Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Michael Steele have not had much in common except serial stupidity and now this: Each has struck a blow for ending the second most disastrous American foreign policy of the past 40 years, the Afghanistan war, and likely sacrificed his career for it.
Neither the general nor the Republican national chairman intended those results. They just blundered into it, the general from a surfeit of arrogance as well as stupidity and Steele from, well, just the stupidity for which he was already celebrated.
President Obama relieved McChrystal of his command after the general and his staff, high on chutzpah and the general's favorite drink, Bud Lite Lime, belittled the commander in chief, the vice president and almost everyone else on the Afghanistan team in a series of interviews with a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine.
While the general's and his aides' sometimes senseless tirades against the administration and others cost him his command, they were almost beside the point. There were already ample reasons for cashiering him, from his role in the cover-up of the friendly-fire killing of pro footballer Pat Tillman, whose death six years ago the Army and the Bush administration tried to use as a propaganda tool, to the general's ham-handed (and successful) effort last year to force the president to adopt his strategy to amp up U.S. forces and spending in Afghanistan.
The relentless message of the Rolling Stone article, fortified by the anguished complaints from soldiers and McChrystal's own frustrated ramblings, is that, far from improving, the war is going from bad to worse, is not going to get better with the sacrifice of thousands more American lives and will end just as it always has for every foreign power from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union, with the notable exception of Genghis Khan. The only question is how much blood and treasure will we expend before we leave?
That brings us to Michael Steele, who after McChrystal's firing, made that very point, which brought embarrassed rebukes from Republican leaders of every stripe and calls for his resignation. Steele called Afghanistan "a war of Obama's choosing" and predicted defeat and withdrawal.
The first part is a lie and everyone knew it. After all, the Afghan war is now the longest in U. S. history. Weeks after 9/11 George W. Bush deposited troops in Afghanistan and began bombing the infrastructure around the nation's capital. Obama's only mistake, and it was a grievous one, was to promise in 2008 that he would do what Bush would not do, which was invest the troops and money in Afghanistan to actually win.
Steele's purpose was no different from the party's, which is to make Afghanistan, when the certain eventuality comes, not a Republican blunder but an Obama failure. But he undermined the whole Republican foreign policy since October 2001, when Bush decided to abandon his campaign promise of no nation building and adopt Dick Cheney's policy of overthrowing as many flaky Middle East governments as you can.
The nutty chairman's historical folly ought to be the occasion to refresh the nation's memory about how Afghanistan happened. It is still important. Having been convinced that the 9/11 attacks were not masterminded by Iraq, as he hoped, but by Osama bin Laden, Bush decided that Afghanistan was the nation to conquer.
Rather than send forces to the al Qaeda training camps in the lawless mountains to capture or obliterate bin Laden and his rag-tag comrades, which is what Americans wanted and the rest of the world supported, Bush demanded that the Taliban, which controlled the capital and some parts of the country, capture bin Laden and his men and turn them over to the United States or face an invasion by the United States and a handful of allies. The Taliban, which had enjoyed American-supplied arms and training in overthrowing the Soviet-Union puppet regime and resisting other warlords, refused. The Taliban had asked bin Laden to leave the country in 1998 after the bombings of U. S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were traced to him, but he refused.
When the saturation bombing began, the Taliban offered to try to capture bin Laden and turn him over to a third country for trial but only if the United States supplied some evidence that bin Laden was behind 9/11. At the time, we had only a powerful hunch. Bush said turn them over, no conditions, or face annihilation.
While the capital was falling to U.S. and Northern Alliance forces in November and December, Osama and 1,500 or so of his followers were making their way across the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan, harassed by about 100 U. S. and British Special Forces and a few planes. Bin Laden and his men escaped, presumably into Pakistan. We owned a corrupt government, bin Laden's band blossomed into multitudes, and a long and dreary war, as each one always does, corrupted the values of the weary fighters and chased every bit of support for the effort, here and abroad.
The most poignant parts of the Rolling Stone article were McChrystal's meetings with soldiers, where they told him they were dying pointlessly because they were not winning and could not win. You sense that McChrystal knew it, too, and he is doubtlessly inwardly grateful for having been relieved of responsibility. We can only hope the president knows it, too, and that he can prepare Americans for the messy consequences of our national folly.
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