[The following post is relevant to the Syrian peace talks due to begin next week. For comment on the Dems’ March 6 debate, click here.
Introduction: major powers’ invulnerability
Vietnam: the paradigm
Iraq and Afghanistan
Russia and China
Conclusion: changing the paradigm
All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.” — Abraham Lincoln, January 27, 1838
Introduction: major powers’ invulnerability
Abraham Lincoln was perhaps our greatest president. He spoke the headpiece quote a generation before his presidency and our nation’s most horrible war. That war was not World War II, but our war amongst ourselves and against slavery. Our Civil War cost us an estimated 700,000 dead—a number comparable to all the dead in all
our wars with foreigners in our short history, from our War of Independence on.
Of course Lincoln was right then, nearly two centuries ago. He would be even more right now. We Yanks have the world’s most powerful, advanced and accurate nuclear deterrent. With our current President’s recent decision to modernize our nuclear arsenal and make its weapons even more
accurate, plus yield-adjustable, the risk of any foreign power invading and occupying the United States is zero.
In fact we Yanks have not suffered a foreign invasion for over two centuries—since the War of 1812. The most horrible invasion and occupation in our national history—with the most atrocities on our own territory—was by ourselves against ourselves. It included Sherman’s march through Georgia, the Union’s occupation of the Confederacy, and the Confederacy’s concentration camp for Union prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia. In comparison, Pancho Villa’s fleeting raid into the American Southwest early in the last century was a mere pinprick.
So were Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Neither involved any immediate risk of invasion or occupation by a foreign power. Each was shocking and galvanizing precisely because of the temerity of foreigners daring to attack the world’s greatest power, even if only in “hit and run” raids.
The simple fact is that, for nearly two centuries, we Yanks have been invulnerable to the risk that most nations have rightly feared since the dawn of human civilization: invasion, occupation and genocide or enslavement by foreigners.
We are not alone. Today, in the twenty-first century, every
major power is virtually immune against invasion and occupation. Can you imagine any foreign power trying to invade and occupy China, or to cut it up for colonial and commercial advantage as European powers did in the nineteenth century and Japan did in the twentieth? China now has the world’s largest standing army and a nuclear deterrent that probably matches all of Europe’s put together. No one is even going to feint
against Russia, for fear of its recently modernized military and its world-destroying nuclear arsenal.
There are four reasons why no major power need fear invasion and occupation in the twenty-first century. The first and most important is the nuclear deterrent. It makes major wars among major powers fighting on their own territories unthinkable and indeed obsolete
. The second is better social organization. As nation-states have become more cohesive in language, culture and government, the chances of dividing and conquering them as colonial powers once did China, or as the Brits once did a nascent and still-splintered India, have reached the vanishing point. China’s nearly completed effort to make Mandarin the “lingua franca
” of its vast territory is just one salient example of this process.
The third reason why major powers are immune to invasion and occupation is better and more rational government in other major powers
. Rational leaders tend to think that war is a losing enterprise for all concerned; they would rather deal and trade. It doesn’t much matter whether or not their governments are fully democratic. Xi and Putin are indeed authoritarian, but they are far, far better than the last century’s Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Tojo, let alone this new century’s Assad, Saddam, Kim or Mugabe.
The fourth and final reason why invasions and occupations of major powers are things of the past has to do with natural resources. Many big wars have been fought in whole or in part for them. But today we humans have a widely-respected marketplace rule for natural resources: anyone (or any power) with money can buy them. There is no need to go to war, for example, for oil and gas, when they’re available at non-discriminatory prices from numerous sources around the globe.
So how do we humans still make war? The answer is simple: minor
powers still make war. Having virtually given up war on their own or each other’s territory as an instrument of policy, major powers support, inflame and sometimes even incite war on minor
powers’ territory. And the quest for control of resources sometimes figures in those
wars, as it does in almost every conflict in the Middle East.
Major powers feed minor powers’ wars with advanced weapons, money and often (as in the Cold War) ideology. Why do they do that? To seek an answer, we must resort to the single most insightful comment ever made about war, namely, Von Clausewitz’: “war is politics by other means.”
Major powers feed foreign wars among minor powers because doing so satisfies their domestic political needs, or at least those needs as perceived by their leaders. The perceived “benefits” of foreign wars appear internally, while all the usual horrible consequences of war affect only the minor foreign powers, their people, and their neighbors. It is a classic case of importing perceived benefits and exporting real damage and pain.
Even when wars among minor powers export numberless refugees, major powers can continue to fuel the death machine. An example is today’s war in Syria. Its hapless refugees are overwhelming not only its neighbors, but innocent Europe as well.
Needless to say, the EU is not primarily responsible for the mayhem. The US and Russia are. Dubya’s unnecessary invasion and occupation of Iraq started the whole chain of catastrophes, and Putin’s intransigent military support for Assad now keeps it going.
This essay has a simple thesis: major-power domestic
politics is a key motivator for minor-power wars, especially the most vicious and longest-lasting ones. Only when we understand that basic point can we humans begin to wind down the remains of our human war machine as we have already wound down major wars among major powers. Let’s look at some examples.
Vietnam: the paradigm
Before we point fingers at others, we Yanks should look closely at ourselves. Since the most horrible war in history, we Yanks have had two successes and three failures (omitting minor wars like those in Grenada and Bosnia). Our stalemate on the Korean Peninsula gave birth to the economic miracle of South Korea. Daddy Bush’s (and Colin Powell’s) success in Gulf I stabilized the Arabic world (for a brief instant) and saved Kuwaiti oil for international capitalism. But we Yanks lost utterly and abjectly in Vietnam. Our invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced few meaningful and positive results in over a decade of grinding, debilitating foreign conflict.
So it behooves us to examine how domestic politics influenced, if not controlled, our involvement in these three less-than-self-evidently meritorious military adventures. We begin with Vietnam. As it turns out, it’s a paradigm for the others.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson was a fundamentally good man. Born and raised in a poor community in South Texas, he had worked and struggled his way up to wealth and power, becoming president on JFK’s assassination. Deprecated and underestimated by JFK’s born-to-wealth Eastern elite, Johnson had a deep personal acquaintance with the trials of the poor and minorities. Unlike the Kennedy clan, he had grown up among them. He had a genuine, burning desire to help.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us Yanks about the evils of Jim Crow. Lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall worked the courts. But only Lyndon Johnson could get racist white Southern Democrats to vote to abolish Jim Crow.
Johnson was a legendary legislative arm-twister. He got racist pols to vote to abolish Jim Crow less than two years after Alabama Governor George Wallace had declared, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Johnson’s work with Congress was a tour de force
comparable to President Lincoln’s pushing through the Civil War Amendments just before his own assassination. So was Johnson’s work on the anti-poverty programs that became known as the “Great Society.”
Had the French quietly departed Vietnam after their catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Lyndon Johnson would have been one of our nation’s greatest presidents. But instead, the French sought our help, and JFK (then alive and Johnson’s boss) tentatively agreed. Johnson’s thoughtless acquiescence in and subsequent escalation of the War in Vietnam resulted in our greatest military loss so far. He made our history’s single greatest foreign-policy blunder.
Why did he do it? Johnson’s greatest achievements—and the ones dearest to his heart—were his Civil Rights Acts, which ended Jim Crow, and his anti-poverty programs. His words and memoirs all suggest that he wanted nothing to do with Vietnam and its own civil war. Yet he escalated that foreign war to over 50,000 American combat deaths. He crushed large parts of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with saturation bombing, the defoliant Agent Orange (which still causes cancer deaths today) and land mines. Why?
I have written a whole essay
on the Greek tragedy that Johnson’s presidency became. Suffice it to make three points here. First, the escalation derived from a gross misunderstanding of Vietnam and its history and culture. That Southeast Asian nation had been fighting for independence from its giant neighbor China for most of a millennium. It had been struggling for independence from Western colonialism since before World War II. Based on musings by pols, not experts, we Yanks misread the great Vietnamese patriot Ho Chi Minh as a lackey of international Communism and a “domino” eager to fall into the hands of Communist China or Soviet Russia. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as our few academic experts on Southeast Asia even then assured us.
The second point was in fact a cause of the first. We Yanks (or our leaders) didn’t care enough about Vietnam to learn its history or culture or find out what was really going on there. All we cared about was how it might affect us. In the context of the Cold War, we reacted with fear, even paranoia. Defense Secretary Robert S. MacNamara’s “domino theory” was the paranoid fantasy of a former car maker
who had no business even opining
on Southeast Asian history or affairs. It was about as thoughtful and reliable as Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s later paranoid view that Saddam had nuclear weapons or their makings.
The final point was the real reason why Johnson—a Democrat not otherwise prone to war—made such a catastrophic blunder in Vietnam. It was domestic politics. Ever since Eisenhower (who had warned us Yanks of the evils of a “military-industrial complex” on his way out), the Republican Party had made domestic political hay by fostering fear of foreigners. With Richard Nixon in the lead, it had exaggerated admittedly serious foreign threats and sought to lay them at the feet of Democrats. The GOP even accused Democrats of “losing” China to Communism, as if we Yanks, preoccupied with turning swords into plowshares after World War II, could fix the fate of enormous China halfway around the globe.
Nixon had won his first congressional seat and virtually all of his subsequent offices by accusing his political opponents of being “soft on Communism.” Johnson knew that our nation was still divided, despite his landslide win over GOP extremist Goldwater. He feared that, if he “lost” Vietnam, the GOP would win the next election and end his antipoverty programs. So his reluctant and catastrophic support for escalating our involvement in Vietnam was in part a hostage to his domestic agenda. His own Texas machismo—a desire not to lose even a wrong-headed war—and the insane logic of war itself did the rest.
As it happened, the catastrophic human and political cost of his escalation ended Johnson’s presidency anyway. That is what made his personal history as our leader such a Greek tragedy.
We are still feeling the domestic consequences of his presidency today. Nixon’s vile “Southern strategy” still drives the racism and regional resentment that motivates the Tea Party and the GOP’s scorched-earth opposition to President Obama and everything he proposes. It may take yet another generation to set things right here at home.
Iraq and Afghanistan
Johnson and Vietnam set a dismal paradigm for needless involvement in foreign wars. First, a crisis occurs in some minor foreign power. Leaders don’t try very hard to understand what it means, let alone its history and context.
Second, they view the foreign crisis through the lens of domestic politics. That is, they consider what use their domestic political rivals might make of it, and what domestic political advantage they will have if it comes out the “right way.” They give little, if any, weight to what might look “right” or “wrong” to the minor foreign power itself, its people, its neighbors, or the world.
Finally, the leaders make a decision based on domestic political considerations, paying little attention to consequences abroad. The result, not surprisingly, is a foreign political disaster.
So it was with our Yankee invasion and occupation of Iraq in early 2003. As so many have observed, the hard part wasn’t the invasion: all but Saddam’s most elite and loyal troops hated him and wanted to surrender to anyone else. The hard part was what came later: the consequences and the aftermath of our invasion, which are still reverberating.
Just so in Afghanistan. Dubya invaded and occupied that nation to bring justice to bin Laden and his comrades hiding there. He failed. Later, President Obama did the job with a platoon of Navy Seals and two helicopters.
Today, well over a decade later, we have the following consequences to deal with: (1) civil wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan that are still raging, with our substantial participation, despite valiant efforts on our current President’s part to wind them down; (2) the two longest wars in our nation’s history; (3) an Iraq in which low-level distrust among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds has broken into open warfare; (4) an Afghanistan much of which the Taliban still rule, as they had done when we entered; (5) a broken, bleeding and devastated Syria; (6) an entire region inflamed by internecine fighting and the relentless march of millions of refugees; (7) a European refugee crisis not seen since Stalin’s deportation of millions or the end of World War II; (8) the foundation and rise of IS; and (9) a renewed superpower struggle with Russia, which soon might break into open warfare or bring Turkey into armed conflict with Russia or the West.
Quite a list of accomplishments for Dubya! However dimly, even the GOP electorate knows that this chain of disasters is nothing to praise or excuse. It took some time for all the consequences to emerge, but our invading Iraq has produced a whole series of catastrophes. That fact alone, and not his alleged “low energy,” is why no exclamation point could save Jeb from oblivion once he had blessed his brother’s unnecessary war.
But it gets worse. There’s also Hillary Clinton. No one can tell today whether she could have stopped the disastrous rush to war in Iraq after 9/11. But she didn’t even try. She was, after all, the de facto
leader of the Democratic Party—the party that had actually won the popular vote in 2000. (Al Gore was laying low and licking his wounds from our Supreme Court’s theft of his presidency.)
Yet Hillary voted for war and against the delaying Levin Amendment. She did so without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate
, which only Senators could read, and which contained vehement dissents from within our own intelligence services as to the causes and advisability of war.
Her reasons for not even reading this crucial report were and are self-evident. All had to do with domestic politics and nothing to do with Iraq, Iran, the Middle East or Al Qaeda.
Quite simply, Hillary wanted—and still wants!—to be our first female president. She knew that the GOP was skilled at demagoguing foreign threats, from the Soviet Union through Iran to the then-new menace of Al Qaeda. She knew that the GOP would tar her, a woman, as “weak” if she refused to support even the most extreme and unnecessary measures pushed by one of the most incompetent presidents in our history and his Torquemada Cheney. So she didn’t dissent. She didn’t offer alternatives. She didn’t even question. Her reason was domestic politics, and nothing more.
If and when she becomes president, Hillary may no longer feel such pressure to be stupidly “strong.” She will still have to run for re-election, but she will have four years to develop a foreign/military policy uniquely her own.
Unfortunately, no one today has the faintest idea what that policy will be. Hillary herself gives no steady indication. Virtually all of Hillary’s now-past foreign-policy decisions—except for her decision as Secretary of State
to save the Benghazi rebels from massacre and get rid of Qaddafi—have been motivated by domestic politics alone.
Hillary is not unique in this regard. To the extent that they exist at all (except as corollaries of vapid conservative dogma), the GOP’s economic
policies have been self-evident catastrophic failures. Our following them, even reluctantly, has sold our basic industries to China, Mexico and Vietnam, and has left us with a “service economy,” selling each other haircuts, massages, health care, software and Web services, financial speculation and swindles, and “public relations,” i.e., professional lies.
Having no coherent economic policy that anyone who understands cause and effect can credit, the GOP has tried to win domestic elections by fomenting fear and hate. Donald Trump is just the most extreme example of this phenomenon. In the past five years alone, he and the GOP have focused hate on African-Americans (including the President!), Mexicans, the poor, Muslims, Islamic extremists, terrorists, Russia and China.
Does this means that, in the unlikely event that a Republican becomes president next year, we will have yet another unnecessary war?
Probably not. Republicans’ bark is considerably worse than their bite. They use warmongering to win domestic elections, without having thought much about foreign policy or strategy at all. When and if they win, they improvise, without much warning of what they would do in a crisis. The problem is not so much real warmongering as “winging it”—saying whatever they think they need to say to win elections and worrying about real policy and consequences later.
This “strategy,” if you can call it that, arises from the fact that the GOP cares only about one thing: making its rich backers richer. It wants what they want: lower taxes, less regulation, and more power for the rich. Like Mao in his day, our GOP has an ideological playbook full of simplistic dogma and vapid nationalism. It also has a plan to win elections by fomenting fear and hate, including hatred and jealousy of rising foreign powers.
But our GOP has had little practice in governing at the presidential level since Daddy Bush left office in 2001. The reign of Dubya the Incompetent and his Torquemada Cheney was hardly a model of wise leadership, whether at home or abroad. And if dark powers should put Donald Trump in the White House, no one
would know what he would do, probably not even he. In his quest to get elected, he has promised so many inconsistent and contradictory things, including some obvious fantasies, that his action in a crisis would be anybody’s guess.
Only Bernie has a clear and clearly expressed plan for foreign and military policy. Just like our very first president, George Washington, he wants to avoid foreign entanglements and foreign wars. He wants to maintain and respect international coalitions, act in concert with other nations, and avoid military action—especially unilateral action—to the extent possible. He wants to stop trying to impose American culture and values on foreigners by force.
Isn’t that what any rational leader of a major power ought
to want? It’s undoubtedly what our current President does
want, and indeed is doing. But he can’t actually say so because our right wing would tar him as weak and feckless even more than it’s already doing.
Hillary won’t announce or summarize a coherent philosophy for much the same reason. As a female she has good reason to fear even more demagoguery about “strength” in foreign affairs. And the GOP candidates, in their pathetic attempts to project “strength” by “promising” carpet bombing and other absurd and counterproductive military action, are mostly lying. Their party and their rank and file love to bash the President as weak, but there is a strong pacifist streak among their rank and file, especially the Tea Party. Poll after poll shows how tired all
us Yanks are of endless, needless wars.
In one of the many ironies of this crazy campaign season, Bernie Sanders, the so-called “radical socialist,” actually has the most conservative and sensible foreign policy, emulating George Washington’s. Most of the other candidates in fact
would probably follow a similar policy in office, but they just won’t say so. They’re afraid of noxious domestic demagoguery holding them responsible for whatever terrible things might happen abroad before or during their tenure in office. They’re afraid of such absurd attacks as Nixon’s on his opponents in the fifties and sixties, accusing them of “losing China” to Communism. Apparently American voters are not smart enough to figure out that it was the Chinese people, not us omniscient and omnipotent Yanks, who “lost” China to so-called “Communism,” which anyway now resembles authoritarian state capitalism far more than the now-vanished Soviet brand.
So if anyone other than Bernie wins, it will be impossible even for us Yanks
to predict her or his foreign and military policy, let alone in a crisis, until it unfolds. The simple fact is that no Yankee now running for our presidency (including
Bernie) really cares much about foreign policy, except as it might affect domestic policy, our economy, our national renewal, or the ability to win elections. We Yanks are a self-regarding people with serious problems of our own.
While paradoxical and troubling, this phenomenon is not all bad. After three major, unnecessary wars in four decades (in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan), the American people and their leaders are beginning to question whether the benefits of foreign military adventures are worth the costs and sacrifices, or exceed the benefits of alternatives. This means that foreigners—even rivals like Russia and China—can influence American foreign policy if they avoid confrontation and antagonism and emphasize reason, subtlety, finesse and diplomacy. (Even Donald Trump, for all his braggadocio and bluster, constantly professes a desire to make deals.)
The trick is to do it all in secret, as the President is doing now. Diplomats must discuss rational policies and plans only in whispers, so as not to disturb the Yankee delusion—firmly fixed in the mind of many voters—that “USA! USA! USA!,” with its awesome power, can and must control whatever happens anywhere in the world. That delusion of a young and callow nation is slowly waning, but it still has legs and some time to run.
Russia and China
So far, I have emphasized our own Yankee foreign-policy blunders. But we are not alone. Russia has been, and China appears to be, doing much the same thing. Indeed, Putin and Xi individually might credibly claim to have learned bad lessons from us.
Putin and Russia, of course, are the worst offenders. For example, Russia’s FSB security service reportedly engineered
so-called “terrorist attacks” in Moscow, leading to a second war in Chechnya, to insure the election of Putin, then utterly unknown, as Russia’s supreme leader.
Syria is more complicated, but not much. The Russians have a genuine and justified interest in fighting Sunni terrorism. After all, the terrorist massacres at Beslan and the Nord-Ost Threater in Moscow were real. But the utter annihilation of Syria, with Russia’s help, has put terrorism on steroids and borne the monster of IS, surely no benefits to Russia or Russians.
Russians also have genuine disagreements with us Yanks on fundamental political philosophy. Except for brief moments, they have never known real democracy in their thousand-year history. Virtually all
their people gained freedom from serfdom at about the same time as the one-eighth of us who were slaves gained freedom here. Their 1917 October Revolution was perhaps the world’s bloodiest, with only the French Revolution to rival it. So it’s not surprising that Russians fear the noise and tumult of political discord, including real democracy, and tend to follow strongmen such as Stalin and Putin.
But in spite of these genuine concerns and cultural history, Russia’s policy in Syria is not working. It has destroyed the nation. It has fomented vast regional conflict that threatens not just Russians’ interest in the region, but potential military conflict with the Turks and us. It has increased the number of Sunni terrorists, their reach, and the effectiveness of their propaganda by orders of magnitude. It has spawned IS. And, last but not least, by inundating the EU with refugees, it has permanently injured Russia’s relationship with the EU and its historic rapprochement with Germany.
So it’s hard to see any good, substantive reasons for Putin to double down on his failed policy in Syria. The only motivators that make sense are the reluctance we all feel to admit our own mistakes and the domestic political hay that Putin makes by seeming “strong” at home against “provocations” from the West. In other words, the only credible reason for doubling down in Syria is that doing so helps Putin in domestic politics.
Putin hasn’t suffered any recent brain damage that we know of. He’s still a smart man. So he likely knows that Assad lacks the skill, political support and money to rebuild Syria. That would be true even if Assad controlled all
of Syria, which he probably never will—at least not at a cost acceptable to Russia and Iran and the international community. So Putin may be prepared to replace Assad and work with the international community once, in his view, Russian air power and what’s left of Assad’s army has “stabilized” the devastated nation. Assad could be the “bad guy”—the hated face of war and destruction—to be replaced by a kinder, gentler Russian puppet during the reconstruction phase.
The alternatives seem unviable. Waiting for Assad to retake the whole of Syria with Russian air power would make the same mistake that Dubya and Rumsfeld made in Iraq. Who would pay the price for the difficult conquest? Who would maintain the stability and keep the peace afterward? IS? the Kurds? Turkey? A Russia now reeling from low oil prices?
Despite my speculation in an earlier essay
, Putin has shown no eagerness to commit Russian ground troops to the same sort of quagmire from which we Yanks are extricating ourselves in Iraq. A second alternative—playing Syria for its domestic effect in Russian politics, as Syria continues to disintegrate—also seems unwise. Even with Putin’s complete control of Russian TV, the stink of such a gross failure will eventually find its way to the Russian people’s noses.
So we can all hope that, however awkward, halting and suspect it may be, the present shaky cease fire might be the start of something real. At least it would seem rationally to advance Russia’s real interests more than any probable alternative.
As for China, its foreign push may just be beginning. For most of its long history, China has focused primarily on its own borders and its immediate neighbors—what Russians call their “near abroad.” Since its foundation in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has fought (directly or by proxy) in only two significant wars. It or its soldiers fought in Vietnam to insure a friendly government in a traditionally hostile neighbor, and in Korea to create a buffer state, which has since morphed into Asia’s biggest troublemaker.
Only today is China pushing much beyond its borders, with its threats in and militarization of the South China Sea. And even there it’s not going far afield, at least according to its own self-focused history.
But is it just a coincidence that this semi-military push is occurring at a critical and dangerous time in China’s recent economic history? Today China is attempting a difficult transition from an exporting powerhouse (now feeling dangerous pushback from its customers) to a modern consumer society.
China certainly has the people for it, as well as the traditional business- and family-oriented culture. In mere decades, it could be the world’s leading consumer society and indisputably our species’ most prosperous nation.
But at the moment the transition is not going well. Xi’s fight against corruption is bogging down and, at the same time, dampening the Chinese penchant for luxury that helps drive high-end consumer businesses. The push to convert sleepy and corrupt state-owned enterprises to efficient private businesses is faltering. And the over-regulated stock and currency markets are gumming up the works, making Chinese lose money and foreigners lose respect for China, its government, and its businesses.
Might not a little saber rattling serve the obvious purposes of distracting Chinese from their hardship and softening foreigners’ criticism of China’s economy? Yet wouldn’t it be easier, less costly and far less dangerous for still-rich China to buy
the resources it seeks in the South China Sea than to take them by force or threats, thereby stirring up a hornet’s nest of opposition, military alliances and militarization in its “near abroad”?
Conclusion: changing the paradigm
In our new century, in which major powers are invulnerable and none seeks global conquest, the only proper purpose of war is defense. And because every
major power is practically invulnerable, there’s no crying need for any to make war at all.
So why do wars still arise, let alone with the advanced, high-tech weapons that only major powers can make? There can be only two plausible answers. First, major-power leaders see foreign wars as a way of distracting their own people from domestic problems, and they see the imported costs as small. This sort of ploy is nothing new; it was old when Caesar practiced it. Second, because major-power leaders don’t know or study circumstances abroad anywhere near as thoroughly as they would similar events in their own country, they often misread the costs, the risks of getting bogged down, and the consequences of their involvement or escalation in foreign conflicts. (Modern China seems to be the smartest major power here, having become involved in only two major conflicts since its founding, both quite close to its own borders.)
So it was with President Johnson and Vietnam. If only he could have seen the disastrous chain of causation that his escalation would set in motion, he would have wound down what was at first “JFK’s” war as soon as he had fully grasped the reins of power.
Projecting major power abroad for reasons like these sets a dangerous paradigm for our new and still-dangerous century. It’s no excuse that the resulting wars and upheavals are in or among minor powers. For they can have consequences that no one can foresee. Today’s catastrophe in Syria has caused the European refugee crisis, led to the rise of IS, and now threatens war between Russia and Turkey or Russia and the West.
It’s also no excuse to say that these wars and their consequences are not (yet!) nuclear. Just look at Syria today. It could hardly be more devastated had it been nuked. The only difference is that, without fallout and radiation, more of Syria’s people can take their families and flee, and it will be easier to rebuild once the war ends. But what has happened to Syria and its people in the last five years will live in infamy as long as our species survives.
So the major powers must adjust their thinking and advance their education—their social evolution, if you will. It’s not enough that nuclear deterrents have kept them from fighting each other on their own territory since 1945. They now must cooperate to wind down proxy wars that, from major powers’ perspective, are halfhearted and even unimportant, but from a minor-power and regional perspective can be catastrophic.
The necessary expedients are perhaps counterintuitive. They cut against the grain of our species’ biological evolution, which “teaches” that the answer to any social problem is domination by the “good guys.” Accordingly, they may contravene longstanding practice. But conceptually they are quite simple. There are only four main points.
First, the major powers should keep not just nukes, but all
modern high-tech weapons, out of minor-powers’ hands. If people are going to fight for atavistic, religious or other senseless reasons, or due to incomprehensible but longstanding regional rivalries, let them do so with stones and knives, rather than cluster bombs, massive aerial destructive campaigns (as in Syria today), or nerve gas.
At least the international community seems to agree the nerve gas is a step too far. Maybe now it can begin to wind down the rest of the near-universal practice of using minor powers as grisly testing grounds for other modern means of overkill.
Second, major powers should refrain from trying to impose their own cultures on minor powers. We Yanks did that in trying to meld Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds into a working modern democracy in Iraq. So far our effort has been a self-evident failure. That’s not surprising; more than two centuries after the “Great Compromise” in our Constitution, we still can’t get Texas and Mississippi to play well with California and New York.
A correlative error is thinking that solutions that apply in one’s own culture are valid in others. Russia has made that mistake in trying to impose a brutal strongman on a Syria that seemed ready for something new.
Strongmen may work inside Russia. At least they may be better than the alternatives. But now most of Syria’s population has voted against that Russian “solution” with their feet. Lyndon Johnson famously made a like error
in believing that Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese would respond to bullying the same way that racist white Southerners had. His was an erroneous extrapolation from domestic to foreign circumstances, with catastrophic results.
Third, major powers should spend at least one-tenth as much money on diplomacy in minor powers as they do on arms and military training. They should study foreign nations assiduously before they even think
of intervening. Then they should work hard to involve local powers and ethnic groups (and, where necessary, separate them) in resolving their own problems non-violently.
Diplomacy is hard, frustrating and exhausting work. Ask John Kerry. But it appears to have had some preliminary results in Iran. At least it avoided yet another major-power war by proxy, with attendant human suffering and unintended consequences. Even if ultimately necessary, such a war this year or next would have been grossly premature, at least with the nuclear deal now in place and almost fully implemented.
Diplomacy is our species’ future, if we have one. Every major power should ramp it up in proportion to its promise and benefits.
Finally, major powers should learn before they leap. They should study minor powers and their conflicts much as they might study their own domestic issues of similar importance. They should do so before
making any irrevocable decisions, let alone a decision to start or escalate a foreign war.
World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the War in Vietnam were the last century’s dismal monuments to the failure of human social evolution. The Cold War was also; it almost extinguished our species. Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are this century’s.
At least these major-power blunders are, on average, getting smaller as time goes on. But the Middle East’s dismal tale is still untold. The current mess in Syria and its neighbors could yet cause something like World War I in the Middle East, or even the nuclear Armageddon between Russia and the West that we thought we had avoided in 1962.
We humans must do better than that. The place to begin is for major powers to refrain from thinking of places like Vietnam, Iraq or Syria as extensions of their own domestic policy, or foreign outposts of their own domestic cultures. If major powers’ leaders can’t study minor powers and deal with them on their own merits, cultures and histories, better for them to avoid any direct involvement at all.
The old Hippocratic Oath—“Do no harm”—should be the prime directive for major powers in the twenty-first century and beyond. Nothing less is the moral and practical duty of powers that, after centuries of their own terrible conflicts, are now themselves invulnerable.
The decision to take military action in Libya was ultimately the President’s. But rumor has it that Hillary pushed the President hard and convinced him. In my view, her decision was a conservative one and quintessentially female, i.e., life-preserving. She pushed to preserve the lives and opposition of the Benghazi rebels, whom Qaddafi’s forces had surrounded and were about to wipe out. Her successful influence saved lives, preserved political balance, and prevented a partial genocide, at the cost of continued conflict, which still rages. I believe that future history will vindicate her: genocide and ethnic cleansing are not things that any major power should support, whether by action or inaction.
So notwithstanding the House witch-hunt against her, Hillary did the right thing in Libya
, and under tremendous time pressure. Unfortunately, that’s the only act of hers from which we can judge her probable approach to foreign policy, untainted by domestic politics.
Endnote on invulnerability.
I don’t mean to minimize the political
impact of either Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Each had an enormous impact. Pear Harbor got us decisively into World War II after years of political dithering, during which some of us even flirted with supporting the Nazis. The attacks of 9/11 motivated Dubya to invade and occupy two foreign countries, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of the two, Pearl Harbor was by far the more fearsome event. At the time, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were the world’s two pre-eminent military powers. In comparison, we Yanks were isolationist and disarmed. Yet our two neighboring oceans and the pace of life then gave us plenty of time to arm ourselves and respond. And virtually the entire world (except for Italy and Serbia) was on our side.
Without belittling the legitimate fear and terrible sacrifices of our Greatest Generation, today we can say that the result in World War II was foreordained. The only thing that could have changed the result was the Nazis developing nuclear weapons first. That didn’t happen, and our mainland was never subject to serious attack, let alone realistic threat of invasion and occupation.
In comparison, 9/11 was a deep pinprick. It killed many people and hurt our pride and our sense
of invulnerability. But there was never any threat
, let alone any real possibility, of a terrorist or Islamist group invading or occupying our nation.
So Lincoln’s assertion of national invulnerability, quoted in the headpiece, has been the absolute truth for us Yanks for nearly two centuries. Russia and China attained their own invulnerability only more recently, after World War II and their respective acquisitions of nuclear weapons. But now they, too, are equally secure under their nuclear umbrellas and behind their huge, modernized armies. The best thing that could happen to all three great powers’ modernized armies is that they be used for constructive purposes
, not unnecessary conflict.