Friday, November 20, 2009

The Price of Vanity

The debate about Afghanistan is usually framed as a matter of dueling moralisms. The hawks, supposedly, are the ones who insist that the Taliban must be defeated because of their support for terrorism and their oppression of women and Afghanis in general. The doves are represented as unhappy with our military intervention because of a generalized rejection of war as an instrument of policy. I have my doubts if this version of the argument has much to do with the real opinions and motives of the participants since both sides use ethical appeals to pretty up positions taken for Real Politik reasons and like to paint their adversaries as, respectively, brutal cynics or feckless idealists. Well, I don’t know what really gives with the military experts, IR mavens, and talking heads: my own thinking about our Afghanistan policy isn’t about morals or motives. I simply don’t think we can win the war.

In many respects, Afghanistan is not very much like Vietnam—there is vastly more international support for our efforts in Afghanistan than there ever was for our Southeast Asian adventure, for example, and Vietnam never harbored terrorists who attacked us at home—but in one way, the two situations are similar. As Nixon understood just as well as LBJ or McGovern, there was never a prospect of prevailing in Indochina. Thing is, there is no prospect of prevailing in Afghanistan either. It’s not just that the American public would not stand for the level of expenditure required for victory. Victory wouldn’t be worth it even if it we were willing—or able—to pay the price. The real question for Obama is whether deferring defeat for a few years is worth some lesser but still enormous cost.

Of course there are always people who will claim that America can do anything if it weren’t for the defeatists among us. From their point of view, I’m not very patriotic to suggest that my country has limitations just like any other.