Managing Reality

Ernest Hemingway was a bit of jerk, always making bold and manly pronouncements that probably got on everyone’s nerves. Yeah, courage may be grace under pressure, but bullfighting is kind of stupid – and one doesn’t talk about manly manliness. You do what you do, or you don’t. That’s it. One can imagine Gertrude Stein, who was far manlier than he’d ever be, telling him to give it a rest already, but that wouldn’t stop him. He’d no doubt run on, saying things like all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain – Huckleberry Finn. That’s where you nod politely and glance at your watch, and excuse yourself.

That wasn’t even that provocative a statement. Others had been saying the same sort of thing. Before Mark Twain, most American literature had been in the British manner, in style and structure and theme – only the setting was changed. Twain did start to mix that up. No Englishman could have written Huckleberry Finn, but then we did learn a lot from the British, and we still do. Dickens gave us a whole new world of human interaction to think about. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave us Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate cool thinker, who still lives on in various forms. Tolkien gave us Middle Earth, and endless Peter Jackson movies, and J. K. Rowling gave us Hogwarts. The sixties gave us the Beatles and James Bond, and Twiggy. Out here in Hollywood, any Brit with a good accent is still assured of a long career. Winston Churchill was George Bush’s hero. We tend to think the Brits know a thing or two.

Maybe it’s time they helped us out again, this time with that empire thing. At one time the sun never set on the British Empire – and then it was all over. They were in Iraq for a time, and they left, having accomplished next to nothing. They were in Afghanistan for a time too – that’s where Doctor Watson got his war wound – and that was a disaster. Few even made it out in the end, and nothing changed. They couldn’t rule India, much less control it, and then India was gone. All the other colonies became independent nations, more or less, in a loose trade confederation, and now Americans are far more fascinated with the royal family than Canadians ever were. It all slipped away. How do you deal with no longer being the center of everything?

Denial is no good. Those neoconservative guys did get their pliable not-too-bright man in the White House, a useful enough front-man, as long as he didn’t go off-script, for their pet project all about the New American Century – we’d use our military might to slap the world around, making them all, whoever they were, do the right thing. No one else could, so we should, and that led to eight years of Dick Cheney insulting every nation on earth, friend or foe, and insulting the timid and foolish American people too. He called it strength. Donald Rumsfeld only insulted what he called Old Europe, all our major allies for the last fifty or more years. We don’t talk with rogue regimes, we replace them. That’s what Cheney liked to say. That’s why we stopped talking to North Korea a week or two after Bush took office. That’s why we never talked to Iran, when we could. We didn’t need too. We were top-dog, the only remaining superpower.

That didn’t work out, but not because George W. Bush was a sneering frat boy who hated it when things got all complicated. In his last months in office he finally began to get it – he refused to pardon Scooter Libby, and he and Dick Cheney barely spoke to each other after that. He was becoming his own man, a bit late. It’s just that the damage was done. Those who imagined a true American Empire, finally – although they didn’t like to call it that – were imagining what never could be. It was already too late. China was rapidly ascending and no one else was in awe of us. As for Iraq, there were no weapons of mass destruction, so the French had been right all along, damn it. That was embarrassing, and the wars weren’t going well. The most powerful nation, ever, wasn’t such hot stuff, but then globalization had made a few giant multinational corporations far more powerful than any single nation, so the concept of nations was quickly becoming quaint it a way. That’s not where the action is these days, and anyway, our two overt foreign wars, and all the subtle military interventions almost everywhere else, had drained us dry. These things must be paid for, and then, to top it all off, the economy collapsed because we thought it would take care of itself. Nope, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand slapped us silly. We were broke. You can’t build the empire you always wanted when you’re broke.

Given all that, McCain never stood a chance against Obama. McCain wanted to threaten Russia with all-out war over their five-day invasion of Georgia, and said he’d solve things in the Middle East by telling the Sunnis and Shia to just cut the crap, and he wanted to bomb Iran. Obama said he wasn’t opposed to all wars, just dumb wars, and won the day. McCain imagined our empire as if it were fully functional – we have awesome power and we should use it. Obama imagined no such thing, suggesting we do what was smart, in our national interest, and what we actually could do, given our now-diminished resources, and given the fact the rest of the world really wasn’t in awe of us. That New American Century that the neoconservatives imagined wasn’t possible, in the real world. Mitt Romney imagined that empire too. He’d never apologize for America, and he’d do bold things – but no one ever believed a word he said, not even many Republicans. The message was stale anyway. America decided, twice, that they’d rather have a president who seemed willing to deal with the real world, not an imaginary empire.

That means Obama’s job is to manage decline, at least the slow and sad decline from the imaginary empire. Otherwise he just has to manage the real world. It’s the same sort of thing the British faced as they discovered they weren’t the masters of the world after all. The guy in charge will take a lot of crap from those who imagine glory, in their nostalgia for what once was, or in our case, for what they dreamed should have been – but you do what you have to do:

Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after next year, according to American and European officials.

That’s it – all gone – nothing to show for more than a decade there – but Hemingway was wrong about bullfighting too. Courage as grace under pressure is wonderful, but some things are just stupid:

Mr. Obama is committed to ending America’s military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and Obama administration officials have been negotiating with Afghan officials about leaving a small “residual force” behind. But his relationship with Mr. Karzai has been slowly unraveling, and reached a new low after an effort last month by the United States to begin peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

Mr. Karzai promptly repudiated the talks and ended negotiations with the United States over the long-term security deal that is needed to keep American forces in Afghanistan after 2014.

A videoconference between Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai designed to defuse the tensions ended badly, according to both American and Afghan officials with knowledge of it. Mr. Karzai, according to those sources, accused the United States of trying to negotiate a separate peace with both the Taliban and their backers in Pakistan, leaving Afghanistan’s fragile government exposed to its enemies.

Mr. Karzai had made similar accusations in the past. But those comments were delivered to Afghans – not to Mr. Obama, who responded by pointing out the American lives that have been lost propping up Mr. Karzai’s government, the officials said.

No more of our guys are going to die for a jerk, and now we actually know how to do this:

The option of leaving no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 was gaining momentum before the June 27 video conference, according to the officials. But since then, the idea of a complete military exit similar to the American military pullout from Iraq has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario – and a useful negotiating tool with Mr. Karzai – to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul.

Karzai will get with the program, or we’re gone. The world won’t end, even if John McCain will scream bloody murder, just like he did when we left Iraq. There was a lot of screaming as the British Empire slowly fell apart – wounded pride. Wounded pride is better than wounded and dead Americans, for no good reason, and even proud military men see that:

Within the Obama administration, the way the United States extricates itself from Afghanistan has been a source of tension between civilian and military officials since Mr. Obama took office. American commanders in Afghanistan have generally pushed to keep as many American troops in the country as long as possible, creating friction with White House officials urging a speedier military withdrawal.

But with frustrations mounting over the glacial pace of initiating peace talks with the Taliban, and with American relations with the Karzai government continuing to deteriorate, it is unclear whether the Pentagon and American commanders in Afghanistan would vigorously resist if the White House pushed for a full-scale pullout months ahead of schedule.

This is, of course, not ideal:

The ripple effects of a complete American withdrawal would be significant. Western officials said the Germans and Italians – the two main European allies who have committed to staying on with substantial forces – would leave as well. Any smaller nations that envisioned keeping token forces would most likely have no way of doing so.

And Afghanistan would probably see far less than the roughly $8 billion in annual military and civilian aid it is expecting in the coming years – an amount that covers more than half the government’s annual spending.

This may seem dishonorable, but what we’ve done there is gone now anyway, and we don’t want this:

The Afghan population deeply resented the British troops. Tensions slowly escalated, and despite warnings from friendly Afghans that an uprising was inevitable, the British were unprepared in November 1841 when an insurrection broke out in Kabul.

A mob encircled the house of Sir Alexander Burnes. The British diplomat tried to offer the crowd money to disburse, to no effect. The lightly defended residence was overrun. Burnes and his brother were both brutally murdered.

The British troops in the city were greatly outnumbered and unable to defend themselves properly, as the cantonment was encircled.

A truce was arranged in late November, and it seems the Afghans simply wanted the British to leave the country. But tensions escalated when the son of Dost Mohammed, Muhammad Akbar Khan, appeared in Kabul, and took a harder line. …

Sir William McNaghten, who had been trying to negotiate a way out of the city, was murdered on December 23, 1841, reportedly by Muhammad Akbar Khan himself. The British, their situation hopeless, somehow managed to negotiate a treaty to leave Afghanistan.

On January 6, 1842, the British began their withdrawal from Kabul. Leaving the city were 4,500 British troops and 12,000 civilians who had followed the British Army to Kabul. The plan was to march to Jalalabad, about 90 miles away.

The retreat in the brutally cold weather took an immediate toll, and many died from exposure in the first days. And despite the treaty, the British column came under attack when it reached a mountain pass, the Khurd Kabul. The retreat became a massacre.

Only one man, Dr. William Brydon, a British Army surgeon, made it alive to Jalalabad. Sometimes it’s best to leave before things get out of hand:

On March 10, Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, shocked Western leaders by declaring that recent attacks proved that the Taliban “are at the service of America.” The implication was clear: terrorists were colluding with the United States to sow chaos before America’s planned withdrawal in 2014. American and European leaders, mindful of the blood and treasure they’ve expended to defend Mr. Karzai’s government, were baffled and offended.

But to students of Afghan history, Mr. Karzai’s motivation for publicly spurning foreign powers was quite obvious. A Taliban news release on March 18, which received little notice in the Western press, declared: “Everyone knows how Karzai was brought to Kabul and how he was seated on the defenseless throne of Shah Shuja,” referring to the exiled Afghan ruler restored to the throne by the British in 1839. “So it is not astonishing that the American soldiers are making fun of him and slapping him on the face because it is the philosophy of invaders that they scorn their stooge at the end … and in this way punish him for his slavery!”

The Taliban inadvertently put their finger on a key factor in understanding Mr. Karzai’s psychology. After all, as an elder of the Popalzai tribe, Mr. Karzai is the direct tribal descendant of Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, Britain’s handpicked ruler during the first Western attempt at regime change in Afghanistan in the mid-19th century.

Karzai would rather be the other guy:

Today, Shah Shuja is widely reviled in Afghanistan as a puppet of the West. The man who defeated the British in 1842, Wazir Akbar Khan, and his father, Dost Mohammed, are widely regarded as national heroes. Mr. Karzai has lived with that knowledge all his life, making him a difficult ally – always keen to stress the differences between himself and his backers, making him appear to be continually biting the hand that feeds him.

In 2001, top Taliban officials asked their young fighters, “Do you want to be remembered as a son of Shah Shuja or as a son of Dost Mohammed?”

Karzai would rather be Dost Mohammed, and Andrew Sullivan adds this:

Obama’s election in 2008 was a clear repudiation of the reckless interventionism of the recent past; his re-election in 2012 cemented the shift toward a global American role that is more attuned to our balance sheet and our actual security threats. Leaving remnants of empire behind in places like Iraq and Afghanistan undermines that shift, re-legitimizes the notion that the US must somehow control every nook and cranny of the globe (we can’t and it corrupts us when we try).

That’s the change Obama represented to the next generation: a pragmatic adjustment to a reality that has nothing to do with the neocon and boomer mindsets of the past. He has delivered, by and large. But the clarity of the departures is what will help define the future: a future of limits.

Yes, Sullivan is British – born in South Godstone, Surrey, in the early sixties, so he knows all about post-empire ennui, and limits. As an old-school conservative he also knows about reality – it’s better to deal with reality than jingoistic nonsense.

The same applies to Egypt. Two and a half years ago people there finally got fed up with thirty years of Hosni Mubarak – a real thug – and had themselves a revolution. It was time for an election – the people there would choose their own government for the very first time. Democracy was finally coming to the largest Arab state, but this made the United States a bit queasy, as Mubarak had been useful. He had moderated the stance of the other Arab states in the region, telling them to calm down about Israel when things got too hot. We could use him as an intermediary with some very bad actors, and we tossed him a few billion dollars a year in military aid, so other nations in the region would take him seriously – but his own people hated his guts, and we believe in democracy.

We had to cut him loose and reluctantly support the revolution, chiming in late, urging caution. We had no choice. Government should be of the people and for the people and by the people – Abraham Lincoln said so. It’s just that sometimes that sort of thing is geopolitically counterproductive, and it’s not like the Egyptian people didn’t notice. Obama delivered his famous reconciliation speech in Cairo – we could all get along in a new age of mutual respect – but geopolitics always trumps mutual respect.

The situation was difficult. One does not thwart the will of the people. At least we don’t. The people get to choose their leaders. We don’t step in when they make the wrong choice, except in Iran in 1953, engineering a coup that brought back the Shah – but we learned our lesson there – and as for now, we support democracy, so we cannot support a military coup, which is what just happened there. As awkward and distasteful as it is, we have to be on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood, on the side of that Morsi fellow the military removed from office – but we believe in the will of the people too. They should decide things – and they actually wanted this military coup. We thus should ridicule the Muslim Brotherhood, as simultaneously excessively authoritarian and incompetent. Or maybe we should just shut up – but Egypt is too important – it’s the lynchpin to too much over there – so we can’t shut up. This spreading-democracy thing isn’t easy.

We have reached the limits of our powers. We have none. There are no good options here, the civil war is just starting, and in the Guardian (UK), Omar Ashour explains where that leads:

The shadow of Algeria in 1992 looms. There, the full-blown civil war did not start right after the coup in January, but in September 1992; nine months later. If al-Seesi and his junta behave like Khaled Nezzar in Algeria or Francisco Franco in Spain, we are likely to see an escalation in armed confrontations between the junta and the president’s loyalists. This can have disastrous regional and international consequences. Egypt’s population is three times that of Algeria in the 1990s and more than four times that of Syria. Unstable Libya and Sudan are on the borders and so is Palestinian Gaza and Israel. All sides in Egypt have their international and regional allies and patrons and they will be asking them for help.

And we’re supposed to do… what? Maybe we should ask the British. The Brits know a thing or two. They know how to cope with the reality of actual limits. They lost their empire, and now we’ve lost ours, even if it was only imaginary. Call London.

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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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