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Mr. Bush, we’re ready for new marching orders

What’s next in the war on terrorism?

For those who object to the bombing in Afghanistan, the question is serious and difficult. For it is not unreasonable to conclude on one level that, in this case, war is “working.” On some level, war always works for the United States. We’re good at it. So what else could we do?

“Would someone please explain to me what we should be doing instead?” asks a letter writer regarding the bombing in Afghanistan. Another wants no more questioning of the past, just “answers for coping with the current situation.”

At the moment, an alternative does not seem likely. The United States has already committed such enormous firepower to and expended such staggering (and largely unreported) sums on the war that the question seems futile.

Add to the dollar amount the intangible costs we will pay for the upending of Constitutional protections and the circumvention of judicial procedures ordered recently by President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

As a country, we are in full battle gear, long beyond the point of asking if there might be an alternative. News people who have enormous resources at their command and access to the top decision makers apparently find it impossible to form questions that might challenge the status quo.

If we dare ask, however, where we go from here, we had better be ready to read the past, frustrating as that might be. The record is revealing. We propped up the shah in Iran for 30 years, let him run amok with his secret police, alienating large segments of the population while offending the religious sensibilities of many. In Iran, we paved the way for a revolution fueled by widespread hatred of America.

We then armed both Iran and Iraq at different times during their 1980-88 war with each other (and used Iran’s arms payments to finance another war at the time, against Nicaragua). Iraq was eventually victorious -- and before long was menacing neighboring Kuwait. So we went to war, this time with our former ally and now sudden enemy, Saddam Hussein, and undoubtedly against some of the weaponry we had sold him.

Even though we declared victory in 1991 in the Gulf War, we have found it necessary to continue bombing that nation, almost nonstop, for more than a decade.

And we’re still terrified of what might be in the works in Saddam’s secret weapons facilities.

In Afghanistan, we once backed “freedom fighters” battling our old menace, the Soviet Union. Those same “freedom fighters” eventually gained control of Afghanistan and helped create and foster Osama bin Laden and his network of terrorists. Meanwhile, we walked away from the pressing needs of the war-torn nation. War is our game; we show little interest in rooting out its causes.

In the mid ’90s, when factions were fighting for control of the country, the rebels who formed the Northern Alliance -- our ally now in Afghanistan -- were as feared as the Taliban later came to be.

Meanwhile we have become cozy with Pakistan’s president, military strongman Pervez Musharraf.

And so it continues.

Some are offended at the recitation of this record, saying it represents a blame-the-victim mentality that diminishes the tragedy of Sept. 11 and the sense of loss.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The real insult to those who lost their lives to terrorists would be the stubborn continuation of unsuccessful polices that guarantee only more terror and war. This time, in Afghanistan, can we expect different results? After all, the world is watching closely, and we have cited the suffering of the Afghan people under the Taliban to help justify U.S. bombing. With our new attentiveness, will we finally begin to face the desperate poverty of that country and see it within a broader context? Will we begin to imagine U.S. complicity in the suffering of the region? Will we begin to repent the way we support dictatorships when it serves U.S. economic interests? Can we finally imagine waging peace, not war?

Part of the U.S. genius is its pragmatism, its ability to get things done, to fix what needs fixing and get on to the next challenge. War is a sign of failure, not success.

So what needs fixing?

President Bush made much in a recent speech about what the military has learned from its experience in Afghanistan, about what works and what it will need in the future to remain an effective fighting force. How much more encouraging it would have been had he conducted an honest and open discussion about what had been learned in recent weeks on the diplomatic front.

What if President Bush were to have suggested that treating nations as if they exist solely to serve only short-term U.S. interests creates widespread hostility? That propping up despots and unpopular ruling families to assure U.S. access to resources is antithetical to U.S. values? That we would have to find ways to close the chasm between rich and poor because it is outrageously unfair -- and counterproductive -- that 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. population, consumes a third or more of the world’s resources and produces almost half of its hazardous waste.

What if the president asked for our help in adjusting our lifestyles and expectations, even modestly, to make us less dependent on foreign oil? What if he said he would take a portion of money from the military and switch it to develop technologies to reduce hazardous waste or nuclear stockpiles?

This would require leadership and a larger vision. And the American people in their goodness would respond positively. People are desperate for leadership and responses to the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington that go deeper than the President’s call to return to normal and spend more money.

Afghanistan, so far, has proved that the United States has daunting military might.

Can we extract ourselves from our own blind cycle of violence and discover “what we should be doing instead”? Or will hubris in the wake of this military campaign further blind us?

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001