Saturday, December 25, 2010

Does the Spirit of Christmas Live?

DRESDEN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 26:  A giant Chris...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
This year I wanted to write a kind of Christmas letter in praise of the Spirit of Christmas...as a way of saying thanks to E, A, and all of you who remind me of what Christmas is all about.

Does the Spirit of Christmas Live? (my title)
It’s become customary this time of year to hear concerns expressed about the loss of Christmas spirit. Sometimes these fears are more about one’s cultural identity — and the sense that one’s group is losing power and influence — than they are about the actual meaning of Christmas. At other times, one hears something that sounds less reactionary and more like a thoughtful question: Have our Christmas rituals lost some of their meaning? Have they become old and tired or do they pale in comparison to more novel inventions?

Questions like these may be prompted by our experience or by polls like this one by the folks at Gallop, “Christmas Strongly Religious for Half in U.S. Who Celebrate It.” These headlines, like all headlines, tend to be written provocatively, which appeals to the culture warrior in all of us as well as the thoughtful social critic who resides deeper in our hearts. The story seems to be one of a divided culture in which one half of us sees a profound meaning in Christmas and the other half is engaged in one long shopping frenzy. The reality is very different and as luck, fate, or grace would have it, a good bit more comforting.

To read the entire post, visit: Being Blog - The Secular and Sacred Spirit of Christmas
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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

President Obama is the only grown-up in Washington

Part of being a wise politician – and an adult – is compromising with your ideological rivals sometimes, especially when it's for the greater good of a divided government and recovering nation. Lately, it seems President Obama is the only grown-up in the room.  

To read the full post click on CSMonitor.com

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Friday, December 17, 2010

A holiday gift: principled civility?

This holiday season, there’s a special feeling in the air — acrimony.

It radiates from Washington, where almost everyone seems to feel betrayed by the tax deal or the angry reaction to it. Liberal Democrats complain loudest, but clearly, President Barack Obama is irritated by the left’s furious second-guessing. Republicans have also found a way to take offense — certainly at the president’s analogy of negotiating with hostage takers. If they are kidnappers, what are the House Democrats?
 
We are a long way from the new Washington that both Obama and his predecessor promised. But perhaps this is a gift of the lame-duck Congress: the reminder that all should abandon dreams of post-partisan politics and return to the core values of his or her party. Civility is important, but in politics — as in life — it is no substitute for a political party’s fidelity to its core ideals.

Read the rest of the post at http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1210/46502.html

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Thankful Nation?

This editorial resurrects an instructive piece of American history--Connecticut Governor Wilbur Cross' 1936 Thanksgiving Proclamation. Unfortunately, the Time's editors are too quick in their praise of Cross' persuasiveness and in their criticism of today's political orators. They suggest that Cross inspired a common hope in a troubled time, but they offer no evidence that his words in fact had that effect, and they also fail to consider today's very different circumstances. Can you imagine President Obama, whatever his words, evoking a sense of unity? Mr. Obama remains a masterful speaker, but there are simply too many on the Right who view him as a foreign agent and too many on the Left who think him a traitor to their cause.

It is time to stop longing for an inspired political leader who will make us whole again. We are living through a period of significant cultural change, and while there is much good about this change it has also inflicted real harm and many people have a deep sense of loss.  This is a recipe for social struggle and resentment, not harmony. In our diverse circumstances of gain and loss, it is hard to imagine what we might be thankful for as a people, but surely one thing we can give thanks for is the continuing social stability that allows us to debate one another without resorting to violence. Such debate is not the deep sense of peace or solidarity that many of us long for, but it is not nothing. Indeed, this civil peace makes a place for us to pursue our dreams of peace and solidarity (and justice), and because of this we can be grateful for such artful statements as that of Governor Cross, not because they secure the peace, but because they witness to it.  Perhaps it's at a time of social dislocation and incivility that we most need reminding of the nation's gifts, including the founding aspiration that all our lives may be enriched by being members of this union.

Still, for many of us, the gifts of the nation ultimately reside in a greater reality that stands beneath and behind the many, and it is to this One, not ourselves, our party, or the nation, that we owe our ultimate thanks and our final loyalty.  It is this One that finally calls us to keep the Feast.  Many families have their own special and sometime crazy Thanksgiving traditions.  The same is true of the religious traditions, some of which dare to speak about the deep hospitality of a heavenly banquet, and it may just be that while at a Thanksgiving meal we enjoyed (perhaps unaware) a foretaste of that heavenly meal, and in this sense Thanksgiving may take on a deeper, even sacramental meaning.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thanks Uncle Warren

Warren Buffett speaking to a group of students...Image via Wikipedia


This op-ed by Warren Buffet is a brilliant piece in several ways. To begin with it reminds us of the pivotal role played by the federal government in averting a second Great Depression. Secondly, it does so in a fairly measured voice. That is, it recognizes that government is far from perfect.  This is all very much in need of saying, especially by a prominent business person, but the real brilliance of the piece may be its return to the nomenclature of "Uncle Sam." In Buffet's hands this sometimes controversial image takes on the feel of the familiar, like a trusted friend of the family. As Buffet says, this uncle is a little different, sometimes painfully slow, and at other times domineering, but nevertheless this uncle is someone to turn to, especially in moments of crisis. How strange this image seems in our age of cynicism, and because it is so strange it is all the more welcome.  




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Friday, November 12, 2010

Islam in Conflict with Democracy? A Response to Stanley Fish | Politics | Religion Dispatches

The State of Oklahoma overwhelmingly supported Measure 755 in last week’s elections, forbidding the use of international and shari’ah law in state courts. A week earlier, literary theorist Stanley Fish penned a piece for the New York Times exploring the conflicts that emerge when Muslim immigrants to Western nations “evidence a desire to order their affairs, especially domestic affairs, by Shari’ah law rather than by the supposedly neutral law of a godless liberalism.”

Fish is well-known for exposing the tensions between our political ideals and the practical demands of life in a pluralistic society. He does so in a way that is almost always entertaining and usually helpful, especially as a reminder that achieving justice is seldom as neat and clean as applying principles. Unfortunately, he also has a tendency to amp up the tension beyond all recognition of the actual conflicts we face. The results are like an overexposed photograph, interesting and provocative in that it helps us see things in a new way, but also distorting of our actual circumstances.

As is the case with a recent Times post, “Serving Two Masters: Shariah Law and the Secular State,” Fish has a tendency to pit liberal or secular theory against a strongly held religious conviction or practice. In this case, the philosophers John Locke and John Rawls are pitted against Islamic law or Shari’ah. Locke and Rawls are, of course, standard bearers for the liberal theory that, according to Fish, strongly informs our legal system, with its emphasis on individual rights. For evidence, he points to the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, the famous case in which a divided Supreme Court ruled against the religious use of peyote based on the general applicability of the law.

Fish writes:

The answer the court gave, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the majority, was that the religious believer must yield to the law of the state so long as that law was not passed with the intention of curtailing or regulating his or anyone else’s religious practice.

The lesson we should learn is that the law is a blunt force, especially when it comes to limiting the rights of communities, be they Native American or Muslims who practice Shari’ah. Rather than litigate such disputes Fish advises us to rely on political processes to find compromises acceptable to the parties involved. The argument is provocative and succeeds in raising important questions, but it also makes common cause with opponents of both secular government and Islam in reinforcing the assumption that the nation’s political theory is a poor fit with Islam. In doing so, he misrepresents the nation’s political theory, Islamic law, and the place of religion in our constitutional democracy.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Longing for a Messiah


A recent survey by Gallup shows that only one in 4 Americans thinks has Congress accomplished more than usual this year. Given the high number of significant pieces of legislation, Gallup wonders aloud why this might be:

This question is particularly relevant this year because the current Democratically controlled Congress has passed a series of high-profile legislative bills, including the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and others. Nevertheless, the large majority of Americans do not perceive that what Congress has accomplished is more than it has done in previous years.

They point to the obvious reasons, beginning with partisan differences over what a significant piece of legislation is. Politics is an arena in which values and loyalties clearly shape how we see the world.  There's nothing unusual about this, except its extent.  Many Republicans see Obama (and his allies) as a kind of anti-Christ.  One might insert a number of other despised titles here, but "Anti-Christ" gets at the supposed hidden purposes of Obama that animates so many Americans.

The term "anti-Christ" is also helpful because on the flip side are or were the rather large expectations of Obama supporters, many of whom are now disaffected.  For them, Obama was a messianic figure who promised to remake the country, so much so that all signs of the their anti-Christ, George Bush, would be completely removed.

For some of these folks, Congress is to blame for Obama's "failures." I tend to think there's something to this, but Congress has almost never been as "sexy" as the office of President. This is true even of those Presidents almost totally lacking in charisma. The rare exception means the President has screwed up royally--think Watergate and Tricky Dick.  

It has almost always been easier for us to get excited about one leader than about a group of leaders, especially one representing a diverse and contentious bunch like us, the American people.  In today’s culture of celebrity, there is good reason to believe that Congress is destined to be overlooked and downright despised, even in a year of significant achievement. 

Beneath this is the reality that the recent laws and their effects are not radical in nature.  For one thing, they take time to go into effect, often by design. This is especially the case with the health insurance reform act, but it is true with other pieces of significant legislation as well.  Once in effect, however, we are likely to hear only faint praise for even the positive effects, because the effects are reformist in nature. As significant as some of them are—and there are some very important reforms, they do not serve to remake our landscape into a place we no longer recognize. 

In light of our economic troubles, this is a recipe for political disaster. If the Republicans do not win both the House and the Senate, they will have failed. In an era of over-sized personalities, partisanship, and expectations, we long for a political messiah that will remake our society in some shape or fashion. The Tea Party folks claim they want their country back. Progressives want the truly tolerant, multi-cultural America they can see in the distance (in the form of projections). As different as the visions are, they both speak to a longing for BOLD political action or at least they think they do. It may be that what they really speak to are the range of frustrations our society feels with these changing, troubled times. We long for the stability of the familiar and the justice of tomorrow.

But we are still living in the wake of bold, even rash action. It was bold action that led us not just into Afghanistan but also Iraq after we had approved massive budget-busting tax cuts. Our very different visions of CHANGE strongly suggest that our political representatives will continue to struggle along, fighting over our visions and occasionally settling for pragmatic compromises, at least until a new consensus emerges.

I wonder if this would have struck the Founders (and their generation) as such a bad thing. It was they, after all, who set up this democratic system with it checks and balances, including a central place for the legislative branch. The great difference between them and us on these matters is that they believed that this a bold experiment. We "know better" and instead long for a messiah to deliver us from such labors.

Might it be that what we need is not a bold political savior, but the courage and self-control to engage in the messy business of politics?  

Monday, November 1, 2010

Being Awake to Fear (Mongering?)

Would the video below pass the civility test urged by John Stewart, Jim Wallis, or James Calvin Davis?  







On the one hand, it seems like a typical sound-bite video meant to inspire fear, and yet on the other hand....I tend to think it's got a point...there are some scary folks on the Right who seem to be dominating the Republican Party.  


In midterm elections, national ads can't help but generalize about an array of candidates.  So for the Right, the campaign is bound to become about Obama & Co, and for the Left, the election is sure  to focus on the angriest voices in the Tea Party.  The irony is that the Left is schooled in the danger of stereotyping, which would seem to make it more difficult for them to engage in these kind of slash and burn ads that are supposedly necessary to win mid-term elections. They depend, it seems to me, on Republicans becoming so scary that they just roll tape.


It is easy to be critical of this kind of tactic--especially when practiced by the other side, but in a world of mass media, huge campaign budgets, and an ill-informed electorate, it's hard to imagine another way, especially in mid-term elections, especially THIS mid-term.  


In this context, might communities of faith and good will have an special opportunity (and responsibility) to generate forums and conversations that consider issues and elections in depth? Of course, in our current political climate, talking about politics is risky business.  Perhaps Martin Luther was right when he advised that we must be content to act with courage. Knowing that we will err, we should "Sin boldly!" rather than timidly avoid our duties. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

Rethinking Church

Several articles have recently reported on the alarming number of clergy exhausted by their work. Large numbers report that they are always “on.” It seems that in a work-obsessed society, pastors tend to be among the hardest workers. Too often they find themselves and a small cadre of their parishioners working themselves into exhaustion, while a much larger number enjoys the free ride (Michael Walzer). The solution seems obvious: clergy and their communities need to rethink the work they do together. They might begin by agreeing that clergy will work no more than five days per week.

As momentous a change as that would be, rest alone will not solve the problem for many pastors. Workplace burnout typically involves not only overwork but frustrating work, when individuals feel their work is in vain. Ironically, the problem for many clergy is not in trying to reach the larger world, but in dealing with their own congregations. In Congregations Gone Wild Jeffrey MacDonald complains that many clergy feel torn between their callings and their congregations. While MacDonald writes of this as a recent trend, in some sense it is nothing new. The book of Exodus, for example, famously records Moses being worn out by his “stiff-necked” congregation. This long history may only add to a pastor’s sense of futility, but the ancient story may also help explain why it is that so many pastors and parishioners feel alienated from one another.

To read more visit the Presbyterian Outlook at Rethinking Church.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Irony that is Afghanistan

Original caption: An Anti-Taliban Forces (ATF)...     Image via Wikiped
"Soldiers try to talk to villagers. They try to build this trust, but it it isn’t really working. The Afghans know that we will eventually pull out and they will be left to deal with the Taliban, who will chop off the hands of those that collaborated. And that’s why they are so afraid, even though they may not necessarily be happy about Americans being there in the first place. They know that it is only going to be some temporary measure, and that we are not going to stay there long enough to defeat the Taliban to the point that they will not come back.

It shows in every face, and every look that I encountered from Afghans. And of course soldiers see that. They pretty much follow their orders, but I have a feeling that they are lost, in a way."



These words by photographer Dima Gavrysh speak to the tragic irony we face in Afghanistan.  We have been their nine long years but those years have nearly exhausted support for the war at home while gaining us little trust among the people of Afghanistan.  President Obama has re-focused and intensified our efforts in a serious way, but there is now too little time for our efforts to meet with the success they might have almost a decade ago.  Our efforts are haunted, so to speak, by the ghosts of a forgotten war. 


There is a double irony, however, in that the photographer focuses on our troops, but the goal of our troops is to handover responsibility to Afghani soldiers. The outcome of the war, finally, is in their hands. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

Who’s to Blame for BP?


Even as the disaster in the Gulf continues to unfold, so do our efforts to understand how and why it happened. But while concerns over environmental degradation and the billions in lost revenue occupy much of the news, the question of responsibility remains central. And who is responsible? Who is to blame? Unfortunately, the two most popular interpretations offer little help. They do, however, provide useful illustrations of the kind of thinking that helped create the crisis in the first place and they also suggest a deeper interpretation in light of faith in God.
The first interpretation I will call a version of the ‘Great Man’ theory of history....read the full post at Religion Dispatches

Friday, July 23, 2010

What could be more American?

Do you support the building of a mosque at Ground Zero? I wouldn't be surprised to hear this question or a similar one asked during a 2012 Presidential Debate.

The full post can be read at the Presbyterian Outlook blog.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Church, Culture, and Justice: The Not so Strange Case of Same-Sex Marriage


The Presbyterian Church (USA) gathered for its bi-annual General Assembly (G.A.) has refused to consider a motion that the church allow ministers to officiate marriage ceremonies without regard to the sexual orientation (at least in states that recognize such unions). For those of us who believe that sexual orientation is a gift of God, it is sad and frustrating to see the church refuse to even consider the measure. That the G.A. apparently did so in part because of a clever procedural maneuver is all the more disappointing.  (I acknowledge that “disappointing” does not begin to describe the deep sense of heartbreak and alienation that many persons feel over this and other forms of judgment by the church). Almost simultaneously the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts ruled that the Defense of [Straight] Marriage Act is unconstitutional.  In other words, the court has done--roughly speaking--what the church opted to avoid altogether. This juxtaposition of the church and the court may seem strange and leave us feeling further distanced from the church that fails not only to live up to its high calling but merely to keep up with culture. 
On further reflection, however, this situation is a reminder of what it means to be protestant. Since our movement’s origins in the 16th century we have been deeply suspicious of the visible or institutional church. The Reformers redefined the church as the people of God subject to the Word of God. Since then the church has had a love/hate relationship with itself. We have recognized that we are the people of God but also that we continually fall short. When a denomination fails, we may be bitterly disappointed, but as protestants we believe that we are not simply called to submit to the church’s authority, not if we believe it has erred on matter of conscience. In such cases we will do what we protestants do, we will protest, but not only that.  We will also look to discern the will of God being done beyond our wills and walls--recognizing that the church is far bigger than any one denomination and that God is far bigger still than all the denominations combined. Indeed, God’s grace abounds, even in the law, sometimes especially in the law.
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Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Generations: Elders in Revolt (Part One)

Seniors are Strongest Advocates for Change in 2010 - Pew Research Center

Several recent polls indicate that older Republicans (and Americans more generally) appear to be more partisan than younger voters. This poll illustrates the trend well, but one question in particular jumps out: "Would you vote for a candidate willing to compromise with people they disagree with? [J]ust 18% of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents ages 65 and older say they would be more likely to favor a candidate who is willing to make compromises, while more than twice as many (45%) say they would be less likely to vote for such a candidate and 31% say it would make no difference."

The bottom line is that almost half of older Republicans see compromise with Democrats as problematic. This may not seem too terribly significant given our highly partisan context, but this assumption neglects the telling difference between Republicans of different ages. This difference is highly suggestive for those interested in making sense of American culture.

First, there is a deep worry that many of our elders are not wiser, but simply more partisan. Wisdom has traditionally been associated with moderation or temperance. This is true not only in classical interpretations of virtue but also of religion. Moderation has in turn been understood as being closely related with being able to reach agreement with others with whom one disagreed, even strongly. To be sure, there have been many exceptions in which wisdom has been dominated by the courage to resist compromise in the face of great evils. And this is where our present story picks up: almost half of older Republicans see President Obama as a great evil.  Indeed, on this 4th of July many of those celebrating are convinced that ours is another revolutionary moment when tyranny is to be courageously resisted. The hard truth is that this is simply another way of saying that many of our elders are not wiser but more partisan, indeed foolishly so.

In my next post I'll discuss some of the challenges this presents for politics, families, and religion.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Picture of Success in Afghanistan


Afghanistan’s Civic War - NYTimes.com

With all the focus on the recent Rolling Stone article, this Times article seems to have received little notice. It is one of the best I've read in terms of describing the challenges of the Afghanistan War. In particular it shows U.S. soldiers spending their days tending the multiple layers of local leadership and governance while the Taliban spend their nights disrupting these fragile bonds. The Taliban's work is obviously easier as their purpose is simply to frustrate our efforts by acts of violence and intimidation. One would expect that as our troop levels increase, the Taliban's night visits will become increasingly rare. Should this come to pass, we will have succeeded in Afghanistan. For all the moral complexity of this war, protecting civilians while they sleep may be the clearest duty, though even here tactics may prove otherwise.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

An Opening?

Obama relieves McChrystal of his duties

The insubordination of General Stanley McChrystal may yet come to be seen as a key moment in the Afghanistan War and in Barack Obama's presidency, an opening in which critical changes were made. First, in accepting McChrystal's resignation, Obama sends a strong message of the need for unity of purpose, especially in a time of war. Then, in nominating General David Petraeus, Obama gains a military leader capable of bringing that unity about. Indeed, Petraeus is much better suited to lead a campaign that is as much a political effort as a military one. If anyone can deliver success in Afghanistan, it is probably Petraeus. It may even be that we come to look back on this as an opening for bipartisanship, when political leaders came to see the limits of partisan politics and began to repair the idea of a bipartisan foreign policy.

Of course, one might argue that this is nothing more than wishful thinking, but such cynicism overlooks the problematic nature of McChrystal's leadership team, the superiority of Petraeus, and the leadership of the President and political leaders from both parties. If nothing else, it is an opening.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

CBS/NY Times Poll Raises Questions on Energy

Poll Finds Deep Concern About Energy and Economy - NYTimes.com

Following up on yesterday's blog about an emerging consensus on energy, this poll by CBS and the NY Times seems to indicate that the majority of Americans are NOT willing to pay more for alternative fuels, but the survey asks specifics that don't easily translate to other areas or larger questions about the cost of energy. Rather than explore costs general or in a variety of scenarios, this poll ask a few questions about the gas tax. This hardly seems more like a fetish than a fair indicator. And what sense does it make? Why would one agree to an increase in the gas tax for some possible future payoff, especially when there hasn't yet been an argument for such a move, nor is there likely to be one. And why would the poll ask such a flat footed question, especially about such an important issue. The big question is not whether we are willing to pay more, increasing demand and decreasing supply indicate that we will. The question is this: how long and hard will our transition to a sustainable energy policy be?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Emerging Consensus on Energy?


A new survey by the Pew Research Center indicates that a healthy majority of Americans support increased energy exploration and production as well as limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Pew characterizes these results as "mixed signals" but they seem fairly clear--the majority of Americans support a moderate approach to energy, one that comes closer to what Obama has been advocating than either the Left or Right would like to admit. This may come as a surprise given the BP disaster, but it probably shouldn't surprise us given the slow and unsteady pace of the economic recovery.

The consensus shows growing support for an environmental friendly energy policy and economy. Indeed, the most telling single line in the report is in regards to "an
overall goal for U.S. energy policy, 56% say it is more important to protect the environment, while 37% say it is more important to keep energy prices low." 56% vs. 37% indicates that we have an emerging consensus on energy, though not a large or stable one. It may be that significant divides remain or that a new middle way is opening in which the environment comes first and price second. Unfortunately, it is not yet a bipartisan consensus capable of doing heavy lifting. I'm not sure what that will take, but apparently more than BP's best or worst efforts.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Afghanistan the Beautiful


Afghanistan Through Teenagers' Eyes | Foreign Policy

The Afghanistan War is something that many of us Americans care about but have long since stopped following. And who can blame us? Everyday it seems there is another troubling story of corruption, mismanagement, an intimidated population, and behind it all an increasing number of casualties. How many heartbreaking stories should one be expected to absorb? Nevertheless, attention is called for. As part of our responsibilities as citizens of a democracy, we are expected to study a horrifying object, war. Surely this is a strange duty, especially for those of us who strive to be people of peace and compassion, but we owe this much because the war is fought in our name and we have some power to alter its course. If the war is unjustified or becomes unjustified, then it is our duty to prevent it, end it, or change how it is fought. This requires that we attend to news of the war. But attending to the war comes with risks, for the things we study we come to love or at least accept, but if war ever ceases to be horrifying, then our seeing has become distorted from that of democratic citizens, much less people of compassion, to disciples of the god of war.

That's the power of these photographs taken by teenagers: they remind us that Afghanistan is not simply a place of war/horror. Afghanistan is full of beauty, even after decades of war. This, of course, should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Afghanistan, but perhaps this too is telling of the power of war, that simply following the news from the war can cause us to forget that beauty still exists, even in a place of war.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Crucial Issue in Afghanistan

U.S. Bolsters Afghan Police to Secure Kandahar - NYTimes.com

Might this be the crucial issue to follow in Afghanistan--the motivation (and professionalization) of the Afghanistan police and soldier? While this is related to the issue of corruption, it is bigger than corruption. The central issue in Afghanistan is figuring out who is willing to work and fight for what or for whom. Surely there are a host of possible explanations as to why these police officers appear slothful--as mundane as the weather and as serious as a lack of loyalty to their employer, the government of Afghanistan. The ray of hope in this article is the hint that other police officers are motivated--that--and the motivation and skill of the American and Canadian soldiers.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Save the Lecture (on Afghanistan)

Editorial - Taking Stock in Afghanistan - NYTimes.com

The Times editors take a fairly moderate position here, but their moderation is overwhelmed by moralism mixed with paternalism. On the one hand they are willing to give the counterinsurgency some time. On the other hand they talk of managing Karzai as if he were some project we might figure out rather than the leader of a nation that has been at war for more than 30 years. They, like much the press, focus on the shinny bright object, Karzai, as if he were an independent actor, rather than a player--a significant player to be sure--in a complex and tensed system. Karzai reflects the system as much or more than he shapes it. We complain that he acts insecurely and paranoid, but surely these are signs of sanity in a radically insecure context.

Again, my point is not that relations with Karzai can't be better managed, but that the Times writes as if he were a neglected summer camp project. If it is so easy, why not suggest how that relationship should be better managed. A place to begin would be with a recognition that he is working in a society that has a strong bias for local rule and against outsiders. The insurgency exploits this bias intensely enough to mimic a civil war with all the usual accompanying bitterness and terror, think kidnapping and assassinations. Karzai himself is a survivor of at least one assassination attempt. In this context, consistency and respect would seem to be among the things most likely to instill the same on his part. The Times instead claims that we "need to make clear that there's a limit to American patience." In stating as much they are seemingly ignorant of recent reports indicating that our July 2011 deadline intensified Karzai worries and sense of isolation and insecurity.

The Times also sounds detached from reality in its demanding that Afghanistan become a liberal democracy. How can we expect a deeply conservative tribal society--at least outside Kabul--to fight and die for a foreign idea such as liberal democracy with all the rights we are accustomed? Even in our "free society" we make room for a variety of family patterns. Why should we insist on more in Afghanistan, especially when we lack the power to make it happen?

Lastly the Times criticizes Karzai for offering the Taliban the carrot of being removed from the United Nations terrorist blacklist--saying it is too early for such talk--when only a few sentences above the editors have lectured us about the lack of time. If we are going to start departing Afghanistan in a year, when do we expect reconciliation and pacification to begin?

After these almost silly statements, the editors conclude as you might expect, with more lecturing: "General McChrystal is going to have to do a much better job in Kandahar. Mr. Karzai is going to have to drop his illusions and commit to the fight." They make is sound so simple; just try harder. They do know this is a war, right?

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Double-Edged Sword in Afghanistan

It is unclear what will come of the news that the U.S. has identified vast deposits of minerals in Afghanistan. The article stresses the huge potential (and upside) of this discovery, but it is clearly a double-edged sword. To be fair, the article points this out in terms of Afghanistan's infamous corruption, but it only indirectly hints at potential U.S. ambitions and greed--think US based multinational corporations. Surely there will be conspiracy theories that these riches are why we went to Afghanistan and while these can easily be rebutted, they are prophetic in the sense that we will be tempted to extend our time there--thinking that we have earned the opportunity to gain from these mines and that our departure would allow China to become the dominant player and beneficiary. We may even think we are defending our interests and those of the Afghanis. It may be though that China's interest could overlap with our interests. Might not it be possible to welcome the Chinese as partners in stabilizing Afghanistan and the region? If the deposits are nearly as large as anticipated and if the Afghanis need as much assistance as expected, then surely there's enough work and wealth to go around. Then again it is easy to imagine the allure of vast riches only worsening the corruption, mistrust, and the fighting.