Cable television news has an earned reputation for its tendentiousness, but still, every now and again I can get caught off guard. It happened to me again this morning, Oct. 26, at my hotel while watching the usually moderate Morning Joe on MSNBC, listening to Scarborough launch into a rant about how the United States is woefully "going it alone" in the Afghanistan effort, and how the rest of the world should belly up to the bar to share the burden. Sandwiched between a discussion on taxing meat eaters and the eternal feedback loop on healthcare, these ill-considered quips highlight a bigger problem beyond my fragile Canadian sensitivities.
Let's just do some numbers. The greatest burden in terms of per capital military casualties has been Canada, having lost 131 soldiers in violent deaths in the campaign to date - disproportionate to its small population of 33.5 million (U.S. casualties total 897, to a population of 304 million, for a war effort they have led). The only other coalition partner to lose more of its soldiers in Afghanistan is the United Kingdom, with 222 casualties.
This ungrateful chauvinism of U.S. thinking reaches far beyond the example provided by Scarborough, who at least has the excuse of being in the business of manufacturing polemics. It is a bipartisan rejection of the value of allies we have unfortunately gotten used to, and one that is increasingly outdated in the post-9/11 international atmosphere, and eagerly exploited by rising regional powers of sometimes questionable motives. This gets right to the heart of the reasons why U.S. soft power is so rapidly crumbling: it's becoming harder and harder to see the benefit of being a friend of America.
Consider the enormous contribution of the coalition in this effort. Amid the sensation of aimless strategy on the ground and regular disappointment (yes, I am afraid that Dick Cheney did locate the jugular in accusing Obama of "dithering"), the Canadian mission boasts a rare success story in the Kandahar region. The Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) has recently stated that the mission has "turned a corner" in its peacekeeping efforts in this area, making marked improvements from a year ago. Ken Sommers, a retired rear admiral who visited Afghanistan as part of the CDA tour, commented to the press that "Where Canadians used to clear an area and leave, allowing the Taliban to come, they are now able to stay," and that one of the most memorable snapshots he witnessed was "Canadian troops walking hand-in-hand with Afghans in the village of Belanday, one of six model villages established to the southwest of Kandahar since this spring by Canadian soldiers and diplomats."
The United Kingdom has also, on its behalf, contributed considerably successful results in Afghanistan, due in part to the fact that both the UK and Canadian military have a strong track record in state-building, security, and non-offensive initiatives. After interviewing the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, Roger Cohen of The New York Times found the British to possess a much clearer and determined vision of counter-insurgency in the Af-Pak theater - which is almost an embarrassment in contrast to the enigma of Washington's policy.
So when we hear Joe Scarborough (whom most of the time I like) and inwardly focused commentators lament their solitude in the global anti-terrorism effort, perhaps it should not come as a surprise whatsoever that support among allies for this war is rapidly declining. Just today new poll numbers from the Innovative Research Group have come out to show that now less than 50% of Canadians support the war effort, down from 59% in June 2006. In the UK, the reaction is much stronger, and I can't tell you how often the evening news delves into bitter and angry obituaries of the young men and women being sacrificed. Just this weekend between 5,000-10,000 protesters marched in London to demand the immediate withdrawal of troops.
What would the nationalist pundits have to say then if the protesters got their way? I try to take my friend's oft-repeated advice to ignore the provocations of television news bacchanalia, preferring to nourish the endangered species of print media or even the blog infestation (guilty as charged). But this lack of appreciation of America's closest allies and the assumption that the whole world should by default see the interest in working with the United States reeks of ugly hubris.
Both Washington and its pundits on both sides of the aisle have got to come around to the fact that the number of disincentives for being friendly with the U.S. are rapidly increasing, and it's not longer just the radical fringes. In Latin America, where we can't even seem to hold confirmation hearings for our diplomatic appointees, it simply pays much, much more to accept unconditional aid from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, or even strike up relationships based on credit and guns from Russia and China. In Eastern Europe, Poland and the Czech Republic stick their necks out in their reluctant agreement to host a missile shield, only to have it withdrawn and watch the Obama administration throw them right into a conceded "sphere of influence" of Russian revanchism.
From Southeast Asia, to the Stans of Central Asia, to Muslim areas of Africa, the United States is emphasizing relationships with abusive dictators over the fledgling democracy movements, unwittingly raising the prospects of newly hostile Islamic states. We don't even need to ask leaders such as Jose Maria Aznar or Mikheil Saakashvili the personal political costs of support the United States.
Worst of all, I am one of the people who actually believes that peaceful cooperation in the international community and the active and respectful engagement of the United States in key alliances is a cornerstone of global security - that's why it is such a pity to see these relationships dependent on a battered spouse syndrome ... one of these times, they might not come back. A slip of the tongue on just one cable news show means nothing, but if the U.S. doesn't get back on the same page as the rest of its friends, these lamentations of isolation could become self-fulfilling.