Streetwise Professor

November 19, 2016

I’ve Learned My Lesson, But Far Too Many Have Not

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:40 pm

Tim Newman has written numerous excellent posts of late, but the one that resonated most with me was this one from about a month ago, which in response to a reader’s question about what he admitted changing his mind about, he admitted to having misjudged the outcome in Iraq:

I supported the Iraq War for several reasons, one of which was I thought the Iraqis deserved the chance to be free of Saddam Hussein and run their country without him.  I genuinely thought they would seize the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Arabic people are not incompatible with democracy and, so thankful that Saddam Hussein is gone, they would make a pretty decent effort to make things work.

Instead they tore each other apart and did everything they could to demonstrate that those who dismissed them as savages that needed a strongman to keep them in line were right all along.  I think this was probably the most depressing aspect of the whole shambolic affair.

. . . .

But the one issue I changed my mind on was that the US (or British) military should no longer be brought to bear for altruistic or humanitarian reasons.  It is rather depressing, but I am now a firm believer in the premise that a population generally deserves the government it gets.  No longer would I support a war that is not prosecuted for clear strategic reasons that are indisputably in the national interest.  So all those suffering under the jackboot of oppression?  Sorry, you’re on your own.  We tried our best and look where it got us.

I couldn’t agree more, for I have undergone a similar conversion. I too succumbed to Western universalism, and believed that freed from the oppressions of a sadistic dictator, Iraq had the potential to become a passably free, democratic country that could become a role model for a benighted region. I believed that the problem was misrule from the top, rather than dysfunction at the bottom.

I was wrong.

What Iraq has taught me–reminded me, actually, in a rather forceful way–that although political and economic freedom are highly desirable, the preconditions that make this possible are the exception, rather than the rule. Further, the preconditions are highly culturally and historically contingent. The experience brought home forcefully the relevance of civilization (as Huntington emphasized): not everyone yearns to be like Americans; in fact, to many Western/American beliefs and mores are an anathema; Western institutions and behaviors can’t be grafted onto fundamentally different civilizations and cultures, and they certainly won’t arise spontaneously in the aftermath of the overthrow of a repressive regime, especially one that has deliberately crushed civil society for decades (and I could say something similar of the FSU); the tragic view of history has much more predictive power than the progressive view.

I should have remembered the experience of the Reconstruction in the United States, or Napoleon’s experience in Spain, or myriad other historical examples of the futility of attempting to impose a social and political revolution on a hostile alien culture.

Iraq, and subsequently Libya, pushed me back to my Jacksonian roots. Reforming foreigners isn’t our business. What they do amongst themselves is up to them, as long as they don’t harm Americans or American interests in a serious way. If they do that, deal with them forcefully and quickly, with no dreamy ideas of “nation building” in the aftermath. A view summarized by one of my heroes, USMC General James Mattis, who while in Iraq said: “I come in peace. I did not bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes, if you fuck with me, I will kill you all.” Translated: we’ll leave you alone, unless you don’t leave us alone. In which case, watch out.

It’s one thing to make a mistake, to misjudge. It’s another thing to make a mistake and then learn nothing from it. We are seeing that right now, in regards to Syria. To judge by the words of many on both sides of the current political divide, Iraq (and Libya) never happened. Why do I say that? Because figures on both the right and left are advocating direct American involvement in the Syrian civil war, even though it makes Iraq look like Sunday school.

The catalyst for this waving of the bloody shirt is the carnage in Aleppo. John McCain in particular is beating the war drum, claiming that the US is now complicit in genocide in Syria. From the left, Samantha Power (she of Responsibility to Protect, which went so swell in Libya) obsesses about Syrian and Russian atrocities there.

Then there are the journalist/wonk pilot fish like Charles Lister and the execrable Michael Weiss, who churn out war propaganda in the best yellow journalism tradition, all the while doing their best to hide their connections with malign medieval regimes in the Gulf.

I will stipulate that what is occurring in Aleppo is horrific (although I would also note that the opposition is waging a transparent propaganda campaign  in an attempt to manipulate the US into intervening–a campaign in which Weiss, Lister, and their ilk are avid participants).

That said, what can the United States do about it? Would intervention lead to a less horrific result? What would be the likely outcome? Would the US be able to achieve its intended outcomes? What would the unintended consequences be?

Anyone who thinks about these questions without considering the sobering lessons of Iraq is a menace. But it’s worse than that, I don’t think that McCain, Power, Weiss, Lister, et al, think about these questions at all. It’s like Iraq never happened. The amnesia is rather astounding.

Here are my answers. There are no good guys in Syria, and even if with US assistance Assad was overthrown, it would not end the civil war, which would just devolve even further into a multi-sided hell that makes Libya and Iraq look like a picnic; it would empower jihadists who will slaughter as many or more as Assad has; the flow of refugees will not stop, although the composition of the refugees might change (with Alawites and Christians replacing Sunnis); if the opposition gets control of Syria, it will be the jihadists who control the opposition, and Syria will become a base for anti-American and anti-Western terrorism.

Syria is even more broken, complex, divided and fissiparous than Iraq was/is. It is rooted in the same political and religious culture, and the same civilization. Minority-based Baathism has had 13+ more years of power in Syria. So what has happened in Iraq in the last 13+ years is probably the best scenario in Syria. And I would consider even that happy prospect to be among the least likely.

And one more thing. An American intervention in Syria would risk a superpower confrontation. Even a unicorns and rainbows outcome in Syria would not make such a risk worthwhile, and as noted above unicorns and rainbows would not be the result–a dystopian, sectarian war of all against all would be. And the US should be in the middle of that why, exactly?

Some, notably Weiss and even more respectable journalists like Edward Lucas, link Syria to a broader conflict with Putin’s Russia. Syria, Lucas tells us, is Putin’s first step in rebuilding the USSR.

Seriously? That sounds like the ravings of someone playing Risk on LSD.

Pray tell, where does Putin go from Syria? The road to the Elbe runs through Aleppo? Who knew?!? Even if Putin succeeds in propping up His Man in a shattered country that has no natural or human resources to speak of, what then? Does that change Putin’s calculus of exercising power or force in the Baltic, or the European plain? Does that change Russia’s fundamental strategic weakness (most notably a decrepit economy that is utterly incapable of supporting an extended confrontation with the US)? No to all. Hell no, actually. Syria is a diversion of Russian effort and strength in one of the least consequential countries in the Middle East.

Yes. Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe. But as Tim Newman said, the US (or British) military should not be dispatched to intervene in such places for humanitarian or altruistic reasons. Because regardless of how altruistic the intentions, the outcome will be grim, and policy should be based on what is possible not what is desirable. If the desirable isn’t possible, leave it be.

I would go further. Even if you believe–especially if you believe–that Russia and China pose grave threats to US interests, Syria is not the place to fight. It will be another ulcer that will drain American morale, produce debilitating internecine political conflict, kill and maim American service men and women, and sap its military. Better to devote resources to recapitalizing the American military than to pour them into a lost cause like Syria–or pretty much anywhere else in the Middle East.

One of the most encouraging outcomes of the election is that the likelihood of American intervention in Syria has gone down as a result: Hillary was clearly much more favorably disposed to intervention (e.g., she spoke favorably of the idiotic idea of no fly zones, a McCain hobby horse) than Trump. If Trump truly is Jacksonian, or defers to his Jacksonian base, he will not get involved. Indeed, methinks this is exactly why McCain has become particularly unhinged in the past days. He realizes the prospects for intervention have plunged, and in his impotence he is raging.

Obama’s instincts were actually sounder than Hillary’s here. Would that he had the courage of his convictions and eschewed any involvement whatsoever. Instead, he gave mixed signals (“Assad must go”, the “red line”), and authorized a CIA effort to support the (jihadist-dominated) opposition–an effort that succeeded in getting 3 Green Berets killed a few weeks ago. (The CIA is an institution that I have also had a serious change of views about.)

Historical parallels are never exact. But it is difficult to find one as close as between Iraq and Syria–temporally, culturally, or civilizationally. Given the historical precedent, it is beyond reckless even to contemplate seriously US involvement in the Syrian civil war. But too much of our political class are latter-day Bourbons, having forgotten nothing and learned nothing. One of the benefits of the rejection of the political class on November 8th is that there is a very good prospect that we will also reject some of their worst ideas, of which intervention in Syria on humanitarian or geopolitical grounds is probably the worst of all.



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  1. I think you overlearned the lesson a little bit and you are essentialising certain historical accidents. The US managed to make democrats out of nation of Nazis and fanatical emperor worshippers. It’s a question of resources and commitment. In absence of security, people fall back into tribal identities. Islam was politically quiescent till the 70’s. it was the failure of Arab socialism that brought about the rise of political Islam. There was nothing s inevitable about it.

    Comment by Krzys — November 19, 2016 @ 10:05 pm

  2. Well, if Americans harbored any illusions about Iraq, they should have listened to Israeli intelligence before they started the war. The weight of a century worth of experience shows that getting rid of one dictator or another is not what will bring about the flowering of democracy in the Arab or Muslim world. The reasons for this are complex and it’s certainly not because the Arabs are savages. (That’s just racist.) And saying that American idealism and good-hearted naivete is the only thing that brought the war about is just self serving.

    Comment by aaa — November 19, 2016 @ 10:27 pm

  3. @Krzys-Major differences between either Germany & Japan and any country in the ME.

    Further, look what was necessary in order to achieve those outcomes. Virtual destruction of two countries, with millions killed.

    The biggest difference is one thing that I emphasized in the post. Germany & Japan were a serious threat to US interests, and had in fact (to paraphrase General Mattis) fucked with us in a major way. Syria hasn’t done that, and would never be capable of it.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 19, 2016 @ 10:36 pm

  4. It was the prospect of the Iraq Attack that moved me from “I wonder what the purpose of this is?” to “Just bloody don’t, you oaf”. I watched the telly in horror as the US achieved everything I expected: a walkover victory in battle, and a huge strategic calamity. I do hope Trump doesn’t decide to try his luck at getting yuge, yuge victories. Tactical mastery and strategic stupidity was the mark of Germany twice in the twentieth century. The American habit of winning battles but losing wars is now seventy years old. Beware! Even the American Empire can’t last forever but there’s no need for Presidents to hasten its collapse.

    Comment by dearieme — November 20, 2016 @ 6:02 am

  5. Reads like a four step program for neocons. Just need the four step now for other elements of globalization. 🙂

    Simple acid test for me-If not willing to prosecute swiftly to the end to unconditional and unequivocal surrender then not worth fighting.

    The essence of war is violence. Moderation in war is imbecility.
    Admiral John Fisher

    Comment by pahoben — November 20, 2016 @ 6:29 am

  6. @Professor The cost of war was relatively small and didn’t require millions of dead. The problem is that Bush administration wanted to do it on the cheap and apply the Eastern European model of ’89, where the German/Japanese model was needed: years of massive occupation and social engineering. That was further compounded by the tribal nature of those societies. Note, though, that the Baathists, no matter what one thinks of their brutality, were able to suppress tribal forces, especially in Syria.

    I understand what the Bushies were trying to do: cut the Gordian knot of dictatorship and the discontent it bred in a region with strategic importance. However, They were simply too blind and too cheap to do what was needed to achieve the program. They thought democracy is a set of principles as opposed to a set of social forces.
    Ironically, the very same mistake both the intersectional left and principled conservatism are today making in their own country.

    Comment by Krzys — November 20, 2016 @ 10:55 am

  7. Driving around in warships and aeroplanes pretending to be the World’s Policeman. While ostentationally refusing to put boots on the ground.
    ‘Cos too much ground, and not enough boots.
    It sounds like a cry from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.
    As we’ve seen in China, Cambodia and Rwanda, ordinary tools can kill more people more quickly than specialised tools can stop them.

    Comment by bloke in france — November 20, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

  8. Iraq probably could have been stabilised if there was a long term occupation and a division into separate states along ethnic and religious lines. At least the Kurds deserved a chance.

    Syria is more a European problem than a US one, but either Europe will seal its borders or acquire new Governments that take a harder line on refugees.

    Implicit in avoiding boots on ground is an acceptance of ongoing terrorism, as I assume the logical extension of the Mattis doctrine ‘nuke them from orbit’ is off the table.

    We’re more civilised than the Romans right?

    Comment by noir — November 20, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

  9. As per Huntington.

    Comment by eric — November 20, 2016 @ 10:02 pm

  10. The Kremlin had more than a little to do with the rise of islamic terrorism (the CV of a certain Evgeny Primakov was most enlightening to that effect) – has been a most useful tool in the Kremlin toolbox ever since. Today it’s one of the cornerstones (another being corruption export) of the Russian strategy to avoid responsibility for the war crimes in Europe. The West is as much asleep at the wheel as ever.

    Comment by Ivan — November 21, 2016 @ 1:19 am

  11. @Krzys
    I don’t agree with your assessment at all. Japan and Germany were put into a receptive frame of mind prior surrender and no widespread insurgency remained at the time of surrender. Iraq as you note is tribal and a contrived amalgam. Homogenization of the population in Iraq sufficient to allow a vibrant democracy to develop would have required far more deaths. Boots on the ground help only to the extent they homogenize the population in a manner consistent with the desired outcome. Speeches and passing out candy to children would have had no material impact on the result. Social engineering only effective if that means strong and ongoing military action to eliminate large swaths of the population actively opposed to a change of culture.

    For God’s sake you can see from migration into the West that even when completely immersed in European culture there is an insurgency and widespread support for Sharia Law and widespread opposition to European culture.

    Comment by pahoben — November 21, 2016 @ 4:02 am

  12. Look at the case of Sayyid Qutb who lived in the US and that formed the basis of his writings against Western culture. His work was the basis of Islamism and was influential for Jihad and influenced bin Laden and Zawahiri. Just to be clear I make no judgement about people’s beliefs so long as they are not forced on the unwilling.

    Comment by pahoben — November 21, 2016 @ 4:17 am

  13. It seems to me this social engineering idea rests on the belief that there is a superior culture (call it US/Euro liberal democracy) and this superiority is in some way self evident. That people, if given the opportunity, will adopt this culture and you just need to show them the mechanics.

    Sorry but this is not the case.

    Comment by pahoben — November 21, 2016 @ 4:34 am

  14. The only thing that boots on the ground result in the ME is bodies in the grave in Arlington and budget in the red in DC.

    Comment by pahoben — November 21, 2016 @ 4:55 am

  15. A shopkeeper’s monkey snatched the scarf of a schoolgirl in Libya last week that sparked intertribal violence that left sixteen dead and included use of artillery. They must not know that this behavior is inconsistent with liberal democratic ideals-need to name Hillary as special envoy to explain our ideals further.

    Comment by pahoben — November 21, 2016 @ 5:37 am

  16. Great quote from the Caledonian Chief about the Roman Legions-

    Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant

    Where they make a desert, they call it peace.

    An estimate of total Roman Legion casualties from 400 BC to 500 AD is 885,000 legionaires killed in battle. Not an expert but really Roman losses seem high versus their foes except when they killed slaves and they reportedly killed a lot of slaves.

    Comment by pahoben — November 21, 2016 @ 8:27 am

  17. @pahoben-Like many empires that routinely pushed their frontiers into distant lands populated by pastoral peoples, the Roman legions periodically suffered huge catastrophes, as in the Teutoburg Forest. (Latter-day examples include Islawanda and Little Big Horn).

    Of course the Romans also suffered catastrophes is battles against conventional opponents, esp. Hannibal (Lake Trasimine, Cannae) but not only Hannibal (e.g., Adrianople).

    I would note that 885k over 900 years is ~1000/year. Given that some of those years saw losses of 10s of thousands, that seems rather modest, even taking into account population differences.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 21, 2016 @ 10:59 am

  18. Good point Perfesser – also consider that in many Roman conflicts (e.g. the Jewish revolts of the 1st & 2nd centuries AD involved auxiliaries – non legionnaires and almost always non citizens.

    Comment by Sotos — November 21, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

  19. @Professor
    One Legion was about 5,000 men so about 170 legions total. I suspect you are right and maybe twice that. Global population in the second century AD is often estimated at 300 million and Roman Empire about 60 million and Legions at that time totaled about 500,000.

    A truly great movie scene is Patton explaining to Bradley how he was at the siege of Carthage.

    Comment by pahoben — November 21, 2016 @ 2:27 pm

  20. @pahoben Obviously, the underlying assumption is that there is a superior culture. That’s what the whole American exceptionalism is built upon. However, it’s not a question of principles. We did not give the imperial Japanese and nazi Germans a lecture and called it a day. We beat them up into liberal democracy. The occupations were long and, ahem, forceful.

    As to immigration of foreign cultures. Yes, they might not be receptive to liberal democracy, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the dominant culture. If it’s confident and, again, forceful it will make people into citizens. The Irish, Germans, Slavs, Jews in the US did not become Americans because they loved the constitution. They were beat into it, often literally. Why do you think, Trumps family pretended to be Swedish?

    Comment by Krzys — November 21, 2016 @ 10:49 pm

  21. The “not worth it” argument does, however, also have to be moderated by obligation, be it legal or moral.

    Take the case of Georgia, where the population do embrace democratic values. Where the country had the highest per capita contributions to the US effort in Iraq and Afghanistan (where their troops operated without caveat, unlike pretty much every European contribution), and where in 2008 they were thrown under the bus by the Euro’s and Obama’s reset in 2009. Currently the Russians are occupying a large chunk of Georgia, and constantly take further small bites of territory.

    If Russia again invades, for example to make a land corridor to Armenia, will the US just go “not our problem”? Despite the fact the Georgians have been a loyal ally?

    Comment by Andrew — November 21, 2016 @ 11:46 pm

  22. @Krzys – Both Germany and Japan had been constitutional democracies prior to the 1930s. Imperial Germany starting in 1871 and the Meiji constitution in Japan from 1889. Further after the end of the German monarchy in 1918, the creation of the Wiemar Republic in Germany when the SPD chose not to follow the path of the Bolsheviks in the USSR and formed the Republic that functioned for another 15 years until the Nazis won a mere plurality during the depths of the Great Depression in 1932 & 1933.

    Comment by JavelinaTex — November 22, 2016 @ 1:53 am

  23. @Krzys
    This in addition to other good points made here by others.

    Why Swedish-because he was in real estate in New York and after the war German’s not greatly popular among some groups in New York.

    Superior and self evident implies that the superiority is easily seen and so adopted without coercion. This is contrary to your narrative.

    What changed after WW 2 to result in Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. The major change is how war is prosecuted by the US. At the end of WW2 there was no armed widespread resistance. The defeated governments and the people as individuals accepted absolute and total defeat. Much different than Afghanistan and Iraq where active resistance remained and the rules of engagement were such that this resistance could not be treated as it would have been in WW2. Civilian casualties in WW2 were treated as necessary to prosecution of the war but now seen as unacceptable and the fundamental basis for very prescriptive rules of engagement. Fire bomb Dresden-no problem. Continue with Nagasaki-when are wheels up. Attack a house that might have civilians present-big problem. Attack a convoy that includes Sheikh Omar-let’s discuss it at a higher level. We need help at Tora Bora-do the best you can with no civilian casualties mind you. If any location post WW2 deserved a nuke it was Tora Bora.

    I just can’t agree with your thesis that occupation was the problem. The ongoing problem is the over politicization of prosecution of war. If you are not going to prosecute fully then don’t start and don’t mandate rules of engagement certain to result in endless conflict.

    US war prosecution is kind of like the Incredible Hulk. At the start of a conflict kicking butt and irrepressible but soon changes back into mealy Bruce Banner and hates himself for losing control and doing damage. It is the same time after time after time. Everyone knows you just have to wait until the US turns back into Bruce Banner and opportunities galore.

    Comment by pahoben — November 22, 2016 @ 5:59 am

  24. German population at start of WW2 was about 69MM and so 35MM males. German military deaths were about 5.3MM and so 15% of all males killed in duty and excluding civilian deaths.

    Japan’s population was 70MM at the same time and so again about 35MM males. Japanese militray deaths were about 2.3MM and so about 7% of the male population killed in duty.

    Total German deaths during WW2 about 7MM and Japan about 3MM.

    The Iraq Body Count project estimates (it seems they are making reasonable efforts to account for casualties) total Iraqi casualties during both wars as 174,000 (estimate male at only 50% so 87,000) and population about 33MM so 16.5MM male or .5% of Iraqi males. The per capita testonsterone level wasn’t reduced nearly enough in Iraq to achieve the objectives.

    Comment by pahoben — November 22, 2016 @ 6:59 am

  25. What is the cultural difference between North and South Korea? What was it betwen East and West Germany? Clearly very different equilibria within the same culture are possible due to external force. Arguably it is harder for Americans to have a clue on how to bring about positive change in Iraq than it was in Germany. But if Obama administration were those overseeing the post-WWII rebuilding of Europe, Lisbon oblast would have the highest potato yields in the USSR by now.

    Comment by Ivan — November 22, 2016 @ 5:53 pm

  26. @Ivan
    Saddam, Assad, Qadaffi et al did have equilibria established that were successfully disturbed by external forces rather than internal. The rules of engagement for both North Korea and East German governments (EG disturbed by internal forces actually) against resistance more similar to WW2 than post WW2 US (EG weakening through time more so than NK).

    Agree that there are levels of force that will provide compliance of an unwilling population but my point is that those levels in the ME are way above what the US has been willing to use. That is what the US/EU elite has been unable to accept because they believe that the cultural superiority of liberal democracy is self evident and will be gladly adopted by any populace if the opportunity is presented by their dear selves. That may be so if you kill maybe the most non compliant 10% of the male population and threaten the remainder with execution no matter how small the transgression or maybe that is still insufficient in the ME.

    Comment by pahoben — November 23, 2016 @ 5:53 am

  27. Agree that there are levels of force that will provide compliance of an unwilling population but my point is that those levels in the ME are way above what the US has been willing to use. That is what the US/EU elite has been unable to accept because they believe that the cultural superiority of liberal democracy is self evident and will be gladly adopted by any populace if the opportunity is presented by their dear selves. That may be so if you kill maybe the most non compliant 10% of the male population and threaten the remainder with execution no matter how small the transgression or maybe that is still insufficient in the ME.

    I absolutely agree with this. If the West wants to go to war in the ME again and expect to win, it will have to carry out slaughter on a scale that would never be tolerated back home.

    Unless, of course, those back home had been subject to one atrocity too many.

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 23, 2016 @ 8:31 am

  28. Loooooooool
    This war is about control of an oil sources. If these countries were without sources of oil.
    Probably ” god like and only one fair” an US government were never interested of them existence .
    Keep this in mind.
    Your government told you what you should think, thousands of times.
    And Like Goebbels said , you think lies are true.
    This opinion from Europe 🙂

    Comment by echh — November 25, 2016 @ 9:59 am

  29. USA is a new Germany and they destroy country one by one.
    This is fact and result of politics and PR.
    But you are looking at this and you think it is a gift for these people.
    Because you are thinking in a way they teached you.

    This is annihilation of millions , destroy of life of thousands of families.
    Economic slavery for people(for this and next population) and oil control for a government.
    Fkn joke , democracy lol

    Comment by echh — November 25, 2016 @ 10:06 am

  30. Professor:

    I think we all should look in wonderment on how right Heinlein was back in the 50’s. I especially believe you need to expand the definition of “poverty” to include political and not just material wealth when thinking about “poverty”.

    Comment by JeffreyL — November 28, 2016 @ 2:06 pm

  31. @JeffreyL
    Funny you should say that because one of the bitter disappointments of my life was realizing Heinlein was wrong. When I was nine I was sure at 18 I would be fighting Bugs in the depths of interstellar space with very attractive females in my unit and on my way to becoming a citizen. Didn’t work out.

    Comment by pahoben — November 29, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

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