Why We Fight

You owe it to yourself to read Stephen Walt on Af-Pak. For all the valuable discussion of the issue in terms of counterinsurgency doctrine – and if you haven’t been reading Tara McKelvey and Spencer Ackerman on that issue, you should be – the question of why we’re devoting so much effort to combating the Taliban and al-Qaeda has largely been absent from the debate. Yet, even as the State Department abandons the phrase “war on terror”, the fact remains that our entire South Asia policy has been devoted to fighting just such a war, against a menace that’s largely illusory. I’ll let Walt explain:

What we need, in fact, is a political elite (and a responsible media) that will help Americans keep the terrorism problem in perspective. Terrorism is a tactic that various groups have used throughout history, and it will remain with us for the foreseeable future. Dramatic incidents like the recent Mumbai attacks are going to happen again, no matter how hard we try to prevent them, and that includes the possibility of attacks on American soil. But if we can keep suicidal extremists from obtaining nuclear weapons, they will not be able to threaten our way of life in any meaningful way.

None of this is to say that we should ignore al Qaeda or any other terrorist group that is bent on attacking the United States, or that we should not sometimes act assertively to protect Americans at home and abroad. But the threat from al Qaeda does not justify increasing our military presence in Afghanistan, and certainly does not justify major military operations in Pakistan.

Read the whole thing. This argument has been made before – by John Mueller, by James Fallows, by me – but it needs to be repeated if it’s ever going to have political salience.

1 thought on “Why We Fight

  1. Today I can be a lot happier with Stephen Walt, since he has chosen not to blame my respect for Israel (my very qualified but nonetheless great respect) and implicitly my ethnic heritage for views that I do not share. In fact, I totally agree with Walt that our main priority should be stabilize Pakistan rather than to clean out the bad guys in Pakistan. There are a lot of bad guys in Pakistan and they should be defeated, but we will not defeat them just by being a self-appointed military police force in Pakistan.
    Walt says relatively little about why we are doing what we are doing in Central Asia. I do not quite agree that we need a better political and media elite to educate the public. The media is what it is and changing it is not a policy option. Nor can the political elite take the place of the media and educate the public.
    But if the political elite means political leaders, I think that they can enlighten the public simply by steering towards better policies. Government policies very often drive public opinion on distant or complicated issues. Most people realize that they can’t even name most of the countries in Central Asia, much less suggest policy, so they figure that whatever the government is doing is done for a good reason. Certainly the Bush Administration exploited this assumption on many issues, but it is a bipartisan principle. For instance the space station is a white elephant of American science funding and always has been, but most voters have trouble believing that it’s as awful as it truly is. NASA does impressive things too, so how could half of its budget be pointless?
    In basic terms, civilian foreign aid sounds like an expensive and very optional policy to many voters. The point is often repeated in this form to retirees: “They’re blowing your Social Security money; some of it EVEN goes to foreign aid!” On the other hand defense sounds like a justified expense. So even though it’s true that civilian foreign aid to Pakistan is an important way to protect our soil, it’s counterintuitive to the public and it will never win many votes no matter what any “elite” tries to teach it. But leaders can do good for America by quietly doing the right thing and not inflaming redneck instincts.

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