Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

20 October 2012

Mitt’s War Risk


[For a brief comment on Libya, click here.]

In my short lifetime of 67 years, we Yanks have thrice made needless war.

We lost over 50,000 Americans in and around Vietnam. We indelibly tarnished our national reputation. We also lost the war. The infamous photo of would-be refugees hoping to get aboard our last helicopter fleeing Saigon will follow us through the ages as an icon of humiliation.

Worse yet, we accomplished little or nothing. We thought we were saving Vietnam and Southeast Asia from becoming a fallen “domino” to Chinese and Russian expansionism. Our leaders didn’t know—but our historians did—that Vietnam had always been fiercely independent of foreign powers, including China. Our needless war actually made Vietnam more dependent on China, because it needed China’s help to repel us.

Who pushed the infamous “domino theory” that got us stuck in the mire of Vietnam? Who horribly mismanaged the war, lied to the American people, and with an obsession for falsified “body counts” led us to defeat? Then Secdef Robert S. McNamara, a cocksure “numbers guy” from the business world, just like Mitt.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we are still coping with the consequences of our other two needless wars. We started both on false pretenses. We thought Iraq’s tyrant, Saddam, had weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t.

We thought we had to occupy all of Afghanistan, change its culture and rebuild it, just to defeat a few hundred terrorists hiding there. We didn’t. Our President has killed bin Laden and degraded Al Qaeda Central to the point of global irrelevance with smarter targeting, ninjas and drones.

To recite these facts is not to deny that these two hard, long wars might eventually have done some good abroad. Saddam is dead. Iraq may yet become a stable, prosperous self-governing country. Afghanistan might yet remain democratic, throw off the Taliban’s rule, educate its girls, and emerge from medieval darkness into the twenty-first century.

But these goals are still elusive after nearly a decade, and they were not why we started the wars. They are after-the-fact justifications for getting into wars without good reason.

And although these wars may eventually have done some good abroad, they have coarsened our domestic life immeasurably. We are now a nation for which native mercenaries fight abroad—and endure all the horrors and suffering of war—while the rest of us party and shop at home. We have oppressed and abused the 1% of us who protect us in combat, while another 1% take from the 99% the lion’s share of the economic benefits of what our warriors protect.

My point here is not to bewail our hasty and inappropriate war making, or our spiraling economic inequity. My point is to note a seldom appreciated fact: every one of these wars sprang from the fevered brow of a president inexperienced in foreign affairs and motivated largely by national pride and arrogance, made worse by ignorance.

Lyndon Johnson escalated an advisory role in a Southeast-Asian civil war into a full-blown international conflict with us as chief combatant. At home, he was one of our greatest presidents. He got Congress to pass our civil-rights laws with strong support from the South, making African-Americans, for the first time ever, free in law, if not yet in fact. With a stroke of the pen, he ended Jim Crow and legal discrimination.

But Johnson knew next to nothing about foreign policy, and nothing about Asia. He escalated our involvement in Vietnam to a full-blown war for no good reason. He thought he could pressure North Vietnam’s great leader like a segregationist pol from the South. Before he declined to seek a second term, Johnson admitted (in private) that we had been losing the war and had escalated our involvement for no reason except national pride.

So we lost the most face we had ever lost in order to save it, just as we had destroyed villages in Vietnam in order to save them. We also lost tens of thousands more of our own.

Johnson had served twenty-five years in Congress. He had been one of our most successful Senate majority leaders ever. But he became president unexpectedly when they shot JFK. In foreign affairs he was a tyro. And he had the same “Texas machismo” toward the globe as the only other president from Texas we’ve ever had: George “Dubya” Bush.

Dubya was a tyro in both domestic and foreign affairs. His entire experience in elective office before becoming president was six years as governor of Texas. He learned all he knew about the world outside our borders in a “crash course” by Condoleezza Rice and Saudi Prince Bandar during his 2000 election campaign. He had no experience whatsoever in diplomacy or military command.

So after 9/11 came, he started two unnecessary wars in a spastic overreaction. Then he put an utterly incompetent bureaucratic bully named Rumsfeld in charge of both. By the time Secdef Bob Gates came aboard, we had almost lost both wars, plus thousands of Americans and over a trillion dollars.

War-making by tyros is not a partisan issue. Johnson was a Democrat, Dubya a Republican. Both were from Texas. Both had vast ignorance and a sloppy arrogance of mind that believes we Yanks are better and stronger than others and have some sort of divine mandate, plus corresponding ability, to shape the world in our image. Such men are dangerous.

Combined with Yankee arrogance, inexperience can make even better men dangerous. JFK, a Democrat, was one of the most intelligent and able men ever to sit in the Oval Office. Yet he had little experience in foreign and military affairs. He was also the youngest man to become president. So when his military brass recommended that we support an invasion of Castro’s Cuba by disgruntled refugees, he agreed.

The result was the Bay of Pigs disaster, in which brave but foolish Cuban refugees got slaughtered or captured by a much larger and more disciplined force of Cuban natives. The failed attempt to invade fixed Castro’s view of us permanently in hate and fear. It led directly to Cuba installing Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I have written a whole post on that Crisis, which every young person should study in depth. Although its most critical phase lasted only thirteen days, it was one of the most important moments in human history. If JFK had not dropped his easy machismo, become a real leader, overruled his entire Cabinet (except for his brother Bobby), and made a deal with Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, most of you reading this post would not be here to do so. You or your parents would long have been dead. Or you would be a maimed and suffering denizen of a devastated global civilization working its radioactive way back from the Stone Age.

When the chips of species survival were down, JFK somehow switched from easy American machismo to sober and mature judgment. He did the right thing, and we all avoided Nuclear Armageddon. Our species muddled on. But it was his inexperience and thoughtless earlier arrogance, at the Bay of Pigs, that had brought on the Crisis in the first place.

Mitt is no JFK. With his only experience in elected office being four years as governor of Massachusetts, he would be the least experienced president in our history. He has no political experience abroad, unless you count two years as a youthful Mormon missionary trying to convince French Catholics to become Mormons.

Mitt has no experience or knowledge whatsoever of the Middle East or Asia, which is where the next global disasters are likely to occur. And his instincts are all wrong. He has the same easy machismo about foreign affairs that Johnson and Dubya had. He believes in his bones that we Yanks are better and stronger than others, and that they had better listen to us or else. And he has precisely the same cockiness and background as Robert S. McNamara, the principal architect of our debacle in Vietnam.

At least that’s how Mitt acts on the campaign trail. And unlike his stances on social issues and economic affairs, this side of him has remained dismally constant throughout his primary and general campaigns.

That’s why Mitt would label China a currency manipulator on day one. That’s why he is far more eager to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, or to see Israel do so, than even our own military brass. That’s why he would likely exploit the growing tension between Japan and China for our own selfish benefit, bringing a trade war or even a real war between the world’s second- and third-largest economies closer. That’s why he doesn’t have the faintest idea how catastrophic such a conflict would be not only for the global economy, but for our species’ future in general.

Don’t just listen to me. Listen to David Cameron, the British Prime Minister.

Like Mitt, Cameron is a conservative. So he should be Mitt’s natural political ally. And Brits are among the most diplomatic people on the planet, except when they see something jarring.

After Mitt made his gaffe in London, Cameron referred to him as a man “from the middle of nowhere.” Cameron didn’t mean that literally. Massachusetts is not nowhere, even to a Brit. (Utah, Mitt’s spiritual home, might well be.)

What Cameron meant was that, on the world stage, Mitt was and is an unknown nobody. He is a tyro who, in any proper world, would need another decade or two of real international seasoning before presuming to become the Commander in Chief of the most powerful nation on Earth. At least he would have to get to know some of the principals. Cameron was also hinting that such gaffes as Mitt made (on his very first trip abroad as presumptive GOP nominee) could have real consequences if made by such a Commander.

So the real differences between the candidates have nothing to do with employment or the economy. Both want desperately to improve them, but neither will get any bold new plan through Congress. The important differences are all in the field of foreign policy. There any president is practically a dictator, with near-absolute power over war or peace. (Remember Dubya!)

In that field, Mitt is a man with no relevant experience. He has virtually no native diplomatic skill, as his many gaffes have amply shown. He’s already hinted at readiness to make trade war with China and real war with Iran. He is thoughtless and trigger happy.

His opponent, our President, is a thoughtful, cautious and prudent man with immense diplomatic skill. When only a state senator—and when he had everything to lose politically by opposing our nation’s headlong rush to war—Obama spoke out against invading Iraq for all the right reasons. He is ending our misguided wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is doing so after killing bin Laden and decimating Al Qaeda, while putting immense pressure on the few remaining, scattered terrorists. At the same time, he is reforming our bloated military-industrial complex, which looks backward to the Cold War, into a leaner, cheaper and more effective fighting force for the twenty-first century.

If Mitt wins, I put the probability of a war with Iran, with all the global economic risk of a Hormuz Straits closure, at about 50%. I put the risk of a trade war between us and China, or between Japan and China, at 40%, and the risk of real war between Japan and China, in which our Navy and Air Force would inevitably become involved, at about 25%. (I doubt that any president, even Mitt, would be stupid enough to send our ground troops to the Asian mainland.) If Obama wins, I see those risks as much lower: 25%, 20% and 10%, respectively.

No American president can control independent sovereign nations like Israel, China or Japan, let alone Iran. But a good one can influence them strongly. A better one can form international alliances and pressure them greatly. That’s what’s happening right now in Iran, where Obama’s economic sanctions are hurting so much that merchants have been protesting in the streets.

What scares me now is not what will happen to jobs or the economy. All the signs point to slow but steady improvement. What scares me is that people in developed nations worldwide have forgotten how awful war can be, and how easily and unexpectedly it can catch us unawares.

You can see this trend in Europe, when ignorant folks castigate and deride the EU for its economic difficulties. They forget that the EU has helped keep the peace in Europe for half a century, after more than a century of devastating wars. They forget that Germany and France once fought three increasingly horrible wars in a mere seven decades (the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and World War II).

And with our Greatest Generation dying off, we forget how miserable was our own experience in the worst of all wars, even though our territory and our civilian population emerged nearly intact. (Ask your grandparents about scarcity, rationing, blackouts and air-raid drills. Then ask the warriors among them what combat in Europe or the Pacific was like.)

Mitt is just the kind of guy whose entire persona and outlook trend toward war. At his best, he’s no JFK, and JFK nearly blundered into Nuclear Armageddon. At his worst, he’s another Johnson, Dubya or Robert S. McNamara.

If a massive war breaks out in Asia, between the world’s second- and third- largest economic powers, it will be worse than World War II. We will no more escape suffering than we did in the most horrible war so far.

A win by Mitt would bring such a war much closer, not to mention war in Iran. That’s why my choice as voter would be easy, even if I thought that Mitt had the better plan to revive our economy, which I do not.

If you want to sleep soundly during the next four years, there is only one rational choice. Vote for the President because: (a) he is not a warmonger and (b) he has tested and proven skill in diplomacy and foreign affairs. That’s where presidents have their greatest unilateral power, and that’s where the real dangers are now.

Footnote: Here I count the military command experienced of our general-presidents—including Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower—as equivalent to experience in elected office.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post confused Gordon Brown, a former prime minister, with Britain’s current leader, David Cameron, who made the remarks about Mitt’s gaffes. I regret the error.

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