If a Martian came down and read Charles Krauthammer and you asked him whether what he had read made any sense, he would be be baffled and would wonder why you had even asked the question.  ”Of course not,” the Martian would say.  “How can you earthlings read this junk on a regular basis?” 

It seems to me that Krauthammer brings in his argumentum ad Martianum whenever he’s feeling particularly strapped for bad excuses for the policy he is defending in a column, but I have no solid evidence that he trots out his Martian friend with that much regularity (he has so many columns filled with bad excuses for general belligerence).  Perhaps this is why he is so concerned to continue the space program and put a man on Mars?  So that he can finally meet all those Martians who somehow always manage to support whatever cracked idea he happens to be selling?  He certainly needs to find someone who thinks he knows what he’s talking about, so perhaps looking to inhabitants of other planets would be the way to go.

What follows seems like a pretty obvious objection, but it would appear that Krauthammer has so far largely gotten a pass on his most ludicrous column of this year.  One of Ezra Klein’s guest bloggers takes a shot at it, but really doesn’t do much with it.  What does Krauthammer’s conference with the Martian tell us?  Iraq is much more important than Afghanistan!  (How did I know he was going to say that?)  Krauthammer writes:

Thought experiment: Bring in a completely neutral observer — a Martian — and point out to him that the United States is involved in two hot wars against radical Islamic insurgents. One is in Afghanistan, a geographically marginal backwater with no resources, no industrial and no technological infrastructure. The other is in Iraq, one of the three principal Arab states, with untold oil wealth, an educated population, an advanced military and technological infrastructure which, though suffering decay in the later Saddam years, could easily be revived if it falls into the right (i.e. wrong) hands. Add to that the fact that its strategic location would give its rulers inordinate influence over the entire Persian Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait ,and the Gulf states. Then ask your Martian: Which is the more important battle? He would not even understand why you are asking the question. 

If you were to then tell the “Martian” the rest of the information that would show the true significance of the two theaters, even the “Martian” would have to agree that Krauthammer doesn’t understand the first thing about geopolitics or strategy.  What rather strategically significant country borders Afghanistan and could be affected rather signficantly by a resurgent Taliban in the borderlands?  That would be Pakistan.  That would be the Pakistan that has a nuclear arsenal, and which has a highly unstable authoritarian government and the Inter-Services Intelligence branch that is heavily compromised by sympathies with and ties to jihadis forged over decades of sponsoring jihadis in Afghanistan and India.  Western Pakistan also now serves as the base for the Taliban and, to the extent that it is centered anywhere, the center of the leadership of Al Qaeda.  Of course top Al Qaeda figures would talk up Iraq as the main front–all other things being equal, if you could convince your stupid enemy to fight you far away from where you are and make him think that he was dealing you a death blow in the process, you would do this, especially when the effect of this is to reduce his attention on the far more pivotal battle going on in the supposed backwater.    

There is a very real possibility that jihadis of one sort or another could seize control of the government of Pakistan and its nukes, precipitate a war with India or use jihadis as couriers for nukes to attack targets abroad.  There is virtually zero possibility of Sunni jihadis controlling any of Iraq’s oil resources, and no chance of them controlling a large, somewhat effective military or a nuclear arsenal, since Iraq doesn’t have either of these (on the military, Krauthammer is recycling things that used to be true about the relatively ”advanced” Iraqi military infrastructure, but which really ceased to be true in 2003). 

American withdrawal from Iraq will very likely be bad for many Iraqis, but failure in Afghanistan and the added destabilisation of Pakistan that would result from it would probably create evils so many times greater and so much more numerous that even the comparison between the two might strike the thoughtful observer as rather silly.  If you explained all that to the “Martian,” he would probably wonder why it is you are wasting so much time, energy, money and men in Iraq.  Some of us aren’t even from Mars, and we already knew this.

Update: Writing a little bit after I wrote the above post, Michael Crowley at The Plank gets it:

But is Afghanistan really so “geographically marginal”? I would say that Martian might take careful note of Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan. He might wonder why Americans aren’t downright panicked that an unstable nation infested with Islamic radicals constantly trying to assassinate its dictator has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons. And moreover that a top Pakistani nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, has shared nuclear secrets with America’s enemies. And that other Pakistani nuclear scientists are reported to have met with Osama bin Laden himself.

I see the Pakistani bomb as a greater near-term threat to my own life than anything that might happen in Iraq in the next few years. Given the proximity of Afghanistan to Pakistan, and the way Islamic radicals play the two countries off one another, it seems to me that creating stability and a climate inhospitable to anti-American terrorists there is no “marginal” thing at all. Surely Krauthammer’s Martian could understand that.