Maddow: Afghanistan War a "moral outrage...we have a responsibility... to stop."

by: Paul Rosenberg

Fri Jul 16, 2010 at 10:00

Getting right on the war with "good-enough" politics

Yesterday, Rachel Maddow completed her trifecta on Afghanistan.  First, she was the only one who understood that McChrystal wasn't the problem--the policy was.  Then she went to Afghanistan, and got Brigadier General Ben Hodges to admit onscreen that there is no "plan B" for Afghanistan.  Finally, last night, she wrapped up her reporting back from her trip with a powerful summation, revisiting her interview with General Hodges, and concluding that continuing the war would be "a moral outrage": [emphasis added]

That's what we're doing -- trying to give them the best chance they've ever had. And they may not take it. And our troops staying there may not make them more likely to take it. To recognize that is not to accept military defeat. Frankly, establishing a government in a foreign country isn't a military objective. It just isn't. Counterinsurgency theory be damned. It's a civilian, development objective, in this case with military support.

A military objective is winning a war. War is destructive, not constructive. We send men into war with guns, not with shields. It is not to accept military defeat to recognize that the 82nd Airborne can do many things but it can't make the governor of Nangarhar Province not corrupt. If we think there is a future in which the Afghan government is real and it runs and controls that country to the exclusion of the Taliban, and it's there because we've made that possible, then there is an American national security interest in us still being there. But if that's not possible. No matter what we do. If no matter HOW MUCH WE WANT for that to happen, we can't make that happen....

If we can't make the outcome we want come to fruition, then we should fund and train and support the Afghan government all we can. But each additional American life sacrificed to a goal we know we won't reach is a moral outrage -- a moral disaster -- that we have a responsibility, in this life during wartime, to stop.

Dollars, yes. Lives? LIVES? No. Not for a romantic wish. Not for something we want but know we won't get. Dollars, OK. Lives, NO. If you believe our actions -- our American actions -- in 2010 can make it more likely that there's a real government in Afghanistan, then asking Americans to die in Afghanistan, is asking them to die for something that is in the national security interests of the United States. Which is what American kids sign up for when they enlist. But if you believe that our actions -- our American actions -- in 2010 canNOT make it more likely that there's a real government in Afghanistan, then asking Americans to die in Afghanistan is wrong. It's over. Development... training... support, OK. But lives? No.


That's the choice. It's not partisan. It's not even passionate. It's rational. Horribly, horribly rational.


Now, I don't share Maddow's overall perspective on foreign policy.  I'm much more of a Mark Twain/William James anti-imperialist than she is.  But I was part of the Vietnam Anti-war Movement, and we encompassed a wide diversity of different views, while all agreeing on one thing:  The war had to end.  Although I always strived for more and deeper agreement, the bottom line was that agreeing on that one point was good enough for me.

Saving lives, and restoring a minimum level of sanity was good enough then, and it's good enough now.  What does it mean to be "good enough"?  I understood it intuitively then, but there's an actual science to it, I've since learned...

Paul Rosenberg :: Maddow: Afghanistan War a "moral outrage...we have a responsibility... to stop."

The "Good-Enough Mother" And "Good-Enough Politics"

The concept of the good-enough mother comes from British psychologist Donald Winnicott, and though it's not directly applicable to politics it is analogically illuminating:

Winnicott sees the key role of the 'good enough' mother as adaptation to the baby, thus giving it a sense of control, 'omnipotence' and the comfort of being connected with the mother. This 'holding environment' allows the infant to transition at its own rate to a more autonomous position.

    "The good-enough mother...starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure" (Winnicott, 1953)

The 'not good enough' mother leads to 'false
disorders' in the child.

    "In the cases on which my work is based there has been what I call a true self hidden, protected by a false self. This false self is no doubt an aspect of the true self. It hides and protects it, and it reacts to the adaptation failures and develops a pattern corresponding to the pattern of environmental failure. In this way the true self is not involved in the reacting, and so preserves a continuity of being." (Winnicott, 1955-6)

He sees the micro-interactions between the mother and child as central to the development of the internal world. After the early stage of connection with the mother and illusions of omnipotence comes the stage of 'relative dependence', where they realize their dependence and learn about loss. By moving away from the child in well-timed small doses, the mother helps develop a healthy sense of independence. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.

Three key aspects of the environment identified by Winnicott are holding, handling and object-presenting. The mother may thus hold the child, handle it and present objects to it, whether it is herself, her breast or a separate object. The good enough mother will do this to the general satisfaction of the child.

The trick of the good-enough mother is to give the child a sense of loosening rather than the shock of being 'dropped'. This teaches them to predict and hence allows them to retain a sense of control. Rather than sudden transition, this letting go comes in small and digestible steps, in which a Transition Object may play a significant

The core of the analogy that carries over is that (1) perfection is not all it's cracked up to be, (2) imperfection actually has a vitally important function, and (3) there is a range of imperfection that is optimal, leading to healthy development.

The politics of purity and perfection demands absolute fidelity to some code or creed.  It can be highly motivating, and highly moral--or it can be extremely destructive.  I am not saying there is no place for such politics. But ultimately, what gets things done in the end--if not the beginning--is good-enough politics that melds a broad range of different views and motivations, with purists (often of different varieties) working alongside all different sorts of other folks. Purists often play a very important role in articulating principles and goals, and motivating action and involvement. In the grand scheme of things, I may not be a purist, but I have been in the past, and part of that still lives in me.  I would never denigrate the special gifts that purists bring.  Yet, it can also be the case that purists can make it impossible for movements to grow large and strong enough to achieve their goals.

Mediating purism with other perspectives is one of the most challenging and important jobs of successful movement-building.  A good-enough politics must manage to do this to hold itself together.  At the same time, however, it must find a way to define itself that says there are some crucial differences that cannot be tolerated--for example, staying in Vietnam and fighting.

The "Good-Enough Politics" of War and Peace

There is a crucial difference between Rachel Maddow and Barack Obama, even though both of them might subscribe to a similar formulation that Obama once made, that he was opposed to "dumb wars." The difference is that Maddow has a much better grasp of what constitutes a "dumb war."  On a case-by-case basis, this is enough for opposing the Afghanistan War, and building a good-enough politics to oppose it.

But there's a deeper level of unity to be sought after, and this goes back to the beginnings of the Cold War, which I've written before about before on several occasions, such as this passage from "Where's Obama? Questioning v Reinforcing [Foreign Policy] CW #3 (Political Duality of Rep v Dem 6c)" (Nov, 2007):

In a remarkable paper, "Kennan's Long Telegram and NSC-68: A Comparative Analysis," East European Quarterly, Vol. 31, no. 4, January 1998, Efstathios T. Fakiolas analyzed two key documents from the formative days of the Cold War.  Kennan's Long Telegram, which first formulated a comprehensive picture of the Soviet threat, and laid the foundations for the doctrine of containment, and NSC-68, the national security directive primarily authored by Paul Nitze, which formed the blueprint for how the US fought the Cold War throughout most of its duration.

Fakiolas used the framework of foreign policy realism for his analysis, but he determined that the two documents employed significantly different models within that tradition.  Although they seemed to many people to be kindred documents, Fakiolas uncovers striking differences.  I'm going to do a separate diary delving deeper into his argument, but the bottom line for us now is this:  Kennan's Long Telegram and Nitze's NSC-68 appear similar, they depend on different models of international relations within the same realist tradition. 

Kennan relied on the "tectonic plates" model, in which there many other non-state actors, the world is not "zero-sum," and there is often opportunity for mutual cooperation.  Nitze relied on the billiard ball model, which sees the international system as "composed solely of egoistic sovereign states interested in maximizing their relative power capabilities at the expense of others," and sees "world politics is a 'zero-sum' game in which national security conceived of in military and territorial terms is the one and only states' national objective."

As a result, Kennan favored a strategy of containment that emphasized strengthening the West socially, economically and culturally, addressing its flaws which the Soviets exposed.  In contrast, Nitze ignored issues of the Wests internal flaws, and focused almost exclusively on military force to combat the Soviet Union.

It's my own observation, based on this analysis, that we fought Nitze's Cold War, but we won Kennan's.  It was not, in the end, our military strength that defeated the Soviet Union, it was the appeal of our culture of openness and freedom.  The history of Eastern European resistance movements, especially in Checkoslavakia and Poland, makes this abundantly clear.  Through their influence on dissident culture, Frank Zappa and Lou Reed did more to win the Cold War than any division of tanks ever did-or even a wing of nuclear armed B-52 bombers.

In my view, the Kennan vs. Nitze distinction has outlived the Cold War era.  In running for office, Obama clearly placed himself more in the George Kennan camp.  But from the very first week in office he has also engaged in Nitze-like actions that give the lie to his rhetoric.  What Maddow is doing, in part, is pointing out the unworkability of doing this.

But the deeper point for long-term consolidation of progressive foreign policy that follows Kennan's logic at a minimum is that we heed the point alluded to in the red text above: rather than going into denial over what our enemies accuse us of, we should frankly examine ourselves, and see if we've fallen short of our own ideals.  Even moreso with terrorists than with the Soviet Union, taking this sort of corrective action is one of the most powerful things we can do to defeat those who are confronting us.

Every time we betray our Constitution and our principles, every time we give in to fear, the terrorists win. And conversely, every time we affirm our Constitution and our principles, every time we stand up to fear, we win.  If you believe that, then you are part of the good-enough progressive foreign policy movement.

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ok I take back what I said about her in my QH (4.00 / 1)
I just wish she had shown the courage to express this point of view when she was over there.  Also, she seems to accept a lot of the flawed reasoning for the war in the first place.  But, qualifications aside, I was apparently wrong about her views on the war.

She may have felt it was disrespectful to the troops, and the (0.00 / 0)
president to say this while there. Or she may have wanted to take a few days reflection to make sure of her position absolutely before pronouncing it to the world. It's not something you can take back and could be the most momentous thing she's ever said.

[ Parent ]
Agree. It was her (4.00 / 2)
Cronkite Moment.  And like Walter, she waited until returning home and presumably collecting her thoughts before carefully announcing her findings.

Though for sure Rachel doesn't have nearly the viewership Walter had.  But she also didn't have WC's unfortunate previous pro-US intervention cheerleading record to have to account for and overcome.

[ Parent ]
Nice job pulling this all together, Paul. (4.00 / 4)
Rachel has taken a lot of heat in various threads for her, apparently, sympathetic series on Afghanistan, with an array of folk arguing they will never watch her again.  Since I genuinely do not watch television, and only occasionally watch a recommended video clip to keep track of who the players are, I didn't follow the series.  Your piece suggests to me that she "built a case," and she went about it in a systematic way.  It wasn't a one-off rolled up newspaper across the snout of some government flack or right wing mouth piece or other.  It'd be a real pity - as small as progressive number are reported to be - if we lost our ability to hear our somewhat-less-than-"hard"-left colleagues out.  As you have written, there are times when good enough is good enough.

I'm Old Enough To Remember The Vietnam War (4.00 / 4)
and the role that journalists played then.  And I can say pretty confidently that it took a very long time, and a lot of street organizing before there was anything in media as well articulated as what Maddow has produced over the past four weeks or so.

So, thanks for appreciating it.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Well, 3 years (4.00 / 1)
from the time of Johnson's escalation until Walter Cronkite issued his pronouncements against LBJ's war quagmire approach.  But given the much heavier human carnage on all sides in VN compared to Afghan, those 3 years of relatively muted and limited dissent (particularly on tv) seemed like an eternity.

Honest VN reporters like CBS's Morley Safer and AP's Peter Arnett (and a few others) were trying to tell all sides, including the horrors of war (e.g., Safer's Cam Ne story in 1965, the torching by US troops of the thatched village in SVN) and how badly the local peasants were being treated.  But, post-Safer report, not many similar but common negative war stories got on air, iirc..  LBJ was furious at Safer and CBS and let network pres Frank Stanton (Johnson's friend) know about it; stories like Safer's tended not to get aired thereafter, until 1968 and Tet.

[ Parent ]
It Depends When You Start Counting (4.00 / 1)
Historian Marilyn Young starts counting at the end of WWII, when Ho Chi Minh tried to parlay his war-time work for the OSS into support for creating an independent Vietnam, and we went with supporting the re-imposition of French colonial rule instead--under a wartime collaborator with the Japanese, no less.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
One, two, MANY Chomskys (4.00 / 1)
We also had the teach-ins. They sound quaint now, even to me, but at the time they had quite an impact. It may be a false memory, but as I look back on them, I wonder if what we would now consider their weaknesses weren't actually strengths.

They were conducted by academics, who by today's standards would be dismissed as boring, high-falutin', elitist, etc. They reached very few people outside college campuses, at least not directly, and in the beginning, the mass media ignored them like the plague, much as they now ignore Noam Chomsky, the last relic of that vanished age. Yet what they did, they did very well indeed. They laid an unimpeachable intellectual foundation for opposition to the war, and they communicated it to a core group which spread it well beyond the campuses where it was first presented, and did so in a very coherent way. I wonder if this model -- one-to-some-to-many -- wasn't more effective in some ways than the simpler one-to-many mechanism of the Internet, which tends to be diffuse where the teach-ins were focused.

As I say, this may be a memory rose-tinted by nostalgia, and the sorts of things that the diarists here are doing here may ultimately have an even more impressive effect, and on a wider range of issues, but as an example of what academia can accomplish when it actually engages with the wider world, I think that the teach-ins shouldn't be dismissed.

[ Parent ]
The Teach-Ins Started (4.00 / 1)
as proposed debates between administration officials and academic critics.  But the adminstration quickly realized they'd get creamed, so they pulled out.  The teach-ins went on without them.

They were just as bad strategically here as they were in Vietnam.

That's what's changed.  Their domestic propaganda operations have made enormous progress.  Counterinsurgency, OTOH?  Not so much.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Paul, see my post below (4.00 / 1)
re Johnson not wanting anyone from his admin publicly discussing, let alone debating, anything about the new war policy.  Had everything to do with LBJ wanting to quietly implement the escalation w/o the public being aware of it until it was a fait accompli, at which point most people, Johnson knew, would tend to, initially at least, rally around the troops.

And Bundy did eventually appear to debate on teevee, against Johnson's order not to, sometime in June 1965 on CBS.  Not long thereafter, the Bundy appearance a done deed, if I have the chronology right, Johnson told Bill Moyers to go to Bundy's office and fire him.  Moyers tried to carry out the order, but Bundy only laughed him off -- "Really?  Again?"  (About 7 months later, Bundy would leave the admin, to be replaced as nat'l security advisor by even more hawkish Walt Rostow.)  (see Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster)

[ Parent ]
We are the world (4.00 / 3)
Both you and Brodie make excellent points, Paul. It's certainly true that the mass media, if not more honest, was less tightly controlled then than it is now. It's also true that the experience of losing homeland hearts and minds to those pesky professors provided a lot of the impetus to come up with things like embedded reporters, bald-faced lying, a deathgrip on internal documentation, and draconian punishments -- with no statute of limitations -- for would-be Daniel Ellsbergs. I would even argue that the evidence suggests that the military was given an implicit, if not explicit, green light to shoot journalists, especially foreign ones. In that respect, as in others, I suspect we took our cues from the Israelis, who are always eager, as the South Africans were before them, to give us advice about our wog problems.

At the time, we talked about bringing the war home. Perhaps we should have been more careful what we wished for. Then again, it was always coming home, no matter what we did. Ask the Romans, or the British, or the French.

[ Parent ]
Good points about (4.00 / 1)
the teach-ins.  Of course, with the draft in effect as Johnson began in the spring of 1965 to escalate the war, the teach-in leaders were bound to gather a fair-sized audience of students who, by definition, at least for the men, were going to have a personal and imminent stake in what was suddenly happening with the US in Nam -- so different from today's draft-free youth and their far-less passionate interest in that far off war in Afghanistan.

One early teach-in (mid-65) I've read about was actually televised (via closed-circuit tv) to dozens of college campuses across the land, so probably reached thousands of students.   Yet, as you say, the tv networks mostly declined to offer any special programming -- a Nightline town-hall type of longer show for instance -- to cover these events and the debate over the new unfolding admin war policy.

Partial slight credit to CBS, which in this mid-65 time period did devote a prime-time hour to a debate on the war.  Initially invited nat'l security advisor McGeorge Bundy had agreed to appear to defend the admin's war policy, but LBJ found out about it at the last minute, and forced Bundy to cancel (sending him abroad on some phony mission).  Johnson didn't want any public discussion or debate by his admin about what he was quietly doing in Nam, a lips-buttoned approach which Bundy strongly disagreed with.  But eventually Bundy would arrange, behind Johnson's back, to appear on CBS for a re-scheduled debate, appearing against antiwar Prof Hans Morgenthau and, apparently, using an ad hom approach to try to discredit HM's antiwar stance.

Then in 1966, in a congressional sort of "teach in", some of the networks televised live the Fulbright For'n Rel'ns Comm'ee hearings on the war, where some very outspoken anti-war witnesses were called.  But again, little to no follow up by the corp media, and the war just continued to escalate.

[ Parent ]
Rachel was very helpful and clarifying.. (4.00 / 1)
Most have never heard or seen such a wide angel view of the latest overall 'war' strategy's effect, as Rachel risked her life to lay out for us all, trying to understand herself what the hell was really going on there.  
So Rachel herself, as an analytical scholar who also happens to be a liberal, shouldn't be shunned or chastised for giving you her scholarly opinions based on what she saw and heard.

After her shows and her outstanding interview with Holbrook, whom I use to blew off as maybe too old for the job, I now understand the grave responsibility we have, Obama has, in shoring up Afghanistan enough, after 8 years of Bush and Cheney so that we can leave.
I would clarify one piece of Rachel's story based on what I heard that gives me more hope than before.  It isn't so much the 'Afghan government', Karzai's government, that we're focused on. He's a lost cause for us, living or dying only on what the tribal leaders decide.
We're now working from the outside in, strengthening those rural, tribal governments to keep the Taliban out and trust the central government.
We have no other humane way to leave. It's the least we can do.

Nationalism is not the same thing as terrorism, and an adversary is not the same thing as an enemy.

compromise/good enough....the art of successful negotiation? (4.00 / 2)
Reminds me of a meeting I attended years ago when compromise was explained to the attendees.

We were construction union business managers, assembled in Great Falls at the state Building and Construction Trades convention.

During a presentation by a female representative from the Department of Labor, she mentioned compromise, and noticed the (all male) delegates almost stand on our ears at such heresy in this nearly single minded meeting. She responded by defining compromise thusly:

Compromise is accepting less than perfection. And we know we can each accept less than perfection, otherwise we would all still be virgins.

After the self realising laughter died down, her views were easily considered, and had lasting impact.

Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob..... FDR

True Enough! (4.00 / 2)
But there's also the point that perfection has a downside people often don't realize.

It's the imperfections we experience and learn to cope with that become sources of strength we could never develop any other way.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
What Maddow is saying about the mission goals, this was (0.00 / 0)
clearly stated in the document prepared by McChyrstal in which he justified the additional troops, as I recall. It is not something new and yet was not widely commented on.

I would argue that a non-military goal, a hoped for goal, can still be fought for with military support, if, and it's a big if, the goal is important and worthy enough.

About 20% of the time I think it is worthy if after all the suffering, all the troops deployed and hurt there, that it makes some kind of sense to try to secure the country. But the other 80%, and after I read McChrystal's document now almost a year ago, I share Rachel's opinion, her moral judgment, that having our troops risk their lives and die for something that seems quite unlikely is not right.

One thing that gets me is knowing that as McC. admitted, the educational level of Afghans is so low that it's impossible to find enough NCO's for their army, enough leaders. That's something you cannot compensate for overnight. Takes a decade perhaps. Indeed, I believe they kept saying (in their plan last year) that it would take that long to achieve their goals.

Before 9/11 (4.00 / 3)
conservative ridiculed and attacked liberals for believing in nation-building, even in much less adverse conditions.

Check out the 2000 Bush/Gore debate on foreign policy, for example.

Just sayin'.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
80+% are illiterate. (4.00 / 3)
And since we are an invading army of infidels to them, I doubt they'll take up the offer for tutoring from a foreign military that publicly states they intend to "transform Afghan society." I bet that phrase sounds really great to the locals.

"But we don't want to be transformed! Not by you, anyway!"

As for the timeline offered up by the COINdinistas, think more like 20-30 years, not ten. That's the timeline they are offering up. In 20-30 years, they expect to transform Afghan society (as if there really is such a thing, it's a collection of tribes, not a Westphalian nation-state, after all) into something more along DoD's liking, whatever that is supposed to be. How many Trillions are we supposed to blow on this kind of stupid arrogance, while we're simultaneously wiping out the middle-class at home?

This experiment in neo-imperial silliness was always doomed to fail. You can't "transform" societies against their will, at the business end of an M-4. For 3,000 years, these people have sent every "culturally superior" invader home, with a long train of corpses behind them. So it's simply not possible to "secure" the country from without. We're the ones making it insecure, not the other way around.

All they really have to do is not cooperate and the US mission fails. Indeed, that's precisely what we're seeing, isn't it?

The real mission in Afghanistan has to do with exploiting their resources to prop up our bloated war machine. Oil, gas, minerals (including lithium). Money. Apparently, it's verboten to speak of this to the American people. So all we get is this hogwash about transformations--as if this is some kind EST By Force Seminar--and "securing" a country that can't be secured because we're the biggest problem in that regard.

So of course, none of this makes any sense!

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates

[ Parent ]
10, 20, 30, 100... (0.00 / 0)
Any century now, we've got to get organized!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
re: maddow (4.00 / 1)
It is not to accept military defeat to recognize that the 82nd Airborne can do many things but it can't make the governor of Nangarhar Province not corrupt.

that's a very powerful statement

and part of it's power is simplicity. it doesn't take an expert to recognize how true it is. we should use this more: our troops are trying but troops can't make afghanistan's gov't not-corrupt. the afghanistan war is already the longest american war. it's time to stop sacrificing young lives.

we should also use bill maher's terrorism point: so, do we concede defeat on the war on terror by pulling the troops? no. terrorism can't be defeated by a war as murder and robbery can't. terrorism is a tactic that needs a law enforcment approach.

and we should also use barney frank's military funding point. we don't have to keep troops on japan, germany and 50 more places around the world:

Somehow I don't think we have a base on Hainan. (0.00 / 0)
Not that that takes anything away from the overall point of the chart, but as a map nerd I could not not comment.

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re: code (0.00 / 0)
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[ Parent ]

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