Since Osama bin Laden was killed last Sunday, a growing chorus from across the political spectrum has expressed doubts about our ongoing presence in Afghanistan.
When the United States invaded that country in the fall of 2001 in retaliation for the catastrophic attacks of 9/11, our military campaign was justified on the grounds that Afghanistan had served as a safe haven for al-Qaida and its leader, bin Laden, the perpetrators of those attacks. Aside from retaliating for what amounted to an act of war, so the argument went, we needed to root out the hornets' nest of terror that the ruling Taliban regime had countenanced and aided. Within a few months, that regime was overthrown, and all but the barest remnants of al-Qaida in Afghanistan had been dispersed.
So why are we there more than nine years later, when there is a near consensus that our presumptive mission there—to eliminate the Taliban and to establish a stable and effective government—is unachievable? The toll in that time has been immense. Roughly 140,000 coalition troops, including 100,000 Americans, are there. Another 50,000 U.S. military personnel remain in Iraq. We've spent at least $1.3 trillion prosecuting the so-called war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that figure doesn't account for the expense of treating the tens of thousands of soldiers who have been permanently disabled by the war. In fact, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated that the final price tag will be at least twice as high. In Afghanistan alone, more than 1,500 U.S. servicemen and women have died. So have thousands of civilians. A much larger number of U.S. soldiers and civilians have died in Iraq. The strain of both wars on our armed forces and their families, deployed and redeployed through stop-loss, has been enormous. And it turns out that bin Laden has been in neighboring Pakistan, our supposed ally, for the past five years.
The late William Odom, a former three-star general who served as director of the National Security Agency under President Reagan, described terrorism as a "tactic," not an "enemy" and viewed it as a serious problem but not a "strategic" one. But while the Osama bin Ladens of the world cannot destroy the United States, our reaction to 9/11, while understandable on many levels, has done great damage to the nation's social fabric. It served as a "spectacular provocation," in the words of bin Laden's long-time No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahari, and has kept us in a state of what General Odom called "sustained hysteria."
We need not forget in order to move on, and with bin Laden gone, now seems like an especially appropriate time to turn the page on a decade of fear, overreaction and decline. To do that, it might do to turn the page back to 1972. In that year, George McGovern won the Democratic nomination to run for president. McGovern, of course, would go down to one of the most spectacular defeats in American presidential history. His campaign was plagued by disorganization and missteps both large and small, and his opponent was, of course, a well-funded incumbent known for using a dirty trick or two. A high point of the McGovern campaign—admittedly, there weren't many—was the stirring acceptance speech he gave at the Democratic Convention in Miami that July [speech text, speech video]. In that speech, McGovern repeatedly used the phrase "come home, America." It was both a literal call to "come home" from a pointless decade-long war in Vietnam as well as a symbolic plea for America to achieve its best self, more deeply committed to justice, inclusion and compassion. While the historical contexts of 1972 and 2011 differ profoundly, much of McGovern's address remains strikingly relevant.
McGovern argued that we had become "so absorbed with fear and danger from abroad that we have permitted our own house to fall into disarray." He decried the fact that during "administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been chartered behind closed doors." He insisted that open government wasn't a luxury, but a necessity, for a democratic people, and the surest guarantee of our future well-being. He pointed out that the cost of our war wasn't only borne by us, it had lethal consequences for those against whom we fought, and promised that, on his watch, "there will be no more Asian children running ablaze from burned-out schools." He tried to reframe how we understood national security, noting that it includes "schools for our children" and "the health of our families as much as the size of our bombs." McGovern lamented the fact that, for the previous three and a half years, political elites had "tolerated stagnation and a rising level of joblessness" and insisted that when the private sector could not or would not pick up the slack, government must do so.
McGovern pleaded that night to "come home, America" not only from its long and increasingly pointless overseas war but "from secrecy and deception in high places," "from the entrenchment of special privileges," "from military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation" and "from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick."
Political rhetoric is just that, and many will question whether any political majority exists in the United States to endorse the McGovernite worldview. There certainly wasn't one in 1972, and Democratic Party leaders have spent decades running away from that defeat. Much of the speech itself sounds like standard Democratic boilerplate, to be chipped away at or discarded once the campaign is over. Further, since McGovern was never elected president, all we have to judge him on are his words. But without a clear political vision, political action will always be haphazard, incoherent and vulnerable to the depredations of the powerful, entrenched status quo. And the status quo has been abetted by fear and diffidence, rendering us unable to face clearly the profound but surmountable challenges we face.
Despite the fearmongering, we're not going broke. We are, however, spending money in all the wrong places. We don't need to attack unions and undocumented immigrants to provide—as all other wealthy countries do—adequate safety for everyone. We don't need to sacrifice our most basic liberties to stay safe. And we don't need to place blind trust in our leaders to wage war however they see fit in order to remain strong.
It's not a panacea for all that ails us, but if we want to begin to put our house back in order, coming home from Afghanistan would be a good start.