The road that led to 9/11 was never a defining concern of President Barack Obama’s. But last summer he returned to 9/11 as he sought to explain and defend the war in Afghanistan. “The insurgency in Afghanistan didn’t just happen overnight, and we won’t defeat it overnight, but we must never forget: this is not a war of choice; it is a war of necessity,” he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Phoenix. “Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al-Qaeda could plot to kill more Americans.”
This distinction between a war of choice (Iraq) and a war of necessity (Afghanistan) has become canonical to American liberalism. But we should dispense with it, for it is both morally false and intellectually muddled. No philosophy of just and unjust wars will support it. It was amid the ferocious attack on the American project in Iraq that there was born the idea of Afghanistan as the good war. This was the club with which the Iraq war was battered. This was where that binary division was set up: the good war of necessity in the mountains of Afghanistan, the multilateral war born of a collective NATO decision—versus George W. Bush’s war of choice in Iraq, fought in defiance of the opinions of allies who had been with us in the aftermath of 9/11 and whose goodwill we squandered in the cruel streets of Fallujah and the deserts of Anbar.
Our 2008 presidential election, this narrative had it, gave us a chance to bring America’s embattled solitude and isolation in the world to an end. A man with strands of Islam woven into his identity and biography was catapulted to the presidency. We had drained the swamps of anti-Americanism: assalam aleikum (peace be upon you) in Cairo, Ankara, and Tehran. The great enmity, that unfashionable clash of civilizations, was declared done and over with. A new history presumably began with Bush’s return to his home in Texas.
But a policy that falls back on 9/11 must proceed from a correct reading of the wellsprings of Islamist radicalism. The impulse that took the United States from Kabul to Baghdad was on the mark. Those were not Afghans who had struck American soil on 9/11; they were Arabs. Their terrorism came out of the pathologies of Arab political life. Their financiers were Arabs, as were those crowds in Cairo and Nablus and Amman who, winking at the terror, saw those attacks as the United States getting its comeuppance on that terrible day. Kabul had not sufficed as a return address in that twilight war; it was important to take the war into the Arab world itself, and the despot in Baghdad had drawn the short straw. He had been brazen and defiant at a time of genuine American concern, and a lesson was made of him.
No Arabs had been emotionally invested in Mullah Omar and the Taliban, but the ruler in Baghdad was a favored son of that Arab nation. The decapitation of his regime was a cautionary tale for his Arab brethren. Grant Bush his due: he drew a line. Obama and his advisers need not pay heroic tribute to the men and women who labored before them, but they have so maligned their predecessors and their motives that the appeal to 9/11 rings hollow and contrived. In those years behind us, American liberalism distanced itself from American patriotism, and the damage is there to see.
A COMMITMENT WORTH FIGHTING FOR?
In the best of circumstances, this Afghan campaign would be a hard sell, but it is doubly so at a time of economic distress at home. There is no tradition of central government to be restored in that most tribalized of countries. The lessons, and the analogy, of Vietnam should perhaps be laid to rest. This is not Obama’s Vietnam. It is what it is: his Afghanistan. But there are irresistible parallels with Lyndon Baines Johnson and the way he committed his presidency, and the nation, to a war he dreaded from the start.
This is LBJ in 1964, from a definitive history by A. J. Langguth, Our Vietnam: The War 1954–1975: “I just don’t think it is worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess.” He would prosecute what he called that “bitch of a war” with the premonition that it could wreck his Great Society programs. He knew America’s mood: “I don’t think the people of the country know much about Vietnam, and I think they care a hell of a lot less.” Yet he took the plunge; he would try to “cheat”—guns and butter at the same time, the war in Asia and the domestic agenda of civil rights and the Great Society. History was merciless. It begot a monumental tragedy in a land that had no significance to American security.
Wars are great clarifiers. Obama’s trumpet is uncertain; his call to arms in Afghanistan does not stir. He fears failure in Afghanistan and nothing more. Having disowned Iraq, kept its cause at a distance, he is forced to fight the war in Afghanistan, so he equivocates and plays for time. Forever the campaigner, he has his eye on the public mood. The steel that his predecessor showed in 2007, when everything hung in the balance in Iraq, is not evident in Obama.
For the U.S. effort in Afghanistan to succeed in the face of a Taliban insurgency that is gaining in strength and geographic reach, Obama will have to make hard choices. He will need a troop commitment of sufficient weight to turn the tide of war; he will have to face his own coalition on the left and convince it that there is a project in Afghanistan worth fighting (and paying) for.
AN AMERICAN BURDEN, AS IN THE BEGINNING
He was sure that NATO forces would rush to his banners, that Europe had avoided a serious commitment in Afghanistan only out of animus for his predecessor. But Bush was an alibi all along. The Europeans are in no mood for this war.
There is a British contingent of decent size in Afghanistan; there was one in Iraq as well but no longer. The likes of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder (who dabbled in the most craven anti-Americanism) are gone and forgotten, but the French and the Germans have not ridden to the rescue of Kandahar. The stringent restrictions on their forces, their rules of engagement, have left Afghanistan an Anglo-American burden in much the same way Iraq was.
On September 11, 2001, we were visited by the furies of Arab lands. We were rudely awakened from a decade whose gurus and pundits had announced the end of ideology, of politics itself, and of the triumph of the World Wide Web and the “electronic herd.” We discovered that on the other side of the world, masterminds of terror, preachers, and their foot soldiers were telling the most sordid tales about America. We had become, without knowing it, a party to a civil war in the Arab-Islamic world between the autocrats and their disaffected children, between those who wanted to live a normal life and warriors of the faith bent on imposing their will on that troubled world.
Our country answered that call, not always brilliantly, for we are fated to be strangers in that world and thus fated to improvise and make our way through unfamiliar alleyways. We met chameleons and hustlers of every shade and had to learn, in a hurry, incomprehensible atavisms and pathologies. We fared best when we trusted our sense of things. We certainly haven’t been kept safe by the crowds in Paris and Berlin or by those in Ankara and Cairo who feign desire for our friendship while they yearn for our undoing.