The Spectacle Blog

Of mistakes and laser-guided missiles

By on 10.1.08 | 12:12PM

Radley Balko, who is probably aware I want to nationalize his brilliance, strikes a chord that, to me, sounds flat. I might be taking something he said and running with the wrong definition, so allow me to simply make this an example:

Anti-communists in the Regan administration regularly referred to the mujaheddin as "freedom fighters," apparently for no other reason than that they were fighting the Soviets. We now know, of course, that they were fighting for independence, not freedom. There's a big difference. That McCain continues to use the Reagan-era terminology is telling. Our support-even if indirect-of bin Laden in his jihad against the Soviets ought to be a lesson in the perils of meddling in foreign conflicts. But in the McCain-Bush black-and-white, you're-with-us-or-you're-against-us foreign policy, the side America backs is always the side of freedom. It's foolhardy to think it's always that simple.

Well, not to mince words, but they were fighting for freedom, just their own freedom to subordinate women and propagate the Jihadi-based guide to personal success. And there was a perfectly good reason to calling them freedom fighters. On the "Spectrum of Grey" Tyranny-meter, the Soviets were jet black with expansionist impulses and nuclear weapons. The mujaheddin were thorns in their side, and helping in a greater cause of freedom.

Anyway, I'm weary of this strawman argument. Those of us who dig on foreign adventurism, or perhaps think that sabre-rattling is useful, don't see the world in black and white anymore than critics polarize the world according to those who see shades of gray and those who see black and white. The use of black and white rhetoric is not simply a consequence of stupidity, simple-mindedness, or mere partisanship. It is no more detrimental to the intellect of the electorate than is a libertarian suggesting that more government is bad. Everything a politician or ideologue says is, in some way, propaganda, something intended not only to convey a political message to the people, but to convince them of it. That McCain engages in this sort of thing is not morally hazardous, but actually necessary. It's in his job description, right behind "Get Really Mad At Coworkers."

Doing so does not ignore the perils of foreign conflict. Any person with a lick of education knows that other countries are pretty complex, just like ours is. I'd wager it's tough to be on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and not have a better idea of that than your average joe. Reagan's language wasn't a mere sideshow, but an instrument he used to strengthen his hand at the negotiating table.

Whatmore, the U.S. meddling in foreign conflicts, particularly Afghanistan, has generally been a force of good in the world. Obviously, restraint is tantamount to that good. So we ask for land to bury our dead and move on. Should we have taken action against Russia when they invaded Georgia? No. But the history of U.S.-Russian diplomacy teaches us that Russia is perfectly comfortable with testing our limits to see what they can get away with, especially during an election season. Language (and the might to back it up) is the most important tool for confronting it.

I'm just saying: Sometimes, threatening to make the rubble bounce prevents you from having to.

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