Wednesday, December 9, 2009

War(s) of Necessity, War(s) of Choice

One of the benefits of no longer having homework is the freedom to read what I wish to read, and not what is on some course syllabus. Of late I've done alot of reading related to politics, including Scott McClellan's (former spokesman for Pres. George W. Bush) "What Happened" and "All The President's Men," the story of Watergate. My latest read has been particularly influential in my thinking. That book is "War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars," by Richard N. Haass, who worked for both Bush administrations and is now President on the Council of Foreign Relations, a very influential think tank in New York. The book has greatly changed how I perceive the first Iraq War; basically confirms my opinion of the Second Iraq War; and has me thinking about foreign policy in general.

Haass feels that the first Gulf War was a classic war of necessity, one which needed to be fought and was very successfully done so by the U.S. and its allies in 1990-91. While I had not thought much about the first Gulf War, the perception I had of it was one fought mainly to keep oil out of the hands of Saddam Hussein, and which was undertaken in order to bolster confidence in U.S. Armed Forces in the post-Vietnam era by giving them a relatively easy victory over Iraqi forces. Haass makes a strong case for this being a war of necessity for a variety of reasons. Among them are: the dangerous amount of economic and political power Hussein would have accrued had he held onto Kuwait; the human rights violations being committed by Iraqi forces in Kuwait which could only be stopped by greater force; the possibility that the instability caused by the Iraqi invasion would lead to expanded conflict in the Middle East and an all-out regional war; that the world standing by as Iraq occupied Kuwait would empower Hussein and convinced he could undertake further invasions...the list goes on. The Gulf War was also seen as a turning point in the new post-Cold-War-world, an unprecedented chance for international cooperation. Unfortunately, it seems that level of cooperation among world actors was not something that was sustained by the Bush or Clinton administrations , or the other Bush administration. Perhaps the Obama administration can make multilateralism as important a component of foreign policy as it was back at the start of the 1990s.

As successful as the first Gulf War was, in Haass' opinion, the second Iraq War, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, was just as unsuccessful, and possibly an even greater defeat on many fronts. Aside from failing to make in Iraq into a stable state, Haass reiterates the claims and narratives of many others that the Bush administration was determined to go war as early as mid-2002, and really went in having no sense of how difficult it would be to stabilize things. He also makes a similar observation about Afghanistan, that the Bush administration had no real concept of how to successfully go in and remake an entire country and society into a democracy where the Taliban had no power. In the case of Afghanistan this comes as no surprise, since there was less than a month between 9/11 and the start of Operation Enduring Freedom on 10/7/01. Given that no war plans existed for Afghanistan before 9/11, one can make the case that the U.S. overreacted before going into Afghanistan and should have taken more time to think through its strategy there. Even more shameful, it seems, is the lack of post-war planning made for Iraq. Although the U.S. had much more time to plan for its operations there, based on Haass' account, there was a tragically shortsighted view of how difficult stabilizing the country would be. That Pres. George W. Bush announced an end to major combat operations, and declared "Mission Accomplished" on May 1 , 2003-yet more than 6.5(!) years later, there are still more than 100,000 US troops there-is indicative of how poorly planned the entire Iraqi Freedom operation was.

What I find even more morally troubling than such an abysmally conceived war is the very idea of a war of choice. This notion, that something involving putting the lives of soldiers as well as civilians at stake, and utilizing these and other resoures, for something less than absolutely necesarry for security, is something I find deeply disturbing. As someone who is not a proponent of military force in general (although I have been thinking recently about the role of the military in American society, a role I believe is much larger than most people realize), it especially irks me that such costly action could be undertaken out of choice, not necessity. This is also highly relevant in the wake of the 30,000 troops that will soon be deployed in Afghanistan. The legitimacy of this troop surge depends in large part on the legitimacy of Operation Enduring Freedom as a whole. The question which always must be asked is-"Is the military operation being conducted abroad directly enhancing the security interests at home?", or perhaps differently, "If this operation is not undertaken, how much of a greater risk does it pose for the homeland?" One can make a fairly plausible case that, had Operation Enduring Freedom never occured, there may very well have been an increase in terrorist activity against US interests. On the other hand, it could also be argued that all of the money, manpower, and other resoures spent in Afghanistan could have obtained greater protection for Americans via increased security on transit systems and other possible targets, or to minimize the street crime that causes injury to a far greater number of Americans on a daily basis than any Al-Qaeda activity.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Street Tzedakah

Since the start of the Hadar Year Program, I've begun to give alot more to the (presumably) homeless people I see on the streets of Manhattan. This has happened for a variety of reasons, having to do with my socioeconomic arrangements, my perception of those out on the street, and what I have been learning at Yeshivat Hadar.

Although we at the Yeshiva are making only a very modest amount of money, because I am living back in Edgemont with my parents, I am able to pocket the stipdend. This means I not only am not forced to attempt to live in Manhattan on a very tight budget-as many of the other Fellows are squeezed into doing; I am able to add to my savings and spend freely. Being a person of relatively little material desire-a.k.a. having no burning desire to buy anything-I have felt much freer to give of my money to a variety of causes, among them, the homeless individuals of New York, as well as charity: water; Americares; and a variety of other worthwhile endeavors. This has made me even further realize how much need is out there in the world for all manner of things, and sometimes my donations seem so miniscule against the larger global backdrop. However, I have also gotten a very rewarding feeling to know that I can give so much, and that knowledge is highly empowering in a positive way.

One reason I have begun to be more generous for those on the street is the realization, simple as it may seem, that the dollar I give to the person on the street holds much more importance, emotionally as well as financially, than it does for me. The other night, I walked from the yeshiva up to the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, a distance of nearly 50 blocks, and in the process gave away nearly $10 to people on the street-after I had just deposited a much larger check in the bank. Most of them said "thank you," a few barely acknowledged what I did. One person, though, a man named David on W. 103rd Street just off of Broadway, reminded me of how much a small favor can mean for anyone, especially an impoverished person. As I walked over to him and handed him the dollar, he was in shock to realize I was simply handing it to him, no strings attached. Slowly, a smile broke across his face and he gave me a hug. This incident furthered my resolve that, despite all the seeming annoyances and frustrations that giving to people on the street entail, that in the end, the good accomplished far outweights the cost to me in terms of time and money that I can well afford.

After all, what else would I have done with those $10? Spent it on snack food, most likely. After all, I have been making money while at Yeshivat Hadar-there is nothing which I want that I am short $10 of being able to afford. In other words, that dollar takes on much greater financial significance-is far more financially empowering-in the hand of the less fortunate than me, the yeshiva student pocketing my stipend and not paying rent. No, a dollar isn't a lot-but it can help toward affording a snack, or coffee, or something from a dollar menu at McDonald's, and go toward buying something more expensive.

I think there is also a great emotional benefit that goes with giving someone money on the street. Imagine a person who sits on Broadway. At all hours of the day, and some of the night, many people pass by that person, almost noone acknowledging that person's intrinsic human dignity with a smile or a "Hello," let alone a donation. I can tell by many of the reactions I get when engaging in this bit of חסד that it does mean something important to those who receive it, that the knowledge that at least someone cares about them for the sole reason that they are also human beings, and acknowledges the difficulty that they live with constantly. In this, like much of my recent behavior and thinking, I have been influenced by what I have learned at ישיבת הדר. Specifically, I have been Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and his teaching of giving tzedakah, and the teachings of Rabbi Shai Held, particularly the idea that "What if we actually lived up to the idea of treating all people as they are made, בצלם אלוקים?"

How far I extend this behavior will remain to be seen, but I hope going forward to resist the instinct to be cheap and continue to extend my generosity, even in a limited way, to those on the streets of Manhattan.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What To Do About Afghanistan?

So as the 8-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan (known officially as Operation Enduring Freedom) comes upon us tomorrow, we are also coming upon what is being touted as one of the biggest tests so far of the Obama administration-how to respond to the report from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of US & NATO forces in Afghanistan, which requests 40,000 additional troops and claims that failure to deliver on that request will ultimately spell defeat. The stakes are indeed high, with every option on the table carrying risks, and none of them in any way coming close to guaranteeting a positive outcome. Whatever decision is made carries with it the potential to dramatically affect the morale and security of the United States, the Afghani people, the Taliban, and worldwide radical Islamic movements and terror groups such as Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Let's examine some of the possibilites on the table and their pros, cons, and possible outcomes:

1) Obama accedes to Gen. McChrystal and orders 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan
-Pros: Shows the U.S. means business in stopping the Taliban from taking over the country and stopping the re-grouping of Al-Qaeda. Hopefully, this would also increase the actual success of US & NATO forces and help train Afghani security forces and (re)build civilian infrastructure, paving the way for a landscape such that in time Western forces can leave with a secure belief that the Taliban will not take over again and that Afghanistan will no longer be a terrorist haven. The support for this strategy comes largely from the troop surge that was sent to Iraq in Jan. 2007, where 21,000 additional soldiers were sent in. After about 6 months, there was a marked decrease in sectarian violence, though of course things still remained unstable and do to this day. However, it marked a dramatic decrease from the daily bloodshed in 2003-06. It should be noted that Obama made good on a campaign promise earlier this year and sent in 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan; however, little positive seems to have come out of that move. If this move is successful, then the question becomes-do we send in even more troops?
-Cons: Sending 40,000 troops in no way guarantees any advancement on the part of the US & NATO. Sending an Afghanistan "surge" means spending even more money, and (much more importantly) putting even more troops in harm's way. At that point the only thing that is certain is that greater troop numbers means greater American casualty numbers. And if this increase in troops does not lead to greater stability or greater progress in the American war effort, the questions being asked now, about whether too much is being invested in a losing effort, and at what point the line is drawn between build-up and withdrawal, will be asked with greater force. Getting such a large influx of war resources may also take some difficult wrangling from Congress, which has seen so much go into Aghanistan-and so little positive outcome-over the past 8 years.

2) Obama accepts the McChrystal report in part but orders a moderate increase, say 10-20,000 troops
-Pros: This could have a chance at success in cutting down the Taliban, bringing stability, damaging Al-Qaeda, and contributing to the American/NATO war effort. At the least it certainly wouldn't hinder the American effort to have more troops around. It would also cost less and put fewer troops in harm's way, and likely be much easier in domestic political terms to obtain from Congress.
-Cons: It does not seem likely that a relatively small upsurge in military presence will be enough to turn the tide in Afghanistan. Theoretically, were it that easy, that would have been requested by Gen. McChrystal or would have already been done or raised by this point. Sending more troops in a situation with such a low probability of success begs the question of why commit soldiers to an operation when it is thought from the outset to be unlikely to change anything.

3) Obama rejects the McChrystal report in its entirety and maintains the status quo
-Pros: No additional throwing of money or people into something that will not seem to improve by sheer increase in amount of resources. Also means no political battles with Congress.
-Cons: Obviously, if the current levels of resources were being successful, then there would be no need to be having discussion about this topic and no need to ask for 40,000 more troops. Obama would also look as if he didn't actually take any action as Commander-in-Chief and lose much public and military support.

4) Obama sees the entire Afghanistan effort as a failure and begins a withdrawal process
-Pros: No more dumping people and money on a drawn-out military effort that is increasinly losing public support. Obama and the U.S gain the ability to focus on other domestic and foreign issues-such as the growth of the Taliban in Pakistan. The troops come home.
-Cons: Oh, so many drawbacks. Radical Islamic terror groups worldwide see the U.S. as weak in the face of terror and feel they can act with relative impunity. The Taliban re-takes Afghanistan and is perhaps even more brutal than before. It also gains strength in Pakistan and threatens stability in that nation and the Indian sub-continent. All socioeconomic advancements the U.S. and others helped create in Afghanistan are wiped out. Ultimately, this would cause the U.S. to look back at 8 years and have nothing successful to show for its' efforts and those of its allies.

In examining this impromput foreign policy diatribe, I am surprised to find myself agreeing with option #1, to send a surge to Afghanistan. While I understand that it puts greater numbers of troops in harm's way, that is indeed what the military exists for-to be used when needed. And to secure Afghanistan and repel the Taliban and Al-Qaeda certainly is a cause worthy of American military use.

But what if a troop surge fails, or accomplishes little? Then I think we have to consider the possibility of essentially withdrawing from the country. That would, as noted above, be disastrous on so many fronts, and Al-Qaeda and its allies would claim victory. Were this unfortunate scenario be the case, I would hope/envision that at least the U.S. would maintain an air patrol over the country. This would be similar to Operation Northern Watch, which ran in Iraq from Jan. 1997-Mar. 2003. During this time, the US & European allies flew constant missions over northern Iraq to protect its Kurdish population which had often been targeted by Saddam Hussein, including coming under chemical in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. I could see a similar operation in Afghanistan, with the Air Force targeting Al-Qaeda installations but little to no ground presence.

Part of the problem of Afghanistan is that too much was expected too quickly, and war goals in recent years have not been clear. It was thought that in Oct. 2001 that the Taliban would be toppled, a Western democracy installed, and support for terrorism over. But while toppling the Taliban was initally easy, they have come back much stronger than thought. Meanwhile, the transition to democracy has been exponentially more difficult than was assumed-societies do not transition so quickly, especially when many have a lot to lose if that transition is successful, such as the poppy farmers. Many Afghanis see the U.S. as no less imperalist than the Soviets or British before them and want to maintain their way of life.

Pres. Obama has a difficult and historic choice before him. Let us hope he makes the right one and that U.S. avoids the fate of the Russians and British in leaving with nothing but shame and failure.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fun Times at the United Nations & Freedom in Iran

[OK, so I meant to post this about a week ago, but Yom Kippur and my nomadic lifestyle got in the way of doing so.]

During Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi (Gordon) Tucker, in speaking about Jewish particularism at the expense of universalism (not an issue that I think is of any concern to the TIC community, but more on that another time), urged those at shul to attend the "Stand For Freedom in Iran" rally which was held yesterday at the UN. I had seen flyers for the rally but had Yeshivat Hadar so figured I wouldn't bother; however, given that I can take 1.5 days per month and it was the last day of Elul Zman before break, I figured, why not go?

And so yesterday afternoon, after chevruta, I headed down over to the East Side. I knew that East Midtown and the UN area would be in a high-security zone and was intrigued by what that might look like. I was also hoping to finally catch a glimpse of the Obama presidential motorcade. Sure enough, exiting Grand Central and walking east on 42nd Street, half the street lanes were closed as NYPD vehicles and mysterious black cars with sirens encircled the area.

As I came to the corner of 2nd Ave & E. 42nd Street-at that point, 2nd Ave to the north is called "Yitzhak Rabin Way" and on the south is "Nelson R. Mandela Corner"-I hit a point where only those with UN access were allowed to continue. I asked a UN Security Guard where "civilians" should go and he told me I could come down 43rd St. I followed his instructions and headed up 2nd Ave, then down 43rd St. As I came toward where I thought 1st Ave was going to be, I realize that there was a small street in between called Tudor City Place. I then walked down a staircase and came upon a lovely new discovery, the Isaiah Wall and Ralph Bunche Park which are on the other side of 1st Ave from the UN headquarters. There I witnessed a total shutdown of 1st Ave except to NYPD and other vehicles, and occasional small groups of cars pulling in to the UN HQ. I walked over to a bunch of cops and asked if they knew if the Obama motorcade would be appearing (in retrospect, a silly question, since I later learned they never answer the question honestly). I was told I had missed it by 10 minutes and let out a groan, then turned around and headed toward 47th and 2nd where the rally was to be held.

The rally was essentially what I expected, basically, a giant Jew party, though there were some other non-Jewish groups mixed in. Freedom in Iran is certainly an important cause, both in terms of the human rights of the Iranian people, and for the security of the US/Israel/Western Europe/everyone else. But I'm not really sure what the effect of a few thousand people gathered at Dag Hammerskjold Plaza will have in terms of this issue. Clearly the Obama administration would like greater freedom in Iran, but not exactly that can be done at this moment-no occupying and nation-building in Iran at this point, or for a long time.

I think the most positive effect will be for those courageous Iranians who stand up to the despotic regime they live under; knowing that there are Americans far away who stand with them could definitely be a confidence boost in face of the enormously powerful government forces against them.

As I commented to a few people at the rally, I wonder how long the topic of Iranian freedom will remain on political agendas. Iran has never been a free country in the way that we Americans/Westerners define freedom, not under the regime of the Islamic Republic (1979-present), not under the Pahlavi dynasty, and not before then. And while there has been (legitimate) worry about an Iranian nuclear program for a few years, there hasn't been popular talk of the oppression under which Iranians live until this past summer, with the riots that followed the rigged election of June 12 that were brutally put down by the Revolutionary Guards and other security forces. So, if the Iranian nuclear program is stopped by diplomacy and/or force, will anyone still be calling for freedom in Iran? It would be imperative not to, lest the popular furor aroused this summer against Ahmadenijad and the Guardian Council fade into memory. Allowing the Islamic Republic regime to escape unscathed with what it perpetrated last summer also strengthens it and makes it harder to delay its nuclear weapons program.

Lastly, I had a brief but interesting conversation with a guy from the State Dept. named Teddy, just after the rally finished. He started off by asking me if I was Israeli, and when I answered "No, just a Jew," he responded with, "Well then I'm just a guinea." It became clear that he was not much of an Obama fan, apparently because he thought that the President should focus on domestic issues and not get tangled up in foreign policy. I told him that while I didn't always like the way Obama has approached Israel, I think his tackling of issues home and abroad-simulatneously attempting health care reform and chairing the U.N. security council, for example-is a refreshing change from a Bush administration that was consumed by foreign policy. I then asked him how he found it working under an administration he clearly disagreed with. Teddy said he just had to learn to seperate the personal and the political. A fascinating convo I would have enjoyed continuing.

Teddy also explained that when you ask security officials whether the Presidential motorcade has passed by, the answer is always "10 minutes ago," which is what I had been told. I should have realized I would not get a real answer to the question. However, as I came back down 1st Ave, the same police officer who has previously told me that said, without my even asking, that I had "just missed" the Obamacade. That would have meant it rolled by at about 1:30, however says Obama did not leave New York until 2:20 PM. Guess I'll never know who told the truth-it seems likely that noone did.

Finally, on the walk back toward Grand Central, I saw a small motorcade ferrying some individual up Park Avenue. 3 black cars with men inside wearing suits and dark sunglasses and leaning out windows sped by me, though they kept getting stuck in traffic. Reminded once more that this was no ordinary day, I headed back to Hadar, my head swimming in thoughts about politics and foreign policy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Times They Are-A-Changin

3 weeks into my post-college life, and I'm still getting used to the idea that I am in a new chapter in life. I know that technically I've been in post-college mode since late May, but I decided to not count the summer since obviously summer has always found me in a different lifestyle than during the school year. And the weird feeling of not being back at List wouldn't hit me until the fall anyways. I think it breaks down into 4 major changes that I'm dealing with:

1) No longer being in college
2) Being in a different configuration of Yeshivat Hadar as opposed to the Summer Program
3) Living back home in Edgemont with my parents

Becoming adjusted to the changes in the Hadar Year Program has been surprisingly difficult. While I certainly like the people in the current program, by the end of the 8 weeks of the Summer Program I had really become attached to the people in it and felt we had constructed a real community with a true sense of attachment. I have no doubt that, in due time, I will feel a similar sense of connection with the Year Program cohort. Still, it seems that for a while a part of me will still long for the Summer 09 group.

Living at home has not been as bad as I had feared. The fact that my parents finally installed wireless internet (which I am currently taking advantage of) over the summer has definitely contributed to making things more comfortable. The downside is that I tend to be online for an absurd percentage of the time that I am home, and has also discouraged me from one of the positives of being back at home, which is the opportunity to forge stronger relationships with each of my parents. Hopefully in time I will feel more comfortable with the setting and re-adjust to living here for an extended period of time since the summer of 2008.

About not being in college, period, I'll say more later, but it definitley has been an up-and-down experience emotionally. At times I long for having all of my friends within a few blocks, having a built in Jewish and social life, and central places such as the Kraft Center to gather. I fear at times that in some ways, I will never have a better, or more convenient, social life. At other instances, though, I am glad to be moving forward from something that seems appropriate for another time in my life, to be able to do other things in the world, to not be bogged down in homework for classes I often didn't really care about. Being in the superb educational environment that is Yeshivat Hadar has convinced me that, when done right, yeshiva is a much more inspring and effective educational model than university is.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I Join The Blogosphere!

Welcome! So at long last, I am joining the millions of others who populate the blogosphere, sharing their thoughts with the greater world. This will basically be a place where I divulge what's going on in my life, chip in with my thoughts on events going in the world, and generally putting to words what goes on in my head. Some of this will involve jotting down ideas and observations I have had but never fully developed outside of my mind, so it may not always be directly correlated to anything specifically going on in my life. Feel free to enrich my life by commenting and starting discussion on what goes up here!