Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kindness: no more dead than God; but who'd think so?

Given the demonization that regularly passes for news reporting lately, coupled with a sort of amnesia for anything that happened more than two weeks ago--though somehow we get our memory back at about six months--one would think Iran has become a nation of nuclear engineers trying to game the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the UN, and the rest of us. If one focuses solely on the coterie around Pres. Ahmadinejad, as the press has done, that might almost seem a reasonable deduction.

June, anyone? Remember Mir Hossain Mousavi and the Green Movement? I bring him up for two reasons. The first in a sense challenges the question of whether the press has over-focused on Ahmadinejad, because during his campaign Mousavi specifically claimed the right of Iran to have a nuclear program. One wants very much to know how much, if any, daylight separates the two, or indeed the country as a whole, on the matter of the nuclear program, especially the secret site at Qom. My Iranian Facebook friends seem to think that we spend too much time thinking about it, and that national pride entitles them to it. Weaponization? One wants to see bombs first before believing our charges, or considering them a reasonable subject for discussion.

That kind of attitude--waiting for the horses to leave the barn before worrying about whether it might catch fire--should disturb us all, and help us understand the limits of understanding between Iranians and the world at large. And yet, they do have one point we need to answer better than we currently do, as Pres. Obama knows and has sought to change--we have an awful lot of bombs. In fact, the Iranians in Geneva tomorrow will face diplomats representing collectively the majority of the world's nuclear arsenal. Obama and Russia's Medvedev have spoken about eliminating nuclear weapons, but Iran's team in Geneva might fairly wonder when that will happen and why they should take such talk seriously.

The second reason has to do with something he said in a meeting with reformist parliamentarians, posted today on his Facebook page. In paraphrase--the English of the translation has a few rough edges--he applauds the development of kindness in recent social relations in Iran. He seems to mean kindness among the members of the Green Movement. Without good Farsi, one finds it hard to know for certain.

And here we have a telling parallel between Iranian and American politics, at least internally. The rhetoric of hate abounds everywhere. Not too long ago the same Facebook friend declared Mousavi irrelevant, and presumably still feels that way. Mousavi may have invented this outpouring of kindness for political purposes. Tom Friedman wrote a piece this morning warning that our culture of political hatred reminds him frighteningly of Israel before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. And yet we have a president who ran his campaign and runs his administration with the firm conviction that hope matters.

Mousavi seems to mean that the Greens have redirected at least some of their energy from attacking Ahmadinejad to the degree his police state permits, and focusing on the more immediate demands of living humanely. It's a message Obama has repeated constantly, most poignantly in his Philadelphia speech on race. One has good reason to doubt how differently a Mousavi regime would handle nuclear negotiations--perhaps they would have started months ago. The fact that two politicians in two such different societies--but two men for whom their religious faith matters centrally--place such emphasis on our dealing with each other humanely suggests that we may have more to say, one culture to another, than we think.

This argument, of course, has one major problem. Ahmadinejad sent the diplomats to Geneva for tomorrow's meeting,

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Wisdoms of the Deserts

We think we know what we mean by the word "desert." We have grown up with images of the Sahara and the Arabian peninsula--dunes, camels, oases, Bedouins, mirages--as our ur-desert, the original, the essence of what we mean by the term. While, like most cliches, this one has some basis in fact, it also has the dangerous effect of trying to hide our fear of the vast and wild and barren under a veneer of banality. We have to get over it--the fear and the too-frequent recourse to banality--or we will doom ourselves to a series of politico-military misadventures in which our inability to understand a desert mentality will cripple from the outset any chance we have of success, whatever we mean by that most malleable of military markers.

If this sounds like McChrystal-redux, as in Gen. Stanley McChrystal's not-quite classified status of mission report to the White House and Pentagon that someone leaked to Bob Woodward ofThe Washington Post over the weekend, don't stop here. McChrystal clearly understands that the longer Afghans perceive his forces as isolated in bases, disengaged from the population, the more they look like centuries of occupiers have looked, dug into encampments or fortresses. Afghanistan and Afghans have a very good record in dealing with occupiers, and I don't mean showing them hospitality. I mean showing them the door.

I find this interesting. Sure, they fight well, know the terrain, can tap resources too meagre for those from non-desert civilizations to find survivable, and don't have to manage supply lines halfway around the planet, in our case. Still, I don't think that quite explains the issue. We didn't go there to fight the Afghan people; we went to fight al-Qaeda and their allies the Taliban, both roundly disliked by a majority of the population. That should have made us welcome, one would think.

We forgot something, though. They have no model for foreign troops coming in force as anything but imperial occupiers. We had a lot of work to do to overcome that hard-wired expectation, and we didn't do it. We expected them to accept us as friends after we'd helped them twenty years ago and then left them to the untender unmercies of the Taliban. Suddenly al Qaeda bombs us with commercial aircraft and we expect cooperation? And then we blame them as unreliable when they double-deal with us at Tora-Bora? Come again?

Hospitality and welcome: two notions central to desert life, whether the Christian desert fathers of Egypt or the denizens of the barren expanses of the Afghan countryside, mountains or plains. Think about it. You live in a very remote place where you see very few people. Suddenly someone emerges at your door. Out of religious--Christian or Muslim--or merely pragmatic motivations--who ever heard of pulling a trigger or committing rape on a full stomach?--one invites the stranger in and produces a meal as generous as one's means permit, and often moreso. I fear our troops haven't poked their heads in at enough doors in Afghanistan, whether in remote stretches or in cities. Military culture tells them to go kill bad guys; it needs to start concentrating their energies on making friends with the good guys. And don't immediately ask for help finding the Taliban before the pilau has cooled.

Some would object by alluding to another desert trope: mirages. They argue that one simply cannot find any good guys in Afghanistan. I haven't lived there, but many who have would beg to differ. Those who can't find the good guys haven't paid enough attention to the culture to know how to look. Back to the desert fathers. The emptiness of the desert, the tendency of the desert to absorb our voices without bouncing anything back, leads us to fall prey to the steady chatter in our minds, which leads us quickly to what both monastic Christianity and Buddhism refer to as illusion. The Sufis, who appealed so strongly to the Afghan heart, would certainly agree.

I have found the notion of war in Afghanistan troubling from the very beginning, from about 12:15 on 9/11, 2001, sitting in a college chapel, of all places, listening to the vengeful blood-lust of colleagues and students, even my friend the chaplain. I felt then I could never ratify another war. If we fail in Afghanistan, we leave the Afghans to a desert stripped of illusion. Right now the three insurgent groups vying for control are all Islamist extremists with both conflicting and overlapping interests and territories; the government, stripped by the incompetence and corruption of the Karzai brothers and threatened by the none-too delicate surgeon's hands of Dr. Abdullah-Abdullah, might as well not exist. One cannot imagine their surviving our exit in their current state.

I know President Obama has little stomach for propping up a Karzai government, nor should he. Don't mistake Afghanistan for Iran, let alone Iraq. Mousavi would have had real credibility in Iran; al-Maliki, a Shi'a, represents the largest ethnic group in Iraq. Abdullah, a Tajik, presents a real stretch as president of a nation dominated by Pashtuns, Karzai's ethnic group.

I have one thought for the president to consider before he starts buttoning this back down into a Predator-launched missile campaign against bin Laden, whom Obama will no doubt argue gave us a reason to go the Hindu Kush in the first place. True enough, Mr. President, but have no illusions about the wrecked lives you will leave behind, the unspeakable distortion of Shari'a law that will ensue--that has already begun to function as a shadow justice system in the south, according to Woodward and others--if we scale back our war to a laughably circumscribed CIA remote-control effort. Surely we owe the Afghans more than that after bombing their houses to hell and back getting rid of the Taliban. Cut and run now, and we merely double-down on the immoral mistake of the Bush administration when their minds wandered to Iraq.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

War, Myth, and Imagination

You may know the name Saira Shah from her documentary Beneath the Veil, her record of the daily lives of Afghan women under the Taliban.  In her book The Storyteller's Daughter (Knopf, 2003), she makes the point that she had first felt driven to cover Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation from the vantage points of Peshawar and the so-called "tribal areas" for a personal reason.  She grew up in England in a formerly landed, aristocratic Afghan family that lost their Afghan estate overlooking Kabul during WW II.  Her grandfather and father, both gifted Sufi storytellers, had woven a mythic Afghanistan for her in words, so powerfully that she need to climb to Paghman to confirm its reality as an actual place with evidence of the mosaics and orchards they had described to her.  The myth, and the family connection, gave her the motivation to slog through the mountains of the Hindu Kush and endure the surreal world of spies in Peshawar, somewhat protected by the presence of her extended family.  

She needed to see that Afghanistan existed, as corroboration of the myths, even if only in hindsight, as with her family's ruined estates.  At least her elders hadn't made it all up out of whole Afghan cloth.  At the same time, she admits that her pursuit and questioning of the myth blinded her to the meaning of the extremist factionalism emerging literally under nose.  Her view of Afghanistan had about it the myopia of a personal quest.  

Most myths can overpower reality, often with devastating consequences.  The British, driven by a misguided notion of cultural archaeology, a kind of nineteenth-century Aryanism, and the seductive ideology of orientalism, all grafted to imperial pretensions on a vast scale, made as much a mess of the Middle East and Central and South Asia as one can possibly imagine, and did little if at all better in Africa.  We continue to pay the price for their arbitrarily drawn borders in Israel, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, just to name the most currently explosive.
Despite the wreckage, the British imperial myth, until it gave out under its own weight after WW II, sustained their Asian and African adventurism.  Myths can produce a maddening perseverance.

That said, we don't have much of a track-record when it comes to perseverance in wars overseas.  We have gotten into some we had no business joining--Vietnam and the Second Gulf War for starters, certainly the Spanish-American War--but we have arguably avoided some that the cause of justice required us to enter, or enter earlier than we did--Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur.  We show signs of nervousness in Afghanistan, as soon as our withdrawal from Iraq puts it back on the front page and Gen. McChrystal and Admiral Mullen suggest they probably need more troops.

One could argue this caution about foreign involvements shows us admirably free of the imperial pretensions of other great powers historically--the British, the Russians, Alexamder the GReat, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane the Great, the Romans, even the Japanese, Nazi Germany and the Soviets under Stalin and his successors until Gorbachev.  Fair enough.  We have had a series of myths, though, principal among them the moral imperative of democracy.  It has a serious flaw, however, in that, allied with the anti-myth of Communism or just on its own, it can get us into wars where we don't belong.  

More dangerously, right now we have another myth, the war on terror.  Our military has not always had a brilliant track record on understanding how to fight the war in front of them rather than the last one.  They have made some egregious mistakes in Afghanistan, and shown some signs of correcting at least some of those mistakes.  Sarah Chayes' The Punishment of Virtue (Penguin, 2006) makes that case clearly for the early phases of the war.  Chayes' book tells a cautionary tale we must all consider, even if it comes from one of the few journalists who has covered the war in Afghanistan and found herself transformed into, as one of the American troops based outside Kandahar puts it with some astonishment, "a hawk."

In a sense she tells a variation on the story Saira Shah tells.  By now we know what Shah discovered, that we had a war between factions of fundamentalists running parallel to the anti-Soviet conflict, than which it turned out by far the more important.  We think we've gone to fight bin Laden, but even if we win that battle, possibly by forcing the Pakistanis to come clean and start helping us, we risk losing the war if we don't leave behind an Afghanistan where people can make a living, trust their government, and have no reason to trust the Taliban and grow poppies.

The myth of democracy fails us at crucial times, not because of our over-reliance on mythology.  Human societies need myths as part of their fabric, their way of understanding the world.  It fails us because another myth has penetrated our consciousness too shallowly.  It motivates a journalist-turned NGO founder such as Sarah Chayes:  the ability and need to imagine another culture than one's own without judging it.  In our obsession with accomplishing missions, we so often botch or nearly botch them precisely because the culture in which the the military objectives exists has other priorities.  We don't find them interesting, because they don't mirror ours.  As Saira Shah realized at the ruins of her family's Paghman estate, we have to accept reality, however crumbling, and take some relief from the fact that we have someting more at hand than a mere myth.  In Afghanistan, or anywhere, we have lives to protect, cultures to protect.  At times we screw that up with the best of them, but we've done it right, too.  We have to learn to find Afghanistan as interesting as we finally found Europe in WW II.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"Stop Making Sense:" The (De)meaning of Partisanship

Partisan:  a word which comes to English from the Lombard dialects and Tuscan in two slightly different forms, "partezan" and "partigiano" via the Latin pars, partem, or part.  It first means the member of a faction, which takes on a different sense than it has for us when one considers that the same word, in  16th-17th c French, referred to a pike-like weapon on a shaft.   By the late 17th c it means something like our guerilla fighter, then (re-?)acquires a political sense in the 19th c (Source:  The word morphs back into warfare in World War II as the name for the Italian fighters of the Resistance, and to politics again, as all of us know who have paid any attention this summer.  Faction, in Renaissance texts, always implies deceit, and a grave risk to social order.  In other words, partisanship amounts to warfare, with or without lethal weapons.

One could hardly miss the presence of partisanship in the House Chamber when President Obama delivered his address on health care tonight.  I could hardly deny it in myself.  The partial government option he offered will disappoint many on the left, but since it addresses me I feel quite happy with it.  The Republican congressmen (yes, men) waving copies of a bill they'd written that apparently either didn't clear committee or gain consideration gave particularly childish evidence of partisanship in the hall.  

The grim demeanors of Lindsey Graham as he rubbed his hands in tension and John Boehner as he wore his perpetual scowl--except when Obama endorsed the Republican idea of malpractice reform, at which the Republican senators looked like fans (from the word fanatic...) at a football game when their team has finally scored deep into the fourth quarter, finally giving them something to cheer--suggested an odd combination of anxiety, pugnacity, and, yes, partisanship.  

Let's not leave out the Democrats.  Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may have forgotten her pompoms, but she hardly need them, seeming to beat everyone except perhaps her former colleague from New York Chuck Schumer to their feet when the president made a particularly powerful point.  Interestingly, at one point he just kept going through the cheers with a stinging series of assertions.  

As for Obama, for all his genuine overtures to the other side, including adopting an idea of John McCain's, the stakes of this speech came through most clearly at two junctures.  One can imagine Mitch McConnell taking umbrage when the president announced that the time for playing games is over, but it struck just the right note of a president who has tolerated about as much as he intends to tolerate.  I found it telling that well into the speech, at a pitched moment, he used a phrase familiar to all of his who voted for him last year:  "not this time, not now."  I watched for its reappearance, but it didn't come.

The signature moment for partisanship--why can't we just talk about the tribute to Ted Kennedy?--came when a lone Republican Congressman tried to call Obama a liar until Democrats drowned him out with boos.  It provided the lowest point of the evening, the clearest evidence that the extremism of the summer is disturbingly alive and well.

It also reminds us of the true threat of partisanship.  We all have the right to urge our cases, but what exactly do we mean when we say we will fight for our beliefs?  Partisanship is now, as it always has been, an expression of group loyalties.  It also represents the opposite of civility and, to a degree, citizenship, when it places the views of the few over and against those of the many.  Exactly what I did when I applauded the truncated version of the public option, not to mention when I wanted to scream at the set as the Republican response began.  

Obama used the phrase "disagree without being disagreeable" in his stump speech last year.  It speaks to the importance of civility, to listening.  Not to screaming, or waving unconsidered bills in the air, or lying to older people about death panels and Medicare.  Civility--as I get older, I respect it more and more.  It stands in tension with partisanship, but ought not be fundamentally incompatible with it.  We'll see how many Republicans want to let Obama make sense and give us what we all--not just what I, or you--need from health care reform.