Monday, August 10, 2009

Conservatives and Afghanistan

Conservatives frequently portray themselves as the pro-defense alternative to liberals. It goes without saying, that it is very difficult to regard the current liberal administration as in any way representing the national interest of the United States as far as security is concerned. But are the Conservatives really substantially better?

In fact, Conservatives are frequently pragmatic and focused on non-essentials, and as a result despite some exceptions frequently fall short of a principled stand for national security. Let's look at the current situation in Afghanistan as described in recent instructive article in the Wall Street Journal appropriately entitled Taliban Now Winning:
The Taliban have gained the upper hand in Afghanistan, the top American commander there said, forcing the U.S. to change its strategy in the eight-year-old conflict by increasing the number of troops in heavily populated areas like the volatile southern city of Kandahar, the insurgency's spiritual home.
The militants are mounting sophisticated attacks that combine roadside bombs with ambushes by small teams of heavily armed militants, causing significant numbers of U.S. fatalities, he said. July was the bloodiest month of the war for American and British forces, and 12 more American troops have already been killed in August.
Clearly the situation in Afghanistan is quite bad. Conservatives such as Stephen F. Hayes of The Weekly Standard, think this is Obama's problem:
For months, we've been hearing about deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan. Insurgent attacks are up. Coalition casualties are increasing. Poppy crops are flourishing. The Taliban is expanding its presence. Parts of the country are ungovernable. And where there is government, it's corrupt.

The public perception created by such reports is that Afghanistan is a disaster. The problem is that it's not a disaster. It's much, much worse.

And that's very bad news for Barack Obama. As a candidate, he argued that Afghanistan was the good war and that winning there was critical to U.S. national security. This fall, we will see whether he meant it.
The question to ask, however, is how could we let it get to this point, almost 8 years after the initial overthrow of the Taliban regime. A clue is provided by a column that Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote back in December 2004:
Before our astonishing success in Afghanistan goes completely down the memory hole, let's recall some very recent history.

For almost a decade before 9/11, we did absolutely nothing about Afghanistan. A few cruise missiles hurled into empty tents, followed by expressions of satisfaction about the ``message'' we had sent. It was, in fact, a message of utter passivity and unseriousness.

Then comes our Pearl Harbor and the sleeping giant awakes. Within 100 days, al Qaeda is routed and the Taliban overthrown. Then the first election in Afghanistan's history. Now the inauguration of a deeply respected democrat who, upon being sworn in as legitimate president of his country, thanks America for its liberation.

This, in Afghanistan, just three years ago not just hostile but untouchable. What do liberals have to say about this singular achievement by the Bush administration? That Afghanistan is growing poppies.

Good grief. This is news? ``Afghanistan grows poppies'' is the sun rising in the east. ``Afghanistan inaugurates democratically elected president'' is the sun rising in the west. Afghanistan has always grown poppies. What is Bush supposed to do? Send 100,000 GIs to eradicate the crop and incite a popular rebellion?

The other complaint is that Karzai really does not rule the whole country. Again the sun rises in the east. Afghanistan has never had a government that controlled the whole country. It has always had a central government weak by Western standards.

But Afghanistan's decentralized system works. Karzai controls Kabul, most of the major cities, and much in between. And he is successfully leveraging his power to gradually extend his authority as he creates entirely new federal institutions and an entirely new military.
The naiveté displayed by Krauthammer here in his enthusiasm at condemning the Liberal's lack of appreciation for the Afghanistan "miracle" would be funny if it wasn't so tragic. One would think that Conservatives, with their emphasis on tradition and history would know better. I would argue in fact that it is precisely such pragmatic, polemical thinking of clinging to the successful holding of elections as some kind of major achievement is exactly what got us into the situation we are in today.

What is missing from the the ideas of Conservatives such as Krauthammer is any concept of victory such as was used during World War II. Some better Conservatives, such as Daniel Pipes do recognize that such a concept is needed and were far more skeptical of Bush's war effort and overly ambitious democratic goals early on. However, even they at times fall short of a fully principled approach.

In fact, Conservatives do not present a real alternative to the appeasement engaged in by Liberals. The most consistent advocates for a principled foreign policy of self interest are Objectivists, who from the time of 9/11 attacks (and in fact long before) have advocated a policy of destruction for terrorists and their sponsors. Objectivists were also among the first to recognize that the nature of the enemy needed to be identified and that the goal ought to be victory.


madmax said...

I view many of today's conservatives as nothing more than socially conservative liberals. Most conservatives advocated an altruistic foreign policy that emphasized the *transformation* of Islamic societies instead of the *destruction* of those enemy societies. This, IMO, is because of altruism. Leftists will not defend America at all. They wont defend what they hate. Conservatives can only defend America in line with their Christian principles of war - Just War Theory. So, in fact and in reality, both left and right will not defend America. The Euro-American world is undefended in its war against Islam.

Gideon said...

Right. My hope is that as Objectivists are more and more prominent in the public eye, more of the public will have a chance to compare the more principled, forceful approach proposed by Objectivists to the altruistic pragmatism offered by Conservatives and Liberals and eventually come around to it. Obviously, this is a long term process.

Curious said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Curious said...

I came across your blog post through a google search on Objectivism + Afghanistan. I also came across this one:

I would like for you to comment this article. I have to say that I'm struggling a little bit to accept that we should NOT try to avoid civilians getting killed when sending military forces into countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

I would appreciate if you could ellaborate on the subject for me. Maybe in a new blogpost exclusively devoted to this question.

Gideon said...

Curious: I have removed the duplicate comment.

I will blog on your question in a new blog post