War as humanitarianism

Posted: Oct 12, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--It is one of the glories of America that it rebuilt its enemies after the Second World War. On Oct. 4, 2001, that same America announced that it would be devoting one-third of a billion dollars in aid to Afghanistan. Note, however, that we did not rebuild Germany and Japan until (BEG ITAL)after(END ITAL) we had destroyed them. Here we were pledging to rebuild Afghanistan even before the first bomb had dropped. The American instinct for generosity is legendary, and we appear to be outdoing ourselves. On the first day of operations over Afghanistan, one of the announced aims of knocking out anti-aircraft batteries was to permit us to send slow and vulnerable transports to drop food and medicine to the Afghan people. Indeed, the most dangerous operations of Day One were the relief flights. Now, I am all for helping refugees. And one can only salute the courage of the crews that flew the missions. But when the administration repeats again and again that our aim in Afghanistan is to free the people from the tyrannical Taliban and the destitution and oppression they had wrought, one has to wonder: Why are we offering this ``liberationist'' rationale? It cannot seriously be meant for domestic consumption. True, we have lately developed the habit of seeing war as justified only if it is an exercise in humanitarianism. From Somalia to Haiti to Bosnia to Kosovo, we have intervened militarily to bring succor to suffering peoples far removed from American national interests. But September 11 changed that. We hardly need liberation as a rationale for this war. We are fighting because the bastards killed 5,000 of our people, and if we do not kill them, they are going to kill us again. This is a war of revenge and deterrence. The American people understand it. The American people demand it. The liberationist talk must therefore be for foreign consumption. The point, I suppose, is to tell our shakier Muslim allies and their ``street" that this is not a war (BEG ITAL)on(END ITAL) Afghanistan but a war (BEG ITAL)for(END ITAL) Afghanistan. We come not to conquer, but to liberate. The problem with such a rationale is that it will not have the slightest impact. In all the anti-American demonstrations, have you seen a single counter-demonstrator holding up a sign saying, ``Yes, but the Americans are dropping food, too''? Has Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language 24-hour news station that is to Osama bin Laden what Larry King was to Ross Perot, given any sympathetic coverage to America as feeder of the hungry? Indeed, a Taliban spokesman said that the local people in Khost province burned the food aid. He's probably lying--but he certainly was not moved. Have we really taken up arms to free Afghanistan? It is true that relative freedom will be a result of our intervention (if successful). But it was hardly the motive. A free Afghanistan was not high on our national agenda before September 11. It is now, but for reasons of self-interest, not altruism. Nor is there anything wrong with self-interest. The world teems with the unfree. God knows, we have spent much blood and treasure to help such people, from Vietnam to Liberia. We cannot fight everywhere. We pick our spots. And this spot, Afghanistan, is now important because of what was done to Americans, not Afghans. If the relief drops and the liberation promises help us to win hearts and minds, fine. But we should be careful about our promises. Liberation talk can be dangerous. It sets a high standard for victory. Our objective in Afghanistan is to destroy the Taliban. True, we will have to establish some kind of political stability afterwards. But we are not in Afghanistan to nation-build. We should do only as much as necessary to leave behind a structure stable enough to prevent the return of the Taliban. The war on terrorism will then move on from Afghanistan to other venues. However, if our war aims (BEG ITAL)within Afghanistan(END ITAL) are too broad, they will distract us from pursuing the broader war aims (BEG ITAL)beyond Afghanistan(END ITAL) that must be achieved if the war on terrorism is truly to be won. It is equally important to rid ourselves of the illusions of ``humanitarian war'' that beguiled us during our holiday from history in the 1990s. This is going to be a long twilight struggle: dirty and dangerous, cynical and self-interested. Yes, the ultimate objective is a freer world. But actually fighting this war, like the Cold War, will involve many compromises with freedom, even with decency. War is an act of destruction, not urban renewal. We need to steel ourselves to that truth now, or we might find that partway into the battle, even as we remain under catastrophic threat, we lack the stomach to see it through.