“Problems” and American Politics
January 14, 2012
Here is how American politics works, at least some of the time. These reflections are based on the book, Ghost Wars, by Stephen Coll, which as stated in an earlier post is an excellent book of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan up to September 10, 2001.
In the latter part of the book, Coll writes in detail about how the Clinton administration tried to capture or kill bin Laden – really the latter but it had to disguise this as an attempt at apprehension. The CIA, as bin Laden’s prominence increased in the world and especially after the bombings of the American embassies in Africa, and other national security institutions kept trying to find a way to kill bin Laden. Of course, this proved too difficult, as we all know now but it was not for want of trying.
But as I was reading about these attempts, I kept thinking that something is wrong here. At first, I could not figure out what it was but, finally, I think I figured it out and it has to do with thinking of stuff as “problems” to be “solved.” That is, bin Laden had become “a problem” and we had to find “a solution” to this “problem,” and of course assassination came to mind. This is perfectly logical once we begin to think of bin Laden as “a problem” because if he is “eliminated” than he can no longer be “a problem.” It is like getting cancer. Once one has cancer, it is “a problem” and getting rid of it is “the solution.”
But as Coll points out and as even some of the participants realized, if only a few and only vaguely, what did not get enough attention was that, e.g., “the CIA director placed virtually no emphasis on Afghanistan as a cause or context of bin Laden’s menace. Tenet never said publicly that bin Laden and al Qaeda were a powerful faction in Afghanistan’s civil war, that they thrived on their links to Pakistani intelligence, or that they took succor from Saudi and Persian Gulf sheikhs and proselytizers.” [p. 454] That is, these people with power thought about bin Laden as a cancer patient thinks about cancer, “How can we get rid of it?” without thinking about the context or causes that led to the cancer. If the context is taken into account, then it is necessary to wonder about the value of the policy of trying to embarrass and then defeat Communists in Afghanistan. That is, perhaps it would have been better, more conducive to our security in the U.S., were the Communist regime in Afghanistan maintained as then the Islamist fundamentalists would not have had the power to construct a Taliban state which gave bin Laden a home from which to plan and conduct terrorism.
So the question is: Is bin Laden the problem or is Afghanistan the problem? Or, in another context, is Iran acquiring nuclear weapons the problem or is the isolation of Iran in midst of nuclear-armed neighbors and those who consider the Iranian regime illegitimate, like the U.S., the problem? Seems worth thinking about anyway.