Doing the Right Thing

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are often crudely reduced to two somewhat conflicting missions--boots on the ground and the campaign for hearts and minds--but this verbal and conceptual short hand doesn't do us any favors. In framing the debate over effective military strategy and foreign policy, reducing what are legitimately complex moral decisions to mere heartsandminds operations runs the risk of making our intentions sound callous or hollow.

The language we use also shapes our own thinking. The reductivism of heartsandminds vs. bootsontheground creates an artificial binary that makes these missions sound mutually exclusive. (It also inadvertently provides hawks with ammunition for their snipes, such as deriding trust building, humanitarian missions as "soldiers passing out candy.") This binary thinking distracts us from our real goals. If the aim is not American hegemony, but security for us and our allies, then humanitarian missions do not stand in opposition to military strategy; they are an integral part of it.

Building good relations with the people that our military interacts with is in and of itself an effective security strategy. Bad relations put U.S. soldiers as well as local populations at risk and create the kinds of polarized, toxic environments that engender radical anti-Americanism. For proof, look to urban Iraq circa 2006, when not just military convoys, but anyone seen associating with U.S. soldiers or their representatives became a target for both Sunni and Shiite militias. Of course, the convoys were part of the problem: the military left what local allies it had unprotected--and quickly lost them. This further polarized the population and weakened civilian cooperation, evidencing the complex interrelation of security, aid and ideology. (We are witnessing something similar in South East Afghanistan, played out over a much larger geographical area.)

The war on terror is not a conventional war; it cannot be won on the battlefield alone. It is in large part a war of conflicting ideals, pitting repression against individual liberty. If we become the oppressors, we lose. Likewise, if we fail to improve living conditions for the people in countries where we have a military presence, we lose.

Along these lines, the President-elect and his new security team might consider some recent proposals about the long-term conduct of the war.

First and foremost, we must halt the practices of extraordinary rendition and "enhanced interrogation," close Guantanamo and through a combination of executive order and legislation guarantee to ourselves and the world that we will never return to the lawless moral limbo of the Bush years.

We should actively participate in international treaties banning inhumane weapons. Afghanistan itself is now a signatory to the ban on cluster bombs. Unexploded cluster bombs behave like land mines, which have been banned for years. Although the U.S. has not used cluster bombs in Afghanistan since 2003, signing the ban now could illustrate the direction that the American military will take under Obama. And it would put pressure on Russia and China, two countries that also did not sign the treaty, to do the same.

We should continue along the path of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, including a halt on the development of new nuclear weapons, whether tactical or strategic.

Finally, we should endeavor to leave the countries that we are attempting to rebuild habitable. Green Warriors, a recent RAND monograph, states that without taking the environmental effects of their actions into account, the military runs the risk of endangering both local populations and U.S. soldiers. "The longer U.S. forces remain in-theater, the more important environmental issues become to mission success and soldier health." The current practice of simply dumping waste, human and otherwise, during drawn out operations can create toxic environments for soldiers during the conflict and unlivable conditions for locals long after the war has ended. "Yet," the monograph notes, "environmental considerations are not well incorporated into Army planning or operations in any phase of an operation."

The monograph continues:
Although “doing the right thing” does not apply to the direct effects on mission and health discussed above, many in the Army believe in its importance. In our discussions with soldiers, so many of them talked about the importance of doing the right thing that we felt it was important to mention. Soldiers have come to expect the United States to treat the environment with respect. We have identified many examples of Army units doing things to protect or restore the environment, not because they had to, but because they believed it was the right thing to do. We also found a few cases where failure to protect the environment has hurt soldier morale.
In short, the failure to do the right thing loses wars. Now we have an opportunity to clean up our image, our policy and the messes we have made abroad. Humane practices and legitimate nation-building aren't just passing out candy; they are part of a sound strategy for winning.

N.B. I have a personal policy of not posting links to articles that I have not read in their entirety. The RAND monograph, weighing in at 254 pages, is an exception to that rule.

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