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December 02, 2009

Tomasky, Moore, and Afghanistan

Micahel Tomasky accuses Michael Moore of being a fatuous blowhard for criticizing the war in Afghanistan as a doomed imperial adventure. Now, Moore can be a fatuous blowhard, but Tomasky doesn't make the charge stick this time. 

In his open letter to President Obama, Moore warns that Afghanistan has been nicknamed "the graveyard of empires."

Tomasky sneers:

I really don't see what America's mission in Afghanistan has to do with what the British did or what the Soviets did. People love lazy historical parallels, and have a tendency to have over-learned the famous Santayana maxim and believe that invoking it makes them sound smart. But every historical situation is different. Why wouldn't someone with Moore's lefty politics be righteous in the conviction that we owe it to the Afghan people to try to help them establish a proper nation-state for the first time in their history?

Moore doesn't spell out the historical analogy, but the common threads seem obvious to me: The Afghan people have historically been implacably opposed to foreign occupation of any kind and they've been very good at resisting it. It's not just a matter of tradition or national pride, Afghanistan is full of seasoned guerrilla fighters who cut their teeth opposing the Soviets. They're pros. Also, time is on their side. We can leave any time, but they live there. They don't have to drive us out, they can just harass us until we get bored and leave.

Furthermore, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a lot of people in the Muslim world saw it as struggle of Christendom vs. Islam vs. occupying infidels. As a result, Afghanistan became a destination for would-be jihadists from all over the world. That's how Osama bin Laden got his start. If our goal is ultimately to marginalize Islamic extremists, we should be wary about escalating the kind of fight that galvanized them in the first place.

Moore also touches on longstanding cultural barriers to imperialist Pygmalion projects in Afghanistan. Maybe Moore and I are wrong about how much Afghans want to become a modern industrial nation state, but it seems like there are any number of powerful interests opposed and not a lot of countervailing enthusiasm for the project.

Historical analogies are always inexact. Maybe there are reasons to be more optimistic about the current occupation. But at this point, we're not just speculating about how things might turn out. We've been occupying Afghanistan for the better part of a decade and it doesn't seem to be working.

Tomasky accuses Moore of letting his "knee jerk" anti-imperialism overshadow his liberal values.

"Why wouldn't someone with Moore's lefty politics be righteous in the conviction that we owe it to the Afghan people to try to help them establish a proper nation-state for the first time in their history?" Tomasky wants to know.

I am so sick of hearing this straw man argument from liberals. They point to a desirable goal and accuse us of rejecting it, even though nobody actually objects to the war because they hate women's liberation and clean drinking water. The point of contention is not whether a stable and democratic Afghanistan would be desirable, but whether military occupation is a good means to that end. 

It's like saying, "You'd think a lefty would want to put out this fire." Well, yes, we lefties like firefighting, but the question is whether it's a good idea to try to put out this blaze with gasoline.


Weaseldog, I was arguing that the people who invent reasons why Afghanistan will never be democratic don't know what they're talking about. I said nothing about a foreign army; I said that anyone who tries to come up with deep historical reasons why Afghanistan will never be democratic is making things up. The role of foreign armies I'm less sure about - they worked in Korea and Taiwan, but not elsewhere, and even then, Korea and Taiwan came out of a deliberate US policy that held that containing China required having Korea and Taiwan prosper. The US has no similar interest in Afghan prosperity.

And Cfrost, the Tora Bora cornering only happened after the invasion of Afghanistan. Even if Bush had executed the matter competently and captured Bin Laden then, he'd still have had to invade Afghanistan to reach that point. The US occupation of Afghanistan would have been in much better shape, but this only underscores the importance of defeating Bin Laden in stabilizing the region.

Alon, I seriously misunderstood your point then.

Left alone, Afghanistan could go many different ways in government and social order. A form of Democracy is certainly possible.

The point I was I trying to make is that it won't happen if we force it on them, by waging a war against them. It would be a natural reaction for them to resist anything we try to force upon them. And to reject all that we stand for, when we do leave.

Tomasky--and I generally respect him for this--defined his politics as liberal, for ethical reasons, but non-progressive for semi-scientific reasons. Left for Dead is, partly, a rant against identity politics. Reading it again, after reading Duberman's account of their earlier Voice feud, made me more sympathetic to Tomaksy, even though Tomasky argument still grates. Tomasky's closer to, oh, Perry Anderson, than to Michael Moore. Moore has more utopian faith in progressive politics than Tomaksy. In short, it's Tomasky's style to accept that most people believe that, oh, Afghanstan is going to hell, or that our trade unions suck, or that US medical care is going to be expensive regardless, or whatever. He's a pessimist.

I spend, doh, an hour a year watching MM and maybe a bit less reading Tomasky. Tomasky's NYRB articles are pretty good and MM sometimes makes me laugh but I don't take either of them too seriously. They both deserve criticism but that doesn't mean they suck all the time.

I'd like to see our army help rather hurt, assuming that troops are going to be there anyway. I'm okay with, oh, a military solution, as long as food is distributed, schools are run, markets open, progress happens, and, doh, the military doesn't act like the military. And, yup, I think the best thing to do otherwise is to pull out. That's a progressive, if pragmatic, position. As negative as Tomasky's comments are, they are forward thinking. The troops are on their way, operations in Afghanistan are underway, what good does it do to plead with Obama now?

The Soviet Union didn't invade Afghanistan. The U.S. had been aiding the Muhajedeen for months before Soviet troops entered the country and he Afghan government invited the Soviet troops. Heres an article about ib y William Blum.

The Soviet Union was invited by a communist puppet state that nobody cared for. And far from providing emancipation, the Soviets engaged in massive atrocities. For example, to make an example of one person, the Soviet troops cut off his arms and legs. John Yoo and Dick Cheney would blanch.

The Soviet backed Afghan government was not a puppet government. It came to power without Soviet aid in a military coup that was retaliation for President Daoud's arrest of leftist officers.

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