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Saturday, February 25, 2012

The end of our Islamic adventure

Since the American withdrawal from Iraq just a couple of months ago, the Maliki government has not made the slightest effort to stick to the script that we had written, moving aggressively against Sunni political opponents and making it harder and harder for any Americans to remain in the country. Because no American can remain there without substantial protection provided by contractors--who are under heavy pressure to leave--it is quite possible that within a year or two there will be no Americans left in Iraq--an amazing denouement to a sad chapter in American foreign policy. And today comes the news that two more Americans--officers working in Afghan government buildings in Kabul--have been shot and killed by an Afghan, apparently as retaliation for the burning of Korans at an American base, an act that should lead to some court martials for sheer stupidity. Simultaneously, American activists are going on trial in Egypt. All this should lead us to face facts and gives President Obama an opportunity to do so, but I fear that he will not take it. It isn't his style.

As Andrew Bacevich pointed out in his latest book, Washington Rules (reviewed here on October 13, 2010), the United States after 1945 adopted the idea that we had to be keenly interested in any political changes anywhere on the planet, and to be ready to deploy military force to make sure things went our way. Although the American public has only been willing to stomach a prolonged major war every 15 to 25 years (Korea, 1950-3; Vietnam, 1965-73; Iraq and Afghanistan, 2001-present), Washington has continually intervened in other ways around the globe, and our pretensions to control events seem if anything to have increased after the end of the Cold War, despite the enormous shrinkage of our military forces. 9/11 led us into unfamiliar and unfriendly cultural territory in the Middle East. The time has come for a frank reappraisal.

No matter how tolerant we claim to be of Islam--and in practice, the burning of the Koran is only the latest of a long series of incidents in which Americans acted provocatively towards Muslims--we can never be anything but infidels and apostates in Muslim countries. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the supremacy of western civilization was almost unquestioned, and even in the Islamic world, revolutionaries like Ataturk in Turkey, Nasser in Egypt, and the Ba'ath Party in Syria and Iraq acknowledged this by trying to copy the west. Those days are gone. Militant Islam has returned to earth. George W. Bush's fantasies notwithstanding,there is not the slightest chance of a major Middle Eastern or Central Asian political movement adopting western models for the foreseeable future, much less agreeing to a large long-term American presence. The Far East, where we fought two wars in the 1950s and 1960s, has turned out to be far more hospitable to western civilization than one might have supposed. The Arab world has turned out to be less so. It will evidently have to work out its own political problems without our assistance.

There has been an oddly postmodern aspect to American foreign interventions for many years now. While nearly everyone but a few malcontents like Bacevich and myself accepts the necessity for them--and this includes leftists eager to intervene on behalf of human rights, as well as neoconservatives--administrations periodically have to realize that they are not worth the cost and wind them down. Yet they invariably so, as Bacevich pointed out, without calling the basic premises of American foreign policy into question. Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for President in 2008 in large part because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, but he carefully balanced that stance by endorsing the war in Afghanistan. He faced no real political pressure to continue, much less escalate, that war after he came into office, but he decided to do so anyway despite warnings from the American Ambassador, perhaps because it seemed like a consensus, bipartisan thing to do. It depended however on a fantasy about the transformation we could bring about within the Afghan government. So far from reality was this fantasy that we are now literally in danger of being driven out of the country. One must assume, however, that Obama will do whatever is necessary to keep us there until after the election.

In 1961 John Kennedy went to Europe to meet Khrushchev and stopped in Paris to meet Charles de Gaulle. He asked for de Gaulle's advice on Indochina, and de Gaulle, after recapitulating the French experience there, commented that the West could maintain influence in the newly independent countries of the region provided that it did not try to intervene militarily. As I pointed out in American Tragedy, Kennedy in that same year refused repeatedly to send American divisions to Laos and Vietnam, showing that he understood what de Gaulle was saying. But Washington has never taken that lesson to heart more than temporarily. Obama in his first few months in office sounded as if he might strike a different note, but in practice, he has pursued more of the same. A lobby is now building for intervention in Syria, which is probably due for a long and bloody civil war no matter what we do. We should, in my opinion, stay out.

America intervention succeeded in western Europe and Japan and in South Korea because the political basis for pro-American regimes existed in those countries. It failed in Vietnam and Lebanon and is failing again in Iraq and Afghanistan because that political basis did not exist. Yes, American troops can accomplish something while they are there, but they cannot establish new values or a new regime. Younger generations would welcome a leader who could come out and say this, but I will be very surprised in Barack Obama turns out to be that man.


Anonymous said...

The rationalist says don't help Syria. This is Realpolitik. The Russians and Chinese are applying it now as for the Russians Assad is their friendly dictator like USA had Pinochet, for example.

Since the pictures are coming out daily from the war zone due to modern technology of photo telephones and internet the story cannot be ignored so the outrage in Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, a very important US ally in the region due to its massive oil reserves, is large and growing. So pressure keeps growing. Al Quaeda is already there doing large bombings. Weapons supplies and CIA agents are highly likely involved. Chavez is sending Diesel to Assad. The Russians and Iranians park their warships at the Syrian Naval base. I suppose it will be like in Iran, SWIFT transfers, all trade, etc. will be stopped as ships refuse to go to Iran (no insurance coverage). So the people if they are not self sufficient in food will start to starve. This is a tripwire between West and Russia and Shia and Sunni countries like Sarajevo in WWI perhaps. We can't stay out as we are already too deep in and we can't openly go in without violating the UN charter (so why are they saying they will attack Iran without a UN mandate?). The increasing tension and uncertainty will just blow the oil price sky high as we have seen recently causing a renewed recession and real reason for war as this could cause major bankruptcies of countries, US states, Chinese provinces. So one thing leads to another because like in 1914 everything is too interconnected. WWII was on purpose and WWI an accident. Let's hope the Middle East problems don't get to be a really big accident causing WWIII.

Pat Mathews said...

Sic transit Imperium Americana.

Bob in NC said...

Excellent analysis! Regrettably, many of us who should have have known better were shocked and traumatized into blind support of Bush's military initiatives into Afghanistan and Iraq.
If we had just proceeded to get Bin Laden in Afghanistan in late 2001 instead of waiting for the Northern War Lords to join us, under the fantasy notion that it would "build concensus for regime change" -- i.e., wipe out the Taliban, we could have gone in and gotten out in 6 months, having killed or captured Bin Laden.
Then, the bizarre idea that Saddam harbored "WMD's" in Iraq that threatened us would have been seen more clearly as Bush's irrational megalomania.
That Obama hasn't acted more courageously to get us out, and hasn't adequately punished the "banksters" and their GOP supporters for crashing the economy, means that his only hope for a 2nd term is the wackiness of the current GOP field.

Ed said...

The fourth paragraph makes an important point, about the "postmodern" nature of how the U.S. elites now exercise power. The U.S. intervened in the U.S. massively in the last decade, for reasons that even now that remain unclear because all the public justifications have been pretty obvious lies.

The U.S. now seems to be withdrawing from the Middle East, but to what extent is unclear, because now no justifications for the new policy are being advanced at all. And the lies used to advance the previous policy have not been investigated or repudiated. So you get the strange phenomena of a public campaign starting to attack Iran at the same time the U.S. military is withdrawing from the region.

Shelterdog said...

If ending our "Islamic adventure" refers to the use of military force, I agree. However, we shouldn't overlook the fact that there is currently a struggle in many countries of the Middle East between those who support modernism, pluralism and democracy, and those who oppose those objectives. It is in our interest--and the interest of the world's stability--that the forces of modernism, pluralism and democracy flourish. As I see it, the question isn't simply whether we send the troops everywhere or withdraw altogether, but whether the US can take other actions, short of military power, to promote its ideals and to support those who seek to adapt similar ideals to their own societies.

Anonymous said...

I believe that Bacevich has also sketched the real reason that Obama "endorsed" our Afghan adventure: Although it's been totally aimless in any strategic sense, it was always more justifiable than the Iraq invasion (i.e., it wasn't based completely on lies). Also, Afghanistan is a backwater, far from oil sources, far from Israel, far from anything that might stir American domestic opinion.

What better theater, then, for a politician determined to "look tough"? Dems are instinctively afraid of appearing "soft". "Commanding" an army in the field -- however pointlessly -- is a wonderful, cost-free way of innoculating Obama from that. If I remember correctly, Bacevich emphasized this in an essay a while back. Bush was an idiot, sure, but he probably did have some kind of bonehead sincerity about his wars. For Obama, Afghanistan is all about domestic political tactics, nothing more.

Since the Republicans have evolved into some kind of mental ward roadshow, it seems likely that Obama will win again. (**Why** he wants to escapes me. He's already assured of the Davos jet set life. He's never seemed to have any clear idea of what he wants to **do** in the White House, other than add it to the resume'. So what's the point?) But after all the stay-at-home voters have cast their "abstain" ballots (my own plan), I'll bet that his "mandate" includes maybe, generously, 20% of the adult population. This is how systems lose legitimacy.
-- sglover

Anonymous said...

Shelterdog said...

"t is in our interest--and the interest of the world's stability--that the forces of modernism, pluralism and democracy flourish."

How many idiotic crusades have we launched in the last century using **exactly** that rationale?!?!? I don't wish to be harsh, but I swear you remind me of Woody Wilson, clucking about the nefarious Kaiser and his Huns.

If our adventures in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan and Panama and Nicaragua and Iran and... you get the idea... have shown us anything, it's that WE ARE NOT COMPETENT to shepard **anybody** onto the blessed path of tolerance and eight hours a day in the cubicle farm. We need to let other societies sort out their own problems. They're going to anyway. In the meantime, commerce and cultural exchange are going to be far more mutually beneficial -- hence "influential" -- than any grand strategy dreamed up by assholes in the Beltway or the Kennedy School of Sinecures, er, Government, I mean*.

I really think that we're still dogged by the Second World War, except that the lessons we drew are almost the opposite of those drawn by the nations that actually hosted the thing. We actually **did** manage to put together some very admirable and effective statecraft during and immediately after that conflict. But our problem ever since has been that we can't seem to grasp what a truly rare circumstance that was. -- sglover

* Hope that last doesn't step on your toes, Dr. Kaiser. You've never been associated with that "school", correct? As far as I can tell the Kennedy School is where Beltway tapeworms go to hibernate when their tribe is out of power, or when they've reached the end of their "careers". I don't believe you're among that lot at all.

David Kaiser said...

Actually I was associated with the JFK school but that was LONG time ago. It does turn out interventionists nowadays.

I apologize for accidentally, apparently, deleting a comment. Feel free to repost.

Bozon said...


Many thanks for this post.

I would just mention that the time has long past,

rather than has now come,

for a frank reappraisal of our foreign policy in the Cold War.

Too bad really,

but could it have been any other way,

given the political and ideological antecedents?

As I have said on my blog, it is now game over, rather than time for a frank reappraisal.

All the best,