|IF I COULD SPEAK ARABIC -- and my lack of talent for
languages is the thing I most regret in my life -- I would be sending my
resume to Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based sattelite news station right now.
"The Muslim CNN", they're calling it. I've taken to reading the Al-Ahram
-- the English-language digest of the Cairo newspaper -- hoping for some
perspective to offset the thin, repetitious t.v. coverage and the threnody
of bickering that has overwhelmed the op-ed pages, as ideologues from all
over the political spectrum accuse each other of insufficient patriotism,
of lack of foresight, of fascist leanings, of appeaser's tendencies.
Al-Ahram is hardly an extremist paper. It's pro-Mubarak, which is to say pro-Sadat, and the fact that they even have an English-language edition means that they're far from Islamist in leaning. Most of the writers and editors working there know that, should the Islamist revolution succeed across the Muslim world, they'd be the first ones in jail, on a plane to the west, or hanging from a lamppost. Still, it's one of the few places where you can read simple, undefensive statements that explain the American foreign policy blunders that fed, clothed, armed and encouraged fundamentalist terrorism. It's also one of the few places that is willing to say the unsayable: The case against Usama bin Laden wouldn't stand up in a conventional court of law.
I'm not saying this because I think bin Laden innocent
-- far from it. While I'm certain that the chain of intent for the Sept.
11th attacks leads back to him, it's also obvious that any attempt to decisively prosecute him for it, at least according to documentation released by Bush, is a mess of hearsay, inference, circumstantial evidence, and supposition that wouldn't stand up under a writ of habeas corpus. It's why I'm certain the American military would rather toss air-fuel bombs in every cave in the Hindu Kush rather than risk seeing bin Laden walk calmly into a Hague courtroom.
Simply, if we want to call this war a "crusade for justice",
then we'd better do a good job of pleading our case as cop, prosecutor,
judge and jury. And frankly, anyone who wants to assume all of those roles
is putting themselves in a hopeless position from the start.
I DON'T HAVE A LOT OF HOPE when I look at the men in charge
of the war. Too many key players -- Rumsfeld, Powell, Cheney -- go back
as far as the Reagan or even Ford administrations. There wouldn't be much
hope under a Democratic White House either; when you hear men like William
Quandt (Mideast expert at the National Security Council under Carter) say
that, even as the Shah fell, no one at the NSC, the CIA or in government
knew much about the Islamist movement, you have to worry.
It's not just that powerful, supposedly intelligent men,
were too complacent to realize that the Shah was mostly an illusion they
were selling themselves. It's that, for years afterwards, they went on
ignoring the implications of the Ayatollah's revolution, of the Intifadah,
of Hussein's Iraq, of the mujahideen, of the BJP in India, of Hamas and
Hezbollah and suicide bombers and hardline policy in Israel, intent on
treating foreign policy like a game of Risk best played out of sight of
American voters who, after all, only care about taxes.
I had a long talk with a friend the other day, a friend
who tends to believe in what would uncharitably be called conspiracy theories.
(Uncharitably because a belief in conspiracy tends to suggest a paranoid,
even a simplemind, and my friend is a lot smarter than that.) He can draw
the lines between any powerful figure in government, media or business,
and draw lines running through the Council on Foreign Relations, the Fed,
the Bilderberg Group or any number of shadowy organizations without once
having to mention the Freemasons or the Illuminati. It's a remarkable exercise, requiring considerable amounts of reading a memory, but I don't buy it. As much as I believe that most of what's wrong with the world has to do
with the decisions of these men, I don't think there's been a conspiracy.
That would be nice -- comforting, even -- to think that some order can
be counted upon, that enough power rests in enough hands to ensure that,
though we might be deluding ourselves to think that our vote matters, someone
somewhere will see it in our best interests to keep us fed, entertained,
and working happily at the levers and gears of their machinery.
But it isn't so. The simple formula of Ockham's Razor
suggests -- to me, at least -- that witlessness, greed, shortsightedness,
and plain old stupidity are more likely at the heart of every crisis, every
anxious moment, in human history.
THERE'S SOMETHING RIDICULOUS about hearing a Pentagon
spokesman state, a week or so into the campaign, that they have achieved
"total air supremacy" over Afghanistan. Since, according to most estimates,
the best the Taliban could field in the air was a half-dozen ill-maintained
MiGs and some surplus Russian helicopters, I doubt if this was much of
a feat. In any case, I doubt if the Taliban sent up a single one of those
MiGs; winning the "war on terrorism", from their perspective, simply means
remaining alive, on the ground, in caves, sending tapes to Al-Jazeera,
taking journalists around to see blasted villages and bloodied children
in filthy hospital beds.
In any case, it's an absurd statement, made, I would guess,
in the absence of anything else in the nature of concrete news. Since the
U.S. forces apparently lost a drone aircraft within the first days of the
war, it's to be assumed that there's still some sting left in the Stinger
missiles so liberally handed out when the Afghanis were not-so-covert friends.
As soon as the first A-10 Prowler or troop helicopter is lost when ground
support missions are made, any claim of "total air supremacy" will seem
pretty laughable. In any case, with Anthrax arriving in the mails as regularly
as L.L. Bean catalogues, it seems like "total postal supremacy" is what's
After the First World War, the notion of war as an economic
battle became conventional wisdom. In an age of carpet bombing, blockades,
and war industries competing like Coke and Pepsi with bombers, it was obvious
that the side that could outproduce the other without defaulting on their
debts and keep gas in their tanks would be the winner. I suppose Vietnam
was the first sign that this theory was as obsolete as battleships. Still,
no one learned the lesson, and today we're facing the reality that a country,
popularly described as "already in the stone age", can win a war with one
striving to make "Star Trek" a reality.
Aid agencies trying to feed the Afghan people -- surely
more effective than carpet-bombing the country with peanut-butter sandwiches
-- are asking for a cease-fire in the air strikes so they can get in and
distribute food before winter shuts down mountain passes. I can't see why
it shouldn't happen -- if "total air supremacy" has been achieved, I doubt
if the Taliban will, in the interim, suddenly produce a squadron of jet
fighters with "top gun" pilots. Since the U.S. is unwilling to hit Taliban
positions on the front facing the Northern Alliance -- there's some suspicion
that the Alliance might not offer the best government for post-Taliban
Afghanistan, a position encouraged by Pakistan; the political trumping
the tactical -- then a few days of stand-down will only harm the image
of relentlessness and grim purpose Bush has strived to maintain since he
was pulled away from a kindergarten reading class over a month ago.
As the weeks pass, and even the horror of Sept. 11th starts
to seem normal, I'd like to think that the illusion of heroic vengefulness
can be relaxed. It's a remnant of optimism I like to carry around, like
a letter from an old flame.