A few years ago I was talking to an experienced U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, a battalion commander in Iraq. He compared the Iraqi situation to a Rubik’s Cube – a puzzling array of shifting loyalties, interconnected tribes, and religious sects. At the time, I thought it was a telling metaphor.
But the metaphor was misleading. A Rubik’s Cube can be solved. Iraq couldn’t. Not by the U.S. Why? Because Iraq was and is an Iraqi problem, not an American puzzle. The more we twisted and turned the Iraqi cube, the more we avoided the reality that the heavily militarized U.S. presence in Iraq was a large part of the problem.
Similarly, Afghanistan is an Afghan problem. Our long-term, heavily militarized, presence there is ultimately not in the best interests of the vast majority of Afghan people. Nor for that matter is it ultimately in the best interests of America.
This conclusion may seem deceptively simple, even simple-minded. But it isn’t. It requires us to be humble. It requires us to recognize that other countries and people are not problems for us to solve. And American officials are loath to do that. They are loath to admit any limits either to their power or insight.
This ham-fisted puzzle-solving mentality was endemic to the American presence in Vietnam. In a probing book review of Carl Oglesby’s Ravens in the Storm, Dan White cites Oglesby’s experiences talking with the Vietnamese journalist Cao Giao. One passage in particular caught my attention:
“You Americans [Cao Giao said] like to say the Vietnam problem is complex. But this is only an excuse to not face the truth. The truth is that the Vietnam problem is not complex at all. It is only impossible. Do you see? If it was complex, you could try to solve it. But it is simple because it is impossible. Because it is simple it cannot be solved.”
Iraq and Afghanistan (or Yemen or Somalia or Syria) are not complex puzzles. They’re not Rubik’s Cubes to be flipped and turned and massaged until we get all the colors to line up for us. They’re impossible. They’re impossible for us, that is. We can’t “solve” them, no matter how many billions of dollars we spend, no matter how many troop brigades we send, no matter how many weapons we sell to them.
The simple truth (that U.S. officialdom seeks to deny) is that we consume our own myths of global reach, global power, and global goodness. In the process we reduce other peoples and nations to puzzles. We play with them until we “solve” them to our satisfaction. Or we grow bored and tired and throw them away like yesterday’s toys.
Other nations and peoples are not toys. Nor are they complex puzzles. Nor should it be puzzling when the peoples we’ve flipped and spun like so many Rubik’s Cubes seek redress – and revenge.