gathering: it's not lupus.