Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Raul's Reflection #5

One of the functions of wisdom is to serve as a corrective against certain tendencies. This is one reason that ideas that are said to be "timeless" are not so at all. While people are conditioned in a certain way, a wise saying may truly be wise - helping to bring humankind away from old patterns and into a new phase of thought and action.

When "wisdom" becomes merely a saying, which reinforces the way people already tend to think, it ceases to be wisdom and becomes at best a useless plaything and at worst an obstacle to further development.

A strong medicine, taken for too long after the passing of an illness, may make the patient sicker than he was to begin with.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech

Let me start this off by saying that I've been pleased by the first six months or so of the Obama administration. Obama is to my right on most issues, but then, that's elected officials for you. People to my left tend to get locked up in psych wards rather than elevated to political office, so I've gotten used to that.

Though there are lots of things I think Obama could be handling better for the most part he seems to be doing a decent job with a rough situation.

In that context let me also say that the Cairo speech last week was a pretty decent attempt to lay out some basic common ground between US foreign policy thinking and the thinking of the rest of the world's people who tend to take a dim view (as I do) of most of the core tenets of US foreign policy.

That said, there was one part of the speech that gave me a case of the disappointed-headshakes, which was paradoxically the part of the speech that's being most characterized as an "antiwar" sentiment.

Near the beginning of the speech, Obama had this to say:

The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates America's goals and our need to work together. Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al-Qaida and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice. We went because of necessity. I'm aware that there's still some who would question or even justify the offense of 9/11. But let us be clear. Al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 people on that day.

Which is pretty standard boilerplate for US foreign policy discussions over the last eight years. The statement's main drawback is that it has only a very vague relationship with reality.

The truth is, the war in Afghanistan was a war of choice. We didn't HAVE TO go invade Afghanistan. It is undeniably true that many people (including many people who are generally antiwar) felt at the time, just a few weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, that we had no option other than to invade. But that simply wasn't the case. There are many paths we could have taken with regard to pursuing the goals set forth at the start of the Afghanistan invasion.

This is one case among many where the really transcendent awfulness of the Bush administration has screwed up the entire context of our discourse. The Iraq invasion wasn't just a "war of choice." It was a self-evidently absurd and boneheaded policy choice that was at the time completely unmoored from any rational, ethical or moral foundation.

Compared to the Iraq invasion, though, Afghanistan is generally thought of in the US as "Bush's good war." So it generally gets the sort of treatment that it got in Obama's Cairo speech.

I just want to make a couple quick points about this. At a very minimum, if we're going to talk about whether a decision was correct or not we should compare the consequences to the probably consequences of the main alternative course of action (in this case, pursuing the 9/11 terrorists through an international criminal investigation rather than through military action), and also to what might have happened if we had done nothing.

The three primary goals set out in the early weeks of the war were the goals of apprehending Osama bin Laden, disrupting and restricting the activities of Islamist guerillas operating in Afghanistan, and ousting the Taliban in favor of a democratic, representative government.

On the first goal, obviously we failed utterly as bin Laden is as far as anyone knows still at large. It can't really be known whether he could have been apprehended by an international criminal justice effort but it's certainly the case that he wouldn't be less in custody than he is now. In fact, it's fairly clear we could have gotten the same result if we had done nothing.

On the second goal, people generally assume that the Afghanistan invasion has done a lot to restrict the movement of guerillas in Afghanistan, but the one specific investigation of that question that I know of (Hy Rothstein's "Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare") concludes that the picture is at best mixed. The US effort in Afghanistan has been remarkably, and foolishly, focused on blowing things up rather than building the kinds of human networks that make it difficult for terrorist groups to operate, and thus it's not very clear how much we've really improved things with the invasion. Once again we can say that the international criminal investigation probably would have achieved at least the same result, if not a better one, and that doing nothing at all would not have been demonstrably worse than invading.

As for ousting the Taliban, we did that, but we never managed to replace them with anything particular, and thus in the judgment of most of the experts I've read if we were to withdraw from Afghanistan today the Taliban or some Taliban-like group would regain control of the country fairly quickly. This is the one area where you can say pretty definitively that the invasion came closer to achieving the goal than could have been achieved by doing nothing or by conducting a criminal investigation. It's not nothing, but given the costs of the invasion, high on the US side and immense on the Afghanistan side, it's pretty thin gruel.

Now, it's not logically impossible for something to have been completely necessary and yet failed to achieve any substantive positive results. There's an argument to be made that the Afghanistan war was necessary and correct despite having failed. It's just that I'd like to see someone actually MAKE that argument, instead of it constantly being assumed to be self-evidently true that a failed war was a good idea.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Death of George Tiller

I rarely post about abortion. It falls squarely under the "dumb stuff I can't believe we're still arguing about" category.

However, after the death of George Tiller, by most accounts an extremely compassionate, courageous women's health care provider, I thought I would toss my basic thoughts on the matter out into the ether.

Many years ago, there was a consensus in this country that if a woman was pregnant she should be forced to carry the child to term and deliver it. There were laws against seeking abortions and laws against providing them.

As the rights of women advanced throughout the 60's and 70's, this consensus broke and eventually the Supreme Court recognized an affirmative right of doctors to provide abortions. Now, abortion is legal, and a comfortable majority of Americans consistently agree in polling that abortions should be legal and available to women who need them.

That's the state of play, though the large, vocal committed minority of people who want to make abortion illegal again do their best to obscure it. It is close to unthinkable that the old consensus, grounded as it was at least in part in the view that women were not fully citizens, will ever reemerge.

It's certainly possible that through the use of terrorist violence - gunning doctors down in church, say - some especially unbalanced abortion prohibitionists will be able to intimidate some doctors into ceasing to provide these procedures. What's much less possible is that Americans will ever again come around to the belief that women should be forced to carry to term pregnancies that they desire to terminate.

Given the roots of the anti-abortion coalition in the "born-again" social engineering movement sometimes called "evangelical christianity," I know as well as anyone that they will continue to fight on with whatever means are at their disposal - it is not in them to look around, consider the situation, and back down.

Count me as one lonely voice trying to wake a few of them up.

This one's over. You lost. If this truly is an inhuman horror, it is one that, despite your ironclad conviction to the contrary, your God can clearly abide.

Pick a different battle. The world is full of injustice.