A Big Blast in Afghanistan

America’s war in Afghanistan has dragging on for so long that by now most Americans have largely forgotten about it, but it was back in the news on Thursday with a literal bang. The Air Force dropped the Mother of All Bombs on an Islamic State encampment, and that’s not just Trumpian hyperbole but the actual nickname of the weapon.
The official moniker is Massive Ordinance Air Blast, but the initials naturally inspired the more apt term that all the military types apparently use. It weighs 22,000 pounds, packs a net explosive weight of 18,700 pounds, and is said to be the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever deployed in the long history of war. That’s still probably insufficient to bring a conclusion to what is already America’s longest-running military conflict, but surely enough to have a literal impact on the Islamic State.
Such serious ordinance suggests a renewed American seriousness about the Afghanistan war, and the broader war on terror, so even if it doesn’t serve any broader military strategy that’s good enough for us. There can be no pity for the Islamic State savages that the bomb fell on, who are just one of the problems we face in Afghanistan but a bigger threat in Iraq and Syria and all the places around the globe where they’ve pulled off terror attacks, and it’s hard to pass up such a golden opportunity to eliminate so many of them in one fell swoop. Although the Islamic State usually embeds itself in civilian areas the target was carelessly free of any non-combatants, and the Russians and Iranians and Sunni Arabs and other players that make fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria so complicated don’t care about godforsaken and mostly oil-free and perpetually troublesome Afghanistan, and that big bomb had been sitting around in a warehouse for years with no good reason not to use it. A 22,000 pound bomb can’t be launched from even an almighty B-52 or placed atop even the most powerful missiles and instead has to be pushed out of a cargo plane, meaning it’s only useful against enemies who lack even World War II-vintage anti-aircraft systems, so that’s another reason to grab the rare chance to try it out on the likes of the Islamic State.
Coming shortly after the 59 Tomahawk missiles that were launched at an airbase in the trickier Syrian terrain, it also sends a potentially useful signal of resolve. President Donald Trump’s administration has since sent mixed signals about that Syrian strike, with the Secretary of State warning that anybody who murders young children anywhere in the world can expect more of the same and the White House Press Secretary stressing that what the president had said just a days before about not being the policeman of the world still applied, and those more conventional bombs don’t seem to have stopped that airbase from launching it’s own conventional bombs in its long-running civil war, but the message with the Mother of All Bombs probably won’t be so muddied. Although the Syrian strike eked out a 51 percent approval ratings in the first poll, there was also heated criticism from both the peacenik left and the isolationist right, as well as principled constitutional conservatives who had insisted that President Barack Obama seek congressional approval for such an action and the sorts of intellectually honest liberals who had to admit they had defended Obama’s inaction. Trump himself had also urged inaction at the time, and “tweeted” the missiles strikes were only used to prop up sagging poll number, and plenty of others on both left and right proved just as flip-floppy, and there’s no telling where they might all flip and flop to next.
What just happened in Afghanistan is a whole lot simpler, though, in military as well as domestic and international politics terms. America went to war in Afghanistan because that is where the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were launched, and similar intolerable acts were still being planned, and not just President George W. Bush but also future Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the United Nations Security Council and the leaders of pretty much every decent democratic nation agreed that was sufficient reason to wage war there. Since then there’s been plenty of argument about how it should be fought, although the troop levels and casualty rates have lately been so low you wouldn’t have noticed it during the past campaign, but even after so many years there’s still a bipartisan consensus that America remains entitled to drop any old bomb on that troublesome land that it chooses.
Trump’s action was still empowered by the military authorization that bipartisan majorities granted way back when it all started, too, so there’s no trouble with the argument that critics on both the left and right are raising about the constitutionality of that Syrian strike, and it’s not the same betrayal of his isolationist campaign rhetoric, which also included explicit promises to bomb the barnyard epithet out of the Islamic State. The Russians still want nothing to do with Afghanistan ever again, the Syrians and Iranians and their Sunni antagonists have little reason to care, the United Nations and all the decent democratic nations have more pressing concerns, and the Democrats have better fights to pick, so we can hope that he’s taking advantage of a rare opportunity take care of some business in Afghanistan. Should Trump administration articulate how it’s serving some broader strategic purpose, which it very well might, that would also be nice.
There’s really no getting out of Afghanistan until we leave a country that’s unlikely to ever try anything like Sept. 11 again, and even that low bar seems awful high for a long time to come, and unlikely to be achieved even with the Mother of All Bombs, but with low troop levels and relative-to-the-history-of-war low casualties America has kept the country’s long history of hate from infecting the rest of the world for the past 16 years or so. Such small victories aren’t satisfying to any American, and especially to such accustomed-to-winning-big-league types as Trump, but that’s how the score is kept in a season that’s arguably been lasting the Seventh Century or so.
Dropping that Mother of All Bombs on a remote and conveniently civilian-free camp full of murderous Islamic State thugs during a unique opportunity to do so was a good idea, and kudos to the generals who came up with it and the president who listened to them, despite his campaign promise that he knew more about the Islamic State than the generals did. We’ll count it as one of those small victories in a long, long war, and faintly hope that Trump will settle for that claim.

— Bud Norman

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Renewing the War in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama announced Thursday that the war in Afghanistan will outlast his presidency, with at least 5,500 troops still there on his successor’s inauguration day, and we realized that it was the first mention of that unhappy subject we’d heard in some time. The 18-year-old privates who are still slogging it out in that godforsaken land were 4-year-olds when the conflict began, so by now it has about the same slight effect on the public’s consciousness as one of those long-running reality shows that you are only reminded of when they are inexplicably renewed for another season.
Obama was unmistakably disappointed to make the announcement, and understandably so, as it broke one of his solemn campaign promises from the heady days of ’08 and acknowledged that his Cairo speech and the rest of that open-handed outreach to the Muslim world hadn’t fully soothed the more savage Islamist breasts and that his hated neocon critics had been right all along, but he didn’t have any choice. Ever since he kept his campaign promise to “end the war in Iraq” an even more troublesome war has sprung up in that country and spilled into Syria and drawn in the Iranians and the Russians and unleashed a highly problematic flood of refugees into Europe, not to mention the war in Yemen and the instability in the Libya that he bombed into anarchy and the recent acts of violence against Israelis that he has to make excuses for, so leaving Afghanistan when it’s still so ripe for picking by the worst sorts of people would have been more than even a Nobel Prize-winning peacenik’s reputation could endure. Better to make the inevitable announcement now, let the unpleasantness in Afghanistan once again recede from public attention, and allow the more worshipful first generation of biographers to dwell on how he “ended” the Iraq War.
One hopes the decision will at least prevent the worst-case scenario of the Taliban regaining control of the country and re-opening the terrorist training camps that started the war in the first place, but at this point no one seems to be talking about a best-case scenario. Even in the Bush administration’s most hopeful dreams of democracy-building there were was never any thought that such a stubbornly tribalistic and bellicose and backward country as Afghanistan could ever transformed into something like a functioning state, although they did think that it might be achieved where some Iraqis could still recall a relatively modern and democratic Baghdad, so the goal was always to establish an Afghan government with some legitimacy that would impose at least enough order to shut down the terrorist training camps. That’s still the goal, so far as we can tell, but it’s not at all clear that the past six years or so of the effort have brought us any closer, nor can see how the 9,800 to 5,500 troops that Obama will continue to deploy are going affect any further progress.
The question hasn’t come up in any of the presidential debates, so far, and none of the candidates seem to be talking about it, and neither does anyone else. When we bring it up we’re forced to admit that we can’t see any more favorable outcome than a long hard slog by 18-year-old privates who weren’t even born when this mess began. There are 18-year-old privates in South Korea and Japan and Germany whose parents weren’t yet born when the wars that landed them there began, however, and sometimes that’s the price to be paid for a relatively peaceful global order, and no one likes to talk about that.

— Bud Norman

Memorial Day

Among the fallen heroes we honor today are some who fought in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Ramadi in order to bring democracy to that country and cease its support for terrorism. Lately both cities have fallen into the hands of a sadistic terrorist gang calling itself the Islamic State, presidential candidates from both parties are questioning the decision to send American troops into Iraq in the first place, nobody seems to be asking it if was a good idea to withdraw them, and those who survived the ordeal are feeling forgotten and disrespected. We won’t take up time on a holiday best spent with barbecue and beer by arguing the wisdom of the American efforts in that country, or their apparently premature end, but we would like to let those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan know that they are well remembered by re-running a post from a Memorial Day past:

 

On a long walk through the old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of Wichita, Kansas, you might happen upon a small monument to the veterans of the Spanish-American War. Located on a tiny triangle of grass dividing a street leading to Riverside Park, the memorial features a statue of a dashing young soldier armed with a rifle and clad in the rakishly informal uniform of the era, a cannon captured from a Spanish ship, and a small plaque thanking all of the men who served America in that long ago conflict.
We always pause at the spot to enjoy the statue, an elegant bronze work that has tarnished to a fine emerald shade, and often to reflect on the Spanish-American war and the men who fought it. Sometimes we’ll wonder, too, about the men and women who honored those soldiers and sailors by building the small monument. The Spanish-American War had been one of the controversial ones, and the resulting bloodier war in the Philippines was still underway and being hotly debated at the time the monument was installed, so we suspect it was intended as a political statement as well as an expression of gratitude, and that the monument builders had to endure the animosity of their isolationist neighbors.
We’ll also wonder, on occasion, how many passersby are surprised to learn from the monument that there ever was a Spanish-American War. The war lasted for only four months of 1898, and involved a relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors, so our current crop of history teachers might be inclined to give it only short mention as a regrettable act of American colonialism before rushing on to the more exciting tales of the ‘60s protest movement or whatever it is they’re teaching these days. The world still feels the effects of those four months in 1898, when that relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors ended more than three centuries of Spanish colonial dominance, commenced more than a century of America’s preeminence on the world stage, and permanently altered, for better or worse, the destinies of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, yet the whole affair is now largely forgotten.
If you keep walking past the park and across the Little Arkansas River toward the east bank of the Arkansas River, just beyond the Mid-America All-Indian Center and its giant Keeper of the Plains statue, you’ll find a series of similar monuments dedicated to the veterans of other wars. One features an old torpedo and honors the men who died aboard the S.S. El Dorado, “One of 57 submarines on eternal patrol,” during the Second World War. Another lists the names of the many local men who died while serving in the Merchant Marines. An austere black marble plaque beneath an American flag is dedicated to all U.S. Marines. There’s a rather elaborate area devoted to the veterans of the Korean War, with a statue, several flags, numerous plaques and a Korean gateway, which wasn’t erected until 2001, long after the controversies of that conflict had subsided.
The veterans of the Vietnam War are honored with a touching statue of an American soldier standing next to a seated South Vietnamese soldier, which was donated by local Vietnamese-Americans as an expression of gratitude to everyone of all nationalities who tried to save their ancestral homeland from communism, and that won’t be formally dedicated until the Fourth of July. We hope the ceremony will be free of protestors, or any acrimony, but even at this late date the feelings engendered by that war remain strong. Some American veterans of the war have publicly complained about the inclusion of non-American soldiers in the veterans’ park, while some who opposed the war have privately grumbled about any monument to the Vietnam conflict at all. Both the memorial and the attending controversy serve as reminders that the effects of that war are still being felt not just by the world but individual human beings.
Walk a few more blocks toward the old Sedgwick County Courthouse and there’s a grand monument to the Wichita boys who went off to fight for the union in the Civil War, featuring the kind of ornate but dignified statuary that Americans of the late 18th Century knew how to do so well, but a more moving memorial can be found clear over on Hillside Avenue in the Maple Grove Cemetery, where there’s a circle of well-kept graves marked by American flags and austere gravestones for the boys who didn’t come back. Throughout the city there are more plaques, statues, portraits, and other small markers to honor the men and women who have fought for their country, and of course a good many gravestones for fallen heroes in every cemetery. This city honors those who fight for its freedom and safety, and that is one reason we are proud to call it home.
There is no monument here to the brave men and women who have fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no memorial to those who died in those far-off lands, but there should be, and soon. Both wars, and especially the Iraq war, have been controversial, and any memorial will be perceived by some as a political statement rather than an expression of gratitude, but it is not too soon to honor the men and women who fought for us. The effects of the wars will outlive us all, and none of us will ever see their ultimate consequences, but there is reason to believe that the establishment of a democracy in the heart of the Islamic middle east and the military defeat of al-Qaeda will prove a boon to humanity, and that is the reason those brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died there.
If we wait until the ill feelings subside, we might wait until the war has been largely forgotten. In every city and town of the country there should be something that stands for those who gave their lives for America in Iraq and Iran, and it should be something that will stand for a century or more. Something that will cause the passersby of the 22nd Century to stop and reflect, and to be grateful.

— Bud Norman

The Moral Equivalence Contest’s New Contenders

When confronted with some foreign evil, the American liberal has a strange impulse to insist something morally equivalent is wrong with his own country in general and its conservatives in particular.
We’ve long noticed this tendency, and for many years having been ranking the most outrageous examples. So far the winner is still a friend of ours who, during a discussion about the old tradition in India of burning a widow alive on her husband’s funeral pyre, insisted that western culture does things to women that are every bit as bad, although she couldn’t quite think of any on the spur of the moment, followed by another a friend, a music-loving hippie who insisted that Afghanistan’s Taliban was no worse than the George W. Bush administration and contended that the Taliban’s complete ban on music was negated by a local college radio station’s cancellation of his favorite program. President Barack Obama sometimes seems intent on winning our competition, and his claim that Americans shouldn’t “get on a high horse” about the Islamic State chopping heads off because many centuries ago the Crusaders did some nasty things in their defensive war against a similarly brutal Islamic imperialism is certainly worth consideration, but this week also saw a couple of new contenders.
One is Samantha Power, Obama’s representative in the United Nations, whose recent commencement address at Barnard College told the women accepting their $250,000 degrees from that elite institution how very bad they have it. She recalled the sexism that once excluded women from colleges, and although she acknowledged that women now earn about 60 percent of all colleges she assumed that her distaff listeners were still troubled by “persistent self-doubt,” “fear of making mistakes,” and letting those doubts “get in the way of your voices being heard.” Our experience of young women is that their self-esteem has been carefully nurtured by modern education and popular culture, they’re no more afraid of making a mistake than your average Obama administration member, and that nothing gets in the way of their voices being heard, and we were entirely unsympathetic to all the personal anecdotes that followed about juggling motherhood and UN diplomacy, but what struck us as especially absurd was Power’s portentous note that there is a higher proportion of women in the Afghanistan parliament than in the United States’ Congress.
It was part of a spiel about how women’s rights have advanced in that formerly Taliban-ruled country to the point that it now has a national women’s cycling team, with no mention that this admittedly positive development is entirely due to an invasion and occupation by American forces that began during a previous administration, or any acknowledgement that those cyclists will almost surely be back in burqas shortly after the Obama administration’s planned retreat, and we suppose it can be taken as an upbeat exhortation to continue the march of women’s rights, but the tendency toward moral equivalence was unmistakable. Powersalso mentioned that young woman who has been carrying a mattress around Columbia University all year to protest its failure to punish the young man she alleges raped her, even though the evidence suggests that the the university and the city police declined to take any action for lack of evidence that she was raped, and the alleged rapist has numerous e-mails and other communications suggesting that she’s the sort of troubled young woman who haul a mattress around a university campus for an entire year, and generally spoke as if womanhood were at least as much a travail in America as in Afghanistan or anyplace else. We can only hope that $250,000 buys enough education at Barnard College that there audience will know better than believe such nonsense.
The other recent contestant in our moral equivalence idiocy contest is someone named William Saletan, who took the digital pages of Slate.com to explain why Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is just like all the Republican candidates for president. He doesn’t allege that any of the Republicans hopefuls have been chopping off heads or doing any of the other deadly things that have brought the Islamic State such notoriety, but he does claim that they sound a lot alike. He notes that al-Baghdadi has said that he is waging a war of Muslims against non-Muslims, just as the Republicans have said that al-Baghdadi is waging a war of Muslims against non-Muslims. As if that weren’t damning enough, Saletan also notes that al-Baghdadi has said that his version is Islam is incompatible with western values, and that there are verses in the Koran and Hadith that urge violent jihad against non-Muslims, and sure enough many of those Republicans agree. He further notes that al-Baghdadi has warned Muslims that America has no respects for their rights, and although he can’t think of anything the Republicans have done to confirm this warning other than some gripes about a mosque being built near the former World Trade Center location and former Sen. Rick Santorum’s complaint that we’re not dropping enough bombs on al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State he still thinks that the IS and the GOP are pretty much the same. Indeed, he concludes that the GOP is “working for Baghdadi” by opposing it, and signs off with a haughty “Remind me again who’s naive.”
Perhaps it’s us who are naive, but to our ears the GOP candidates and al-Baghdadi don’t sound any more alike than Hitler and Roosevelt did when the former said his country was at war with us and the latter agreed that we were indeed at war. Of course, the modern liberal would also find some moral equivalence there.

— Bud Norman

Revising the Foreign Policy Theory

As improbable as it might seem in retrospect, the theory underlying the Obama foreign policy when it was unveiled during the 2008 presidential campaign was that because of the candidate’s African heritage, Arabic middle name, Muslim schooling, and Messianic persona, “The day I am inaugurated, not only will the country look at itself differently, the world will look at America differently.” Throw in some silver-tongued and culturally relativist rhetoric, a bit of “daylight” between Israel and America, and other assurances that America had abandoned its past racist and imperialist bellicosity, we were assured, and the past millennia-and-a-half of unpleasant would cease. This fanciful notion had an understandable appeal to a war-weary country, but after seven years it requires a bit of revision.
The promised withdrawal from the hated war in Iraq has ceded control of a third of the country to the barbaric Islamic State, with the rest of the country increasingly reliant on the support of Iran, which has lately been backing a successful revolt against the American-backed government in Yemen, which the administration continues to cite as a model of its anti-terrorism strategy, complicating the administration’s efforts to capitulate to all of Iran’s demands in its negotiations over that country’s nuclear weapons program, which has already prompted Saudi Arabia to join a nuclear arms race in this volatile region. The Syrian civil war continues to rage despite the use of chlorine gas by the Syrian dictatorship, which once again crosses the president’s declared “red line,” which was supposed to have been settled through “re-set” relations with Russians, who continue to occupy large chunks of Ukraine and seem ready to grab more land. Libya continues its descent into chaos since being bombed into anarchy by a coalition “led from behind” by America, Afghanistan anxiously awaits the results of another American withdrawal, and Iran continues its reach into Lebanon and Jordan. There’s by now enough daylight between Israel and America to fill an Alaskan summer, enough to have scuttled any chance of a promised peace agreement with the Palestinians, yet our negotiating partners in Iran continue to chant “Death to America” and the rest of the Muslim doesn’t seem any more friendly.
Such a conspicuous gap between between what was promised and what has occurred requires some explanation, even for the most credulous press, so the reporters at Politico dug deep into their rolodexes and found some ambitious unnamed officials who were willing to give it a try. Someone described as a “Senior State Department official” went so far as to say that “If there’s one lesson this administration has learned, from President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech through the Arab Spring, it’s that when it comes to this region, nothing happens in a linear way — and precious little is about us, which is a hard reality to accept.” We are heartened to hear that the administration has learned something over the past six years, and can appreciate how hard it must have been to accept that not everything that happens in the Middle East is about us, given their previous deep-seated beliefs that all the pathologies of the Middle East are entirely America’s fault, but we’re not reassured the right lessons have been learned.
The administration still seems intent on whatever bargain the Iranians might agree to, with a recent Iranian defector saying “the U.S. negotiating team are mainly there to speak on Iran’s behalf,” although all the linear and non-linear ways that might turn out are catastrophic. Its apologists continue to blame the blame the policies of the previous administration, and by extension the previous 200 years of American foreign that sought to protect the country’s interests, even as they insist it is no longer about us. There is retreat on one front, drone strikes on another, and alliances that seem to mean little in terms of useful support on yet another. There is little reason to believe the administration understands that while events are always beyond America’s control they are rarely beyond its influence, that the more strident passages of the Koran and the Hadith have something to do with conflicts that have been ongoing since long before the founding of the American public, or that the relatively tiny population of Jews in the relatively tiny country of Israel aren’t somehow responsible for the whole mess.
One promise kept has been that the world now sees America differently. The world now sees us as an untrustworthy friend and harmless enemy. Perhaps America also sees itself differently, too, but we hope not.

— Bud Norman

About That Poll

Everything seems to be spinning out of control, from foreign affairs to the domestic economy to those ever more scandalous scandals, but everyone on the right has been taking some time out to enjoy that Wall Street Journal-National Broadcasting Company poll that shows that President Barack Obama is at last taking some of the blame for it all. The poll shows widespread disapproval of the president’s handling of the economy and especially of his foreign policies, with an especially precipitous drop in his popularity among Hispanics, and it’s bad enough that such a reliable apologist as NBC’s Chuck Todd has declared that “Essentially the public is declaring that (Obama’s) presidency is over.”
Obama’s presidency won’t actually be over for another two and half years, alas, but there is some consolation in reading that so many Americans have belatedly concluded that it should be done. The poll bodes well for the Republicans’ chances in the mid-term elections, which traditionally reflect the popularity of the sitting president, and that offers a chance a to at least limit some of the damage over the last two years of the era of hope and change. Deeper in the poll there are also contains some numbers on presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton that provide hope for the presidential election in ’16. and the possibility that some of the damage can be undone. We can’t begrudge anyone the faint glimmer of optimism that the poll provides, but it remains to be seen if the Republicans will once again squander its possibilities.
Much of the public’s dissatisfaction is with the administration’s foreign policy, which will likely also be a problem for the former Secretary of State who is the presumptive Democratic nominee, but the Republicans will find it difficult to offer a popular alternative. The last Republican administration’s forceful response to Islamism’s war against America remains unpopular, even if the public is just as discontented with the results of both Obama’s apologetic and appeasing repudiation of that approach and his bomb-first-and-ask-questions-later adventures in Libya and Pakistan and elsewhere, and the next Republican nominee will have to find an appealing middle ground that eschews long commitments of troops without letting the international order slide into chaos. The presumptive Democratic nominee and her as-yet-unknown challengers will be trying to strike the same balance, and while they won’t be able to promise deterrence through a stronger and better-funded military they will have a helpful press explaining that all of the world’s problems are still the fault of the last the Republican administration. Events are proceeding at such a pace that is impossible to predict the challenges that will be debated in the next but election, but it is safe to say they’re headed in a direction that will make the debate lively and difficult for both sides.
Things are going so badly from Ukraine to the Middle East to the South China Sea that foreign policy will play a larger-than-usual role in the next elections, but the pocketbook issues will as always be important. This should also play to the Republicans’ benefit, especially when Obamacare has been fully implemented and the consequences of all those foreign policy mistakes become apparent at the gas pump, but the Republicans’ penchant for political ineptitude could also negate that advantage. The Democrats have already indicated that they’ll run on the argument that the problem isn’t the impoverishment of the middle class that their policies have caused but rather the wealth of a few people that Republican policies have allowed, and human nature being prone to envy it will be a popular line. The presumptive Democratic nominee has lately encountered some unaccustomed bad press because she’s one of those wealthy people her party wants the public to resent, but the Democrats can always come up with another nominee who’s been getting by on a few hundred thousand dollars a years from government or academia, or come up with some more satisfactory explanation for why they’re running a woman who got filthy rich on writing books and giving speeches for the corporate world.
That precipitous drop in the president’s popularity with Hispanics is also encouraging, especially if it reflects a realization that his kind-hearted Hispanic-kids-get-in-free policy has created a humanitarian crisis for tens of thousands of Hispanic children, but the Republicans will still have to make a convincing case that their more hard-headed approach will have less heartbreaking consequences. The growing Hispanic population will remain a political challenge for the Republicans, and the demographic trends that are providing more unmarried women and children of unmarried couples bring challenges that will be hard to overcome with just a strong case for better policies.
Still, those poll numbers provide a grumpy right-winger will some small measure of satisfaction. These days, we’ll take whatever  we can get.

— Bud Norman

A Soldier Comes Home

Only the most hard-hearted won’t be happy that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will soon be coming home to his family after five years as a prisoner of Afghanistan’s Taliban, but only the most soft-headed won’t have worries about how it was accomplished. Soft-headedness being so much more prevalent among the American public these days than hard-heartendness, the happiness is bound to play better in the press than the worries.
Bergdahl’s release comes in exchange for the release of five very dangerous men currently being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, an arrangement of dubious legality, and is intended mainly to meet a pre-condition for negotiations with the Taliban that will likely lead to even more worrisome concessions. There are also questions about whether Bergdahl was a prisoner of war or a deserter, and ample reason to believe that he’s not the gung-ho soldier the script requires. None of this should cause any worry to the Obama administration, however, which will likely benefit from the inevitable news footage of the Sergeant and his mother embracing at last.
The emotions of that moment will be prominently displayed on the front page of every newspaper in the country and impossible to dismiss, while the potential carnage and heartbreak made possible by the release of five is less easily grasped and impossible to photograph. The Obama administration has always intended to empty Guantanamo Bay, and the return of lone American prisoner of the Afghanistan War provides an excellent opportunity to reduce its population of detainees by five. With the end of the war already scheduled to coincide with the next presidential election, regardless of conditions on the ground, the heart-touching photographs of a soldier back in his adoring hometown will be useful in the mid-terms. Should any of the released terrorists succeed in their stated goals of mass-murdering Americans, Bergdahl and the conditions of his release will be long forgotten and politely unmentioned by most of the media.
Any questions of legality should also be answered by that front page photo of the mother and child reunion. From Obamacare to the Mexican border to the bureaucrats of the Internal Revenue Service such niceties as the rule of law are routinely flouted, and few will insist on any sort of punctiliousness when the administration can claim with a straight face that after five years they had too short a time to comply with the law and still save Bergdahl’s life. That the law was intended to prevent the release of dangerous terrorists will be little noted for the reasons explained in the previous paragraph.
Nor will most of the public take notice that while the administration is declaring something akin to victory in Afghanistan it is opening negotiations with the enemy by making concessions. At this point the left that opposed the war from the beginning is willing to end it on any terms, the right that supported the effort has long since given hope that the current administration will see it to a successful conclusion, and the vast majority of those in the middle will be satisfied that they don’t have to hear about it anymore. The mother and child reunion will be the happiest memory of the war, and the only one that sticks.
If Bergdahl proves less than the heroic figure required for the role, they can always change the script. A man embittered by the futile war that George W. Bush started but but liberated from its captivity by the noble Obama who ended it will make a suitable narrative, no matter that Obama had also advocated the war and was running it at the time of Bergdahl’s capture. Even the most far-fetched story lines work when the visuals are so strong as a small town and a mother embracing a returning soldier.
Which is not to say that we’re so hard-hearted we won’t be a bit choked up when he’s back on American soil. We’re glad he’s coming home, and would advise any Republicans raising pertinent questions to make clear that they are as well. The cold calculations of war are unappealing, as as anyone who fell for the sappy sentimentalism of “Saving Private Ryan” should realize, and one should always make them with a realization of the humanity at stake, and not be indifferent to the emotion of a mother and child reunion. Still, those worries persist.

— Bud Norman

The Hell of Gates

Despite his past association with the Obama administration, we’ve long had a fondness for the former Defense Secretary, Central Intelligence Agency director, and National Security Council member Robert Gates. It’s partly because he grew up here in Wichita, and partly because of his long record of distinguished service to every president since Nixon except for Bill Clinton, but now we can also appreciate him as a memoirist.
Gates’ “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” won’t be in the bookstores until for another week, but enough of it has been leaked to the press to create a fuss. Although the book reportedly contains some kind words for the current president, which seem to be the sort of thing one might expect from a man who has carefully guided his career of public service through administrations from both parties, Gates has also offered some pointed and apparently newsworthy criticisms. Currently getting the most attention are his observations that the president was not committed to the success of his “surge” strategy in Afghanistan, that both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted they had opposed a similar but more successful strategy in Iraq during the Bush administration only for political reasons, and that Vice President Joe Biden has been wrong about every major foreign policy issue of the past 40 years.
That last allegation prompted the White House to issue a statement calling Biden “one of the leading statesmen of his time,” providing the nation with a much-needed belly-laugh during this cold and bleak winter, but has otherwise the administration’s spokesmen has been cautious in their response. Gates was effusively praised for his service, vigorous debate and frequent disagreement within the administration was proudly admitted, and otherwise the spokesmen seemed content to let the press defend their president against such lese majeste.

Such a cordial reaction is probably best, as the administration has nothing to gain from further publicizing Gates’ book. Tell-all tomes by ex-administration officials are a staple of political non-fiction, and there are sure to be many more by Obama associates eager to disassociate themselves from his presidency, and in most cases they will quickly pass through the news cycle and be remaindered. In this case, though, the book raises points the president will be especially eager to ignore.

Gates’ book may soon be forgotten, but the failures of Obama’s foreign policy will be long remembered. There is nothing surprising about Gates’ revelation that Obama was not committed to success in Afghanistan, as the president has publicly ridiculed the very notion of victory, nor did any objective observer ever doubt that Senator Obama’s insistence on a premature surrender in Iraq was motivated by anything other than political ambition. We would have preferred that Gates had been similarly critical of Obama’s abandonment of allies in eastern Europe and South America and the Middle East, his groveling appeasement of the some of the world’s worst actors, and the general incoherence of his foreign policy, but perhaps he felt that was outside his duties as Secretary of Defense.
Whatever the literary and historical value of Gates’ book, he has done a public service even before its publication by forcing the media to at least briefly allude to foreign affairs. Obama put the lives of brave American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines at risk in Afghanistan without confidence that it would achieve anything in the country’s interests, and a war-weary public seems too satisfied to be getting out to be properly outraged about it, so it is good that the issue has at least been forced into the national conversation. The fledgling democracy that American forces gave birth to in Iraq might yet survive the latest onslaught by Islamist terrorists, but Gates deserves gratitude for pointing out that our erstwhile allies have to do it on their own for political rather than strategic reasons.
The debate should continue through the next presidential election, and much of the press already seems worried that Gates’ views will harm the chances of potential Democratic contenders Biden and Clinton. Even the sympathetic scribes at the McClatchy news chain had a hard time finding anything that Biden has been right about in the past 40 years, and it will take a most creative memoir by Clinton to disentangle from the messes created during her four years as Secretary of State. One book won’t win the debate, but this one seems to have started it well.

— Bud Norman

Talking Peace Talk Blues

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” according to a famous Winston Churchill quotation, so perhaps we should welcome the news that the United States will soon be sitting down to peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban. With all due respect to Sir Winston, though, negotiating with this particular enemy looks like a mug’s game.
The much-ballyhooed “breakthrough” comes at a time when most Americans have plumb forgotten that there is a war going on in Afghanistan, and only a few months before the date that the United States has already announced it will declare victory and quietly pull its last few troops out of the country, so it is difficult to ascertain what the point of the negotiations might be. An America already on the way out of the country will be in a weak bargaining position, the Taliban will have no incentives to make any concessions, and our nominal partners in the Karzai government will have ample reason to agree to any number of crazy Islamist nutcase ideas that they’ve probably long for all along. There is little reason for hope that the peace talks will yield anything resembling peace and no hope at all that they will result in something that can be considered victory.
After so many years of indecisive battle, and especially after the national media decided to stop paying attention to the casualties because Barack Obama had become the Commander in Chief, it has been largely forgotten that the reason we went in to Afghanistan in the first place was to destroy the Taliban. The Taliban had not only imposed a medieval tyranny on its own people but had given aid and refuge to al-Qaeda in its war against the United States and the rest of the western world, and after the organization’s Afghanistan-based terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killed more than 3,000 Americans the country was unusually unified in its support for a retaliatory war. Even the peacenik Sen. Barack Obama supported the war as necessary and justified, calling it the ball that the inept Bush administration had taken its eyes off of to fight an unnecessary and unjustified in war in Iraq, and as president he kept a campaign promise with a “surge” of troops that were promised to turn the tide.
President Obama then quickly began a draw-down, keeping an implicit campaign promise to be a peacenik president, and at this point it all seems to have accomplished little. The Reuters news service giddily announces in its headline that “Taliban is Ready to Talk Peace,” but paragraphs that follow offer little hope that the peace won’t be on the Taliban’s terms. They note that the Taliban has recently opened a new office in the Qatari capital of Doha, where they made their peace talk announcement in front of a flag for “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” and they can’t seem to muster any pacifistic quotes from Taliban officials. An understandably unnamed official of the United States government is quoted as hoping that the Taliban will at least slow its recent offensive, lest America cease the peace talks.
Winston Churchill was even more famous for saying “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,” and that seems the more appropriate advice regarding the likes of the Afghanistan Taliban. America and the rest of the western world don’t seem to have much stomach for that sort of rhetoric, however, so the likely outcome will be the same as it was for Sir Winston: A lot of jaw-jaw, followed by more and bloodier war-war.

— Bud Norman

Memorial Day

On a long walk through the old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of Wichita, Kansas, you might happen upon a small monument to the veterans of the Spanish-American War. Located on a tiny triangle of grass dividing two short streets leading to Riverside Park, the memorial features a statue of a dashing young soldier armed with a rifle and clad in the rakishly informal uniform of the era, a cannon captured from a Spanish ship, and a small plaque thanking all of the men who served America in that long ago conflict.
We always pause at the spot to enjoy the statue, an elegant bronze work that has tarnished to a fine emerald shade, and often to reflect on the Spanish-American war and the men who fought it. Sometimes we’ll wonder, too, about the men and women who honored those soldiers and sailors by building the small monument. The Spanish-American War had been one of the controversial ones, and the resulting bloodier war in the Philippines was still underway and being hotly debated at the time the monument was installed, so we suspect it was intended as a political statement as well as an expression of gratitude, and that the monument builders had to endure the animosity of their isolationist neighbors.
We’ll also wonder, on occasion, how many passersby are surprised to learn from the monument that there ever was a Spanish-American War. The war lasted for only four months of 1898, and involved a relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors, so our current crop of history teachers might be inclined to give it only short mention as a regrettable act of American colonialism before rushing on to the more exciting tales of the ‘60s protest movement or whatever it is they’re teaching these days. The world still feels the effects of those four months in 1898, when that relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors ended more than three centuries of Spanish colonial dominance, commenced more than a century of America’s preeminence on the world stage, and permanently altered, for better or worse, the destinies of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, yet the whole affair is now largely forgotten.
If you keep walking past the park and across the Little Arkansas River toward the east bank of the Arkansas River, just beyond the Mid-America All-Indian Center and its giant Keeper of the Plains statue, you’ll find a series of similar monuments dedicated to the veterans of other wars. One features an old torpedo and honors the men who died aboard the S.S. Dorado, “One of 57 submarines on eternal patrol,” during the Second World War. Another lists the names of the many local men who died while serving in the Merchant Marines. An austere black marble plaque beneath an American flag is dedicated to all U.S. Marines. There’s a rather elaborate area devoted to the veterans of the Korean War, with a statue, several flags, numerous plaques and a Korean gateway, which wasn’t erected until 2001, long after the controversies of that conflict had subsided.
The veterans of the Vietnam War are honored with a touching statue of an American soldier standing next to a seated South Vietnamese soldier, which was donated by local Vietnamese-Americans as an expression of gratitude to everyone of all nationalities who tried to save their ancestral homeland from communism, and that won’t be formally dedicated until the Fourth of July. We hope the ceremony will be free of protestors, or any acrimony, but even at this late date the feelings engendered by that war remain strong. Some American veterans of the war have publicly complained about the inclusion of non-American soldiers in the veterans’ park, while some who opposed the war have privately grumbled about any monument to the Vietnam conflict at all. Both the memorial and the attending controversy serve as reminders that the effects of that war are still being felt not just by the world but individual human beings.
Walk a few more blocks toward the old Sedgwick County Courthouse and there’s a grand monument to the Wichita boys who went off to fight for the union in the Civil War, featuring the kind of ornate but dignified statuary that Americans of the late 19th Century knew how to do so well, but a more moving memorial can be found clear over on Hillside Avenue in the Maple Grove Cemetery, where there’s a circle of well-kept graves marked by American flags and austere gravestones for the local boys who didn’t come back. Throughout the city there are more plaques, statues, portraits, and other small markers to honor the men and women who have fought for their country, and of course a good many gravestones for fallen heroes in every cemetery. This city honors those who fight for its freedom and safety, and that is one reason we are proud to call it home.
There is no monument here to the brave men and women who have fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no memorial to those who died in those far-off lands, but there should be, and soon. Both wars, and especially the Iraq war, have been controversial, and any memorial will be perceived by some as a political statement rather than an expression of gratitude, but it is not too soon to honor the men and women who fought for us. The effects of the wars will outlive us all, and none of us will ever see their ultimate consequences, but there is reason to believe that the establishment of a democracy in the heart of the Islamic middle east and the military defeat of al-Qaeda will prove a boon to humanity, and that is the reason those brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died there.
If we wait until the ill feelings subside, we might wait until the war has been largely forgotten. In every city and town of the country there should be something that stands for those who gave their lives for America in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it should be something that will stand for a century or more. Something that will cause the passersby of the 22nd Century to stop and reflect, and to be grateful.

— Bud Norman