Thursday, December 24, 2009

peace on earth?

Peace: we all want it, some of us desperately. If somehow you have trouble imagining what such a desire looks like, consider the photos taken in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan in Greg Mortenson's new book, Stones into Schools. Even the one with Angelina Jolie in her UNHCR role, her most important one. The problem with peace, of course, comes when we discuss how to achieve it. Which leads us to postulate number two.

Paradigms: we all invest in them, act according to them, see the world through their assumptions. As Shakespeare wrote of greatness, so with paradigms. We are born into some by inclination and gifts; some we achieve as the result of hard work and ambition, or even hard work and humility; and some we have thrust upon us by circumstance and the unmistakable evidence of reading and research--one hopes sufficiently wide while knowing full well otherwise. Cornel West likes to say that the problem with postmodernism is that there is so much to read.

On Christmas eve, the night of peace for Christians, this subject has particular aptness. Liberal/progressive orthodoxy--a timely notion--holds that we can only achieve peace through peaceful means. Thus spake Einstein, Gandhi and King, and who are any of us to gainsay that tradition? Greg Mortenson stands very firmly in that tradition. I have not read the new book yet; I received it as a Christmas present only this afternoon. I have read his argument for relying on regional shuras or councils, and heard him articulate his passionate belief in that approach in an interview with Rep. Mary Bono Decker. Paradigm one.

Paradigm two. We have just witnessed the remarkable occasion of a war president defending war as the path to peace while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Squirm. Or not? Of Americans in Afghanistan, though the ambassador has serious qualms, while the former journalist and now apparently full-time military advisor Sarah Chayes does not. This paradigm argues that military power alone can eliminate or marginalize those elements who through destabilizing policies and campaigns most threaten the development of conditions that bode well for peace.

Idealism vs. realism; dogma vs. pragmatism. The Mortensons of the world would not want to hear it put that way. Mortenson himself has accomplished so much through peaceful means and by his gentle demeanor, which wins so much support as a tonic to the bluster of political and military personas, with both of which he has become quite familiar. Mortenson has to answer one question. Yes, he has produced one paradigm shift, of helped, in that some elements of the Taliban now accept the education of women, a very significant change. What about the Hekmatyars and Mullah Omars and the rest of the Islamicist subculture that won't? Do you win them over in a shura? The history of the last twenty years and then some suggests not.

I considered declaring myself a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. World War II stopped me; its ugliness notwithstanding, its fundamental justice spoke very clearly to the at least occasional justice of war. I agreed with Joe Biden that we belonged in Bosnia when President Bush I didn't, and Bill Clinton that we belonged in Kosovo when we led a NATO interventino there. I disagreed, quietly, with all of my friends in graduate school, and I mean all of them, who opposed the first Gulf War. I don't care who your foreign friends are, if they're your friends for whatever distasteful reason and you've pledged, out of whatever ill-considered logic, to protect them and someone, even your lackey in the country next door who you badly misled about your likely response to his likely actions, invades them and they, for whatever lack of foresight on their part, lack the means to defend themselves, you defend them. Period.
Bush II was another story. We had no reason to invade Iraq. Period. I marched as I've never marched before or since against that war, the wrong war.

On September 11, 2001, I felt plunged into sadness, and saw a war looming before us unmistakably. I didn't want it, I didn't welcome it, I didn't lead any cheers in its favor. I simply didn't see how any president, even Al Gore, could have avoided such a war, and for that reason didn't oppose it. Eight years later, those who oppose Obama's escalation of the war forget something crucial. We took a powder on what we started in Afghanistan to invade Iraq. I would love to see Rumsfeld brought to trial, not so much or merely for war crimes in Iraq, as for treason for his incompetence in directing the war in Afghanistan. His incompetence in tying Gen. Franks' hands at Tora-Bora is obvious; treason because of the damage to the United States caused by his failure to the fight the fight that bore fighting in favor of one he made up whole cloth withe cowed collusion of the CIA and Colin Powell, inconceivably and just about unforgivably.

With all the complexities of Afghanistan--and Pakistan--including the likely fact that Osama bin Laden is across the border in Pakistan, President Obama has it right. One suspects he would like to say much in defense of this war that he cannot. He deserves this credit, as well: he sounds every bit the reluctant warrior, someone who would prefer not to drink from that particular cup, but must and therefore will. Peace, after all, is both a state and a process, something one lives and strives toward. The progressive paradigm would like to essentialize peace, but even in our daily lives we know better. Peace is a process. Mortenson would argue that you therefore give peaceful activity a chance; Obama would argue that the most peaceful thing you can do is dismember al Qaeda and reset the table in Afghanistan so the Mortensons can accomplish more. Reluctantly I fear he has the better argument; the one encouraging factor in all this is his own reluctance.

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