Wednesday, September 17, 2014

That's not our problem.

ISIS wants us to engage with them.  So, too, do many of those Muslim states in the region.  Having the United States and indeed any non-Muslims involved is a perfect distraction, a perfect recruiting tool.  It’s a distraction because it allows the parties to avoid facing up to their existential internal conflict and what it means for the future of Islam.  It’s a recruiting tool because no one likes outsiders interfering with an internal battle, butting into their business.  Whether you want to call it a religious or a sectarian war, we don’t belong in its middle.  It’s not our problem.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Senseless brutal killing is not something that should be overlooked.  But, horrible as the recent beheadings and other atrocities may be, they are not the problem that requires our urgent attention.  And make no mistake; we do have a problem.  It is one best seen by looking at a mirror.  Yes, our problem is ourselves.  At this moment, that’s our biggest and, I’d suggest, most dangerous, problem.  It is sapping our strength and making not only our Congress but also all of us dysfunctional.  Pundits of all stripe complain that America, and specifically the administration, has no coherent and consistent foreign policy.  I agree, but how could they?

How can you have a coherent policy — foreign or domestic  — when you can’t have serious rational conversation in your own land?  I don’t know if the outcome of our staying out Islam’s struggle, painful and in many ways sad as it is, would be any different than if we commit blood and treasure to an intervention.  My guess is that, long term, it won’t matter one iota.  I may be totally wrong, but the point is we aren’t having a conversation, an honest give and take, about it.  Instead people in Washington go into meetings with their exit press statements in hand, prepared before anyone in the room has offered even a single hello.

Remember those rules that prevailed in many households, no talk of politics or religion around the table.  What nonsense.  It’s a spurious rule grounded in the notion that having different opinions or beliefs don’t merit airing or that hearing a different point of view wouldn’t be instructive.  Let’s not allow logic interfere with our preconceived absolutist views, let’s not risk having to admit that we might not have it all exactly right.  We’re told that Americans increasingly chose to live in homogeneous neighborhoods and to interact exclusively with both the likeminded — friends/acquaintances and the media with whom we agree.  And not only do we crave reinforcement for what we already believe or what views we already hold, each interaction becomes a kind of litmus test.  Is out conversational partner really on board, or had we better consider distancing ourselves?

Barack Obama is wrong and bad, because he’s Barack Obama.  Rand Paul is wrong and bad because he’s Rand Paul.  You can compile your own exemplars, but you get the point.  Paul Krugman, yes; Ross Douthat, no.  This happens in our own lives and of course in Washington or other seats of government  where similar discord prevails; answers given before any question is posed.  Then there is the assumption of what “the other side” will say and the motives attributed to whatever is said.  It’s a recipe for paralysis, a meal that seems perfectly cooked every time the political class meets, every time the pundits send forth their missiles of “wisdom”.

In a recent Times op-ed the Palestinian scholar Ahmad Samih Khalidi makes the case against arming the so-called moderates in Syria.  He suggests instead making a deal with Assad whose army actually has the chops to take on ISIS — has effective boots on the ground.  Khalidi’s take on the elusive moderates is compelling.  He may be wrong about Assad (boy is that complicated) though we have done an about face with other ruthless leaders in the past.  The point is that he voices a contrary view and in a cogent way.  I’m so hungry, so very desperate, for a real and serious conversation about what we should and should not do with this alleged crisis.  And my choice of words is not arbitrary because I’m not sure anyone has yet made a convincing argument that this is a crisis demanding our crisis action.

When the Twin Towers fell just seventy some blocks from my Upper Westside home in Manhattan, the American government retaliated.  It was a reactionary, not necessarily a strategic, move.  It allowed for no discussion.  After all nearly three thousand Americans lost their lives.  Whether we should have attacked Afghanistan at all wasn’t the real issue.  What would happen after the attack, how long it should last and to what end was something the deserved serious thought, an engagement of confirming but also contrary views.  That really didn’t happen.  For sure there was some debate about Iraq, but hardly at the level that such an audacious move should have commanded.  And as to the discussion that did take place, it was immediately framed in “are you with us or against us”?  And more profoundly the kind of litmus test that has become such second nature to us, “are you patriotic (like me), a REAL American (I can trust or befriend)?

The President and the Congress don’t get along.  He doesn’t reach out, or seem to reach out with any sincerity.  They are wedded to the partisan divide, those preconceived answers along party lines.  Perhaps this has always been the case, but regardless of office held one has the sense that the holder first foremost wants to know, is this good for me/my party?  Whether it’s right or good for the country/world comes second, if at all?

Our track record of intervention is not mixed; it’s depressingly horrid.  Iraq is bordering on a failed state and a repressive one at that.  Looking at today’s news it’s clear that the Taliban are gearing up for what may be an inevitable comeback.  For sure the “democratic” forces there haven’t gotten their corruptive act together.  Vacuums tend to be filled.  We’ve failed miserably in winning “hearts and minds” there and across the region (more on that in a future post).

We have a poor track record and painful as it is for me to say, we seem bereft of leadership.  With all his careful thought and weighing of the options, with all his sense of history, the president is being swept up in a tide of those yelling the loudest.  On the eve of an important congressional election, he is taking a reactive action to a crisis that may not be real, or at the very least, not our crisis.  He is moving against a problem that may not be one, at least not our problem.  Reading and listening to the news I have a sinking sense of déjà vu, this time around of a fundamentalist weapon of mass destruction.   Frank Rich wrote a powerful book about truth after Iraq called, The Greatest Story Ever Sold.   I fear we’re being sold again, this time by the president I still support, but who may be heading us in a very wrong direction.

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