Friends like these by mattsteinglass
September 2, 2010, 10:04 pm
Filed under: Iraq, Liberalism

George Packer is a brilliant writer, an admirable human being, and a man who invested immense time and effort in truly understanding one of the most important events of our generation, the war in Iraq. To use a word out of a different era: the guy’s a humanitarian.

But his response to Obama’s speech on the withdrawal makes it seem like he doesn’t understand what a president is.


Actually I rather stressed the immorality of unprovoked invasions by mattsteinglass
October 19, 2009, 1:41 pm
Filed under: Iran, Iraq

Christopher Hitchens is hardly worth mentioning these days on the subject of foreign policy, but for some reason they still let him write columns on the subject, so here’s mentioning:

Go look this up, and you will discover that those who didn’t want to confront Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein would always stress the awesome power of violence that they had at their command.

Yeah, no, that’s actually not true. As I recall it was sort of the people who wanted us to invade Iraq who kept talking about Saddam Hussein’s awesome power of violence, viz., the WMDs that turned out not to exist. Those of us who didn’t want to invade Iraq tended to focus on the fact that invading a country that hasn’t attacked you, or really even done anything that would constitute a legitimate provocation, is illegal, because it’s illegal, and immoral, because it entails killing a lot of people (including children) for no good reason, and foolish, because it leads to consequences that may spiral horrifically out of control in unpredictable ways. I for one didn’t really have a smidgen of doubt, watching the tanks roll in on March 21, 2003, that they’d be in Baghdad pretty soon; but the fact that your enemy is weak isn’t usually considered sufficient justification for waging war upon him.

Note to self: ethnic cleansing is a useful first step in nation-building by mattsteinglass
April 1, 2009, 9:18 pm
Filed under: Europe, Iraq

Will Iraq hold after the US leaves, wonders Andrew Sullivan? Or will it collapse back into internecine strife as the Shiite-led government fails to continue buying off the Sunnis and the Sons of Iraq start battling the Army?

One thing nobody reflected on much back in 2003, when neo-cons were arguing that we built a democracy in postwar Germany so why not Iraq: as Tony Judt writes in Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, the postwar settlement in Europe involved vast amounts of ethnic cleansing, which left the states the US (and USSR) proposed to rebuild neatly settled on linguistic and ethnic lines. Czechoslovakia and Poland expelled millions of Germans. Yugoslavia expelled Italians. Hungary expelled Rumanians and vice versa. And of course the Jews were dead, and those that weren’t soon left for Palestine. The map of Central and Eastern Europe was sorted of most of its troublesome Austro-Hungarian complexity. And as it turns out it’s much easier to build a nation when its population doesn’t have murderous long-running internal religious and ethnic differences.

Matthew Yglesias has been in Finland too long by mattsteinglass
December 17, 2008, 12:19 am
Filed under: Europe, Iraq, United States


The Iraqi people didn’t ask to be liberarted conquered and occupied by a foreign power that destroyed their country and then immediately set about meddling in Iraqi politics and until just a month or so ago was struggling mightily for the right to permanently station military forces on Iraqi soil contrary to the will of the Iraqi public. Not only did Iraqis not ask for such services, but nobody anywhere has ever asked for them.

The harsh reality is that this was not a noble undertaking done for good reasons. It was a criminal enterprise launched by madmen cheered on by a chorus of fools and cowards. And it’s seen as such by virtually everyone all around the world — including but by no means limited to the Arab world. But it’s impolitic to point this out in the United States, and it’s clear that even a president-elect who had the wisdom not to be suckered in by the War Fever of 2002 has no intention of really acting to marginalize the bad actors. Which, I think, makes sense for his political objectives. But if Americans want to play a constructive role in world affairs, it’s vitally important for us to get in touch with the reality of what the past eight years of US foreign policy have been and how they’re seen and understood by people who aren’t stirred by the shibboleths of American patriotism.

He’s right — “it’s impolitic to point this out in the United States.” I’m not really sure how it works, but I think starting about late 2001 they put some kind of Jingo Wave Transponders in the metal detectors at JFK and Dulles that stir your neurotransmitters with massive American patriotism shibboleths, such that while you’re inside US customs, the things the US government does always seem to make some vague kind of sense. Then you get out to Europe or wherever and after a couple of weeks US foreign policy debates start to look like some kind of Papuan headhunter ritual where they cast bones to decide who to boil alive, in the belief that this will stop the volcano from erupting. In any case, Yglesias had better get back to the US pretty quick or he risks permanently losing the ability to sustain the consensual hallucination that is American politics.

Preparing for war makes war less (or more?) likely by mattsteinglass
December 3, 2008, 11:09 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, China, Foreign Policy, Iraq, United States, Vietnam, War

Spencer Ackerman has a good post on a back-and-forth about whether counterinsurgency doctrine is essentially imperialist. Ackerman mainly says it’s not, citing Andrew Exum’s point:

And if the officers of the U.S. Army say that “we don’t do windows” and refuse to author any doctrine for nation-building and security sector reform and then the politicians decide that oh yes you do, then who is being irresponsible? Both parties, perhaps, but certainly the officer corps. What the author of this article doesn’t understand is that while military officers don’t decide how the U.S. military is to be employed, they do have a responsibility to ensure junior officers and their units are prepared for any foreseeable contingency.

But I think the situation here is more equivocal. For example, US Navy Admiral William Fallon, who was relieved as CentCom commander after expressing fairly open opposition to the idea of military action against Iran, recently gave an interview to the Boston Globe in which he said he’d come into conflict with a lot of people at the Pentagon over his opposition to basing much of the US’s military strategy on gearing up for a war against China.

When I was in the Pacific [as the head of the US Pacific Command from 2005 to 2007] there were people with different viewpoints. One of the challenges I saw out there …was that we had one long term issue and that’s called China. It seemed to me that of all the things we needed to deal with we had better figure out how we are going to come to grips with the future relationship between the US and China.

They are the owners of most of our debt. Between China and Japan they are sitting on $3 trillion dollars [of US debt]. People say ‘look at all [the rest of] these problems in the world.’ They are all interesting. For my money, if you fix the problems here most of those others go away because it is our behaviors that are the cause of some of our challenges.

The size of the country and its influence is staggering. So we’ve got to figure this out. There were people who warned me that you’d better get ready for the shoot ’em up here because sooner or later we’re going be at war with China. I don’t think that’s where we want to go. And so I set about challenging all the assumptions and I came back here about once a month and sat down with Secretary Rumsfeld. I’d walk through what I was thinking, why I was thinking that way. There were people who didn’t like that.

[My reputation became] “Fallon loves the Chinese, doesn’t see any problem with this.” [I responded with] “What are the priorities, guys? Do you want to have a war? We can probably have one. But is that what you really want? Is that really in our interest? Because I don’t think so.” We had a lot of initiatives underway [on military-to-military relations with China] and some of that stuff didn’t go over too well back here.

What Fallon seems to be saying here is that essentially preparing for war with China made such a war more, not less, likely, because treating them as an adversary could turn them into one. So I think there’s some recognition even within the military of the concept that preparing for a specific war can actually exacerbate the threat of that war, rather than diminishing it.

Certainly, if the US military had possessed a lot of expertise on counterinsurgency warfare and the interrelationship between military and political dynamics in 2002, the foolish invasion of Iraq might have been far less likely and the (necessary, in my opinion) occupation of Afghanistan might have been handled far better. What trips me up, though, is that if the US military had possessed such expertise in 1962-4, I’m not sure what would have happened; it might have made our intervention in Vietnam more “successful”, but that intervention itself would probably still have been bad for the US and for Vietnam. The problem is what happens at moments when 1. the US military is run in large part by people with expertise in counterinsurgency, and 2. the US political administration and public is in one of its overly optimistic exceptionalist-expansionist moments (or is feeling particularly threatened). It’s at that point that one might find oneself getting involved in pointless bloodshed in places we can’t do much about at any acceptable cost.

Quote of the day by mattsteinglass
September 2, 2008, 9:30 pm
Filed under: Iraq, United States

“The idea is to stay away from the whole optimism-pessimism thing.” — David Petraeus, cf. Steve Coll in The New Yorker.

I started feeling that way while living in Africa. I remember coming back and having a quite smart American at a party ask me, “So, is Africa going to modernize, become prosperous, and have malls and gas stations and things?” If you make that your fundamental question, it ruins your ability to see other places as they are or to appreciate them at all, or to understand what the people living there might count as progress on their own terms. All partisan rancor aside, David Petraeus is a brilliant guy, and he clearly has a much more well-grounded way of relating to America’s presence in foreign countries than the goofballs who launched our intervention in Iraq in the first place. If everyone could take that kind of measured, non-utopian, non-superficial approach, the US might end up with a decent foreign policy again.

The Arab world is not ours to “reform” by mattsteinglass
July 29, 2008, 11:51 am
Filed under: Iraq, United States, War

I have a lot more respect for Lee Smith’s take on the problems with Kenneth Pollack’s “reform” agenda for the Middle East (in his new book A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East) than Matthew Yglesias does. Here’s Smith’s gloss of Pollack’s argument:

He identifies America’s chief vital interest in the region without embarrassment: Persian Gulf energy resources. Until the United States develops an adequate substitute for oil, we are stuck in the Middle East protecting the free flow of affordable fossil fuel that not only fills American SUVs but also ensures the stability of global markets. Pollack makes a good case that were it not for our presence in the Gulf, we would not be such a valuable target on the jihadist hit list, and were we to leave tomorrow, the threat to the United States from Arab terror outfits would largely subside.

Since we are not leaving, we need to repair the region with a broad program of economic and political reform, different from the Bush administration’s quick-fix obsession with elections that merely lent democratic legitimacy to Islamist groups in the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt. Pollack argues that a process of real liberal reform will take decades, if not longer.

Yglesias thinks the problem with this is that we can’t accomplish reform in the Arab world if people think we’re only doing it for easier access to their oil. “Reform is hard. Promoting reform is harder. Promoting reform in the name of cheap oil and military domination is almost certainly impossible.”

I think Yglesias gets this wrong: the problem is that we can’t accomplish reform in the Arab world. The United States cannot reform the governing institutions of Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Syria. The world is not put together that way. Only Saudis, Egyptians and Syrians can reform their governing institutions. The US can stand for a certain kind of governance, and aid and encourage forces within other societies that want to move towards that kind of governance. But it has no control over whether those forces succeed or not. And that’s why “reform in the Arab world” cannot form a plank of an American “grand strategy”. We can control whether or not we stand for democratic reform. We can’t control whether or not it happens. You don’t build a strategy that rests on the success of things you have no control over — see Iraq.

Lee Smith’s phrasing of this point verges on anti-Arab prejudice, but at its root it does something that Yglesias fails to: it takes Arab societies seriously. Smith thinks there are reasons why Arab states are almost universally dictatorships shot through with armed non-state actors, and that these have to do with the clan structure of Arab societies. The notion that the US can march into such societies and turn them into little Americas is absurd, and it doesn’t much matter whether America phrases its motives in terms of access to oil or in terms of spreading freedom. I agree. To me, it sounds like what’s wrong with Ken Pollack’s book isn’t that he hasn’t done a cost-benefit analysis of reforming the Middle East or that he thinks we can reform the Middle East in order to stabilize oil supplies. The problem is that he thinks we can reform the Middle East. Other countries are not ours to “reform”. We need to get through our heads the difference between standing for democracy and encouraging and defending democracy, and rolling into other countries trying to create democracy by fiat. We don’t get to treat the world as if it were clay in our hands, and I sometimes feel that Yglesias and some in the resurgent liberal-internationalist crowd still have a too-expansive base assumption of what “we can do,” if “we” means the US.