Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why do they hate us?

That was a question many Americans asked after 9/11, and I heard it more than once around that time. Some people around me, knowing that I'm the type that reads history and the international section of newspapers, asked me variations on the question. But as the memory of 9/11 recedes, fewer and fewer people are asking.

The previous post dealt with President Obama's decision about sending troops to Afghanistan, and the fact that it's hard for people to make military judgments but within their power to decide whether we should be there at all or not. I said that it's perfectly reasonable for people to want the troops home, but one then has to face the fact that since Bush didn't do the job he should have done, leaving now would mean that there would likely be Al-Qaeda training camps there in the not-too-distant future. Obama is trying to prevent that outcome while insuring that U.S. troops will not be there indefinitely.

In this post, I want to talk about what we would have to think about if Obama had brought the troops home and abandoned the mission. First of all, it's entirely possible that nothing at all would have happened. Terrorist plots at varying stages have been foiled in the past, and will probably continue to be in the future. It might take some luck for Western governments to foil every one, but it's not out of the question. And it's going to be much harder for Arab terrorists to do anything like another 9/11, since at this point anyone who looks somewhat Arabic in America is going to get looked at the same way as a gangsta-outfitted young black man in a jewelry store. Not that all Arabs are terrorists, but most terrorists do seem to be Arabs. Hopefully, of course, racial profiling won't be necessary to do good police work.

Secondly, and more controversially, we could always dry up the supply of terrorists by doing less to offend the Muslim world. That would have been much easier six years ago, but the abuses (torture, Abu Ghraib, indefinite detention of innocents) of the Bush government will be recruiting tools for Al-Qaeda for the next few decades. Still, the election of a black man in America has had some positive impact on America's image in the world, and a change in policies would help the situation greatly. I'm referring specifically to America's Israel policy, in which America funds and arms a country that dominates and rules a few million Arabs, and is methodically integrating (i.e. stealing) and populating land which according to every international treaty and map does not belong to them. But might makes right, the Palestinians cannot fight back in any effective way, and the U.S. has been Israel's unwavering patron and supporter. A Palestinian who lost his brother, whose uncle's family was pushed into another country, whose father is in an Israeli jail, or whose grandfather who tells over and over again the story of how in 1948 Jewish militants pointed rifles at him and his family and told him to get off this land... why should he not consider America his enemy?

What, you ask, does this have to do with Al-Qaeda? Nothing, directly. But indirectly, it does. Famous images aired at the time show Palestinians firing rifles into the air in celebration the day after 9/11. Not that many did, of course, but while most Arabs were not happy that three thousand innocent people had died, many at the same time were pleased that finally someone had given America a bloody nose. It's that feeling that Obama wants to change, and this is a part of his outreach to the Arab world (including bowing more than the Right would like to see him do). It's called draining the swamp. Osama bin Laden will plot as long as he has money and men. We could bite into his supply of both with a more even-handed Israel policy.

The Right won't hear of this, because the last thing they want to do is what terrorists want us to do. But the irony is that while Al-Qaeda says they want America to get out of the Middle East, they really don't. What they want is an escalation of the conflict, because extremists on both sides of any conflict want it escalated, not solved. Fighting America raises Al-Qaeda's stature, whereas fighting Middle Eastern governments would be physically and politically dangerous. Al-Qaeda wants the whole Middle East to be united under their extremist version of Islam. They claim to be acting for the benefit of the Palestinians, but they don't give a damn about them. They cynically use the suffering of the Palestinians as a way to sweep up the anger and resentment of the Arab world and use it for their own ends, trying to be seen as standing up for Muslims. If America improved its Israel policy, Al-Qaeda wouldn't stop its activities... but support for it in the Arab world would ebb, and that's the important thing. Obama understands this, and he's been trying to make Israel policy less one-sided, but he can't change the political climate by himself. Unfortunately (more on this in a future post), putting real pressure (i.e. threatening to withhold aid unless certain policy changes are undertaken) on Israel isn't a politically feasible option in the U.S. right now.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, they positioned troops to continue on into Saudi Arabia, but never did; this seems to have served as a near-death experience for the Saudis. Understandably nervous even after Kuwait was freed, the Saudis requested a U.S. troop presence. Al-Qaeda used this as a talking point, saying that infidel troops shouldn't be stationed on the holy soil that hosts Mecca and Medina. The troops stayed for over a decade, then finally left after the Iraq invasion in 2003, as Saudi Arabia no longer needed protection. Al-Qaeda, of course, did not give America any kind of credit for this, or ease up on their anti-American threats or activities. They threaten and attack America because it suits their political purposes. This wouldn't change if American was able to secure a just peace and independence for the Palestinians, but doing so would do much to ease the resentment from which Al-Qaeda derives its support.

In any case, just because Al-Qaeda wants us to do something doesn't mean that it's a bad idea to do it. This has been a real article of faith among the American Right: if Al-Qaeda wants us to do something, we must absolutely not do it, or we have surrendered to terrorists, or some such thing. This is as stupid as it is wrong, as it fails to consider that what Al-Qaeda says it wants and what it really wants may be different things. But those who use fear to support their policies have never been much for subtlety.

So, whether you favor or oppose Obama's Afghanistan policy, it's good to understand the background of the situation, and the consequences of your choice. There are alternatives to more troops; they're just more difficult, and require a bit more knowledge and thought. We just need to look at the situation from a point of view other than our own. That's never easy, but always useful, whether you're an individual or a country.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Obama's Afghanistan decision

Um, why are we in Afghanistan, again?

Oh, yeah! 9/11! I remember now.

I seem to recall that a month or so after 9/11, over 80% of the U.S. public was in favor sending troops to Afghanistan. I don't have current numbers on the plan Obama announced a few days ago, but judging from the political ambivalence, I'm pretty sure it's no higher that 50%. Democrats especially want us to get out. (Update: Gallup says that 51% approve of Obama's plan.)

The problem is that Bush attacked, helped the allied Afghans push the Taliban out of power, but wasn't able to get rid of them completely. They're in control of a few cities, and they're in the background, waiting for the right opportunity to gain ground again. It's not that if the U.S. left the Taliban would take right over, but there could be another period of civil war, given the lack of a strong central government with armed forces loyal only to the government. The Taliban could, eventually, take over again. Or, they could gain control of some territory, enough to let Al-Qaeda operate freely again, and then we're back where we were before 9/11. Distracted by the Iraq war, the Bush government never committed the resources necessary to build a new government and a safe society in Afghanistan (if that can even be done, which, to be fair, is far from certain).

So, did we go over there to deliver an ass-kicking, or to make sure the Taliban can never operate so openly as to host Al-Qaeda as they did before 9/11? If it's the former, mission accomplished, let's go home. But if it's the latter, that's not done yet. I think that if you disapprove of Obama's plan, if you want the troops to come home right now, you need to face up to the fact that the Taliban will be back, and will bring Al-Qaeda with them. We'll see pictures of Osama Bin Laden standing in a field, dozens of terrorists standing behind him, promising an even deadlier attack against America. If you think that's a price worth paying for bringing our troops home now, then fine, that's not a totally unreasonable point of view. Maybe we'll be more successful in stopping future 9/11's before they happen. But I think a lot of people have lost sight of why we went there in the first place, and the fact that the job isn't done is Bush's fault, not Obama's. If you approved of the attack against Afghanistan in 2001, you can be legitimately disgusted that Bush screwed it up, but you should give Obama a chance to do it right.

I believe the problem is that most people aren't looking at it in terms of a security problem to be dealt with, but in terms of how they feel about it emotionally. "Our troops have been overseas too long" or "Afghanistan isn't worth it." In some sense I can understand and agree with both thoughts, but I wouldn't want a President who made decisions based on such thoughts. I want a President who makes a clear-eyed decision that weighs national security, values, world opinion, geopolitical strategy, military capability, and morality. Of course, domestic opinion should be considered, but the simple fact is that most people can't be experts on this kind of topic, and can't evaluate whether Obama's plan will be successful or not. I was asked at my workplace what I thought of Obama's decision, and my answer was something along the lines of, "I can't know whether it'll succeed, but I do know that if we do nothing, the Taliban will be back. I know enough about Obama to know that he must have thought about this deeply, he took his time, he asked for a variety of opinions, and he wouldn't have done this if he didn't think it was the plan with the best chance to succeed. So, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt."

I think that most citizens can't have an opinion on how to accomplish the military mission. I think that most citizens should have an opinion on whether the mission is worth doing, whether it's worth the human and financial cost, but I'd hope that people would have decent knowledge of the overall situation when making that decision. In this situation, I'm far from sure that that's the case.

Update (12/6): there's an excellent New York Times article outlining the arduous process that the Obama White House underwent to form and debate the policy that was eventually decided. If more people read articles like this, we would all be better off.