Richard Holbrooke's last words were "You have got to stop this war in Afghanistan." The context and meaning of those words are now contested. Today's White House spin turns what sounds to me like a sober pronouncement by a man who did not ordinarily joke about such things into the equivalent of a ribald comedy exchange with his Pakistani physician. This spin treatment stands in stark contrast to President Obama's words about Holbrooke earlier in the week, a career diplomat of unprecedented skill whom Obama described this way:
"As anyone who has ever worked with him knows - or had the clear disadvantage of negotiating across the table from him - Richard is relentless " He never stops. He never quits. Because he's always believed that if we stay focused, if we act on our mutual interests, that progress is possible. Wars can end. Peace can be forged."
Given that assessment, it is unlikely that Holbrooke meant his last words on this earth to be anything other than a straightforward statement of a real goal. But we may never know. Not for sure. As lamentable as arguments over that contested statement's true meaning are, my goal in this blog post is not to offer the last word on Holbrooke's final words, or to review his remarkable diplomatic career. Suffice it to say we lost a man we needed more now than we needed him when he created the Dayton Accords that ended the war in the Balkans.
Instead, I want to use the controversy over Holbrooke's last words--regardless of their true meaning--as a sign of something else far more threatening to the future of our country. Stated simply, we are a warrior nation who can no longer afford to be a warrior nation . It's not merely the financial costs--an estimated $190 million a day--of keeping troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor is it the social and political costs of continuing to engage in a never-ending ground and air war against terrorism that increasingly resembles both the Soviet failure in Afghanistan and our own failures in Vietnam.
It resembles the Soviet failure because it reminds us that a former rival superpower was brought to its economic knees and then to its political end in Afghanistan, and it resembles Vietnam because the longer we remain there, the more likely it is that we only encourage a violent insurgency to grow against us, against the fragile and corrupt government we have in place, and against those citizens who have risked everything to help us succeed. Do you hear overloaded helicopters taking off? Do you fear the wholesale slaughter that will follow our departure?
But this isn't the real problem. For some years now I have been writing about what used to be called "the global war on terror." I don't know what we call it today, here in the December of our discontent, but I'm pretty sure it contains expletives. War is always a nasty business, as politicians are fond of saying, that costs America "blood and treasure." But a long, divisive war that appears increasingly unable to attain its stated political objectives --as was the case for us in Vietnam and for the Soviets in Afghanistan where it is now our turn to learn the same sad lessons again--costs us something akin to our very soul.
Why were we in Vietnam? Historians answered that question and despite politicians' rhetoric about political dominoes and Godless Communists, the real reason was to protect large corporate interests, including those interests that profited enormously from selling weapons, drugs, and poisons. We may have lost the war, but Dow Chemical and others made fortunes.
Why are we in Afghanistan? Historians have yet to address that question but my guess is that the same basic rules apply. Large American corporations, such as Haliburton and oil companies and Wall Street investment firms, are obvious culprits. Corrupt politicians on every side as well as corrupt Generals and drug lords and arms dealers and soldiers of fortune in private armies, certainly. And so on.
Here's the real problem: Despite politicians' rhetoric about political dominoes and radical Islam and WMDs, the real reason we remain in Afghanistan is that someone is making a lot of money from it. That $190 million a day we are spending? That's 190 million reasons for someone staying there. Someone who lobbies for an enduring war with a greedy Congress and who provides major campaign donations to anyone, regardless of political stripe, who doesn't get in their way. So it is that we may be losing the war, but you know someone, in fact many someones, are benefiting financially from our continued involvement.
In other words, we can't afford to be a warrior nation, but that fact no longer matters.
If this war was merely a scene in a comedy routine and I was searching for a punch line, I'd pick the famous jab that Stan Laurel aims at Oliver Hardy: "Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into!"
Don't misunderstand me. I'm not one of those far left Progressives who believes that world order would be instantly restored if we only pulled out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor do I believe that terrorism would disappear. Our enemies--and we do have them--would use our departure from occupied territories to declare victory over the Great Satan and to further recruit, reload, rearm, retrain, and redeploy their forces. No doubt about it.
Whether they would then attack the mainland United States is debatable, but it's a fair bet that at some time in the future, some one or more of them would or will. It is also likely that among homegrown radicals there will be in our immediate future one or more terrorist "incidents," such as the recently foiled bombing attempt in Portland by a young student.
The hard, cruel fact of life in the 21st Century is that we cannot escape criminal acts by criminals nor terrorist acts by terrorists, although we thankfully have many hundreds of thousands of police, FBI, and other law enforcement groups monitoring the situation, infiltrating organizations, and preventing bad things from happening to us.
What we don't have is some well-armed, well-trained, well-funded group to protect us from our own corrupt politicians and corporate interests. We used to rely on voters to do that important work, and investigative reporters to help separate truth from fiction. But as I argued yesterday, politics in America is little more than another entertainment option and most people are insufficiently armed with relevant information to make much of a difference against the corporate-funded political campaigns that is mostly about trading insults and lies that these bad practices only conspire with entrenched and mostly clueless and paid for politicians to keep us uninformed and to ensure that the facts, whatever they are, are continually misrepresented.
Doubt me? Then how do you account for a new study that documents how little people who watch Fox News know about much of anything, and that further claims that watching what passes for the news on Fox actually makes you stupider? Or, sadly, how do you explain in that same study, watchers of CNN know precious little more than those who watch Fox?