“MISTAKES WERE MADE”
This discussion picks up the threads of an earlier posting in January wherein I addressed the Iraq Train Wreck. A quick review:
January 14, 2007
Q: “Should the U.S. have attacked Iraq?”
A: from Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel–
“Under normal circumstances, I might have joined those peace marchers who, here and abroad, staged public demonstrations against an invasion of Iraq…
“And yet, this time I support President Bush’s policy of intervention to eradicate international terrorism, which, most civilized nations agree, is the greatest threat facing us today. Bush has placed the Iraqi war into that context; Saddam Hussein is the ruthless leader of a rogue state to be disarmed by whatever means is necessary if he does not comply fully with the United Nations’ mandates to disarm. If we fail to do this, we expose ourselves to terrifying consequences…
“What it comes down to is this: We have a moral obligation to intervene where evil is in control. Today, that place is Iraq.”
One end of the polarity is the WW II model. It is the classic response to invasion and attack that has governed politics among the nations for centuries: When a sovereign nation is attacked, the response normally is an all out war aimed at the utter destruction of the enemy. War ends with defeat or victory, the latter usually marked by surrender and occupation. All this is guilt free, governed only by the traditional rules of conduct between nations.
At the other end is the Politically Correct Response War. When attacked, a sovereign nation (bear in mind that, in this paradigm, sovereignty is a retrograde idea) is to try to understand and empathize with the enemy – after all, the attacked nation has probably provoked the anger or is complicit in creating the “social conditions” that led to the attack. Of course, the term “enemy” is rarely used, because it is unnecessarily undiplomatic.
The Star Trek Dilemma
I recall the episodes of Star trek where Captain Kirk dispatches an away-team to infiltrate the local aliens whose primitive attitudes and culture always seemed to resemble ours. No matter how ugly thing got on the surface, all the officers and crew members of the Star Ship Enterprise were restrained by the Prime Directive: Do not do anything to alter the local culture.
Of course – and here’s the rub – the Enterprise was free to leave the planet.
The cultural gulf between the sophisticated, secular, multi-cultural, civilized sensibilities of the typical Western nation (the Judeo-Christian USA included) and the medieval tribal, pre-modern, brutal mindset of the typical Middle Eastern foot soldier is every bit as great as the fictional gulf between the Star Trek crew and those primitive aliens who resembled our primitive selves.
But modernity leaks through all barriers – religious, cultural and national. Our problem is that the suite of attitudes and values that support modern civilization can arrive at the threshold of a primitive, tribal mind but they don’t enter and take hold except very, very slowly.
Ah, but weapons technology: That form of modernity readily pours through all the barriers, cultural, religious and national (propelled by any sufficiently funding source) and becomes swiftly turned against us – even when we are separated from the “aliens” by an entire ocean.
And here’s the rub: We’re not free to leave the planet.
At present there is only one Western style high functioning bit of civilization in the entire Middle East. Iran’s troglodyte rulers (the fundamentalist mullahs and their puppet president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) favor the “beam them out” solution for Israel and –truth be told — for all of the Western powers. Little Israel just happens to be more painfully close and ever so unjustly successful.
So the battles in Iraq have been run – to date – by the Star Ship Pentagon with a schizophrenic general staff – torn between the Politically Correct Prime Directive and the old style Just Win This Thing mindsets. Few aboard that starship want to mediate, much less enter an inter-tribal conflict.
The 9-11-01 attacks were a huge tactical mistake for the fanatic Islamist jihad.
We, of course, had made a whole series of mistakes and we continue to make them. This raises the question posed by the pessimists: Should we even try to win? In my next posts, I’ll catalogue the main mistakes, contrast them with some others good people have made in the service of good causes; then I’ll venture an answer to my own question…
February 22, 2007
The Erroneous Presumption:
A Catalog of Western Mistakes
We are about one third into World War III (or IV if you count the cold War as WWIII). This is the war that many in the West still deny is taking place. This new war’s purpose is not a secret: Damage, demoralize and intimidate the West in order to get the running room in the Middle East establish a pan-Arab Islamist superpower without interference . The “rough beast” of a resurgent Islamist empire may or may not be a dangerous fantasy, but its proponents and foot soldiers pose an existential threat.
For a dangerously long time, the Western intelligentsia ignored the chilling implications of Hitler’s extravagant ambitions and Lenin’s bloodthirsty utopian ambitions. When some of them awake from complacency, they were already in custody. We would be wise not to ignore the new vision of the radical Islamists, that of a new “Imperial Islamostan”, an expansionary realm secured by a lock grip on the world’s primary oil supplies, exported through massive waves of ex-migration of an Islamic population particularly resistant to assimilation into the Western mainstream. Terrorists are being used to destabilize the West-friendly governments in the Middle East and distract us and intimidate us until their puppet masters govern sufficient territory and oil revenues to command nuclear weapons. That will start a new game entirely, one that will make the Cold War seem like a warm and fuzzy bedtime story
Who Screwed Up & When?
There is really no time in history when the well meaning people (and the omnipresent SOB’s who prey on them) have not each failed to make serious miscalculations and other blunders with lasting consequences. In a sense, any particular moment of human history is one where the cumulative mistakes of the past live on to set the stage for new choices, a certain percentage of which will turn out well and the rest will end badly.
Because the story has to start somewhere, I have picked the pivotal moment early in WWII when the Nazi war machine and its allies figured out that any victory – not to mention the task of maintaining the Third Reich – required German hegemony over the Middle East’s oil supplies. The Islamists in “Arabia” were natural allies of the Nazis and many actively fought with the Germans. When General Rommel was eventually defeated by the Allies, Germany’s fate was sealed. The war dragged on, but the outcome was inevitable when Germany failed to control Middle East oil.
Mistake One A:
Germany’s for not first securing Middle Eastern oil for its war machine.
Mistake One B:
The Allies for not preempting the German forces there – after all, we easily could have lost in North Africa.
Mistake Two: The Allies for incompetently carving up the Middle East, squandering an opportunity to form more viable countries (think of Iraq’s odd triage of incompatible ethnic groups); and for failing (as the Americans did not in West Germany and Japan) to aggressively reshape the politics and culture of these areas to reduce the chances of further trouble downstream.
Comment: But who could have known? Aye, that is the rub, and a point to remember as this catalog continues.
Mistake Three: The West’s acquiescence in oil facilities nationalization by interests that inevitably would misuse the revenues. Yes, this “mistake” was a failure to exercise paternalistic colonialism with sufficient intelligence. But the scholars are in substantial agreement: The net effect of giving rents and ultimately full unrestricted control of oil revenues to non-democratic rulers enabled them to buy the acquiescence and under-educated idleness of whole populations. Add the gasoline of militant Islam to the nationalism of the dispirited idle and you get jihad-as-therapy. What you don’t get is a viable economy or the growth of democratic institutions.
Comment: Who could have known? And how realistic is this hindsight, anyway? Point taken.
Mistake Four: The US’ engineered overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran and his replacement by the Shah in 1953.
This is a complicated story. In recounting it, I’m borrowing from a paper by Sheldon L. Richman, senior editor at the Cato Institute, whose point of view is unfavorable to all US interventions in the Middle East. That bias accounted for, we learn the broad outlines of the story.
During WWII, “At the Tehran conference in late 1943, the United States pledged, along with Great Britain and the Soviet Union, to help rebuild and develop Iran after the war.” … [But] ‘The Soviet Union broke its promise about withdrawing. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin viewed the part of Iran that bordered his country as important to Soviet security, and he was aware of the U.S. and British designs on Iran, which had traditionally sided with the Soviet Union’s enemies.” Flash forward to 1953: “When Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in 1953, his administration had one overriding foreign policy objective: to keep the Soviet Union from gaining influence and possibly drawing countries away from the U.S. orbit.”
[Then] “A highly nationalist faction (the National Front) of the Majlis, or parliament, led by Moham med Mossadegh, nationalized the oil industry.” …”The turmoil associated with nationalization stimulated activity by Iranian Communists”… “On August 10, 1953, the shah, unable to dominate Mossadegh, left Tehran for a long ‘vacation’ on the Caspian Sea…” … “London had first suggested a covert operation to Washington about a year earlier. The British were mainly concerned about their loss of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but in appealing to the United States, they emphasized the communist threat, not wishing to be accused of trying to use the Americans to pull British chestnuts out of the fire.’ … “In the ensuing turmoil, which included fighting in the streets that killed 300 Iranians, Mossadegh fled and was arrested. On August 22, 12 days after he had fled, the shah returned to Tehran….In succeeding years the United States regarded the shah as a key ally in the Middle East and provided his repressive and corrupt government with billions of dollars in aid and arms. The restoration of the shah to the Peacock Throne engendered immense hostility toward the United States and had cataclysmic consequences….”
Mistake Five: President Carter’s decision to finally jettison the shah on moral grounds – the shah left Iran on January 16, 1979; and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed power. Mr. Carter might have expected gratitude. Instead, Iranians took over the American embassy in Tehran for a full year (an act of war), utterly humiliating the president and electing Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan. A rigid theocracy followed in Iran. The Shah, like a number of figures deposed in “popular” revolutions, is beginning to look good by contrast with his replacements.
Mistake Six: The Reagan administration continued to play balance of power politics in the Middle East, alternately arming the Iranians against the Iraqis and giving shoulder fired stinger missiles to the Islamist militants in Afghanistan who would later become the core soldiers of the Taliban.
Mistake Seven: When terrorists bombed US barracks in Lebanon on October 23, 1983 (essentially an act of war by their sponsors, Iran & Syria, backing Hezbollah), killing 220 US Marines, the Reagan administration did not retaliate; instead the US closed up shop and left town.
Mistake Eight: When Bush One led a brilliantly successful pan-Arab coalition to rescue Kuwait from invasion and occupation by Hussein’s Iraq, the massed forces (larger then than would be available 10 years later) stopped short of Baghdad, leaving the dictator in place for another decade. During this period and with the help of UN sanctions, this enabled Hussein to reduce the country (that at the time of the first invasion still had a highly educated subpopulation with a strong legal tradition) to an ungovernable shadowland of abused and brutalized citizens.
Mistakes Nine, Ten, Eleven and Twelve: (Nine) The Clinton Administration, intent on spending a “peace dividend” presumably left at the end of the Cold War, reduced America’s combat readiness by more than two divisions. (Ten) In 1993, Islamist terrorists (al Qaeda with covert support from Iraq) bombed the world trade Center. The matter was handled as a law enforcement problem. (Eleven) In 1993, when Somali militia of Islamic extremists in Mogadishu set upon US Rangers in a downed helicopter (the mission was a humanitarian one in which Islamist radicals were blocking food shipments to starving people and the US was attempting to take out a warlord), the Clinton administration decided to cut US losses and withdrew. (Twelve) The USS Cole was bombed by al Qaeda operatives while in port at Yemen. The matter was “investigated” and there was no attempt at retaliation. This pattern was cited by Bin Laden as evidence for American weakness, leading to another fateful miscalculation (mistake fourteen below).
Mistake Thirteen: The new Bush Administration, its FBI, CIA and other security agencies, failed to connect the dots that might have led to an interception of the 9-11 attacks or their mitigation.
Comment: Rhetoric aside there was a great deal of foreign policy overlap between Clinton and Bush Two, pre-9-11, both in personnel and policy. Few on either side of the aisle raised any substantial objections as the size of the Cold War force structure was reduced. Where matters of retaliation were concerned, the cautious “realists” prevailed in both administrations pre-9-11. No one in key positions of power seemed to understand the connected nature of the terrorist attacks (only a few of which are highlighted here) and how they linked to the Islamist vision.
Mistake Fourteen: Al Qaeda and the militant Islamists committed a major strategic error when they launched the 9-11-01 attacks. The USA economy was not mortally wounded, a message to the world in itself, and the result was a fire storm of concerted countermeasures. The US security apparatus was essentially undamaged, awakened, and roused. The new administration suddenly realized that it was at war and began to act accordingly. But for this colossal blunder, the Islamist cause might have proceeded under the radar to change the nature of the Middle East while America and Europe continued to sleep. The Bush Doctrine (‘no terrorist sanctuary in any nation state”), the destruction of the Taliban government and the uprooting of hundreds of terror networks followed in the next two years.
Mistake Fifteen: Saddam Hussein, having evicted the UN inspectors and having bribed his way out of the worst of the UN sanctions, quietly “disposed” of his chemical weapons stockpiles and partially dismantled (or otherwise concealed) his bio weapons and his nascent nuclear weapons program — the first having been disrupted in Gulf War One. He only had to meekly comply with the UN; rely on the passage of time; and then resume his programs when international attentions were diverted. Instead, he miscalculated badly. He thought that the rumored possession of WMD’s would deter this new administration. So Saddam promoted a misinformation campaign, letting his field commanders “leak” the information that invading forces would be met with potent chemical weapons. Instead, the invasion was made inevitable by Saddam’s own lies. One wonders whether this thought flickered through Saddam’s mind as he was about to be hanged; somehow I doubt it.
Mistake Sixteen: The Bush administration, having engineered the brilliantly successful “regime removal” invasion of Iraq, grossly underestimated the trouble that would follow the installation of a new government, the scale of the resources needed to contain and manage that trouble, and the immense partisan difficulties that would ensue when attempting to maintain support for the enterprise.
COMMENT: Each of the mistakes by the West represents the same pattern of reasonable errors, the kind that people of good will often make when forced by circumstances that present them with imperfect choices in a difficult, changing environment, crippled by imperfect intelligence.
This is not “rocket science” in the sense that old rocket ballistics science required that the initial aim to be spot on perfect. This is real life: We know or should know at the outset that the initial aim cannot be perfect and we need to be alert and adaptable.
The Erroneous Presumption That Drove These Mistakes
Liberals and conservatives, nationalists and internationalists, isolationists and interventionists are all prone to the same kind of error: The erroneous presumption of human rationality.
The Iraqis are not always acting in what we, as Westerners, would regard as in “their rational self interest”. Was this a surprise?
As I opened this latest phase of the discussion:
There has never been nor will there ever be a time when the well meaning people will avoid making serious blunders. This is just one of many moments in human history where the cumulative mistakes of the past live on to set the stage for new choices, a certain percentage of which will turn out well and the rest will end badly. But – and this is my main point – the consequences need not be lasting.
In Iraq, for example, it is still well within our capabilities to guide events toward an outcome that will move forward the sane position in the current war between radical Islam and the West. This requires that Iraq achieves reasonable stability under a government that at a minimum fills the following three criteria: (a) Iraq is not under the domination of the fanatical mullahs who currently run Iran. (b) The Shiite government allows the Kurds semi-autonomy and a place at the table. (c) A mass exodus (or genocide) of the Sunni minority is prevented.
Getting to this outcome is not “rocket science” (see above) but it requires adaptability, patience and the continued presence of American troops (probably at a reduced level) well into the next Administration. Failing to do that will constitute MISTAKE SEVENTEEN. History will not be so forgiving….