Liberalism's Long Walk
Imagine that your daughter is being constantly and viciously harassed by a gang of racist bullies at school. You make an appointment with the principal. You show him your daughter's bruises, her torn clothes, and you ask him what he intends to do about it.
The principal listens sympathetically to your story. Then he proceeds with a litany of all those things that make his work so difficult, the person-hours lost to teachers taking stress leave, the uncaring, cost-cutting conservatives on the school board, the socio-economic conditions that prevail in the homes of the boys who have been tearing out clumps of your daughter's hair, the deficiencies in the working-hours provisions of the principals' union contract, and so on.
You patiently agree with much of what he has to say, not just politely, but sincerely. At last he concludes: You know, it was a bad idea to have children from your community enrol here in the first place. You really must try to find another school for your daughter, one that will provide, how can I put it, a less hostile environment for her.
What has happened here is that you have found yourself sitting across a desk from Liberal Senator Colin Kenny.
The oafish senator last came to our attention last year with his ridiculous "We are hurtling toward a Vietnam ending" effluvium about Afghanistan, not long after he'd been relieved of his tasks in turning the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence into what the good Senator Pamela Wallin charitably described as a "dysfunctional public spectacle." Do read Kenny's slightly repackaged complaints in Monday''s Montreal Gazette. You may find much in his litany to agree with - I certainly did -but at last, he concludes: Let us face a harsh truth: for all the efforts of our courageous troops, and the courageous troops of our allies, nation-building doesn't make sense in a nation that doesn't want to get built.
Setting aside the mercifully few idiocies in Kenny's latest op-ed, it's the cynicism and the sneering bigotry of his conclusion you'll want to keep your eye on. It is an ignorant caricature of the Afghan people that Kenny relies on to support his case, a self-exculpating arrogance that treats Afghans as though they were unruly schoolchildren, or at best, their annoying parents. It's precisely the sort of thing that was efficiently exposed only the other day by Steve Coll, author of the seminal Ghost Wars: A Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.
Writing in The New Republic, Coll observes: "As the war has grown more difficult, American and European commentators who advocate for troop withdrawal often seem to find it necessary to dehumanize Afghans to justify their own loss of will, or to blame Afghans for the international community’s own policy failures — i.e., saying the country is hopelessly corrupt, drug-addled, primitive, perpetually at war. Among its other flaws, this line of thinking misjudges Afghanistan, a pluralistic and very poor country that has repeatedly rejected Taliban-style ideology and retains a strong sense of national identity, one that produced a unified and mainly peaceful nation for much of the twentieth century, until a succession of outside invaders shattered its cohesion and independence."
Note well this key point Coll makes: "Canada has named a withdrawal date, the Dutch are going, and even Britain’s new prime minister mentioned 2015 as a lights-out date. Afghans know that neither Obama nor Petraeus can deliver Europe or control American public opinion about a deteriorating war. Northern Afghan ethnic groups such as the Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tajiks (who heavily influence the Afghan National Army) today must prepare for the possibility of renewed, post-NATO civil war against Taliban militias supported by Pakistan. This prospect—a repetition of the death and misery of the 1990s — hangs heavily over the country."
Now I'm going to allow myself the indulgence of marking my own words: If the likes of Colin Kenny have their way, and well they may, the most important and immediate foreign-policy question the NATO countries will soon face is this one: Will the pro-democracy struggle in Afghanistan vault into an armed insurgency that resorts to organized and necessary revolutionary violence, and if it does, who's side will we be on?
We know already whose side the quagmire-averse Kenny will be on. He will want "stability," and to be fair, we should allow that in its most robust form Kenny's position may even go so far as to contain at least the hint of a Canadian offer to assist with peace talks, and maybe even to provide blue-helmeted Canadian peacekeepers to uselessly patrol heaps of corpses along the truce lines between Iranian battalions, Pakistani troop carriers and Taliban tanks. It would be so very "Canadian," after all.
Serendipitously, Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae, about whom there is much to admire on these questions, has provided an answer to Kenny's "cut and run" proposition (those are Kenny's own words, by the way, not mine), in the Toronto Star.
Rae did so the day before Kenny disgraced himself in the Gazette. To start with, this should tell you the Liberals are in some internal anguish about all this, as well they should be, as further evidenced by Rae's choice of framing his points about overheated rhetoric as though it were a direct response to the flabby Vietnam comparison regurgitated last year not by some dimwitted New Democrat or far-right Conservative, but by Kenny, a fellow Liberal. It isn't for nothing that the headline on Rae's op-ed is 'Why Afghanistan Is Not Vietnam.'
This isn't just about distinctly Canadian arguments, you should notice, the rote references to Vietnam notwithstanding. How these arguments play out in the developed democracies of the world will determine the course of "liberal values" in the coming decades. It is a tribute to the toxicity of the side Colin Kenny favours that it played no small role in producing a shabby and small-minded right-wing coalition at the last British elections. The greatest victory the European "anti-war" crowd can claim for itself - the Dutch withdrawal from Afghanistan - was handed to them by the right-wing populist Geert Wilders. In America, the argument descended into a baying of hounds driven mad by the scent of all that Iraqi blood and the election of what crazy Americans regard as their first socialist president, whom almost everyone else is pleased to regard as uber-liberal, at least compared to the last guy. Maybe so, but on matters of women's rights and liberal internationalism, Barack Obama may well be the most reactionary American president since Richard Nixon.
A quick digression: If there is an equivalent debate taking place within Canada's Conservative Party, I am unaware of it. To the shame, consternation and embarrassment of many decent Conservatives in the rank and file, in the federal cabinet, and in the Senate, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Afghan policy is, quite simply: dissemble and otherwise keep shtum. As for the New Democrats, disenchanted by their own great helmsman as many of them are, their party abdicated any right to be taken seriously about what Canada should be doing in Afghanistan after the NDP's 2006 "Support the Troops, Bring "Em Home" resolution.
On to Bob Rae.
There is much to quibble with in Rae's line of argument. Because he's less than explicit about whose rhetoric he's talking about - although this would be the fraternally decent thing to do, I suppose - he stumbles on his own awkward rhetoric while imploring others to tone down theirs: "Underlying much of the West’s foreign policy over the past several years has been the notion that broken states can be quickly mended, that, to borrow Thomas Paine’s evocative phrase at the time of the American Revolution, 'the world can be born anew.' "
I think I get Rae's point - there's no quick fix here, and to heal what ails Afghanistan is going to take a long time and much stiff-spined resolve - but the notion that "broken states can be quickly mended" has not been much of a factor underlying this phenomenon Rae calls "the West's foreign policy." Underlying much of the American approach for the past ten years has been the hideous "We don't do nation-building" maxim, and I'd hardly describe the jumble of contradictory purposes animating the rest of the nation states we might lump into the category of "the west" as a "foreign policy." It's a bloody shambles.
It's also weirdly apples-and-oranges to cite the failure of this phantom quick-build theory as a rebuke to Paine's dictum that "the world can be born anew," because it is no rebuke of any kind. The world indeed can be born anew, and for everyone's sake, Afghanistan must be born anew.
It's not just nitpicking to notice that Rae's evocation of the "real difficulties of exporting democracy" echoes a crippling failure to acknowledge that it's not democracy's export that is required in Afghanistan. What's required more than merely guns or money - although it will require both - is our spirited and uncomprising defence of the democracy Afghans are building for themselves in that country, every day, with degrees of fervour and bravery that would put those of us in the comforts of the democratic "west" to shame.
Neither is it just a small thing that Rae slips into the comfortable "graveyard of empires" pajamas before dozing off to the strains of an admonition against pining for "a sacred mission similar to imperial ventures of the past." Afghanistan is as much an empire of graves and a womb of empires as an imperialist's graveyard. It was an Afghan city that was the capital for Aurangzeb the Conquerer of the World, and also the epicentre of the ancient Bactrian empire. Afghanistan is the birthplace of the Mughal Empire that controlled much of the Indian subcontinent for several centuries, and not least, the Afghan Ahmad Shah's brutal Durrani Empire defined Afghanistan's current borders and midwifed today's Afghanistan.
The British, and later the Russian and Yankee cold war imperialists, were pikers in their ferocity compared to Afghan imperialists. At the moment, what most plagues and torments Afghanistan are the "imperial ventures" of Pakistan's military-industrial complex, in the form of the Taliban. I would be surprised if there are liberals (or any of us) who really need to be warned away from the enticements of a "sacred mission" in imperialism.
But when Rae wakes up, he's alert and on his game, and presents the case for a pragmatic, muscular, long-road interventionism. He cites the stupidity of Neville Chamberlain, the bravery of Nelson Mandela and the lessons in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and articulates the core of a new Canadian policy in Afghanistan that is unnecessarily timid, but is otherwise damn good. The whole thing is based on the proposition that "there are indeed shared values that speak to the depth of the human spirit and aspiration." He then acknowledges this necessary caution: "But we tend to forget the long walk."
This is a concise outline of the principled commitment to democracy, universal values and multilateralism that will either define the liberalism of the 21st century, or will be disavowed in favour of dead-end isolationism and the masochistic, narcissistic hippie sentiment so directly evoked by Colin "It's just like Vietnam!" Kenny. It's a thing that always follows the same trajectory: Avoid confrontation, retreat, drop out, withdraw. It is a politics particularly well suited to stupid rich white people who can afford to live in gated communities and flatter themselves as unsullied by the complicated, confrontational and compromise-fractured world outside.
To Liberals of that kind, you may do as you please. Nevermind about the father who came to you with that wretched-looking pupil the other day. There will always be other poor people who will make you feel good about yourself by accepting your charity, so go right ahead. Hide. Cower.
To Liberals like Bob Rae, I'm afraid that now and again our rhetoric is going to be a bit on the warm side, but I mean, really. Just look at her face. On some things, you just have to take a hard line. So sharpen your arguments. Tighten up your own rhetoric. Fight on. Fight for us.
We have a long walk ahead of us.
Terry Glavin is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist