Tuesday, December 01, 2009

This Is Wrong, Mr. President: UPDATED post speech

This is the first week of Advent, a season of preparation for what Bonhoeffer called “the great turning around of all things.”
As if to prove he is not the messiah (as if such proof were needed) tonight President Obama is going to reassure the world that nothing has really changed. Following in the sunken footsteps of so many of his predecessors, the president is going to choose the path of war and more war.
Bonhoeffer knew that true change that we can believe in does not come through the revolutionary acts of strong men, the grand statements of politicians or even the pious acts of a saint, but instead through the utterly strange action of God.
Thus no one should be surprised by the military steps that President Obama will set in motion tonight. Nothing will be turned around – surely not the arc of the moral universe – by increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. It is a quite open question whether or not even the situation on the ground in Afghanistan will be markedly changed by this action.
Thus I believe the president is making a huge mistake: politically, strategically, morally and historically.
So, first, we hold in the light all of those who are caught in the line of fire -- whether civilian or in uniform, whether on "our side" or the other.
Some of us will be inclined to think that President Obama makes this choice against the better angels of his nature, but it does not really matter. I don’t think George W. Bush was, or is, evil – just wrong on many things. I don’t think Barak Obama is evil, but he is wrong on this decision politically, strategically, morally and historically.
It does not seem to matter whether we send the “best and the brightest,” “the young and the restless,” or the “rich and the famous” to Washington, the disease of war infects them all.
President Obama is wrong politically. As The Nation’s Mark Cooper observes on his blog, “the calculation has been made that his presidency and the Democrats would not be able to survive the charge of cut and run that would be yelled to the high heavens” if he began a serious beginning to the end of the war in Afghanistan. Therein lies the irony of the action all of Washington expects him to announce this evening. Obama was elected, in large part, as an antiwar candidate. Go back and watch his major speeches of the 2008 campaign – from Iowa to Denver, his promise to end the war in Iraq consistently drew the loudest, most enthusiastic cheers. Those voters will not be “fired up and ready to go” in 2012 if the president who promised change has dragged us deeper into a morass that cannot be changed by military means, and that is unlikely, at this late date, even to be improved by such means.
President Obama is wrong strategically. If the aim of the war in Afghanistan was to route from their safe havens those responsible for the atrocities of September 11 – namely the terrorists of al Queda – then the United States and our allies won that war by early in 2002. Quoting an unnamed senior U.S. military official, the Washington Post reported this month that there are “perhaps fewer than 100 members of the group left” in Afghanistan. The same is true if the aim of the war was to unseat the Taliban. Long before we invaded Iraq, the Taliban had been removed from power in Afghanistan and al Queda in Afghanistan had been reduced to a haggard remnant.
The well-documented resurgence of the Taliban over the past 18 months was fueled in part by the continued presence of American (and allied) troops viewed as an occupying force by a people well known for resisting any and all occupying forces. There is plenty of reason to believe that we can negotiate with the Taliban, which was there long before we arrived and will be there long after we depart – whenever that day comes. We are already paying them off handsomely simply to move supplies through the country, as Adam Roston exhaustively reports this month in The Nation. The tangled web of tribal relationships, Taliban leadership, and members of the ruling party in Kabul is such that no one can account for where much of the billions of U.S. dollars pouring into Afghanistan is actually winding up.
Moreover, the 30,000 or so troops that will be added to the fight are probably too few to succeed in a classic counterinsurgency scenario, in which troop levels are determined relative to population size. Even with the increase, troop levels in Afghanistan will be lower than the level in Iraq, which has the smaller population. On top of that, the proposal to turn things over to a civilian government in Afghanistan in 18 months or so seems like an incredibly rosy scenario given the rampant corruption of the current regime. When the current president's brother is among the largest opium dealers in the world it seems more than reasonable to wonder how effective the government can become in a year and a half.
As for al Queda, they have no meaningful presence in Afghanistan. Eight years ago this fall, as American political and military leaders dithered and dreamed of regime change in Iraq, al Queda moved into Pakistan – a U.S. ally and recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. military aid. Their growing presence in Pakistan was widely reported as early as the summer of 2002, when Time ran a lengthy piece on the trend. Al Queda continues to operate in the lawless tribal regions of the mountains along the border, but they do so at a significantly reduced capacity. They are a ragged remnant reduced to living in caves and producing propaganda. They are criminal terrorists; thugs who should be brought to justice.
That we should continue to work strategically with our allies in the region is obvious. That we should be prepared to act swiftly and decisively whenever the opportunity presents itself to capture – or, more likely to kill – bin Laden and his henchmen is equally obvious. Such operations call for smaller strike forces engaging in counterterrorism and criminal justice, not an additional 30,000 troops engaged in nation building by another name.
To capture, try and convict bin Laden would be a triumph for American values. To imprison him for life rather than make him a martyr would be a triumph of nonviolence.
However, it is clearly unlikely that anyone will take him and his lieutenants alive. Killing them then – whether in acts of war or of militarized criminal justice – may be the necessary evil that is part of living in a broken and violent world. Perhaps that would be part of “the Bonhoeffer exception” to the practice of nonviolence. When such killings occur, they are not actions to celebrate but rather events that should lead us to seek God’s mercy.
I do not expect President Obama to share that perspective, but my own commitment to Christian nonviolence leads me to say that the president is wrong morally in this decision.
His moral error ought to spur the church in America into action, both to speak clearly against the ongoing wars of the nation, and also to articulate a new vision rooted in the principles of Christian nonviolence for responding to international terrorism. That call is more urgent today than at any point in our nation’s history, and in the long, mixed history of church thinking on war and peace.
When I was asked at a National Security Council briefing for religious leaders last month what I would say to the president if I had the chance, I said, “I would encourage him to be mindful of history.”
In particular, the president should be mindful of two distinct moments in American war history:
• Counterinsurgency in Vietnam.
• The surge in Iraq.
From the earliest days of the war on terrorism, comparisons to the Vietnam War have been suggested and argued. Were the two wars similar or not in terms of the difficulties of counterinsurgency? Were they similar or not in terms of American knowledge (or ignorance) of the native cultures? Were they similar or not in terms of tactics and strategies? Were they similar or not in relation to their origins? Such questions will doubtless be the subjects of countless history dissertations in the years to come.
Personally, I tend to think that the Vietnam War share some similarities with both Iraq and Afghanistan. But I think the same thing about World War I with respect to World War II. Some things were similar; some things were not.
The real question, however, is why we continue, 50 years past the American entry into Vietnam, to fight that long ago war.
That we are doing so is clear in the echoes of Manichean reasoning about the communists in North Vietnamese so clearly discernable in contemporary discussions of the Taliban and the insurgents in Afghanistan.
That we are doing so is evident in the “hearts and minds” rhetoric in the Army’s new manual on counterinsurgencies, that underscores the primacy of the “battle for the people’s minds.”
That we are doing so is obvious in the rhetoric employed to support the deployment of additional troops.
For example, Peter Hegseth, executive director of Vets for Freedom, is urging President Obama to make the case for “finishing the job.” In so doing, Hegseth lays the groundwork for some future argument that Afghanistan was lost, or that the surge failed, because the politicians in Washington did not provide adequate support for the soldiers on the ground.
The deeper problem, the great unlearned lesson from Vietnam, is that no amount of support for soldiers on the ground is going to alter the outcome, because not only is there no military solution to an insurgency, but there is also no political one – at least not if by “political solution,” one means that America and our allies can build something like a stable civil society in Afghanistan.
As Jonathan Schell argued recently in The Nation, “The circle to be squared is getting the people of a whole country to want what Washington wants. The trouble is that, left to their own devices, other peoples are likely to want what they want, not what we want.”
Indeed, the new counterinsurgency manual explains the battle for hearts and minds this way:
Hearts means persuading people their best interests are served by your success; minds means convincing them that you can protect them, and that resisting you is pointless.
The problem arises when people are persuaded that their best interests are served by their success, and that your continued presence does not protect them but, instead, keeps them from succeeding on their own terms.
Changing public opinion in Afghanistan underscores the problem. Between 2006 and 2009 Afghani public approval of the United States slipped from more than 80 percent to fewer than half the population having a favorable view. The New York Times reported last month that the Afghan public is growing more concerned at the prospect of a surge in troop levels.
A decrease in the level of violence would no doubt improve the public’s perceptions of Americans, and in that regard the experience with the American troop surge in Iraq no doubt seems compelling.
Civilian deaths in Iraq dropped significantly from the 2007 surge through the end of 2008, and have fallen to fewer than 5,000 this year marking the fewest civilian casualties since the war began in 2003. That is good news, but it begs the question of causality, and that question is far from clear.
A report released this fall by the Zurich-based International Relations and Security Network concludes, “The civilian/ethno-sectarian death toll in Iraq peaked in December 2006-January 2007, suggesting US soldiers were unable to check the sectarian bloodshed at its high point, and the preponderance of the sectarian cleansing occurred well in advance of the US troop increase to Baghdad. The troop increase became operational a short time before the end of the civil war, in mid-June 2007. Enough time, roughly two months, to nudge the various Shia militia groups to back down, but insufficient time to end a civil war the US did not control.” Indeed, civilian casualties had dropped from a post-invasion high of 3,160 in July, 2006, to 2,094 in June, 2007, before most of the surge troops were on the ground.
Historians will argue the efficacy of the Iraq surge for years to come, but just as Iraq is not Vietnam, neither is Afghanistan Iraq. What may have worked militarily in Iraq, where the violence and civilian casualties have been mostly an urban affair, may be irrelevant to Afghanistan, where the violence and civilian casualties are mostly in the hinterlands. What may have worked politically in Iraq, where there has been a functioning national civil society for generations, may not work in Afghanistan, where there is little history of a functioning national civil society. (That the Iraqi civil society was for more than 20 years a corrupt and violently enforced one is indisputable, but weighed against the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan its seems beside the point in considering the prospects for a surge in American troops.)
Taken as a guide, then, the as yet incomplete history of the troop surge in Iraq does not offer President Obama much clarity – which is precisely the point.
If the aim of any troop surge at this point is, as it must be, to hasten the end of the war in Afghanistan, the history of the troop surge in Iraq is sobering. Since that surge was announced by President Bush on January 10, 2007, more than 35,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the violence in their country. In that same period, more than 1,300 American soldiers have died in Iraq.
Almost three years after the surge was announced, more than 140,000 American troops remain in Iraq, and despite President Obama’s pledges, increased violence there over recent months seem likely to keep that number steady well into 2010. Three years into the once-new policy and there are roughly 8,000 more American troops in Iraq than there were in 2007. Or put into a different perspective, more than six and a half years into the war in Iraq, the undefined end of the job is still not in sight.
If President Obama is prepared to tell the nation tonight that well beyond the end of his first term in office there will be more troops on the ground in Afghanistan than there are today, and that the still undefined end of the job will remain out of sight, then he will have honestly assessed the history of the surge in Iraq.
I imagine that the president, like so many before him, will argue that the troop surge is the way to peace. There is no way to peace; peace is the way.
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, I spoke at a rally in Cleveland’s Public Square. I said then that that Bush’s War in Iraq was wrong, politically, strategically, morally and historically. As President Obama prepares to address the nation this evening to announce his troop surge in Afghanistan, I have reached the same, sad conclusions concerning what is about to become Obama’s War in Afghanistan.
NOTE: the original version of this post is in a document with numerous links to supporting documents. The links fell out in posting it to the blog. If you are interested in seeing them, post a comment with an e-mail and I will send the original your way.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Words Escape Me

I have heard a small bit about this proposed Ugandan legislation to ban homosexuality, but seeing the text leaves me struggling for the right words to describe the hatred, ignorance, and violence inscribed in the legislation.
Asked recently for his view on the proposed law, Rick Warren demurred, saying it was not his role to get involved in the politics of other nations.
The only problem with that perspective is that the politics of other nations have effects beyond the borders of other nations. Institutionalized violence against anyone based on group identity -- race, gender, sexuality, etc. -- gives sanction to such violence beyond the reach of the given institution or jurisdiction. As Dr. King often said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
The current issue of the journal American Psychologist includes an article on the way religious beliefs have been used in the mix of arguments about contentious social and political issues. The authors write
People who are members of sexual
minority groups are still legitimate targets of random
violence, domestic terrorism, and unequal treatment/protections
under the law. Discrimination against sexual minority
group members is not only encouraged and tolerated, it is
legally required in some contexts. They are discriminated
against in many jurisdictions in the same ways that states
practicing racial segregation, criminalizing interracial marriages,
and carrying out other infringements and denials of
civil liberties and constitutional rights were given license
to do until the Federal government, in the context of social
movements and advocacy, determined that such practices
violated the constitutional rights of free citizens.
Legitimized inequality gives license to harm.

Legitimized inequality gives license to harm. That is what is at stake in all this: the lives of men and women who are at risk of violence and death because they are gay or lesbian. That is what Uganda wants. No religious argument justifies such violence. Is it too much to ask a prominent pastor in America to speak against it?