John McCain trotted out an oldie-but-a-goodie on Monday at the VFW convention – proclaiming once again that, unlike a certain current president who allowed Osama bin Laden to give him the slip, McCain would “follow him to the gates of hell” and bring him to justice. Of course, he followed that statement with one of his trademark crypt-keeper smiles, so it’s hard to know whether he’s actually all that passionate about the subject or just likes to hear himself talk. Whichever is the case, now may be a good time to question not only where, exactly, the gates of hell might be (Afghanistan? Pakistan? the Cheney residence?), but whether it is even worth the effort to follow Osama there.
Lots of people have found lots of reasons to harp on the fact that we haven’t yet caught Al Qaeda’s grand poobah. Americans do like to see bad guys caught and punished – that’s why Law and Order variants play 24/7 on basic cable – and we prefer quick, tidy endings, which is why (despite the red-herring “surge is working” mantra) we’ve turned away in droves from the Iraq War. For Democrats, meanwhile, Osama is a valuable symbol of George Bush’s (and, by extension, the Republican Party’s) strategic failures and incompetence – and particularly of the foolishness of prioritizing the neocons’ Saddam obsession over “finishing the job” in Afghanistan.
McCain’s reasons are even more complicated – verging on psychotic, really. For Johnny Mac the military man, Osama represents a Mission Not Accomplished, as well as an opportunity to (finally) get something right after the fiascos of Vietnam and Iraq. For McCain the Moralizer, operating in that black-and-white world that conservative Christians (not to mention radical Islamists) populate, Osama is the epitome of an evil that “must be defeated,” as we heard during Pastor Rick’s un-American “faith forum” last Saturday.
Most importantly, for Citizen McCain the candidate, ranting about Osama is a means of separating himself from Bush; moreover, it’s the key plank in McCain’s belligerence-equals-experience foreign policy platform, which is pretty much all he’s got to offer as a rationale to lure voters to his side.
Of course, there is one guy who for years has shown no real interest in capturing Osama, dead, alive or otherwise: the guy who let him off the hook in the first place. “I truly am not that concerned about him,” Bush famously said as early as March 2002, reflecting an attitude that most Americans have come to believe is a rationalization for his own failures.
Six years later, however, Bush’s attitude (had it been sincere, which I doubt) might not be such a bad one to take. It is, in fact, the same one that smart-ass documentarian Morgan Spurlock eventually reached in his recent Middle East travelogue, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? Like most films about our twin wars, Where in the World performed poorly at the box office, barely nipping the ankles of the success Spurlock achieved with his fast-food doc Super Size Me in 2004. Still, its DVD release next Tuesday offers a second opportunity for a first look at a film whose ambivalence toward its stated mission, and whose – dare I say it? – nuance, may be useful antidotes for the stridency that is quickly overtaking the current presidential campaign.
Based on the title, a casual viewer might expect Spurlock to spend the entire film embedded with a Special Forces unit prowling the mountainous regions of eastern Afghanistan, hunting down Public Enemy No. 1. But that’s not how the mustachioed one chooses to roll. Instead he travels to Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and finally Pakistan, exploring the roots of Muslim anger in filthy slums and Wahhabi schools, in bombed-out cities and impoverished rural areas — and even in glitzy malls where Saudi women window-shop in burkas.
None of his interview subjects offer up much intelligence as to Osama’s whereabouts, but they don’t much care about him, either. They’re too focused on the disaster that is everyday life in much of the Middle East – a calamity they blame variously on political disagreements, autocratic rulers, and young men who have been radicalized by religion and poverty.
Most of all, they blame the United States – not only for siding with Israel against them, but for sucking their economies dry while propping up their dictators. And they blame us for responding to the challenge of curbing extremism not with food and schools and engineers that might make the lives of everyday Muslims better (and America more appealing), but with sanctions and bombings and wars that only make matters worse.
Their attitude is summarized most succinctly by a grizzled Afghan whom Spurlock encounters standing outside his disgusting Peshawar shack. Unable even to remember who Osama is until reminded that he’s the guy “who brought down those buildings in the United States,” the man responds, “Fuck him. And fuck America.”
Thus, Spurlock discovers, these days Osama is nowhere … and everywhere. So, in that context and at this late date, is the best solution for the United States to expend further resources on high-cost military adventures that might capture the symbol of Muslims’ anger, but do nothing to alleviate the circumstances that breed that rage? Or would we (and they) be better off if we engage in a relatively low-cost campaign of building roads and schools, teaching farmers how to plant and irrigate new food crops, and helping the nations of the Middle East build economies that will survive the end of the Age of Oil (and be more egalitarian to boot)?
Spurlock ends up arguing for the latter as he heads home, having failed (and I don’t believe I’m giving too much away here) to get Osama’s head on a pike. Unfortunately, his recommendations are unlikely to stir the hearts of many Republicans, who don’t seem to concern themselves much with our standing on the “Arab street” and aren’t likely to trade “guns for butter” (to borrow a Vietnam-era formulation McCain should remember well) when it comes to our dealings with the Middle East. There’s little question that a McCain administration – in addition to launching a boat journey down the river Styx in pursuit of bin Laden – would continue Bush’s emphasis on pursuing U.S. security and energy concerns through military incursions and further coddling of the Saudi royal family, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarek, and other tyrants.
So far, simply on the basis of his having served in the Navy and spewed a lot of tough talk in the years since, American voters imagine McCain a better foreign-policy steward than Obama. But there’s still a lot of time and a good deal of talking yet to be done. For the sake of our long-term security, and for the sake of the economic and political future of a vast subset of the world’s people, here’s hoping Americans listen hard and then choose nuance and, yes, hope over sustained belligerence this November.