Friday, December 09, 2005

Pinter's Nobel Acceptance

Here's a link to the Times' very good account of Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. If you're not registered, use bugmenot.com for a password.

He veered, as the story says, into the realm of international politics. One poignant observation he made was that the US has often supported dictators. At the moment, we're doing that in Pakistan where the presiding president, Pervez Musharraf, is in power not by election but by coup. He's hardly the worst, but I bring him up because we support him out of convenience, since he deftly chose to aid us in our good old "War on Terror." Worse is that we support him now because, before 9-11, and for years and through administrations from both parties, we supported the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Foreign policy is complicated enough that supporting odious regimes is probably necessary, from time to time, and the global landscape changes often enough that allies will often become enemies for various reasons. But, the lesson we haven't learned, is that when we do support the odious, it's possible, and even likely, that those dictators, governments or movements, will someday turn on us.

So, in light of that lesson, rather clearly given by our support of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, I have to ask a question that I've asked before -- what will be the ramifcations of our training and equipping an army in Iraq? From what I've seen, the notion of training Iraq's military has always been spun in a positive light because, when Iraq can defend itself and maintain order within it's borders, we'll be able to draw down forces. That point of view makes a lot of sense and has its merits. But, I can't help but wonder what will happen 15 or 20 years from now. Are we training and funding and arming people and organizations who will one day become our enemies? We've earned a lot of ill will in Iraq, after all. We weren't greeted as liberators and, in dealing with the guerilla climate that followed our invasion, our forces have had to take actions, like busting into the homes of suspected insurgents during holy days, or taking military actions that lead to the deaths of innocent civilians, that will leave lasting wounds and grievances. Beyond that, there's the behavior of our forces at Abu Grhaib and the completed collapse, in the face of the facts, of our motives for invading Iraq in the first place.

I keep hearing that we can't pull out because, if we leave Iraq in chaos, it will turn into a haven for terrorists, as Afghanistan did under the Taliban. That's a good point and it's one I believe is true, since it stands to reason that any region or country left in a state of anarchy will devolve, as has been shown many times before (Somalia, for example) into a region where warlords maintain unsteady environments and unjust laws where criminal organizations can flourish. Heck, we even saw that in Russia, after the break-up of the Soviet Union. It's true enough that those who would act outside of the global system will congregate in frontier regions where law is imposed by force, if at all. But, good as that argument is, it doesn't tell the whole story.

Terrorism, or even more organized and traditional (ie "state sponsored") threats can also grow out of stable countries. Throughout history, after all, most US conflicts that turn violent have been against other recognized governments with competing interests. Why assume that the government we create in Iraq will always be a reliable and useful client? Also, on the subject of terrorism, isn't it naive to assume that all of the soldiers we're training and arming there now, some of whom lost family members, loved ones, property or their place in Iraq's old society due to our intervention, won't eventually act against us on their own accord, using the weapons and knowledge we gave them?

Pinter focused on the US's sad history of supporting ignoble characters and immoral regimes. He was right to do so. Too often, what we've supported has turned into what we find ourselves opposing. Leaving Iraq in chaos is a real risk we face now, but it's not the only risk. We might also find, in the years that follow this experiment in democratizing by force, that even if we leave a stable government behind, it will become a threat. Or, that even if that government never becomes a threat, that the people who've been left to deal with our dramatic and undeniable rewriting of their environment, will become the very threat of terrorism that this war was purportedly waged to stop.

No easy answers here. We are where we are. We waged the war and toppled our former buddy Saddam. Leaving anarchy behind clearly compromises our future saftey and security. But, the alternative by no means assures the safety and security we were supposedly after.

One of Pinter's points, and it's a good one, is that we need to devise a foreign policy that avoids these no-win situations in the first place. I wrote earlier that in a complex world, we'll be bound to have to support the odious, from time to time, in the favor of our own interests. But, supporting such types always seems to lead to unanticipated consequences. Given that no foreign policy based purely on morality and idealism will work, I still say that we've compromised far too often and that, with far too much regularity, we've backed governments that are morally incompatible with our own. Unintended consequences should be expected, whenever we're dealing with a complicated situation. World politics is complicated enough that anybody working on the issues within should learn to expect the unexpected.

Pinter's speech wasn't a diatribe against America. It should be taken to remind us that the moral compromises that we make for short-term advantages have long term consequences. To take World War II as an admittedly extreme example, you sometimes have to choose sides between Stalin and Hitler. We did. We made the right choice, I think. But it had consequences. Half a decade of facing off with another power, where both sides could destroy the entire population of the planet many times over, was such an intense consequence that it defined most of global society for more than half a century.

The current debate about what the US should do in Iraq has become too simple. It's not "pull out and leave chaos or stay, perservere, and create a democratic republic in the Middle East that will serve as an example to the entire region." That's just not the debate. We should now be discussing, whatever course we choose, how we'll deal with the decades to follow and the ramifications of our war, which are frankly unpredictable.

The neocon vision that brought us to this point is a vision that creates a world, rather than one that deals with the world as is. That's what the whole kerfuffle about "the reality based community," was all about. In a way that I'd call "inspired by Nietzsche without really reading him," the minds behind this war believe that they're creating history, rather than dealing with it. This war was architecture except that nobody, not the people who supported it and not the people who oppose it, know what the building will look like.

We've plunged ourselves into an uncertainty that will confound us well past the point that Bush leaves office to build a library in Crawford, Texas. We have to deal with that uncertainty now. So... no pat answers from either side. But, arguments, please. A whole lot of arguments. Because we're right smack dab in ambiguity now and our supposedly "principled" policies, enacted over the last century by governments controlled by both of our major parties, has put us right to the point where none of us know what's going on.

2 Comments:

At 7:48 PM , Blogger Jon E. said...

Do you really think Bush will bother building a Presidential library after he leaves office? How much shelf space do you need to hold a half-read Bible, three Tom Clancy novels, and Playboy back issues from the mid 1970s?

 
At 10:34 PM , Anonymous nascardaughter said...

What will be the ramifcations of our training and equipping an army in Iraq?

Good question.

...And yet another reminder of why going to war over weird ideological abstractions like remaking the Middle East is bad policy. But as you point out, it's too late to change that bit now.

 

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