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

Send in the Clowns

These are the dog days of summer, although you’d never know it from the constant rain and unseasonably cool temperatures we’ve been having around here. The only indication we are actually in the lazy, hazy days of summer is that the big story of the slow news cycle is about a rodeo clown in Sedalia, Missouri.
In case you’ve been taking a well-deserved vacation from the news, the aforementioned rodeo clown found himself in the middle of a full-blown media storm after he donned a rubber mask resembling President Barack Obama and regaled an audience at the Missouri state fair by allowing a rampaging bull to chase him around the arena. The presumably rural audience of Show-Me Staters was mostly delighted by the spectacle, judging from the inevitable grainy cell phone video of the incident that has become an internet sensation, but of course the more sophisticated observers have not been amused. So much outrage has been mustered from the respectable corners of society that the rodeo clown has been forever banned from the Missouri state fair, an announcer who acted as an accomplice has been forced to resign from his presidency of the Missouri Cowboy Rodeo Association, Missouri’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is calling for a federal investigation, and state fair officials are promising that all future rodeo clowns at their events will be required to complete sensitivity training.
The rodeo clown’s shtick doesn’t strike us as especially astute satire, but we don’t expect rodeo clowns to be Jonathan Swift and the reaction to his antics seems disturbingly inordinate. Similar acts of disrespect toward presidents are a long tolerated tradition in America, and were even celebrated in the respectable corners of society as recently as the last administration. Mocking effigies of President George W. Bush was de rigueur during his two terms to an extent that even rodeo clowns were getting in on the craze, and it’s surprising their efforts weren’t praised as a performance art and honored with a federal grant. It was silly and slightly annoying then, as it is to a lesser degree now, but it didn’t constitute a threat to the public welfare.
What is threatening, on the other hand, is the heavy-handed effort to punish constitutionally protected criticism of the president. When a rodeo clown is summarily denied Pronto Pups and deep-fried Twinkies and other attractions of a state fair, and such supposedly independent sorts as rodeo cowboys feel obliged to oust their elected leader in the name of proper political etiquette, and the NAACP is threatening to literally make a federal case of such a harmless act of lése majesté, the chilling effect on other critics is unmistakable. It’s not as if the Internal Revenue Service were using its awesome powers to stifle dissent, or impertinent journalists were being treated as criminal conspirators by the Department of Justice, or a contributor to the opposition party were being harassed by a variety of federal agencies, but at a time when all those things are also happening it creates an unhappy feeling of enforced conformity. When rodeo clowns are being subjected to “sensitivity training,” which is a modern euphemism for re-education, there’s something almost Soviet about it.
One can still hope that the effort will prove futile, though, and perhaps even counterproductive. Respect for the presidency cannot be enforced, and such bullying attempts to do will likely only provoke further mockery. After his initial defiance, telling reporters that “At least I know I’m a clown,” the performer has since recanted his act with the zeal of a cowed dissident standing before one of Mao’s cadres to confess his political sins, but others are bound to don his rubber mask and take his place.

— Bud Norman