The War Comes Home: A Book Review of ‘The Management of Savagery’

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In the aftermath of the First World War there was a famous example of ‘the war coming home’ in the German Freikorps, which largely fought as anti-Bolshevik forces in the power vacuum of Eastern Europe before returning home and disproportionately joining far right movements that would be eventually subsumed under the Nazi Party. The famous and impressive Czech Legion which found itself stranded and forced to cross the length of civil war Russia to escape the other end in coastal Siberia experienced a similar phenomenon. Perhaps most analogous to modern day audiences, and the one with by far the most soldiers deployed abroad was the Japanese Army in Eastern Siberia. They were those who played the largest role in the Siberian Intervention and arguably did the most to secure the deliverance of the Czech Legion.

Japanese troops were kept fighting a low level guerrilla war of occupation in Siberia past the end of the rest of the intervening powers in that war. Although their presence succeeded in extracting oil and gas concessions in the region before departure, it was a failure in its main (if unstated) goal of making Primorye partially detached from the nascent USSR and open to business with Japan (see ‘Japan’s Siberia Intervention‘). A long and expensive intervention soured the public and domestic pressures brought the troops home. Some troops would terrify the home country with the influences they had picked up from the reds. Many others of those troops, specifically the officers, would go on to influence the growing cadre of right wing radicals in the army, a faction that would one day go rogue in the seizure of Manchuria and then go on to usurp the government, setting the Japanese Empire on an inexorable path towards self-immolation in World War II.

Max Blumenthal’s new book: ‘The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump’ is far more contemporary, but is charting a very similar process to these events that happened almost a century ago. But this time there is only one seemingly unstoppable world power and a host of non-state actors.

I was fortunate enough to attend the book launch where I purchased my own copy and had it signed by the author. You may recognize his name, along with his colleague Ben Norton, as the co-hosts of the podcast ‘Moderate Rebels’, which is my personal favorite podcast which I have referenced a few times before. At that event, Blumenthal referred to the book (whose release had to be delayed and relocated due to complaints from a combination of Beltway lanyards and Syrian rebel backers) as ‘the most dangerous book in Washington.’ Its not hard to see why this could be so.

The book charts the rise of American-backed Jihadism, a process that really swung into full action with the Soviet War in Afghanistan and the golden opportunity for the CIA to inflict revenge for Vietnam on the arch-foe. Though most people in DC know of this story and the reverberations of it (Steve Coll’s quite good book Ghost Wars is a common staple around Washington) there seems to be a collective cultural and political denial that this still happens. Not only that, but that this process, only really briefly interrupted by the immediate post 9/11 rush to combat the Taliban (itself a partial creation of these policies, if unintentionally) also has domestic blowback similar to the kind once experienced by multiple nations in the interwar era.

9/11 was used by many of the more hawkish elements of the American defense establishment, as well as a crisis hungry media (I was overjoyed to see I am not the only person who remembers that the top news panic story of summer of 2001 was the false claim of a rise of shark attacks world wide-its referenced directly in the book) to roll out an ambitious neoconservative plan of reckless expansionism. This parade of wars, botched operations, and flagging public support soon after Iraq turned sour in turn led to the rise of various media grifters seeking to make a buck (or a public profile) off of the War on Terror. Both Islamists often recruiting from the west to fight in regime change wars coming home to commit terrorist attacks (The Manchester Bombing for instance) as well as radicalized far right racist terror of a more indigenous persuasion not only fed off of the blasted detritus of American policy failures abroad but also each other directly in the domestic field.

The events are recent and many of them I have written about here before. But Blumenthal weaves a convincing narrative about just how interconnected all of this is, and how the neoliberal/neoconservative center is the ultimate enabler of the extremism it claims to be the bulwark against (see my last post for more on what I call ‘Trident Theory’). Right wing grifters and Jihadists alike feed off of each other. ISIS recruitment documents prove they intentionally provoke this as a strategy. The smarter people on the far right must know more terrorist attacks by Islamists are good for them electorally. Perhaps Steve Bannon himself wants to secretly and indirectly ‘adopt a muj’.

Much of this is enabled by conscious decisions by foreign policy elites in various countries. The grotesque tableau of the humanitarian warrior who loves refugees so much they want to make more of them by leveling their country allied with the Bolton-hawks who are just in it for the fireworks and the forceable opening of new markets abroad. For the specifics of this tale of woe we have all lived through, knowingly or not, I cannot recommend ‘The Management of Savagery’ enough. Especially as Representative Ilhan Omar faces critiques both by the xenophobic right and the increasingly pro-neocon center and center-left and the media does it best to drown out the necessary issues driven candidacy of Tulsi Gabbard.

To bring this full circle I am reminded of the first college essay I ever wrote that I could be genuinely proud of. It was a comparative study of a historical and (then) contemporary event, presaging what I often do now. It was an essay for a history class on the Japanese Empire taught by the excellent Professor Roden of Rutgers University. I first cleared with him that I could add contemporary elements and he graciously accepted.

It was about the Japanese Empire’s fall to radicalization to an extremist elite that festered in the military and intelligence services. It spoke about the connections of the rhetoric of the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ as compared to what was then Bush’s Second Term and ‘Freedom Dividend’. It spoke of traumatic events leading to sea changes in public opinion (The Great Kanto Earthquake, 9/11), the lack of a unified or bold opposition, and debilitating wars that only expanded with time-all under the ideological impetus of a form of national exceptionalism.

I was an undergraduate then and aside from its core ideas it probably wasn’t very good by my current standards. If it still exists anywhere its on an old computer in storage or a lost thumb drive. But I will say this: despite all the insanity of politics in our present time one thing that is decidedly different from both the interwar period and the early to mid oughts is that there really is opposition to this stuff. Perhaps not yet unified, but it is there. The effects of these policies, after all, are undeniable and all around us. There is more dissent today. Maddening as the present can be I know I felt far more alienated from discourse in the Bush Jr years. In very real material terms Bush killed far more people pursuing the quixotic dreams of American Exceptionalism, expanded far more of the surveillance state, and had more of a media lock than Trump-so far- has. People never would have believed back then that a common Middle Eastern moniker for extremist Islamic sects was ‘American Islam’, or that the Iraq War’s greatest beneficiaries was Al Qaeda, who was given a second wind by the chaos there, but the amount of people willing to hear such uncomfortable truths is far higher now.

I had no nope then. I have the modicum of some now. Take from that what you will.

 

 

 

 

Despite all the Agent Orange, the Jungle Grows Back

Fighting wildfires

The DPRK-USA summit in Vietnam is about to start. Given the generations that have passed since a frozen armistice was put in place and the decidedly erratic character of the American president I will withhold from speculating on how effective such talks will be. I do support having them, however. Everyone should. There is not a person on this Earth that would benefit, long term, from renewed hostilities on the Korean peninsula. Even the usually gleeful for conflict types in policy and business would suffer when China, now a nuclear armed nation came to the DPRK’s defense. Though we do not presently look like we are are staring down the barrel of such a confrontation, leaving the festering sore of nonexistent relations between Pyongyang and much of the rest of the world is of little benefit to anyone.

My concern here is that Pyongyang has an astute eye on Venezuela, and rightfully so. Saddam Hussein had no up to date weapons of mass destruction but for domestic reasons could not come out and say it. His lack of them hardly prevented the war that came his way. Qaddafi then saw an opportunity for his nation to be lifted from U.S. sanctions and in return give Bush a (minor) victory by renouncing such weapons. This failed to save him from an attack launched by the Obama administration under heavy pressure from Britain and France. This taught the world, and especially Syria, that it wasn’t worth giving up your WMD’s. In fact, it might be just what you need to make more powerful foes think twice. Everyone knows Israel, which once was subjected to endless conventional attack, has not been so attacked since it (unofficially) became a nuclear power. Everyone knows that North Korea’s bargaining position has been stronger since it became one. The intercontinental ballistic missile is the ultimate sovereignty guarantor.

Meanwhile, while this noteworthy and laudable attempt to normalize relations with North Korea goes forward, the US is attempting at the very same time to topple the government of Venezuela. This is extremely counter productive and will put Pyongyang on edge. Considering that all factions in Venezuela are unpopular, and that so far most of the army seems to be sticking with Caracas, it flirts with the risk of conflict or disruption that could set off another wave of migrants and conflict. Even if it does not, outside of private corporate interests who seek the Venezuelan economy opened to them, the average American stands no chance at benefiting from any major US-backed operation there…but will no doubt pick up the tab for it as always. Indeed, Maduro’s popularity is extremely low but not lower than Macron’s (who arguably treats opposition protesters worse), and opposition to US military intervention in that country is significantly higher than even the percentage of the people who want Maduro gone. If they want him gone, they will do it their way.

So far of candidates running for high office, only Tulsi Gabbard has raised a voice of opposition to our destabilizing actions in Venezuela, particularly at this sensitive time. The odds are high that if reaching a deal is more difficult than expected this would be the reason why.

This is just one issue among many that one could point to in order to make the counter-point to a growing Beltway-Lanyard narrative about America’s supposed withdrawal from the world. Robert Kagan, a well respected prognosticator despite a very long record of supporting failed policies, uses the phrase ‘the jungle grows back.’ We often see this narrative used increasingly by democrats and ‘never Trump’ conservatives to critique Trump from the neoconservative right. They are setting up a false binary where we must choose between pure isolationism and endless brushfire-war militarism. This is obviously false because there is quite simply no way the worlds largest economy could return to anything resembling prewar ‘isolationism’, much less give up its numerous diplomatic ties.

There is this assumption that undoing World War Two, the crucible of American world domination, lurks as a potential in every part of the world. But the Second World War was not normal, it was bizarre. Most of human history does not have quite so large conflicts in all out total war for global hegemony where the triumph of one side was so clearly preferable than to the other. The circumstances that made the prewar era do not exist any longer. And most tellingly, it would hardly be the United States to which much of the world would look to for deliverance at this point in time. This is because rather than intelligently shoring up its position once its last remaining true rival, the Soviet Union, fell in 1991, the United States has gone on not to uphold the stability to the post Cold War world but to endlessly undermine it. In so doing it has not only undermined its own position through over-expansion, but also made itself the most feared and least trusted nation on planet Earth. Trump’s bumbling obviously doesn’t help, but this problem dates back on some level to the over-expansion of NATO in the Clinton administration and especially from the unhinged Bush Jr. presidency. If the rest of the world doing its thing is the jungle, then we are Agent Orange. And the overreach of so much of our consensus foreign policy has made a lot of those jungle dwellers nostalgic for the days without chemically induced mutation.

In my time at the State Department I often found that the foreign service officers who had served in countries that struck an independent course of self sufficiency were often the ones more content with their ‘hardship’ (not fully developed nation) postings. Prewar Syria and Belarus were commonly lauded places to be. There is, perhaps, a reason why foreign service officers are restricted to two years per post abroad. You don’t want them getting any funny ideas about countries pursuing independent paths of development.

This needs to be kept in mind when doing big diplomatic negotiations like the one currently in Vietnam. A country that we dumped endless amounts of chemicals on, then left, and allowed the jungle to grow back. Now Vietnam is doing better than ever before in modern history *and* has positively warm relations with the United States. Diplomacy, its cheap and effective and our war to preserve the artificial construction of South Vietnam was for nothing. But in addition to hard power backing up diplomacy it also needs the soft power of knowing you are reliable and trustworthy.

Many in North Korea may be looking at Venezuela and wondering how many concessions it is worth giving the United States. It didn’t have to be this way, and it sure doesn’t in the future. There is a professional and political class in desperate need of replacing.

Beltway Ghouls Circle the Wagons

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On multiple prior occasions, some of which can be found in this blog, I have consistently made one prediction: that any attempt to question the ever expanding and increasing sclerotic U.S. militarism fostered upon the world would be the ultimate breaking point between those who recognize the desperate obsolescence of an insular and incestuous American foreign policy establishment, and those who would do anything to defend it. The past few days has proven my point to any who still somehow could have ever doubted it.

The new congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, found herself on the receiving end of numerous bipartisan attacks for daring to suggest that powerful lobbying groups, AIPAC specifically in her case, use money to wield disproportionate influence over the policy making process. In a world with the NRA, defense contractors, numerous astroturfed ‘tax policy’ groups, and Saudi cash to be found in almost every think tank in DC, this is hardly some out there allegation. Its simply fact. But likely because she is an anti-interventionist, and almost certainly because she is Muslim, an utterly hysteric reaction has consumed the establishment press demanding her contrition for peddling in ‘anti-semitism’. This was fueled by her retweeting Glen Greenwald, who himself is Jewish. The audacity of America’s gullible policy ‘wonk’ journalists and commentariat to the talking points of politicians never ceases to amaze me. This smearing continued today when Omar grilled Elliot Abrams on what his intentions towards Venezuela might be. Numerous denizens of the darkest caverns of mouthbreathing analysis sought to tie the two issues together by implying that any hostility to Abrams was also anti-semitism.

If you are familiar with this blog going back awhile you might gleam that while I might be opposed to intervention in Venezuela for a variety of reasons, Abram’s record isn’t one of them. I know ghouls because I *am* one, in a sense. The outsider ghoul. In the service of strategy or policy directives I supported I could take on all kinds of shady assignments for the sake of the art. Like those strategists of Warring States China or Renaissance Europe, there isn’t a single chauvinistic bone in my body towards foreign nations (unless its Saudi Arabia, of course) and I could, theoretically, offer my services from one group to another if we lived in such a context. I know that there will always be competing nations, and the art of grand strategy and diplomacy analysis is a cool job you can eke out knowing that and working with it. If someone presented me with an interesting project to undermine a country, or uphold one, I could do it making whatever broken eggs were necessary. I have never been anything but honest about this. I excoriate bad strategy, no matter who does it, and praise good strategy, no matter who does it. Hence why I am often impressed with how Iran, for example, plays a poor hand against a bumbling America. I would much rather live in America than theocratic Iran. But the Iranian foreign policy establishment of today is one I can *respect*. And I could still respect it were it my job to actively plot against them.

Abrams, however, shown by his indignant response to questioning, shows if he ever knew this he has clearly forgotten it. In the DC bubble, where careerists faun and flatter and boost each other into failing upwards regardless of skill, it might be an easy thing for one to do when they are complacent.

This brings me to what I really want to talk about which is related to the pure intensity and across-the-board ghoulery of this reaction to Omar’s comments. Because this howling chorus of lanyards, from the ever ignorant Max Boot types to the endlessly wokescolding ex Obama and Clinton staffers who always want to remind you to ‘believe women’ and ‘believe black women’ (unless they criticize AIPAC, the DNC, or the endless war state, of course) shows exactly the group think present in DC establishment institutions. This groupthink is not something I need to once again go over, but I need to specifically mention here is that it is not, despite what you may think, entirely cynical. Sure, some of it is. Party hacks on both sides of the isle have taken a cue from the Blairite melts in the UK who constantly smear Corbyn as anti-semetic for…well not being a huge fan of Israel. Leaving aside how they sloppily conflate an entire diasporic ethnicity with the governing elite of one country, this is a purely cynical move now taken up with relish by the Democratic establishment in particular who seek to prevent newer and younger elected officials questioning any of its canards. If such ridiculous call-outs continue to happen the fact is we will soon reach a point where to criticize wahhabiist terror or the Saudi monarchy will be conflated with anti-Arab racism…though I am sure some wokescold is already working on that thesis as I write this (its probably Shadi Hamid).

But not all of these howling bien pensants are so cynical. This is the core horror I can impart upon you, dear readers. After having lived in DC for over three years now I can say this with full confidence. Many of the people here, especially those in leadership positions of think tanks, nonprofits, and media organizations, but also low level people in government and business, actually believe their own bullshit. From American Exceptionalism to the magic of neoliberal markets, from ‘humanitarian intervention’ via the military to the view of America’s alliance networks as ‘values based’ to the cult of the billionaire entrepreneur…so very many of the people here actually believe this shit. Ever wondered how America could think going into Iraq with no post war plan and that few troops would work? Now you know. Libya? Moderate Rebels? And now the jaundiced gaze of the Beltway  ghoul turns to Venezuela.

That is the true horror. Horror to the strategist not indoctrinated into the cult. Horror to anyone who wants reform or substantive change. I’m both. As you can imagine, being here can often verge on a type of stark dread only to be found when Lovecraft dreamed of Yuggoth- where puffed shoggoths splash. These may not be all of the people that influence who governs, but it is far too many of them. And that is why they howl and hoot and holler in such rage and indignation when called into question, because you aren’t just disagreeing with them…you are blaspheming against their religion. The ghouls will circle the wagons when heresy from outside threatens their genteel discussions of insular theology.

But the problem with this faith is that we don’t have the luxury of waiting around for their elders to die off naturally or them to learn from the real world. The clock is ticking on the next insane war they are planning and the planet is warming and we simply no longer have the time when dealing with such people. We have only the shock of heresy to wield to remove and replace them.

 

 

 

O’Bagy and Boots: Spirit Totems of the Beltway Ghoul Class

You may not remember (or have ever heard of) Elizabeth O’Bagy. Basically, she was a fraudulent expert hired by the (neoconservative) Institute for the Study of War to serve as a Syria expert. Her expertise was largely in advocating for the ‘moderate rebels’, whose work she did on their behalf she failed to disclose, and in lying to people that she had a doctorate. See below:

In a denouement that will surprise exactly no one, she had the right opinions of cheerleading endless regime change policies to qualify for a failing upwards promotion to join the staff of Senator John McCain (of course) as a legislative assistant.

What this small potatoes lanyard has in microcosm is in fact emblematic of a greater problem with the Beltway. I have mentioned before how ideologues get signal boosted and actual scholars get sidelined, but its worth mentioning exactly why this is and what purpose such a system serves.

Amber A’Lee Frost, who as far as I know has no foreign policy experience, accurately diagnosed the problem with so many regional ‘experts’ in mainstream foreign policy commentary. To paraphrase from memory, ‘the point of regional experts is-90% of the time-to advocate for more U.S. intervention in their region of focus.’ As someone who has lived and worked in DC for a few years now, I can confirm the truth of this statement. Objective reporting and actual regional expertise for cost/benefit calculation is sidelined for new ways to make a case for various forms of intervention and increased defense spending and to dupe the middle class rubes who seek such high minded sounding justification. This is the name of the game.

While these types are common beyond belief, a certain few always rise to what passes for media influence from time to time. William Kristol, the hilariously named Power and Slaughter Axis (Samantha Power and Anne Marie Slaughter), and on the list goes. But none has quite taken the O’Bagy status of our times quite like Max Boot.

Boot’s career is far more ‘impressive’ than any of these, if we take impressive to mean consistently and often hilariously wrong. He is one of the rare military historians who has achieved fame, and the method of acquiring that fame is the one which is most detrimental to history: parroting the popular political mythologies of the ruling class of his time. Despite the fact that a thorough study of global history, and yes, military history, reveals a total lack of teleology in human affairs save for the triumph of power and cleverness over weakness and rote-thinking, Boot has churned out one book after another turning advocating for an understanding of American history that supports the largely disastrous post-Cold War trends of foreign policy-as well as increasing those failed policies in both scope and intensity. I suppose at this rate he should be loved by accelerationists who wish to see a collapse of American world power, since the acceptance of everything he wants would fatally cripple the long term sustainability of American power.

But rather than go on about his career I really wish to lament that these are the people called in for ‘expert analysis’ on much of the media. All that gives the public is self-affirmation of the policy wonk bubble-a bubble that has been clearly failing since 2003 if not before. See for yourself Max Boot in action:

And also here:

What I find fascinating about both of these clips is that Boot is up against opposition that is hardly unsurpassable. Tucker Carlson is often laughable rube on many issues that are not related to his welcome recent turn on foreign policy. Stephen Cohen is a real scholar but is certainly the most uniformly pro-Russian voice you could possibly find on American television anywhere. Yet despite being able to take any number of ins, Boot always gets flustered that other people simply don’t believe in an ‘American Exceptionalism’ where great power politics is cloaked in the language of morality and norms. On the very format of cable news where his audience is most likely going to be sympathetic he cannot even hold his own.

When the propaganda machine promotes the unworthy every time they make a terrible policy prediction that just so happens to flatter the already existing biases of a class of people it will inevitably lead to their own PR not being able to hold its own in the public arena.

Perhaps, in this way, O’Bagy and Boot are indeed performing a public service of sorts.

From Whence Come Refugees? They Come From You

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I have a small but somewhat regular audience for this blog. WordPress is kind enough to give me view stats and though I am overjoyed to see over 40 countries so far have taken a peek, I do get more from the United States than elsewhere. Since I live in DC and this often guides me to write about directions in U.S. foreign policy, this is no surprise. I do, however, miss my earlier focus on more historical and sometimes even fictitious hypotheticals and do plan on moving back in that direction soon. Nonetheless, when something is topical its topical.

No doubt you have heard about the capstone of the raging shitstorm that is Week 1, President Trump. I speak of course of the temporary executive order banning migration from certain countries. This move actively harms U.S. foreign policy and undermines its position at working effectively with allies on the ground to combat extremist movements and build diplomatic bridges. It unjustly harms people and is a rank hypocrisy from a nation which is 98% descended from immigrants. It has also directly harmed those who have served U.S. interest abroad more than most American citizens have. But you don’t have to take it from me, the internet is flooded with outrage on this issue, and rightfully-for once-so. Because of this widespread condemnation, however, I do not feel it would be useful to add to an already common opinion. I would like to bring up something else, something specifically addressed to many, but by no means all, of the outraged:

I am happy you are so empathetic to refugees. But why, if you support these people so much, were you so content for so long to launch military operations in their countries, at least when your party was in power anyway? Operations not made necessary by major security concerns and operations which often resulted in furthering a crisis rather than alleviating one?

On social media I have noticed that so many of those who are first to proclaim themselves righteous defenders of Muslims are those who were either silent or tacitly supported various misguided American actions in the Middle East which resulted in thousands of casualties. We had legions of ‘woke’ partisans actively shrieking for a presidential candidate who promised, on multiple occasions, an expanded regime change war in Syria. These are the same people now, after this disastrous first week for a new administration, who blithely and smugly proclaim, ‘we were right, see?’ While ignoring that we could just as easily have been in an equally damning crisis a bit further down the line, with Syria as a new Somalia, hemorrhaging even more displaced people fleeing sectarian genocide in a power vacuum through the region and setting off radicalization like never before. Not to mention the resulting explosion in even more right wing populism in reaction to this in Europe and eventually America. The most effective means to counteract the refugee problem is to deal with it at the root and de-escalate military options in the region. Not inflame them. But no one, and no major party in America, seems to consider this an option. Despite all the money, time, and lives it would save. No one even seems to care about this issue that lies at the heart of everything from the rise of the right to the refugee crisis. The thought that the United States (and others) plays a major role in creating the refugee situation in the first place barely enters the equation. ‘We are the light of the enlightenment, shining forth in Buzzfeed Listicles, attracting only The Elect from their Hell of being born outside the glow of the North Atlantic World.’ Of course, being one of the tacit causes of these conflicts, the least liberals can do is take the refugees in.

But perhaps this is to overthink more simple motives. Most likely its that in their world of snarky op-ed pieces, ‘zingers’, childish fantasies of living in a world where The West Wing is real, and understanding everything through Harry Potter analogies- the American liberal simply does not care about anything that happens outside of their heavily domestic-oriented media consumption. Maybe the people who fancy themselves cosmopolitan are in fact merely putting on a show to cover up their superficiality and provincialism. Sometimes, a cause becomes fashionable and a status symbol, but until you see the human suffering on a screen and know it is in your country now, then, and only then, can you take a stand. Since our media barely covers Yemen, this would explain by no one outside of the foreign policy field seems to be even be aware of its existence as a major battlefield. The same once happened in the Congo. The more photogenic breakup of Yugoslavia, however, got all the attention. And naturally, when a Democrat launches a ill-conceived war, its not a problem. Its not even a war, but rather a kindler, gentler, ‘intervention’. Being opposed to a war is only popular with such people when the other party launches it.

I don’t know about you, but I was happy to see such a large turnout for the women’s march here in DC. A crowd much larger than the inauguration took to the streets to assert themselves against the looming shadow of a government potentially hostile to their interests. But I could not keep a sneaking and depressing suspicion out of my mind…had the election gone the other way, what percentage of these people would have shown up to protest an attack on Damascus by another new administration? Even after knowing everything that comes from such policies and how they come back to haunt us later. Even after Iraq, which has if anything a less toxic combination of internal factors than Syria does, ended up widely acknowledged as the biggest policy blunder so far of the 21rst Century? The answer? That crowd protesting in the National Mall would not be in the hundreds of thousands, but rather the hundreds.

But these are all speculations. So the question remains open: Why is it, for the average American liberal, more acceptable to drop bombs on someone than to ban them from entering the country?

 

A Strategy of Restraint: The Inevitable Future with No Current Backers

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Taking a grand view of American history, one conclusion seems inescapable: Americans are by and large apathetic or even downright hostile to caring about foreign affairs. The Second World War and the resultant uncertainties of its Cold War aftermath were enough to generate some amount of popular if superficial involvement by the public-at-large due to the massive stakes. However, with the end of the large scary oppositional power bloc that was The Big Bad Commies, the innate nativism was in danger of creeping back. But how then to justify the continued presence of numerous military installations around the world?

The answer was that America, as *the* global power, now had a positive rather than negative role to play with when it came to grand strategy. No longer having to deny the freedom of action of other powers, it could now globally take the offensive. A perpetual offensive of world-building rather than mere postwar selective nation-building. Naturally, sensing opportunity and the chance to act unfettered abroad the business community and the media followed suit, singing the praises of this messianic new cause. Intellectuals backed them up with glorious predictions of humanitarian causes and mutual integration through shared economic and political values.

Well, despite a promising and perhaps necessary coalition against Iraq in the 1991 war, and a relatively easy (if dubious in value) Kosovo operation in 1999 (let us ignore the Somalia debacle and the complete apathy regarding Rwanda here out of charity) this didn’t exactly happen except in a few specific cases. There is no need here to go over events everyone knows, but needless to say the marriage of liberal ideologues and right wing hawks which is the neoconservative movement capitalized on the events of 9/11 to push for even further and more radical world changing efforts. After all, what could be more shaking to this triumphalist narrative of eternal progress than the idea that a small group of retrogrades could suddenly call its effectiveness into question? The crusade had found its righteous causus belli to rally the masses.

But from the beginning the strategic limitations imposed by this thinking was apparent. Iran offered to assist the United States against the mutual foes of the Taliban, and they were brusquely refused. A chance to engage and fix a toxic relationship was thrown out, partly because it hurt pride, and partly-one imagines-because it hurt the narrative. Only now, after fighting against effectively the same people in conflict after conflict, has the U.S. begun to ponder the usefulness of engaging with Iran.

The completely unilateral and totally unnecessary Iraq War followed soon after. Needless to say, less than 200,000 troops and some set up elections did not magically transform a fragile society into a marketplace of reasonable property owners discussing the archaic nature of sectarian division in their salons and drafting rooms. The ridiculous idea of ‘De-Baathification’ (firing the entire armed forces, effectively) was founded on the hubris that what America had to offer alone could overcome history with the power of ideas. Instead, it led to a further inflammation of radical insurgency, and eventually the asymmetrical warfare and even large scale city battles such as Fallujah.

Ever since then its been a downhill collapse of U.S. popular self-confidence and willingness to engage in such operations. And yet, the policy establishment is undeterred by flagging popular support. William Kristol, the buxom bimbo equivalent who takes center stage in the neocon cheerleader formation, now blames tepid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq for the rise of Daesh-completely ignoring the first vital step in their creation was the very interventionist and regime-change supporting policies he championed. Even if you are for action against Daesh (and this blog most certainly is) we should not forget where they came from and that it is America’s mess and that America should clean up after itself. And yet, despite seeing the radicalization of the rebels and the dangers faced by minorities, these types still champion intervention in the Syrian Civil War.

Into this world came the necessary backlash. Mearsheimer was the first big name to be raising the specter of necon/liberal hijacking of the American strategic establishment, and others have followed in his place. I myself went from a history undergraduate to a IR postgraduate because I wanted in on the backlash myself. One of the most recent is Barry Posen, whose ‘Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy‘ I have just finished reading.

I am not going to go through his arguments point by point so much as to point out what I see as the gist of them. Posen sees, like Mearsheimer, the United States as by far the most capable power in world history. But even this realization does not mean it is an infinite and eternally expanding world-changer. It still has limits, particularly if it wants to spend money on anything aside from defense. And these limits mean it can choose between a shaky, unstable but all-pervasive hegemony or a stable, easier, possibly less dangerous limited posture on how it sits on the throne. No one calls it this yet (that I know of) but for sake of description we could refer to this alternative method as ‘Hadrian’s Seawall.’

Posen is particularly focused on the lackluster role of America’s main allies, who are happy to save money by getting a free ride on the United States’ largess. This is hardly a new observation, but it is a valid one. Countries that face legitimate threats would have to raise defense spending with a U.S. scale-back. More ambiguous ones might decide a new ally is in order. The question is, to retain dominance how many of these allies does America need? Clearly not Georgia-even Bush wouldn’t intervene there- and now its disgraced former president Mikhail Saakashvilli wanders Brooklyn as yet another out of state trust fund hipster. No, really.

What struck me most about Posen’s work is that many of the signs of this scale-back already seem apparent on many fronts. The Obama administration has begun the much vaunted ‘pivot to Asia’ in strategic priorities, and despite nebulous expansions of black ops in Central Africa and Yemen there are noises from policy makers that the Middle East is to be reduced in priority, and the oceans-especially of the Pacific and Indian-will be focuses of the future. But there is at least as much backlash to these necessary structural readjustments.

This is where I found flaws with Posen’s work. Overall, I liked the book and think its necessary reading. What he neglected to do however is to examine *why* people oppose the necessity of his ideas at least being injected into public debate. He gives too much credit to his opponents in assuming that they care about strategy, their country, or even are thinking rationally. Maybe I shouldn’t be hard on him, after all, deconstructing the motivations behind bad strategy is my niche (maybe in the future, I hope) so perhaps he left me a gift. But one of the curses of mainline realism is that it assumes policy makers are rational actors or that domestic concerns don’t influence their strategy as a dominant concern.

In this case I think both of those factors are at play. Many in the business community benefit from U.S. influence expansion even if their own country does not. Think what America got from the Iraq War-now compare it to what Haliburton got. There is still loot to be gained from regime change, even if soldiers are no longer allowed to ransack homes. Once upon a time raids were launched by poor countries against rich ones, nowadays that paradigm could be said to have been reversed in many case studies. There are resources which the removal of a strong (if nasty) state opens up. Even state breakdown and chaos creates non-state actors which can be influenced through bribery. Hell, even some benign NGOs would be bereft of donations without new trendy conflict zones opening up, though obviously they do not hope for these invasions in the same way some private entities do. Such non state actors wield great influence over lawmakers, and so push for more hawkish policies. In D.C. connections are everything-and who is better connected than a lobbyist?

But even this, I think, could be reigned in as it requires cooperation from people who do not benefit so much from this arrangement. Even the media’s most milquetoast commentators are wising up to this. Alone, it could not mold policy in such an overt way. No-there is another ingredient missing: True Belief.

Faith is a hell of a drug. And the truth is, given the (relative) transparency of the American system you could not get average people to go along with securing diverse resources for increasingly international companies unless many of them truly believed that they were doing good. Indeed, that it was necessary and if we don’t do so we will have to fight them over here…or something.

Officially, legally, and constitutionally America is not a Christian nation-and certainly not a specifically protestant one. But culturally that is still the dominant attitude in society. A strident missionary creed is held by leftists and rightists alike, the religious and the secular, but through it all is this idea that ‘Our values are righteous, the world is black and white, and we are the ones to win it for the light.’ Needless to say this trope treats all fights as worthy, moral, and on a higher level than base strategic interest. It is a view so ingrained very few are immune to its apparent charms. This had always been a part of the American character, and the era of isolationism merely meant it was often directed elsewhere, but it was fully unleashed in the 90’s onto the foreign policy world.

But that hypnotic gaze which has attracted so many is that of the gorgon. It is outside the scope of this blog to debate whatever merits this view has (or doesn’t) on domestic or philosophical points alone, but on foreign policy it is nothing but a stumbling block at best and a deadly poison at worst. Many policy makers behave in ways which eschews long term thinking for short term applause lines. Pessimism (a vital ingredient in strategic thinking-perhaps a separate post later on that topic) is eschewed for saying the right things about ‘American Exceptionalism‘ or the blind faith in democracy and free markets to fundamentally reshape the world. Of course, the world doesn’t move in a clean linear path. Alliances, revolutions, social and economic trends, all of it creates reactions and counter-reactions. A despotic country becomes a democracy and a democracy can become frail or unstable-necessitating a despotism replace it. Powers rise and fall. History has shown every example of someone claiming that ‘now everything political will be different!’ to be a charlatan or unhinged. There are indeed things to be learned from history, and one of them is the fallacy of declaring it over. It usually comes down to famous last words before the tragic overreach. America is no more capable of being the missionary who attempts to recreate the world to reflect their values than Britain, China, or Rome were in the past-and the last two of those were so successful in the long term because they actually made no attempt to impose universal order outside of their cores anyway. It is merely the ultimate of superpowers-an extremely impressive achievement but one whose effects are still tied up in the greater world’s histories, rivalries, and passions. No matter how powerful, a country younger than many of the rivalries it seeks to police is not going to have any insightful or positive impact in remote conflicts outside core interests. Yet many remain convinced that this is necessary if even just for the self-esteem of the state itself. It is often an emotional and irrational commitment.

In addition to finishing Posen’s book another thing happened today in the realm of politics by the way:

Hillary Clinton

Which could very well mean that as necessary as a discussion on U.S. strategy incorporating the ideas of ‘Restraint’ could be, we are likely to see a race where all the major contenders are, to varying degrees, in the neoconservative camp. Right now, the signs do not look great for an open or refreshing debate on geostrategy in either political party.