Moving Goals

When you are up to your neck in alligators, it is hard to remember that you were sent there to drain the swamp.”

This colorful expression of folk wisdom points in several directions simultaneously. The adage prompts reflection, above all, on a phenomenon commonly known as “mission creep.”


Recent foreign policy discussions on Iraq and especially Afghanistan routinely include references to mission creep. In each case U.S. military forces were sent abroad to accomplish one thing (topple Saddam Hussein, flush out Al Qaeda) but wound up engaged in a variety of activities that far exceeded the original mission. Some commentators deride as meddlesome nation-building the same contribution to physical and societal infrastructure that others praise as an exercise of fitting responsibility (“You break it, you own it”).

Faith-based initiatives are another area where pundits wring hands over the threat of mission creep. If a charitable agency under religious auspices accepts public funding as a social service provider, the agency is obliged to abide by regulations and to measure outcomes in ways that raise the specter of mission creep. The fear of insidious shifts in priorities has deterred the administrators of some church-based programs from seeking out “charitable choice” funding for which they are fully eligible.

I recently received a letter from a Catholic sister seeking ethical advice about coping with mission creep. Her monastery has been so successful in producing high-quality (and delicious, I can attest) food products that the burgeoning production enterprise is threatening to distort the way the sisters spend their time and focus their energies. The sisters need to make a living, my correspondent explained, but greatly fear compromising their single-hearted devotion to prayer and contemplation. Without vigilance against mission creep, the very enterprise designed to support their livelihood may end up disrupting their lifestyle.

This episode recalls how Thomas Merton lamented (even cursed) the success of his monastery’s industry of mail-order fruitcakes and other foods. The business of keeping up with ever-growing demand struck Merton as a distraction from what really should have been going on at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Ever the gadfly, Merton even wrote a satiric poem comparing the monastery’s cheese factory to the tower of Babel.

Mission creep comes in many varieties, of course, so it is essential to calibrate one’s response to the particular challenge at hand. For those two monasteries, some bold lines needed to be drawn to preserve a way of life against harmful incursions. Merton’s playful mocking of incongruities he perceived seem pitch perfect as a reminder to his fellow monks of the proper values to be safeguarded. Fighting mission creep here is a matter of avoiding distractions and gaining awareness of human folly.

But there is nothing even remotely funny about the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. The varieties of mission creep in each of these distinct instances present complex challenges for military planners. The landscape of each country is dotted with moral dilemmas. No course of U.S. action at the present crossroads can possibly preserve the full range of values and meet all the objectives worth achieving. An overly hasty retreat means turning our backs on struggling people and fragile systems of governance, but an indefinite occupation will be costly and probably unsustainable.

Might the Gospels supply some guidance here? As usual with matters of public policy, not much light is shed by appeal to the simplistic question, What would Jesus do? Some Christians might imagine the earthly life of their savior to be characterized by frenetic activity, indeed by a high tolerance for mission creep, as he repeatedly responded to an array of urgent human needs in his public ministry. But for every passage portraying Jesus as prone to distraction and stretching his efforts to the limits of human endurance, there is another about Jesus pulling back for prayer and solitude in order to remain focused on carefully chosen goals.

Which is the real Jesus? The Gospels neither resolve that tension nor provide a detailed blueprint for dealing with mission creep in foreign policy or elsewhere. Once again, we are left to drain the swamp and cope with the alligators by our own lights.

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