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...
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
self 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.