We’re back from a six-day 2,600 mile motorcycle trip to northern New Mexico from southern California. A spectacular trip, marred by a logistical problem which kept us from dining with Porphyrogenitus who drove a long way to meet us, only to find that we weren’t there yet. Tenacious G rode spectacularly, and safely, and I’ll probably post some moto-related comments over at Armed Liberal.
It was also an enforced vacation from media; much of the day was spent in the solitude of my helmet, and the physical and social demands of the trip left little time for sitting and reading.
It was great…I spent a lot of time thinking, which (as some commenters have pointed out) is often rare for me. One of the major issues is finding a way to articulate my continued negative view of John Rawls, and my (so far undefended) opinion that his philosophy is somehow a part of the overall scheme of ‘Bad Philosophy’ that I discuss so often.
Coming home and reading my email, I was directed by a friend to a column by Mark Helprin, who is one of my favorite novelists, and has been known on occasion to write a good political speech. The column is titled ‘War in the Absence of Strategic Clarity‘ and subtitled ‘More than merely winning the war in Iraq, we needed to stun the Arab World‘
This one is a corker, and while I disagree with certain aspects of his analysis of the problem in the Arab world (although I’ve got to yield to his greater direct knowledge of it in his years in Israel), I think that he nails the domestic issues squarely. I have to quote this:
America has approached the war on terrorism as if from two dreamworlds. The liberal, in which an absurd understanding of cause and effect, the habit of capitulation to foreign influence, a mild and perpetual anti-Americanism, reflex allergies to military spending, and a theological aversion to self-defense all lead to policies that are hard to differentiate from surrender. And the conservative, in which everything must be all right as long as a self-declared conservative is in the White House – no matter how badly the war is run; no matter that a Republican administration in electoral fear leans left and breaks its promise to restore the military; and no matter that because the Secretary of Defense decided that he need not be able to fight two wars at once, an adequate reserve does not exist to deal with, for example, North Korea. And in between these dreamworlds of paralysis and incompetence lies the seam, in French military terminology la soudure, through which al-Qaeda, uninterested in our parochialisms, will make its next attack.
The war is waged as if accidentally, and no wonder. For domestic political reasons and to preserve its marginal relations with the Arab World, the United States has declined to identify the enemy precisely. He is so formless, opportunistic, and shadowy that apparently we cannot conceive of him accurately enough to declare war against him, although he has declared war against us. Attribute this to Karl Rove’s sensitivity to the electoral calculus in key states with heavy Arab-American voting, to a contemporary aversion to ethnic generalities, to the desire not to offend the Arab World lest it attack us even more ferociously, to the fear of speaking truth to oil, to apprehension about the taking of hostages and attacks upon embassies, and to a certain muddledness of mind that is the result both of submitting to polite and obsequious blackmail and of having been throughout the course of one’s life a stranger to rigorous thought. Reluctance to identify the enemy makes it rather difficult to assess his weaknesses and strengths. Thus, for want of a minimum of political courage, our soldiers are dispatched to far-flung battlefields to fight an ad hoc, disorganized war, and, just as it did in the Vietnam War, Washington explains its lack of a lucid strategy by referring to the supposed incoherence of its opponent. From the beginning, America has been told that this is a new kind of war that cannot be waged with strategic clarity, that strategy and its attendant metaphysics no longer apply. And because we cannot sufficiently study the nature of an insufficiently defined enemy, our actions are mechanistic, ill-conceived, and a function of conflicting philosophies within our bureaucracies, which proceed as if their war plans were modeled on a to-do list magnetized to some suburban refrigerator.
I’ve found myself flanked by people like Atrios and Hesiod on one extreme – people who in one breath claim that the Bush Administration is criminally incompetent, and in the next claim that it is working a vast and subtle conspiracy of which the current war is only a minor manifestation, and people like Trent and Tom Holsinger on the right, who claim that there is a plan, but it is so grand and subtle that – like the Ark of the Covenant – my merely human mind would melt if I were to be shown it (please understand that I’m being rhetorical and hyperbolic on both extremes, but that I believe that the core arguments do in fact point in those directions). And what I believe is that we have a President who is trying to … as Helprin puts it so well … win the war on the cheap, so it won’t be a political liability at home or abroad, and is doing so in an ad hoc fashion.
We’re doing well on the military side, that is certain. But as theorists of guerilla wars have noted, and as my reading of Col. Harry Summers’ book, ‘On Strategy‘ and other works have brought me to understand, we came close to winning the Vietnam war militarily – but lost it all the same.
That’s not out of the question here, either.