Magazine article The American Conservative

Losing Afghanistan: Prolonging This Good War May Be Worse Than Persisting in the Bad One in Iraq

Magazine article The American Conservative

Losing Afghanistan: Prolonging This Good War May Be Worse Than Persisting in the Bad One in Iraq

Article excerpt

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD observed, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." From that perspective, some of the proud members of Washington's reality-based community exhibit the characteristics of very intelligent super-achievers when they ridicule President George W. Bush's grandiose plans for remaking Iraq--while embracing similarly ambitious designs for nation-building in Afghanistan.

But then, as George Orwell wrote in 1984, "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them" amounts to the kind of Doublethink that politicians use to deceive and manipulate their people. Is that what critics of the Freedom Agenda are doing these days when they seem "to use logic against logic" (Orwell's words) in offering conflicting policy recommendations for two regions in the Broader Middle East?

Realists urge the U.S. to take a cautious approach to achieving ethnic and religious reconciliation in Mesopotamia, pointing to deep-rooted conflicts between Arabs and Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunnis. But these same Realpolitik types become born-again idealists as they insist that American leaders, together with the entire "international community," should help resolve the ancient differences between Pashtun and Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, and the Aimak and the Turkmen and the Baloch people. You see, the Aimak are not so different from the residents of Chevy Chase, Maryland. They just want to live together in peace with their friendly neighbors the Baloch, and we have the obligation to help them do that.

Well, forget Fitzgerald and Orwell. Since some of my best friends are Iraq skeptics and Afghanistan enthusiasts, I'll try to be somewhat neutral. Embracing the judgment of a value-free social scientist, I propose that my pals are neither super-smart jugglers nor duplicitous propagandists. Rather, they may be suffering from a mild form of cognitive dissonance.

One assumes that rational political players holding two contradictory ideas will try to reduce the dissonance by rejecting one. They could propose that we actually undertake nation-building in both Iraq and Afghanistan or, like other powers (the British Empire, czarist Russia, the Soviet Union) who tried without success to impose their preferred order on Afghanistan, we admit that we will probably not be able to get these many tribes to sing "Kumbaya" around the campfire in Kandahar.

They won't be the last aspiring policymakers to deal with the stress of holding conflicting ideas at the same time. Neoconservatives are finding out that establishing an empire and spreading democracy are mutually contradictory. Since learning that reality the hard way--somewhere on the roads between Baghdad and Beirut and Gaza--they have been trying to minimize their dissonance by denying discomforting evidence like the tendency of free elections in Arab countries to bring anti-Western figures to power.

Meanwhile, the rest of us continue to pay the costs of juggling imperial imposition and democracy promotion. And contrary to the expectations that many opponents of the neocons have invested in the "antiwar" Democratic presidential candidate, these costs will only rise if President Obama decides to play Queen Victoria and Woodrow Wilson simultaneously. He seems inclined to do just that.

"As president, I would deploy at least two additional brigades to Afghanistan to re-enforce our counter-terrorism operations and support NATO's efforts against the Taliban," candidate Obama promised during a foreign-policy address at the Wilson Center in Washington. "As we step up our commitment, our European friends must do the same, and without the burdensome restrictions that have hampered NATO's efforts," he explained to members of the foreign-policy establishment, who want to see U.S. troops relocated from Iraq to Afghanistan to do nation-building there--and to do it right this time. …

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