Priorities and values

Money reflects priorities, and priorities reflect values. Consider US Government expenditures to

Put another way:

The US government has in effect offered $3.80 for each of the 20 million people who’ve lost family members, food, clean water, homes, and livelihoods because of the floods. It’s spent 158 times that for military aid, much of which has not gone to fight terrorism, but to bolster a military dictatorship, to provide heavy weaponry that threatens India, and to benefit the US defense industry. It’s spent 4,276 times as much to fight a war that shows little prospect of winning hearts and minds, nor for ending terrorism.

(Of course, we may later spend more on flood relief; we could consider annual, rather than total costs; all of the numbers are contested estimates. But regardless of how you cut it, the differences are striking.)

Then we ask: Why don’t “they” love us and embrace our values?

In This World

in this world-2There are times when a movie just grabs me, despite technical flaws, my low expectations, and even a boring DVD case cover. In This World is one of those. The political message is clear, but understated, conveyed instead by an intimate look at the consequences of war and greed on the lives of decent people.

The movie presents a fictitious journey that conveys disturbing truths of life “in this world” we inhabit. Although it’s low-key and rough as cinema, it produces an intimate connection to its characters, Afghan refugees Jamal and Enayatullah, as they travel from Shamshatoo refugee camp near Peshāwar, Pakistan, across Pakistan, through Iran, Turkey, Italy and France, towards London.

ITW_trailerLike thousands of others every year, their desperation feeds the multibillion dollar human smuggling business, an unconscionable stain on any of our pretensions to justice. The smuggling fuels crime, violence, corruption, illegal drug trade, and too often leads to death, no longer being “in this world.”

The actors are Afghan refugees themselves, and the encounters in the movie elide life and art. I was fascinated by the places they moved through, and their resourcefulness in learning how to cope with diverse languages and unscrupulous people.

The camps near Peshāwar are filled with people displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and later, US bombing. UNHCR says that there are currently “1.7 million registered Afghans in Pakistan, with 45 percent residing in refugee villages and the rest scattered among host communities.” But the total, including children born to refugees, may be several million. The humanitarian crisis is compounded now by two million civilians fleeing the fighting in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier.

Even though the story is depressing about our institutions, I finished it feeling hopeful about our human capacity. I wanted to travel the modern silk road and more still to learn about the world of these refugees and the policies that lead to their plight.

Are Iraq and Afghanistan the US’s only wars?

I often see the phrase “manage two wars” in popular media. But are there just two wars now, and is it even helpful to think of US wars in the Mideast in this way?

The phrase refers the fact that President Bush, and soon, President Obama, need to manage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while also addressing needs in the economy, health care, environment, education, and other areas. One implication is that two wars is too many, and perhaps, if we could just wrap up the one that hasn’t gone so well (Iraq), we could then focus our energies on the one we should have addressed earlier (Afghanistan).

There are several problems with this way of thinking. The first is that it’s not true. The US battles in the Mideast aren’t restricted to two countries. In the last three months, US-operated pilotless drones have launched more than 20 missile attacks in Pakistani tribal areas, killing hundreds of people, some who are violent themselves, but many who are civilians as well. Americans don’t think of Pakistan as the site of a war, because US ground troops are not based there, but the fact is that our drones kill people and US forces regularly violate Pakistani sovereignty. Hundreds of NATO and US military vehicles destined for neighboring Afghanistan have been attacked and destroyed (in multiple attacks) by militants there. We risk a larger-scale war in, against, or through a bitterly divided country.

So, perhaps we should be saying “manage three wars”? or more if we look at the swath of interconnected conflicts running from Israel and Jordan, often including parts of Syria, Iraq of course, possibly Iran, Afghanistan, all the way to Pakistan?

Wars, or at least the kind of war the US has been engaged in, aren’t waged directly against nations or national armies, which means that they cannot be won in the conventional way either. The issue isn’t to track down and subdue a foe, but to engage with people and ideas. That larger enterprise is the one we’re losing, despite enormous cost in lives and dollars, as evidenced by al-Zaidi’s shoe throwing and the widespread support it received.

The idea of wars as neatly defined by national boundaries implies that we just need to pick our wars more carefully, and then prosecute them cleanly and efficiently. We have a management problem with two; wouldn’t one be better? But the reality is that it’s not better management in the narrow sense that’s needed, but a different way of thinking about how we can act productively in the world, starting with a reassessment of why we’re there in the first place.