Saturday, March 26, 2011

Post-modern foreign policy

I have said relatively little about the conflicts in the Middle East over the last few weeks partly because I was not sure what to say. The events have escalated, rather than quieting down, and as of this morning I count Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain as countries still in the throes of some sort of upheaval, with others, including Saudi Arabia, showing the strain as well. President Obama has spoken repeatedly on behalf of some of the protesters and said nothing about others--and he has now involved us in war in Libya, a war carried out from ships at sea and from the air designed, it seems, to protect rebel groups that control certain cities in Eastern Libya, and somehow to weaken the dictatorship of Muhammar Qadaffi and perhaps to bring it to an end. The job I have held for the last 21 years gives me a particular perspective from which to analyze this decision. So does a book I checked out yesterday from my school library.

Admiral Stansfield Turner, later famous as director of the CIA under President Carter, remade the curriculum at the Naval War College beginning in 1972, and in particular started the Strategy and Policy Department which I joined in 1990. The Vietnam War was nearly over. It had devastated the American military, deeply divided the American public, and opened huge rifts between civilians and military, and he wanted to do something about that. To do, he created a curriculum based upon classic texts, including Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Thucydides. The syllabus was originally composed of entire books because he felt that naval officers rarely read them. He was trying to give officers an opportunity to reflect and to put current events in context. Almost from that day to this, my department has struggled to keep that philosophy alive while at the same time integrating a succession of buzzwords and contemporary concerns into the curriculum--and we have been largely successful. The question that we ask, week in and week out during two trimesters every year is, what were various nations trying to accomplish with the use of military force, and did they use force in an effective way to do so?

It was largely because of this experience that I was even in 2001 nervous about the long-term effects of invading Afghanistan, and definitely opposed in 2002-3 to the invasion of Iraq. We had to try to capture the Al Queda leadership in Afghanistan, but taking responsibility for that country's future, I could see, would be a huge job. Nor was I convinced that we could establish anything stable in Iraq. My students and colleagues, many of whom have spent years of their lives in those conflicts now, have become increasingly skeptical about them too, and I think quite a few of them are somewhat astonished that we have seen fit to start dropping bombs in yet another Middle Eastern country. Why have we done so?

Yesterday I decided to research that question. It has been widely reported that one of the prime movers for the current policy is Samantha Power, a journalist, holder of a degree from Harvard Law, former professor at the JFK School of Government, and scholar of genocide, whose book, A Problem from Hell, American and the Age of Genocide, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Power worked for Barack Obama when he was a Senator and during his campaign. She had to resign from the campaign in the spring of 2004 after she called Hillary Clinton a "monster" in a press interview--an interesting choice of words, one might think, for some one who has written so much about Hitler, Pol Pot, and various other murderous tyrants. (An interview she did during the campaign suggests that she may have been reacting to attacks on herself by Clinton supporters.) This did not however prevent her from coming into the White House as head of the Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council. (I had not previously heard of this position and I don't know if it was crated for her.) Ironically, Power, Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and Secretary Clinton are generally credited with overcoming the objections of Robert Gates and Power's boss Thomas Donilon and convincing the President to impose the no-fly zone.

I took A Problem from Hell out of the library yesterday. It's a long, detailed book, and I am not claiming to have read it all, but I can claim to have a good sense of what it is and is not about. Power began the book after covering the war in Bosnia because she was shocked at how little the United States government did about the killing of Muslims there. Taking a historical perspective, she then looked into the secondary literature on the Turkish murder of the Armenians in the First World War, the Holocaust, the original definition of genocide and its postwar definition as a crime, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Kurds, the broader events in the Balkans in the 1990s, the Rwandan massacre, and finally the Kosovo War. In each case she found that the U.S. government had intervened slowly or not at all, that many elements within it had denied or minimized what was happening, and that lonely advocates for action had generally cried in the wilderness without much result. She obviously regards this as an appalling story which in her opinion should not go on any longer, and I would imagine that she now feels in a position to do something to bring it to an end.

I too have written about some of these episodes--those taking place in Europe in the era of the two world wars--in my book, Politics and War. I was more interested in the political and to some extent intellectual background of mass killings and ethnic cleansing, which I attributed to nationalism and imperialism, the two essential issues in the European wars of the first half of the twentieth century. I do not see, sadly, how anyone can deny that such incidents represent a powerful strain in human nature, one that can be documented since the beginning of recorded history. Thucydides himself provides several examples. But today I am concerned with the issue dominating the front pages--the issue of what, if anything, could be done.

To some one with my background, at least, Power seems to have devoted an astonishingly little amount of time to that question in her book. The whole implication of it is that the United States has allowed genocide to happen and therefore bears the responsibility for a great deal of it. One of the more interesting aspects of the book, actually, is its nearly exclusive focus on the United States, rather than the western world or the United Nations, as the authority that should have been doing more to stop these massacres--although Power is a native of Ireland and a naturalized American, she certainly seems to have adopted American exceptionalism with the zeal of a convert. Eventually, on p. 506-7 of a 516 page text, she spends two pages on the issue of what the United States actually could have done. She attacks the issue, as it were, from a reverse angle: the discussion occurs in the midst of a list of the reasons why the United States government has declined to do more, reasons she is trying to knock down as straw men. First, she says, we cannot know what the United States could have done to stop genocide since it has never tried hard enough to do so. (Much has happened since she published her book, however, and I will return to this issue in a moment.) Secondly, she notes that many perpetrators have been emboldened by the failure of the U.S. and "other western capitals" to do anything about previous instances of genocide, or about what they were doing at the time. Then, however, she lists five instances in which threatened or real U.S. action had effects. And the list is actually quite revealing.

First, Power says, Secretary of State George Schultz's condemnation of Saddam Hussein's use of poison gas against the Kurds and Senator Claiborne Pell's threat to impose sanctions on him brought those atrocities to an end. Then, later, after the first Gulf War, the U.S. successfully established s safe haven for the Kurds in northern Iraq. Thirdly, she says, a telephone call from a U.S. diplomat reportedly saved the lives of some Tutsis staying in a particular hotel in Rwanda. (This may be the incident that later became the basis for the film Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle.) She credits NATO bombing of Bosnia with ending the war there at long last, and lastly, she credits the Kosovo war with "liberating 1.7 million Albanians from tyrannical Serb rule."

Of these examples, the safe haven in Kurdistan and the Kosovo War are probably the most relevant to the decision to start bombing in Libya. The first of these, however, raises the question of whether we are willing indefinitely to maintain aircraft over Libya to keep Qadaffi's tanks and troops away from rebel-held areas, and the second leaves out the long-term consequences of the Kosovo war: that the minority Serbs, rather than the majority Albanians, are now gradually being ethnically cleansed from Kosovo. Meanwhile, her book came out just before another highly relevant example of what happens when the United States does in fact try to do something about murder and tyranny overseas, the invasion of Iraq.

Between 2003 and 2007, according to authoritative sources, tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed in civil war, about two million left the country, and two million more were internally displaced by ethnic cleansing. That was certainly comparable to the ethnic cleansing that took place in the Balkans in the 1990s, which Power is so convinced that the US and NATO could and should have stopped. But the events in Iraq took place while the United States had an occupation force of over 100,000 troops in the country. That huge intervention, which we certainly do not have the resources to impose again, could not stop the killing. Things quieted down after the surge, but many observers, some from the American military, explain that the violence ebbed in large part because the process of ethnic cleansing had been completed.

The air strikes in Libya may well have stopped, or at least delayed, a massacre in Benghazi. I do not however think it will be possible for NATO air power to enforce an effective partition of Libya indefinitely, nor do we have the slightest idea whether Libya could function on that basis. The President has stated that we will not send troops in and Qadaffi seems to dispose of far more support than the Presidents of Egypt or Tunisia did. The real question now is whether we can arrange some kind of cease-fire talks that will stop the fighting and perhaps encourage some kind of political settlement--with or without Qadaffi.

Turmoil in the Muslim world, meanwhile, is obviously destined to increase, from the Mediterranean to the Pakistan-India frontier. We can neither stop it or control it, and attempts to do so militarily will probably be counterproductive. We must continue to stand, as the United States did in much more dangerous circumstances in 1940-1, for civilization and the rule of law. But we shall have to ask ourselves whether the more critical work, in that respect, needs to be done here at home, rather than in distant lands with different cultures, many with very large populations, who shall have to find their own way through history whether we like it or not.

Update: Monday evening

The President's speech is rather interesting. It leaves the outcome of the Libyan operation entirely unclear. I certainly believe that the President has no intention of sending in troops and every intention of turning the operation over to others. He is proud of having done what was not done in Bosnia, or Rwanda, and proud that it worked. (To be sure, Libya's almost unique geography made that possible--Qaddafi's forces were stopped because they all essentially had to move along one road.) Samantha Power's influence is very clear both as to the policy and the speech.

Frankly, the episode reminds me a bit of another famous Nomad who saved lives, Oskar Schindler. He had no strategy either--he just took advantage of a chance to do some good. That is how Obama has sold this operation. I am sure that he and Power also hope that it will have a deterrent effect on other dictators, but frankly, I am very skeptical about that. I was rather struck by his speech's reference to Iran, and I wonder what will happen if protests break out once again in that country.

I have always judged actions by their consequences, and so far this action has had good ones. We can only hope that that continues.


Anonymous said...

What's simultaneously astonishing and depressingly familiar is how there seems to have been not even a millisecond's thought devoted to 1) whom we are fighting for, and 2) what comes after. These were always among the central imbecilities of our glorious Iraq adventure, so it's amazing that we should be carving out the same pattern of idiocies -- when Iraq isn't even close to being over!

And it gets worse. Because half-cocked and (I believe) self-serving as they were, Bush at least had reasons for pursuing his Iraq folly. What the fuck is Obama's excuse?!?! I don't believe that he believes that our new war can accomplish anything. I see no evidence that he's devoted much or any attention to imagining what we even want to accomplish. This is warmaking by shrug, with "Er, OK, I guess so" as the battle cry.

Obama and Powers deserve each other. They're archetypes of the kind of suck-up losers and credentialed half-wits who fill the top rungs of American institutions.
-- sglover

Gerald Meaders said...


I most heartily agree, about the more serious work to be done, here at home. It has a lot of implications, this 'work'. One has to wonder, when will it ever begin?

All the best,

Evan Hurrle said...

Thanks for the perspective David. I will have to check out Samantha Power. Currently reading "War in a Time of Peace" by David Halberstam. He offers some great perspective on American foreign policy with regards to the breakup of Yugoslavia and events that followed. We pray for the citizens of Libya and feel thankful that our Commander in Chief took some time to consider his options.

Milton T. Burton said...

Superb. Too long our foreign policy has been dictated by hubris, both of the conservative and the liberal sorts. Our infrastructure decays and our educational system falls into ruins while we squander money and lives a half a world away. There must come an end to it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment on Power's serious but also seriously goofy book. She tackles the subject the wrong way round, looking at the actions or inactions of governments instead of the ebb and flow of public opinion, international as well as domestic.

L Moore said...

This Chris Hedges interview is full of liberal values. at 45 min he discusses moral intervention and Libya, which he favors.

steve clark said...


I urge you to contemplate the (I believe) off-handed way you ascribed nationalism and imperialism to “a powerful strain in human nature, one that can be documented since the beginning of recorded history.”

You speak of human nature as though what has transpired since the beginning of recorded history – that is, roughly the last 10,000 years of more than 200,000 years of homo sapiens history or some six million years of human evolution – is natural. Rather, the appearance of recorded history was the direct outgrowth of humanity’s resort, about 12,000 years ago, to agricultural production as the way out of a socioecological crisis in the plains region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Forced by over population in an area of decimated forests and depleted big game, humans abandoned their natural mode of production – hunting and gathering – for animal husbandry and farming. The accumulations of surplus that agriculture allowed laid the basis, for the first time in human history, for uneven social strata, the formation of classes, the creation of states and the conquest of one human group by another, that is, for nationalism and imperialism (which evolved in modified forms with the advent of industrialism beginning, roughly, 500 years ago).

It is worth contemplating what, actually, is the content of human nature. For the first few million years of human life on earth, we survived mainly through cooperation, not through competition. Human nature is collaborative, but the uneven realities imposed by agriculture (and, later, industrialism) forged a strain of human dysfunction that is relies on domination, hoarding and conquest.

Today’s human society is global in scope, a closed system, yet overpopulated and suffering with hoarding and competition over depleted resources (fossil fuel, land, water). Today’s socioecological crisis is immense, but its resolution is not fundamentally different than that of 12,000 years ago. We need a new mode of production, one no longer dependent on the depleted resources of the passing age.

That new mode, the service mode of production, has emerged, but it remains trapped in the cultural bondage of “civilization’s” ethics: domination, hoarding and conquest. Service is the antithesis of this; it is all about advancing one’s own interests by serving the needs of others and, by extension, of society as well. Today, we need to re-embrace our actual human nature and forge a new social contract to empower people to solve the diverse, yet universal problems of the current crisis.

We can do this by permanently funding civil society and global grassroots problem-solving through a worldwide, commercial transactions fee, but first a struggle must be waged to mobilize a global consciousness movement to compel collaboration by the banking industry and big state treasuries. I grant that that is a huge political challenge, but the task has been set by history and can be achieved in the resolution of this Crisis era (that is, during this Fourth Turning).

To this end, it is best to confine attributions of the origins of nationalism and imperialism to the dysfunction of recent millennia (and their particular modes of production) than to human nature. Human nature – our capacity and desire to collaborate – is our best weapon as we face the crisis at hand.


Anonymous said...

GATES: Libya Posed No Threat to U.S., Was Not 'Vital National Interest' to Intervene

Evan Hurrle said...

Oh the Democrats are forever damned by foreign policy, a true catch-22. No matter what decisions they make they are forever wrong in the court of public opinion.

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

You are right that our nature inclines us to subjugate one another by force. Interestingly, “Steve” is also right that our nature inclines us to cooperate. Both strategies work in our game, and both predate recorded history by a few million years.

Here is my strategy of military engagement for crises of genocide:

1. Genocide means exactly one thing: killing unarmed women and children defined by culture.
2. We should only engage when genocide crosses national borders.
3. We should only engage as part of a meaningful coalition.
4. We should set our engagement strategy in peacetime, and not alter it in a crisis.
5. We should make our strategy public. [1]
6. In all other cases of genocide, we should engage by non-military means (sanctions, etc.).

You didn’t ask, but here are my general rules of military engagement:

1. We should only help nations who have helped us.
2. We should only hurt nations who have hurt us.
3. If we cannot help/hurt efficiently we should not engage.
4. We should never engage under false pretenses.
5. We should only engage as part of a meaningful coalition.
6. We should help adversaries to back down honorably at any time.
7. We should set our engagement strategy in peacetime, and not alter it in a crisis.
8. Our strategy should be informed by history.
9. History means exactly one thing: very similar positions in very similar games.
10. We should make our strategy public.
11. We should know our friends and our adversaries better than we know ourselves.
12. We should admit our mistakes and add them in bold type to our history.

With respect and affection,
Jude Hammerle

[1] See Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation for more on this not-intuitive point.