Phil-osophically Speaking: May 13, 2011

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There are No Permanent Victories  And No Permanent Defeats

Politics, in some ways, can be defined as the allotment of credit and blame. When two military helicopters sent to rescue the Iranian hostages back in 1980 crashed in the Iranian desert resulting in debacle and death, it was just one more mishap of President Jimmy Carter’s faltering administration. Critics panned the attempt as “Carter’s Desert Classic,” a caustic reference to the popular, televised golf tournaments.

So President Obama deserves credit, and has gotten credit, for taking the risk of ordering the raid that killed the world’s most feared terrorist. Intelligence operatives whose painstaking, methodical detective work forged a trail to bin Laden deserve credit, and have gotten credit; Special Forces such as the U.S. Navy SEALs deserve an enormous amount of praise and have gotten it. George W. Bush should get credit for erecting the architecture early in his presidency to meet the vast and complex challenges of America’s war on terror.

It is now apparent that Bush’s heavy-handed interrogation methods and warrantless surveillance programs proved to be a critical foundation for actionable intelligence. Using enhanced interrogation techniques, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad cracked like a walnut shell squeezed in the vice of a nutcracker. Soon the vaunted mass-murderer was singing the nickname of a trusted courier who eventually led us to bin Laden’s lair.

Upon taking office, Obama had appeased the hard left of the Democratic Party by embracing a law enforcement approach to fighting terrorism. In a mayor’s message congratulating Obama’s ascent to the American presidency, I leavened my encomiums with a soft-pedaled prediction: Let’s see, I mused, how long Mr. Obama sticks with this approach when it fully dawns upon him that he alone is fully responsible for the security and safety of more than 300 million Americans. That’s a heavy burden to sleep soundly with and the president ostensibly became a tad restless over such a daunting prospect. While Obama’s domestic initiatives remained as far away from Republican notions as the East is from the West, his tactics in fighting the war on terror is, you have to admit, Bush lite.

Gitmo remains open, warrantless surveillance still continues relatively unabated, drone attacks are more aggressive than ever and the war goes on in Iraq and Afghanistan. These efforts, however, are not enough and I do wish, as unpleasant as it might be, that the president reinstitute enhanced interrogation as a means to avoid the unpleasantness of another 9-11. The president’s absurd fickleness about the legal nuances of the uses of torture brings to mind George Carlin’s comedy routine about then-heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali who refused induction into the U.S. Army to fight the Vietcong for religious reasons. Carlin, mimicking Ali’s famous braggadocio style would say, “Hey I’ll beat them up but I won’t kill them. That’s where I draw the line.” The Obama Administration seems to be saying something even more incongruous: “Hey we’ll blow terrorists up but we won’t torture them. It’s against our scruples.” Meanwhile, isn’t it long overdue for Attorney General Eric Holder to drop his appalling investigation of CIA operatives for using techniques that have clearly borne fruit? These individuals, who believed they were operating within the law, had already been cleared by our Justice Department and for Holder to have reopened this case is a travesty of justice.

Equally offensive is being subject to the risible and ludicrous denials by Pakistan that they did not know Osama bin Laden was nesting in a compound a mere stone’s throw from their military facilities. To believe that their highly effective intelligence agencies were oblivious to the occupant inside that fortress is tantamount to believing that one can buy the Brooklyn Bridge. Such treacherous duplicity cannot go unrewarded. While America needs Pakistan, Pakistan needs America more. Our retaliation should be measured, but it must be exacting and it must be certain. An offense too easily forgiven invites another. Nations, like people, are influenced by the existence of a Benthamite pleasure and pain principle. Letting Pakistan know that there will be consequences for their deplorable actions or inactions will send a message to other shaky allies not only that they must behave but also cooperate.

With the death of bin Laden, it is being asked are we at the end of a long prologue or are we witnessing the closing curtain of a tragic and momentous play. Deriving satisfaction from bin Laden’s demise is fitting, but harvesting illusions about the larger picture is nothing but damn foolishness. Edmund Burke presciently noted that there are “no permanent victories and no permanent defeats.” Tides that ebb will again flood. With the defeat of Nazism and Fascism came the Cold War and victory over the Soviet Union did not bring a global nirvana, but war against Jihad and radical Islam.

The world is a fallen and broken place and always will be until the sands of time are finally exhausted, or the long-awaited Parousia materializes or the occurrence of some miraculous transformation of human nature. It would serve us well to remember that humanity can never step out from the shadows of its past and into an imaginary realm of milk and honey.  Whatever the mesmeric charms of escapist fables about the universal brotherhood of man, it profits us nothing to harness the hopes of the world if we lose our common sense in the process.

I don’t wish to conclude by striking a fatal note of pessimism. I believe, with the convergence of human experience, there is a slow but inexorable growing unity in the world. Modernism and the free-flow of information and images have made it so. Great physical distances have been bridged by mass communications, mass production and modern transportation making life more provincial than global. Any cosmopolite or world traveler will confirm that much of the civilized world is more familiar than strange and this interconnectedness has diluted, though not eradicated, the cultural, linguistic and racial divides.

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