11 November 2009

foreign policy

So we are fighting for what again?

I feel it is most appropriate on Veteran's Day not just to spend time honoring sacrifices, but to wonder whether those sacrifices are appropriate and necessary requirements in the first place. A soldier who dies for his country, his squad mates, his family and friends, or whatever great and noble cause they assign themselves that provides the motivation to fight in strange lands and endure the unendurable ought to be afforded the right to know that these battles mean something. That they were not wasted.

And then we can examine the situation on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan today and the question becomes: for what? We were told about the potential for dangerous weapons and threats to our nation. But neither materialized from the governments or the people of those two countries prior to our invasions. We were told that we were going in to advance freedom and democracy. We've gotten a hodgepodge of feudal warlords and narcotics profiteering in Afghanistan, and one plainly rigged election this year (in addition to the previous one). And it appears quite clear that despite the relative peace in Iraq (compared to periods years prior), that the factions of power there haven't been resolved during that space in such a way as to create a functional democracy. In fact, it's basically reverting back to habits long remembered and resembles more and more the nation to their east than some bastion and bulwark of democratic freedom in the "land of Islamic fundamentalism". I didn't live through the Vietnam era, where public opposition included stronger issues like the mandatory draft of military service (for all but a select few). But I'm beginning to understand why that war went so badly and carried on for so long even when it was clearly pointless.

We can't support and advance freedom by installing dictatorships and painting over the buzzing of individual liberties by those governments. Distributing water and necessary supplies is all well and good. Maybe building some infrastructure to replace the stuff we blow up is okay. But neither of those advance the people on a path toward their individual rights. They're merely in a pattern of sustenance and reliance trapped between collaboration with an occupying army and its resistance. We can label people who fight against an occupation as terrorists all we want. I consider it asymmetric warfare. It's bloody. It's messy. It's inhumane. But it's pretty much the only option of resistance to a culture that has no traditions of passive and peaceable assembly to redress grievances and no great armies to resist the invasions and international intrusions of their power. We can try to tie the success of such groups of partisan resistance to international terrorists and religious radicals all we want. The fact of the matter is that they spring up out of the same national or local instincts to defend themselves and their fellow countrymen that called so many to serve the military here in the months following September 11. This was as true in Vietnam as it is now. The strategies being used are different, the tactics as well. But the underlying situation looks pretty much the same each day it goes forward. Just as true, we have to convince ourselves that there must be a purpose. There is a sunk cost effect that we have developed over the years of committing troops to battle that we must come away with a feeling that it meant something, there was a victory in all that. There were tactical victories. There may even have been some strategic advantages that we could have developed (and I think squandered years ago).

Nothing of that understanding will excuse the tactics, the deliberate killing of innocents by both sides (this is not to say it was a deliberate policy, but it has happened that individual American soldiers and mercenaries have murdered civilians deliberately and not out of some procedure of rules of engagement or collateral damage), the torture and execution of prisoners (again, both sides), or the local use of repression and reprisal tactics of fear and vengeance. But since it seems most appropriate to refer to some core Sun Tzu attributes

1) "So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself."

We do not know ourselves because we are not honest with our people for the reasons, for the purpose of our actions, so they cannot fully commit themselves to battle when they discover the deceptions that we've employed instead (in addition to repressing our own liberties and freedoms in a fateful quest to expand it somewhere else, which seems like the most successful attempt to create a zero sum game of total human freedoms of which I've ever heard). And we certainly do not know our enemies because I've yet to see a clear understanding on a policy level that asks: why do they fight and how do we stop them from wanting to continue doing so? This is in part a Clausewitz question as well. One prevails in a war by breaking the enemies ability to fight and desire to resist. Not by merely committing treasure and blood to a conflict with putatively superior equipment and training on your side.

2) "The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger".

If we accept this premise that our goal is to spread democracy by force, then we proceed from a false assumption (that you can spread democracy by force to areas without democratic functions and preconditions already in place). As a consequence, we are no longer in complete accord. It is much easier for our enemies to reach "complete accord" (if such a thing exists, or ever did) because they can also appeal to the sense of invasion and occupation that is felt and observed by the peoples who are ostensibly being freed.

3) "All war is based on deception" - This is true in many forms. A war of information is based upon the control of sources of information and the distribution of it. A government which suppresses a press may have a reason for doing so. But it's probably not a reason which is apt to suggest that it is acting favorably to that people it purports to be empowered by or on behalf of in defence. It is true that crucial military matters can and will be concealed in the moment. This is not in question. But in the aftermath of brutal failures, reasonable questions will be asked, and their answers sought. That also has to be acknowledged, and a government should not become embroiled in a war against its own people as a result (by suppressing free press criticisms or political dissidents).

4) "No ruler should put troops into the field to satisfy his own spleen"

Sunk costs are still costs. "no general should fight a battle simply out of pique" - just because the troops are there doesn't mean you need to use them to fight a war.

5) "Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content"

Needs no explanation. "But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life" - This is true of both sides. We can't bring back the thousands lost in NYC years ago. I don't see how that required a policy that amounts to revenge against an entire culture.

6) "The enemy's spies who have come to spy on us must be sought out, tempted with bribes, led away and comfortably housed. Thus they will become converted spies and available for our service" "The captured soldiers should be kindly treated and kept. This is called, using the conquered foe to augment one's own strength"

Both cases argue for a battle over ideals. And failing that, to be more sincere and fair to our enemies when they are defeated than we have been in these conflicts.

7) "Therefore the skillful leaders subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field" - 1/3. We sort of captured Afghanistan without laying siege, which was surprisingly effective. But so did the Soviets. "In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns." - Let me know when there's a plan to WIN something and to secure some vital interest. I'll be happy to back that war.


I think we've got maybe two of those in our history. The revolution itself, which is arguable. And WW2. The Civil War was a bit of a different equation entirely since we decided to fight that out ourselves against...ourselves. It was arguably worth the cost to ensure some basic liberties to generations of people who were denied them for no good reasons, but it was after all a bitter price to pay. WW1 was a farce (and given that Veteran's Day here is Armistice day everywhere else, we should really be looking at the causes and decisions of WW1 critically at least once a year, and not merely the causes of American involvement). Spanish-American War and Mexico were naked imperialism (in the second case, we should have just bought the rights for California as we did pay for it anyway, and presumably Spain could have sold us bases in the Pacific by the time we got around to attacking them). Vietnam and Korea, Iraq 1&2/Afghanistan? The biggest joke was probably the War of 1812.

None of those were conflicts with vital interests at stake. There may have been some political advantages extracted for Koreans (especially if you lived south of the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula), for people moving west of the Allegheny mountains and into the Mississippi/Missouri river valleys in the early 19th century (but not for the slaves that were imported to that region or the natives who were deported into and then from that region by force), and for some now regional allies of sometimes questionable moral and trade importance to America or any sense of global justice and human decency at large, as in the cases of Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. I think there were ways to fight these new wars, if we needed to fight them. Counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism work. They're just really hard to make work by use of military force in a foreign territory for prolonged stretches of time with little or no discernible local support either already in place or developed over time. There's a fantastic line in Full Metal Jacket about all this. Afghanis, Iraqis, Islamists, Vietnamese, Cubans, etc are not Americans. We clearly don't like the idea of some guys with ideas from the 14th century coming in and trying to dictate terms to us anymore than I imagine that they like it when we do the same.

We must eventually all learn this or we will continue to be in a world of shit.
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