This is a global moment unlike any in memory, perhaps in history. Yes, comparisons can be made to the wave of people power that swept Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91. For those with longer memories, perhaps 1968 might come to mind, that abortive moment when, in the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere, including Eastern Europe, masses of people mysteriously inspired by each other took to the streets of global cities to proclaim that change was on the way.
For those searching the history books, perhaps you've focused on the year 1848 when, in a time that also mixed economic gloom with novel means of disseminating the news, the winds of freedom seemed briefly to sweep across Europe. And, of course, if enough regimes fall and the turmoil goes deep enough, there's always 1776, the American Revolution, or 1789, the French one, to consider. Both shook up the world for decades after.
But here's the truth of it: you have to strain to fit this Middle Eastern moment into any previous paradigm, even as—from Wisconsin to China—it already threatens to break out of the Arab world and spread like a fever across the planet. Never in memory have so many unjust or simply despicable rulers felt quite so nervous—or possibly quite so helpless (despite being armed to the teeth)—in the presence of unarmed humanity. And there has to be joy and hope in that alone.
Even now, without understanding what it is we face, watching staggering numbers of people, many young and dissatisfied, take to the streets in Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Oman, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya, not to mention Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt, would be inspirational. Watching them face security forces using batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and in all too many cases, real bullets (in Libya, even helicopters and planes) and somehow grow stronger is little short of unbelievable. Seeing Arabs demanding something we were convinced was the birthright and property of the West, of the United States in particular, has to send a shiver down anyone's spine.
The nature of this potentially world-shaking phenomenon remains unknown and probably, at this point, unknowable. Are freedom and democracy about to break out all over? And if so, what will that turn out to mean? If not, what exactly are we seeing? What light bulb was it that so unexpectedly turned on in millions of Twittered and Facebooked brains—and why now? I doubt those who are protesting, and in some cases dying, know themselves. And that's good news. That the future remains—always—the land of the unknown should offer us hope, not least because that's the bane of ruling elites who want to, but never can, take possession of it.
Nonetheless, you would expect that a ruling elite, observing such earth-shaking developments, might rethink its situation, as should the rest of us. After all, if humanity can suddenly rouse itself this way in the face of the armed power of state after state, then what's really possible on this planet of ours?
Seeing such scenes repeatedly, who wouldn't rethink the basics? Who wouldn't feel the urge to reimagine our world?
Let me offer as my nominee of choice not various desperate or dying Middle Eastern regimes, but Washington.
Life in the Echo Chamber
So much of what Washington did imagine in these last years proved laughable, even before this moment swept it away. Just take any old phrase from the Bush years. How about "You're either with us or against us"? What's striking is how little it means today. Looking back on Washington's desperately mistaken assumptions about how our globe works, this might seem like the perfect moment to show some humility in the face of what nobody could have predicted.
It would seem like a good moment for Washington—which, since September 12, 2001, has been remarkably clueless about real developments on this planet and repeatedly miscalculated the nature of global power—to step back and recalibrate.
As it happens, there's no evidence it's doing so. In fact, that may be beyond Washington's present capabilities, no matter how many billions of dollars it pours into "intelligence." And by "Washington," I mean not just the Obama administration, or the Pentagon, or our military commanders, or the vast intelligence bureaucracy, but all those pundits and think-tankers who swarm the capital, and the media that reports on them all. It's as if the cast of characters that makes up "Washington" now lives in some kind of echo chamber in which it can only hear itself talking.
As a result, Washington still seems remarkably determined to play out the string on an era that is all too swiftly passing into the history books. While many have noticed the Obama administration's hapless struggle to catch up to events in the Middle East, even as it clings to a familiar coterie of grim autocrats and oil sheiks, let me illustrate this point in another area entirely—the largely forgotten war in Afghanistan. After all, hardly noticed, buried beneath 24/7 news from Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East, that war continues on its destructive, costly course with nary a blink.
Five Ways to Be Tone Deaf in Washington
You might think that, as vast swathes of the Greater Middle East are set ablaze, someone in Washington would take a new look at our Af/Pak War and wonder whether it isn't simply beside the point. No such luck, as the following five tiny but telling examples that caught my attention indicate. Consider them proof of the well-being of the American echo chamber and evidence of the way Washington is proving incapable of rethinking its longest, most futile, and most bizarre war.
1. Let's start with a recent New York Times op-ed, "The ‘Long War' May Be Getting Shorter." Published last Tuesday as Libya was passing through "the gates of hell," it was an upbeat account of Afghan War commander General David Petraeus's counterinsurgency operations in southern Afghanistan. Its authors, Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl, members of an increasingly militarized Washington intelligentsia, jointly head the Center for a New American Security in Washington. Nagl was part of the team that wrote the 2006 revised Army counterinsurgency manual for which Petraeus is given credit and was an advisor to the general in Iraq. Fick, a former Marine officer who led troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and then was a civilian instructor at the Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Academy in Kabul, recently paid a first-hand visit to the country (under whose auspices we do not know).
The two of them are typical of many of Washington's war experts who tend to develop incestuous relationships with the military, moonlighting as enablers or cheerleaders for our war commanders, and still remain go-to sources for the media.
In another society, their op-ed would simply have been considered propaganda. Here's its money paragraph:
"It is hard to tell when momentum shifts in a counterinsurgency campaign, but there is increasing evidence that Afghanistan is moving in a more positive direction than many analysts think. It now seems more likely than not that the country can achieve the modest level of stability and self-reliance necessary to allow the United States to responsibly draw down its forces from 100,000 to 25,000 troops over the next four years."
This is a classic Washington example of moving the goalposts. What our two experts are really announcing is that, even if all goes well in our Afghan War, 2014 will not be its end date. Not by a long shot.
Of course, this is a position that Petraeus has supported. Four years from now our "withdrawal" plans, according to Nagl and Fick, will leave 25,000 troops in place. If truth-telling or accuracy were the point of their exercise, their piece would have been titled, "The ‘Long War' Grows Longer."
Even as the Middle East explodes and the US plunges into a budget "debate" significantly powered by our stunningly expensive wars that won't end, these two experts implicitly propose that General Petraeus and his successors fight on in Afghanistan at more than $100 billion a year into the distant reaches of time, as if nothing in the world were changing. This already seems like the definition of obliviousness and one day will undoubtedly look delusional, but it's the business-as-usual mentality with which Washington faces a new world.
2. Or consider two striking comments General Petraeus himself made that bracket our new historical moment. At a morning briefing on January 19th, according to New York Times reporter Rod Nordland, the general was in an exultant, even triumphalist, mood about his war. It was just days before the first Egyptian demonstrators would take to the streets, and only days after Tunisian autocrat Zine Ben Ali had met the massed power of nonviolent demonstrators and fled his country. And here's what Petraeus so exuberantly told his staff: "We've got our teeth in the enemy's jugular now, and we're not going to let go."
It's true that the general had, for months, not only been sending new American troops south, but ratcheting up the use of air power, increasing Special Operations night raids, and generally intensifying the war in the Taliban's home territory. Still, under the best of circumstances, his was an exultantly odd image. It obviously called up the idea of a predator sinking its teeth into the throat of its prey, but surely somewhere in the military unconscious lurked a more classic American pop-cultural image—the werewolf or vampire. Evidently, the general's idea of an American future involves an extended blood feast in the Afghan version of Transylvania, for like Nagl and Fick he clearly plans to have those teeth in that jugular for a long, long time to come.
A month later, on February 19th, just as all hell was breaking loose in Bahrain and Libya, the general visited the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul and, in dismissing Afghan claims that recent American air raids in the country's northeast had killed scores of civilians, including children, he made a comment that shocked President Hamid Karzai's aides. We don't have it verbatim, but the Washington Post reports that, according to "participants," Petraeus suggested "Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties."
One Afghan at the meeting responded: "I was dizzy. My head was spinning. This was shocking. Would any father do this to his children? This is really absurd."
In the American echo-chamber, the general's comments may sound, if not reasonable, then understandably exuberant and emphatic: We've got the enemy by the throat! We didn't create Afghan casualties; they did it to themselves! Elsewhere, they surely sound obtusely tone deaf or simply vampiric, evidence that those inside the echo chamber have no sense of how they look in a shape-shifting world.
3. Now, let's step across an ill-defined Afghan-Pakistan border into another world of American obtuseness. On February 15th, only four days after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt, Barack Obama decided to address a growing problem in Pakistan. Raymond Davis, a former US Special Forces soldier armed with a Glock semi-automatic pistol and alone in a vehicle cruising a poor neighborhood of Pakistan's second largest city, Lahore, shot and killed two Pakistanis he claimed had menaced him at gunpoint. (One was evidently shot in the back.)
Davis reportedly got out of the vehicle firing his pistol, then photographed the dead bodies and called for backup. The responding vehicle, racing to the scene the wrong way in traffic, ran over a motorcyclist, killing him before fleeing. (Subsequently, the wife of one of the Pakistanis Davis killed committed suicide by ingesting rat poison.)
The Pakistani police took Davis into custody with a carful of strange equipment. No one should be surprised that this was not a set of circumstances likely to endear an already alienated population to its supposed American allies. In fact, it created a popular furor as Pakistanis reacted to what seemed like the definition of imperial impunity, especially when the US government, claiming Davis was an "administrative and technical official" attached to its Lahore consulate, demanded his release on grounds of diplomatic immunity and promptly began pressuring an already weak, unpopular government with loss of aid and support.