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Friday, September 16, 2022

The March of History

 Last week the New York Times published a fine story about Iraq today.  The George W. Bush administration was gearing up for the Iraq War 20 years ago, Obama pulled out of Iraq at the Iraqi government's request in 2011.  American troops went back after ISIS took over much of the country in 2014, and by 2017 ISIS had lost almost all its Iraqi territory.  ISIS had taken advantage of the long-standing antipathy between the Sunni minority, which had run Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and the newly impowered Shi'ite majority--much of it allied with Iran--which has ruled the central government since the American invasion.  ISIS's defeat, as Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker has shown, led to horrifying Shi'ite reprisals in the cities in had ruled, which will ensure that the bitter hatred between the two sects endures. The new story deals with the Shi'ite led portion of the country, which it describes as a failed state.  Various Shi'ite militias divide authority, struggle for power among themselves, and collect protection money from virtually every enterprise, great and small, in the country.  Iraq is again generating important oil revenues but the government has never managed to use them to benefit the mass of the people, many of whom lack reliable energy and water.  A well-informed foreign observer says that Iraq has never been a functioning state and that no prime minister has controlled the security forces or the borders. Various regional powers are competing for influence within Iraq but the United States government appears to have washed its hands of the country it shattered beyond repair.

The Iraq War was the third great turning point in the great crisis of the last 22 years or so. The first was the 2000 election, handed to George W. Bush by a Republican Supreme Court majority that kept the state of Florida from making sure of who had actually won.  The second, of course, was 9/11.  Ten years before that, when the Cold War came to an end and the Soviet Union collapsed, United States foreign policy had already entered a new phase. A recent article--"Introducing the Military Intervention Project: A New Dataset on US Military Interventions, 1776–2019," has shown that American military interventions abroad became significantly more common after the Cold War was over.  The authors do not systematically to explain this, but it seems clear to me that from George H. W. Bush onward presidents have assumed that without a peer competitor or a challenge to their leadership of the developed world, Republican and Democratic presidents assumed that they could use the military to secure any result they wanted anywhere in the world.  The Bush II administration assumed that they could turn Iraq into a free-market pro-American neoconservative paradise within a couple of years at most.  Like good Leninists, they trusted to history to achieve their goals and felt entitled to give history a bit of a push.  They fabricated a case based on non-existent weapons of mass destruction and links between Saddam Hussein and Al Queda to get Congress's approval for war--in which every major Democratic leader except the venerable Robert Byrd, who remembered the Tonkin Gulf, to go along.  After the occupation they destroyed the whole machinery of the previous state--something that US officials had not done in Germany or Japan after 1945--without any idea of what would come after.  Chaos resulted, and it continued to this day.  Iran was one of the big winners, extending new influence into Iraq.  That in turn triggered a bitter Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is being played out in civil war in Yemen, and that may lead to both countries acquiring nuclear weapons.  And the Obama administration pursued the same policy in Libya and Syria, with two kinds of disastrous results. 

The tone for the last thirty years was set, in fact, by the first President Bush, in the wake of the collapse of Communism and the first Gulf War.  "The triumph of democratic ideas in Eastern Europe and Latin America and the continuing struggle for freedom elsewhere all around the world all confirm the wisdom of our nation's founders,” he said in a State of the Union address on January 29, 1991, in the midst of the Gulf War. “Tonight, we work to achieve another victory, a victory over tyranny and savage aggression.” “Yes,” he continued, “the United States bears a major share of leadership in this effort. Among the nations of the world, only the United States of America has both the moral standing and the means to back it up. We're the only nation on this Earth that could assemble the forces of peace."  On March 6, he hailed the advent of a new world “in which freedom and respect for human rights find a home among all nations. The Gulf war put this new world to its first test. And my fellow Americans, we passed that test."

I don't think that our feelings of omnipotence are gone yet.  I certainly support everything we are doing now for Ukraine--indeed, as some readers will remember, I would have supported much stronger action once the war began.  Yet I don't see any serious thinking in our government about how we are going to live with China or Russia, when neither government shares our values or our vision for the future.  The post-9/11 resolution authorizing the executive to act anywhere in the world to pursue the war on terror is still in effect and we are still applying it in various ways on several continents.  The American people have largely lost interest in events abroad, but our foreign policy establishment seems as ambitious as ever.


James N. McClatchey said...

Whenever I see comments about China and Russia, I think about their near terminal demography. Both of them are developing inverted demographic pyramids where old people outnumber those younger in every age group. They are doomed. Recent census information from China indicated they will have 1/2 the population in 2050 they have today. Russia is equally bad. (Ukraine's is bad too BTW.) The recent Ukranian war is perhaps the last chance Russia will have to mount such an effort. You can already see this in the difficulty they are having scrounging up troops.

Globalization is dying a slow death. The US is going to undergo a massive boom as companies reshore their operations in the next 10 years. Recently my brother flew from Atlanta to Boston. He said that even from 30000 ft you could see manufacturing buildings under construction the entire way up the east coast.

China and Russia should be worrying about how to get along with us and not the other way around.

Energyflow said...

I think the most glaringly obvious mistake people seem to make, is to support the curent foreign intervention, while condemning previous ones as catastrophes. I believe that this stems from herd instinct. Anyone standing against the tide of the current thing is not a patriot or is the cuss word of the day, " conspiracy theorist", " commie", "Putin or Russian friend". Instead of a rational discussion of why endless American expansion somewhere is of any good, the default is aggression, not diplomacy. I then am for Isolationism now! instead of imperialism foever!, the latter of which depletes resources for schools, roads, etc sending them to arms manufactures to bomb wedding parties, etc of people who we believe would be better off having our belief system of the day, be that " white man's burden" in British colonial era, "democracy" since wwii, or nowadays, oddly hoisting the rainbow flag on our embassies to the chagrin of traditionalists in about 90% of the world. Exporting our feelings about what we believe today to be right is no better than Alexander the Great, Ghenghis Khan or the International Communists in their day. I suppose it is unavoidable, as those who wield power inevitably use it to their own advantage like the proverbial bull in the china shop.