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Gregory Desilet Gregory Desilet is author of various writings on language and culture, such as Cult of the Kill: Traditional Metaphysics of Rhetoric, Truth, and Violence in a Postmodern World and Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and the Effects of Entertainment Violence. See also:, which hosts an eulogy for Derrida. In his Misunderstanding Derrida Desilet questions Ken Wilber's understanding of postmodernism.


Obama's Choices

The Difficulty of Second-guessing
Obama's Afghanistan Decision:
Response to Benjamin and Meyerhoff

Gregory Desilet

The most glaring omission in the commentaries of Benjamin and Meyerhoff must surely be the near absence of any mention of Pakistan.

I find Elliot Benjamin's “Obama and the War in Afghanistan: Further Reflections” on President Obama's decisions concerning the war in Afghanistan problematic, especially in relation to working out what might count as an integral approach to this war. Jeff Meyerhoff's “reply” "The Personal, the Political and the Integral" to Benjamin's first commentary likewise raises similar problems. Meyerhoff suggests that, in this case, an “integral-political theory” would “include and integrate excluded perspectives, facts and history, like the views of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Afghan people, the American public, and the people and governments of other countries.” While it would be difficult, if not impossible, to include ALL perspectives, facts, and history, it would be hoped that all the highly RELEVANT perspectives, facts, and history would be included. My complaint is in two parts: 1) certain highly relevant aspects of the situation in this part of the world have been left out of consideration and 2) that what is held up to count as an “integral” approach to the problems in this part of the world has been insufficiently carried out in the commentaries by Benjamin and Meyerhoff.

The most glaring omission in the commentaries of Benjamin and Meyerhoff must surely be the near absence of any mention of Pakistan. Were it not for political reasons, the “war in Afghanistan” would be called the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Due to concerns of the Pakistan government and the way in which an overt participation of U.S. troops would be viewed by segments of the population in Pakistan and surrounding regions, the U.S. has chosen to conduct a more covert war in Pakistan (with the use of special forces and drone aircraft) and rely on the Pakistan military as a partner.

Who is being opposed here? Meyerhoff rightly points out that there is and has been a civil war in Afghanistan. The same is true in Pakistan where civil war or near civil war has been underway for some time between various radical Islamic factions and factions supportive of a more moderate religious or secular-based government. The instability of the Pakistan government is one of the most dangerous problems confronting the United States and allies. This danger would not be so great were it not for the fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons.

In the case of Iraq, WMDs were believed to exist but, as it turned out, none were found. In the case of Pakistan there is no such uncertainty. Nevertheless, Meyerhoff asks: “And are the remnants of Al Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border really the threat Obama makes them out to be?” With respect to the presence of al-Qaeda in the area, Meyerhoff approvingly cites Phyllis Bennis's recent Huffington Post article and her analysis of the threat posed by its presence. At one point in this article Bennis states:

There was no acknowledgement [on Obama's part] of the widely held view that there are fewer than 100 members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and perhaps as few as 300 over the border in Pakistan - so the U.S. will now be deploying more than 100,000 of its own troops, plus tens of thousands of NATO and other allied troops, in a global, lethal, impoverishing war to go after 400 people.

Bennis and Meyerhoff blithely ignore the fact that al-Qaeda is well-funded, well supported in this region, and keenly interested in overthrowing the Pakistan government. Should a nuclear weapon or weapons fall into the hands of even a group of 400, a number that may easily be doubted, the consequences for the region and elsewhere could be far greater than 9/11. Unlike Meyerhoff, Bennis at least comments on the role of Pakistan and the United States' secret war there, although failing to mention its purpose with regard to the protection of nuclear weapons.

Describing an alleged "partnership" with Pakistan, Obama ignored the danger of a U.S. troop escalation further destabilizing Pakistan, and sidelined the fact that recent polls indicate 59% of Pakistanis view the U.S. as the greatest threat, more than three times as those who see arch-rival India as the most threatening, and almost six times more than those who identify the Taliban. Obama stayed silent about the on-going special forces and drone strikes in Pakistan, with no indication whether his future escalation will include ratcheting up those attacks.

But the notion that U.S troop escalation would “further destabilize Pakistan” counts as an extraordinarily one-sided view. How can Bennis know, with any degree of certainty, that the opposite—the withdrawal of U.S troops—will serve to stabilize Pakistan? This is little more than wishful thinking on her part while ignoring lessons learned from the Gulf War. Having chosen to exit Iraq after the Gulf War, the United States reaped little in the way of increased popularity in the region for leaving Saddam in power and instead witnessed a progressive instability in the region. To suppose that a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the withdrawal of special forces and drones from Pakistan would likely result in greater stability in the region is not compelling and presents a rather credulous and simplistic kind of thinking.

Stability could be a possible result, but many things could happen and Obama must weigh the likelihood and consequences of the reverse happening. How would Americans feel if, after all the investment of blood and treasure in the Afghan region, we were to pull out and the government of Pakistan were to collapse soon afterward? The nuclear threat would rise greatly in the region as well as the threat of nuclear terrorism. The withdrawal from Vietnam had ugly local consequences but a withdrawal from the Afghanistan/Pakistan theater could bring with it consequences that would haunt the president and the people of the United States in ways that would make Saddam's previous threat in the Middle East look mild by comparison.

But what about the claim that the nuclear threat in Pakistan is just fear-mongering, that it is just another way for the military/industrial complex in the United States to maintain its stranglehold on the country's economy? Admittedly, the possibility exists that the United States could exit the area and perhaps everything would progress in remarkably beneficial ways for all concerned in the region and around the world. Anything is possible. But it must at least be granted that concern over the Pakistan nuclear stockpile is not an irrational concern.

The complexity of the forces in the region and the extraordinary number of variables in the equation for stability in the region are such that no human being can say with persuasive confidence that Obama's choices thus far are not without justifiable warrant. The dilemma in the region, exacerbated by the nuclear question, is at least complex enough to merit consent to the proposition that it is a matter over which reasonable people may disagree. These are difficult choices and the fact that the downside to the choice of staying in Afghanistan/Pakistan can be more readily measured (in lives and dollars) than the downside to exiting the region should not blind people to assessing the full potential of the latter. There will be a price no matter which way the United States turns and the effort to prevent nuclear escalation should not be abandoned without an adequate assessment of all that is at stake.

This assessment is what seems to be lacking in the thinking of Benjamin, Meyerhoff, and Bennis. By ignoring the instability in Pakistan and thereby the instability of its nuclear stockpile, they do not provide an adequate sketch of the problem confronting Obama in this region. This exclusion then directly affects the way in which they frame and weigh the available choices. They make it appear as if the choice of exiting the region will obviously promote greater peace and saving of lives than the choice of staying in the region. Taking into consideration what they omit, I don't know how they can know this.

It may well be granted that Benjamin and Meyerhoff provide some justification for seeing Obama's escalation of Middle East engagement as a mistake. But I don't think they have been sufficiently vigilant in presenting and examining the evidence for the opposite case, and this would appear to constitute a failure to be sufficiently integral, by way of Meyerhoff's use of integral in this context. In keeping with this inclusiveness, it could be further said that an integral orientation to argument requires a thorough attempt at double-visioning—the effort to cast the opposite side of an argument in the best or strongest light possible before submitting it to critique.

Furthermore, concerning Obama, Meyerhoff argues that the president's personal qualities of handsome appearance and likeableness alongside what Benjamin refers to as his “intelligence, idealism, sincerity, and wisdom” should not be allowed to obscure the more objective assessment of his actions in relation to outcomes. Broadly speaking, this may be good advice. But, in cases where judgments must be made in relation to situations presenting an extraordinary array of variables and uncertainties, greater recognition must be given to the difficulty facing those who must decide in such situations.

Should events NOT go well as viewed from an historical perspective of looking back on Obama's decision, it need not be assumed that he lacked wisdom or that the decision was obviously wrong. If such turned out to be the case, again, given the complexity of what he faced, it would be more integral and more advisably humble to assume that the outcome was sadly tragic and, for all we know, could have been more tragic had another choice been made. In other words, let's give Obama his due and not claim to know more than we can know. Like the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is already a tragedy from every point of view. It is certainly understandable and defensible to disagree with Obama's decision, but given the complexity involved we cannot here claim that he is rash, unwise, or incompetent. We can only claim that he is a human being facing an awesome decision and pray that he has made a decision that will result in the least tragic of outcomes.

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