Looking Forward to the End of 2009 (and the End of the Decade For That Matter)

The newspapers and broadcast television today are filled with slightly premature retrospectives on 2009 and, I’ve got to admit, I will not miss it. One set of retrospectives I’d like to commend to your attention is the set of ten reflections on the past decade at the New York Times.

Each year is addressed by a different writer. If you’re salivating after grand insights, you’ll go away hungry but there are a number of small thoughts contained in the little essays that make the whole thing worth reading. You’ll have to click through to the individual essays to read each of them. I thought the best insight was this brief paragraph by William Langewiesche from his essay on 2001:

The government played a role, but primarily by maintaining a perimeter around the site, and resisting the urge to intervene. The restraint was brilliant. The paradox is that elsewhere in response to the attack the same government failed the country so badly — pursuing policies that magnified the effect by distorting American society and leading the country in directions where the Unites States will usually fail. Collectively we are good at kicking down doors. But we are poor at nation-building, at fighting guerrilla wars, at spending tax money within our means, at living in a police state and, more generally, at forcing the world to behave as we think it should. If our government’s reactions accurately reflected American society, we could regard Sept. 11 only with complete dismay.

Those are observations which I think were pretty obvious in 2000 let alone in 2001 or 2009. I’m afraid that I don’t see us turning any of those realizations about our national character, its strengths and limitations, into action. Quite to the contrary I see us as doomed to repeat them.

President Obama has decided to double down on nation building in Afghanistan even while he’s got one foot headed towards the exit. The only thing I can see materializing from that is a nasty sprain. The Congress has also doubled down, in their case on spending beyond our means. If the healthcare reform that will inevitably emerge from the Congress behaves as I expect it will, increasing healthcare costs even faster than before, it will only hasten the collapse of our healthcare system.

If the experience with the Iranians and in Copenhagen demonstrates one thing it is not that the world is longing for American leadership but that, even in the presence of American leadership, there are simply no followers. They perversely won’t do what we want them to do and insist on doing what they think is best for them.

7 comments… add one
  • hattip Link

    Really? Japan? Germany?

    Can I have this list of nations which excel so far beyond us at nation building? Remember, we are not talking about conquest or colonization.

  • hattip, you might want to read up on the history of Germany and Japan prior to World War II. Japan, in particular, had a strong sense of national identity going back 1,000 years or more. Reconstruction and nation-building aren’t the same thing.

  • President Obama has decided to double down on nation building in Afghanistan even while he’s got one foot headed towards the exit.

    I don’t think that’s the strategy. I think we’re managing a dignified withdrawal. I don’t think we’re calling it that, but it’s what we’re doing.

    As for health care I think you’re looking at the first act of a three act play. You may be absolutely right. But whatever comes out of Congress will be just a beginning. It may be the beginning of a disaster, but we can’t confidently predict that yet. I’ll bet a bottle of Scotch we have a public option or medicare buy-in (probably the latter) within 4 years. And I think we’ll have the beginning of serious entitlement reform right after the 2010 election.

    . . .there are simply no followers.

    Of course not, we don’t share an existential threat. No Commies, no Nazis. So, to where, or against what, should we be leading anyone? Shouldn’t we be happy there’s no USSR looming?

    As for your core suggestion that we aren’t learning and are stuck in our knock-down-the-doors pattern, I don’t see it. I think we have learned that lesson (for now) and have a president who is far less about jutting jaws and pounded chests and much more subtle.

    Imagine Mr. Bush’s handling of the green revolution in Iran. By now the green forces would have been effectively smeared as agents of the US. The regime would have lost legitimacy, but so would the good guys. Because we did the unpopular but subtler thing — sotto voce, hand extended — the regime is discredited and the greens are still seen as what they are: Iranians first.

  • I think you’re a little more dazzled by President Obama than I am, Michael. I hope you’re right.

    My own view is more along Pat Lang’s: President Obama has been overwhelmed by the generals. My evidence is that we still have more troops than we need to have in Iraq (our troops are now irrelevant to the security situation in Baghdad—we don’t have troops there any more); we have more troops than we had a year ago in Afghanistan and soon will have even more; the operational tempo has risen in Pakistan; and there appear to have been U. S. military operations in Somalia and, possibly, Yemen.

    However, my “leadership” point was directed specifically to policy WRT Iran and global warming. We gave as much as we possibly could have in Copenhagen and were completely rebuffed. We may be leading but the rest of the world isn’t following.

  • I don’t see any evidence of his being overwhelmed by the generals.

    Obama’s position, going back to the campaign, has been that Afghanistan should be the focus of our main military effort. So it’s not surprising that he sent reinforcements soon after inauguration. And again with this surge. In fact, had he not reinforced, I think people would have said he’d been captured by Daily Kos.

    No matter what he had decided those who are most critical on the left and the right were bound to sneer that he had been bullied. The flaw in that reasoning is the damned-if-you-do nature of it. It carries within it the assumption that his thought process was a fraud, and Obama was nothing but a weak sapling being blown this way or that. I’ve seen no reporting that suggests Obama was going through some charade.

    I think we were in more trouble than people realize in Afghanistan. As you’ve pointed out on many occasions we have a very tenuous supply situation there. I think we might well have been closer to disaster than we’ve admitted.

    Withdrawing under fire is a tricky operation and no one wanted another helicopters-on-the-embassy roof situation.

    Setting a tick-tock on departure signaled that the generals were not getting an open-ended mandate. It signaled that Karzai wasn’t either. That doesn’t signal nation-building to me, it signals ‘decent interval.’

    I’m sure Obama hopes Karzai (or a successor) can keep it together for a period of years. If he does, I hope we do what we can to stabilize that government. But I don’t see that happening. I see us pulling an Iraq: buying enough space to declare victory so we can get the hell out.

    As for Iraq, aren’t we just following the previously-established withdrawal schedule? What would you have had Obama do? Rush for the exit despite our own stated plans?

  • steve Link

    Iraq will have violence whenever we leave IMHO. Accelerating withdrawal would have accelerated the violence. There is also the need to get through elections. I think he is stuck with Iraq as is.

    As to Afghanistan, I think there is an element of truth in Lang’s article. I think he gave fair hearing to all involved, but as a group they have much invested in Afghanistan and cannot bring themselves to quit. I think he is influenced by Gates a fair bit, and Gates came in on the side of the generals. Deciding to start pulling out now, or go to a pure CT approach would have had no real support from the foreign policy/national defense crowd. This all relates well to the spate of posts that went around a month or two ago noting that you do not get accepted as a serious foreign policy guy if you are anti-war.


  • The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) doesn’t prohibit us from withdrawing early, merely allows us to retain forces in Iraq until 2011 (when we should have all forces removed). Unlike in Afghanistan Iraq’s population is overwhelmingly urban. Once we’d removed forces from Iraq’s cities with Al Qaeda in Iraq essentially moribund the primary reason for our troops being there were symbolic and force protection. No real reason to stay.

    The problem with the scenario you’ve laid out for Afghanistan is that President Obama continues to assert the centrality of Afghanistan in our national interest. I see no credible way to reconcile that with withdrawal until whatever objectives must be achieved have been.

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