Tuesday, July 20, 2010

From the mailbag

Catelli writes:
"A common theme for defenders of the Afghanistan mission is that we have to stay to impose Western (or "Universal Human") values on an ignorant population.

Has any society successfully occupied another and imposed its values without a revolt or reversion after the occupiers leave? If so, how long did it take?"
Hm. It would be best to answer this question when I haven't spent the evening drinking with friends on a glorious summer night. But what fun would that be?

The quick answer would be no, I can't think of a single example of a country imposing its own values on a country without a revolt or reversion post-occupation. But the terms "values", "country", and "occupation" are all difficult to define. Japan, for example, very much made a pro-American transformation after the end of WWII, but frankly picking a date for the end of the occupation is at best arguable considering that Japan still operates under an unmolested constitution written by the staff of one Douglas MacArthur and, by the way, Japanese Prime Ministers are still regularly humiliated by the necessities of American foreign policy.

To go waaaaaay back, there's the Hellenistic age, where victorious Greeks spread their values throughout the known world and were dominant for a couple of centuries. Whether their values ever actually spread downwards from the elite strata is very, very doubtful. (Cleopatra was the first of the Hellenistic rulers of Egypt to ever bother learning the local language.)

There is, of course, the option of unrestricted killing, which has been remarkably successful in forcing European values on to the American landmass and which shows no sign of diminishing its powers here. That said, smallpox-infected blankets are a bit out of style these days.

None of these examples (with the possible exception of Alexander the Great) have a terrible amount of relevance to the example of Afghanistan. The one arguable success (Japan) had a number of preconditions that simply aren't being recreated: a previously-industrialized society that bought in to "western" norms of governance and politics, a postwar leadership that recognized the Americans as a lesser evil, and an American government that wasn't looking for an exit from the Pacific theatre.

So based on the examples I've given I'd say that if imposing our values is the reason we're in Afghanistan then boy howdy are we out of luck. That said, I don't actually think that's why NATO is there. America is, mostly, looking for an exit from Afghanistan and Iraq but can't fathom an endgame where they don't "win". The problem is that nobody has an agreed-upon definition of the verb "to win", as far as it applies to Afghanistan.

Atrios used to write that as far as George W. Bush understood it, leaving Iraq meant losing, so staying forever meant winning. The same basically applies to Afghanistan, given that the original victory condition (bin Laden's head on a pike) seems to have eluded us.

Obama has already demonstrated that, where the small stuff counts, he's able to face down the military. The big test will come when it comes time to admit that a) Afghanistan has been a failure and a waste, and b) we're leaving anyway.

4 comments:

Catelli said...

Thanks! That was fast, I wasn't expect a response for a few days!

john said...

Hey, alcohol improves my productivity if not my tpying.

Catelli said...

Somehow I doubt my employer would accept that argument...

Tylere said...

Hey guys, I would consider myself a defender of the Afghanistan mission. And in that defense I expect I would bring up some topics around universal human rights.

I think I take issue with the premise of your question, which I read to be that the Afghan population in general is ignorant/doesn't subscribe to our construction of human rights?

Hmm. Then again, given the tone, you could be poking fun and implying that supporters view Afghan's as ignorant we think we need to "educate" them about their rights.

Anyway, I'm interested in discussing if you'd like to. I don't have an axe to grind, and Dymaxion World has been in my RSS feed for several years =D.