Podcast • June 30, 2010

William Dalrymple: the Af-Pak Fiasco "on its last legs"

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with William Dalrymple. (49 minutes, 22 mb mp3) William Dalrymple is drawing on a deep well of personal and imperial history in his stark clarification of our American comeuppance ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with William Dalrymple. (49 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

William Dalrymple is drawing on a deep well of personal and imperial history in his stark clarification of our American comeuppance in Afghanistan.

“The war has lost all semblance of shape or form,” he observes, at a moment when our puppet is trying to make peace with our enemy. “I’ll be amazed,” Dalrymple says, “if the Taliban aren’t in Kabul by the end of the year.”

He confirms on the ground the inescapable but conventionally unprintable judgment that the American “predator drones” have been the Taliban’s most effective weapon and our own moral downfall. “All you read in the papers here is the successful ‘hits’ on militant hideouts. What you don’t get is what you get in Pakistani papers: ‘Five More Wedding Guests Killed in Party’ and ‘Petraeus Apologizes.'”

In Afghanistan this Spring, it struck Willy Dalrymple that “the whole thing is on its last legs, considerably worse than I expected or had been led to believe by reports I’d read. The Taliban are everywhere… The only answer now must be some way to bring the Taliban and the Pashtuns into government. But there’s no sense that Obama or Holbrooke are ready to break that to the American people. It’s blindingly obvious. The Brits and the Europeans and Karzai are all pushing for it. The Americans are the only ones not taking the view that the Taliban has to be brought in…”

I was in Jalalabad on my trip, and I went to a Jurga there of the tribal elders… I was trying to get to Gandamak, the site of the British last stand in 1842, the symbol of the failure of the first British attempt, the first Western attempt, to take over Afghanistan: 18,000 East India Company troops march in in 1839 — like our own war of our generation, a surprisingly effortless conquest. The enemy merge off into the hills, the British spend two years skating, playing cricket and thinking they’ve got Kabul. There’s even discussion about making Kabul the summer capital of the Raj. Then an insurgency starts among the Pashtun of Helmand and it spreads northwards, until eventually there’s a revolution in Kabul. The two senior British leaders, the civilian and the military leader, both get murdered in the streets and the East India Company troops march out in 1842 in the middle of winter, and are ambushed on the return. 18,000 march out, one man makes it through to Jalalabad. And the last stand of the last 50, before that man escapes, is at Gandamak.

Now I wanted to go see this place — my next book is about the First Anglo-Afghan War and the parallels with the present. And the only way to get to that area, because it’s now under Taliban control, is to go off with the leaders. So I went off with a wonderful ex-Mujahideen, ex-Olympic wrestler called Anwar Khan Jigdalek who’s this mountain of a guy with cauliflower ears. And we went off with six trucks full of former Muj, all with keffiyehs wrapped around their heads, and rocket propelled grenades, the full-monty. And we got to his home village — which is, again, where about half the British army was massacred in 1842. And he is taken, feted by his people and taken to his old entrenchments, a feast was laid on. By the time we’d actually finished this blessed feast, it was too late to go to Gandamak, because it was five in the afternoon — and with the darkness comes the Taliban. So we headed to Jalalabad…

The next day I go to the Jurga and I talked to the elders. Where we were sitting in Jalalabad was, by chance, beside the Jalalabad airfield, which is one of the major takeoff zones for the drones. And as we’re having this conversation, these sinister creatures, these pilotless craft were taking off and landing the whole time… And one of the elders told me about an interview he’d had with some American soldiers in a hotel in Jalalabad the previous week. And the American had asked: “Tell me, why do you hate us? We’ve come, we’re trying to help, we’re trying to bring democracy. We’ve built roads — why do you hate us?” And the man replied: “Because you come in our houses, you knock down our doors, you take our women by the hair, you kick our children, and we will not allow it. We will break your teeth like we broke the teeth of the British, and like the British, eventually you will leave.” And he said: “The Americans know that this war is lost. It is only their politicians who pretend they can win it.”

William Dalrymple in conversation with Chris Lydon in New York City, June 18, 2010.

We’re in conversation at the Asia Society in Manhattan on the morning after a singing-dancing book launch of Willy Dalrymple’s latest, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. The party performance the night before was for me disconcerting. It felt, as I told Dalrymple, like a minstrel show of Indian artists at a British club in E. M. Forster’s India. In fact it was a night on Park Avenue in the new seat of empire, at the Asia Society once chaired by Richard Holbrooke, for well-to-do folk (many Indian) who ought to know better about the Af-Pak war but have almost nothing to say about it.

William Dalrymple calls himself, through veils of irony, “the last Orientalist.” He is a Scots-Englishman who’s enraptured still, after 25 years living in India, with the ancient and the exotic: “the calligraphers, the old Muslims speaking courtly Urdu, the bullocks pulling wooden plows” in India today, and with the temple prostitutes, self-starving Jain spiritualists, and Sufi singers in his cast of Nine Lives, a brilliant sampling of the “divine madness” that survives the radical modernization of India.

All the while, Willy Dalrymple — “gone native,” as they used to say — has become a pillar of the new global literary India. He’s a founder and co-chair of the now multitudinous Jaipur Literature Festival every January. He has won India’s choicest prizes for travel books like City of Djinns about Delhi, and for social histories like White Mughals, about intermarriage under the Raj. In The Last Mughal, he retold the gruesome story of the “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857, rather more as Indians saw it, as the “First War of Independence.”

In Willy Dalrymple’s telling, the miserable self-deceptions of imperial over-reaching have come full circle from the rout of the Brits in Afghanistan in 1842. It helps that he speaks by now in the voice of a witness who’s been there from the beginning.

Podcast • June 23, 2010

Bromwich’s Edmund Burke: “America is out of itself”

David Bromwich is channeling the lost conservative voice of Edmund Burke, the missing wisdom on our mad Afghanistan misadventure. This is what Yale’s Sterling Professors of Literature are for, now and then: to recalibrate commentary ...

David Bromwich is channeling the lost conservative voice of Edmund Burke, the missing wisdom on our mad Afghanistan misadventure. This is what Yale’s Sterling Professors of Literature are for, now and then: to recalibrate commentary to the cadences of immortality.

In my long-ago Yale time, Burke was the voice of God for aspiring right-wingers in the school of Bill Buckley and the National Review; he was Buckley’s model of judgment, custom, continuity, restraint, “the wisdom of our ancestors” and the notion that “to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

In his own Parliamentary time (1765-1794), Burke had preached conciliation, not war, with the rebel colonies in America. He wrote the book on France “out of itself” in the Jacobin riot of revolution. More instructive for us, Burke was the conscience of the British Empire who drove the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, the abusive, plundering chief of the East India Company, for “the great disgrace of the British character in India.”

Our Burke bumper-sticker today is that he “loved liberty and hated violence.” As Jedediah Purdy read Burke in his admirable post-911 reflection, Being America, “Enough violence always destroys liberty; mutual respect is the best stay against violence. Moreover, the two appeal to opposite parts of human nature: violence to self-righteousness and the taste for domination, liberty to forbearance and a love of everyday life.” For Professor Bromwich, a modern man of classic letters, Burke remains “the greatest political writer in the English language.”

Burke stands, in Bromwich’s estimate, for the exemplary role of government “in showing the self-government of the powerful themselves, which means the self-restraint of the powerful, which means the resort to violence only as a last resort, and the responsibility of those who rule not to try to break the human personality or character or texture of any of the societies they come into contact with.”

I am asking David Bromwich as he finishes an intellectual biography of Burke for an American version of the great man. Closest approximations: the late Reinhold Niebuhr, Andrew Bacevich of The Limits of Power or Chalmers Johnson of The Sorrows of Empire. I am pestering David Bromwich for a Burkean view of the American predator drone strikes on Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example. He is observing that President Obama, who grew up with a global perspective, has fallen short not least as a teacher in office. He dubs Barack Obama “the Establishment President” in the London Review of Books this spring. In our conversation he muses that Obama…

…is a kind of academic character that I feel I’m familiar with. The strongest, most formative environment that he grew up in was academic and professional. He’s been around vaguely left-liberal but also corporate moneyed types, people like his Chicago crowd in Hyde Park, but also like Michael Froman, Jason Furman, Geithner, Summers, etc. He’s been around people like this for much of his life. And somebody like that thinks that the good people, the thinking people have hold of a lot of power already, and the plan of good sense should just be to make them rule in the right way, and to begin by speaking in a moderate tone… His sense of power being in roughly the right hands—it needs calibration and adjustment but not too much change, and it needs a push with the right attitudes more than force or distinction of policy—that seems to me who he is from my academic acquaintance with people like that. Now, the great exception to this would seem to be what he’s done with health care, but I think the way he did it tells more about him than the actual contents of what he has done. Health care was the mainstream left-liberal Democratic Party domestic policy that people wanted to see something done with for the last 50 years, and he decided to make his mark with that at some risk. It was a very peculiar decision, but in one sense the decision of a very conventional mind…

[Barack Obama] is a very fatherly parent in charge of a family that he doesn’t come home to that often. He thinks that his word goes, but he doesn’t watch too closely what follows when he says, “This is what I demand.” So, for example, on the closing of Guantanamo, he made that the first big pitch of his administration. It was very important, but there was apparently no follow-up pushed by him within his administration. Time was given for his political opponents, which includes the whole Republican Party, to rally against him, and now here we are almost a year and a half later: Guantanamo is not only still open, but there is no sign of it being near closing. He spoke with a tone of command, but the command was not followed, and he himself didn’t back his command with action.

If you pursue that again and again and again in one policy after another, you gradually become a leader who talks rather than acts, and you are known for that.

David Bromwich in conversation with Chris Lydon at Yale University, June 10, 2010.

 

Podcast • March 29, 2010

This "Year of India" (6): What’s Wrong with our Afghan War

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan. (30 minutes, 18 mb mp3) The dirty little secret of the US drone war in Afghanistan is that the civilian “kill rate” is worse in the ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan. (30 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

The dirty little secret of the US drone war in Afghanistan is that the civilian “kill rate” is worse in the Obama “surge” than it was in the bad old Bush war. The dirty little sequel is that our friends in India don’t think the Obama – McChrystal war in Afghanistan can succeed.

Siddharth Varadarajan, the strategic affairs editor of The Hindu, India’s “national newspaper,” speaks plainly (and fast!) about Pakistan’s double game in the Afghan war and about India’s dissent in the American war. Short form: the US is still going “soft on the Pakistani military,” and “hard on Afghan civilians.”

The American military strategy has three “fundamental weaknesses,” Mr. Vardarajan is saying. (1) The long-distance application of force, by air, cannot defeat the Taliban. Civilian casualties are still going up. The promise of a kinder-gentler counterinsurgency campaign has not been delivered. (2) Foreign troops (ours) cannot bear the brunt of a war on the Taliban in a country and culture that reject outsiders. The US and Britain have had almost a decade since 9.11 to train an Afghan army, and have almost nothing to show for it — a big point against our seriousness. (3) The US is outsourcing much of the Afghan problem to Pakistan, which isn’t much interested in a solution. The Palkistani military and intelligence, which run the country, are still nurturing links with the Islamist, anti-Indian Taliban. And all the more because President Obama has already scheduled his American exit, there’s a built-in incentive for the Pakistanis to stay in touch with their jihadis.

Historically the Pakistani miitary has used the jihadis the undermine democracy in Pakistan, to promote Islamism and muddy the waters in the region. The presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan is a symptom of the problem… You have to deal with the root cause of the problem, which is the nature of the Pakistani military, and there is a reluctance to do that. Just as the Pakistani military doesn’t want to give up 30 years of investment in the Taliban, I think the Pentagon and the State Department don’t want to give up 60 years of investment in the Pakistani military. So you have a tendency to cling on to your strategic assets in the hope that they will somehow do your bidding. But life doesn’t go that way.

Siddharth Varadarajan in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, March, 2010.

Podcast • September 16, 2009

Rory Stewart: "nonsense" policy in Afghanistan

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rory Stewart. (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3) Rory Stewart in professorial mode The Kipling-esque adventurer and writer Rory Stewart — the man who walked alone across Afghanistan and ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rory Stewart. (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Rory Stewart in professorial mode

The Kipling-esque adventurer and writer Rory Stewart — the man who walked alone across Afghanistan and made a best-seller of The Places In Between — was quoted by Nicholas Kristoff in the Times the other day dismissing the Obama rationale for escalating the war as “nonsense.”

In our second annual conversation yesterday, in Boston, Rory Stewart expanded on the theme. He teaches now at Harvard’s Kennedy School when he’s not running a model redevelopment project in the heart of old Kabul. I am listening respectfully here to a man who said recently in an FT interview, “I’m a bit rougher and tougher” than T. E. Lawrence! He sounds to me, through his careful Eton and Oxford delivery, like a recovering imperialist.

Short form: It’s a “mistaken” hope and theory that heavy doses of American money and military power can build a legitimate state in Afghanistan or defeat the Taliban.

Rory Stewart in seven-league boots

These are worthy objectives but they’re tasks that really can only be performed by Afghans, not by foreigners, and which are probably very long-term goals — a question of maybe years, or much more, decades. I think that in so far as Obama’s aim is simply to prevent Al Qaeda from becoming stronger, it’s not necessary for him to defeat the Taliban, or build a legitimate, effective, stable state. The Taliban is not very strong. The Taliban is not in a position to take a major city. It’s not the Taliban of ’94. And even were they in the very unlikely event to take a city, it’s extremely unlikely that they’d invite Al Qaeda back… In fact the lesson of the last seven years is that Osama Bin Laden prefers to be in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, in part because Pakistan is a more established state and because Pakistani state sovereignty prevents US Special Forces from operating freely in their territory. A very fragmentary failed state of the sort the Taliban would be participating in if they were to increase their position in Afghanistan is not likely to provide much protection for Al Qaeda, and probably therefore unlikely to pose a considerably increased danger to the United States…

What worries me most about the troop increases is that they’re likely to precipitate … withdrawal. We tend to lurch from engagement to isolation, and from increases to withdrawal. My dream has always been to define a very limited ‘light footprint,’ because I believe a light footprint is a more sustainable footprint. What Afghanistan needs with the international community is a long-term, patient, tolerant relationship; not electroshock therapy, huge amounts of cash, huge numbers of troops, in an attempt to turn it around on a ninepin…

The international community is now in a bind… The United States has said ‘I can’t affort to fail in Afghanistan; this is the Number One threat to the world,’ and therefore it doesn’t really have much leverage over an Afghan administration. They can’t really threaten to reduce troops or leave Karzai to the Taliban so long as they say this is our front line on the War on Terror… It’s very dangerous in any relationship or situation to say failure is not an option, because it effectively renders you impotent. In order to deal with Afghanistan or Pakistan we need to be able to say our interests are not identical with yours. We don’t need to be here… The current situation, suggesting we have no alternative other than the current strategy, simply exposes us to being perpetually exploited. One way of putting is: if the Afghan administration has, as I believe, caught on to the fact that the reason we’re pumping so much money into their country is because they’re perceived to have the Taliban and Terrorists and Drugs, and that if they didn’t have those things we would treat them like Nepal, what possible incentive do they have to get rid of those things? …

I think the entire political culture suffers from an inability to be passionate about a moderate solution. The political culture finds it almost impossible to envisage anything other than increases or total withdrawal. Stuck in that binary opposition and taking into account both our obligations to the Afghan people and the risks posed by Afghanistan, you can see why the president is going for increases. Personally, though, I think he’s wrong. I think the light footprint we had in 2002 – 2003, when we were taking few casualties, when we weren’t pretending to be involved in nation building, when our troops didn’t go much outside the capital, and when at the same time Afghanistan was relatively secure and prospering, was the correct posture. And that we have been misled by our ambitions. We’ve bitten off more than we can chew. We’ve provided fuel for the Taliban insurgency by allowing them to present themselves as fighting for Afghanistan against foreign military occupation. And that our current policy is going to make all of those things worse.

Rory Stewart with Chris Lydon at Harvard, September 15, 2009.

The much longer form was delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. The still longer text is at the London Review of Books.

Podcast • February 25, 2009

Parag Khanna: Anxious in Afghanistan

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Parag Khanna. (29 minutes, 13 mb mp3) Parag Khanna Parag Khanna reads and sounds to me like the sane, worldly-wise, long-view alternative to the mainstream bloviators about American ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Parag Khanna. (29 minutes, 13 mb mp3)

Parag Khanna

Parag Khanna reads and sounds to me like the sane, worldly-wise, long-view alternative to the mainstream bloviators about American power in this new Age of Obama.

His breakthrough piece in the New York Times Magazine just a year ago was headlined: Who Shrank the Superpower? (Answer: GWB and “imperial overstretch.”) The evidence threaded through his book The Second World (paperbound edition just out) is that countries on the verge (think: Brazil, Morocco, Turkey, Vietnam and many others) have come to look more and more to China and the European Union for means and models of globalization. Parag Khanna was just back from Pakistan last week when I saw him in New York and asked him to take apart the anxiety in the air around Afghanistan. “The Right War,” as TIME put it in a cover headline last year? Or Obama’s Vietnam? Parag Khanna’s current piece in Foreign Policy makes the commonsense argument that Afghanistan is, first, a neighborhood problem. Enlist China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and India ahead of the Pentagon:

We have been in geographic denial because we’ve had a constant military presence in Afghanistan since 9/11. But the truth is: we have no border with land-locked central Asia.  We do in fact require as many local regional allies as possible.

If you look around the world at security institutions, you find that the two regions that don’t have them are the ones that are most insecure – one is south-central Asia, and the other is the Persian Gulf region.  If we are not contributing to building those longer-term institutionalized architectures, then we’re not really creating a long-term solution; we are just simply perpetuating our own role over there, which fewer and fewer countries want.

See the news, of course, the case of Kyrgyzstan closing the Manas airbase, and several years ago Uzbekistan closing the K2 airbase. Our presence in the region militarily has always been extremely vulnerable to this sort of political pressure from neighboring countries.  We have contributed very little to an integrated regional security framework for the region which involves India, Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia, Uzbekistan and others – but that is exactly what needs to happen in the long run for the region to be responsible for its own security and for us not to be stuck over there for decades to come.

Now hopefully we’ll do that – I think that necessity can be the mother of genius.  The supply lines in Pakistan have been heavily attacked by Taliban forces.  It’s been at risk, the US is scrambling for alternatives, one of those alternatives could be Iran. If so, that opens up the opportunity to engage Iran in Afghan stabilization.  The Obama administration has said that it will talk to Iran on counter-narcotics issues; they could certainly also talk to them about logistics and supply. Other Nato countries are certainly going to do that. Now that Nato has given the green light for it, maybe the US should as well.

I wanted to hear Parag Khanna’s fresh observations of America’s limp in the world, after the Obama election and the onset of a deep economic slump:

Barack Obama most certainly understands that this is a more diffuse world, that the United States cannot unilaterally call the shots either militarily or diplomatically.  Take the financial crisis —  America doesn’t know what it’s doing anyway — so people are looking to Gordon Brown, or elsewhere, or to the Chinese central bank for solutions. Take Iran: the US is going to adopt the European view of engagement and dialogue.  Take North Korea, where the same thing is going to be happening as well.  So it is not so much that American leadership is being restored, or that America is going back to the world, or rejoining the world, but they have to evaluate to what extent there even is an international order for America to rejoin.

I believe that international order is in some form of decay, because these rising powers are doing things their own way. Russia is not consulting with the United Nations when it invades Georgia. China is not consulting any UN human rights committee when it rolls tanks into Tibet. So things are going on that speak against the notion of a strong central international community.  Clearly Obama has said that the UN is going to be a priority – he has made the ambassador to the UN a cabinet-level position— but that doesn’t mean the UN will suddenly be a more effective organization either.  The National Intelligence Council’s 2025 report says that by that point, ten to fifteen years from now, there won’t even really be such thing as the international community. It was a very striking argument for them to be making.  They’re pointing to a very sort of medieval future, rather than one in which international institutions can in fact direct and order global affairs, the way we thought they could in the aftermath of the cold war.

Parag Khanna with Chris Lydon at the Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan, February 20, 2009

Parag Khanna is what we called in school a hard marker and there’s a tough report card here. It sounds like the right cautionary tone President Obama would easily, almost naturally, take to heart.

Podcast • September 5, 2008

Rory Stewart: the Post-Imperialist Poster Hero

Rory Stewart at full stride across Asia One young Scotsman’s dauntless walk across Afghanistan — at peril from bandits, wolves, dysentery, snow-blindness and Taliban thugs with Kalashnikovs — makes a crackling fine and best-selling adventure. ...

Rory Stewart at full stride across Asia

One young Scotsman’s dauntless walk across Afghanistan — at peril from bandits, wolves, dysentery, snow-blindness and Taliban thugs with Kalashnikovs — makes a crackling fine and best-selling adventure. But that can’t be the only reason Rory Stewart’s account of The Places In Between is the gift book and assigned reading for all incoming students at Brown University (also at Brandeis University and doubtless other campuses) in this war-rattled presidential campaign season of 2008.

Some wise spirit of the moment in America seems to have designated Rory Stewart as the poster hero for something we long for, or something we’re trying to learn. And it became the up-front business of my conversation with the author to nail that something: not simply why the book enthralls, but why the committees of deans want us to search its meanings.

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Rory Stewart (24 minutes, 11 mb mp3)

Stewart’s own message these days, seemingly at odds with the book, dwells on disengagement and abject failure:

Rory Stewart at rest

My message is not actually a very attractive one. It’s not one that resonates a great deal. Essentially what I’m trying to say is that we need to focus on what we can do rather than on what we want to do, and that’s psychologically quite difficult.

The situation in Afghanistan, the situation in Iraq — these are intolerable situations. These are situations where people want to say: surely we can’t just stand by with civil war imminent — 93 percent of the world’s heroin being produced in Afghanistan, terrorists on the Pakistani border. Surely we ought to do something. And my response is: ought implies can. We don’t have a moral obligation to do what we can’t do.

And that sense that you could be faced with an intolerable situation, whether it’s in your personal life, an illness maybe, or whether in public policy, which you can’t do anything about is something people really don’t want to take on. People prefer to pretend they can do something, or just do anything rather than admit that there’s nothing they can do.

Rory Stewart in conversation with Chris Lydon, August 27, 2008.

So what of the lure and excitement of this book, The Places In Between?

Is it about the sheer bravery of a wiry but slight, unarmed, no-tech civilian extending his curiosity and goodwill across real mountains to The Other?

Is it the example of the old-fashioned visitor who shows up, as Kipling’s Kim or the real T. E. Lawrence once did, with a gift for languages and a respectful store of cultural lore?

Is it in fact about nostalgia for paleo-colonialism — for the 19th Century civil servants of the British Empire, even in Afghanistan and Iraq. In what may be a giveaway footnote on page 247, Rory Stewart pines for the old days. “Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing…”

In the blind pit of unending Western wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, can Rory Stewart be taken to demonstrate a radically different way to engage, and still to prevail?

To my reading the most wonderfully ambiguous moment comes late in the trek toward Kabul. Government soldiers who are in fact village boys (“new uniforms from America and salaries from Iran”) waylaid Rory Stewart and, when he tried to ignore them, came after him:

I had gone twenty yards when I heard running behind me; my sleeve was grabbed; I turned to shake the man off and he punched me in the face, his knuckles striking my cheekbone just below the eye. I stumbled and then turned around with my fists ready. He stepped back and we circled each other, me feeling clumsy under my pack…

“Stop,” I said. “This is wrong. I’m a Briton. I am a guest of your Governor Khalili. You have just punched me in the face. I’m a very important man; you can’t do this to me. What is your name? … What are you all laughing at? You are evil men… thugs.”

I saw three more check posts over the next twenty kilometers… The commander announced he was driving me to the headquarters in Bamiyan — fifteen kilometers back down the road I had been walking on for three hours — for further questioning. Despite having resolved only three hours earlier never to defy a policeman again, I lost my patience.

“No, I refuse,” I replied. “I am a guest. I am a close friend of the governor. I stayed in his guesthouse. He has given me permission.” None of this was true. I walked on ignoring the angry shouts behind me, and to my relief no footsteps followed and the shouts faded. I turned up a narrow gorge toward the snow peaks, and saw no one for four hours.

Rory Stewart, The Places In Between, pages 267 – 269.

The knockout winners in these pages are Stewart’s Eton- and Oxford-accented air of authority, the power of his narrative and the primeval power, perhaps, of pale skin. Orientalism, in a word. But there is in fact nothing so simple about Rory Stewart or his views, which have kept unfolding since The Places In Between. And still I wasn’t prepared for his renunciation of “the project.”

I think at the time I wrote the book, I imagined that if you planned better, if you knew more, if you cared more, it would be possible to do better — that the failures in Bosnia and Kosovo and Afghanistan and Indonesia that I’d seen were due to amateurism; they were due to lack of planning, lack of structure, lack of strategy, lack of commitment. But I then moved from Afghanistan to Iraq. And in Iraq I saw failure on such a monumental scale that I changed my view. I no longer believe that the problem is lack of professionalism. I believe these projects are intrinsically impossible.

The problem is not simply that we don’t have imperial officers anymore, or that that we don’t create the culture wherein they could flourish. But that even if we had the context and the individuals, they too would fail. Because the growth of nationalism, of Islam, the potential for resistance, the voices of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, their capacity to disrupt these kinds of projects, are now such that even were you to transplant some Macedonian general of Alexander the Great and try to put him in charge with sway over Afghanistan — with all the charm, dynamism, charisma and savagery that that would entail– he would still fail… I changed my mind because of Iraq.

Rory Stewart in conversation with Chris Lydon, August 27, 2008.

I asked him too directly perhaps: You’ve become a poster hero, Rory Stewart, but for what? For a recovered humility, he said. For an American self-examination, I think, that runs against the grain of The Places In Between and of the presidential campaign conversation that will be at a climax when we meet Rory Stewart again at Brown. To commenters, please: what is it we’ll really want to ask him, and ourselves, in October?

December 27, 2006

Thucydides: Ur-Historian of the Ur-War

Our West Point-educated wisemen on the matter of Iraq have been beating the drum: Read Thucydides! Col. Peter Mansoor tipped me over the edge with a post-game remark about the daily brutalities in Baghdad. "Read Thucydides on the revolt at Corcyra," he said. "You can practically see the drill bits in the head." So we've plunged.

Our West Point-educated wisemen on the matter of Iraq have been beating the drum: Read Thucydides! Col. Peter Mansoor tipped me over the edge with a post-game remark about the daily brutalities in Baghdad. “Read Thucydides on the revolt at Corcyra,” he said. “You can practically see the drill bits in the head.” So we’ve plunged.

Thucydides

Thucydides (c. 465 – 395 BC) wrote — “for all time,” as he prophesied — of the Peloponnesian War between the imperial city-states Athens and Sparta at the close of the 5th Century, BC. He was the first modern historian of, arguably, the first modern war. It was long and merciless civil slaughter — a “war like no other,” on land, sea and islands — that ended the glory years of Hellenic civilization. Thucydides narrates, in effect, a world war in the Mediterranean, “a twenty-seven-year nightmare that wrecked Greece,” in the judgment of our contemporary Victor Davis Hanson.

Thucydides, I find, is as modern as Neil Sheehan in Vietnam or Peter Arnett on CNN in the Gulf War of 1991. No thunderbolts from Zeus, no visits from Pallas Athena to Achilles in his tent, lighten or mythologize this Peloponnesian War. Thucydides gives us gritty black-and-white reporting from the meticulous and critical eye of an Athenian war officer. He is famously careful about sourcing his evidence and justifying his judgments of men, battles and human behavior in general.

And what a grim lot of judgments it is!

On the local and personal politics of war, for example. Cleon of Athens and Brasidas of Sparta

…had been the two principal opponents of peace on either side — the latter from the success and honor which war gave him, the former because he thought that, if tranquility were restored, his crimes would be more open to detection and his slanders less credited.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book 5

On power: As the Athenian envoys explained to the independent islanders of Melos, about to be crushed like bugs:

The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Chapter 17: The Melian Conference, The Fate of Melos

On the politics of empire: For the Athenians, enmity in external affairs was preferable to friendship, as the same sorry Melians were instructed:

… for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power… so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in baffling the masters of the sea.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Chapter 17: The Melian Conference, The Fate of Melos

On the inversions and corruptions of language and character in wartime:

And people altered, at their pleasure, the customary significance of words to suit their deeds: irrational daring came to be considered the “manly courage of one loyal to his party”; prudent delay was thought a fair-seeming cowardice; a moderate attitude was deemed a mere shield for lack of virility, and a reasoned understanding with regard to all sides of an issue meant that one was indolent and of no use for anything. Rash enthusiasm for one’s cause was deemed the part of a true man; to attempt to employ reason in plotting a safe course of action, a specious excuse for desertion. One who displayed violent anger was “eternally faithful,” whereas any who spoke against such a person was viewed with suspicion. One who laid a scheme and was successful was “wise,” while anyone who suspected and ferreted out such a plot beforehand was considered still cleverer. Any who planned beforehand in order that no such measures should be necessary was a “subverter of the party” and was accused of being intimidated by the opposition. In general, the one who beat another at performing some act of villainy beforehand was praised, as was one who urged another on to such a deed which the latter, originally, had no intention of performing. Indeed, even kinship came to represent a less intimate bond than that of party faction, since the latter implied a greater willingness to engage in violent acts of daring without demur. For such unions were formed, not with a view to profiting from the established laws, but with a view toward political advantage contrary to such laws. And their mutual oaths they cemented, not by means of religious sanction, but by sharing in some common crime.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book 3:82 – 3:83: Civil War in Corcyra

On the price of the tragedy:

Thus every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries by reason of the troubles.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book III 69 – 85, The Civil War at Corcyra.

My first question: Is it the right use of Thucydides to say of human nature that we are an unredeemably domineering and self-destructive species of killing machines?

Take heart, for there are peace-mongers, too, in this book, like Hermocrates, the most influential among the Syracusans at Sicily, who prevail in the end against the Athenians:

And why, if peace is acknowledged by all to be the greatest of blessings, should we not make peace among ourselves? Whatever good or evil is the portion of any of us, is not peace more likely than war to preserve the one and to alleviate the other? And has not peace honours and glories of her own unattended by the dangers of war? …As I said at first, I am the representative of a great city which is more likely to act on the aggressive than on the defensive; and yet with the prospect of these dangers before me I am willing to come to terms, and not to injure my enemies in such a way that I shall doubly injure myself. …Let us remember too that we are all neighbours, inhabitants of one island home, and called by the common name of Sicilians.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book Four: The Jowett Translation

Victor Davis Hanson’s powerful introduction to Robert Strassler’s admirable edition of The Landmark Thucydides concludes:

The Peloponnesian War turns out to be no dry chronicle of abstract cause and effect. No, it is above all an intense, riveting, and timeless story of strong and weak men, of heroes and scoundrels and innocents too, all caught in the fateful circumstances of rebellion, plague, and war that always strip away the veneer of culture and show us for what we really are.

Victor Davis Hanson, Introduction: The Landmark Thucydides

Is this who we really are?

Robert Strassler

Editor, The Landmark Thucidydes: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War

Victor Davis Hansen

Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Author, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War and The Wars of the Ancient Greeks, among many others

Kimberly Kagan

Adjunct Professor and Senior Fellow, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University

Author, The Eye of Command

Director, Understanding Military Operations

Extra Credit Reading
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (downloadable), trans. Thomas Hobbes, 1628.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (downloadable), trans. Richard Crowley.

Brent Ranalli, The Iraq War and the Sicilian Campaign, theGlobalist, January 22, 2006: “Does history repeat itself? If it does, it may be worthwhile to look back further than the Vietnam War and to compare the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with the Athenian campaign against Sicily during the Peloponnesian War in 415 B.C.”

Brad DeLong, The Civil War in Iraq Corcyra, Vrad DeLong’s Daily Journal, December 18, 2006: “For some reason, both the New Republic and the Weekly Standard rejected this forecast of civil war in Iraq account of the civil war in Corcyra when it was submitted to them back in 2003.”

Harry Kreisler, War: Conversation with Victor Davis Hanson, Conversations with History, 2004.

Via Ben Jonson: Francis Macdonald Cornford, Thucydides Mythistoicus, Kessinger Publishing, March 2004.

James F. Trumm, Thucydides Nails It, Framed, December 12, 2006: “Talk about being condemmed to repeat the past: fast-forward to Atrios, our modern-day Thucydides, writing about our own times.”

September 11, 2006

Simon Schama and Sean Wilentz on “After 9/11: The Long View”

We seek out historians to reveal the present, not the past. We want to find a doctor who's seen our symptoms before... on the general suspicion, from Ecclesiastes, that "there is nothing new under the sun." Or as Joyce's Stephen Daedalus said, because history is "the nightmare from which we are trying to awaken."

We seek out historians to reveal the present, not the past. We want to find a doctor who’s seen our symptoms before… on the general suspicion, from Ecclesiastes, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Or as Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus said, because history is “the nightmare from which we are trying to awaken.” Also: because so much of the daily news — of mad military overstretch abroad and commercial and cultural decadence at home — feels like the late-imperial lurch that our own Founding Fathers warned us about and that contemporary historians say is here. (Historian Niall Ferguson — only recently an empire enthusiast — has “The Descent of The West,” in the subtitle of his new doomsday book, The War of the World.)

The terrorism section at a bookstore.

We will have at the grand historial scheme of things (“Where the hell are we?” and “How did we get here?”) with Simon Schama, historian of the Dutch and British Empires and the most thrilling English-language talker since Churchill; and with Sean Wilentz, a preeminent historian of American 18th and 19th Century democracy who, in Philip Roth’s glowing estimate, “redeems the time he writes about without sentimentality or cynicism and with a deep understanding of every last detail of the American political tradition.”

We want them to play the counter-factual (what if?) game (as Roth did in The Plot Against America, the novel in which the isolationist hero Charles Lindbergh unseated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, to keep the US out of the war in Europe.) What if Al Gore had been elected in 2000? What if Abraham Lincoln had been president when Al Qaeda struck America? What if Tony Blair had leapt out of the Bush lap before the invasion of Iraq? What if the Bush administration had by now dragged us oil addicts into a tough detox program and led an agonizing recalibration of our role in the world? What if Osama bin Laden had been captured by a concerted police effort in 2002 and been tried and convicted at the Hague in 2003?

Please fire up the conversation with yet more pointed, or more philosophical, what ifs…

And above all, on the day after this fifth birthday of 9/11, help us locate this uneasy moment, this “long war,” as the Pentagon calls it, in a longer story. We live life forward, as Kierkegaard said, but what if it can only be understood backward?

September 8, 2006

Fear Factor

In this hour we'll examine the post 9/11 culture of fear. How it is perpetuated, how we react to it and what in the world we should really be bracing for. FDR once told us, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," but is fear now the force that gives us meaning? Do your fears originate from color-coded threat alerts and ever-growing terrorist cells?

We watched the New Year coming in around the world, the mass hysteria of no significance that was the millennial New Year’s Eve celebration. Brilliance flaring across the time zones, and none ignited by bin Laden. Light whirling over nighttime London more spectacular than anything since the splendors of colored smoke billowed up from the Blitz. And the Eiffel Tower shooting fire, a facsimile flame-throwing weapon such as Wernher von Braun might have designed for Hitler’s annihilating arsenal-the historical missile of missiles, the rocket of rockets, the bomb of bombs, with ancient Paris the launching pad and the whole of humanity the target. All evening long, on networks everywhere, the mockery of the Armageddon that we’d been awaiting in our backyard shelters since August 6, 1945. How could it not happen? Even on that very night, especially on that night, people anticipating the worst as though the evening were one long air-raid drill. The wait for the chain of horrendous Hiroshimas to link in synchronized destruction the abiding civilizations of the world. It’s now or never. And it never came.

Philip Roth,The Dying Animal

Phillip Roth’s portrayal of the Y2K hysteria, which held our nation hostage, is a remarkable foreshadowing of the culture of fear that we live in today. As soon as we survive an Anthrax scare, or a mad cow craze, or that kitchen sponge suffused with pestilence, another fear-trend dominates the headlines. It’s impossible to escape and even more impossible to determine what fears are real and what are perceived.

In this hour we’ll examine the post 9/11 culture of fear. How it is perpetuated, how we react to it and what in the world we should really be bracing for. FDR once told us, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” but is fear now the force that gives us meaning? Do your fears originate from color-coded threat alerts and ever-growing terrorist cells? Or are your fears the fears of car accidents, bad diagnoses, escalating crime rates in the neighborhood? How does America identify with fear? What purpose is fear serving?
Update, 9/08/06, 5:37 pm

We’re hoping to include voices from the Open Source community, and from other realms of the blogosphere, in this show. If you comment on this thread we’ll consider calling you to record a brief phone conversation, which we’ll play during this broadcast. If you are radio-shy but know someone else whose voice should be heard, please send him/her our way. Thanks.

Robert Jay Lifton

Psychiatrist Author of several books, including Destroying the World to Save It and Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima

Thanks to Potter for suggesting Mr. Lifton

Susan Willis

Associate Professor of Literature, Duke University Author, Portents of the Real: A Primer for Post-9/11 America

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

Conterterroism consultant Contributing Expert, Counterterroism Blog
Extra Credit Reading
Station Charon, The Enduring Power of Fear, Station Charon, August 13, 2006, “‘To live in America is to be beset by fear, anxiety and insecurity, to be surrounded by potential harm, enemies and evil intent.'”

Furyious, Politics, Fear, and Creating a Culture of Scaredy Cats, Lots O’ Stuff, September 7, 2006: President Bush has made “fear” and “caution” interchangeable words in our society.

Joseph Carroll, Americans’ Terrorism Worries Five Years After 9/11, Gallup Poll, September 11, 2006.

Matthew B. Stannard, Alerts aid terror goals, study finds, San Francisco Chronicle, September 6, 2006: “‘There are findings suggesting that the administration’s use of the alert system increased inordinately before the election and each time it did, Bush’s numbers went up about 5 percent.'”

Potter suggested: Robert Jay Lifton, Giving Meaning to Survival, The Chronicle Review, September 28, 2001: “The greatest danger in our present situation would be to resort to extreme measures to deny our vulnerability and reassert a sense of superpower invulnerability.”

William M. Arkin, The continuing misuses of fear, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/ October 2006: “A threat that is nightmarish and enduring and can neither be proved nor disproved is a powerful lubricant.”

nother suggested:Archive Search Results: fear, the ONION, September 9, 2006.

November 15, 2005

Lawrence Wilkerson: Why Does Rumsfeld Always Win?

Why does Donald Rumsfeld always win? We’re reading the George Packer account of the genesis of the Iraq war, The Assassin’s Gate, and Packer points out that Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and their surrogates won every bureaucratic battle they encountered.

lawrence-wilkersonWhy does Donald Rumsfeld always win? We’re reading the George Packer account of the genesis of the Iraq war, The Assassin’s Gate, and Packer points out that Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and their surrogates won every bureaucratic battle they encountered.

How does this happen? Lawrence Wilkerson was the chief of staff for Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005; he describes Powell’s testimony on WMDs before the UN Security Council as a “low point.” He’s only recently gone on record to describe what brought us war in 2003: it was a cabal, a concert of efforts by a small group of people determined to cause a war and then get out quickly.

Its insular and secret workings were efficient and swift — not unlike the decision-making one would associate more with a dictatorship than a democracy. This furtive process was camouflaged neatly by the dysfunction and inefficiency of the formal decision-making process, where decisions, if they were reached at all, had to wend their way through the bureaucracy, with its dissenters, obstructionists and “guardians of the turf.”

But the secret process was ultimately a failure. It produced a series of disastrous decisions and virtually ensured that the agencies charged with implementing them would not or could not execute them well.

Lawrence Wilkerson, The White House Cabal, The Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2005

Wilkerson will be in a studio for a full hour next Tuesday. He’s eager to take questions, to explain what it is that we don’t understand about our own government. How does a bureaucracy create a war? What are we to make of the reports of turf wars between State, Pentagon and CIA? How did so many people, who were so disappointed with lack of transparency or or process or a plan, fail to say anything for so long?

Extra Credit Reading
New America Foundation, Weighing the Uniqueness of the Bush Administration’s National Security Decision-Making Process: Boon or Danger to American Democracy?The Los Angeles Times, The White House Cabal, Lawrence Wilkerson Op-ed, October 25, 2005

CNN, Former aide: Powell WMD speech ‘lowest point in my life’