The Eve of Destruction

The Eve of Destruction – of all of the pretentious crap songs from the sixties, that one was the worst of them. It was offered to The Byrds – but they rejected it. Pretentious posturing just isn’t cool – that’s what rock ‘n’ roll was trying to defeat, after all. They passed on it. But Barry McGuire recorded it for Dunhill in 1965 and made a big hit out of it – the world is coming to an end because our leaders are fools, and everyone is blind, and we’re all going to die, and there’re not a damned thing anyone can do about it. There is no hope. Listen to it here.

Ah, the pure nihilistic anger of uninformed youth – there was a lot of money to be made there, and of course the song was banned by some radio stations in this country, as well as by the BBC and Radio Scotland. It was, basically, against everything. Everyone was lying. Only the singer could see how oblivious everyone else was, even if everything listed was actually rather obvious, and serious people had been working on the issues all along. A few months later, in response, that Green Beret medic, Sergeant Barry Sadler, released the hyper-patriotic Ballad of the Green Berets – and more followed. If you don’t like the way things are, you do something about them, you don’t strike a tragic pose to impress the girls. And years later, after Barry McGuire suddenly got all evangelical and born again, he refused to perform that song – until he modified the lyrics, as he’s no dummy. He needed the money from those nostalgia tours. That was his one big hit. It just needed to be tweaked so it wasn’t entirely callow and stupid.

But of course the Eve of Destruction song would not have been such a big hit had it not struck a chord (no pun intended) with something people were feeling at the time. Youthful posturing aside, sometimes it does feel as if the world is going to hell, and rather quickly, and on many fronts at once, and that there are no good answers to anything. And we may be in one of those times again. The economy came close to total collapse and the only way to save it was to shovel money at the rich folks who caused the problem, and to bailout GM and AIG and all sorts of major concerns that are going to die anyway, just to buy us time. So they got their billions, and their executives paid themselves massive bonuses, and the deficit tripled, and will triple again, while jobs disappear and people lose their homes. But the alternative to bailing out these losers was worldwide financial chaos followed by something far worse than the Great Depression. Sometimes there are no good answers, just an awful array of things you don’t want to do, and that most likely won’t work, and if one of them does work, won’t help all that much. And the Climate Change stuff is like that – even if we manage to do anything, which is highly unlikely, it seems to be too late – the ice caps will melt and the oceans rise, breadbaskets become deserts, wars will break out over water and food, species disappear and all the rest, no matter what we do, or don’t do. Yep, we probably should do something, but it seems that would be only to make things merely awful for a while longer, before the end of things. And you could choose other matters, where there are no good options – no quick fixes or obvious solutions. It does seem like the eve of something like destruction again.

And on Monday, November 30, on the eve of his national address at West Point, President Obama issued an order to the Pentagon to send additional troops to Afghanistan. He had spent much of the day discussing his decision with foreign leaders, and that was after communicating his instructions to the top brass on Sunday afternoon. This is a done deal. But it may not be a good decision.

Nicole Belle, after listening to Keith Olbermann offer his Eve of Destruction commentary, telling the president not to do this, said this:

It’s frustrating to me, as someone who sees no shame or weakness in embracing pacifism and peace as a goal to continually run up against Democrats who are so frightened about being portrayed as weak on defense to be swayed by something so patently nonsensical.

What is our mission now? When can we know we’ve achieved it? There are less than 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. How is this “the good fight”? We have allowed the Taliban inroads into the government, so we cannot fight them without taking on Afghanistan as a state player, which changes our strategy entirely.

Please, President Obama, do not be beholden to campaign promises made a year ago. There is no “winning” in Afghanistan. Ask the Russians. There is no good fight. There is nothing there worth American blood and treasure.

But the troops are on their way. The Olbermann Special Comment is at the link of course – but he’s often as apocalyptic-pretentious as McGuire was back in 1965. But Nicole Belle is right – it’s a terrible decision. The problem is it may be the best decision. All the other options could be worse.

And there is this – An Open Letter to President Obama from Michael Moore.

This is rather straightforward:

Do you really want to be the new “war president”? …

With just one speech tomorrow night you will turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics. You will teach them what they’ve always heard is true – that all politicians are alike. I simply can’t believe you’re about to do what they say you are going to do. Please say it isn’t so. …

What would Martin Luther King, Jr. do? What would your grandmother do? Not send more poor people to kill other poor people who pose no threat to them, that’s what they’d do. Not spend billions and trillions to wage war while American children are sleeping on the streets and standing in bread lines.

Moore frames this also as a matter of fairness:

All of us that voted and prayed for you and cried the night of your victory have endured an Orwellian hell of eight years of crimes committed in our name: torture, rendition, suspension of the bill of rights, invading nations who had not attacked us, blowing up neighborhoods that Saddam “might” be in (but never was), slaughtering wedding parties in Afghanistan. We watched as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were slaughtered and tens of thousands of our brave young men and women were killed, maimed, or endured mental anguish – the full terror of which we scarcely know.

When we elected you we didn’t expect miracles. We didn’t even expect much change. But we expected some.

He too has a point. The last eight years were unconscionable – unacceptable, and maybe evil, and certainly criminal. And we go on, to finish a job we can’t quite define? But of course Moore doesn’t really address what happens if we don’t go on. Sure, good things happen at home, and we stop killing a whole lot of people, which just enraged other people. But then what?

But then there is this piece in the Washington Post, Fred and Kim Kagan simply gloating about the inevitable “troop surge” that President Obama will be authorizing for Afghanistan. They, and all the neoconservatives, and Bush and Cheney, were right all along:

Adding forces gives us leverage; military forces are vital to the success of any political strategy because they contribute directly to improving governance as well as to improving security.

The recent American experience in Iraq illustrates how U.S. forces and diplomacy helped correct the behaviors of a sometimes malign government in ways that helped neutralize insurgent groups.

Yep, the Surge Folks say do it again. It worked in Iraq – there it provided the stability that allowed the Sunni and the Shi’a to kiss and make up, and pat the Kurds benevolently on the head, so there will be elections soon to work everything out. But of course there won’t be – vetoed by the Sunnis and soon to be vetoed again. Our guys died to give them breathing room. They died for nothing. We should have sent Dr. Phil or something.

But it will work this time:

If the Afghan government were fully legitimate, there would be no insurgency. … [We] must persuade and even compel Afghan leaders to stop activities that alienate the people and create fertile ground for insurgents.

Jason Sigger is not impressed:

Wow. I’m torn between thinking that that paragraph is either the most patronizing or the most idiotically simple statement ever made. Do the Kagans really believe that if the Karzai government were less corrupt, that the Taliban would all say, “oh, obviously we can deal with this man, let’s all give up our arms and drug money and participate in a democratic government.” The Taliban are inherently opposed to a democratic-type government, they want to be in charge.

And Sigger cites this paragraph:

American military forces can also help restrain politicians’ abuses of power. U.S. forces can develop a picture of local power structures, including those through which Afghan officials abuse their power and exacerbate the insurgency. American commanders can collect evidence on individual offenders that a reformed Afghan judicial system would one day be able to use.

Sigger says this:

That’s a great idea, if Karzai doesn’t go legit, we’ll make him – by embarrassing him, because the blatant evidence of corruption in Kabul hasn’t really done it enough. As for the Afghan judicial system, does “decades from now” count as “one day”? This is not a culture that will adopt Western values, but again, somehow the Kagans think that we can impose it on them.

It seems there are bad choices, and then there is pure fantasy.

So how can we step back and look at this, without all the apocalyptic posturing, and without the neoconservative daydreams about an alternative universe? Should we escalate or pull out of the war in Afghanistan, or something in between?

The answer to that might be, instead of listening to all these folks who are so certain of things, to listen to someone who is deeply conflicted. That may seem counterintuitive – when the going gets tough you want to turn to someone who has figured it all out and know the answer, or answers. But when things are really tough, and you’re getting conflicting answers from those who say they’ve figured it all out, maybe you want to turn to someone who is still, as they say, thinking it through.

And in that case you might want to turn to Slate’s Fred Kaplan and attend to his mixed feelings about the war in Afghanistan.

He frames this as his dilemma, as columnists are supposed to have firm views and express them with steadfast certainty, and he’s just not sure about Afghanistan. In fact, he confesses he has hedged, hemmed, and hawed around the whole question:

When I’ve proposed or endorsed a specific strategy, I’ve carefully noted that it’s an approach the president should take if he decides to deepen U.S. involvement in the war. Sometimes, I’ve ended the piece with a caveat or a pointed question that suggests deeper involvement might not be such a good idea. Yet I’ve stopped short of taking a stance on whether he should or shouldn’t send more troops or whether doing so is or isn’t a good idea.

So he finds himself being the one thing that a columnist probably shouldn’t be – ambivalent:

I’ve studied all the pros and cons. There are valid arguments to justify each side of the issue, and there are still more valid arguments to slap each side down. And if the basic decision were left up to me, I’m not sure what I would do.

But his uncertainty can be instructive, because it highlights what the issues really are, like the issues with pulling a Michael Moore and hauling ass out of that nowhere place:

But if we simply pulled out, it’s a near-certain bet that the Taliban would march into Kabul, and most other Afghan towns they’d care to, in a matter of weeks. True, the Taliban are not the same as al-Qaida, but there’s little doubt that they would provide sanctuary and alliance (as they did after the Soviets were ousted), and this would strengthen al-Qaida in its struggle against Pakistan, the United States, and others.

One might dispute the significance of this, at least for its direct danger to the United States. Al-Qaida, after all, can plan attacks on U.S. territory from other sanctuaries, even from apartments in Western cities. But it’s naive to claim that leaving Afghanistan would have no broader effect.

Another problem with withdrawing is that it would signal, correctly or not, a huge victory for anti-American forces generally. If we left Afghanistan to the Taliban (and, by extension, al-Qaida), especially after such a prolonged commitment (at least rhetorically), what other embattled people would trust the United States (or the other putative allies in this war) to come in and protect them from insurgents? None, and they could hardly be blamed.

But he also knows a weak argument when he sees it:

First, it’s reminiscent of the bankrupt rationales, involving “credibility” and the “domino theory,” for staying in Vietnam long after that war was widely viewed as a horrible mistake. But Afghanistan is different. The Taliban are not the Viet Cong, and Osama Bin Laden is not Ho Chi Minh; there is no case, this time, that the enemy has a just claim to power. And the stakes are much higher: Communists ruling South Vietnam was never a serious threat to our security; al-Qaida controlling a huge swath of South Asia is.

The second reason I’m uncomfortable about even saying this is that the argument can, and almost certainly will, be used to justify staying in Afghanistan if it turns out that this war is futile, too. It’s easy to hear the generals saying, a year from now, “Three more brigades should do the trick, Mr. President” and “If we pull out now, Mr. President, our credibility will be severely compromised.”

Of course all of that is moot – no one in the Obama administration has advocated a total pullout. Olbermann and Moore are not players here. The only “stop the madness” argument was to hold troop levels where they are, but Kaplan says that is pretty much the clearest recipe for war without end:

The constant refrain one hears from soldiers and commanders in the field – confirmed by any journalist who spends much time with them – is that they’re strained by the shortage of resources. No matter what strategy President Barack Obama decides on – chasing terrorists, protecting population centers, or some combination of the two – there aren’t enough troops now to pursue it with much chance of success.

The existing troops can probably hold the Taliban at bay and keep Afghanistan from falling apart, but little more than that. The war then becomes a contest of endurance, and we’re not likely to win. (Yes, lots of American troops stayed in West Germany and South Korea for several decades – some remain there still – but they were deterring wars, not fighting and dying in one.)

Okay, that’s a bad choice, as is the Biden option – use the drones and Special Forces and fight from afar, being sneaky:

With a mix of special-operations forces and airstrikes, it’s appealing in the abstract, but it neglects the mundane realities of warfare – that you need good intelligence to know who and where the bad guys are, and that to get good intelligence you need troops on the ground, and more than a handful of commandos, to cultivate and earn the local people’s trust.

And as for the option of just training up the Afghan army and police, maybe we want to think that one through too:

… in this war, “training” is done on the job – not so much by drilling and exercising the Afghan soldiers on bases (though there is some of that) but rather by leading, observing, and fighting alongside them out in the field. In other words, the line between “support troops” and “combat troops,” ambiguous to begin with, is fuzzier still here. And at least in the short run (for the next few years), it’s unlikely that enough Afghans can be trained quickly enough or thoroughly enough to secure the country on their own.

So we are left with escalating our effort, or escalation to a degree, which is also tricky:

The key question here is not so much how many more troops Obama sends but, rather, what he decides they should do (and we don’t yet know his decision on that point, either). Still, some questions can be raised in advance.

If he decides on a counterinsurgency strategy (which emphasizes protecting the population more than chasing terrorists), the Army field manual’s calculations suggest that something like 400,000 troops would be needed – and, even under the most optimistic assumptions, there’s no way that U.S., NATO, and Afghan armies combined will amass anywhere near that many forces anytime soon, if ever.

This is why much of the strategy will likely involve cultivating Pashtun tribal leaders to fight the Taliban and prodding relatively moderate Taliban groups to turn against the more militant ones – in short, buying key people off, whether through persuasion, money, weapons, ammunition, logistical support, or the supply of basic services.

That’s not pretty, but it might work, and it might be necessary:

The United States has never fought this kind of war before (unless you count the Philippines, which lasted 40 years and involved a level of brutality that would never be countenanced today). We haven’t been fighting this kind of war even in Afghanistan. (As the saying goes, we haven’t been fighting for eight years but, rather, for one year, eight years in a row.) Starting to do so now, as even some of the advocates of escalation admit, is a large gamble with short odds.

So here’s what it comes down to: This option might be a good idea if it worked, but the chances of its working are slim (though not zero); all the other options seem to be bad ideas, but they might cost less money and get fewer American soldiers killed (though not necessarily).

Which road is less unappetizing? I don’t know. That’s why I’m ambivalent.

As for Obama, Kaplan can only offer this:

Let’s hope he found something. A columnist can be ambivalent; a president can’t be.

But of course that’s only half of it. That’s only geopolitical strategy as it pertains to national security, war and the life and death of our soldiers, the massive additional costs to our now oddly fragile economy and how the world perceives us, which determines who helps us and trades with us and all the rest. The other half is domestic politics, which Kevin Drum explains:

It’s pretty hard to see how this ends well. But I think what it demonstrates most strongly is the fantastic political nightmare involved in ever pulling out of a war that hasn’t been decisively won. Vietnam is the big-ticket example here, of course, but there are better ones. Take Somalia. After the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, conservatives demanded that Bill Clinton pull out immediately. Not another American life was worth risking for a barren patch of dirt on the Horn of Africa. Clinton refused, insisting that we “finish the work we set out to do,” and kept troops in country for another six months before withdrawing in an orderly way.

And what happened? Conservatives turned around and immediately started building up a mythology that Clinton had lacked spine and immediately ran for the exits at the first sign of trouble. Just like a Democrat to be so weak-kneed! What’s more, it’s now received wisdom on the right that it was this panicky withdrawal that first convinced Muslim fanatics that America was weak and could be attacked with impunity. In the end, Clinton took a hit for withdrawal even though he was the one who insisted on not cutting and running.

If that’s what happens to a Democratic president who played a hawkish role in a small, unimportant war, what would happen to a Democratic president who played a dovish role in a big, important war? Nothing good. Pulling out of Afghanistan would have all the actual effects Kaplan talks about, but it would also be a political disaster.

So Obama had to escalate. It was inevitable – “The institutional support for war among the American chattering classes is just too powerful.”

Funny how that makes you feel like singing that old Barry McGuire song… It’s like the sixties never ended.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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