[Although the virulence of the infection is declining, it is still necessary to inform new visitors that if they have been drawn here by an email circulating under my name comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler--an email which generated three phone calls to my home this past week--they should know that I did not write that email, nor do I agree with it. For more information on its origins they should visit this link.
American forces are pulling back in Iraq--not a moment too soon, in my opinion--and the essential impossibility of our objectives there are finally being revealed to the entire world. Several stories last week cited the increasingly tense situation beteween the Kurdish areas--independent in all but name--and the Iraqi government, which involves key disputed territory and has nearly led to armed conflict on several recent occasions. More importantly, today's Washington Post includes a remarkable article on the consequences of the implementation of the new status of forces agreement that has mandated the withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities. Two years or so ago, while that agreement was being negotiated, I am reliably informed that a senior military commander dismissed problems in the talks as a matter of "Iraqi domestic politics," as if Prime Minister Maliki simply had to make a good showing of independence to satisfy his voters. Indeed it was a matter of Iraqi domestic politics, but of a more serious nature. The Iraqis for some time have wanted to reassert real control over their own affairs. The agreement now confines Americans to their bases, forbids them from moving except at night, and forbids them from patrolling except with Iraqi permission. The Post story is based largely on an angry email from an American major general, from which I quote:
The Iraqi order runs "contrary to the spirit and practice of our last several months of operations," Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commander of the Baghdad division, wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post.
"Maybe something was 'lost in translation,' " Bolger wrote. "We are not going to hide our support role in the city. I'm sorry the Iraqi politicians lied/dissembled/spun, but we are not invisible nor should we be." He said U.S. troops intend to engage in combat operations in urban areas to avert or respond to threats, with or without help from the Iraqis.
"This is a broad right and it demands that we patrol, raid and secure routes as necessary to keep our forces safe," he wrote. "We'll do that, preferably partnered. . . .Our [Iraqi] partners burn our fuel, drive roads cleared by our Engineers, live in bases built with our money, operate vehicles fixed with our parts, eat food paid for by our contracts, watch our [surveillance] video feeds, serve citizens with our [funds], and benefit from our air cover." Some months ago, if I am not mistaken, I posted a link here to a youtube video of an American adviser--a senior enlisted man--screaming at a platoon of Iraqi policemen whom he thought were doing their job with inadequate courage and enthusiasm. I couldn't help thinking, as he called them "women" and "pussies" (words faithfully translated, I was able to verify, by his Iraqi interpreter), that many of them might have been tempted to reply that no one had asked him and his countrymen to come to Iraq. In fact many American soldiers do not agree with the spirit of the general's email, and think that we have already done everything that we can usefully do. In any case, claiming that we are owed gratitude for what we have done to Iraq--which will take a long time to recover from the last seven years--is not going to do us any good. Fortunately, as with Vietnam, our unpleasant experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan will probably sour the American public (and the American leadership) on any similar adventures for some time to come.
Yes, the attempt to creat an informal American empire in the Middle East is failing; but this, as I have been reminded all week, is a relatively minor catastrophe in the context of the last 100 years. Since Monday I have been working in the National Archives at College Park once again, investigating American military planning in the most critical 18 months of the twentieth century, the period from May 1940 through December of 1941. For the second time in thirty years, the world's most advanced countries were plunged into total war. As one of several remarkably prescient memorandums by field-grade officers noted as the Germans drove through France, we were threatened with the complete collapse of the British, French, Dutch, and Belgian empires--including the conquest of the United Kingdom itself--and by the worldwide chaos that would result. American observers were also convinced, and with good reason, that a German victory in Europe (undoubtedly coupled with new Japanese advances in the Far East) and the very probable entry of Spain, as well as Italy, into the war, would promote Fascism in Latin America as well. The possible loss of both the French and British fleets to Germany would face the US with an unprecedented threat that we were in no condition to meet. The consensus of opinion--which I now believe Franklin Roosevelt shared--was that we could not afford to commit our destiny to the survival of the British and had to focus on preparing to defend the Western Hemisphere. That, indeed, remained the focus of our military planning for most of the next eighteen months.
That the worst did not happen owed a great deal to factors beyond our control. Hitler certainly could have imposed harsher terms on France and sent troops into Spain, seizing first Gibraltar (which would be untenable with German air power nearby, as I have now discovered), and then positions in North and West Africa. He might easily have won victories against the British all over the Mediterranean, driven Churchill from power, and made peace with a new British government, even if (which was hardly certain) an actual invasion of Britain was beyond his capabilities. But fortunately, Hitler regarded the whole war in the west as an unfortuante diversion from his main goal, the invasion of the Soviet Union. His military advisers advocated most of the steps I listed above, but he insisted on postponing them until after the Soviets had been defeated. That, more than anything else, allowed Britain to survive and allowed the United States time to prepare.
Two subsequent developments have made our world, for all its problems, a relatively safe one. First, the Allied victory and the American decision to create an alliance of all the major capitalist powers put an end to the kind of warfare that had devastated the world in the first half of the century. That alliance persists, and indeed, since the collapse of Communism and the evolution of China, it now enjoys perfectly adequate relations with all the world's leading nations. Secondly, beginning with the war in Vietnam, a striking trend towards demilitarization took root in nearly every advanced country. We all know that the United States has overwhelmingly the most powerful military in the world today, but how many of us realize that our military, as a percentage of our population, is only slightly larger than it was in 1940, a moment when we think of the United States as almost completely disarmed? The rest of the world has followed suit. The only countries whose militaries represent a large portion of their population by historical standards are the two Koreas, Israel, Syria, and Iran--mostly small countries in unusually tense situations. Things may go wrong, but they simply cannot go as wrong as they did in the early part of the twentieth century. Planning for large-scale nuclear exchanges also seems to have lapsed.
How this has happened is a subject for another day. It reflects a loosening of the bonds between states and their citizenry, a trend which in the economic sphere has brought the United States within sight of new catastrophes, but which in the military sphere can only, I think, be regarded as a good thing. Much of the area that comprised the European empires that seemed in 1940 to be on the verge of collapse is now in one way or another "up for grabs"--but not up for grabs by military expansion of industrial powers. That is real progress, and keeping our problems in perspective an only help us deal with them.