Friday, November 16, 2012

On The Possible Utility Of Recent Wars - Part III

I will next argue, as I have a few times before, that our natural human understanding of the narrative of history biases us toward the belief that the world would be pretty much the same if we changed one thing, except for that one thing.  We may not hold that as a theory – we may even say the opposite is more likely and the chaos of events very unpredictable.  But we were not attacked, except some small incidents we got control of, so we tend to think that is pretty much how events would have unfolded.  It is a natural blindness, because we have no story to fasten on that shows us what the attacks would be.  How can you remember what didn’t happen?  What did happen once takes on an enormous impression of inevitability that isn’t real.

I argued with my brother that worse things might have happened in the Middle East.  He was aghast, thought what I was saying was insane denial.  How could it be worse? Two expensive wars, American soldiers dead, countries hating us. 

I don’t laugh at his POV, I think I understand it and feel it pretty strongly myself.  But I also think it is a dangerous illusion that must be fought against, not an indicator of reality.  This is the Middle East, after all, where amazingly bad things can get even worse quickly.  That each possible scenario we can imagine is unlikely in itself does not mean that in aggregate, worse things couldn’t have happened.

Let me pause here to acknowledge that they might have been bad things that we chose to have nothing to do with, or bad things that could be more easily solved by bombing the crap out of a particular capital or port and calling it a day, or any number of other cheaper, possibly better solutions.  This is in no way a positive argument that either war was the best idea – only an argument that the consensus complaint is not persuasive; and that some action which seriously discouraged an escalating trend of violence against us had to be enacted.  War does that pretty well.  Even badly fought, not-really-worth-it wars can do that.


terri said...

I have come to a point in which I am extremely uncomfortable with policies being enacted out of fear and imagined what-might be scenarios. The reason why is because the possibilities of imagined negative consequences and imagined miserable outcomes is entirely endless.

There is no limit to the nonsense that comes from such thinking. Conspiracy theories evolve and start to take on respectability in an environment like that and all of a sudden we're writing laws to address non-existenet issues and fomenting fear in incensed groups.

In one of these related posts you discussed the perception of the Japanese of America as weak and hopefully intimidated by the attack on Pearl Harbor. I don't know enough about the Pearl Harbor attack to know whether your point about it is actually true or not. I will grant you the point for the sake of the argument.

I would then point out that when attacked, especially without provocation, most countries would probably react as America did....with anger, fury and the zeal of an outraged people.

By extension...then why would we expect other countries that we go to war with to respond in any other way? If we attack Iran, even the people who don't like the leadership will rally behind it, because they are still Iranians. Just as AMericans were almost fully united in going into these wars because of our anger over what had been to us, Iranians...or any country's citizens, would do the same.

Yet, we stand back as a nation perplexed about why the Iraqis and Afghan don't absolutely love us. Why do they revert to alliances with groups who are not friendly to us? WHy do they undermine the work we have done?

You can draw your own conclusions about that.

I don't think that a "soft answer turns aways wrath" in these cases...but surely "violence begets violence" finds its validation.

ANother seems to me that it can be counterproductive to produce too much fear in an enemy. All this saber-rattling comes within a context of us actually invading 2 separate countries, killing Bin Laden in another, having one of our spy drones shot down in Iran a year or two ago, and unleashing a virus into another country's computer systems. To the people who oppose us, it isn't saber-rattling, or is a real threat.

And, if we feel justified in pre-emptive war and think its OK to enact large-scale military invasions because of what "might be"....then we shouldn't be outraged when some other country decides to pre-emptively strike us in the same manner.

I don't point all this out to say that Iran and Middle Eastern countries are blameless and the the US is a big bully. I do it to point out that there is enough material out there for them to construct a narrative against us.

And...the more they fear us the more we run the risk of them feeling backed into a corner and lashing out because they feel they must, however unjustified we may think that would be.

Of course, this all moot. It may turn out that we get drug into war by Israel very soon anyway...because things are heating up over there and if it gets bad they will be asking us to help them.

We may wind up in a war with Iran, not because we decided it was the right time, or because we wanted to, but because we will have to defend our ally.

A frustrating mess all around.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Interesting. I expected that we would have considerable agreement, but find that we have far less.

You make a very quick leap from fear and what-might-be scenarios to conspiracy theories, fomenting fear, and creating incensed groups. Not all fears are made up. Especially, after we have been attacked several times, including on our own soil, we have every right to consider a host of what-might-be's and take action against them. Islamic terrorists - or more exactly, terrorist tribes who are also Muslim and get their members to believe their narrow tribal interest is a holy cause - had been increasing their attacks on Western nations, especially America gradually since the 70's. There were many attacks in the 90's, though mostly overseas. That stopped after 2001. It has restarted.

What I read you doing throughout your answer is thinking you are putting yourself in their shoes, but what you are actually doing is putting them in yours. You are treating them as rational actors, perhaps just a little worse than us. How would I feel if...?, My claim is that how terri would feel is irrelevant, because they aren't terri. There is not much evidence that anyone outside of Western civilisation actually does share our responses. They fight with each other over nothing when they don't have us. They don't rally behind their leaders under attack, as we (sort of) do. In both Iraq and Afghanistan our difficulties always revolved around the fact that they would not behave as a country, in a collective best interested, but would gladly screw over countryment from different tribes.

They don't think like us. I wish they did, because then we could do business. Egyptians are not attacking our embassy - one group of Egyptians is attacking our embassy to show the other groups that they should not be messed with and to let them seize power.

After WWII, the Romanians hoped for years that America would invade. Not all Iraqis or Afghanis were distressed at our arrival. Some rejoiced, and most wanted only to see how they could use it to their own tribe's advantage. We have few allies, perhaps, but also few real enemies. They want to use us, or use the situation. There is no Iraqi pride, only Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish pride. National pride is what we hoped to instill, and apparently have had only mild success at.

It is not I who am saying this, but the nationals of many countries who come here. Talk to Yugoslav immigrants and they will tell you that they just can't reason with people back home.

I don't see that these countries are cowering in fear of us. You are projecting what you would feel in their shoes. Attacking embassies is not the act of people who fear retaliation. It is not a fear attempt of those who feel cornered. It is an aggressive attempt for internal political purposes. It is calculated, not responsive.

terri said...

No. Not all fears are made up, but many of them are.

I think a distinction needs to be made between countries and terror groups that have ties in many countries and are based on a more creedal glue than cultural/ethnic glue.

You say these countries don't seem to fear us, but I would say that the groups who are at the root of most of these attacks only have associations to countries, but are not bound to them. Extremist groups, which rely on suicide bombers attacking targets, have no fear, because they have nothing left to lose. They are so ready to depart from this life in a blaze of glory, that our saber-rattling has no effect on them, and can only serve to strengthen them as they think of themselves as sticking it to us in a final act of defiance.

So, I agree that those who attack our embassies don't seem to fear us in the way I was talking about.....because they have nothing/little to protect.

That is a different case altogether from war with established countries. Established countries have things they want to protect, a populace and resources to consider in the face of war.

I do not disagree with your portrayal of IRaq and Afghanistan as mostly tribal and having deep fractures within their countries....but that is not the case with Iran, or Egypt, or Saudi Arabia..etc. Those countries, while they all have serious problems and unrest and political enemies with their fellow countrymen, are not as fractured as Iraq and Afghanistan are/were.

We wanted to nation build Iraq for our own interests not because of some humanitarian urge to help the poor Iraqis. We hoped they would build a democracy and become a stabilizing influence and and ally for us in the Mid-East. It hasn't exactly worked out that way, though they haven't become a strong enemy I agree with you on that point.

I would say that it doesn't matter if the paleo-conservatives were right...we don't need to be in any nation for 25 years trying to build it up....especially when we are incurring crushing debt to do so.

Why should we borrow from the Chinese to build a nation that isn't even a strong ally to us? It's madness and folly.

Its pouring good money after bad in economic terms and it's wasting the lives of our soldiers on something we can't control and doesn't really work for us the way that we hoped it would. resistance to being drug into war, which is what started this discussion, is simply based on observing the last decade of war and wondering what it was all for. Wondering how people can look at that mess and think that doing it all again somewhere else will somehow lead to more satisfying results.

It feels to me that we have become to comfortable with the concept of military action as the prime means to being a "strong" nation. We have become so used to being engaged in war that no one even pauses to consider what that says about us.

That troubles me.

james said...

I can't speak for why the nation should be perplexed about why Iraqis and Afghan don't love us. I don't know why that would be expected, though I saw that some bloggers did expect it.

If you attack a people they will be angry, and if you rescue them they will be ungrateful. And friendly states don't always stay friendly, and enemies don't always stay enemies. And a "state" is a tag for what can be a loose collection of tribes, some of whom will cheerfully backstab the rest in the face of a nominally common enemy, for relative advantage. That's all fairly elementary.

We invaded Afghanistan, IIRC, not to make a new happy country but to rip a new one for the groups that were cooperating with Al Qaeda. Hanging around to try to put things back together nicely was a nice idea, but it was obvious 6 or 7 years ago that that wasn't going to work with a country called Afghanistan (maybe if it broke up?), especially since the Pakistanis had too many trumps. (Iraq was a better bet for putting back together, and the benefits to us for a more stable ME were greater, but it was always chancy and the current administration dropped the ball.)

You may argue that Al Qaeda wasn't Afghanistan, and we had no call to invade. I say we're off in 4GW land here, where nobody knows the rules yet. When "non-state" actors start to be able to inflict massive damage, something has to be done to stop it. If they're supported by a state, you have a traditional sort of target to negotiate with or aim at. We tried the first, and wound up doing the second. It isn't as beautifully cut and dried as we'd like, but it could be worse.

And it is. When the "non-state" groups have only deniable support from states, who do you address for either negotiation or attack? You'll wind up in dealings that lack even the accountability rules we set up for war, and those are porous enough. The drones worry me.

You can claim that we are not blameless in the non-state actor world, and I have to agree. I hope that we were secretly cooperating with GB to trace IRA support from the sympathizers here. That was an ugly scandal, and if I learned that GB agents had framed or done in some IRA organizers in the US I don't think I could find it in my heart to complain too bitterly. (Some complaining, yes. I can be as ambivalent as the next guy.)

karrde said...

Among the worse things that could have happened in the Middle East...

Saddam could have been really working on a weapons program, or spooled a program up after the USA left him alone for a decade.

Iran vs. Iraq, round 2, this time with biological and chemical weapons?

Kuwait War, round 2, this time with bio/chem weapons? And round 3, a takeover of Saudi Arabia?

The possibility of Saddam Hussein doing anything with Iraq is long since gone. He was executed, by a court of Iraqis. After being apprehended by the U.S. Military.

Whether the rest of the mission in Iraq was well-conceived or not, there are few in Iraq who wish Hussein were still around.