Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.
Lambson: How to create Western-style democracies in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is a difficult problem. Questions spring to mind. Can the education alluded to in your cartoon be delivered without there being good guys with guns to protect the students from the bad guys with guns? If not, do the local good guys with guns have enough resources and resolve to do the protecting? If not, do we have the resources and resolve to do the protecting? Can successful reform even be imposed from the outside by force in the first place? Underlying the entire subject is the question of whether we should mind our own business. These are complicated issues, but I am sure you’ll find a simple solution that will somehow involve blaming the Republicans.
Bagley: No need to get snarky. You’re right that it’s complicated: The bad guys with guns pictured above were once our good guys with guns back when the Soviet bad guys with guns occupied Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan called them “the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers.”
Afghanistan and tribal Pakistan are extremely well-armed societies, which, curiously, hasn’t spawned an outbreak of politeness. When the Taliban is finally tossed onto the ash heap of history, it won’t have been put there by superior firepower, but by an idea whose time has come. Like Gandhi before her, perhaps Malala’s personal conviction and example will inspire real change against daunting odds. America can’t manufacture such moments to suit our national interests, but it should be smart enough to recognize and ride them.
Lambson: Not only can America not manufacture such moments, but we make unnecessary enemies when we try. I do not know what you mean by national interest. What I think of as national interest is best served by the spread of democratic ideals. We probably facilitate that more by setting the example than by bombing villages.
Bagley: Malala is an example for all of us. She put everything on the line to help girls in her country to simply go to school. It occurs to me that we can emulate her on an individual level, not by rushing off to build schools in Waziristan, but by taking note of needs in our own communities and pitching in. Here we don’t even have to worry about people killing us for it.
Lambson: I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know how to measure this, but I suspect that more significant change is brought about by lots of people working within their spheres of influence than by so-called great leaders. There is a story (probably apocryphal) from French history wherein a crowd of people are running by and a passerby tries to ask one of the stragglers what is happening. The straggler replies that he can’t take time to answer the question. “I am their leader. I must follow them,” he is quoted as saying.
Bagley: The best rumination on courage I’ve got is from John Wayne. “Courage is being scared to death . . . and saddling up anyway.” Sometimes that means just getting out of bed.
Lambson: This marks my last regular contribution to BTL, after nearly a year and a half. Perhaps we will do it again in another 30 years, from our respective nursing homes. Who knows how our opinions will have evolved by then! You get the last last word, old friend.
Bagley: This isn’t the end of Behind the Lines, but there will be some changes. There will be guest contributors and on occasion I may just hog the space to explain just what the heck I was thinking when I drew the cartoon. Good luck, Val! It’s been enlightening.