Lessons of the Foreign Policy Disasters of the Last Twenty Years

News Abroad
tags: Iraq, Afghanistan, William Polk



William Polk is the author of some 17 books on world affairs, including "The United States and the Arab World; The Elusive Peace, the Middle East in the Twentieth Century; Understanding Iraq; Out of Iraq" (with Senator George McGovern); "Understanding Iran; Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency and Terrorism; Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs" and numerous articles in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, Harpers, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Le Monde Diplomatique. 

     I have read with admiration Stephen Walt's essay on lessons we should have learned from events played out over  the last 2 decades. Not only does he ventilate  his subject with knowledge, humor and authority -- a rare combination -- but he highlights important truths.  Having detailed his five major issues, he asks what the reader thinks are his.  My answers follow: 

                  First, since arms used by the United States government and supplied to others figure so massively in activities around the world, understanding their impact should be at the top of our learning agenda. The impact is complex. Each needs to be understood separately and then in conjunction with the others.  Involved are at least the following  elements:  

                  a)  Arms without will:  Going back to the First World War we see examples of large and well-equipped armies falling apart because the soldiers were not motivated.  The Russian army was strong enough, massive enough and well enough armed to hold down a large part of the German army but when the motivation of nationalism was withdrawn, the soldiers just walked home.  In Vietnam, the army of the South was one of the largest, best supplied and best trained in the world but when faced by the smaller, less well armed but deeply motivated Viet Minh, it collapsed.  Iran under the Shah had one of the largest, most thoroughly trained and equipped forces in the world until it imploded.  The latest Iraqi army on which we spent years of effort and many billions of dollars similarly did  not face up to the much smaller, less well equipped but highly motivated Muslim Fundamentalists of the IS.  Whether or not "clothes make the man,"  arms do not armies make. 

                  b)  Availability of arms:    arms in adequate quantities and with lethal effect can be acquired by almost anyone.  The Mau Mau made their own guns from water pipes, door bolts and springs; the Filipinos hacked down American soldiers with the bolo machete which was their tool to cut sugar cane; the Vietnamese planted sharp stakes on paths to pierce the feet of patrols and set up trip wires tied to explosives; tribesmen in the Nineteenth century on the "Northwest Frontier" made booby-traps out of captured shells and their Taliban grandchildren refined them into "IEDs."  What they did not make themselves insurgents often acquired from their enemies by theft or purchase.  Tito's Partisans were well supplied by the Italian army and more recently the Viet Minh treated the American supplied South Vietnamese army  as its very own Home Depot.  

                  c)  Impact on societies: supplying arms often causes weakness and distortion rather than strength and cohesion in societies which are either fragile or without compensating institutions.  We have seen this time after time in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia and Africa.  Army coup follows coup so that no government ever becomes firmly established.  The next head of state is the most eager commander of armored cars or tanks nearest the capital and its radio station.  Worse, he may not even come to town or become titular president.  Often he just stays put and bleeds his district.  Since he knows his opportunity, if not his power, won't last forever, he steals and then sells everything he touches, sending his money to some relatively safe haven.  Afghanistan offers a current example with the proliferation of warlords and corruption. 

                  d) Impact on status quo governments.  Even when conditions are peaceful and the army is not engaged in combat, its growth in power and mobility creates distortions which often make the growth of  balancing institutions  impossible.  Iraq in the 1930s offers a convenient example.  The army so overshadowed the political system that other civic institutions failed to take root..   And, 

                  e)  Impact on our society and economy.  Our emphasis on the military component of American foreign relations has contributed massively and detrimentally, as President Dwight Eisenhower warned,  to the growth of the Military-Industrial Complex.  And what he, with his own military background foresaw, has been multiplied by the actions of the arms merchants to further their own interests.  So they have lobbied, importuned, bribed and marketed to create the Military-Industrial-Congress Complex. Thus, the arms supply policy has created a source for or encouraged the growth of corruption as pernicious  in America as it is in some of the underdeveloped parts of the world.   Indeed, the arms industries have gone further to create a system of supply upon which small businesses and labor rely in virtually every district of the United States, thus reshaping the whole economic, social and political system to fit their interests.

                  Second, vulnerability.  Achilles was lucky.  He had to worry only about his heel.  Proportionately, we are even bigger and stronger, but our whole corpus is vulnerable.  Indeed, as in judo, our very size and strength can be used against us.  The attack on us by al-Qaida cost Bin Ladin and his followers a few lives and perhaps $100,000.  It was our strengths that they employed -- our training and our aircraft -- and our huge and vulnerable targets hey could hit.  With our means they cost us thousands of lives and perhaps a trillion dollars.  Those were the immediate costs.  The costs to our way of life, our national ethos and our social trust were far higher.  They convinced us to virtually reshape America into a security state, a transformation that did not add to our power or security but one that subverted the very strengths we had so long held to be the very essence of our great "experiment" (as our Founding Fathers thought of it) in living together with reasonable mutual respect and tranquility.  In short, they forced us to give up the essence of our strength for the form.  Arguably, this distortion was the "war" in which the attack on the Trade Center was just the opening battle.  

                  Third, as Stephen Walt cogently argues, "great powers still matter.  A lot,"  but their relationship to small powers has changed.  No one worried that the "Fuzzy Wuzzy," the Arabian bedouin, the Afridis, the Algerians, the Çeçens or the Zulu might blow up Parliament, tip over the Eifel Tower, bring down the World Trade Center or destroy the Kremlin.  Combatting them was on their territory and was more police action than full-scale war.                  

Those peoples had generally not been "politicized."  Or, more accurately, they had not been amalgamated into states.  Their defensive actions were often bitterly carried out but always were both small scale and undercut by internal hostilities.  Some factions or neighbors were always ready to help the invader against the others.  Indeed, each tribe, sect or territorial group often regarded fellow "natives" as more foreign and more to be hated and feared than the real foreigners.  Going way back, the record shows that army with which Caesar conquered Gaul was mainly "French;"  the Ottomans relied on formerly Christian Balkans-born Janissaries to maintain their empire;  Britain conquered India with Indian troops.  Sepoys, Janissaries, Sepahis,  Zouawes, Filipino Scouts, Askaris, Zwertesh  and others ruled Afro-Asia for the European imperial powers. 

                  Colonial liberation movements had to fight as hard against  break-away factions abetting the foreigners or subverting the native movement as against the imperialists. Seeking unity among themselves was nearly always their priority.  The propensity to split, to compromise or even to assist the opponent has been perhaps the most striking feature of the Palestinian Liberation movement.   "Making  one's peace" or giving in to threat, blackmail or bribery is the modern adaptation of the use of native troops.   One aspect of the policy of horror employed by the Islamic Fundamentalist movement, as they have spelled out in their own documents (and I described in an earlier essay) is a sort of ethnic/religious purge.  In addition to terrifying their opponents, the IS leaders want to make compromise impossible or at least very difficult for their adherents.  That is, as I interpret it, they are trying to create in non-state societies the attributes of cohesiveness that mark the nation-state. 

                  Fourth, as heirs to European history, we emphasize the nation-state as the primary focus of both foreign and domestic relations  The nation-state has many powerful and some beneficial attributes.  Where it is established, it is certainly as Walt says better than no state.  However, it does not exist everywhere.  So we should have learned to differentiate between "state" and "society." Let me dilate that statement. 

                  a) Where and when states exist. We sometimes forget that the state is a relatively new form of organization and its creation was often bitterly opposed as a form of tyranny.  Hobbes embraced the concept in England not because it was good but because he found anarchy to be worse.  The French revolutionaries adopted it as a means to energize  their people and so project their power.   The founders of our republic were evidently afraid of statehood. We see in the Constitution that they were keen to prevent the United States (plural) from becoming a unitary state.  For them, the United States are, not is. as we say today.    Today's nearly unitary state was not firmly established until after the Civil War.  Few states in today's sense existed anywhere before that time.  Empires like Hapsburg Austria, Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India were collections of quasi-independent principalities.  It took all the forcefulness of Bismarck and the diplomacy of Cavour wars to unify Germany and Italy.  

                  b) Where states do not exist.  In much of the "third world" peoples have organized themselves not in states but in various kinds of societies which derive their legitimacy from real or fictitious kinship,  neighborhood or religious belief.  For their purposes, at least before the advent of imperialism or colonialism, they regarded this form of relationship as sufficient.  In fact, in the more distant past our ancestors did too.  Our societies until relatively recently were like theirs today.  But in the demands of the modern world we (uniformly) and they (partially) do not believe them to be sufficient.  

               c) We have taken upon ourselves the task of "Nation Building."  Many examples come to mind, but take only the case of Iraq.  When the British split the three pashaliks (provinces) of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra off from the Ottoman empire, they formed them into the state of Iraq.  They termed what they created a "mandate,"  meaning that it was only a proto-state, the formation of which they were to complete while they prepared its people and institutions for independence. 

                  As a part of this process, they duplicated at least in letter the recent experience of England:  they created a parliament, formed ministries, embodied an army and wrote a constitution.   None of these constructs arose from within "Iraqi" society.  Each was a European model imposed upon the society.  The constitution was the perfect example:  it embodied the best provisions of the world's charters.  As a document, it was certainly laudable, but it had no relationship or grounding in the way of life of those it sought to guide.  Not surprisingly, it had little or no effect and was put aside in coup after coup.  To come up to the recent times on which Walt focuses, the final act was, astonishingly, the writing of a new constitution under the American occupation government. It also was full of provisions for civil rights, freedom and democracy.   No more than the others did it "take."   As a document it was exemplary; as a blueprint for politics it was simply irrelevant.  

              d) Institutions share a characteristic of flowers: where they are not native, they usually will not bloom when transplanted.  We see the truth of this statement throughout Afro-Asia.  Often, the foreign implants are neglected or allowed to wither; sometimes, worse, they create covers for new abuses.  How often is a military despotism designated as a republic?  Or a corrupt tyrant, a president? Or a den of thieves a parliament.?  Or a law court the outer office of a dungeon?  A change of names can itself be one of the obstacles to liberation.  And it redounds to our disfavor in three ways: 

                  The first is that it cheapens the very principles which we believe we represent.  "Democracy" is not so ringing a cry today as it was fifty or so years ago.  Increasing numbers of people regard democracy as a code word for foreign domination or imperialism.  The second is that since we can never know enough about other cultures to deal with all the nuances that have developed over many generations, we are nearly blind without the help of those who are willing to work with us.   Often they have very aims that are very different from those we proclaim.  The third is that we try to go it alone.    Going it alone has rarely been a successful strategy.    The idea that we can remake whole societies in our image is the perfect example of hubris and the act of forcing other societies into our mold is one of the major causes of the hostility now encountered by Americans abroad. 

                  Fifth, being uninterested in and ignorant of the experience and motivations of others.  Despite our rich and varied backgrounds as Italian-Americans, German-Americans, Mexican-Americans and others and our almost continuous involvement with foreign nations and states for at least two centuries --  including hundreds of military interventions in other countries -- we remain appallingly ignorant about the world just beyond our coasts.  We can see proof of this both in in Afro-Asia and in Europe.  It is also borne out in frequent polls and studies.  Even obviously intelligent men nominated to represent the United States in other countries often do not know where they are or what language is spoken there. 

                  Nor do many of us know or care about the experiences of other peoples.  This is most sensitive in Afro-Asia which is composed of societies and states that have only partially emerged from a century or more of imperialism and colonialism.  Nearly everywhere this experience was brutal; everywhere it was degrading.  It has left scars and deformities that still affect this generation.  Without knowing about them, we literally do not speak the language of many of the people with whom we need to coexist. 

                  Instead of trying to understand them, even if we profoundly disagree with them, we often react angrily when faced with failures in our efforts: "why can't these people shape up to the modern (our) world?"  " We are just  trying  to help them, but they won't do what we tell them to do!"  " If only they would do as we say! "  How many times have I hear variations on these themes. It is not so much a matter of the "clash of civilizations,"  as Sam Huntington posited,  although there is obvious diversity among not two but a variety of ways of life, as a difference in historical experiences. The Afro-Asian and at least parts of the Latin and European worlds are  "post-imperialism"  with all that means,  and ours is not.  

                  We may regret this fact but we should understand it.  Some Americans are still fighting the Civil War after a century and a half.  The memory of weakness, humiliation and foreign rule is much more alive in Afro-Asia just half a century after the pro forma coming of independence.  In many areas, no viable or acceptable replacements for imperial rule or colonial organization have yet "taken."   And, because of old wounds, many of which have been repeatedly reopened -- often by us -- what we see as beneficial or even necessary can be seen locally as detrimental or even impossible. 

                  So, for example, we hear the current Iraqi minister of defense telling graduating  army cadets: that “the Iraqi government will not allow ground coalition forces to enter Iraq in order to participate in the war on terrorism.”  To us, this is ridiculous:  Iraq needs our help to survive.  And since its survival is thought to be necessary for our national interests,  if Iraq does not accept our help,  we will help anyway.  But foreign help is what many Iraqis see as a reversion to Western imperialism.  For the Iraqi minister to have spoken in favor of it would certainly branded him as a traitor precisely to the young men who may in the future mount a coup and or perhaps shoot him.  At minimum, it would have undermined still further the legitimacy of his regime. 

                  In an earlier essay, I referred to some of our experiences on the matters I have here listed as "no end of a lesson -- unlearned."                   

                  Finally,  on  what Professor Walt calls "take it or leave it diplomacy,"  I add a personal experience: 

                  On the first day  of the 1967 Middle Eastern war, I was recalled to the White House to act as the political adviser to McGeorge Bundy whom Lyndon Johnson had recalled to be his guide. My task was to write a ceasefire agreement and a peace treaty.  Drawing on many discussions with the Israeli, Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian governments, I set out what I thought were the points on which they could agree and the manner and timing of negotiation.  Since I had been thinking about them for months as the crisis developed, it did not take me long to produce a draft.  And it did not take much longer for it to be rejected.  President Johnson told Bundy that Egypt could not be a party the agreement.  It would have to just accept what America decided.   Not surprisingly, the war continued.  A lot more people got killed.  Even the victors, the Israelis, later realized that Johnson's rejection of diplomacy had not been wise. 



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