The countries we’ve lost

I have been writing my Lookout column and this blog for about 20 years and nearly all I have written has been about Santa Monica or urban issues that affect Santa Monica. At times, however, world events, such as 9/11, have caused me to write about broader matters. A few days after 9/11 I wrote, “I hope we are as smart as we are tough. I have a fantasy that the U.S. will obtain and show the Taliban convincing evidence that Osama bin Laden is guilty, and that the Taliban will give him up to our justice system. Think what a triumph it would be to show that we can give our sworn enemy a fair trial.”

Okay, that was a fantasy, but then fantasies play a big part in the tragedy of Afghanistan.

I was born in the middle of the Baby Boom, in 1952, and as I complete my seventh decade, I am chagrined to realize that while I was born to an American generation that when young had participated in saving the world, my life has been bracketed by two disastrous foreign adventures, Vietnam and Afghanistan. To paraphrase Vizzini in The Princess Bride, two “land wars in Asia” that we should never have gotten involved in. 

Perhaps Vizzini could have made a more generalized statement: don’t get involve in peasant revolutions. People forget that the U.S. sent troops to Mexico and Russia during their peasant revolts, supported the losing side in China, tried to overturn the revolution in Cuba, and then there was Vietnam. You can throw in Iran’s revolution against the Shah, too—as we saw there, and as we see in Afghanistan, peasants and villagers do not always revolt with the purposes we think they should have. They can express their grievances against centralized authority by means of tradition, too.

In any case, our interventions had no effect. We “lost” China. We lost Vietnam. Now we’ve lost Afghanistan. We’ve lost a lot of countries, right? And what of it?

George Santayana famously wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” They study history in the universities and service academies our leaders and generals attend, right? Nonetheless we have been condemned to repeat a lot of history. Then there’s that other aphorism (often attributed, apparently mistakenly, to Albert Einstein), “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” What if we are doomed not by forgetfulness, but by insanity? A mass psychosis that makes us believe we have powers we don’t have?

“Losing” China, then Cuba, and then losing the Vietnam War, fueled a decades-long rage among the right-wing in America. One result was distortion of the notion of patriotism. It was patriotic to blindly support policies (and deployments) that resulted in America’s humiliation, and unpatriotic to be clear-eyed about reality and what America’s interests were. (The Left fed the rage with its own rhetoric, and lost a lot of elections along the way, but that’s another story.)

Fighting the peasants in Vietnam was unpopular, to say the least, among the Left. Fighting peasants in Afghanistan, after going in to clear out Al Qaeda, not so unpopular. I count myself among the Left in this regard: until three weeks ago I was hoping, even expecting, that the urbanized population of a modernizing Afghanistan would take to the barricades and repulse the Taliban from the cities. More fantasy. One fantasy we have on the Left is that colonialism and imperialism, including the neo- varieties, are all about power, control, exploitation, and capitalism. There is also imperialism of ideas, and that imperialism runs against the tide of nationalism and peasant revolutions just as much as the other imperialism runs against the tide of anti-colonial liberation.

As a leftist I’ve always felt a bit embarrassed with the inconsistency that we on the Left have about this. We trumpet the rights of indigenous peoples, yet is there any economic theory, ideology, or philosophy more Western than everything that came out of the Enlightenment, including human rights, secularism, feminism, and both capitalism and Marxism? How far should we go? What would be better: to extend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to an unknown people living in the Amazon, or leave them alone?

We on the Left want to change the culture of rural Afghanistan as much as Christian missionaries. To say that we oppose all fundamentalist religions, not only fundamentalist versions of Islam, hardly erases the contradiction with our anti-imperialism, our pro “self-determination.” As for the missionaries, it’s been a century or so since they journeyed to darkest wherever with protection from a powerful military, as our civil society NGOs had in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, along with Western music, there’s been one extremely successful export of Western ideas: materialism. There is an effective means of reaching the hearts and minds of the un-modern peoples of the world, and that’s been through their stomachs, using “stomach” as a stand-in for all the things people find that they like when they can leave behind subsistence and barter and enter a money economy. People like their cellphones.

Japan might have been the first non-Western country to join its interests to the modern Western economy, about 150 years ago. Many nations have joined since, especially since the end of World War II. It typically takes two or three generations, but generally modernizing countries gradually acquire first a legal system that protects individual rights (such a legal system is essential for a modern economy) and ultimately a democratic system, or at least, along the way, a quasi-democratic system that protects civil and political rights. Hey: arguably we had only a quasi-democracy until women’s suffrage, the termination of lynching, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (And we’re still working on it.)

The essential American interests around the world are to support our long-time developed and historically democratic allies as well as those peoples who have joined this group since 1945, while securing a peaceful framework around the world for other peoples to develop and modernize. We don’t need to “confront” China and Russia as much as we need to have patience with them. This patience needs to be grounded in an unwavering faith in our Enlightenment values of democracy and human rights. While these values cannot be imposed from above, certainly not by force, they are powerful. We are on the right side of history.

I’m speaking here of long-term history, but on the short-term, the idea that nationalist and fundamentalist Islamic Afghans are suddenly going to be friendly with Russians and Chinese is farfetched. Again, look at Vietnam, which for quite some time has had friendlier relations with the U.S. than it has with China or Russia.   

Meanwhile, there is the unfolding misery in Afghanistan, and the likelihood that many Afghans, particularly women and girls, are going to lose their freedoms and rights, and are at risk of losing their lives. Many want to get out, and we need to help them. Again, this is not the first time that a revolution has created a wave of refugees. The wars in Indochina produced over a million, of which the U.S. took in 300,000 or so, while hundreds of thousands of “boat people” died at sea.

The experience with the refugees from Vietnam and elsewhere should give us hope and perspective over resettlement. Vietnamese and other Indochinese refugees have, like so many “homeless, tempest-tost” before them, joined our nation and become part of it. If once the dust settles Afghan refugees cannot go back, let’s welcome them here.

As for those who stay behind, or who are left behind, history shows that the worst alternative is for the U.S. to grab its ball and go home. Whenever we lose and then walk away—think Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran—we lose influence. In each case, it took decades to reestablish diplomatic relations—we still haven’t done so with Iran. America somehow thinks we help ourselves by denying diplomatic recognition to regimes in power that we don’t like. It’s like having a tantrum and sending ourselves to sit in the corner. More fantasy, more insanity. We need to stay engaged with the Taliban. We’ll have more influence.

Thanks for reading.