The Great Dialogue That Hasn’t Happened—Yet
Is there a way to have real dialogue between left and right about national security? As a card-carrying progressive, I get much of my news and opinion from “left-leaning” websites, and then try for token compensation by listening when I can to Mr. Limbaugh and friends. More thoughtful conservatives would say that I am doing a disservice to myself by trying to balance quality progressive thought against Wal-Mart conservative thought, which is probably true. What bothers me about folks like Beck and Limbaugh is the reflexive element in their thinking. If Obama were in favor of vanilla ice cream, Beck and Limbaugh would be against it. Though I admit to my own form of the reflexive. I have a Chomskyite tendency to be suspicious, especially after my government’s disingenuousness going into Iraq, of the motives for any American military venture.
An impressive “conservative” article appears in the April Atlantic Monthly, where Robert Kaplan argues eloquently that the President has it right about Afghanistan (I assume, in spite of what I said above about ice cream, that Beck and Limbaugh would agree). Setting aside the horrors of Predator drones and the disenheartening reports of “collateral damage,” by the end of the piece one gets an almost tragic sense of the good intentions of General McChrystal as he charges full-tilt at the Herculean task of creating enough security for Afghanistan to function as something better than a chaotic drug-financed wasteland. Which brings me to the place in my own thinking where I do believe military force may be appropriate—not “just war” theory, which seems to me to be a stilted rationalization for war, period—but in failed-state situations like the Sudan or Somalia, where a strong multi-national peacekeeping force could help restore enough order to at least stop the mass rape and pillage.
Does the Af-Pak region fit into that category? Or is the American presence only making things worse? Is this really at bottom yet another imperial-colonial adventure, one more hopeless chapter in the Great Game that goes back to the time of Alexander? Are we in Afghanistan to win the larger game of maintaining strategic control of the whole region to the east and west of Iran, our ultimate motivation being to maintain the flow of fossil fuel—and as well, to be sure, to strike directly at Al-Quaeda training camps?
If we’re there because the tail of War, Inc. is wagging the dog of security policy, then I want to know if my taxes would produce more security for me and mine if spent on low-key international police work against terrorism, rather than a military presence, however brilliantly led, whose heavy-handedness creates more terrorists than it kills. I want to know which would cost less and yield more security, the estimated million dollars a year per soldier in Afghanistan—or windmills in the Midwest that would lessen our dependence on overseas supplies of oil, and prevent our valiantly overstretched military from being used as a recruiting tool for Al-Quaeda? Which would strengthen us more as a nation, a security policy which says we have to be “stronger” than all other nations combined at the risk of bankrupting ourselves, or one that allows for multiple measures of strength, including the strength of having health care available to all our citizens?
Robert Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security. This appears to be a centrist think-tank that gathers thoughtful people from the left and right to hammer out security suggestions for now and future presidents. I’m sure the quality of the dialogue in their offices has more depth than the non-dialogue between Limbaugh and his progressive counterparts. But even ordinary progressive and conservative citizens at far remove from Washington think tanks need to find a way to do more than sneer at each other in the Limbaugh mode. Is his the model that represents the best in terms of how Americans talk with (not just to) each other? If there were more listening and more genuine dialogue, everyone could learn something and the policy discourse that bubbled up to leaders would be higher in quality. Given that we’re all in this together, can’t our disagreements produce light as well as heat?