The United States was entrenched deeply in two major wars throughout most of the first decade of the 21st century. Just after the shocking September 11, 2001 attacks organized by al Qaeda, the US responded strongly by invading Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power.
After a quick initial success in the landlocked country, the US went to war against Iraq on less convincing grounds. The world, which was solidly behind the US for the Afghanistan War, stood divided on the eve of the Iraq War. While the rationale for the Iraq war was shaky, the might of the US military was not. The Saddam Hussein regime was toppled soon after.
By 2003, the anti-war movement was in full swing in the US. War was firmly in the mind of the politically conscious. By now, there were wars abroad and at home. Supporters of the war presented their case and the anti-war side presented theirs everywhere. At times, it was not a debate. It was a shouting match.
It would take some years before temperatures cooled. The anti-war side eventually gained the upper hand. Barack Obama campaigned as an anti-war candidate in the 2008 presidential election. He won that election. The appetite for war was gone by the end of the decade. The US began to withdraw its troops from both Afghanistan and Iraq to focus more on its economy.
I remember the war rhetoric employed then by the pro-war groups. I remember exactly the phrase war supporters used to put down criticism of the war. The thought-terminating cliché was this: Support our troops.
Underneath the cliché was a stark case of false dichotomy. One has to either wholly support the war or oppose it unpatriotically. It is either you are with us or you are against us. There was no room for criticism. There was no in between. As George W. Bush infamously put it then, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
And here we are in Malaysia at a stand-off with an armed Sulu group in Lahad Datu, Sabah which has turned into an armed conflict. There is a possibility that it may turn into a wider conflict still but I am sure we all hope that it will end as quickly as possible without further escalation.
It is unfortunate that the conflict has cost lives on both sides. It is regrettable that the Sulu group refused to negotiate the matter peacefully. Ample opportunities for a peaceful outcome were placed on the table but the peaceful option was rejected by the armed Sulu group.
The armed Sulu group had themselves to be blamed and a bloody outcome was inevitable. In that sense, many Malaysians support the current action of the Malaysian government and its military.
That, however, does not mean there are no criticisms mounted against the Malaysian side. There are signs of incompetence in the handling of the crisis. The fact that a large group of armed men entered Malaysia so easily without early detection in the first place speaks volumes of the failure of those in charge of border security.
As the crisis progressed, various ministers were still politicking with eyes inappropriately set on the upcoming but as yet undeclared general election. One of the relatively trivial top stories highlighted by RTM, Bernama and TV3 during the crisis was the expansion of the “transformation centre” by the prime minister.
Indeed, during the crisis, the prime minister launched his Instagram campaign. He did not care to comment substantively about the ongoing crisis until, again, very late in the game.
Thanks to this misplaced priority, the public was left in confusion. Both the Malaysian authorities and the mass media failed to provide timely and accurate information about the situation on the ground.
For some weeks, information provided by the authorities even proved to be false and it was contradicted by later developments. It raises the question of whether the authorities were on the ball at all. The home minister is especially guilty of this. In fact, I am honestly curious what the home minister did until the military stepped in.
Instead of relying on Malaysian institutions, the public had to rely on Philippine news outlets instead. I take this as an incredible failure of the Malaysian government and the media establishment, specifically those in television and radio.
And what do these individuals and institutions ― which have failed us ― want us to do now?
Support our troops.
Yes, let us hide behind our collective patriotism to hide our incompetence.