Sunday, September 21, 2014

Iraq, Syria, and Commentarial Truancy

I've been meaning to write something for weeks now about America's deepening military engagement in Iraq and Syria, but I've been afflicted with a terrible writer's block every time I tried to do so. I get the feeling I'm not alone in this. Of course, now, a month or so in, and in light of the decision to arm the Syrian rebels, the blogs and opinion pages are finally starting to light up with concern. But for a while there, I think no one really wanted to speak, for once. So they tried saying nothing, and hoped no one would notice. And no one did. History kept uncoiling in front of them, despite their silence.

It shouldn't really surprise anyone, of course, that history keeps happening even when you don't personally catalogue its events on a blog somewhere (especially if that blog -- well -- caters to a niche market, let's say). But I think most writers really are megalomaniac enough on some level to think that the human fate depends on the stance they take toward particular events. We may not believe this so earnestly as to think we will actually influence events, per se. But we believe it enough to feel we have been terribly derelict in our duty if we let bombs fall or planes fly somewhere without saying something about it. And come to think of it, maybe every person is a megalomaniac in this sense, to the extent we feel we ought to form opinions about things, rather than letting events wash over us. And maybe we're right. We each contain the universe, said Schopenhauer.

It was therefore with a mixture of guilt at their dereliction and relief at their reprieve that commentators seemed to hold off forming an opinion for as long as they could. I think it was sometime around the first reports out of Mt. Sinjar that all the skittering keyboards across the nation fell silent. Of course, people did offer up analyses-- indisputably accurate ones -- demonstrating that much of the blame for the rise of the Islamic State must lie with the devastating 2003 American invasion and the hated occupation that followed it. But with regard to America's present airstrikes against IS targets, everyone seemed to take it for granted that they would happen, and go on happening, and that there was little anyone could or should do about it (David Frum, plainly haunted by Iraq 2003, was an early and admirable exception). The pro- and anti-intervention sides did not line up with anything like their familiar haste. The usual aviaries of hawks and doves did not spring up in the expected locations. Rather, like students coyly eyeing each other during a lecture to make sure no one else had done the reading either, everyone was derelict at once, and everyone decided they could go on being derelict so long as the rest did.

My share of the collective writer's block had to do with the fact that I knew all the anti-interventionist arguments I would make in advance and simply couldn't face the task of recording them. I had a terribly arrogant and callous -- but sincerely felt -- sense of déja-vu, and it told me that at whatever time I chose to enter this debate and make these arguments, they would apply with equal force, because everything that was happening seemed to have happened already. Even my own changes of feeling and responses to discrete events felt predetermined. 

I knew we would drop humanitarian aid and make limited airstrikes to rescue the trapped Yazidi population on Mt. Sinjar, and I would support it. The Islamic State would commit calculated acts of outrageous brutality with the specific intention of drawing American forces further into the conflict. This strategy on their part would work. My support would waver. The conflict would spread to Syria. The U.S. would eventually arm "moderate" Syrian rebels. My support would flicker out. These "moderates" will one day prove not to have been so moderate after all (whatever that means). Perhaps the U.S. will partner with Shiite militias in Iraq at some point-- the same ones we were fighting in 2006. Maybe we'll enlist the aid of "regional partners" like Saudi Arabia or the Gulf potentates. Eventually, we might well defeat IS, but only by empowering a lot of new ISes in the future, or else by doing their work of destruction for them by raining missiles on cities held by their forces.

The point is that the argument against even starting down this road is one that can be made at any point along its tortuous trajectory. The same words could have been said during the first strikes around Mt Sinjar that I am going to say now, a month later. And here they are: The Islamic State, of all things in this world, plainly ought to be defeated. But it cannot be defeated by any American military action. At least, it cannot be defeated by any military action that won't, in its means, be just as destructive as what it is trying to defeat, or that won't, in its ends, empower agents and forces that are just as bad as IS, or have the potential to become so. 

One gets the sense that Obama, to his credit, is trying to avoid these options: that he wishes very much not to have our intervention against IS lead us to partner with all the worst actors who oppose it. But the truth is it is almost impossible to imagine any future victory against IS that will not depend -- and rather crucially -- on the Iraqi central government, which has an appalling human rights record, on Shiite militias and death squads, many of which have direct ties to the Iraqi government, on Assad or the Iranians, who have sectarian reasons for opposing a Sunni militant group like IS, on Gulf-state autocrats who are detested in the region for being shills of American power, and so on. There is only one semi-plausible alternative to any of these partnerships, and it's no better than they are: an American military intervention that devastates IS-held parts of Iraq, probably killing as many people in the process as IS has done.

Citizens of the United States probably will not need to fear for their safety in this conflict. I think Obama means it when he says that there won't be any "boots on the ground," and I suspect the story from earlier this week that some American "advisers" might take on a "combat role" was mostly a media red herring. The details that emerged from it did not really contradict Obama's earlier reassurances, at least not as much as the headlines made out, and it probably remains true that the president is immensely resistant to committing American ground forces to another war in the Middle East. 

Whether this is a good thing for the people of Iraq is much less clear. We have reason to think not. It is plainly true that it has become very difficult for politicians in prosperous democratic societies to risk high military casualties, but far from this making them more inclined to pursue peace, it may simply lead them to wage wars without calling in ground forces -- which it has plainly become possible to do. The problem with this is that ground forces can at least be moderately discerning in who they target-- airstrikes cannot. The latter are far more likely to inflict death on civilian populations, as Gen. Martin Dempsey warned earlier this week. But foreign civilian populations do not participate in our elections, whereas American soldiers, their families and friends, and people of draft age do. So air wars may be the type of wars we wage in the Middle East for quite some time.

It is thus a terrible irony -- and a slap to the face of democratic peace theory -- that the unpopularity of wars in our societies may actually serve to make them more brutal in their execution, and easier to initiate. We have found that there are a great many political consequences to committing ground forces to direct engagements with enemy fighters, but very few to making airstrikes on enemy territory, so we are more inclined to do the latter, with all its terrible consequences. Other prosperous societies have learned the same baleful lesson. In Zeev Sternhell's interpretation, it was precisely this sort of politically-motivated shift toward fighting wars from the sky, rather than from the ground, that has accounted for the vastly disproportionate killings of civilians that have marked Israel's recent interventions in Gaza.

This type of devastating and prolonged air war against IS is pretty much the only likely alternative to shipping arms to Assad or endorsing Shiite death squads in Iraq. Any of the three could gain us a victory over IS. But what observer thinks that something better would emerge from the ashes? And whatever the end result of these three policies, will we not have committed in the course of executing them all the same crimes we are trying to prevent? It is no good trying to "save" people from IS by destroying them. That should be obvious.

Of course, I don't know who I'm arguing with, apart from our political class. Even neoconservatives and liberal hawks seem less interested in advocating intervention, this time around, than they are in assigning blame to their enemies. And in fairness, many anti-interventionists seem to have hastened to blame Bush and the occupation well before they chose to address the rather thornier question of whether, even if the U.S. were to blame then, we should now stand aside militarily in the face of IS's advance. Lest there be any remaining doubt about my position, let me say that I am offering a queasy and grimacing, but decisive "yes" to this question.

That both sides have chosen to play the blame game, rather than answer the hard questions, is largely a tactic of evasion, of course. It is related to the truancy and mutually-assured dereliction described above. But assigning blame in itself is not a totally irrelevant exercise, so long as it is not the end of the analysis. Blame can help us answer important questions about the present disaster, such as how we got here, and where we are going.

On the interventionist side, the argument is that global instability is on the rise everywhere at the moment, including in Iraq and Syria, due to America's supposed "retreat" from its "military obligations" under Obama. Roger Cohen argued recently that our current geopolitical tangle is rather similar to the one that ignited World War I, and that we are in this mess due principally to the failure of American leaders to follow through on their military threats and to enforce their "red lines."

The comparison between 1914 and 2014 is a disturbingly apt one, and Cohen's article is worth a read. Even the un-superstitious might be thrown, for a moment, by that uncanny numerological parallel between 1914 and our present year. But the very things that make the comparison apt gesture at a very different conclusion from the one at which Cohen has arrived.

Both 1914 and 2014 are years that mark, you might say, the decisive end of periods in which a single economic and military power controlled most of the resources of the globe and most of its political outcomes. In 1914 that power was Britain; today it is the United States. Remember that the decades leading up to 1914 were regarded as times of peace and plenty by most of the Western powers, much as the years from 1990 to 2001 were regarded in the United States. In both epochs, many Western observers took it for granted that liberal economics and representative institutions would triumph everywhere, and that both were intrinsically conducive to international harmony. The British believed then, as many Americans do now, in the essential beneficence of their imperial mission. It seemed to them that a great age of peace had dawned, and that it all depended on their continued hegemony and on their military capacity to defend themselves, their allies, and their interests.

But we know, of course, that there never had been any real peace during Britain's long reign, nor any real triumph of liberal ideals. There had been no prosperity in Europe that was not matched by ghastly hunger elsewhere (most of it caused by Europe's imperial policies), no democracy in England or France that was not shadowed by terrible repression and massacre in their colonies (remember that Germany's first attempt at genocide, meanwhile, took place in the midst of Western Europe's purported flowering of liberalism at the outset of the twentieth century). "Markets" did not engender universal peace. When "free trade" was imposed unilaterally on the colonies, it generally led to desperate famine and the destruction of native industries, while the European powers (as the more sincere liberals of that era were constantly bemoaning), persistently refused to apply the same policies to their own exports. "Markets" also turned out to be very convenient places in which to trade arms and war machines.

And the essential lie of this peace, the terrible exploitation and misery that underlay the appearance (to Western observers) of tranquility, was found out in 1914. The thing that set it off was precisely the fact that the Western powers all believed in the importance of maintaining their hegemony and defending their colonial possessions ("international commitments"?). They had drawn all sorts of "red lines," Britain most of all, and they were prepared to enforce them. That's how the firing of a single shot in Sarajevo produced an epochal cataclysm. 

Do you see where I'm going with this?

From 1990 on, the United States was similarly placed to the British Empire, ca. 1900. Niall Ferguson was even willing to make fond comparisons between the two, evidently forgetting the ultimate fate of the latter and the terrible suffering it created, even in the most "peaceful" years of the so-called Pax Britannica. Many Americans in these years (and earlier too, let's be honest) became sincerely convinced that American military power was inherently benevolent. It was an instrument for fostering "markets and democracy abroad" and would contribute to the triumph of "liberal institutions" everywhere (which often meant in practice the imposition of "free trade" and "structural adjustment" on developing countries, through coercive debt relief packages, as well as convenient alliances with various Third World dictators who would advance American agenda. As British colonies discovered in the nineteenth century, some "liberal institutions" look a lot less liberal from the other side of the gunboat). 

You can see why I don't think Cohen is right that the problem with the world right now is that the U.S. hasn't been drawing enough "red lines" and striking across them, or that it hasn't done enough to force its hegemony on the world. The problem is that it has been doing precisely that, just as Britain and the other European powers did. It has swallowed the myth of the inherent beneficence of its military power and with it the belief in the necessity of perpetually swelling its military budget. The United States has effectively been an imperial power for the last one hundred years now, and it has lost its ethical moorings in the process in precisely the ways imperial powers usually do. If we are staring down the prospect of another world war right now, this is a large part of the reason why.

But I say "If." I don't really think there will be another world war, parallels to 1914 aside. It is even possible that atomic weapons have made direct conflicts between military superpowers effectively unthinkable in our world. The more likely scenario is that our current situation will continue for a very long time-- small, ghastly civil wars breaking out here and there all over the world-- the people fighting in them doing so in the absence of any objective or goal, apart from the self-perpetuating logic of all armed groups -- their ideologies constantly slipping on and off them like masks, all of them totally irrelevant, empty, meaningless. The West will be involved in these wars, but mostly from the air. Our side will fight with machines-- but the people killed by those machines will be flesh and blood. You and I will watch all of this from a place of physical safety, but of moral peril.

There. That's what it took me so long to say, what I tried various times over the last month to say but couldn't bring out-- because the feeling of ennui that came to me as soon as I started was too great. There is a scene in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook in which the narrator realizes she has spent the last week entirely neglecting to follow events in the news. "I fetched the week's newspapers," she tells us, "and spread them around me on the floor. [...] It was like missing several installments of a serial on the films but being able to deduce what had happened in them from inner logic of the story. I felt bored and stale, knowing that, without having read the newspapers at all, I could have made a pretty good guess, from political experience, at what had happened in that week." It was this feeling of staleness that kept me silent.

The staleness, and the fact that everyone else seemed to be sharing in my truancy. But I think the announcement this week that we really are arming Syria's rebels finally caught us out. Now we're trudging back into the classroom together, eyes downcast, admitting to ourselves that there are some responsibilities that can't be avoided indefinitely. It's going to be a long semester.

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