20 April 2010

bits and pieces

I'm often taken to be some sort of radical pacifist by people who support(ed) the Iraq or Afghani wars. So it is occasionally necessary to define the reasons I didn't.

1) I think attacks against the Taliban and especially Al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan may be justifiable. It's not clear that they were necessarily productive in the way that attacking an organised nation-state with armies in the field may have been, but a lot of international relations is a sort of signaling effect. To demonstrate seriousness of taking certain international actions, it is sometimes necessary to respond to those actions when they are harmful with harmful effects, in order to dissuade other like-minded groups from fulfilling the same actions.
2) I don't think the subsequent occupation and installation of a "favorable" government and in particular the democratization of Afghanistan was useful, productive, or in our national interests. There are a number of problems with this idea, not least of which being that we have no historical model for installing suddenly the cultivation of western-style democratic values in a place that has little to no history of such values or the institutions necessary to help bring them about. Both Germany and Japan, held out as the historical examples flop on their faces, both had a lot of the necessary institutions (sense of national identity, middle class, industrialised economies, Germany even had used free elections to select its fascist rulers) available and much more organised governments and/or societies which were defeated in their will and capacity to resist in a way that Afghani tribesmen have not been for centuries. We cultivated no regional allies for useful ends to help us in this process. Pakistan had a vested interest in the utility of the Taliban itself in its regional problems with India, thus removing India, a large modestly democratic state with improving relations during both the Bush and now Obama administrations, as a potential player. Iran had the misfortune of being Iran. And most of the southern ex-Soviet republics had versions of the now installed Kabul government, co-opted by Western (ie, American) ends and very little interest played to local and national concerns. We further disregarded the likely feeling of local concerns by occupying the country with soldiers on a mass scale prior to those "free elections" that we are so fond of when they produce approved results in weaker states (and subsequently ignore when democratic repression occurs in modestly powerful allies like Thailand or Egypt)
3) I see no justification for the assault on Iraq. A few Afghani warlords may have armed or harbored some international criminals. Maybe that makes lobbing some missiles and bombs and sending in some special operations raids justified. There's at least an argument there that some national interest was defended by attacking the people and organisations who attacked us. There wasn't an equivalent national interest at stake in Iraq. We were, however, informed at great length that there was. At least until we were there and that great and powerful reason never materialized (as any half-witted person observing the Middle East could have told you from the beginning). I will admit to not shedding tears for Saddam Hussein's hastened departure from the mortal coil. But occupying a country to kill one man whose power and armies pose no substantive threat either to us or even to key regional allies has hardly been a good enough reason for the US to send in the Marines in the past. We have claimed it was, in Somalia, or in Kosovo. But it actually was a mess. And those were far less messy situations than collapsing a despotic Iraq and then imposing "democratic" self-rule according to our designs. Distributing food aid or kicking out Serbian forces to play World Supercop are not trivial assignments and they cost us some well-trained personnel to prove it, but they're also not things that require tens of thousands of troops in some faraway place for decades.
4) The real questions are not "do you support the troops?" and "do you love America?" but "what is the national interest of the United States of America in the Middle East?" The answer is, in part, oil. But we can still buy oil from Venezuela or Iran even if they are hostile and vocal opponents of our nation, because they have little else to sell and that is a valuable source of income for them. In fact, even though we are hostile and belligerent with each other now, we already do, even if not directly, simply because oil has no sticker on it that declares where it came from. There are no "Made in China" or "Made in America" campaigns to be had. So oil is not a significant reason on its own because we don't really care where it comes from and in truth we buy most of our oil from other countries who aren't in the Middle East, such as Mexico or Canada or that aforementioned Venezuela (Japan has a much better case for oil being a compelling national interest in its dealings with the Gulf states). What we end up with, in large part, is Israel. Here again the real questions are not "do you want Israel to be destroyed" or "do you support Israel", but rather "what does Israel do that we should support?". It has a rudimentary democratic state with a relatively free economy, much as many of our other allies around the globe do. We have a vested historical interest in defending the Jewish peoples who live there and migrated over generations from Europe, where they were systematically persecuted and exterminated. What it does also however is engage in a systematic method of partitioning its state into first and second class citizens, much as South Africa did during apartheid, stripping away the property and lifeblood of thousands of Palestinians, providing it to Israeli settlers, fortifying them into effective ghettos and blockading these against the outside world. This is hardly a behavior we should wish to ally ourselves with. We can (and indeed, should) defend Israel against external and even vicious terrorist attacks without supporting such ridiculous policies as settlement expansions and militant blockades of refugee populations.

Why does this come down to Israel at all? Well for starters, outside of the first Gulf War we don't have a lot of real allies in the region (other than Turkey). We have some favorable governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but these are even worse off than Israel in the abuse of human rights and exercise no democratic rights whatsoever for their own citizens. For another, there's a broad coalition of American fundamentalists who seem to think that Israel matters because they read their bibles, but don't actually care about Israel itself (self-interest for that whole rapture thing looks like). And mostly its because the terrorists in the region care about it. Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and others all use some aspect of the Palestinian question as a recruiting tool, as a display both of American power and intrusive dictation in the affairs of these putatively Muslim nations and as a display of our hypocrisy in the statement of our support for things like human rights. That these organisations themselves often are (extremely) radical and hostile toward those inviolable human rights is a matter of significant notice, but so long as our actions are perceived as the cause of these abuses it fosters growth and support rather than metaphysical questioning of the righteousness of their cause. In effect, "the terrorists win" by doing nothing at all and letting us do as we have been doing. They lose when they blow something up.

At least until we react to the explosions.

The reality is that wars are sometimes inevitable and necessary. Violence is to be avoided in international relations when it can be because of the scars it leaves on the citizens and soldiers of all nations and the destructive power that it can swirl up. When it is unnecessary and avoidable therefore, war is a tragedy and maybe even a criminally stupid action that does not serve our national interests to advance it. It's impossible to say that we have followed this maxim with any great consistency throughout our history, but that is no excuse for continuing to ignore it and charge forth into battles that served no purpose and perhaps even endangered the realm. It isn't even necessary to examine the manner of the war's conduct, our own ignorance of our enemies and their will or object in fighting, or the progress, such as can be claimed after the fact. None of these were factors in our decision(s) to fight but were instead tactical points that came along as those decisions were put to practice. That we failed on many of them, even on the subjective scales of neo-conservatives on some of these points, ought to be galling to more people because of the blood and treasure that they cost America and some of her allies. But they are not so bloodcurdling to the nationalist fervor of a nation as the assertion that it was for naught to begin with.

Give me a war and cause worth fighting for and I will throw myself into the fight. Give us a worthless cause and you will receive a worthless fight.

"If man does find the solution for world peace it will be the most revolutionary reversal of his record we have ever known." - George C Marshall. US General/Secretary of State.
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