James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Quick Takes: No Oscar for “Killing in the Name”

by James M. Lindsay
February 28, 2011

Ashraf Al-Khaled (L) and Carie Lemack of the film nominated for best short documentary, "Killing in the Name", arrive at the 83rd Academy Awards

Ashraf Al-Khaled (L) and Carie Lemack of the film nominated for best short documentary, "Killing in the Name," arrive at the 83rd Academy Awards. (Lucy Nicholson/courtesy Reuters)

I forced myself to watch the Oscars last night. My reward for sitting through an hour-plus of forced banter and lame jokes—please bring back Billy Crystal–was disappointment. Killing in the Name did not win the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. Everyone at CFR remains nonetheless proud of what Carie Lemack accomplished. We hope she enjoyed the awards ceremony despite the outcome and despite the grueling schedule that the Academy puts its nominees through. Most important, I hope that the Oscar ceremony helps get the message of Killing in the Name out to a wider audience.

In other news, the White House announced that President Obama will hold a surprise summit meeting later this week with Mexican President Felipe Caldéron. U.S.-Mexican relations are going through a tough patch. As my colleague Shannon O’Neil writes, the murder of one U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and the wounding of another in an attack on the road from Monterrey to Mexico City has brought the tensions to a head. I hope that Presidents Obama and Caldéron succeed in getting U.S.-Mexican relations back on track. The high and growing level of drug-related violence in Mexico—more than 30,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence over the past five years—is worrying. I am not optimistic, however, that we will see any major breakthroughs. A big part of Mexico’s drug violence problem resides north of the border. Americans buy illicit drugs, and we ship guns back across the border. Washington doesn’t look to be getting serious about either issue. Indeed, legislation working its way through Congress would make it harder for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to disrupt the trafficking of guns to Mexico.

Secretary of Defense Bob Gates went to West Point on Friday to address the cadets. His speech contained a lot of the usual stuff you would expect a defense secretary to say to soon-to-be officers. But one passage caught my eye:

The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions. But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.

In case the cadets missed his point, Gates added: “The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq–invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country—may be low.”

I hope the secretary is right, but history suggests he won’t be. After lengthy and fruitless U.S. occupations of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua in the first few decades of the twentieth century, Americans vowed not to repeat those mistakes. No one wanted another land war in Asia after Korea. It was gospel after Vietnam that the United States would never again blunder into a prolonged military occupation of a far away land. And when we invaded Iraq we assumed that we would bring the troops home quickly.

Why do we keep rediscovering painful lessons learned by earlier generations? No doubt it’s in part because when new problems come along doing nothing looks more dangerous than doing something. But it may also have to do with our national character. We are an optimistic country. We are usually either too busy peering into the future to learn from the past, or if we remember the past, we convince ourselves that this time things will be different. Often times they aren’t.

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