Nothing learned, nothing forgotten

by John Q on November 18, 2015

I haven’t posted on the recent terror attacks, or the various responses, because I have nothing new to say, and nothing old to repeat that hasn’t been said, or repeated, better by others. It appears that no one has learned anything in the decade or so since the Iraq war began. This 2003 post from the Onion just needs the dates changed to be applicable (or not, for those who support the side being satirised here) to the current debate.

Having said all this, have I learned anything myself? The Iraq war turned me from being a liberal interventionist (though opposed in the case of Iraq) to a strongly anti-war viewpoint.

By December 2005, I had this to say[^1]

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

The ten years since 2005 have confirmed me in the rightness of my views[^2]. But since the same is true of nearly everyone on all sides, that’s not very helpful.

[^1]: It should go without saying, but this applies at least as much to terrorism as to political violence in general. The deliberate brutality of terrorism induces more brutality in response (as it is designed to do), and makes it even less likely that the outcome will be better than the starting point.

[^2]: I’ve wavered from time to time, but experience has proved that I was wrong to do so. The case for war, however compelling it might seem at the time, has always turned out to be untenable.



Ewwwans 11.19.15 at 12:15 am

So as a relatively young sort, can I ask? Has it always been thus? Is the incompetence and political calculation in which horror is returned with greater horror a recent thing?


NomadUK 11.19.15 at 1:28 am

Ewwwans@1: MacBeth. Coriolanus. Troy. The Punic Wars. World Wars I and II. Korea. Vietnam. The Wars of the Roses. The American Civil War.

The list goes on and on. Read Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly.

We. Never. Learn.


rootlesscosmo 11.19.15 at 1:36 am

“better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. ”
That’s the key phrase for me. My age and upbringing being what they are/were, my immediate reaction is “what about the workers and peasants under the Tsars, didn’t they–after enormous pain–get something better than what they had before?” Maybe reasonable minds can differ on that, maybe not–I’m an old man and a creature of my formation. But John asks a different, and harder, question: could they have done at least as well without the violence and the pain? Counterfactuals are always tricky (to say no more) but “was it worth it if there was a less cruel option?” is a question worth asking–which, as usual, means I don’t have even the semblance of an answer.


Peter T 11.19.15 at 1:41 am

I’m with John Quiggin on most levels. But, analytically, one has to note that if one’s world-view does not explain a major part of human behaviour for the last several millennia, may some shift in one’s world view is needed?


Doctor Science 11.19.15 at 1:41 am


Is the incompetence and political calculation in which horror is returned with greater horror a recent thing?

Absolutely not. In many ways the nadir was World War I, where one could argue that there was only one actual winner: Lenin.

In the past 60 years, there have been plenty of wars that are negative-sum in general, but where there were real, personal benefits to some rich and powerful people. In the case of the US, wars that we lost as a nation were still very beneficial to large numbers of corporations, and also to many people in the officer class of the career military.

This is one reason the US Founders were opposed to standing armies: because it creates a class and an institution that directly benefit from wars, and want more of them.


david 11.19.15 at 1:52 am

As the fury in the comments to your 2005 post suggests, 60 years prior to 2005 does include every post-WW2 armed anticolonial war, independence war, or unification war.

I do want to point out that happy cases tend to presume the irrelevance of civic and ethnic nationalism – that it would be perfectly acceptable not to have a country if the local intelligentsia can make its way to an acceptable degree in London.

Which is probably materially true! A lot of highly-educated nationalists across the former empire saw their star fall as the dubious virtues of ethnic strongmanship came to trump an ability to hold the Foreign Secretary’s attention, and “socialist” resource-based kleptocracy came to trump the traditional privileges of the colonial lawyer or journalist. Still, they might not regret independence but instead blame their fellow local citizens.


LFC 11.19.15 at 2:13 am

I think it’s strange to suggest that “no one has learned anything in the decade or so since the Iraq war began.” Now even a conservative Republican like John Kasich has to say that he’s opposed to ‘nation-building’ (see report of his speech at [U.S.] Nat’l Press Club today).

One of the clearest ‘lessons’ of the Iraq war is that forcible ‘regime change’ esp. in a deeply divided society, and esp. when unaccompanied by any sensible planning for what comes after the deposing of the ruler in question, can and prob. will lead to disaster. With the exception of the Libyan intervention of 2011, which arguably disregarded that lesson, it seems to have been learned, at least for the time being, by the U.S. and U.K., the two governments that led the 2003 Iraq invasion. With the exception of the Libyan case, I cannot offhand think of an instance since the Iraq invasion when Western countries used direct force to topple, or to facilitate the toppling of, a sitting ruler of a generally recognized government. (Perhaps I’m forgetting something, in which case I’m sure someone will tell me.)


magari 11.19.15 at 2:15 am

Probably the most elegant statement on this comes from James Fearon: war destroys things of value, hence it is inevitably preferable to negotiate settlements. Even dominant states lose by waging war, since they must use resources to do so. Assuming everyone knows this to be true, the question is why wars happen at all.


david 11.19.15 at 2:25 am


That’s when you get the grandiose chestbeating that it’d be better to be poorer and free than richer but (in some dubious way) unfree/unequal/undignified/whatever.


cassander 11.19.15 at 2:35 am

>of the last sixty years

That’s an awfully convenient cutoff point, don’t you think?

More philosophically, one could say the same thing about capitalism vs socialism over the last century, but if but if the socialist death toll of the 20th century wasn’t enough to convince you of its follies, why would you think the lower war death toll would convince the warmongers of theirs?


John Quiggin 11.19.15 at 2:56 am

“That’s an awfully convenient cutoff point, don’t you think? ”

Let me redo your trolling for you. As the capitalist governments of 1914 proved beyond any doubt, if you engage in war for long enough you will produce genocidal monsters like Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, and you may be forced to fight them, as we were in 1939.

The US war party, of which I (Cassander) am a member, has pursued this policy with one war after another, each creating the necessity for the next. This has created a series of monsters sufficiently awful that the case for war seems overwhelming.


Doctor Science 11.19.15 at 3:19 am


Probably the most elegant statement on this comes from James Fearon: war destroys things of value, hence it is inevitably preferable to negotiate settlements. Even dominant states lose by waging war, since they must use resources to do so. Assuming everyone knows this to be true, the question is why wars happen at all.

Because while *states* always lose, usually there are some individuals who get rich. And even in a subordinate state, there are some people — often considerable numbers of them — who become *relatively* rich, whose rank in the social hierarchy goes up. Even if it’s just because most of their neighbors have been immiserated.


LFC 11.19.15 at 3:22 am

Political Violence @ A Glance, a blog I read only rarely (though I shd probably peruse it more often), has been running some interesting posts on ISIS etc. lately, for instance this one by Barbara Walter:


Murray Reiss 11.19.15 at 3:34 am

Nomad UK:
“We. Never. Learn.” Most of “us” got it right: don’t invade Iraq. Doesn’t matter. “We” have got to the point where one (more or less elected) person has the power in and of himself to take an entire nation to war and there’s just about nothing “we” can do to stop him. And now that “our” wars are being waged increasingly by mercenaries and drones, draft refusal and desertion are hardly relevant.


Sandwichman 11.19.15 at 3:40 am

“you will produce genocidal monsters like Lenin, Stalin and Hitler…”

Oh, C’mon. Ruthless toward his adversaries, perhaps, but Lenin never got the opportunity to validate his genocidal cred. By this kind of slipshod back-casting, Marx, Nietzsche, Hegel, Kant and da whole friggin enlightenment become culpable for what came after. For that matter, Jesus H. Christ can’t escape prosecution for crimes against humanity.

Come to think of it, the very idea of “humanity” registers as a crime against humanity.


LFC 11.19.15 at 3:40 am

Fearon’s paper “Rationalist Explanations for War” starts from the assumption that war is a means to an end. As Arena summarizes it:

if we believe war is a means to an end (edit: and if we limit our attention to unitary actors), rather than an end unto itself, then war is always ex post inefficient. That means that both sides (again, conceived of as unitary actors) would be better off if they agreed to divide up the contested good according to the expected outcome of war rather than fighting a costly war before ultimately arriving at the same outcome. Thus, if we are to explain why war occurs, we cannot simply focus on what it is that states disagree over. We must ask [and the summary continues from there]

If you’re dealing with actors for whom war or violence is not, or not only, a means to an end, but also, partly or wholly, an end in itself, then the Fearon approach doesn’t apply. Which doesn’t mean you can’t try to integrate in some way ‘rationalist’ and ‘ideological’/emotional/etc explanations for why groups use violence, as someone else at PV@AG recently suggested, but that’s sort of a different question.


js. 11.19.15 at 3:44 am

genocidal monsters like Lenin, Stalin and Hitler

One of those three doesn’t belong on that list (unless you’re speaking in cassander’s voice or some such).

On the main point, though, I’m very sympathetic to the argument of the post.


js. 11.19.15 at 3:45 am

Crossposted with Sandwichman.


Sandwichman 11.19.15 at 3:51 am

Reread JQ’s response to cassander after reading js’s comment @17. Looks like I responded literally to a sarcastic remark. Oops.


Anarcissie 11.19.15 at 3:52 am

Murray Reiss 11.19.15 at 3:34 am @ 14 —
So the war/state thing is something people agree to, almost all of the time, regardless of the fact that some people were smart enough or moral enough in 2003 to see that the invasion of Iraq was not a good idea. The answer to the little question inevitably follows the answer to the big question.


cassander 11.19.15 at 3:54 am


>Let me redo your trolling for you. As the capitalist governments of 1914 proved beyond any doubt, if you engage in war for long enough you will produce genocidal monsters like Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, and you may be forced to fight them, as we were in 1939.

Well, Lenin and Stalin were genocidal well before the war. But if your point is that the economic central planning that war demands leads to terrible results, that power is inherently corrupting, and that governments should not be given such power over their own people, then you’ll get no argument from me. The question is why you keep advocating such planning and giving governments such power when you see them misuse it so often in war.

>has pursued this policy with one war after another, each creating the necessity for the next. This has created a series of monsters sufficiently awful that the case for war seems overwhelming.

So, let’s be clear, is your argument that WW2 was a monstrous evil worse than letting hitler conquer the better part of Eurasia? Because I think that will be a hard sell.


Matt Austern 11.19.15 at 4:05 am

I’m pretty sure Lenin would have died in obscurity if the Russian government hadn’t made the disastrous decision to go to war in 1914.

(Lenin wasn’t the only winner of the Great War, though. The Japanese imperialists did pretty well out of it too.)


Peter T 11.19.15 at 4:06 am

LFC @13 and 15

That explanation of ISIS strategy looks to me like an ex post rationalisation. ISIS have made many self-defeating military moves (like persisting in the siege of Kobane until their best troops were decimated), and their bombings have a certain random opportunistic character. While there is certainly some logic to their moves, it’s not a rational means-end calculation in the terms with which we are familiar.

re 15, Clausewitz, of course, pointed to all the ways war can become a life in itself. it’s an often under-appreciated point.

More broadly, war is essentially a group phenomenon. It’s organised. It’s not a calculation of individual advantage, else insulated elites would always be starting wars to which nobody came (which would be a good thing and fun to watch). At the very murky bottom of the pit of war is the a human drive that assumes that the continuance of the group is the most important thing, even above one’s own life or well-being. Perhaps an inheritance from our days as snack food on the plains of Africa? Who knows? Over this are multiple layers of institutionalisation, history, intertwining with other social drives, policy, calculation, changing forms of identity….

But, in the end, the suicide bomber in the market in Baghdad is convinced that the deaths of a crowd of vegetable-shoppers will keep the right form of Islam alive. Deluded? Certainly. Also tragic. But real to them.


LFC 11.19.15 at 4:08 am

cassander @10
the socialist death toll of the 20th century

If this is going to be one of those threads about central planning, varieties of capitalism
and socialism, and cassander’s (and others’) insistence on misidentifying Communism with socialism, then I’m out. (In fact I’m probably out anyway.)


cassander 11.19.15 at 4:13 am


>) insistence on misidentifying Communism with socialism, then I’m out. (In fact I’m probably out anyway.)

Heaven forbid I identify people with the label they used to identify themselves.


LFC 11.19.15 at 4:17 am

Peter T @23
That explanation of ISIS strategy looks to me like an ex post rationalisation.

It could well be. I did not mean to say that I necessarily agreed with that post, just that I thought it was interesting. I certainly don’t think pure means/ends analysis is going to work for ISIS.


Sandwichman 11.19.15 at 4:23 am

It would be amusing if it wasn’t so awful that it is precisely the folks who never stop prattling about the genocidal “other” who are the staunchest unquestioning supporters of Their Stalin, Their Hitler or Our Freedom Fightin’ Christian Anti-Commie-nist Crusaders.

It’s always those other guys (whose battle cry is always “it’s those other guys!”)!

The enemy is poised to attack.


engels 11.19.15 at 5:47 am

if you engage in war for long enough you will produce genocidal monsters like Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, and you may be forced to fight them, as we were in 1939

Well that didn’t take long


bad Jim 11.19.15 at 5:49 am

Umberto Eco:

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.


engels 11.19.15 at 6:15 am

(Oh I think that was sarcasm – sorry if so…)


RoyL 11.19.15 at 7:51 am

I was a supporter of the war and for some time when my stupidity was revealed I just blamed idiot execution when the entire principle was wrong. So mea culpa and now I say intervene no where. But at the same time I think blasting Raffa from the map has merit, because sometimes you have enabled monsters and letting them run amok is immoral. The confiteor says “what I have done and what I have failed to do”, and while we tolerate things far more awful than Assad, letting IS alone seems both wrong and stupid. After all backing Stalin in 1941 was a better call than letting Hitler win. If Hitler had had Stalin’s resources he would have made him look like a piker. Assad jr is nonal Bagdadi and the FSL is a worse than nothing.

Now we have planes and drones and missles and some men who have decided that despite their almost super human physical prowess they want more than anything on earth to fly expensive aircraft into danger and travel to exotic lands to kill enemies, so if I do not reject violence completely it seems that maybe cleaning up part of the mess would be the better course, but I have my doubts as well. Obama has proved himself as feckless and maybe even more murderous than GW. Though still not as morally awful as the pragmatic elder GHWB, because whole GW took his crusade seriously and did not run from it, Obama has replaced torture chambers with pure murder and his Syria, Iraq, and Libya policy seems even less excusable than Bush’s, after all Bush never had either his own example nor did he pretend to have the wisdom to condemn its fecklessness.

I almost think destroy IS and begone, but then I wonder what monster will come next. Maybe just leave it to Putin, but considering Grozny that has its issues too.

Feel free to despise me, my only defense is I claim the wisdom to be disgusted at myself.


iolanthe 11.19.15 at 8:21 am

The Falklands? It seems vanishingly unlikely that the Argentines would have given up the islands or compromised in any way without being forced off them and I think a reasonable case can be made that the undoubted benefits of a) upholding the principle that territorial changes should not be made by force of arms b) self determination c) not allowing a fascist dictatorship to rule over the Falkland Islanders and d) the fall of the Junta (OK not a war aim but definitely an outcome of the war) outweigh the costs involved. Similar arguments could be mounted for Gulf War 1 although the 20,000-30,000 casualties involved and the highly unpleasant nature of the Kuwaiti regime makes me rather less certain that on balance it was a good thing although I’m not convinced the alternative would be a particularly good outcome either.


reason 11.19.15 at 8:24 am

LFC @24
Cassander is an annoying troll and should be pointedly ignored. Leaving in a hissy fit is not ignoring.


lurker 11.19.15 at 8:26 am

@22, Matt Austern
And that decision was made after an earlier revolution sparked by the Russo-Japanese War less than a decade earlier. Nothing learned would be an understatement.


reason 11.19.15 at 8:33 am

John Q,
as a general point, as someone who has also been attracted to pacificism, I’m not sure that it works as a general strategy. Quite simply, you can’t ignore people who pop up in front of you and point a gun at you. Ruling out any violent response just makes people who don’t rule out any violent response dominant. Ultimately we didn’t win WWII by laying down our weapons. I’m glad that ISIS incessant provocation of basically everyone, means that eventually they will lose all their territory (what follows, I’m not sure about). There are hundreds of millions of years of evolution behind a defensive aggression response.

That is not to say of course that any aggressive action is justified either morally or from a cause/effect analysis. I just don’t in general it is useful to adopt a position and passively sit on it without continuing to think further (if in doubt, doubt if you like). Progress comes from scepticism, of everything.


Soru 11.19.15 at 8:41 am

The undeniable point that war is bad in the abstract seems irrelevant to the case of Syria, which is already a war; the open question being how best to stop it.


Ronan(rf) 11.19.15 at 8:55 am

Well I think I’ve made the other move, growing up with the Good Friday agreement and then Iraq I came to the conclusion that all conflicts should negotiated and military intervention rarely , if ever , engaged in. I’ve come to realise though that it doesn’t really matter what I think


Vanya 11.19.15 at 9:04 am

The biggest winner of WWI was easily the United States, just as Iran was the biggest winner of the US invasion of Iraq. Both Sweden and Switzerland did pretty well out of WWII as well. Wars generally benefit those who sit more or less on the sidelines.


PlutoniumKun 11.19.15 at 9:10 am

I’m very sympathetic to this point of view – I’ve gone from being generally ‘opposed but open minded’ about military interventions to an ‘only as a very, very last resort’ on the basis of the chaos we’ve seen the past 15 years.

But in the interests of debate, there have been military actions which ‘probably’ worked for the better. An historical one that comes to mind is the Vietnamese intervention against the Khymer Rouge. It was at least partly motivated by KR massacres of Vietnamese civilians on the border (Paul Pot seems to have had the crazy idea that if he went to war with the Vietnamese the Chinese would join in), but whatever the origin, there seems little doubt that the Vietnamese invasion worked. It got rid of one of the most appalling regimes in the 20th Century, and arguably would have worked even better had it not been for the incompetence of the UN when it stepped in later and the mendacity of the US and Britain in offering military aid to the remnants of the KR. Even if the Viets had imposed a Viet friendly communist regime (as opposed to the autocratic semi-democratic chronically corrupt pro-Western one now in place), it would surely have been better than the KR.

A more recent one was the French intervention in Mali (Operation Serval) in 2012. While you can argue that the origins of the conflict lay in the stupid intervention in Libya, there seems little doubt that this was genuinely a case of a relatively cosmopolitan urban population facing a potentially catastrophic conflict with a bunch of ex mercenaries and desert raiders with an Al-Q/Isis influenced ideology. A few French airstrikes against mobile columns advancing on the main Mali cities did a very good job in protecting them. I find it hard to argue that this intervention didn’t save a lot of innocent lives.

Another potentially genuine cause for interventionism is of course the embryonic Kurdish state in Syria. If there can be said to be ‘good guys’ in Syria, the YKK soldiers are surely them (well, mostly ‘good girls’ I suppose). Of course, in the guise of Turkish F-16’s, NATO is actually bombing them…

Unfortunately, his work has disappeared behind a paywall, but the blogger ‘War Nerd’ (he now writes with Pando) is very a very good read on various conflicts around the world.


PlutoniumKun 11.19.15 at 9:14 am

Sorry, just to edit my post above – I meant ‘YPG’ (Peoples Protection Units) in Kurdish Syria, not the YKK. YKK is the Kurdish ex-communist party and a Japanese brand of zipper.


JoB 11.19.15 at 9:36 am

Why does there have be only one outcome in this debate? Sometimes you intervene and sometimes you don’t. Actually, you always intervene but only in rare cases are things so bad that you need guns for that intervention. In thIS case, well, whomever is to blame, I think guns are unavoidable.


David 11.19.15 at 9:42 am

There are individual cases (Cambodia, Uganda) where outside intervention did ultimately make things better, or at least less bad. But those were interventions by neighbours who felt their security threatened. The whole humanitarian interventionist ideology which has taken off over the last 20 years is based on dangerous assumptions, and has had practical results ranging from the dubious to the catastrophic. But whereas differences within and between states should ideally be settled by compromise and negotiation, and sometimes areand that’s one thing, humanitarian intervention (curious term?) is quite a different thing, and we shouldn’t confuse the two.


Peter T 11.19.15 at 10:09 am

If we had our druthers, all quarrels would be settled by negotiation. Even where overt violence is out of court, this is not always possible. Obama, for instance, has not got far negotiating with Republicans (and a great deal of misery and not a few deaths result from the stalemate). Likewise, attempts to negotiate on slavery did not get far in the decades before 1861, and it is now fairly clear that neither Berlin nor Vienna were prepared to negotiate in 1914, nor Berlin in 1939. Its also worth noting that the classical liberal order of the C19 involved a great deal of force – orderly states are not built without much use of the stick.

This is not to advocate war. Simply to note that sometimes the use of force is inevitable, and it therefore behooves us to think very hard about whether and how to use it, what stakes and issues all the parties have, how far they can be influenced and so on. And to bear always in mind that war has a logic and momentum of its own, is rarely predictable and always hard to control.

In the present case of Syria and Iraq, it seems to me Obama has done fairly well. His strategy of the careful use of airpower (most missions against ISIS return without firing anything, because targets are not hit unless they can be reliably verified as ISIS) in support of the Kurds and Iraqi Shi’a is working to diminish ISIS ability to attack and allowing these to recover territory. The strategy defends people who would otherwise be massacred, encourages the locals with the greatest stakes, and avoids all the issues that come with US troops on the ground.


chris y 11.19.15 at 10:42 am

I’m pretty sure Lenin would have died in obscurity if the Russian government hadn’t made the disastrous decision to go to war in 1914.

He certainly expected to: he’s on record as saying after 1905 that he didn’t expect to see the revolution in his lifetime.

His strategy of the careful use of airpower (most missions against ISIS return without firing anything, because targets are not hit unless they can be reliably verified as ISIS) in support of the Kurds and Iraqi Shi’a is working to diminish ISIS ability to attack and allowing these to recover territory.

I certainly wouldn’t underestimate this as I infinitely prefer civilians to be alive rather than not. But there is the problem that the ability of ISIS to gain political traction in the Sunni regions of Iraq is almost entirely due to the insensitivity (at best) or hostility (as widely felt) of the Shi’a regime in Baghdad towards the people there. Is there any reason to imagine that if the Iraqi Shi’a capture a lot of territory, courtesy of the USAF or not, they will suddenly start dealing fairly and honestly with the Sunni population?


Peter T 11.19.15 at 11:11 am


Fair point. But there’s a mix of motives: general Sunni grievances about treatment by the government (some merited, some more about loss of privilege); a general Sunni feeling that rule by Shi’a is illegitimate in itself, a spillover from Syria (the border is historically new – there are close elite family ties between Aleppo and Mosul); a large number of youth impacted by decades of sanctions and occupation…

But the Sunnis are not united. Indeed, they lack any cohesive political structure. Many tribes sided with ISIS (for various motives); those who did not were subject to vicious attacks. In areas regained, one function of the Shi’a militia has been to keep a lid on reprisals by those hit by ISIS. Lately, a militia force has been moved to Tuz Khurmatu to keep the peace between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the local Turkmen. I’ve seen some reports of Sunnis joining Shi’a militias (better pay and more reliable comrades). Hadithi in Anbar has been defended quite competently by a force of Shi’a militia, local Sunnis and Iraqi Army units.

So far, government forces have regained Sunni areas south-west of Baghdad, in Tikrit and north of Tikrit, around Ramadi and between Ramadi and Baghdad without too many ructions. The real test will come after Ramadi is cleared and pressure comes on Mosul.

Syria is an altogether more complex proposition. The Russian/Iranian proposal that backs Damascus without Assad (after a face-saving interval) is probably the least bad option.


Peter T 11.19.15 at 11:19 am

More generally, one of the major reasons wars happen is uncertainty about relative power (each side thinks that it can gain more, or lose less, by resorting to force than by negotiation). The war itself settles the issue. Any intervention that tries for a compromise leaves the balance moot, and is so unlikely to succeed. Better to seek as quick a victory as possible, before the war breeds worse.


Bill Benzon 11.19.15 at 11:35 am

The Cold War dominated international relations for roughly four and a half decades, from the end of WWII to 1989. If we date the current regime from 9/11, then we’re almost a decade and a half in. Can we afford to waste three more decades on this?


David 11.19.15 at 11:38 am

I think you have to draw a distinction between the internal conflicts in Iraq/Syria, which are not really amenable to a negotiated settlement, and the various proposals, ranging from the dubious to the lunatic, for the West to intervene decisively militarily, on one or more of the multiple sides.I think the OP was more about the latter, and reflects an increasing recognition that there is almost no crisis today or in recent history which cannot be made even worse by western intervention.


AN 11.19.15 at 11:42 am

It’s so weird–I remember having this argument with people in 2003 and getting the ‘no it won’t’ from so many. Intellectual colleagues. The people with PhDs. They thought I was crazy to think the US invasion of Iraq was a Big Deal.

There’s no pleasure in saying ‘I told you so.’ And they still wouldn’t get it. I would bet my house that just this week a couple of them are right now ruminating about ‘Islam’ and ‘the Muslim problem’ and ‘what should we do about that problem because that’s obviously the problem here.’ I think they are supposed to be the liberal, enlightened and aware people. They barely remember anything about how we got into the war in Iraq last I checked. And you can’t say it is because they are Americans–this was a multi-national group of people from all over the world, other continents, developing countries, etc.

They know the war in Iraq was a mistake and they weren’t in favor of it. My point is that there’s a set of ideas that has such a deep hold on people in our societies that madness and folly looks like just one reasonable set of things on the table–something that we might be against–but that it doesn’t take a struggle to stop. It’s just a ‘policy option’ not a crusading, destructive murderous ideology.

There are two military options for the US, basically. We can go and fight and maybe win against ‘Isis/Daesh’ and then we can either find very, very, very skilled and brutal dictators to be our puppets. Or we can occupy the middle east forever. Permanent occupation. Terrorism will still happen under these circumstances by the way.

The other strategy would be to become very, very serious about security, do minor military intervention when totally unavoidable, accept some terrorism may occur, try to promote economic stability and peace when possible, create a lot of diplomatic alliances and wait for the incentive to die out for these groups.

Part of the second option means weaning ourselves off of oil. Or it’ll work much better if we do that.

With both options you get terrorism.

The reason it is hard to resist the military option is that the timeline is short between elections–so it’s really actually possible that democracy forces the hand of leaders so they look like they are ‘doing something.’ Then when the chickens come home to roost and they get blamed, they are already retired and playing golf somewhere.


John Quiggin 11.19.15 at 11:48 am

Apologies to all for responding to Cassander’s trolling. From now on, I’m just going to delete troll comments.

Also, I was wrong to lump Lenin in with Hitler and Stalin. Problems of commenting when overtired


John Quiggin 11.19.15 at 11:53 am

@39 This just reinforces the point that wars create the ground for more wars. Sometimes, as with Hitler and Pol Pot, the monsters created by war must be fought with more.


kidneystones 11.19.15 at 12:06 pm

I’m not in the slightest surprised to see liberals shaking their heads and uttering the ‘looks like we have no choice but to bomb some city on the other other side of the globe into rubble.’ Forget the fact that the kind of deadbeats and misanthropes who walk into a church, pray with people, and then shoot nine dead, or drive through Paris blazing away at young people out for a good time can be found in any society from Scotland to Norway. But please don’t call it a ‘war’. Wars involve real risks, usually big ones. Dropping bombs on people on the other side of the world takes all the courage of kicking a kitten to death. That’s what happened in Iraq That’s what Drone Strike did illegally in Libya and helped do in Syria. Forget the legal niceties. Indeed, Dubya and Blair had something closer to a coalition than the US, France, and the UK who decided to just say F2ck-it and flout international law to remove a despot who no longer served their purposes, whilst leaving any number who still do in power.

If you think hurling bombs at people on the other side of the world is a good idea, try hurling a few at Russia, or China, who just might throw a few back. The reason we don’t is we don’t want to get hurt in return. Our style, and I’ll include all the hawks here, is to sit back in our living rooms and recommend the military ‘solve’ our sense of impotence by killing some folks on the other side of the world who, whatever else they may well be guilty of, almost certainly had nothing to do with the attacks in Paris last weekend. The very bright and moral people here can figure out that much for themselves, so the issue is not guilt or innocence re: Paris, but rather using the ideological allies of these assholes as a kind of therapy – instead of punching a pillow, we drop bombs.

I’m not at all sure if there are any legal rationales, for bombing people on the other side of the world. In my view there are certainly no moral grounds. I frankly don’t care how ‘futile’ recourse to the UN is, but if did not have the ‘luxury’ of bombing people we don’t like (think China-Russia), then we’d have no choice but to come up with a workable compromise. Western military superiority has made us lazy, and the institutions we designed and support for peaceful conflict resolution ineffective and objects of contempt.


Collin Street 11.19.15 at 12:16 pm

> From now on, I’m just going to delete troll comments.

You could delete them, but in the words of immortal philosopher David Eddings, “an empty cross doesn’t prove anything”.

But seriously, leaving some posts at least [probably obfuscated by disemvowelling or a click-through wrapper] means that there’s a permanent record of “this is not acceptable behaviour”. Not just for the poster-in-question but also for others, including late-comers.


Lee A. Arnold 11.19.15 at 12:21 pm

I tend to think that Western foreign policy is mostly on the right course, at the moment. I.e., getting a coalition of Middle Eastern countries to be committed to taking action, while treating the possibility of domestic terror as a security issue. This gives us the best chance at some sort of stability while we work on the long — perhaps generations-long –project of peaceful change.

This comment is accompanied by considerable provisos: it’s the “least bad” option; and my opinion would change for the worse if the West mounts another invasion.

However, I cannot follow the whole argument that goes, “Current war is on account of previous war, and therefore, we should stop our own participation in current war, to prevent future war.” This strikes me as false: it is an attempt at absolute deduction, but reality supports it, at best, as a partial induction.

“Partial,” as in “incomplete,” not “biased”. But it is biased emotionally too, and so the argument is going to be endless.


magari 11.19.15 at 1:22 pm

@ 55: let’s not obfuscate. No Iraq War, no ISIS. We don’t know what new militarism will elicit, but historical evidence suggests that bombs make enemies, unless you drop so many that there’s no one left.


Ronan(rf) 11.19.15 at 1:56 pm

Well, no Iraq war no isis is true. But so is that we probably wouldn’t be where we are with no breakdown in Syria , and a regime in Iraq that was more accommodating to Sunni grievances.
The United states did also not create, though it might have helped exacerbate , the radical Islamist trends that influenced people like zarqawi. He wasn’t radicalized by the US, they just helped give him the opportunity to try and implement his political goals. And what Syria shows (a country where US policy over the past 30 years is much less responsible for creating the underlying social context that drives these conflicts) is that a lot of the countries in the region have important political divisions that are probably not resolveable without significant violence. The counterfactual of an Arab spring but no Iraq war still means that a lot of these divisions in Iraq could have come to a head, regardless).


Charlie W 11.19.15 at 1:56 pm

#55: “it is an attempt at absolute deduction, but reality supports it, at best, as a partial induction”.

A similar line of thinking means I have a strict policy of keeping my foot firmly on the gas throughout any car crash.


PirateLaddie 11.19.15 at 2:16 pm

Me, I’ve ordered up an extra large bag of popcorn (double butter & salt) and am eagerly awaiting the third iteration — that one’s supposed to be farce, right?


magari 11.19.15 at 2:20 pm

A lot of the countries in the region have important political divisions that are probably not resolveable without significant violence

On one hand, you’re right. On the other, the question is whether the US/UK/France ought to be a part of that violence. Is our violence likely to exacerbate the problem? Is it likely to lead to violent blowback felt in our own territories? History suggests the answer to both question is yes. And in a moment when we face monetarism/austerity along with massive social and infrastructural pressures, having our precious state revenues allocated towards military intervention is criminal if not totally insane.


Lee A. Arnold 11.19.15 at 2:24 pm

Charlie W: “A similar line of thinking means I have a strict policy of keeping my foot firmly on the gas throughout any car crash.”

The attempt to evaluate a “line of thinking” by applying it to another situation is a useful approach to learning, but it is not sufficient — and if one thinks that it is sufficient, one is automatically making the error of assuming that all different situations must always be approached in the same way, to gain the only valid results.


casmilus 11.19.15 at 2:32 pm

Pilsudski and Masaryk did pretty well out of World War I, and the latter definitely did better than Lenin.


Rakesh Bhandari 11.19.15 at 3:05 pm

Already has been some discussion elsewhere about what role the destabilization of Iraq has played in the rise of ISIL. But have not seen much discussion of how the war against Iraq and overthrow of Saddam affected the development of the Assad regime.


reason 11.19.15 at 3:13 pm

AN @50
I think what you are saying is attractive, but unfortunately also wrong. The problem is that ISIS gains popularity and recruits by winning. ISIS will be less of a threat in the long run if it is completely defeated and is less of a threat even if it is only obviously losing. This is not true of all enemies.

For what its worth, I think Ezra Klein’s take on this is pretty good.


Cassander 11.19.15 at 3:26 pm

@peter t

>His strategy of the careful use of airpower (most missions against ISIS return without firing anything, because targets are not hit unless they can be reliably verified as ISIS) in support of the Kurds and Iraqi Shi’a is working to diminish ISIS ability to attack and allowing these to recover territory.

His policy is not pretty good. He could have done nothing and stay out. Then Assad wins the civil war. That’s not good, but it’s probably better than hundreds ofthousands of casualties and millions of refugees.

Alternatively, he could have ensured the defeat of Assad and his replacement with someone decent. That, however, would require significant ground troops.

Both of those plans would have been politically difficult for obvious reasons, so instead of doing something principled obama did enough to keep the war going (and to say we’re doing something), but not enough to actually defeat Assad. If by some miracle it had actually accomplished is goals, it would merely have replicated the situation in Libya in Syria. As it turns out, it gave the time, space, and possibly weapons to isis that allowed them to grow and threaten not just Syria, but the Iraq we spent trillions on. He’s been a disaster. When it comes to war, half measures are usually worse than no measures. Go big or go home.

Troll justification deleted. Anything else on the same lines will produce a permanent ban – JQ


Donald Johnson 11.19.15 at 4:04 pm

Part of Cassander’s post 65 makes sense. The US has intervened just enough in Syria to keep the war going, along with several other outside groups. Left to itself, Assad would have probably crushed the uprising the way his father did in Hama back in 1982, with a lot of ruthlessness and slaughter and war crimes, but the death toll would have been an order of magnitude less. Or so I speculate anyway. I think it’s right, though, that all the outside help has probably made things worse.


LFC 11.19.15 at 4:10 pm

reason @33

LFC @24 : Cassander is an annoying troll and should be pointedly ignored. Leaving in a hissy fit is not ignoring.

My remark was perhaps poorly phrased; I didn’t mean to suggest I was, in your words, “leaving in a hissy fit.” (I just have other things to do at the moment.)


Bill Hamlin 11.19.15 at 4:12 pm

I know this would never happen but imagine if we just give up. No more Homeland Security, no more Anti-Terrorism Task Forces, no more TSA. We come out and say “You know what, we can’t stop this, no matter how much we spend on it. We’re going to spend the next 1.7 trillion on helping the poor people around the world instead of enriching the police and military.”

So the next day there are 100 terrorist attacks, including planes and trains being blown up. On day 2 that drops to 50, then 25, then 10. Would it hit zero? Would they stop at some point? I think they would, because the game wouldn’t be fun anymore.


Trader Joe 11.19.15 at 4:45 pm

I have to conceed there’s some truth to Cassander’s quip that “go big or go home” is the correct approach.

Its a fact that I’d prefer that Iraq didn’t happen, but it did. The monsters (ISIS) have been created. The U.S. , Russia, France could all have let the monster rage and slaughter across Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and hoped that once they carved out their Caliphate that they would have ‘enough’ and that they’d be happy to then focus on building their culture of oppression and leave the rest of the world alone.

I’d rather believe that and remain passifist, but the monster doesn’t show any inclination towards passifism. Its a monster formed in victimhood and views all the world as its enemy.

Negotiation doesn’t seem plausible here – although I’d acknowledge it doesn’t seem to have been tried. It feels more like a fire that needs extinquishing rather than being allowed to burnout on its own. The thing I’m sure of is that whatever action – miliary or diplomatic, it needs to be unified – it can’t be only the U.S. or Russia or France or Syria. The other thing I’m sure about, apropos of Cassanders comment, is that the time has come to “go big” on whatever path is to be taken. Half measures are clearly not helping.


Roger Gathman 11.19.15 at 5:35 pm

The only thing I will ever agree with Cassander about is go big or go home. The post-Cold War wars have been wage as hobby wars – they are more like the wars of the 17th and 18th century, when Kings could muster forces and use them without the consent or consultation with the people, than anything else. I do think populations learn things. They learn them quickly. One thing they learned after Korea and Vietnam is that they didn’t want their kids dying in wars that only made sense in the elite’s geo-political game. The solution, then, was to disconnect the war from the population – to privatize as much of it as possible, and to rely on a vast increase in spending on technology and a volunteer force. The result is the longest and loosingest wars in American history. Who really believes that, after the US withdraws from Afghanistan, where it has been for fifteen years, that the Taliban won’t come back. The Taliban! I read recently that every time an american soldier calls in a strike on a taliban sniper, the engagement costs the US approximately 500,000 dollars. The Taliban, on the other hand, spends what, a thousand for the rifle? Not even that much, probably. This policy of insulating the home population from even thinking seriously about the war the elite is engaged in came to its climax in France. France, under Chirac, wisely avoided the American led charge into the quagmire in Iraq, but under Holland, and particularly Fabius, the neo-cons and liberal interventionists are in charge. Consequently, France went to war with Daech without ever doing the things you do in a war – like alerting and securing the homeland. That we live in an age of globalization is a phrase that has died of being repeated a billion times, but apparently, it is still a surprise to the Western elites. Yes, if you can get socks from India and computer parts from China in real time, people who want to carry guns and ammo into your cities are going to have a fair chance of doing so – even if they live in Syria. The most sensible thing written about the attacks from the point of view of their unsurprisingness appeared in the London Book Review. This Jeremy Harding piece has a certain GB Shaw aura – it is common sense made shocking by being plainly stated.
Of course, at the present, the only attachment to military action demanded from the populations that pay the taxes and supposedly govern themselves is that they have “solidarity” – with the victims, with the soldiers, with, in general, the war, which is put in the most ambiguous terms (like – we are at war with radical Islam, instead of, we are at war with Daech – the former being simply a lie, since radical Islam is a phylogenetic extension of Saudi Arabia, and France is a huge ally of Saudi Arabia). The fog of war is caused by fog machines, not so cleverly put in place by the propagandists. It isn’t hard to cut through.


Bill Hamlin 11.19.15 at 5:40 pm

What can we do? Vote for Bernie or Rand. It’s too bad Obama can’t run again because we know he’s all for leaving. But I think Bernie (especially) or Rand would continue the effort.

You can’t just cut and leave. Obama is a master of the soft landing. And I don’t see how he puts up with all the noise.


jkay 11.19.15 at 6:17 pm

Bur what was wrong atall about what Vietnam did after WWII? It was us and France whom

Aren’t you wrong abour revolutions? And those are always happening, like the Arab Spring today, yay.

No,,Japan was the only WWi winner. Because armor on water was easy faster before the tank was invented The Civil War-era ironclad sta

Lenin felt betrayed by Germany for his try at unilateral disarmament. And Russia felt starved and out of bullets. Russians were better off because they had a real constitution, after.


LFC 11.19.15 at 7:05 pm

Some of what R. Gathman says @71 tracks or agrees with, e.g., James Fallows’s long piece “The Tragedy of the American Military” in the Jan/Feb 2015 Atlantic. One of Fallows’s main points was that there is too much distance between the US military and the population as a whole, leading to a variety of bad outcomes. Hard to disagree.

Unfortunately, the fixes for the problems identified by Fallows are either long-term or politically difficult; they would lead to worthwhile changes, e.g. less emphasis on fancy technological boondoggles (such as the F-35 joint strike fighter) and reordering of spending priorities, but they face entrenched institutional opposition.

The question of what policy to take toward ISIS can’t wait for sweeping Fallows-like restructuring of the relation btw the US military and the civilian population, but has to be decided now. Remember Rumsfeld’s notorious remark about going to war with the army one has? Well, analogously, one makes policy decisions re ISIS with the technology-heavy, expensive military one has, not the one that one might want.

Ironically, Cassander’s “go big or go home” cribs from the so-called Powell Doctrine, but another aspect of the Powell Doctrine was the need for domestic support of military action. By Cassander’s own admission, there is insufficient domestic political support for either a “go big” (say 50,000 to 500,000 ground troops) or a “go home” (do nothing) strategy w/r/t Syria/Iraq/ISIS. That leaves as the only practical options those that fall within a middle ground, and in that context I tend to agree with Peter T that Obama’s approach is reasonable and is showing results.


BBA 11.19.15 at 8:06 pm

Libya made me a pacifist – it was clear that not intervening would have been a disaster, but intervening created an even bigger disaster. And that’s pretty much the best you can say about any war in living memory other than WW2.


kidneystones 11.19.15 at 9:24 pm

Go Big or Stay at home. But what does that mean? Bing West writing recently in the National Review looked at IS controlled areas and determined that air-power alone would have no meaningful effect. Stability (a relative term at best) meant 10,000 US troops on the ground for a decade. Obviously, that doesn’t factor in the negative impact of having US troops in the region, a fact Daniel Pipes of all people noted long ago.

Twas John McCain of all people who perhaps saw the problem of Iraq most clearly. Pointing to both Japan and Germany, post-invasion stability in Iraq meant a US troop presence there for up to 100 years. The so-called Powell doctrine is not a factor. Powell, in fact, favored containment over invasion. Powell’s doctrine refers only to the use of force in the conflict, the least problematic dimension of the use of force. The problem is Phase IV, the infamous and perpetually non-existent feature of current US war policy – what happens after the bullets stop flying, to the degree that they do.

The problem is not one of force, but of economics. Until the region modernizes to the degree that young men, in particular, have a future to build, a certain subset will be drawn to violence, and a subset of this group will be keen to blame the west and to carry that violence to our shores.

One colleague noted yesterday that the French security services were ‘throwing’ everything they had at Saint-Denis, with the resulting death of the Belgians based in Paris. I disagree. The ‘victory’ there resulted, I’d guess, much more from the Muslim community helping identify and isolate a tiny gang of assholes bringing the entire community into disrepute.

Suggesting that religion, not employment, is the major issue is as silly as saying the French Revolution was about Christianity, not the failing French economy.


Peter K. 11.19.15 at 9:25 pm

Although younger than Professor Quiggin, I’ve traveled the same route.

In World War II the German and Japanese regimes were very nasty. Thanks to the Marshall Plan and Social Democratic years, the Germans and Japanese are much better. Nation-building worked.

But that’s no longer the case. Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t rebuilt. They were subject to bizarre free-market fantasies. The elite won’t spend the money at home or abroad.

So any war will just rip the country apart like Syria, with little rebuilding afterwards.

Having said that, the major nations’ Syria policy has been a disaster as well. So yeah Libya is a mess but so is Syria.


bob mcmanus 11.19.15 at 10:21 pm

Go Big or Stay at home…The problem is not one of force, but of economics. Until the region modernizes to the degree that young men, in particular, have a future to build

In December of 2001, I said: “50 million people to MENA for 5 years, 5 million for fifty years.” I of course included Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in the Occupation, and meant architects, lawyers, surgeons, engineers, economists, poets and ten soldiers on everystreet corner. If you going for regime and social change, especially in that ancient world, go George Marshall in Germany times ten. Japan and Germany kept much of their culture and traditions.

Of course, I was being ironic joking and knew it wouldn’t happen. But I knew who would pay the price of small mercenary airwar over there (civilians, women ans children), and I wanted the aggressors (us, the West) to pay the costs. I also remembered the social democratic effects of WWII and knew that Bush/Obama war would be divisive and depoliticizing at home.

Casualties? Thousands of Americans would have likely died in transport alone.

As it is, war crime America, and all of us are responsible after fifteen years of shopping and internet. As Thomas Mann said, or was it Hunter Thompson: “The scum of the Earth also rises.” The moral alternative to letting the Iraqis and Syrians and Libyans die for America’s sins was always Civil War at home, which was the alternative to total war I have been advocating for ten+ years.


bob mcmanus 11.19.15 at 10:34 pm

Of course, I can’t go into details with getting freaking arrested…Look Kardashians!…but there is no peace, peace is not on the table, all we get to decide is who dies, and we are deciding…Look Kendall’s new bathing suit!…we are deciding by being passive that it is Syrians who die when it should be, umm, assholes closer to home.

Maybe us. If I get a diagnosis, I plan on a kerosene bath in a public place. Probably chicken out.


Bill Hamlin 11.19.15 at 10:48 pm

I like the idea of giving up, and hoping ISIS gets tired of killing us. We’d spend the next $1.7 trillion on help the poor people.

If ISIS doesn’t get tired of killing us, then that means they really do want to take over our civilization. So then we’d have a choice between becoming devout whatever-ISIS -is or spending the next $1.7 trillion (perhaps less) destroying them. But hey, at least then we;d really know!

If ISIS stops, on the other hand, then they are exposed as being who I suspect they are — just a bunch of idiots.


Rakesh Bhandari 11.19.15 at 11:03 pm


Manta 11.19.15 at 11:15 pm

Some time ago I read an analysis (I can’t remember by whom) that probably Obama’s aim in Syria was not to win the civil war, but to prolong the conflict as much as possible, in order to severely damage USA enemies (Hezbollah and Iran), by forcing them to waste their resources to prop Assad.


LFC 11.19.15 at 11:19 pm

@81 R. Bhandari
Judging from the opening paragraphs of the M. Ayoob piece you link, he’s saying pretty much what some in this thread have been saying. (I.e., airstrikes alone won’t do it, need local (non-Western) forces on the ground. It’s the combination.)

On the question you raised earlier about how the Iraq war affected the Assad regime, I’m not sure. The Arab Spring seems to have been a more proximate spark of the Syrian civil violence, combined w/ drought as has already been mentioned in a previous thread here. Which is not to deny that everything is at some level connected.


LFC 11.19.15 at 11:35 pm

probably Obama’s aim in Syria was not to win the civil war, but to prolong the conflict as much as possible, in order to severely damage USA enemies (Hezbollah and Iran), by forcing them to waste their resources to prop Assad.

Bad analysis, IMO. Ascribes rather horrid Machiavellian motives w/o sufficient warrant. Assumes it is in US’s power to “end” or “win” (?) Syrian civil war, which it isn’t.

People don’t always seem to understand that, for political, practical, and moral reasons, the U.S. cannot line up its ridiculously expensive fleet of nuclear submarines, each one of which contains missiles with 32,000 times the power of the Hiroshima explosion, and achieve whatever “results” it desires by the application of overwhelming, necessarily indiscriminate, military force. That is not the way things work, nor is it the way things should work. The U.S. can’t wave the equivalent of a magic wand and end the Syrian civil war tomorrow. It wd be easier to ensure that the millions of children in the world under age 15 who are not in school go to school — and even a goal like that, though prob. achievable, is not easy.

Some of the proposals here — give up and hope ISIS tires of doing what it’s doing (Hamlin), stage a fratricidal conflict in the U.S. resulting in the elimination of (imperialist) “assholes” (mcmanus), strike me as less than well-considered, to put it w some understatement. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)


LFC 11.19.15 at 11:38 pm

The alignments on the ground and otherwise are also such that the analysis @82 makes no sense.


gianni 11.20.15 at 12:12 am

I am not convinced that the relevant actors are interested in learning a thing.

Take a look at the stock price for Boeing. It hits a local trough on March 14th 2003. Then, for some reason or another, it proceeds to rally and by Sept 2007 it reaches 400% of that March 2003 value. Sure, it takes a sharp hit after that, but no worries, recent trends are positive and they are currently doing better than ever.


gianni 11.20.15 at 12:19 am

I mean, if you were an amoral investor, the beginning of a protracted air war is about the clearest signal towards a good bet as you are gonna get in today’s world.

Check the trends for raytheon and northrop grumman as well. They are all doing fabulously. Tripling in the span of a few short years.


Waiting for Godot 11.20.15 at 12:55 am

Why has no one here spoken about the concept of perpetual war which may describe what we have been experiencing since 1914? Isn’t there anyone else out there who thinks that when we study political history since 1914 we are really studying the political economy of war? Sigh…that great philosopher Bob Dylan once penned the line: “Sometimes I think this world is one big prison yard, some of us are prisoners the rest of us are guards.”

Maybe that is just another way of saying that we are all prisoners of the war between history and truth.


ZM 11.20.15 at 1:17 am

There’s an article on how a climate deal in Paris is the best hope for peace in the Middle East by Jason Box and Naomi Klein in the New Yorker:

” When our safety feels threatened, it’s difficult to think of anything else. Major shocks like the Paris attacks are awfully good at changing the subject. But what if we decided to not let it happen? What if, instead of changing the subject, we deepened the discussion of climate change and expanded the range of solutions, which are fundamental for real human security? What if, instead of being pushed aside in the name of war, climate action took center stage as the planet’s best hope for peace?

The connection between warming temperatures and the cycle of Syrian violence is, by now, uncontroversial. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in Virginia, this month, “It’s not a coincidence that, immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record. As many as 1.5 million people migrated from Syria’s farms to its cities, intensifying the political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region.”
A climate summit taking place against the backdrop of climate-fuelled violence and migration can only be relevant if its central goal is the creation of conditions for lasting peace. That would mean making legally enforceable commitments to leave the vast majority of known fossil-fuel reserves in the ground. It would also mean delivering real financing to developing countries to cope with the impacts of climate change, and recognizing the full rights of climate migrants to move to safer ground. A strong climate-peace agreement would also include a program to plant vast numbers of native-species trees in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, to draw down atmospheric CO2, reduce desertification, and promote cooler and moister climates. Tree planting alone is not enough to lower CO2 to safe levels, but it could help people stay on their land and protect sustainable livelihoods.

….. as the author and energy expert Michael T. Klare argued weeks before the attacks, Paris “should be considered not just a climate summit but a peace conference—perhaps the most significant peace convocation in history.””


SamChevre 11.20.15 at 1:23 am

One large difference between Germany/Japan and Syria/Iraq is that it’s plausible to think of Germans or Japanese as a nation. In Syria, there are real grudges between the Alawites and the Sunni; in Iraq, between the Shia and the Sunni. We never had to get the Germans to stop killing each other.

In WWII, we dealt with the problem by ignoring reprisals by our allies against our enemies; there are plenty of Germans whose families had lived in what’s now Poland or the Czech Republic who were lucky to escape with their lives.

I keep thinking that the developments in Iraq, post 2008, are basically Iraq’s version of Redemption.


LFC 11.20.15 at 2:58 am

Waiting for Godot @88

Since you seem to consider “war” one big, undifferentiated category — not distinguishing between kinds of actors involved, casualty levels, technology, aims, or anything else –why start with 1914? What about, just to go back another century for example, the Napoleonic Wars, Opium War, Crimean War, Franco-Prussian War, Balkan wars, Boer War, etc.? Since you don’t distinguish between kinds of wars but lump all wars together, you can hardly claim that ‘perpetual war’ only started in 1914. On your own implicit premises, that makes little sense.

If you want to pick a date for the start of a new era of war, arguably the 1790s-1815 is a better candidate than 1914. One historian argues that the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars inaugurated the notion of war as an ‘apocalyptic’, cataclysmic event, as contrasted with the more routinized, relatively restrained wars (in Europe any way) of the 18th century. (I’m referring to David Bell’s The First Total War.)

I’m somewhat skeptical of that argument, but it’s not totally off-the-wall. It makes more sense than dating the onset of ‘perpetual war’ to 1914. If ‘war’ is an undifferentiated category, and you don’t care that battle-deaths have declined fairly steadily since WW2 until a recent uptick (see the chart linked by Ronan in a previous thread), then why start with 1914? It would be more logical, on your implicit premises, to see ‘perpetual war’ since the beginning of recorded time.


LFC 11.20.15 at 3:05 am


js. 11.20.15 at 5:06 am

Oh, fuck! Just lost a long comment (partly a response to LFC) because of too much semi-drunk fast typing! Tomorrow.


Waiting for Godot 11.20.15 at 5:06 am

LFC @ 91

“Since you seem to consider ‘war’ one big undifferentiated category…why start with 1914?”

I’m with you, why indeed?! Isn’t that the point?


Peter T 11.20.15 at 7:48 am

I really don’t know why JQ is surprised. Two centuries of experience, thought and policy have not deterred investors and regulators from thinking that this time is different and inflating yet another financial bubble. Why should war be different?

A lot of the blather around the ME does not stop to ask what can practically be done. Blithe talk of nation-building, or of Germany and Japan post World War II, or of sending in the troops are all stupid hand-waving. Iraq is not Germany, wars are no longer conducted in the way they were in World War II, the US does not have an army large enough to police even Iraq, and certainly does not have the military or other capacity to occupy any substantial part of the ME (the last Iraq war pushed the US army to the very limits, and there it was opposed by only a fraction of the Iraqi population)). Policy has to start from these facts, not gesture it away.

The course of the fighting has made it clear that what counts is not so much weaponry or numbers (although these are factors), as commitment and political cohesion. ISIS has both – although the latter draws on a very narrow base; so do the Kurds, the Shi’a and affiliated militias, and Hezbollah. The radical Sunnis have commitment but not cohesion, Assad’s army is decidedly short on commitment, the small secular factions lack both commitment and cohesion. If it were simply an intra-Syrian fight, the radical Sunnis or ISIS would probably have won (and driven surviving the Christians and Alawis into flight). But it could never be simply an intra-Syrian fight – there are too many cross-border ties (Kurds with Iraq and Turkey, Alawis as a branch of Shi’a with Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, Sunnis with Saudi and Iraq and so on). So it was always going to boil over.

A western policy that hangs around the edges hoping for a unicorn does more harm than good; massive force is both not an option and destructive of any solution. Intervention that boosts the parties with the capacity to actually win has some chance.


Manta 11.20.15 at 8:17 am

“Assumes it is in US’s power to “end” or “win” (?) Syrian civil war, which it isn’t.”

No, it does not assume such thing. It assumes that the choice were between doing what Obama did (arm and support a side that is to weak to win) and doing nothing.


kidneystones 11.20.15 at 8:54 am

@95 ‘Intervention that boosts the parties with the capacity to actually win has some chance’

Of accomplishing what, precisely, to what end, and what are the consequences both for the region, and for the larger community. I’m frankly astonished that someone with your evident knowledge of the complexities seeks some sort of violent unilateral solution, rather than turning to the UN, or some other regional solution that does not involve killing more people. Re: Germany and Japan. Please don’t confuse analysis with advocacy. The comparisons are instructive because, as you and others here note, the US has lacks the resolve and the resources to make this happen. Personally, I’d like to draft every son-of-a-bitch who supported the decision to invade, from Drezner to Sullivan to Pelosi and plant their asses in the ME for the first decade of what looks to be a protracted occupation, if it is in any way going to work. But I’m not in charge, so those who supported the war (without a loaded gun to their heads as is/was the case with the Iraqi populace, the Japanese, the Germans, the Brits, the Americans, the French, the Spanish, the Swiss, the Israelis, the Koreans, and any sundry number of civilians forced to suit up and fight whether they want/wanted to go, or not, these clowns get to walk away from their ‘mistake’ and leave the mess for all of us to clean up. Back in 2002-3, it was already clear to me that what some of the costs of this fiasco were going to be, and who would end up getting promoted after sending us all into the sinkhole. But I digress.

I stand by my original opposition to all the ME interventions, and see no evidence whatsoever that using western force to aid any of the actors is going to do anything but install another gang of evil assholes who will begin their own program of exploitation and recrimination with us supplying the whips and bullets. If we have no faith in the UN and other institutions, why support them at all? Let the law of the jungle rule and let the savages slaughter each other whilst we contemplate how best to exploit their weaknesses and misery. Or, we could refuse to give into the temptation to just do something!!!, when that something involves blowing shit up. Much of the ‘urgency’ is self-created.

People like me, who have served in the military and understand elementary logistics understood from the get go that getting out was always going to harder than getting in. Cheney’s claim ‘we will be greeted with flowers’ was greeted with gawps and drools rather than the scrutiny the assertion demanded. Who precisely billets and feeds an occupying army of the size the US dispatched? Not the locals, as it turns out. So, the entire occupation becomes extremely expensive.

As much as I fervently opposed the invasion not least because of the challenges we face in phase IV, that once there all those who supported the war should have been shipped in to ‘volunteer’ in camps, teach, and provide any of the sundry services that might just add some stability to the region. A ruinous future is far from cast in stone, but destroying three states: Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and then walking away is likely to do more damage than the initial goofy decisions to remove S, G, and now A.

The solution isn’t more bombs, however.


kidneystones 11.20.15 at 8:59 am

Should read. ‘…install another gang of evil assholes who will begin their own program of exploitation and recrimination with us supplying the whips and bullets, again.’

Sorry about the other typos. You get the key points, I’m sure.


Richard M 11.20.15 at 9:09 am

‘We never had to get the Germans to stop killing each other.’

While there are other people on the internet who are wrong, that single sentence contains more wrongness than the average site, and some top level domains.

I doubt it is even deliberate Holocaust denial, merely casually not recognizing it as a politically-relevant historical fact.


kidneystones 11.20.15 at 10:08 am

Ongoing attack in Bamako, Mali.

Won’t be spending this weekend digesting this fresh horror. All those involved, including the loopy attackers have my prayers and sympathy. We’re all headed to the same destination, I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone can think that committing acts of horror somehow make our own deaths more palatable, for any reason.


Peter T 11.20.15 at 10:36 am


The argument I am making is that, if war is inevitable, then it is best ended quickly on tolerable (not ideal) terms. War itself breeds a great many other evils, and also tends to spread. And this involves a real effort to understand the capacities, attitudes and resources of all the parties involved. Force may be an option but, if used, has to be tailored to the situation and amended as the situation changes.

The handling of the first Gulf War was a huge mistake; launching the second was a major crime. The Syrian civil war is a huge tragedy, as is the Iraq civil war. Yet there they are. It falls to the current crop of politicians to find some way to do what they can. Massive force is not an option; leaving the parties to fight it out is also not an option – the consequences would be both grim and not contained to the Syria and Iraq. The groups who might achieve a tolerable peace are the Syrian Kurds and affiliates (Christians, Yazidi), the Iraqi Shi’a and the Damascus regime. The others are either incapable, uninterested (the Iraqi Kurds will fight for their region, but not beyond) or intolerable (eg ISIS, but also an-Nusra). So the policy that has the best hope of achieving the least horrible outcome is to back all these with enough force to allow them to prevail. Syrian Kurds, Shi’a militia and Damascus are already in de facto alliance.

The alternative is to line ships along the Lebanese coast to take off 40 per cent or so of the Syrian population, plus most of the Lebanese population.


SamChevre 11.20.15 at 1:23 pm

I doubt it is even deliberate Holocaust denial.

Umm–given that my name-family ancestry is Hungarian Jewish….

Post WWII, getting the various nations of the Indian subcontinent to stop killing each other was urgent (and unsuccessful). Getting the Czechs not to kill or drive out the Sudetendeutsch was not even tried. But getting the Germans to act as a unified nation was pretty easy.


Zamfir 11.20.15 at 1:34 pm

@SamChevre, you write as if German Jews (and other groups murdered by the Nazis) were not Germans, then you call the remainder a unified nation that doesn’t kill its own.


SamChevre 11.20.15 at 1:46 pm

@ 103

Yes, that’s correct. After WWII–when the US was trying to rebuild Germany–that was the case.

This isn’t a comment about morals, Germany in all time periods, or anything of the sort; it’s a comment about the much greater difficulty of getting stable, local governance in place in Iraq or Syria than in post-WWII Germany or Japan. (Iraq and Syria are more like Yugoslavia.)


Lawrence Stuart 11.20.15 at 3:10 pm

As far as the question of pacifism itself goes, consider what Ricouer has to say about it:

“It seems to me that non-violence can be a valid attitude only if one can expect from it some influence–perhaps quite concealed–upon the course of history. What advantage is there for a man to refuse to kill and accept death in order not to soil his hands? For what does his purity matter? Is he pure if all others are unclean? And doesn’t his act fall back into history with the deadly effects which he did not intend but which nevertheless fulfill the meaning of his act? Thus the violence which one refuses to embrace turns to the profit of another violence which the former did not prevent or perhaps even encouraged. Hence if non-violence is to have meaning, it must fulfill it within the history which it at first transcends. It must have a secondary efficacity which enters into account with the efficacity of the violence in the world, an efficacity which alters human relationships.” (from History and Truth)

As a posture, or an attitude, pacifism is no better than violence unless, and this is key, it engages with the world — with history– and in so doing confronts the violent turn toward which humans are quite naturally prone. Meaningful pacifism is the manifestation of a form of efficacy. It is not simply refraining from or rejecting violence, or refraining from the support of violence. It is an action within this violent, war prone world that seeks peace, peace not as a balance or preponderance of force, but peace as the recognition of and respect for other humans in their irreducible alterity.

That being said, using that principle as a guide to developing a coherent Middle East policy is far above my pay grade. In personal terms, as a pacifist I understand the need for a policy of military containment of Daesh, but only because that use of force opens up the possibility for a massive humanitarian effort on behalf of those displaced by the broader turmoil in the region. Minimum force, maximum aid is the path I would, for what it is worth, advocate.


Anarcissie 11.20.15 at 3:25 pm

Lawrence Stuart 11.20.15 at 3:10 pm @ 105 —
Sometimes, though, one has gone past the point where what does will have an influence on history. Sometimes there is no fix, whether in warmaking or pacifism. Sometimes one has been evil or foolish, whether as an individual or a nation, and must take the consequences.


Roger Gathman 11.20.15 at 6:09 pm

The war in Syria should never have been encouraged by the west. Curiously, where democracy threatens Saudi Arabia, the West looks the other way, as in Egypt and Bahrain, and where dictatorship threatens Saudi Arabia, the West suddenly becomes all liberal interventionist.
However, it is striking that the only topic of discussion is the use of the military. This Jonathan Steele article makes the case that the Kurds in Northern Syria, who are disliked by the Turks and by the rightwing parties in Northern Iraq, have carved out some areas of actual peace, while maintaining a quasi official truce with Assad. What those Kurds need is money. A lot of money. All the billions the Americans wasted in Iraq, or, more truthfully, recycled to American companies, should be more wisely spent on projects building up these territories – not only the military forces, but infrastructure. As in Northern Iraq, one can expect that the established ruling families will cream a lot for themselves, but in the end, Northern Iraq was not – mostly – a zone of conflict in the war, and we should ask why and extend that lesson. Nation-building is impossible when, as in Iraq, the occupying power is not only too small to enforce its whims, but it dissolves the state, from the army to the sewage inspectors. But given a state that has generated its own structures of governance and has shown competence in defending itself – why not a coupla tens of billions? Hey, and it doesn’t even have to bust a budget – just cancel the Trident in the UK, and a coupla expensive and useless military programs advocated by Pentagon generals who are looking forward to sitting on the boards of the contractors who who planning on building the useless and expensive stuff – and bingo, you have money!


Roger Gathman 11.20.15 at 6:13 pm

PS – I should be said, from a class viewpoint, that the Iraq invasion was so catastrophically managed that America’s natural allies – the middle and upper middle class – were alienated or exiled within the first two years of the occupation. And nobody even fucking noticed. At least in the States. This was, I think, the first time since WWII that US foreign policy failed to reach out at all to the natural allies of the States.


Lawrence Stuart 11.20.15 at 6:28 pm

Anarcissie–I am constitutionally not disposed to that kind of fatalism. At the same time I think you are right to emphasize the magnitude of the problem, and I’d agree that there is no policy measures capable of fixing the grievous harm done (most proximately arising out of the invasions of Iraq). Having sown the wind, there is alas a whirlwind to be reaped. But while violent actions in history resonate in ways foreseen and unforeseen for a duration beyond even our best intended and conceived efforts to “fix” them, actions in the name of peace keep open a sense of hope for the future, hope that the causal chain of violence and retribution might in time be broken. And yes it is a thin thread to cling to, but there is a power in it that can, sometimes, work in astonishing ways.


Manta 11.20.15 at 8:11 pm

@Lawrence: primum non nocere.


kidneystones 11.20.15 at 10:11 pm

I’m encouraged somewhat by both 107 and 108. Re: what the constituent groups want. I’m certain that 70-90% of each group simply want to live in peace, retain their own culture and values, and go about their business. We’ve seen repeatedly that once we get the key actors to the table – pay off the intransigents and exploiters (the non 70-90%) and create the dynamics for growth, people set aside their arms. I very much enjoy, btw, the posts of those very familiar with the individual actors. The key for me is recognizing that we all share very similar goals re: freedom to live as we please. There will always be those ready to exploit fears for power and profit. Resisting these forces (not eliminating them, a different problem) always requires our best thinking and our willingness to be imaginative, flexible, and resolute. I’m certainly not in any way a pacifist, I simply choose not to degrade my life and that of others by employing the cudgel unless I’m convinced that I’ve absolutely no other option. Increase the number of ordinary stakeholders, reduce the number of those seeking to exploit their own peoples, and inject cash, educators, jobs, and infra-structure. We’ve long known that the international arms manufacturers spread nothing but death. Perhaps we should look more closely at limiting/curtailing their activities in conflict areas. The people suffering in these regions need workable laws and a reliable judiciary, not just more guns.


Peter T 11.21.15 at 12:47 am


I’m not certain of that at all. But one thing war can do is generate a lot of people who find their meaning in war. The solution in not too distant times past was to ship them somewhere far, far away, where they mostly died. Having a strong civil society to come back to, a place where on could quickly make a new and prosperous life, worked after World War II (for all sides). But Syria after the war is not going to be like that. Money is not the solution – it’s a problem of governance. So get the war over asap, but not in a way that destroys any prospect of reasonable governance.

Keynes remarked, in reply to Trotsky, that playing at revolution was inexcusable idiocy if a revolution were in fact inevitable (disagreeing that a revolution was in fact inevitable). The US has been playing at diplomacy and war in the ME for decades – doing stupid stuff. While the Obama administration is still doing some stupid stuff, the quotient is less.


Anarcissie 11.21.15 at 2:37 am

Peter T 11.21.15 at 12:47 am @ 112:
‘… So get the war over asap, but not in a way that destroys any prospect of reasonable governance. …

The problem with this plan is that you don’t know how to do that.


kidneystones 11.21.15 at 3:58 am

@112 Thank you for this. I’m not sure I agree with any part of your comment. I doubt very much that any of the principals are playing at ME policy, or have been for any period of time at any time. I suspect that the personalities of the leaders and the ideologies have had a profound effect on outcomes, as has luck. I’m certain you’re much for familiar with the specifics and with the IR and other theories that inform your analysis. Where we differ, I suspect, is in our priorities.

First, like @113, I’m deeply suspicious of your general claims about ending the conflict you describe as war. I noted up-thread that I do not regard any part of the conflicts in the ME as a ‘war’ in the sense you seem to be using the term. Others note that key figures in the IS group are disenfranchised Iraqi Baath officers, who for any number of reasons – tribal-kinship-politics, find themselves in conflict with Syria. Whatever other assets they lack, they do appear to have enough mettle and ability to fight their corner for the moment.

My main objection is to our perpetual reliance on weaponry and force to solve problems. Each time we engage in any unilateral action we undermine international institutions designed to resolve conflict peacefully. Short-term military ‘success’ by the west simply reinforces the notion that with the right weaponry, troops, and backers, any nation or state can be taken and perhaps held. Further, we demonstrate that we ourselves have no interest in going through the time-consuming, difficult, and expensive task of adjudicating disputes through negotiations. The looming dispute over sovereignty in the South China seas is an illustrative case in point. Nobody, I hope, wants China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, the US, and Japan to solve this dispute with weaponry. When our own interests are directly affected, we’re normally very strong advocates for peaceful resolution.

To reiterate, we’re willing to use force in the ME simply because we can, and because we perceive that we will be fully capable of completely resisting, or at least minimizing, any effort to pay us back in kind. The people in the region are fully deserving of our best efforts to find a resolution to this conflict that does not involve putting western troops on the ground, or using western air-power to try to affect outcomes.


F. Foundling 11.21.15 at 7:43 am

@LFC 11.19.15 at 11:35 pm
>Assumes it is in US’s power to “end” or “win” (?) Syrian civil war, which it isn’t. … The U.S. can’t wave the equivalent of a magic wand and end the Syrian civil war tomorrow.

Well, as for what keeps the Syrian civil war going, I suppose it might just be worthwhile to consider an alternative universe in which the United States and its regional allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are, for a change, *not* supporting the rebels, as they currently are and have been for years. In this context, the common practice of presenting the US as an uninvolved bystander and the Syrian war as just ‘happening’ naturally by itself is … funny. I suppose nowadays anything short of actual invasion counts as ‘non-involvement’ by US pundit standards.

>It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

Certainly, violence is a bad thing, war is an extremely bad thing, and I don’t really expect anything good to come of any more ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria (though neither do I see ‘negotiation and peaceful agitation’ as an appropriate approach to something like ISIS). That said, I don’t think general reflections like the above quote tell us all that much. First, whether negotiation and peaceful agitation produce better (or any) results depends very much on the behaviour of other participants. Second, negotiation and peaceful agitation typically rely on a more or less remote, but credible (and therefore occasionally realised) threat of violence. Third, descriptively, it’s difficult to calculate the effects of war on ‘participants’ and therefore assess its rationality, because sides in a conflict are not really monolithic entities prioritising the maximum happiness and survival of their constituent individuals.

@Ze K 11.19.15 at 9:42 am

>The world is a gangland. Either you’re a violent bully, or you’ll be someone’s bitch. That said, even a violent bully should be content with a limited sphere of influence. … Claiming the whole world is the problem.

Wow, that’s deep. However, if the world is going to be a gangland, I don’t see what objections one could or should have against a global capo di tutti capi in Washington. It’s the natural outcome given such rules of the game, and centralisation can be expected to bring at least some degree of order and stability eventually. Not my cup of tea, but then again, I’m a leftie and thus naturally unappreciative of the simple beauty of this sort of thing.


F. Foundling 11.21.15 at 9:09 am

Re my 115, I certainly don’t want to say that support from the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar is the *only* cause of the war; internal and external factors can be of essential importance simultaneously in such cases.

As a sidenote, this is far from the first time I get the impression that most of the comments in such discussions inevitably get on a hopelessly wrong track as soon as they begin to refer to the Western military and foreign policy establishment as ‘we’.


boconnor 11.21.15 at 10:21 am

kidneystones – just wanted to say how much I’ve enjoyed reading your comments in this thread and your perspective – it has helped change my thoughts on the use of war to solve political problems.


Ronan(rf) 11.21.15 at 1:04 pm

IMO, the problem with calling for negotiation as the fallback solution to a conflict is that some conflicts cant be negotiated, at least in the short/medium term. Some groups cant be negotiated with (look at the neo cons pre Iraq). Negotiations generally occur after either both sides are war weary, or one has destroyed the effectiveness of the other, and so violence is a central part of the process of negotiation.
Whether or not multipolarity is more stable and peaceful than uni polarity is an empirical question, the answer to which is (afaik) probably not.
The problem isnt in ignoring the US role in Syria, but overstating it, and assuming a coherent and stable alignment of interests between the US and its Gulf allies. (Contra Roger G, I think, above, the US did in fact go against the wishes of its Gulf allies over Egypt, at least initially) There are also other actors in this war, (Hezbollah, Iran, Russia), who arent as easily subsumed into a US-centric version of events.
Having said that, I think the regional proxy war (though initially probably a consequence rather than cause of the conflict), is certainly playing a significant role in maintaining it.
The other problem, IMO, is adopting an overly rationalist/instrumental view of political violence, which is an understandble reaction to the view that violence is pathological, psychopathic or incoherent. Of course, under certain very broad definitions of rationality, pretty much all violence is ‘rational’ or instrumental. Violence generally serves a purpose. But as David said on a previous thread (and got some pushback for it) some of the reasoning behind that can be unsophisticated. A lot of political scientists appear to want to find coherency and sophistication in tactics and strategy, whereas the norm seems to be incoherence and lack of sophistication, and violence can be expressive, primarily revenge based, or based on poorly thought through acts to deter or instigate other acts of violence from your opponents.

To take a comparison, in the context of Northen Ireland, the violence that occured in the North and that which occured on the UK mainland. In the second (at least as the conflict progressed) the violence needed some degree of operational sophistication, and had concerns with maintaining domestic support bases, so the violence was purposely ‘limited’ and was more explicitly strategic.
What happened in France was more similar to the sectarianism of the early/mid 70s in NI, which was more driven from the bottom up, so was more sectarian, atavistic, and concerned with locally instrumental goals (you killed one of mine, Ill kill two of yours.) This served local purposes (revenge, detterence, in group rallying etc) but was much more difficult to contain and had far greater negative societal consequences. The problem with ISIS is that they represent this type of violence, violence that usually occurs during moments of state breakdown in ethnically divided countries, rather than the limited, controlled war between terrorist and intelligence agencies.
Hence the reasons this could turn out so badly. NI was contained in the 70s through massive militarisation and securitisation, and state agencies becoming involved in the paramilitaries war. If the sort of violence that occurred in Paris continues regularly enough, and manages to find some meaningful and significant domestic support base, then that could be much more explictly the solution used on the continent.


Ronan(rf) 11.21.15 at 1:20 pm

(at least that’s my understanding. I didnt mean that to sound so definitive)


Ronan(rf) 11.21.15 at 1:38 pm

This is worth reading, though (imo) slightly wrong on its emphasis.


Ronan(rf) 11.21.15 at 2:44 pm

Also worth reading (last I’ll post for a while)


LFC 11.21.15 at 7:07 pm

F Foundling 115
presenting the US as an uninvolved bystander and the Syrian war as just ‘happening’ naturally by itself is … funny. I suppose nowadays anything short of actual invasion counts as ‘non-involvement’ by US pundit standards.

I wasn’t presenting the U.S. as an uninvolved bystander. Don’t have time to say more just now, unfortunately.


LFC 11.21.15 at 7:17 pm

A lot of political scientists appear to want to find coherency and sophistication in tactics and strategy, whereas the norm seems to be incoherence and lack of sophistication

depends on the group, no? Viet Cong were pretty sophisticated, perhaps Algerian FLN or whatever their acronym was, also. But I don’t really know…


F. Foundling 11.21.15 at 7:19 pm

@Ronan(rf) 11.21.15 at 1:04 pm
>The problem isnt in ignoring the US role in Syria, but overstating it, and assuming a coherent and stable alignment of interests between the US and its Gulf allies.

On this, I’m sure all Western government spokespersons, pundits and mainstream media will eagerly concur (although frankly, I don’t encounter enough such ‘overstatement’ in Western public discourse to see how it could be much of ‘a problem’). Yet somehow, despite these protestations, I still think it’s clear that Iran and Hezbollah are regional opponents of the US, so curiously enough, what the regional allies are doing just somehow happens to be in excellent harmony with their hegemon’s strategic interests. I also find the notion that the actions of the regional allies are beyond US control or even influence laughable; and on top of it all, the US isn’t even *claiming* to disagree with these actions, but it pretty much supports them by openly siding with the rebels against the regime, even if it mostly leaves the job of actual material support to the allies.

>’There are also other actors in this war, (Hezbollah, Iran, Russia), who arent as easily subsumed into a US-centric version of events.’

I don’t see what’s difficult about it – they’re just reacting by trying to defend their ally/satellite, the Assad government, which the US and its allies/satellites are actively trying to topple by illegally supporting the rebels. To be sure, a transition to democracy in Syria is to be desired, but sponsoring rebels in a foreign country even against a dictator is not permissible under current international law, the rebels and the regimes that aid them are not predominantly democratic, a rebel victory in this case seems just as likely to result in genocide and/or a fundamentalist regime, the continuing process is making the country uninhabitable, and the sponsors don’t really seem to care about any of this. I’m sorry if that interpretation is ‘rather horrid’ as per LFC @84, but it also seems to be the one that fits in with the facts.


F. Foundling 11.21.15 at 7:21 pm

@Ze K 11.21.15 at 9:50 am

>Well, we’ve seen now what it looks like: the global capo immediately goes batshit crazy, completely out of control.

Not really, he is just doing his best to increase his power further. It’s natural to have conflict at the boundaries of an expanding (or contracting) empire, whereas the bulk is mostly in a state of a pax Romana/Americana/whatever. Similarly, the process of destruction of the old feudal lords in many countries was painful, but eventually this produced more efficient and advanced regimes of absolute monarchy. So, if one is OK with bosses and bullies as such, one could argue that the only regrettable fact is that our current top boss and bully is not powerful enough yet and hasn’t completely defeated his weaker rivals such as Russia, Iran and China, so we should help him to do that in order to hasten the advent of global peace and prosperity.

>It’d be better (imo, and, I believe this is also a commonly accepted view, outside the US) to have a system with (roughly) equally powerful regional bosses, providing some balance of regional interests; with global sit-downs for conflict resolutions, and so on. Multi-polar world, they call it. A world with multiple centers of power.

I’m sorry, but I don’t really see how several bosses/poles are substantially better than one, and how, say, being a slave (or, as you put it, ‘bitch’) of Russia is better for Ukraine or Poland than being a slave of America. Ditto for Vietnam, China and America and so on. The existence of several rivalling bosses may create some space for potential manoeuvring of certain smaller players between them, but that potential is very uncertain, unstable and temporary and is offset by a much greater instability and frequency of violent conflicts. In the end of the day, the stability of undisputed dominance by one boss will be much preferable. There’s a reason why pre-modern human societies have tended to stabilise in the form of despotic monarchies.

>And I don’t see what any of this has to do with being ‘leftie’, whatever that word may mean for you.

Well, let me formulate it like this: my being a leftist means that I have a strong preference for freedom and equality as opposed to hierarchy. This includes freedom and equality both between citizens of a nation and between nations within the international community. This freedom and equality is to be achieved through rules that apply to everyone and defend equally the interests of all, strong and weak, as opposed to a lawless ‘gangland’ situation where power and violence determine everything and the strong (‘bullies’) impose their will on the weak through violence, creating hierarchical relations (regardless of how many hierarchies there are). This means that I’m for international law, for the UN, against aggression and against US imperial authority over Latin American countries (the Monroe doctrine) as well as, say, Russian imperial authority over the neighbouring countries, or any other arbitrary authority exercised in international relations. I don’t think this is a very original position, indeed the current official international system presupposes it, but perhaps formulating it explicitly would be of help to someone who assumes everyone else to be an authoritarian imperialist (or, considering the natural implications of this gangster attitude for internal affairs, let’s just say fascist for short).


F. Foundling 11.21.15 at 7:22 pm

Done here.


Ronan(rf) 11.21.15 at 7:24 pm

Iran and Hezbollah are much more explicitly regional opponents of the Saudis et al, snd Obamas cooling of relations with Iran was against Saudi protests, so I think you’re overstating that.
The US was actually much less willing to arm the rebels than the gulf states (perhaps because they were doing the job for then, probably not) and the evidence seems to support the idea that Obama fought Clinton, the CIA et al when they were looking for greater involvement in the conflict


LFC 11.21.15 at 10:32 pm

So acc. to FF and Manta, instead of the rather limited and, although this may well be changing, to date largely marginal support the US has given the anti-Assad rebels, the US shd have done nothing. And this wd have brought the Syrian civil war to a more rapid end.

Here’s the problem w that: the alignments on the ground are so tangled I don’t think the US doing nothing wd have ended the civil war sooner. Nor can the US order Saudi and Qatar and Turkey to stop supplying aid to al-Nusra or whatever other anti-Assad forces they’ve been mainly aiding. I’ve got news for FF: that’s not the way patron-client, or ally-ally, relations work. The US does not dictate Saudi Arabian, Turkish or Qatari foreign policy. Influence, yes. Dictation, no.

The notion that the US is an all-powerful, supremely influential force that can control its allies’ every decision is ludicrous, it is bad analysis, and not supported by the facts.
So FF may be “done here” but his analysis is also “done” — it’s overdone, in fact.


LFC 11.21.15 at 10:45 pm

In late October, acc to Reuters, “the Democratic Forces of Syria, which joins together a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia and several Syrian Arab rebel groups,” launched an offensive against the Islamic State in a province in N.E. Syria.

Last I looked, ISIS was opposed to the Assad regime.

So this is how the US is degrading the Iranian-backed Hezbollah: it’s supporting an alliance in NE Syria that is fighting ISIS, which is an opponent of the Assad regime that Hezbollah is backing. In other words, every step the US takes to combat ISIS helps, at least indirectly, Hezbollah, b/c, ceteris paribus, the weaker ISIS is, the stronger Assad is, and the stronger Assad is, the stronger Hezbollah becomes by association.

I’m sure it’s yet more complicated, and geographical angles etc factor in. But I think I’ve sufficiently suggested why I don’t think the main aim of US policy now or in the recent past has been, in Manta’s words (or close paraphrase thereof), “to prolong the Syrian civil war so that Hezbollah and Iran will be weakened by having to spend resources to prop up Assad.” This just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me given the admittedly limited amount I know about the conflict. Every additional month the Syrian c.w. continues is not nec. a month that Hezbollah grows weaker. Cd be the reverse. One wd have to know a lot more about the present condition of Hezbollah than I daresay virtually anyone on this thread knows to make these kinds of assertions with any confidence.


LFC 11.21.15 at 10:51 pm

P.s. Not to mention the US is and has been running airstrikes against ISIS. Those airstrikes, by the same reasoning in the previous comment, redound at least indirectly to the benefit of Hezbollah and Iran, the two forces that US policy has supposedly (acc to Manta and FF) been designed to weaken.


js. 11.21.15 at 11:53 pm

Here’s a limited defense of the “do nothing” option—or rather, an attempt to explain what “do nothing” might mean, at least to some people. The thing is: if “do nothing” simply means do nothing with respect to the Syrian civil war, it’s obviously insane. But consider what the US does in the ME as a matter of course: it funds certain regimes, militarily and otherwise (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain), it finds opposition groups in other countries (Iran, perhaps Syria [i.e., prior to the civil war]), etc, etc. I mean, it’s got its hands in pretty deep anyway—and has had since long before ISIS was a kern of an idea in some gun toting madman’s imagination.

Now, if we were to imagine “do nothing” as the US not doing any of that, then we can at least ask whether the outcomes under that scenario would be on balance any worse than they are now. (I’d think not.) Now as a policy proposal, this is obviously a non-starter, and not only because it is quite literally a ‘no policy’ proposal. Still, in thinking about the overall effects of US involvement in the region, it might be a useful counterfactual.


Barry 11.22.15 at 12:04 am

reason: “Quite simply, you can’t ignore people who pop up in front of you and point a gun at you. ”

Yes. Now, what does that have to do with, say, most of the stuff that the US government has been doing? If anybody is ‘popping up and pointing a gun at’ people, it’s more likely to be us.


Ronan(rf) 11.22.15 at 12:10 am

Fwiw I absolutely agree with the “do nothing ” argument (at least as it comes to adding fuel to the fire ) and would love to see a “benevolent ” US hegemon. (Divorced from power politics and counterproductive interfering ). As a whole I think the US has a is has a significant amount of responsibility for the situation that now exists . I just tend to think (especially re Syria ) it can be overstated


LFC 11.22.15 at 1:02 am

js. @133
I think that’s a fair point. There’s a lot about US involvement in the region as a whole and over the decades that’s been bad, and it would be a useful counterfactual to posit no historical US involvement in the region or different policies (e.g., no support of any kind for any autocratic regimes, diff. relationship w Israel, etc. ).

My objection was specifically to Manta’s point, as I read it, that the US has been interested in prolonging the Syrian civil war as a way of weakening Iran and Hezbollah and that, if the US had not supported any of Assad’s opponents from the outset and had leaned on Saudi etc not to do so, the whole thing would be over, Assad wd have won, yes he wd have killed a lot of people but not (as someone suggested somewhere) so many as have now been killed, not to mention displaced.

This is not an argument that can be put in the ‘obviously false’ category, I just don’t find it — esp. the first part about deliberate prolongation of the war to weaken Iran and Hezbollah — esp. convincing. OTOH, I also don’t buy the now-the-US-and-Iran-are-de-facto-allies line, but that’s a separate point.


LFC 11.22.15 at 1:16 am

I also agree with many of the points in this post, and relevantly here the pt that the West’s actions are not the only thing that drives outcomes in the region.

Useful to remember how the Arab Spring started in 2011 — with the underemployed fruit vendor (iirc, an educated young man who cdn’t find a job to match his training) who set himself on fire in Tunisia. Now at some level one might blame neoliberalism and global capitalism for that, but it’s hard to link it to a specific U.S. foreign-policy action. So unless one is going to hold the U.S., and the West more generally, primarily or, more to the pt, *exclusively* responsible for social and economic injustice and turbulence everywhere in the world, it seems reasonable to think the M.E. wd have problems, stemming e.g. from local corruption and misfeasance of elites and autocratic regimes, even without any Western involvement.

That’s not to deny that U.S. involvement over the years on balance has made things worse — it almost certainly, in many respects, has — but rather to suggest that the problems of the region are a result of a complicated interplay of local, national, regional, and int’l forces. To which many might say “duh, of course, tell me something I don’t know,” but to judge from some comments upthread it’s not a perspective shared by everyone here.


Alex 11.22.15 at 2:56 am

LFC @137, are you joking? Ben Ali, the former dictator of Tunisia, was trained at US and French military academies(1), received substantial military aid(2) and modelled his autocratic rule on the USA PATRIOT Act(3).

(1) Ben Ali’s smooth rise to power in Tunisia contrasts with sudden decline, The Guardian

(2) Massive U.S. Military Aid to Tunisia despite human rights abuses, Asian Tribune

(3) The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects By Nouri Gana, p86


LFC 11.22.15 at 4:18 am

Wasn’t Ben Ali in power for many years? How could he have modeled his autocratic rule on the Patriot Act, which is post-9/11?

I don’t doubt there is a definite connection betw. Ben Ali’s getting military aid from the U.S. and his ability to stay in power for a long time, but do people who know a lot about Tunisia blame the economic conditions that triggered the 2011 uprising on Ben Ali’s ties to the U.S.?


Ronan(rf) 11.22.15 at 4:25 pm

Religious symbolism and ritual in isis killings:

“The rituals surrounding the murders have developed over time. As Yuval Neria and his co-authors pointed out in a 2005 article in the journal Religion (“The Al Qaeda 9/11 instructions: study in the construction of religious martyrdom”), the murders committed by the hijackers on 9/11 were conceived as acts of slaughter. Since the decapitation of Daniel Pearl such acts have become more stylized, formally developed and intended as public ritual. A state that claims religious authority is carrying them out.

Here at least we can see one aspect of these ritual murders that differs significantly from lynching given the religious background of the murderers. Patterson notes that trees play a significant role because Jesus was sacrificed on a wooden stake or cross. For American Christians therefore rituals engaging wood were culturally relevant and meaningful. Although the Qur’an mentions crucifixion as a punishment for certain crimes, the practice has little contemporary resonance in Islamic thought or practice.

What does have enormous religious significance for Muslims and Jews alike, however, is ritual slaughter as a form of sacrifice. For Muslims and Jews (unlike Christians), flesh is only acceptable as food if the animal has been slaughtered in an appropriate way: by rapidly slitting the throat. It is this particular form of slaughter that makes an animal ritually available for consumption. There are other rules: the head is not severed until the animal is dead; generally the animal should not see the knife; and the animal should not be aware that it is about to die. Lynching was an obscene parody of the sacrifice that Christians believe lies at the heart of their religion; the decapitations by the Islamic State are also a parody of the daily slaughter of animals for human consumption. Does it also address something at the heart of the religion as well? It does.”


js. 11.23.15 at 2:05 am

LFC @136 — I pretty much agree with all of that. My @133 was (a) probably not making a ton of contact with most other things going on in this thread, and (b) a rather belated response (if it can be called that) to @84 and some of the other stuff around there (cf. @93).


js. 11.23.15 at 2:09 am

[I] would love to see a “benevolent ” US hegemon

Wait, why? I definitely don’t want the US to be a “benevolent hegemon”—anymore than I want an “enlightened despot” ruling the US, even one that were truly “enlightened”. How about the US treating states in the ME (and elsewhere) as, normatively speaking, equals with each its own interests, etc. Surely that’s a superior option (given that we’re in ideal-land anyway).


js. 11.23.15 at 2:10 am

Ugh, blockquote fail. First para in @142 quotes Ronan @135.


Manta 11.23.15 at 11:38 am

LFC, the analysis about US interest in prolonging the Syrian civil war was from before ISIS invasion of Iraq.

With ISIS becoming too dangerous, the political calculation may have changed (and indeed USA strategy did change, since now it’s bombing them).

Anyhow, it is true that USA does not have full control of, say, Saudi Arabia foreign policy: but there is a big difference between 1) leaning on S.A. not to arm rebels, and 2) actually funneling money and weapons to rebels directly and via S.A. (and other allies).


Alex 11.23.15 at 3:03 pm

LFC @139:

I don’t doubt there is a definite connection betw. Ben Ali’s getting military aid from the U.S. and his ability to stay in power for a long time, but do people who know a lot about Tunisia blame the economic conditions that triggered the 2011 uprising on Ben Ali’s ties to the U.S.?

Well someone can rule for a long time but get worse over time. The argument about the Patriot Act would be that in the 1990s, there was no “Grand Enemy” which illiberal policies could be justified so easily against (at least, not justified to Western ears). However, post-2001, dictators can say (either to external observers or their own population) “Oh no, we’re not shutting down free speech/dissent! Those people we’ve locked up? They’re terrorists! We’re protecting our national security!”

As for the economic conditions, I’ve seen it argued that it takes a combination of factors – in the good times people had less reason to complain about his dictatorship if they had an okay standard of living. But once the economy worsened, there really was nothing to gain from Ben Ali being in power so it allowed revolt to occur – with the revolution being against his dictatorship, which specifically was US-backed. That said, one can easily make an argument that US policy led to the economic conditions themselves too. Not just your point about the US getting neoliberal reforms @137, but also the original weakening of the global economy occurred as a result of the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States.


Alex 11.23.15 at 3:04 pm

Whoops, I was trying to do a quote thing, then that failed :/ Please ignore the first paragraph of #146!


LFC 11.23.15 at 3:23 pm

ok, I see what you’re saying re the Patriot Act etc. now.


Stephen 11.23.15 at 4:31 pm

@OP: It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

I realise this is a late entry, but it’s a very rainy afternoon and I have no immediate deadlines to meet. I would suggest that JQ look at the following off-the-top-of-my head list and work out how many objectives, which I’ve put after the name of the war, etc., could in the circumstances have been resolved by peaceful negotiation.

1948: Indian invasion of Hyderabad: annexation of Hyderabad.
1948-49: Israeli war of independence: independent Israel.
1948-1960: Malayan emergency: British defeat of rebellion by Malayan Communist Party.
1953: suppression of workers’ revolt in GDR by Soviet forces: maintenance of Soviet control of GDR.
1953-59: Cuban revolt: replacement of Batista government by Castroite government.
1956: suppression of Hungarian revolt by Soviet forces: maintenance of Soviet control of Hungary.
1959: Chinese invasion of Tibet: suppression of Tibetan independence, Han Chinese colonization of Tibet.
1961: Indian invasion of Goa: annexation of Goa (with richest iron ore deposits in the subcontinent).
1962-1976: Dhofar rebellion: suppression of Soviet-backed DLF, and reform of Omani government.
1963-65: confrontation in Borneo of Indonesian forces by British: prevent Indonesian annexation.
1965-66: Indonesian army suppresses Indonesian communists: elimination of Indonesian Communists.
1966-7: Bolivian guerrilla war. Government objective: suppression of attempted revolt led by Che Guevara.
1968: suppression of Czechoslovak demands for more independence and democracy by Soviet and allied forces: suppression of independence and democracy.
1969-2007: British operations in Northern Ireland: prevent incorporation of NI into Irish Republic against the wishes of inhabitants.
1971: Bangladesh Liberation War: ejection of West Pakistan armed forces from East Pakistan, and protection of East Pakistan population from massacres.
1980-2011: Sendero Luminosa conflict in Peru: defeat of Sendero Luminosa attempts to introduce dictatorship of the proletariat.
1982: Falklands war: prevent Argentine annexation of Falklands against wishes of inhabitants.
1983-2014: war in Chad against Libyans, with French intervention: defeat of Libyan attempts to invade Chad.
1988-1984: Nagorny Karabagh war: to maintain NK as an Armenian enclave, independent of Azerbaijan.
1989: Tienanmen Square: Maintenance of power of Chinese Communist Party, and suppression of democracy.
1991-98: Algerian civil war: suppression of Islamist movements.
2012-13: French intervention in Mali war: remove Islamists from northern Mali.
2014: Crimean conflict: annex Crimea to Russia.


Stephen 11.23.15 at 4:37 pm

ps. If JQ meant to ask how many wars in which the USA was a prominent actor produced “an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation”, I would entirely agree the answer is “not many”. But that may say more about US foreign policy than about the nature of war.

Also: it would be a mistake to suppose I think all the wars, etc., in that list were justified. But I do think that in the medium term, which is the most one can usually hope for (permanent success and peace being very difficult) they did achieve their objectives.


Ronan(rf) 11.24.15 at 1:47 pm

Js, I meant in the world as it is now, not as I think it should be (would we need a benevolent power to maintain order in any realistic hypothetical global order? I would say yes, unless we managed to develop, internationally, comparable institutions to what we have domestically , but that would still rest on the enforcement of rules and maintanence of order by some entity – surely the state is out benevolent power?….. But , at the moment anywsy, I think power is more important to international politics (either the preservation or breakdown of order) than the structures favoured by liberal internationalists. So if the US was actually the imagined , neutral, fair minded global policeman, standing above the fray, it’d be something

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