Thinking Outside the Box: What Obama Could Have Said
Much of the American public is skeptical about the value of Obama's plan, announced in his address of December 1, to send another 30,000 U.S. troops to fight an apparently endless war in Afghanistan, and with good reason. If, after eight years of sending U.S. and NATO soldiers to wage this war, al Qaeda maintains its foothold in the region, the Taliban is stronger, Afghanistan is more unstable, corruption is rife, and anti-Americanism is on the rise, why should we expect a better outcome when we do more of the same?
The major problem is that the President's action fails to go beyond traditional thinking about how to relate to overseas strife. Indeed, Obama's response to the messy situation the United States faces in Afghanistan is reminiscent of how an imperial or military leader would have responded a few thousand years ago. Have we learned nothing over these intervening years? Instead of resorting to outdated thinking, what if Obama had drawn upon modern instruments of international and interpersonal relations? What if he had adopted a program of change in the way the United States relates to the world? In that case, he could have delivered a speech – not at West Point (a symbol of the old thinking) but at the United Nations (a symbol of the new) – and said:
Fellow representatives of the world community.
A bloody war currently rages in the nation of Afghanistan. Although the United States has contributed to this situation, many nations have been involved in invading, fostering violence in, and occupying that country. Furthermore, Afghanistan's own people are engaged in a vicious civil war. For these reasons, and also because no single nation has sufficient wisdom, resources, or legitimacy to deal with this crisis, I have turned to U.N. Security Council and the U.N. Secretary-General to help me resolve this crisis in a fair and peaceful manner.
As a result, we have agreed on the following program.
First, in the following three months, the United Nations will dispatch 100,000 peacekeeping troops to Afghanistan. These peacekeeping troops will replace all foreign forces in that nation. As this process moves forward, NATO troops will not engage in attacks on hostile forces, and will open fire only if attacked. Similarly, the U.N. peacekeeping forces will not seek out military engagements, but will simply keep contending Afghan forces separated and maintain security.
Second, a U.N. Reconciliation Commission will call together the major political forces in Afghan life, including the Taliban, for negotiations on a peaceful settlement of their disputes. Following the establishment of an agreed framework for this settlement, a free election will take place for an Afghan government of national unity, with election monitoring done by the United Nations.
While these processes are taking place, the United Nations – with assistance from U.S. and other intelligence agencies and from criminal justice specialists – will arrest al Qaeda leaders and ready them for trial by the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
In addition, to help repair a war-ravaged nation, the U.S. government and the governments of other wealthy nations will provide massive funding for the construction of schools, health care facilities, and irrigation projects in Afghanistan. This will help demonstrate their good will toward the Afghan people, will provide millions of Afghans with gainful employment, and will improve their lives to the extent that they will be encouraged to turn from violence, terror, and opium production to peaceful and productive pursuits.
Furthermore, the U.S. government and the governments of other wealthy nations will dispatch thousands of teachers, doctors, nurses, and agronomists to staff these new facilities. These governments will also provide large numbers of psychologists and social workers to deal with the war-inflicted trauma suffered by the Afghan people and to help improve interpersonal relations among previously feuding groups.
We realize that these measures will not provide an instant remedy for the tragic situation in Afghanistan. But we do believe that they will lower the level of violence and address that country's major problems.
Indeed, if these measures prove successful, they can provide a model for useful international action in areas of violent conflict elsewhere in the world.
Surely this is a better way to use our knowledge and resources than to squander them on endless wars and destruction. So let us work together creatively and cooperatively to build a better society for the people of Afghanistan and for all people around the globe.
But, of course, this was not the kind of speech Obama made. He was not thinking outside the box.
Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).