Jewish World Review August 6, 2010 26 Menachem-Av, 5770
Afghanistan Shows Limits of American Power
By Roger Simon
I reached out my hand to introduce myself, and after what seemed like a fraction of a second's hesitation, she reached out her hand, too. She spoke excellent English, though with a noticeable accent.
I asked her if she was here for "Hardball," and she responded in a quiet, tremulous voice that she was. She explained that she was not used to going on television.
She told me she had come from Afghanistan to talk about women's rights and America's role in securing them there. I could tell that she was not normally shy and I could imagine her in some dusty classroom in Afghanistan arguing with village elders about how women needed education, too.
Don't worry about the TV stuff, I told her. Don't worry about the cameras and cables and lights and the thing they stick in your ear. (She looked a little startled at that last one.) Just look at Chris Matthews and have a conversation with him, and if you blank out on something, he will get you through it.
A woman came in and told her it was time to get made up. She look startled again, but followed her to the make-up room.
When she came out and it was time for her to go onto the set, I caught her eye and told her not to worry. (I didn't tell her to "break a leg" because I had a feeling that might not mean the same thing in her country.") You'll do great, I told her.
She gave me a wan, uncertain smile.
I watched her on air from the TV in the green room and she was terrific: calm, forthright, emotional when she needed to be, lucid and persuasive. I forget the details of her story, but the general drift was that she was able to get an education in Afghanistan and now she wanted other women — all women — to have the same opportunity. And only the Americans who were there fighting could bring that about.
As she came out of the studio, and I passed her to go in, I told her that she had done a swell job.
"I hope so," she said with the utmost seriousness. "I truly hope so."
I hoped so, too. For a while. Until I realized what that might mean. With more than 1,200 American military deaths and nearly $300 billion spent, with the Taliban and al-Qaida to fight, to say nothing of the treachery of Pakistani intelligence and the corruption of the Hamid Karzai government, were we really going to stay and fight to make Afghanistan a functioning democracy?
Given that fewer and fewer Americans have any appetite for this war, given that we don't seem to be winning it and that we have a timetable to start removing most of our fighting forces by mid-2011, who wants to stay to fight and die to make sure Afghan women get the equal rights they deserve?
When I interviewed President Obama in the Oval Office on June 11, I asked him about this. I have edited his reply for space:
Q: "Are we winning the war in Afghanistan? And if we have achieved our military goals at one point, but still have not achieved our social goals — let's say equal rights for women — would we continue — would we pull out anyway?"
President Obama: "I think that we've seen progress as a consequence of just having more troops in the region. But ultimately, we can't maintain an indefinite occupation of a sovereign nation, and the Afghans don't want us to maintain that kind of presence.
"We want to be effective partners with them over the long term … not for us, but for the benefit of Afghan boys and girls who need a stable, secure, fair, just society in which to grow and to thrive.
"We are incredibly grateful to the best [U.S.] military in the history of the world. And the young men and women who are involved in it are remarkable. But we can't put the entire burden on them to solve every problem around the world."
President Obama's words reminded me of the words of John F. Kennedy. At a speech he delivered at the University of Washington on Nov. 16, 1961, a little less than three months after East Germany had erected a concrete wall dividing East and West Berlin and about three weeks after the Soviet Union had detonated a 50-megaton H-bomb, Kennedy said that "we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient … that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity, and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem."
Kennedy was right, and Obama is right. We would all like to make the whole world free and wonderful, one in which all boys and girls grow up in stable, secure, fair and just societies, where they get the education they need and the rights they deserve.
Unfortunately, however, it is beyond the power of even a nation as great as ours to make sure that this happens in all places and at all times.
I don't know if I will ever see that young woman from Afghanistan again. I sort of hope not. Because I don't know how I would explain this to her.
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