Monday, August 30, 2004


The convergence on New York, the barking pundits on television, and the blogosphere of sharp opinions demonstrate that these are not times of unity before a common foe. For we cannot be sure who the foe is when our own system of laws is used against us. Some of us would like to believe that the foe is obvious: he wears a beard and hails from the Orient, planning attacks while sipping strong tea in a tent somewhere in the mountains of Pushtunistan.

We can pull-up stakes, consult allies, consult enemies, consult pundits and lay before psychologists. We can dispatch President Carter to Iran and North Korea and apologize for what we are to anyone who cares to listen. We can share the psychologist's couch with the whole world, and hope that all of humanity actually wants and will respond to political psychotherapy.

Since 1945, American conflicts have been wars of choice. American life and limb was not imperiled by the North Koreans in 1950; nor were American lives immediately at risk in 1963 when advisors trickled into South Vietnam. Our ventures into Grenada, Lebanon and Iraq have not been incursions responding to direct attacks on our soil. Wars are no longer declared in Congress; rather, our involvement in foreign conflicts have been cold calculations made in the geopolitical landscape of the Cold War, and now the era of terrorism. Wars are risk assessments gamed-out in think tanks, moving the geopolitical chess pieces.

As calculations, the undeclared wars that America has fought since 1945 have had their strategic merits. Thwarting the expansion of communism in Asia was prudent in an era of swaggering chairmen like Mao and Khrushchev, at least on paper. Realpolitik has its place in the global chess board of our small planet. But therein lies a flaw: expecting Americans to see the patriotism of fighting calculated wars is an elusive bargain, at best.

Conservatives remind us that America was attacked this time around, on 9/11: 'Pearl Harbor II'. But we were attacked by an elusive, non-sovereign enemy, lurking in the shadows; not by waves of planes with a national flag painted on their wings. Fighting terror is akin to fighting the drug war, where 'enemy' and 'friend' are unclear, shifting concepts. The realpolitik of the current conflict is built on the logic of establishing a base in the heart of the terrorists' homeland, and ridding the region of a poisonous regime by laying the framework for a healthy alternative to tyranny in the Middle East. It's a calculated risk, a gambit---not a direct response to a cold, hard attack. Under such conditions, there is more than enough room for doubt. Eliciting patriotic support will be fleeting, even if the left-right divide weren't so deep.

It is naïve to think that we can have global wealth and influence without being engaged in the world's conflicts. And involvement is both diplomatic and resolute. Diplomacy without the threat of force is not diplomatic, for there is nothing to negotiate. It is equally naïve to believe that loyal, patriotic Americans will follow any experimental policy without question. Wars like Iraq and Vietnam were experimental attempts to change the geopolitical equation. Wars like World War II were forced upon the United States, and there was no option other that to fight them. The mission was clear.

Anyone with power---such as within a large family, or in an organization---knows that there's a steep price to pay for influence, and that it does not come free. Power can be blinding. The powerful often overreach, an lose their vision. The powerful must wage wars of conscience, and make measured choices.

The main crux of this war is that it is primarily waged within ourselves. Bin Laden simply lit the fuse. Perhaps he knew what he was doing; perhaps not. And so now we confront ourselves---our deepest fears, our cultural flaws, summoning our strength.

The essence of this war is not against terrorism. Though we face a terrible enemy, we choose the battles we fight. We must understand who we are and where we are going to wage wars of choice. We are at war with our own conscience.