We are losing the long war

SAIS commencement is today. I’m going, for the first time in my almost five years here. In fact, I haven’t been to a commencement for 10 years, since my sons graduated from Vassar College and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 2005.

The speaker at SAIS is former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. But that is far from good enough reason to attend. I didn’t even attend the awarding of my own master’s and doctoral degrees at Princeton or my master’s degree at the University of Chicago. But as I am taking over direction of the SAIS conflict management program on July 1, attending seemed appropriate.

The main pleasures at commencement in my experience are the personal and visual ones. If you know people who are graduating, it is a great satisfaction to see them line up and collect their degrees. I’ll enjoy seeing some of my students from this year and last “walk.”

The visual pageantry is always terrific. The faculty processions on a verdant hillside at Vassar (even if it was raining) and in the Yard at Harvard were a great riot of stripes, tassles and gowns. I expect nothing less today.

SAIS’s commencement will be indoors (good thing, as it is raining in DC today) at Constitution Hall, best known for the refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to allow soprano Marian Anderson to perform in 1939, because of her race. The DAR website informs that she performed there subsequently. That is what we call progress, which is a very good thing.

We can hope to see a good deal more of it, though not for right now in the two parts of the world I follow most closely: the greater Middle East and the Balkans. Violence is prevailing in large parts of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Only Tunisia of the “Arab spring” countries is managing something like progress. The Balkans are far calmer than they were 20 years ago, but it is hard to miss the instability in Macedonia, the unease in Kosovo and the continuing political struggle among ethnic nationalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I joke with my students that turmoil is a career opportunity for them. If you study conflict management, you wouldn’t want peace and tranquility to arrive before you have a chance to practice your profession. There seems little risk of that. While I hope to see the Balkans calm down with some effort by the US and EU, the Middle East is posing truly wicked problems. Our military instruments can kill just about anyone they can find, but that hasn’t and won’t calm things down.

We launched the war against violent Islamic extremism in 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan. There were then at most a few thousand jihadi fighters in a handful of countries. Almost 15 years later, there are at least several tens of thousands in a dozen countries or more. It is certainly arguable that things would be no worse had we never intervened. We win a lot of battles against extremists, but we are losing the long war.

That is one of the great challenges for this year’s crop of SAIS graduates, not only in conflict management but in other fields as well. Is military intervention making things worse? How can things be made better? What is wrong with what we are doing, and what can we do to improve our effectiveness?

Those are questions that will be on my mind today as I enjoy a great spectacle and wish the next generation more success than mine is enjoying at the moment.


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