Sunday, January 15, 2006

Life is cheap in the Orient—I mean, Northern Pakistan

It is popular to think of John McCain as the Republican we can like because he is occasionally a vocal critic of the Bush administration, or because he is apparently a hoot on a long road trip, but it would be good to remember that, in America, the enemy of my enemy isn’t always my friend—even if he listens to the Beatles.

“This war on terror has no boundaries. We have to go where these people are, and we have to take them out.” Those are the words of Senator McCain, appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation to defend Friday’s US attack on a Pakistani village. The attack was meant to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant” (AP’s words, not mine), but instead killed one or two dozen people of yet unconfirmed nationality or affiliation. . . though it seems to be the general consensus that al-Zawahiri is not among the dead.

It’s easy to think of McCain as better than Bush because the Senator, for the most part, is a rationalist (as opposed to the leader of the American Taliban). During the 2000 campaign, reporters occasionally mentioned how much more fun it was to cover McCain than any of the other candidates because he was saucy, racy, funny, and/or more “real.” But McCain has a reputation for a nasty temper that extends back to his early days in Washington, and his politics were considered to be right wing until Bush came along.

And, being a racy rationalist does not excuse the madness of opinions like those expressed this morning. The idea that the benefits of “taking out” one Al Qaeda “lieutenant” are greater than the negative repercussions of unleashing the dogs of war on countless innocents all over the Arab world is not just a tad irrational, it is butt stupid. The manifold enmity engendered by the sadness and mayhem so outweighs the “tactical advantage” (read, “domestic PR victory”) of killing-off one familiar name, it makes one wonder what McCain is really thinking.

Contrast McCain’s Sunday proclamations with his recent arguments supporting the so-called anti-torture amendment. Last month, McCain pointed out, intelligently, I think, that a US policy that condones torture puts American troops at risk should they fall captive to the enemy. What then, I would ask the Senator, are the rewards of a US policy that condones the indiscriminate use of excessive force? (One answer: here.)

Why is it that the Senator is so ardent about the safety of US troops and so dismissive of Pakistani lives? McCain’s feelings about torture are no doubt vividly colored by his experience in a Vietnam POW camp, but it seems, at first, illogical that his opinions about America’s scorched earth policy in the so-called “War on Terror” aren’t influenced by General William “life is cheap in the Orient” Westmorland’s ultimate failure in the Vietnam War. Could it be that McCain, like Bush, is more interested in domestic opinion than global stability? Could it be that Pakistani lives are less valuable to McCain than those of US soldiers? Could it be that he is making the rational calculation that Pakistani lives are also less valuable to us?


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