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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/2/09

Thomas Friedman as War Propagandist

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The arguments for remaining committed to our war in Afghanistan take several forms. In my last article, I examined President Obama's arguments. In a July 18th article poignanty titled, "Teacher, Can We Leave Now? No", Thomas Friedman, New York Times op-ed pundit, best-selling author, and mainstream media's favorite "liberal" pontificator on global affairs, offered another approach. Friedman's article was more propaganda than analysis, but it was, in fact, based on a very appealing presumption, one that I would, frankly, like to believe in. Perhaps that is what makes Friedman's argument so dangerously misleading.

Friedman's article focuses on the best-selling book by Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, about Mortenson's successful efforts to open schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Personally, I think the work Mortenson is doing is magnificent, courageous, and necessary. Whether it justifies war is another matter. Friedman apparently thinks so and he makes his point with all the skill of a nuanced propagandist.

"Mortenson 's efforts," he states, "remind us what the essence of the 'war on terrorism' is about. It's about the war of ideas within Islam" between repressive, anti-modern hard-line fundamentalists and more tolerant Muslims who want to "open Islam to new ideas". How's that? We're in Afghanistan to assure the triumph of good Muslims over bad? Somehow we have gone to war to help all the good Muslims who want little girls to go to school? It's like the Crusades, only now we're taking Saladin's side against the Muslims we really don't like.

Believe me, there's nothing I'd like better than for fundamentalism in every religion to soak back into the toxic soil from which it sprung. In November of 2001, in a Thanksgiving column for the Metrowest Daily News in Massachusetts, I wrote "And whatever doubts one has about our agenda in Afghanistan...let's give thanks that the Taliban is shattered. Women walking fresh-faced on the streets of Kabul remind us that freedom resides first and foremost in everyday gestures, in each person's dominion over their own body, their own mind." Eight years of war later and our policies have pushed Afghanistan and its women backwards, the Taliban forward all the way into Pakistan. The temporary liberation Afghanistan's women enjoyed was an offshoot of our policy, not a real objective. We never even pretended to go into Afghanistan to support "our" type of Muslims. Would that be a rational basis to start a war, to pound a nation with bombs, haunt it with drones, test our latest weapons and technology, and cause countless casualties?

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Therein lies the dishonesty of Friedman's argument. It tells us about a positive development in Afghanistan that tugs at our heart strings, and then uses it to justify war. We simply are not fighting for the sake of Mortenson's schools and, long-term, their ultimate success is more likely to be damaged by continued hostilities which, as President Obama has stated, have no end in sight.

Other examples of Friedman's rhetoric reinforce the propagandistic tenor of his article. It opens with him confiding in us that he too often has doubts about why we're over there. After all, "who cares about the Taliban" and as for al Qaeda, well, he jokingly struts a minor macho credential: "that's why God created cruise missiles." What a cool guy! Does he mean only the cruise missiles we use or does it apply to the various missiles that get aimed at our troops? Does he mean only cruise missiles that hit military targets or those that rudely interrupt a wedding or wipe out a village? He really should clarify that.

But golly, he tells us, everytime he's about to speak out against the war something "stills my hand". This week it was Greg Mortenson's schools and their students. Of course, if one goes back to Friedman's early articles on the Afghan and Iraq invasions by the United States, such matters were not really uppermost in his mind. But now, with the wars going on and on forever as violent military occupations, it's the little things that keep him believing.

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The article continues by carrying us deeper into Friedman's reflections. With Admiral Michael Mullen, Chair of our Joint Chiefs of Staff, Friedman travels to a ribbon-cutting ceremony at one of Mortenson's new schools. "Getting there was fun. Our Chinook helicopter threaded its way between mountain peaks, from Kabul up through the Panjshir Valley..." That sounds so cool! He gets to zip around with the top brass in a Chinook --hey, that's why God created Chinooks! This is why we're in Afghanistan--to create a country where we can hop into a Chinook and open schools and impress the elders and children who were, according to Friedman, "agog at the helicopter, and not quite believing that America's 'warrior chief'...was coming to open the new school." Granted, Friedman isn't using the pusillanimous, mock-heroic term "warrior chief" as an example of his own thinking --he's simply projecting it onto the villagers in a familiar act of Western condescension. The image is straight out of National Geographic, circa 1955, complete with white warrior-king bringing civilization to the "agog" villagers of a primitive land.

Most of the rest of the article is devoted to Mortenson who notes how the Taliban has destroyed dozens of the schools he's set up. He states that he's changed his mind about the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that the military's efforts to build relationships "from the ground up" and focusing on serving the people of Afghanistan is legitimate and, hopefully, starting to work.

Mortenson has a point. In another post 9/11 column, I noted that the U.S. hadn't yet bombed Afghanistan, and complimented our government for building relationships with many of the local leaders. Any move back in such a direction is to be welcomed. This still begs many important questions. How much influence do the relationship-building efforts have when weighed against the sheer destructive influence of the war? Why, when we were taking that approach almost eight years ago, and when intelligence and military analysts have long recommended the relationship-based approach, are we just now getting back to it? How will an ongoing war with no end in sight ultimately affect the viability of Mortenson's schools? And how committed, really, is the U.S. military to such gestures, or are they only serving as mind-candy for visiting reporters and the general public? And certainly not least, how do the Afghanis view and respond to such efforts? To what extent are such efforts really shifting the structural determinants in Afghanistan that will ultimately decide its fate? One can pose a host of other such questions and a serious attempt to answer them may lead to a more effective and considered policy.

For Friedman, however, the questions have already been answered. In a final paragraph, he admits that he still doesn't have all the answers and that he "was dubious before I arrived and I still am." But then he conjures the image of "two little Afghan girls...clutching tightly with both arms the notebooks handed to them by a U.S. admiral" and he concludes it is not time to walk away. "Not yet," he concludes, the two words conveying the full impact of those two little girls for whom, it now appears, we are fighting the war. Great technique--propagandistically speaking. The image evokes an emotional response meant to over-ride our reason and our doubts, just as they purportedly did Friedman's.

I have a friend who grew up in Kabul in the 1950s and 1960s. He recalls poetry contests with family and neighbors around midnight feasts during Ramadan, challenging his brothers and his sisters to identify quotes from classic Arab and Persian literature. I mention this not as a counter-argument to anything but just as a way of noting that Afghans are not simply a bunch of primitives awaiting the great warrior to descend from the sky with a packet of notebooks. I'm sure Friedman knows this better than I do, but his article--as an argument to continue our war there--promulgates the primitivist image in order to justify the war. We "build relationships" as part of a grander strategy, but we are very ill-equipped to establish real relationships, still trapped in our view of the relationships as serving a "higher" military end, still failing to tap into the core cultural forces that are far more powerful than any tactical gesture.

Therein lies Friedman's article's misleading misreading of the war. Mortenson's efforts, however valiant and noble, are only a small--and vulnerable--part of the equation in Afghanistan. They are not the reason we are there. They are not part of our tactical or strategic approach to the war. President Obama is not committing more troops so that Afghan girls can be educated. And if "three cups of tea" is not a significant factor in the war, it is fundamentally dishonest to present it as exemplary of our core justification. It is hardly the way to arrive at a sensible resolution to a policy that continues to be, above all, based on the most tired and destructive orthodoxies of war and "cruise missile diplomacy".

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Barton Kunstler, Ph.D. is a writer of fiction, essays, poetry, and plays. He is author of "The Hothouse Effect" (Amacom), a book describing the dynamics of highly creative groups and organizations. His play, "An Inquiry in Florence", was recently (more...)
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