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October 20, 2008

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So, by my count, our invasion and occupation in Iraq has now gone on longer than our active particpation in WWI and WWII combined.

Yet here we are still reading the tea leaves and wondering just WTF is going on in Iraq, with our own government, and the middle east in general.

Can we just declare glorious victory and go home now?

Can we just declare glorious victory and go home now?

Posturing with honor.

"Don't worry, he just has to say that to the Iraqi people to get their votes, but after elections, he'll go back on his word and the Iraqi people won't notice." Or something.

Sort of like John McCain has been forced into all this unpleasantness despite the fact that he's actually an honorable man.

Neocons may have never learned what the average eight-year-old understands, when you've been pushing people around for decades, don't expect the populace to vote to be pushed around by you some more. Sadly, this American arrogance was cheerfully bipartisan for many decades.

I've decided that W is so deft at world affairs that he endorsed Rafsanjani knowing that his toxic embrace would give him the opportunity to have Ahmadinejad to kick around. Or something.

simply conducting airstrikes on Muslim nations will cause pro-American democracy to spring up organically like shoots through bomb-tilled soil.

'bomb-tilled soil' - YA! well done sir.

Can we just declare glorious victory and go home now?

No!

That's equal parts surrender, appeasement, emboldening the enemy and stabbing our troops in the back.

That's equal parts surrender, appeasement, emboldening the enemy and stabbing our troops in the back.

Well, what about fafnir's plan then?

It seems to me that the National Power advocates on the Right, whether of the realist variety (Kissinger playing at being Metternich during the Vietnam War), or the idealist kind (the neocons of the last decade playing at being Woodrow Wilson) never seem to understand or adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of working within the framework of a democratic open society – perhaps because thinking in that way is antithetical to their domestic political vision – and this failure necessarily undermines and frustrates their attempts at grand strategy.

In long drawn out conflicts, open democratic societies have certain advantages. For example the legitimacy created as a result of being a government by consent of the governed means that stable democracies are more tolerant of early failures and long learning curves (witness the early years of both world wars for example, or Lincoln’s Union in the 1860s), more so than more authoritarian systems which are liable to crack under the pressure of early defeats (Stalin’s Russia in the years 1941-2 would seem to be the great exception to this rule, perhaps owing to the nature of the invader).

But this strength is only available when the inner narrative (what we tell ourselves) and the outer reality (what we actually do) of a conflict are congruent with each other. Open democratic societies are weak rather than strong when asked to sustain a long conflict based on lies. But instead of recognizing and adapting to this limitation we get endless complaints from the Right about how we are “lacking in willpower”, or “too impatient for results”, or “unwilling to take the gloves off”. Yet the long struggle of the Cold War vs. the Soviet Union gives the lie to all of these complaints.

The problem isn’t that democracies are bad at sustaining long conflicts – rather that they are good at withdrawing consent from long conflicts which make no sense and are a bad investment of the resources of our society. I find it rather telling that the Right wishes to protect Democracy by waging wars which fail to make good use of the strengths of that which they claim to be protecting – it is as if they don’t truly value Democracy except as a purely abstract and valueless token of tribal identity. If they valued it more then maybe they would make more of an effort to understand it better.

But this strength is only available when the inner narrative (what we tell ourselves) and the outer reality (what we actually do) of a conflict are congruent with each other

We have a winner.

I'd only add that this applies not only to internal stakeholders, but external ones as well.

I imagine that if I were Iraqi or Afghani, I might look at the last five or seven years and say "thanks but no thanks".

Followed by "now please leave".

There's no need for Lowry to appeal to the inscrutable wickedness of the human heart to explain the poor reception of Bush's "freedom on the march" rhetoric. All one need do is look at what we have actually done, and failed to do.

Being good means doing good. Being right means doing right. Somehow I doubt even Madison would find that hard to grasp.

It ain't rocket science.

Thanks -

TLTIA: there's an alarming propensity in this country to love any system under which we're winners, and to decry as evil any system under which we might be construed to lose. I think all you're seeing is a particular manifestation of that phenomenon...

@TLTIA -

I like your general thesis (which has been made before), but I'd say there are a few more exceptions, where an industrial age authoritarian polity did not "crack under the pressure of early defeats".

Example 1: Viet Minh/DRVN (twice: first the unambiguous defeats of 1945-1947, then the somewhat mixed record of about 1965-1968).

Example 2: War of the Triple Alliance (admittedly, the Paraguayans did appear to be winning for the first six months, so maybe it's not a case of "early defeats", but fer ghod's sake, they fought on for almost five years after they had no chance of winning - the CSA were pikers in comparison; I think only the Japanese could begin to match the Paraguayans for bitterending, though no doubt there are others I'm forgetting).

Example 3: 2nd Sino-Japanese War (though maybe you could make the argument that the RoC/KMT regime did "crack", but didn't actually fall apart until pushed over the edge by the PLA).

@bayesian (nice handle by the way):

I wasn't really trying to stipulate an iron law of history (I don't believe in them), rather a trend. Your counterexamples are good, and others can of course be found. Personally I dissent from using the 2nd Sino Japanese War (or what the Chinese call the War of Japanese Aggression) as a counterexample though.

Partly this is due to the special 3-way nature of that conflict. Also, from the reading I've encountered, I've gained the impression that in the hinterland of China into which the KMT state retreated under Japanese pressure, that govt. was scarcely a cohesive authoritarian state, and certainly not at the start of that conflict, but rather was more like a loose coalition of warlords and local bandits partially federalized under KMT leadership or in alliance with the KMT.

The Xian incident and its subsequent consequences are also hard to relate to an authoritarian state structure - I can't think of any other examples where the head of a strong authoritarian state was kidnapped, partially submitted to the demands of his captors, and then subsequently escaped while failing to engage in a massive purge of all potential opponents to prevent a recurrence. This shows just how weak the KMT state actually was at the time.

IMHO, YMMV, etc.

@ TLTinABQ:

The problem isn’t that democracies are bad at sustaining long conflicts – rather that they are good at withdrawing consent from long conflicts which make no sense and are a bad investment of the resources of our society.

I see bayesian beat me to it in part, but I would also add that the post-WWII French colonial wars in both Vietnam (until Dien Bien Phu) and Algeria are exceptions to your example. Fourth Republic France was undoubtedly a democracy (if imperfect), and yet still "consented" to two fruitless conflicts for years after their "investment" had gone bad.

And speaking of Vietnam: what about the US' own reluctance to draw down a lengthy circular conflict - even well after the "sense" of it had been superseded by events?

there's an alarming propensity in this country to love any system under which we're winners, and to decry as evil any system under which we might be construed to lose.

Just in this country?

And speaking of Vietnam: what about the US' own reluctance to draw down a lengthy circular conflict - even well after the "sense" of it had been superseded by events?

The Nixon Admin. drew down US ground force levels in Vietnam pretty quickly, knowing full well the political costs of failing to do so. The escalation of the war during that period was a escalation of US firepower, using aerial bombardment as a substitute for dwindling ground forces. That change bought several more years of public tolerance for a war which otherwise was already unpopular.

From looking at the record of the wars of the 19th and 20th (and now early 21st) Cen. democracies, I'd say as a rough rule of thumb that aggressive wars tend not to last longer than 4-6 years. That is an eternity for the people caught in the conflict, but is pretty short compared with say the wars of the Napoleonic Era or the grinding conflicts of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

What it really comes down to is that democracies are much better at defending themselves than they are at waging wars of agression, IMHO. That doesn't mean they don't wage wars of aggression, they just aren't very good at it.

It is folly to suggest that Muslims are "congenitally" unable to accept democracy. A better question would be, "Are Muslim societies predisposed towards another form of governance by virtue of different cultural and religious mores?".

There is no certainty that democracy is the final word in human governance, and to paraphrase Robert Kaplan, it is our own ethnocentricity that make us assume it the best answer for everybody all the time.

@TLTIA -

(thanks for the compliment on my handle - you're the first to comment; I sometimes wonder how many people think I'm Armenian.)

Re: iron laws of history - I propose Michel's Iron Law of Oligarchy.

Your point is taken re the RoC not being a unitary authoritarian state (in spite of Chiang's best efforts in that direction), and the Xian incident and aftermath showing Chiang's/the KMT's weakness.

Re your 4-6 year rule of thumb, yeah, full intensity interstate wars rarely last longer than that (the two exceptions that come to mind in the time period are the aforementioned 2nd Sino Japanese War and the Iran Iraq war). But that has a lot to do with the difficulty of maintaining anything like full mobilization over such a long period (note, for example, how both the UK and the USSR were running down by the end of WW2 even though they were on the winning side, let alone almost everybody still standing at the end of WW1).

Re the napoleonic period, note that the wars were somewhat episodic, though I agree that France and the UK were pretty continuously at full mobilization for eleven years (1804 - 1814). I also read that measured by fraction of GDP consumed (including imputed GDP loss of levied manpower and property destruction) the highest post-Westphalia, pre-WWI mobilization of any European power were the UK and Prussia in the Seven Years War. Yep, more completely mobilized than revolutionary France.

But yes, the 30 Years' War, the 80 Years' War, the Three Kingdoms War(s), now there was some destruction for you.

Just in this country?

More so than most, yes. I don't recall there being massive movements in Europe* to delegitimize the United Nations (when it opposes us), or pushing for the complete deconstruction of the welfare state** (as long as we're not doing too badly ourselves), or declaring the Geneva Conventions "quaint" (when they get in our way), or any of the myriad other attitudes towards rules that we have as a culture.

I mean, don't get me wrong, this is doubtless a function of both our hyperpower status and American Exceptionalism, and I'm sure that if you went back to Victorian England you'd find much the same thing. I don't recall, however, such adamant insistence on supposedly "fair" and "equal" rules that are supported only so long as they profit us. It's... childish. Narcissistic. And, when lives are on the line, borderline sociopathic.

[Exhibit A, of course, being the Bush Doctrine, but there are plenty of others.]

* I'm picking Europe as those countries most closely resemble the United States for the purpose of this comparison. [You can throw Australia and Canada in there too, I suppose.] The big wildcard in the equation is China, of course, which is part of what I'm afraid of: if they model their policies after ours, well, we're in for a seriously rough ride.

** Maggie Thatcher notwithstanding.

(Stalin’s Russia in the years 1941-2 would seem to be the great exception to this rule, perhaps owing to the nature of the invader)

Had the Einsatzgruppe not started liquidating the Slavs as well as the Jews, it's entirely possible that it would have. The senseless slaughter committed by the German forces coupled with the absolute terror of the NKVD, were the glue that held the Soviet Union together through the war; the former because it mobilized both hatred of the Nazis and love of Mother Russia, the latter because in some sense it prevented the Russians from experiencing their fear.

[Beevor has more on the latter point in "Stalingrad", iirc, where he talks about the decimations of the NKVD during the worst of the war. Apparently they were given literally unlimited powers to shoot any soldier at any time for any reason, the better to "bolster" morale, and it worked. After a fashion.]

but is pretty short compared with say the wars of the Napoleonic Era or the grinding conflicts of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

It would be very interesting to compare rates of combat in earlier centuries with rates of combat nowadays under some meaningful metric. True, the "war", as such, could go on for decades -- I'm thinking the Wars of the Roses in particular, but yes, the Eighty Years' War also applies -- but how much of that time was spent actually fighting? [Especially during winter or, in earlier times, during harvest.] And to carry that point further, IIRC the vast majority of the damage of the Thirty Years' War was caused by dispossessed or underpaid mercenaries seeking their recompense from the peasantry; that's not the combat per se, just a perpetual state of anarchy resulting from weak central authorities losing control of their dogs.

None of which detracts from the larger point, mind. I just to note that what we think of as the casualties and destruction of war several centuries ago really wasn't the direct result of war -- a bullet in the head, a bomb in the bunker -- but rather the second-order effects: disease, famine, chaos. This in marked contrast to, say, WWII where pretty much everyone who died did so as a direct result of either the war or the political machine behind it. It is, however, much like what we're seeing in Iraq, actually, which is why I think so many Americans are having trouble grasping what's going on there: it may be fought with modern weapons, but it's an older kind of conflict, and not one that fits neatly into our culture's noosphere.

Eric,


I have one issue with your entry, namely that you're tending to treat conservative writers or "neocons" as something of a hive mind. Citing Derbyshire on Maliki and saying, "Where were you when SIIC was setting up shop?" is pretty pointless, because Derbyshire was never a "we love liberation" neocon. Far from it--the reason he supported the war was not to bring democracy but rather to make an example of a weaker nation. He also soured on the whole project pretty quickly, writing several columns on how it was none of our business if Iraqis were engaging in sectarian slaughter.


Likewise, conflating, "neocons," militarists, and aggressive nationalists doesn't make a lot of sense. Cheney and Rumsfeld, after all, were never really neocons except in the sense that, like neocons, they believed in using military force more readily than a lot of others in American politics.


The kind of people who detest all Muslims or wear T-shirts saying "Kick their a*s and take their gas" were *never* really a part of the intellectual movement for bringing freedom and democracy to the Islamic world.

Andrew: That's a fair point regarding Derbyshire. There was a bit of conflation that was a bit sloppy.

Nevertheless, even non-neocons adopted the Bush rhetoric and justifications when convenient as a political expedient. Thus, they deserve criticism when the hypocrisy is exposed.

I mean, technically, I'm not sure I would call Bush himself a neocon per se. But that doesn't change the fact that he draped his policies in such garb.

Further, I'm not so sure about this:

The kind of people who detest all Muslims or wear T-shirts saying "Kick their a*s and take their gas" were *never* really a part of the intellectual movement for bringing freedom and democracy to the Islamic world.

There are actual neocons that alternate between a very dark view of Muslims/Arabs and the bringing freedom to the Islamic world movement.

Some of the things that people like Ledeen, Krauthammer, Peretz, Rubin, Wurmser, etc. have said and written about Muslims, while not as crude as a T-shirt, convey the same message.

the reason he supported the war was not to bring democracy but rather to make an example of a weaker nation. He also soured on the whole project pretty quickly, writing several columns on how it was none of our business if Iraqis were engaging in sectarian slaughter

What a guy.

Thanks -

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