Thursday, July 19, 2007

The weaknesses of realism in Iraq and Afghanistan

The struggle in congress over what to do about Iraq – when/ how to leave – so full of posturing and pretension, reveals in fact how impossible the situation seems. Much as I have disagreed with President Bush on the conduct of affairs in the Middle East and Central Asia I can hardly disagree with him that any attempt of Americans to withdraw from Iraq simply emboldens Al Qaeda. True, no Al Qaeda existed there until his administration through misrepresentation started a pre-emptive war. But now they have an overwhelming presence. Somehow, it seems odd that the media make so much of a formal report that states the obvious: The US is worse-off than when the administration took a series of foolish moves. As Joe Biden has said it, not one move this administration has taken in the Middle East and Central Asia made sense.

But what to do? The one comfort I have is that the future eludes the human ability to predict. I have made my share of foolish predictions. So my despair about the future in Afghanistan and Iraq could be wrong. Could the situation be less hopeless than most of us see it? Could it be less dire than what we hear the politicians are saying in the corridors, if not before camera? Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac pointed out in 1999 (Tournament of Shadows, p. 570-2) that experts, despite their pretenses, have done poorly at predicting the future. In the 1960s and 1970s Iran, for example, was swarming with social scientists, but scarcely anyone, including the CIA, expected the radical upheavals that became the Iranian Revolution of 1978 and 1979. And who foresaw the cataclysmic implosion of the Soviet Union? -- “indisputably one of the most astonishing geopolitical events of the century” (Graham Fuller, in 1994). The only one who foresaw it, I think, was the Afghan Professor Gholam Ali Ayeen, who in 1986 suggested (Afghan Wulus, in Farsi) that the Afghanistan resistance movement might actually be undermining the Soviet Union’s apparent invincibility and even its integrity. Events in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew were likewise generally unforeseen. Few expected the Tajiks and Uzbeks (instead of the Pushtuns, who had always done so before) to seize and hold the capital city, as they did in 1992. The ferocious battle for Kabul in 1992-1996 was likewise scarcely imagined beforehand. And no one dreamed that a puritanical Islamic group, the Taliban, would rise out of the refugee camps to dominate most of Afghanistan by 1998. Meyer and Brysac point out that in the 1980s book The Book of Predictions a CIA expert predicted that within a few years the Soviet Union would dominate most of the world. (And in the same work Andrew Greeley predicted the demise of the Soviet empire by 1990; he missed it by a year.) If I could be wrong about what awaits Iraq and Afghanistan, could that be construed as reason for comfort? Whatever awaits, I still believe that we live under a kind heaven.

The problem, Meyer and Brysac point out, is that we always predict a continuation of whatever is going on at the time. And that misses a crucial ingredient in human affairs: that human beings face their affairs imaginatively – that is, in terms of an imagined “reality.” We seem to have an infinite number of ways to imagine the situations we think we encounter. We can scarcely predict how people will imagine the world and act from that imagined “reality” in the future. Who would have predicted that the neoconservative imagination of those who came to power with George W. Bush would for eight years shape the polities of the greatest power on earth? Perhaps someone, but not me. Could that be reason for optimism?

No comments: