Wednesday, June 16, 2010


(The swoon heard round the world via Astrid Riecken/EPA)

"THESE are the times that try men's souls." Thomas Paine.

The American Empire was bleeding from a wound in its Gulf as General Petraeus, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, swooned. Not our best moment. "Empires are restless organisms," wrote Gore Vidal, who has lived for three-quarters of the 20th century and a third of the history of the United States, in The Day The Empire Ran Out of Gas. "They must constantly renew themselves; should an empire start leaking energy, it will die."

Remember the almost glacial pace of the President's deliberations on our Afghanistan policy? He took months -- it seemed like centuries -- to decide whether or not to continue Bush's war, and, if so, to what degree of intensity. At West Point on December 1st, he essentially brought the surge strategy to Central Asia. But with, essentially, a soft timetable. "In reality, McChrystal has considerably less than 12 months to break the Taliban in Kandahar and demonstrate measurable overall progress," writes Simon Tisdall in The Guardian.

Afghaniskepticism, clearly, is the zeitgeist. Afghanistan occupies the geographical endpoint of Empires, those so-called "restless organisms." From Milton Beard's influential essay:

MICHNI POINT, Pakistan's last outpost at the western end of the barren, winding Khyber Pass, stands sentinel over Torkham Gate, the deceptively orderly border crossing into Afghanistan. Frontier Scouts in gray shalwar kameezes (traditional tunics and loose pants) and black berets patrol the lonely station commanded by a major of the legendary Khyber Rifles, the militia force that has been guarding the border with Afghanistan since the nineteenth century, first for British India and then for Pakistan. This spot, perhaps more than any other, has witnessed the traverse of the world's great armies on campaigns of conquest to and from South and Central Asia. All eventually ran into trouble in their encounters with the unruly Afghan tribals.

It was also, we cannot fail to note, the height of what I like to call macho-tragic behavior -- the Greeks called it hubris -- to run a war and answer pointed questions from the United States Senate on an empty stomach. Even more poignant an optic of this embattled Presidency than Obama on Memorial Day in the rain is Petraeus fainting while being grilled about the progress of the war. It makes this bloggers blood boil to think that that video will probably, disgustingly, be used to beneficial effect in the recruitment of new terrorists. Our enemies will will cite this as proof that they are defeating us.

It doesn't help our ability to motivate nations that America now has trade deficits with over 90 countries, as Hillary Clinton politely hinted at at Brookings recently.

Finally, in the case of Jamie Risen's stale "reporting," Afghaniskepticism and the decline of The Times are one. That story gave the impression of desperation on the part of the administration, as if they are grasping at straws in portraying our efforts in Afghanistan as going well. But it is not, and the summer will only get hotter. It is time to come home America, at least in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not worth the cost in American lives and treasure in this, America's hour of the wolf.

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