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Alan M. Webber
Editor/Entrepreneur

Alan M. Webber

Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author, and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

'What's the Point?'

Business leaders, political leaders, military leaders, entrepreneurs all need to learn and practice the same fundamental rule of thumb: Ask the last question first. And the last question is, "What's the point of the exercise?"

If you don't begin a new campaign, a new enterprise, a new military engagement, or a new business launch with a clear definition of victory, you've already set yourself up for failure. If you don't know what success is, how do you know when you've achieved it? If you don't know what your end point is, how do you know if your strategy and tactics will take you there? If you don't have a clear understanding of what you hope to achieve, how will you be able to justify the time, energy, human and financial resources you commit to the effort?

It's a lesson that the United States first learned in the Vietnam War, where we managed to win every battle, and still left the country having lost the war. The critical missing element to that ill-conceived war was a lack of a clear definition of victory. In the absence of a shared understanding of the point of the exercise, we not only could not mount an effective military strategy in the field, we also lost the support of the American people at home.

Afghanistan is no different. Until and unless the leaders in the Obama Administration answer the last question first, the American people will have no understanding of the reason sacrifices are being made on the ground; military leaders will be unable to mount an effective military campaign; and the risk is that the whole situation deteriorates in a fog of poorly articulated national security and military purposes. Ask the last question first, and questions of political and military strategy will follow from that first and most critical answer.

By Alan M. Webber

 |  August 24, 2009; 12:40 PM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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What's the point?

We're the Israeli Foreign Legion and we're 'over there' forever. That's the point.

Posted by: patrick3 | August 26, 2009 8:22 AM
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al Qaeda has pretty much been smashed as an organization. All the training camps are in Pakistan and pretty much all of the terror threats are being organized by smaller, independent cells. Indeed, exactly what is the point? Near as I can tell it's now a matter of nation building. Given the Afghani's propensity to devolve into tribal groups and rule locally, that seems a rather dubious proposition as well.

Posted by: kilgore_nobiz | August 26, 2009 8:05 AM
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simply brilliant.
and no sound answer for the moment.

Posted by: abourk | August 26, 2009 8:04 AM
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my question is, where is code pink and sheehan and all the other dem anti war protestors...
I guess with obama being a dem they can be hypocrites...
SAD...

Posted by: DwightCollins | August 26, 2009 7:23 AM
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Such short memories! The answer to why we are in Afghanistan is: September 11, 2001, the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the US Embassy bombings in 1998; all orchestrated by bin Laden from his safe haven in Afghanistan.

Posted by: Niamb | August 26, 2009 6:35 AM
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According to the post-war Vietnamese government, 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 deaths and disabilities, and 500,000 children born with birth defects.


Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 26, 2009 3:37 AM
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Obama continues the same contradiction that Bush posed with Iraq and Afghanistan. Both Presidents say how incredibly critical our fighting there is for the survival of the western world as we have known it, but those words sound hollow when they are not backed by a full scale mobilization, i.e., institute a draft (no exceptions for the children of Congressmen), raise personal and corporate income taxes to pay for the war, and put the country's industries on a war production footing (remember under Rumsfeld how it took over a year to get body armor to the troops because of limited production).

Of course none of this will happen because it is a lie that fighting in these places is important except to the poor people who live there.

Finally, Obama should write the following on a chalkboard 500 times: "Afghanistan is where empires go to die." We are following Bin Laden's plan of bleeding ourselves to death even better than he could have hoped for.

Posted by: evelyn911 | August 25, 2009 9:44 PM
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Obama has yet to be asked the big question about Afghanistan. In August Obama has already surpassed the American death toll for one year with four months left. In halting the bombing of sanctuaries and replacing that strategy with more troops, isn't the natural outcome more targets for the Taliban and therefore more dead Americans?

I've never heard of a nation winning a war in which the president and commander in chief saw himself as defense attorney for the enemy.

Posted by: alstl | August 25, 2009 9:32 PM
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The question is: can we keep shooting our neighbours until there are none left (please forgive my passion regarding war)

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 8:38 PM
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I suggest readers view a recent flick "The Age of Stupidiy". It's extremely depressing but fascinating at the same time.

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 8:35 PM
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Albert Einstein's I.Q. is hardly in doubt but I doubt he would have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. It's fairly obvious there are some for and some against. I would say I.Q. has little to do with it.

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 8:23 PM
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Why fight in Afganistan you ask? Better to go to the trouble of sending troops a long distance to where the trouble starts than wait and fight where the trouble was heading to. I know you can save money on transport by waiting for the enemy to come to you, but if you look at the human cost of losing many lives at home then it becomes a no brainer. Fighting a war is a terrible thing, in this case it is overseas, having people at home massacred is the alternative that your past and present leaders have chosen to avoid. It is probably hard for most people to know how many lives in America and the rest of the worls have been spared because of the decision to fight in Afganistan. Some say that by leaving Afganstan and soem other places there will be peace. Peace will be brought to the world not only by the cessation of needless deaths, but also by delivering lasting benefits to the people you are helping, either at home or elsewhere. Give them healthcare, education, sustainable jobs, security and a secure future, give people hope. Christ showed us how to live in peace, do remember this and live as we should? Do we help others in need, or even our own selves as we ought?

Posted by: DavidFalconer | August 25, 2009 8:00 PM
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Has there been a sudden drop in IQs? People headquartered in Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11. We have to find them and kill them to defend our lives. The questions raised about this are being orchestrated by neocons who don't want resources diverted from Iraq, which they see as something that protects Israel. They'd rather we protect Israel than protect the United States. I think that by holding AFghanistan we can do both, because the world understands that we were attacked on 9/11 even if some Americans do not. And with the way Afghanistan got messed up in the 1980s so that we could fight a proxy way against the Soviets, those poor people deserve our help now. That's not hubris, that's trying to help make right a situation that we created while at the same time defending ourselves now. Ironically, if we had let the Soviets prevail in Afghanistan in the 1980s, they would have subdued the same people we are now fighting, their communist allies would have crushed radical Islam there, and they would have brought in roads, schools, electricity, public sanitation, etc. Same things we are trying to do now, except that we will not persecute Muslims per se, unless they threaten violence against Western ideas.

Posted by: ripvanwinkleincollege | August 25, 2009 6:53 PM
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Precisely, what's the point? We will end in defeat in Afghanistan just as the Russkies and the Brits. Afghanistan will become President Obama's "Vietnam".

Stop wasting our blood and money. It's insane we keep doing the same and expect a different result.

Posted by: Mickey2 | August 25, 2009 6:49 PM
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Why is Obama escalating the war? It's unwinnable. People are dying, he's wasting billions of dollars.

Posted by: fury60 | August 25, 2009 6:08 PM
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hutzpa? Chinco-007 did you mean chutzpah. Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as "gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible 'guts,' presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to." In this sense, chutzpah expresses both strong disapproval and a grudging admiration.

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 6:04 PM
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Conundrum: to transform a country that really has no nationalistic tradition --- it is essentially a collection of tribes and villages with one major city --- into a state, not necessarily modern, that has the resources, institutions, and personnel to permanently suppress a stubborn insurgency that has popular appeal among significant parts of the country.

How do we do this without investing twenty or thirty years into "nation building?" How do you estabish institutions that required hundreds of years of evolution in the West?

Answer: it can't be done.

Solution: throw enough troops into the country to cut back Taliban's progress. When you have them cut back severely (think: slashing back Kudzu. You know it will be back, but you've bought yourself a few years), come home. Leave intelligence units and some logistics people there.

Immediately begin planning for the next incursion, a few years down the road.

Repeat until the American people yell No Mas. If Al Qaeda again produces strikes from training camps in Afghanistan, nuke 'em. That's why we invented those weapons.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | August 25, 2009 4:55 PM
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So where did everyone get all this hutzpa all of a sudden. Wanting to hold the president accountable. Where were you when we needed you? COWERING!

Posted by: minco_007 | August 25, 2009 4:51 PM
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Eight years too late, we allowed Bush/Cheney to squander our men, resources, efforts, plans in Iraq. We were cowards to have allowed Bush to walk all over us - the media are stupid, the pundits are to blame, Congress was negligent, our military should have coup'ed. In Afghnistan, the poppies are growing and we are wasting our time. Blame Bush and get out.

Posted by: mstratas | August 25, 2009 4:24 PM
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Um, remember, under the Taliban, Al Qaeda used Afghanistan as their own little backyard from which could train wannabe and not so wannabe terrorists and mount operations like 9/11?

The point is to establish a viable government and armed forces which can control its own territory, not just Kabul. One often-overlooked point about Vietnam was our failure to turn ARVN into a standalone force which could successfully resist the VC. One could argue whether Karzai is another Thieu, but that in itself isn't a reason to stay or go.

The fact is, we've eventually done this successfully in Iraq, though removing that county from Sunni control and handing it to the Shiites was a rather dubious point.

Posted by: chimpunk | August 25, 2009 3:32 PM
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So phantastic to see those illusions of victory. The USA have never been better. The question was that old Clausewitz question that has to be asked first whatever you do: why?

Posted by: uzs106 | August 25, 2009 3:19 PM
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The reason is to keep arms manufacturers and others like Halliburton who profit from the war happy and healthy, as they lounge around their pools. Those who sacrifice are usually young males from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds. The U.S. is not at war, only the Army is at war. No excess profits taxes on businesses and no draft means that the wealth sacrifice nothing. No need to end the war.

Posted by: drzimmern1 | August 25, 2009 3:17 PM
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Afghans in general and the Taliban in particular have no interest in Americans—and certainly no interest in investing resources in harming Americans—except when Americans are in Afghanistan messing with their culture and their governance.

The model for understanding our situation in Afghanistan is not Vietnam, it’s the opening scene of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”—the kid will leave the poker game, but only if the other guy will ask him to stay.

Posted by: whatley1 | August 25, 2009 1:57 PM
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The business model approach to foreign policy is a nice start, but the dynamics are much more complicated. In questioning the rationale for the Afghanistan conflict, one should recognize that our involvement in that country is one more reflection of a continuing national mindset that has been around at least since the Spanish American War.

It isn't sufficient to say that we need to first define goals in order to establish the methodology for achieving those goals.

As Vietnam demonstrated, unless a country studies and understands the context of the situation in which it intends to become involved (such as regional history, culture, values and willingness to outlast the "invader"), setting goals is not only a useless enterprise, it is a costly one, because the methodology (strategy and tactics) will be faulty, and the goals ultimately will be unrealistic. In that case "the point of the exercise", as Mr. Webber puts it, is meaningless.

Before we can even think about goals and "success", let's eliminate the word "victory" from the national lexicon - it is a barren word, indelibly imprinted in the American psyche. It is a simplistic, dangerous word that leads Americans to think in terms of sports metaphors when attempting to conduct a nuanced activity such as foreign policy, or contemplating military incursions into a climate of asymmetrical warfare.

"Victory" is also fatally linked with the idea that "We are number one". That arrogance has not served us well in dealing with other nations and non-state ethic and religious groups. Times have also changed - the opportunity of defining "victory" with a formal surrender ceremony hasn't occurred since 1945.

Posted by: MillPond2 | August 25, 2009 12:51 PM
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The point is to justify govt defence spending in USA in order to keep American busy working and spending, keep economy rolling by building more weapons. As there is no other way of providing good news about economy turn arround. But where is all that money coming from? printing? that devalues our Dollar this means 1 dollar, few years ago, will actually be worth few cents. There is reprecussion for every action

I think we in USA are stuck in a spiral created by our obsession with spending and supporting countries for political gains in turn destroying our image arround world and gaining hatred, aimed at some other countries. Instead of defending them we are now defending our selves.

Posted by: Akbar_Khan | August 25, 2009 12:13 PM
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As for Bush working hard that seems to be an opposing concept as well. I regard working hard as toiling in the fields 24/7 not retaliating for 9/11.

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 12:05 PM
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Good conscience and fighting Islamic extremists seem to be opposing ideas to me. It's a bit like that Vietnam era concept of having to destroy it to save it.

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 12:01 PM
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What would be the consequences of remaining passive, useing the resources saved for education and environmental sustainability. In other words removing the target extremists react to. Is this a stupid question?

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 11:49 AM
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What I detest most about America's wars is the damage to innocent people and the residual damage back home, lasting for several generations.

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 11:42 AM
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The mere fact that people can in good conscience ask "What's the point" in fighting Islamic extremists is a testament to the hard work that President Bush and his administration did in protecting America and reducing the threat of Islamic extremists in the aftermath of Sept. 11. While it will never be clear whether we really could have prevented Sept. 11, it is undeniable that in the aftermath of Sept. 11 most experts, pundits, etc., fully expected America to face even more jihadist attacks within our own borders--I remember reading articles in mainstream (and generally liberal) publications that predicted with certainty that suicide bombers would soon be exploding in American shopping malls, stadiums, and other public places. It never happened. Instead, Bush took the war to the enemy's homeland--and, yes, we are still fighting it there and may continue to do so for an uncertainly long and bloody time. But the fact that we have the luxury of wondering why our young men and women are still at war in distant places is, again, a tribute to the effective war leadership President Bush provided. Indeed, I actually hope that Bush remains a much maligned and hated figure in the pages of history and the pages of newspapers and magazines or the archives of TV newscasts ... because that will mean this country was never again attacked as it was on Sept. 11. For another such attack--coming after Obama has ended the war on terror, closed Gitmo, apologized around the world, and allowed petty tyrants to walk all over his foreign policy plans, etc., etc.--would be the surest way for this nation to reevaluate the most recent administration.

Posted by: ToughChoices | August 25, 2009 11:34 AM
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Vietnam provided infinitely better celluloid material. Raw recruits, tracking through dense jungle, using their feet to seek out land-mines, their heads bullets, bodies shrapnel, all the while accompanied by loud music to warn the enemy, lots of dope and sex, to a back-drop of napalm and flying fortresses. I really enjoyed the movies!

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 11:33 AM
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The question is: Can we afford not to have "a" war, war? It could be a war anywhere, so it might as well be in Afghanistan.

The US right now is good only in the defense (i.e. offense) industry and where do you think their goods can go if no one needs the weapons (including the Talibans)?

The country is controlled by special interest groups (you can easily list the major ones). It doesn't take some "panel of experts" to realize that. Case in point, see how difficult it was when Obama tried to cancel the F-14 project?

Posted by: KT11 | August 25, 2009 11:28 AM
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What's the point in being in Afghan now is a good question, especially when it is where we should have gone in 2003 when we could have found Bin Laden.

I guess you should be asking the same thing about Iraq. After losing thousands of lives and putting the U.S. a trillion dollars in debit, what was the point?

Posted by: lddoyle2002 | August 25, 2009 11:21 AM
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If you are specifically questioning the Obama political team, Afghanistan WAS the point, or one of the points, in getting the incompetent elected in the first place. He was oposed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bush, America and everything else but had to be seen as tough on Afghanistan.
If you are questioning why people engage in activities in general, there is such a thing as engaging in them because it is GOOD, or GOOD FOR YOU, for example - exercise, purging of bad things,vigilance, anti-crime endeavors, maintenance of freedom. You can't just declare victory and go home. Now if you must have victory, then you must have an opponent willing to admit defeat. The purpose of going overseas, just like it was in WW2 and elsewhere, was to keep the bad guys from coming over here and killing us and enslaving us. The difference now is that there is no one entity to sign surrender documents. But there is still evil. If you do not believe there is such a thing as evil, then go rape, torture, burn and behead an old lady and have a nice day.

Posted by: chatard | August 25, 2009 11:08 AM
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I've got it! I've finally got it! (To identify the enemy and remove it's means to oppose) It's so simple and the answer has remained hidden in front of us all this time.

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 11:08 AM
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Druvas, is O B L "other bloody losers" or is this a stupid question?

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 10:59 AM
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Raison d'être: To rape and pillage with impunity until you run out of resources while an opposing nation goes hell for leather to build up it's own and leave you standing in it's dust.

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 10:54 AM
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Same old story: Make a bunch of unscrupulous people rich at the expense of a bunch of fine, upstanding, young men?

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 10:49 AM
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Raison d'être: To create government sponsered global entertainment and distract me from my work?

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 10:44 AM
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Raison d'être: To uphold a long tradition of ritualistic mating behaviour.

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 10:40 AM
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Raison d'être: To deny resources from the main game (anthropological climate change)

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 10:37 AM
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Raison d'être: Drive around the countryside discovering I E D's with your wheels while shoring up a corrupt government that will fall when casualties become un-sustainable.

Posted by: homesellaustralia | August 25, 2009 10:28 AM
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Kill OBL and reduce the Taliban fighting force to less than that of the Afghan National Army. Then we leave. Simle enough?

Posted by: druvas | August 25, 2009 10:01 AM
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The United States of Arrogance needs to get out of Afghanistan and Ewrack NOW, TODAY, IMMEDIATELY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!. TFL, Ken

Posted by: kentigereyes | August 25, 2009 9:57 AM
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Victory, in Afghanistan, could only mean a strong government and a somewhat stable nation.

Victory cannot mean defeat of the Taliban, and those who align with them against us, the "foreign invader." No, that would be a victory against human aspiration, against history, against the conflicting cultures of the region, against religion, and against common sense.

The very notion of "defeating" the Taliban in Afghanistan can clearly make a good fiction story. The U.S. cannot win a war with such an enemy from within--one we cannot even define, but one that is indigenous in its religion and culture. Not in a country with a history, a people, and a terrain the likes of Afghanistan. In fact, we are growing the enemy by our belligerent efforts.

When we leave our other war--Iraq--we will most likely leave it in the hands of a strong and stable government, thus demonstrating that a "victory" can indeed be achievable, at least in Iraq. The question is: whose victory?

It is increasingly clear that by giving power to the Shiites, in this new government, we will leave Iraq in the active hegemony of Iran. Which is a victory for our enemies.

And too, in Afghanistan, the longer we fight and shed their blood, on their land, the more paradoxical our victory will be.

Posted by: paultaylor1 | August 25, 2009 9:16 AM
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The point? Capitalism cannot allow the workers to make enough money to buy the products the system makes. After enough goes to the wealthy class, the wealthy class needs buyers for their products. Therefore, the idea of these "no-win" wars that last forever is NOT to have a goal, after all, we might actually make that goal, and have to end that war.

This way, our leaders can keep these wars going forever, and the businesses can make money forever with contracts. If we were actually serious about these wars, we'd have excess profits taxes on the corporations as we did in WWII.

But that won't happen, as with excess profits tax, there'd be no reason for the corporations to support the war.

This really is not a hard question. We fight for the wealthy class.

Posted by: santafe2 | August 25, 2009 8:51 AM
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Good Question!!!. my answer to that is: Every president since Lyndon Johnson has had an unspoken duty to give our military training: on the ground, live training.

President Johnson went into Vietnam with a military that hadn't trained or upgraded for almost a decade. A large number of Korean vets had retired and the rank and file of the military only knew the pretend-war exercises of peace time. When they went into Vietnam, they were terrible soldiers.

Every president since Johnson has created live training exercises, including Reagan's silly exercise in Grenada, GHW Bush's foray into Iraq where he was surprised to find a genuinely poisonous snake, and Clinton's peace keeping endeavors.

And then Bush/Cheney/Rove (like Richard Nixon)actually believed that we had a fantastic high-tech military. They both created a war with a peasant culture, threw our military into the conflict for a little less than a decade, and lost spectacularly and ingloriously --- to low tech peasants.

President Obama has the same training imperative as his predecessors. And he chose one of Bush's wars .. Afghanistan. It too is a peasant culture. Obama's difference is: he is retraining the military to work WITH Afghani villagers-- and use weapons only when necessary. Unlike Johnson and Nixon, our military is being trained to not be arrogant with the villagers (like we were in Vietnam), but to be friendly, helpful, and count-on-able.

And that's why President Obama went into Afghanistan. He is the only one who has the foresight to see that we will have other wars in other administrations in other countries with peasant cultures. We have won all our hi-tech wars, but lost two low-tech wars. Again, Obama seems to be the only one to see that playing hi-tech Attila the Hun (like Bush and company, and Nixon before him) is a losing proposition.

Posted by: thetravelingmasseur | August 25, 2009 8:02 AM
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Action planning including "military" stategies identifies clear and measurable goals and outcomes. Force begets resistance and resentment (Viet Nam)
What IS the point????
Thank you

Posted by: mbaker1 | August 25, 2009 7:52 AM
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The point was to destroy Bin Ladin, a child of Regan financed convert war in Afghanistan. Bush failed to achieve that goal in 8 years. It is probably too late to address that items as Bin Ladin and Co. had 8 years to learn how to evade American forces.

It is time to let Pakistan finish it's operation against Taliban in northwest province and leave the country.

If possible, we should devide the country into three parts in line with it's three ethnic / religious groups of Pashtun, Tazik, and Shiite. Let Pakistan, Tazikstan, and Iran (we have already handed Iraq to Iran) to take over each part and rule them according to their desire. At least, we will have a government for each part of the country. They will be responsible for any anti American activities in those countries.

Posted by: SeedofChange | August 25, 2009 5:20 AM
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No Afghan or Taliban was ever involved in any terrorist activities against the West.

Al Queda was American baby moved to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996.

Till 9/11 Talibans were been feted and dined in Washington.

Only a fool can believe that 9/11 was planned in caves of Afghanistan.

This was a more complex operation than D-Day landings in Normandy

Posted by: chaffcutter | August 25, 2009 4:42 AM
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A good article.

The first article I've read in the Washington Post "Leadership" section that didn't leave me thinking something like "the author is just a wanker".

Re Afghanistan the question does seem "What is the point?".

Obama's Presidency didn't first go into Afghanistan so his point and Bush's may be different.

When Bush illegally invaded Iraq - I thought "you-own goal kicking cretin" (at best), but Afghanistan was different.

A group of people configured into a nation in a world of nations does have a right to defend itself and the UN Charter recognizes that, and allows for rapid action in the face of a real imminent threat.

Post 9-11 going after training places of the attackers did not seem to me to be unreasonable. It seemed to me to be a bit of a close call but justifiable in terms of self defence.

Iraq on the other hand was kicking an own goal. It was joining with the destroyers in a brotherhood of de-civilization.

But what is the point in Afghanistan now? Excellent question.

Posted by: BrettPaatsch1 | August 25, 2009 3:29 AM
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What's the point? Well, we've got to stop the Communist Red Menance before another country falls to their oppressive godless totalitarianism. No, wait. Different millenium. Oh yeah, we must stop the deadly Isamlic Jihadis before they take over the world and kill us all as infidels. There. That's the point.

Posted by: mickster1 | August 25, 2009 2:38 AM
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The U.S. has always been in the habit of carrying out "remedial" wars, where the object is to reverse or change situations in other countries that are not to our liking. This often leads us to take sides in the internal political situations in those countries which then leads to entanglements over which we have no control. We can win the battles, but can't determine the polical outcome if the side we've chosen is so corrupt or incompetent that it can't excercise legal authority over its own people.

This problem is made worse by our hubris: we naturally assume that we are right in everything that we do and that everyone else has to see it our way. Our arrogant assumption that "we are number one" has been the principal cause of our decline.
That's why we are stuck with third rate health care and educational systems.

Posted by: MJR3 | August 25, 2009 2:30 AM
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