Over the past weekend C-Span broadcast a New American Foundation/NYU Law Center forum on Trans-National Terrorism after 9/11. It was a provocative and thoughtful discussion involving highly credentialed academic and professional experts. Most questioned both our success in combating terrorism and the underlying assumptions under which we are conducting this so-called "war". Force, many said, simply is not a solution, certainly not in the long term. I've always felt that way citing the abysmal failure of Israel's futile use of often overwhelming military power to end the Intifada. Corroborating their views, President Musharraf of Pakistan expressed similar thoughts talking to both the BBC and CNN in which he admitted that, in hindsight, the Iraq war was ill-conceived and that the world is less safe in its aftermath. As to the war on terrorism, the General, who knows something about these things, suggested that the use of force had only a short term tactical merit. Long term, the solution to terrorism requires addressing the substantial underlying political and social problems or conflicts that produce it.
Watching the Foundation/Law Center discussion, I found myself engrossed in their discussion but mostly depressed by the thought that this kind of conversation is unlikely to have taken place in or around the White House. In an administration that seems bent on corroborating predetermined absolute truths and assumptions rather than exploring possibilities and options, open discourse is obviously unwelcome, much less any notion of the course correction that it might suggest. While the number of cabinet posts being reshuffled is historically pretty consistent with other second terms, the obvious message of the replacement appointments is clear. No contrary views welcome here, no dissonant notes in this one-dimensional "patriotic" hymn. The firmness of this ill conceived resolve is only underscored by the one major cabinet post that will not change. Donald Rumsfeld and company who, regardless of one's position on the war, botched things up big time has been asked to stay. If you have any lingering doubts about George Bush's inability to admit mistakes, I rest my case.
In all fairness, however, perhaps Musharraf's critique was a little too harsh. After all, Bush does have a long term vision - bring democracy to all those countries. It is prejudicial, he suggested the other day, to think that Moslem countries could not sustain democracies. I agree that it is, but as usual, the President's words constitute more sound byte simplistic hype than a reflection of reality on the ground. As an investigative Aljazeera reporter reminded those at the forum, more than 50% of the Arab population is illiterate; not merely poorly educated, but unable to read or write. No wonder authoritarian regimes hold sway across the region. How can people vote intelligently, or even have the power to do so, when they are so handicapped. Think about this tidbit from Richard Dawkins' interview with Bill Moyers on his PBS Now program. A significant majority of Americans who voted for George Bush believe that WMDs were found in Iraq, not that they might have existed and were somehow removed from the country, but were there. If such disinformation can prevail among the educated, albeit not up the standards we would like, how can one expect real democracy, which includes informed voting, to take hold in countries of rampant illiteracy? If we don't begin to address these problems, terrorism is likely to be at our doorstep for many decades to come. At the very least, we can expect more authoritarian governance, even if it functions under Egyptian-style charade democracies.
Are we safer today than we were a year ago, or perhaps even months ago? Ask the bi-partisan congressional delegation that just returned from Iraq, a follow-up on a similar visit made last year. Senator Lincoln Chafe, a Republican, confirmed what John Kerry and others said throughout the campaign. Things in Iraq have deteriorated dramatically despite the presence of over 100,000 US troops. The delegation simply couldn't visit the same places this time around and even their modest ten kilometer trip from the airport was hazardous as they passed through land that is essentially under insurgent control (as is much of Baghdad and other places around the country). More troops are on the way, and more who should be leaving will be staying around. But this show of strength can't mask the fact that, these many months after the war of liberation, Iraqis are not really in charge of their own destiny, have less personal security and a substantially diminished quality of life than before it started. Is it any wonder that their Intifada is growing along with this reality? The idea of efficacious "an eye for an eye" coupled with a "see no lack of progress, hear no alternative view" is placing us and the world in greater danger every day. It's hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel, even harder to imagine new thinking in a now monolithic Washington imbued with mandate and the rightness of their ideas, both large and small.
Post Script: My last blog, a spontaneous reaction to increased prescription drug advertising, appears to have been more timely than I thought. Suddenly the airwaves are filled with similarly expressed concerns. Obviously others, far more influential voices, are getting into this and none too soon. More power to them.