Conservatism And Afghanistan


You may recall a time when conservatives believed in a strong defense, but also opposed using the military for open-ended nation-building efforts against amorphous enemies in failed states. The argument was that you cannot impose order and civilization on alien societies with foreign forces, that the occupying troops will become part of the problem after a while, that culture matters and not every country is ready for democracy or even a functioning central government. Intervention should be brief, and only undertaken under duress. This is George Will's classical conservative take on the utopian beliefs of the neocons in Afghanistan. As a general principle, it is solid. But in this case, the argument is almost comically persuasive. I mean: if you were to come up with a country least likely to be amenable to imperial improvement and edification, it would be hard to come up (outside much of Africa) with any place less propitious than Afghanistan, a tribal alien place with almost no record of central governance whatsoever. We also have historical precedent for imperial and neo-imperial failure: the British failed in Afghanistan over many decades; the Russian empire was defeated in Afghanistan in one. Does anyone believe that Russia would be stronger today by remaining in Afghanistan? Yes, the Taliban hosted al Qaeda, and we were right to evict them. But al Qaeda can move to many failed states, and we cannot occupy or civilize all of them. Moreover, the war is showing signs of becoming a self-licking ice-cream: the insurgency is now only united by opposition to foreign troops, we have pushed it into Pakistan thereby actually increasing the odds of an Islamist state that already has nukes getting even more unstable. And yet the calls for repeating what cannot work - because the war is too big to fail - remain.

I guess neoconservatism is nothing if not anti-empirical. I remember Bill Kristol's and Lawrence Kaplan's assurances that ethnic and religious sectarianism no longer existed in Iraq before the invasion. (I also note no connection made whatever on the neocon right between the legacy of the massive Bush-Cheney debt and the scope of a super-power's ambitions.) We will soon be approaching almost a decade of occupation of Afghanistan, but a decade is not enough for some. Here is the neo-imperialist Max Boot making the case yet again for more empire for many more decades:

The impact on Pakistan"a nation that actually matters," in Mr. Will's wordsis particularly sobering. To the extent that we have been able to stage successful attacks on al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan, it is because we have secure bases in Afghanistan. To the extent that we have not been more successful in getting the government of Pakistan to eliminate the militants on its own, it is because we have not convinced all of the relevant decision-makers (particularly in the military and intelligence services) that we will be in the region for the long-term. Many Pakistanis still regard the U.S. as a fickle superpowerhere today, gone tomorrow. That impression took hold after we left Afghanistan and Pakistan in the lurch in the 1990s after having made a substantial commitment to fight Soviet invaders in the 1980s.

The failure of the US, in other words, has been in not stating firmly that the empire is for the indefinite future and that we will be there for ever or until what Richard Cohen calls "absolute security" is achieved. The logical conclusion of this argument is that for total security to occur, the US will have to occupy half the Muslim world. And, of course, any withdrawal, in the zero-sum macho calculations of the neocons, will embolden the enemy. There is no sense here of the tragedy of history, the fact that invasions can drift into permanent occupations, that they can act as engines for Jihadism, that they can radicalize neighboring states, like Pakistan. Less-is-more is not a nuance neoconservatism ever countenanced. For them the entire world is a potential West Bank.

If this is the strategy Obama wants to continue, then he will be governing as a neoconservative after being elected to undo neoconservatism. A president needs to be able to tell the truth: there is no way to ensure that Jihadist terror will never reach America again. It will - because we are a free society and only police states can banish such violence. And leaving an impossible project is not a function of weakness and fear, but of strength and strategy. Americans have been treated like babies for too long. And the politics of fear is not what Obama represented last year. It was what he ran against.

Leave as soon as possible. Or be Bush III.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty.)