Friday, October 17, 2014
The Madness of King Stephen
As excuses for war go, claiming a conflict to be "noble" is really scraping the bottom of the barrel. It's something you resort to when there's simply nothing left to pull out of your ass. "Squires, attend your Lords. Summon the Heralds. To the jousts! Ah, there's a noble scent to the air."
Perhaps Harper had to call our adventure in Iraq noble because the default option would have been "insane." Insane in the popular sense of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It's that sort of insane.
Over at Foreign Policy, Harvard international relations prof, Stephen Walt, serves up an op-ed, "Uncle Sucker to the Rescue," in which he explains that Obama is repeating the same mistakes that have plagued American excursions in the Middle East for decades. While Walt focuses on Obama, his views do help make some sense of Harper and his Quixotic quest for a noble war.
Ever since the first Gulf War, U.S. leaders have routinely exaggerated the threat that the United States faced in Iraq and/or Syria. ...Why is threat inflation a problem? When we exaggerate dangers in order to sell a military, we are more likely to do the wrong thing instead of taking the time to figure out if a) action is really necessary and b) what the best course of action might be. When a great power gets spooked by some grisly beheadings and decides it just has to "do something," the danger is that it will decide to do something unwise.
A recurring problem in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been the insistence that no problem can be solved if Uncle Sam isn't leading the charge. By portraying IS as a direct threat to America and by rushing to attack it, however, we are telling the Iraqis, Kurds, Turks, Saudis, and everybody else that the cavalry is on the way and that they don't need to do much themselves. No wonder we can't get the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to be less corrupt, more inclusive, and more effective; no wonder we can't get Turkey to focus on ISinstead of the Kurds; and no wonder we can't get the Saudis to do more to stop the flow of money and poisonous ideas to extremist groups. Simple equation: The more Washington promises to do for them, the less our local partners will do for themselves.
...Frankly, after all the resources we've poured into Iraq and Afghanistan, and the meager cooperation we got from our putative allies there, I would think America's "staying power" wouldn't really be an issue. Instead of pouring good money (and possibly U.S. lives) down that particular rat hole, I'd like to see the people who are most directly affected start fighting this one for themselves. Unless the Turks, Jordanians, Kurds, and other Iraqis are willing to get their acts together to contain these vicious extremists, even a protracted and costly U.S. effort will amount to little.
Sorting Out Conflicting Priorities
...the neoconservatives in the Bush administration hoped that toppling Saddam would be the first step in a campaign to transform most of the region into a sea of pro-American democracies. Once it became clear that Iraq had no WMD program, the goal of spreading "liberty" throughout the region took on greater salience. This objective led U.S. officials to focus more attention on holding elections than on achieving genuine reconciliation or creating political institutions that actually worked. Plus, we had no idea what we were doing.
Today, the Obama administration seems surprised that the Turkish government is more worried by Kurdish nationalism than by IS, and that many Sunnis in Anbar think Baghdad and various Shiite militias are a greater threat than IS is. The reality is that other states, tribes, sects, and groups have their own interests, and those interests don't conveniently coincide with the prevailing orthodoxy in Washington, D.C. That doesn't mean their view is right and that U.S. politicians are wrong, but successful diplomacy has to start by recognizing that no two states see things exactly the same way and others sometimes understand their own interests better than we do. Then, you have to work to find whatever common ground might exist. And if there isn't enough common ground to make the strategy work, be ready to walk away.
The Bush administration promised that the invasion of Iraq would be short, easy, and would pay for itself. Bush also told us the United States would eliminate all "terrorists of global reach." Trying to eliminate a particular tactic used by many diverse groups was a fool's errand, especially when U.S. military intervention tends to reinforce the extremists' narrative and helps them replenish their ranks with new recruits. The United States is still in Afghanistan today -- and so are the Taliban -- and it is congratulating itself on convincing the Afghan government to let us stay for a few more years. And now we are headed back into Iraq. Osama bin Laden may be dead and gone, but the endless war that he foresaw would sap U.S. strength and weaken existing Arab governments is still underway.
...Obama now promises to "degrade and destroy" IS. He is succumbing to the same tendency to overstate what U.S. military power can accomplish in this context. Air power alone cannot "destroy" IS, because it is too imprecise an instrument and because the extremists can blunt its effectiveness by dispersing its own forces and mingling with the local population, thereby producing an unacceptable risk of civilian casualties. We can try training the Iraqi army again and we can back various Iraqi tribes and militias, but our earlier training efforts clearly failed and our experience in Afghanistan suggests that this is more likely to lead to warlordism and renewed sectarian fighting than it is to produce a stable political order.
The bottom line. It's a regional war being waged, to the suiting of both sides, by Western infidels. The people who could put a lasting end to it aren't there - the Saudis, Egypt, the Gulf States. They've got soldiers and tanks right up the yin-yang sitting back in their barracks watching endless reruns of old Eurovision contests.
The oil sheikhs and princes are quite content to see the West dragged into an indefinite skirmish in Shiite-leaning Iraq and Syria even if we may leave their latest Frankenmonster, ISIS, a bit bruised and battered. We have demonstrated that our "All the King's horses and all the King's men" style of war-waging, the "noble" kind is never decisive, never yields a worthwhile outcome.
I wonder if they think we're mad? I wonder if they're counting on it?