We'd better start asking

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We are, as I write this, still energetically blasting Afghanistan back to the Stone Age, which is where it seemed to have been already, apart from a few shoulder-fired missiles, AK-47s, and pickup trucks.

When we’re done bombing, we are told commando troops will go in and may or may not smoke Osama bin Laden and his boys “out of their holes,” as the president would say. But after that, it isn’t clear what happens next in our universal war against terrorism everywhere.

Polls say nearly all Americans are enthusiastic about the conflict, think we are on the side of the angels, and believe George W. Bush, who most of them voted against last year, has become a great leader.

Well, OK. Let’s, for the time being, accept that. Let’s even imagine that we get Osama, put the Taliban out of our misery, and cripple Al-Qaeda.

Still: There are a number of very important questions few of us, including most of the media, are asking — and which we damn well need to be thinking hard about, sooner rather than later. They include:

What happens to Afghanistan? We’ve now followed the Russians, a set of Muslim warlords, and the Taliban in smashing and burning this wretched land. What do we do when we are done? Do we just shrug and leave it to the swirling anarchy it is likely to become, with the reasonable expectation that something even worse than the Taliban will eventually take over? Do we install the questionable Northern Alliance? Or do we take some responsibility and commit ourselves to considerable time and expense building this place a future, as we did with Japan after World War II?

How much is the war costing us — and who’s paying for it? Naturally, we taxpayers are. But how? This is important, even if you think that this has to be done at any cost. For political reasons, Lyndon Johnson disguised the true dollar cost of the Vietnam War. The result was, eventually, the massive inflation that did great damage to the American economy in the 1970s and early ’80s. Surely, our new war and its effects are costing many billions of dollars. Will the Bush administration own up to this, and tell the people the truth — that we not only can’t afford any more tax cuts, but that we may also need a tax increase to pay for it? Or will he try a cover-up? Remember, his father was defeated for re-election largely because he broke his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes.

What will the deals we have made cost us? America has been touched and warmed by the total support of Great Britain, whose prime minister, Tony Blair, crossed the ocean to be present when Bush made his speech to Congress. His planes have been bombing Afghanistan beside ours. But what happens if the fanatic wing of the Irish Republican Army crashes a plane into Buckingham Palace and/or London’s financial district? What if Britain then calls on us to help invade Ireland and take care of these terrorists?

Or … what if the government of Pakistan, which many fear has been dangerously destabilized by going out on a limb for us, decides, partly in an attempt to take the pressure off, to invade the portion of the disputed province of Kashmir now held by India? Remember, India and Pakistan hate each other … and have nuclear weapons. What if Pakistan says to America, “You owe us.”

Then what?

How big do we want Big Brother to be? Many stories since Sept. 11 have shown how lamentably weak our intelligence services have become. Certainly they need to be strengthened, especially abroad, and we need operatives who know the score and can speak Middle Eastern languages. But are we willing to hire unsavory characters to get the scoop? And at home — how much of our privacy and our rights are we willing to give up?

Finally ... what kind of a nation are we to be? Since George Washington was inaugurated, there have been two separate and entirely contradictory strains in the American psyche. The first is an impulse to be a shining example to the world, to stand for and even help spread freedom and democracy. The other, however, has been an equally strong impulse to go it alone and to avoid foreign entanglements wherever possible. This made a lot of sense in 1789, when we were, as nations go, small and weak, and the oceans were enormous protective barriers. Since Pearl Harbor, it’s been generally accepted that isolationism no longer works.

Yet there is now certain to be a powerful instinct to try to create a “Fortress America” and then to basically retreat within it. That would mean using a vastly strengthened FBI at home and CIA and other agencies abroad to try to prevent further terrorist assaults, coupled perhaps with a gradual disengagement from most of the world’s messy conflicts. (If the Israelis and Palestinians, or the Russians and the Chechens, or the Hutu and the Tutsi want to kill each other off, that’s not our problem, as long as the oil we need keeps flowing.)

Lots of us would love to do just that. And if we do, the odds are that we will get much better at intelligence, and we will thwart many, though not all, of the would-be terrorists. We might last decades, but in the end we will be doomed. Eventually, we will be overwhelmed by a resentful and envious world, just as the Roman Empire was overwhelmed. Not long ago, Dubya was sneering at the Clinton administration for indulging what he called “nation-building” in troubled countries abroad.

We need to know if he is sneering now.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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