When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains . . .

I first read The New American Militarism a few years ago for a class in college. Then came Andrew Bacevich’s latest book, The Limits of Power, which I picked up just as soon as it arrived at my local library. As far as foreign policy scholarship is concerned, Bacevich gives voice to a serious and often overlooked school of thought that – in the wake of the disaster we colloquially refer to as the Bush Administration’s foreign policy – deserves a respectful and serious hearing.

In the case of Afghanistan, however, I think Bacevich is wrong. His latest article for Commonweal is a stirring indictment of our conduct and strategic goals in the region, and I’m extremely wary of criticizing someone whose work I hold in such high regard. But at the risk of sounding like Jacob Weisberg (stop me if you’ve heard this one before), I do believe that certain segments of the non-interventionist Right have allowed the Iraq War and a general  aversion to foreign intervention unduly prejudice their views on Afghanistan. Here’s why:

Given our history of flooding the country with arms, equipment and military training, I’m inclined to believe that the United States does have a moral obligation to help restore order in Afghanistan. I don’t think this entails imposing a particular system of governance on the country. I am emphatically in favor of scaling back our strategic objectives to providing basic security and ensuring certain minimal standards of administrative competence. But washing our hands and walking away strikes me as irresponsible and callous, particularly when our actions have contributed to so much turmoil in the region.

Bacevich’s response to the conflict’s moral dimension is almost dismissive. Yes, I suppose we also have an obligation to help Mexico weather its own bout of internal conflict. That’s why I’m in favor of reforming our drug policy. But fulfilling our moral obligations elsewhere and securing a minimal standard of internal stability for a country wracked by violence for much of the past three decades are not mutually irreconcilable goals. Attempting to demonstrate the absurdity of our mission in Afghanistan by comparing it to the plight of our southern neighbor is a non-sequitur – Mexico is not a failed state, and the same prescriptions that apply to a wild and lawless country in Asia have little relevance south of the border.

There’s also some tension between non-interventionists’ laudable concern for avoiding further civilian casaulties at the hands of the U.S. military and their almost cavalier attitude towards the consequences of withdrawal. Bacevich, for example, is in favor of “precision, punitive strikes” to prevent Al Qaeda from reconstituting after we leave. Presumably he refers to the same aerial strikes that have wreaked so much havoc in Pakistan over the past few years. We now know that increased reliance on air power risks greater civilian casualties – does anyone seriously believe that these ‘punitive strikes’ will become more precise post-withdrawal? Or are we in danger of endorsing a ‘risk-management’ strategy that trades the exposure of U.S. troops for even more civilian deaths?

Finally, the pragmatic case for staying. Bacevich seems to endorse some variant of this, acknowledging the need to prevent Al Qaeda from reforming through precision air-strikes and tribal alliances. So our mission becomes a question of means, not ends, and I’m inclined to think that committing a significant peacekeeping force for internal stability is the most appropriate mechanism for achieving these goals. Dramatically scaling back our ambitions in the region would be a welcome development, but I’m loath to abandon Afghanistan entirely to punitive air-strikes, tribal bandits, a Taliban resurgence, and whatever brave NGOs manage to stay the course.

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37 thoughts on “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains . . .

  1. I largely agree with the “you break it, you buy it” approach to foreign affairs. It is fairly immoral to go into Iraq or Afghanistan, destroy whatever infrastructure and stability existed, even under the brutal regimes then governing, begin to “liberate” the populations, and then say: “You know what, intervention is wrong. We should leave. You really need to handle your own affairs.” And then bail.

    So, motive or wisdom of the initial invasions aside, I do feel like we have an obligation to at least bring these countries up to snuff on security. To hell with democracy, though. Security should be established and some basic infrastructure realized, and then we should leave.

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    • I hate to quote Rush Limbaugh, but the job of the military is to hurt people and break things.

      The idea that “you break it, you bought it” is a strange one to justify a military occupation — I think it parses out as “you break it, you have a moral obligation to continue breaking it until you have fixed it.”

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      • I guess I have trouble with the idea of going into a country and completely eviscerating their security and infrastructure (such that it was) and then simply walking away as though we owe nothing to the rebuilding effort. I suppose we could have done that after WWII as well, but I’m not sure the outcome would have been very good. There are legitimate security reasons to do as much as possible to shore up security before we exit. Whether we will achieve that is another question, and at some point I agree that we may have to simply leave.

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        • That is a fair point: I understand many historians to think that if the Allies had rebuilt Germany after WWI, there might not have been a WWII: a lesson we seemed to have learned after WWII.

          Nevertheless, optimism about the prospects of rebuilding Afghanistan should not abound, certainly not by reference to rebuilding Germany and Japan after WWII. Both of those nations had been highly developed within many people’s lifetimes: one could imagine a re-built Germany because one could recall a built Germany. I am hardly a scholar of Afghan history, but I would venture to guess that the same is not true in this case.

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  2. I have the sense from reading Bacevich’s other work that he thinks Americans (or possibly people in general) are unable to resist the corrupting influence of war in general.

    That is to say, I think he could concede that there might be a sense in which we have some sort of moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan, but deny that going to war there will, as a practical matter, satisfy that obligation. The jewel thief should not do community service by volunteering as a night watchman at a museum, so to speak.

    I realize that this argument is not present in the commonweal article to which you respond. Nevertheless, I think it is of a piece with his critique of America as a messiah nation, which he may have internalized to the point that he does not feel it necessary to argue explicitly.

    Just a guess, though.

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      • Perhaps we will have to differ. It seems particularly crabbed thinking to limit ourselves to the choice between limited military engagement (airstrikes) and full-on military occupation. Nevertheless, so that you do not think I am dodging the question, I should point out that there is a recent case study, if you will, that speaks against your point. Limited military engagement (airstrikes) against Iraq were in retrospect a much better idea than full-on occupation, at least in terms of civilian casualties and preserving the social order.

        I know that the circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan are not the same: accordingly, it seems strange to me that the only two options on the table are the same two options as we had in 2002 with respect to Iraq.

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  3. I tend to agree that it is important for us to remain in Afghanistan, although I’m less certain of that than I once was.

    But I do think that this is an oxymoron: “I’m inclined to believe that the United States does have a moral obligation to help restore order in Afghanistan. I don’t think this entails imposing a particular system of governance on the country. I am emphatically in favor of scaling back our strategic objectives to providing basic security and ensuring certain minimal standards of administrative competence.”

    I say this is an oxymoron because I don’t see how it’s even possible to restore order without imposing a particular system of governance upon the country. If you don’t try to impose some sort of system of governance after removing an existing government because of its behavior on 9/11, then you have to allow the Afghans to decide upon that system of governance themselves. But without imposing a system of government via your own overwhelming force, the only way this will be done is through civil war, which, of course, means that you can’t restore order.

    This means that in order to restore order, an occupying power needs to either: 1. Install a tyrant of its own; or 2. Install an interim government and establish protocol for a constitutional convention in which the occupier either hand-picks the attendees or holds democratic elections to select the attendees. Of course, the very act of installing an interim government and holding democratic elections for the constitutional convention is itself an act of imposing a particular system of government. Moreover, if your goal really is to restore order, then you will need to make sure that whatever comes out of the constitutional convention will allow you to remain long enough to restore order.

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    • The oxymoron thing? Yeah, I was going to post that.

      I would have gone the route of “culture”, however. We may see “disorder” and they see “tradition”.

      Additionally, one of the things that the Taliban was trying to do was instill “order” on Afghanistan. I mean, people were living with paintings on the walls that depicted people and walking around shaven.

      Allowing “disorder” would be significantly less cruel, I reckon than forcing an order that looks like chaos (Women! READING!!!) to the Afghanis is something that would require us to remake Afghanistan. If we try to force “order” without remaking it, it’ll reshuffle itself back to “chaos” (our definition) in less than a year.

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      • “Allowing “disorder” would be significantly less cruel, I reckon than forcing an order that looks like chaos (Women! READING!!!) to the Afghanis is something that would require us to remake Afghanistan.”

        Golly, that’s an ugly sentence. Let’s retry.

        Allowing “disorder” would be significantly less cruel, I reckon than forcing an order that looks like chaos (Women! READING!!!) to the Afghanis without doing the other things that we’d need to do… but all of that would require us to remake Afghanistan.

        Much better.

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    • Of course, the very act of installing an interim government and holding democratic elections for the constitutional convention is itself an act of imposing a particular system of government. Moreover, if your goal really is to restore order, then you will need to make sure that whatever comes out of the constitutional convention will allow you to remain long enough to restore order.

      Mark, I’m confused. We did most of this in 2002. No one is ever going to establish rule based in Kabul over all of Afghanistan — history has shown this clearly, and I don’t think it’s what we are trying to do, and in that sense, establishing ‘order’ I don’t think is the goal. We did, via some basic traditional processes, install a central government, that due to lack of control is now utterly corrupt. But it’s in place, and despite the corruption I think it’s more or less accepted and viewed as minimally legitimate my most in Afghanistan, as much as central governments in Afghanistan ever are. So that’s been done. It’s not perfect, not very good even, but it’s not just a notional proposition that we’re putting up for discussion.

      What has not been done is to secure the entire country from the remnants of the truly malevolent force (now I’m sounding like a neocon) that we expelled from central authority in 2002. That force is called the Taliban, and it is the source of the repression (women! reading!!) that we saw in Afghanistan in the last decade, not indigenous Afghan attitudes left to theit own devices (“disorder”). We’re engaged in a pitched battle with them to try to drive them out. Unfortunately they have unlimited safe haven to their rear, so that may well be an impossibility — I don’t foreclose that possibility. But to say that this is a losing battle against Taliban is quite different from saying that the basic purposes of American presence — prevent reconstitution of a trans-national threat (our business), but then also prevent restoration of Taliban rule, protect civilians from local Qaeda and Taliban terrorism, and preserve space for Afghan self-governance — are at cross-purposes.

      I don’t see what your argument is that those purposes compel us to impose a “particular type” of government on Afghanistan, especially over the long term, which is I think what Will is referencing. Is anyone denying that to go in change a government will require you to impose “some sort of system of governance,” even one particular enough to allow you to keep the peace while new processes are developed? I certainly don’t think Will is.

      But this was all already done — seven years ago. Perhaps a system of governance that was intended to be temporary in 2002 has endured past what we would allow is the interim. If this is so, it is because we did not complete what we needed to complete there, and instead set off on a different adventure, which left the sataus quo in Afghnaistan essentially suspended until the security situation atrophied to the extent we had to re-engage. In a perfect world, Afghanistan’s security would not be so precarious, we could step back, and they could make whatever changes to their government (such as it is) that they wish. But basic security does need to be re-established, and that requires a government that will allow us to do that. That seems like a fairly banal observation, and not what Will was getting at when he says that we don’t need to insist of a “particular type of governance,” especially as an ideological matter, especially over the long term. Which is to say, I think Will is saying we’re don’t need to, we don’t want to, and we hopefully aren’t going to fight a war for a Democratic Afghanistan. On the other hand, a minimally secure, reasonably stable Afghanistan is both in our country’s vital interest, and is also a moral imperative incurred by invading that we are obligated to put a reasonable amount of resources behind bring about. That’s an important distinction.

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  4. I think the issue is that continued occupation tends to become self-perpetuating. While it may be reasonable to help them build up and provide a residual capacity to whack AQ it is very, very difficult to just do that. Mission creep takes over. There a strain of argument about the Iraq occupation that says that if it is peaceful now then we can’t leave or it will get worse. And if it is bad we can’t leave because it is bad. All arguments point towards staying indefinitely. Occupations are breeding ground for reasons to keep occupying. Or look at the other thread about Israel and the settlements. There is a similar all powerful Justification Field around the occupation that seeks to defend and keep it going.

    I think Bacevich is also rightly critical of some American’s absolute certainty that sparkly rainbows shoot out of our collective butts. American’s just insist on being absolutely sure our use of military force is always pure and wonderful where only bad guys with evil BWHAAHAA laughs and Snidely Whiplash mustaches get killed to free noble America loving innocents.

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  5. Stellar post, Will. The new embrace of anti-interventionism on the Right is indeed a trend to be wary of. Not to say there aren’t entirely principled, consistent anti-interventionists about (there some prime examples here), but suffice it to say that in a Bloggingheads around the inauguration, I heard David Frum jump on the Afghanistan-skepticims bandwagon. David Frum. ‘Nuff said.

    I assume Bacevich has been largely consistent, and has not come by his commitment to American international modesty lately. but I will say that my earliest memory of reading work of his (2005 or so) was largely of criticism of strategy within Iraq, not first principles. Perhaps he was hard-and-fast against invading Iraq, and I just didn’t know who he was at the time (likely). But was he also hard-and-fast against invading Afghanistan?

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  6. I suppose we also have an obligation to help Mexico weather its own bout of internal conflict. That’s why I’m in favor of reforming our drug policy. […] Attempting to demonstrate the absurdity of our mission in Afghanistan by comparing it to the plight of our southern neighbor is a non-sequitur – Mexico is not a failed state, and the same prescriptions that apply to a wild and lawless country in Asia have little relevance south of the border.

    Sure…by all means, “help” Mexico.

    Here’s what Jorge G. Casteneda has to say about the drug war: American drug policy has been a central component of U.S.–Mexican relations, and of Mexican drug policy, at least since 1969, when Richard Nixon unleashed Operation Intercept at the San Ysidro-Tijuana border, inspecting every vehicle that crossed the border with the hope, not of finding any drugs, but of pressuring the government of then-President Gustavo Díaz Ordáz to expand Mexican drug enforcement.That was a nice way referring to Nixon’s gangster-like extortion of the government of Mexico. Either the government of Mexico agreed to “expanded Mexican drug enforcement” or Nixon—following the advice of G. Gordon Liddy, by the way—would continue to tie-up the border at immense cost to Mexicans. This “expanded Mexican drug enforcement” has been expanding ever since in response to the same so-called pressure. Of course it means at a minimum the deployment of armed US federal officers (DEA, etc) on Mexican soil in violation of their sovereignty.

    But Casteneda does not go far enough back into history for a reader to understand the extent of US interventionism in Mexico. Earlier, of course, there was the criminalization of drugs. This happened in the US as a result of the “progressive” movement (in the early twentieth century) and their fanatical temperance religious beliefs. These beliefs are completely foreign to Mexico. And yet, Mexico was forced to criminalize drugs as well.

    Who ever said that 24/7 sobriety was the be-all and end-all of public morality?

    So, to summarize, the US has intervened in Mexico in the war on drugs and in its system of values as well.

    Bacevich says, “We owe these people, big-time.” That’s a moral obligation after contributing to the destruction of their society for fifty years. But it’s also in our self-interest. The war on drugs is spreading corruption and anarchy on an unprecedented level in Mexico. Vast swaths of the national territory are under the control of the narco—not the government. You say that Mexico is not a failed state, but that’s really a judgment call. If the situation there was happening in the US, you’d certainly call it a failure. It’s undeniable that Mexico is a failing state, if nothing else.

    The consequences for our national security of having a failed state on our southern border are immense.

    Is this ironic? The rationale for criminalization was the damage caused to society by drug use. By now it’s obvious that the damages caused by criminalization are far worse than the drugs are or were. The rationale for Nixon’s drug war was the damages drug smuggling was doing to our national security. The failed states caused by the drug war are far worse threats to our national security than drug smuggling ever was.

    I’m not sure whether the above is “ironic” or if it’s just another political bait-and-switch. I’m inclined towards the latter.

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  7. Uh, we’ve been there how long? Part of the strategy is to disrupt just enough to keep us active, become invisible in the population so that there is no visible target to attack, then slowly drain our resources and distract us from productive activities. They are pin-pricking us to death. If we haven’t stabilzed by now, then i don’t know when it will be stable.

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    • This is an entirely fair argument. The counter would just be that we haven’t fully prioritized the effort in going on seven years, and we have an obligation to give it our full effort for a sustained period before concluding that doing so won’t improve the outcome. But the preponderance of expert opinion couldn’t be described as optimistic, no doubt.

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  8. Read this:

    http://www.johannhari.com/archive/article.php?id=1547

    The Afghan liberals want us to fuck off. Why? Because the factions we are supporting are not cuddly anti-theocrat progressives, they’re just more reactionaries, only these ones are anti-Taliban.

    The Neo-Conservative depiction of Afghanistan as purely ruined by the Taliban is ahistorical in more ways than ignoring Communism (the fact that they backed the Mujahaden against the Reds is something they don’t like to talk about much, it might besmirch their darling Reagan or something). There were plenty of non-Taliban social dracons.

    & those are the people now in charge. I really can’t see the case for backing these scumbags. The Afghanistan War is good for nothing save AQ recruitment drives. Time to GTFO.

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    • I agree that we have no interests to protect in Afghanistan apart from denying al Qaeda a safe haven there—which we have already done. They can have a Taliban government or the king of the lollipops, as far as I care.

      On the other hand, if anyone’s analysis is “ahistorial,” it’s yours. No so-called neoconservative has ever denied the depredations of the the USSR back in the ’80s. In fact, this was a key talking-point back in 2001—our invasion couldn’t destroy the country because the USSR plus the Taliban had already done so.

      As for what they “like to talk about much,” they’re quite willing to discuss Reagan’s—and the Congress’s—support for the Mujahaden. They wouldn’t be ashamed of it either. No one could have predicted that al Qaeda/the Mujahaden/Taliban would have turned on us after we got rid of the USSR. [“We”=the US; Saudi Arabia; Pakistan; the Mujahaden; etc. etc.] If anything, this episode (among many others) gives the lie to the leftist/al Qaeda claim that the US has some special animus against Arabs/Muslims. Therefore, neoconservatives will discuss this as much as you want to.

      This is not something that Reagan/neoconservatives have to answer for. What does “besmirch” their reputation is Reagan’s illegal support for Iran. However, again, neoconservatives love to bring this up in the context of their critique of Obama’s blind “engagement” policy with Iran. It shows that no amount of “engagement” (i.e. appeasement, “carrots” etc etc) will ever contain Iranian ambitions to impose Islamic law on the world by terror—or by nuclear weaponry.

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      • On the other hand, if anyone’s analysis is “ahistorial,” it’s yours. No so-called neoconservative has ever denied the depredations of the the USSR back in the ’80s. In fact, this was a key talking-point back in 2001—our invasion couldn’t destroy the country because the USSR plus the Taliban had already done so.

        I can’t recall that, actually.

        As for what they “like to talk about much,” they’re quite willing to discuss Reagan’s—and the Congress’s—support for the Mujahaden. They wouldn’t be ashamed of it either. No one could have predicted that al Qaeda/the Mujahaden/Taliban would have turned on us after we got rid of the USSR. [“We”=the US; Saudi Arabia; Pakistan; the Mujahaden; etc. etc.] If anything, this episode (among many others) gives the lie to the leftist/al Qaeda claim that the US has some special animus against Arabs/Muslims. Therefore, neoconservatives will discuss this as much as you want to.

        I’m fairly sure that Islamist social policy, which was what I was referring to, was entirely predictable. For the most part you basically ignore what I had to say, here, so I’ve not much interest in replying to you at greater length.

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  9. This is why I said your analysis was “ahistorical.”

    Historians tend to cite evidence. If you have evidence for your claim, present it.

    So now you’re talking about “Islamist social policy?” Who knew? And, again, who cares about Islamist social policy? Certainly not the neoconservatives since this has no effect on our national security position.

    Yes, that was what I was talking about. That was also what was used to justify the invasion: taking out the Taliban would destroy one of the most socially repressive regimes in existence. So that’s what we did, replacing them with someone who tried to write legalised rape into the new constitution.

    Now you might not care about the women of Afghanistan. From what I’ve read of you you strike me as a remarkably callous individual, indeed the kind who would take such a description as some perverse form of compliment. Most people, however, are nothing like you in this regard (& I imagine it’s that which prompts your adolescent aspiration towards amorality) & so the hawks have to argue to them that an invasion which is obviously achieving nothing for us save getting our troops killed in an Empire’s Graveyard & getting a load of villagers fragged is doing good for the people of Afghanistan. The argument which they make is that the War in Afghanistan is in favour of the freedom of Afghan women. That might not be something which they do care about, but it is something which right-wingers have at least come to pretend to care about. Barbara Bush is the most notable, but there are plenty of parrots of her memes.

    This approach (we’re there to save the people we’re bombing) became especially popular after it became abundantly clear that a capture of Osama was not on the cards: we didn’t get him? Oh well, we still saved millions of women from tyranny.

    Of course, we did no such thing: we replaced one set of repressive women-haters with another, who like us. Like I said, you introduced the whole “turn on us” thing, which I never argued. This is why I did not want to reply to you at greater length, but just to clear things up I now have. I do hope you’re satiated.

    You predicted that al Qaeda/Taliban would turn on us once the USSR was defeated? Why are you writing blogs? The government should sign you up—or at the very least you should be writing books, learned articles and giving seminars on your geopolitical framework, which allows you to predict such events years in the future.

    Very nice snark. Based around a repeated misreading of my words, though. Try reading what I have to say before you respond, next time.

    Oh yes, & sarcasm stopped being scathing in the late-1990s. Just something to bear in mind.

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    • No, woman’s liberation was not the main justification for the invasion. This was the fact the Taliban was harboring al Qaeda. If they had given bin Laden et al up, then there would likely not have been an invasion. The fact that our invasion did liberate women was a side-effect that became a neoconservative talking-point. But that was after the fact.

      You have no call to analyze my character. You just don’t know how I feel about the “women of Afghanistan” or much else. You just don’t know if I’m “remarkably callous” or not because I don’t put my emotions on display in public forums like this one.

      On the other hand, you put your high emotions out there for all to see, which I consider very tacky. To each his own…

      The argument in favor of the invasion of Afghanistan was about the Taliban’s collusion with al Qaeda. That’s it. Up to now, that mission has been successful since al Qaeda has been denied a state sponsor. It was never about killing or capturing bin Laden—as important as that may be. It was about denying al Qaeda a state sponsor. Whether we get bin Laden or not, al Qaeda is much diminished and today incapable of mounting a strategic attack against us. That’s national security policy, not killing this or that Islamic fanatic.

      To be clear, recall that you introduced the Soviet invasion of Aghanistan/the Holy Warriors/etc etc. as a “snark” against Reagan/neoconservatives. I just showed why that “snark” is misplaced.

      So you’re using sarcasm to defend yourself against my sarcasm? Is this meta-sarcasm, then? Is this the new sarcasm for the new millennium? I admit that you’re way hipper-than-thou. I stopped being hip in the the late ’90s, like you said. So, congratulate yourself on that one again.

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      • No, woman’s liberation was not the main justification for the invasion.

        It is the main “cause” for the continuation, however.

        You have no call to analyze my character. You just don’t know how I feel about the “women of Afghanistan” or much else. You just don’t know if I’m “remarkably callous” or not because I don’t put my emotions on display in public forums like this one.

        Not intentionally.

        On the other hand, you put your high emotions out there for all to see, which I consider very tacky. To each his own…

        Hm? Where?

        To be clear, recall that you introduced the Soviet invasion of Aghanistan/the Holy Warriors/etc etc. as a “snark” against Reagan/neoconservatives. I just showed why that “snark” is misplaced.

        You did not.

        So you’re using sarcasm to defend yourself against my sarcasm? Is this meta-sarcasm, then? Is this the new sarcasm for the new millennium? I admit that you’re way hipper-than-thou. I stopped being hip in the the late ’90s, like you said. So, congratulate yourself on that one again.

        No, I was being serious. That’s when it got old.

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