Toward a National Strategy to Cope With a New World: Part 2

News Abroad

William R. Polk was a professor of history at the University of Chicago. During the Kennedy and part of the Johnson administrations, he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Among his books is "Understanding Iraq," "Violent Politics" and "Understanding Iran." This is the second of a two-part series. Click here for Part 1.

The USS America Amphibious assault ship, launched in 2012.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam have proclaimed that humankind faces the ultimate fate of either eternal torment in Hell or everlasting bliss in Heaven, but they differ both in their descriptions of bliss and torment and on the reasons why individuals go to one or the other.  So it has been also with philosophers pondering our Earthy lives.  Like theologians, statesmen, strategists and philosophers have pondered and argued about the actions that impel us toward war or peace.  Also, like theologians, they have differed from the earliest times on the routes leading to each.

I won’t recapitulate those arguments.[1]   Rather, I will focus on how we can begin to think through the elements that must define a strategy to deal with the most dangerous and pressing issues of our times. 

Most of the contemporary writings on strategy I have read resemble doctors’ prescriptions – take this pill, do that action, and if it does not work try another or the same again.  Reading such often unproductive advise, I have been reminded of a parable attributed to our wise old philosopher Benjamin Franklin.  It goes like this:

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,

For the want of a horse the rider was lost,

For the want of a rider the battle was lost,

For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

On policy, Franklin’s “horseshoe-nail” is “understanding.”  Without careful thought, leading to understanding, we leap from one fire into the next, and as we get burned, we retreat only to try the same prescription when we rush into the next crisis.

So I stress that rather than just advocating one or another action on a particular crisis, we need first to go back to basics.  We need to reexamine who we are, what we can do and what we cannot do, what we really need and how much we are willing to do to achieve our objectives, what the dangers are in not achieving them and what the dangers are in pressing too hard to achieve them.  Then I will outline the elements of a strategy to move toward peace and security.  I begin with some observations on the parameters of our nature, our skills and our culture.  The question underlying everything we do or seek to do in foreign affairs is:  who or what are “we”?

1:  Fundamental Human Traits

History – and indeed what we know of prehistory all the way back to our animal background – shows us that getting along even with close kindred has always been a temporary arrangement.  Groups of social animals and primitive mankind were always small.  Societies were partially defined by the resources they could access with their technology; when they grew too numerous or developed hostilities toward one another, they split into separate bands and moved apart.  Then, they soon came to regard one another as alien. In this way our planet was settled. 

When we begin to have rudimentary records, as in Archaic Greece around 1000 BC, we can document this process.  The Greek cities spawned colonies throughout the Mediterranean.  That process was already common in Africa and Asia far earlier.  Linguistically and genetically, we can track the vast spread of Dravidian, Indo-European, Semitic and Turkic peoples from thousands of years before. 

The process of continuous alienation has shaped the world in which today we must live:  clans gave rise to tribes; then to cultural and ethnic groups that coalesced into town and cities and in recent centuries merged into nations, of which in our times many have been hammered into states.    

However much we try, as indeed we must if we are to survive, to assert our common humanity, we find that it is a far more abstract concept than difference and the stimulus to achieve consensus in the human race is weaker than our determination to protect our individual group.  Depending on circumstances, this determination manifests itself in fleeing or fighting.  Underlying both is the sense of difference. Becoming alien is the underlying theme of our experience.  To deny this is unrealistic; to succumb to it may be fatal.  So how can we begin to think through this paradox?  I argue that we must begin by understanding what motivates us.

History teaches us that there are several traits or propensities that, under different labels, can be found in all societies, cultures and regimes, everywhere and in all eras.  Formed over millions of years, they are what distinguish us as human beings.  Jung called them our “collective unconscious.”  That is, they are virtually “hard wired” into our brains and are largely impervious to our conscious thought.  We neglect them at our peril.

The first trait or propensity is the imperative  to struggle against the perception of attacks on what Freud called our Ego.  By Ego he meant the core of the person’s psychological existence.  Protecting it is the ultimate form of self-defense.  

Long before Freud gave it a name, the British had found a way to use Ego in one of the few successful programs of counterinsurgency ever put into effect.  Having finally defeated the Scots at the Battle of Colloden in 1745 and the first of the Indian states in the Battle of Plassey in 1773, the British catered to and even enhanced the sense of dignity of the defeated.  They invented a tradition, manifested in the Scottish tartans and the uniforms they gave to the Indian “martial races,” converting them from defeated enemies into proud upholders of their empire.[2]  They later dressed the bedouins of the Syrian desert in a distinctive uniform and sharpening their sense of pride.  Instead of defeated enemies, they became Britain’s Desert Legion.

What the British hit upon was the insight that unless they are totally crushed --  and so depersonalized -- people are prepared to die resisting rather than to surrender their intrinsic being, their pride as human beings.  Defeated people have often accepted the theft of their physical assets, even their food and their shelter, but attacks on their “persona” or sense of dignity have nearly always provoked deep and abiding anger.  Indeed, even crushed, they or their progeny return to the struggle as the history of guerrilla wars amplifies.[3]

If this is so, how is it that so many peoples have so often submitted to tyranny?  Approached with this question in mind, history offers an answer.  While there is considerable variation both in the forms despotism takes and in the willingness of people to tolerate it, I see a pattern: when the difference in wealth, power and status between the weak and the strong appears to be narrow, resistance is often intense and continuous.  When the difference appears to be wide, resistance is usually only sporadic and mild.  Thus, the son can accept the authority of the father with less damage to his ego than the dominance of the brother.  So in the ancient world rulers referred to their overlords, the “kings of kings,” as fathers but to one another as brothers.  Serfs bowed to lords.  Weaker or more primitive ethnic groups or races accepted the rule of the better organized and more militant.  The poor served the rich.

It follows, I suggest, that because the gap between power and powerlessness has narrowed in our times, those peoples who have become relatively less weak have come to feel more acutely insults to their views of themselves.  Thus, actions that were once tolerated more often lead to conflict.  We can see this clearly in the process of decolonization and the end of imperialism in Africa and Asia.  People whose fathers and grandfathers submitted to foreign domination began to assert themselves in ways their ancestors rarely attempted.   Even where foreign rulers have replaced themselves with native “proxies,” the proxies are often hated and sometimes resisted.  Today, formerly subject peoples are in turmoil almost everywhere.

Despite lesson after lesson in Vietnam, Algeria, the Congo, South Africa, and many other conflicts, the strong have a harder time understanding this transformation than the weak.   A part of our troubles today is that we have not grasped this fundamental understanding.  Instead, we have become so addicted to the  elaborate pseudo-scientific politico-military studies poured out by our “think tanks” that we cannot see Franklin’s “horseshoe-nail.”

A second trait we can identify is mutability.  From the beginnings of our species, humans were experimenters.  They had to be.  Those who did not adapt did not survive.  Many of our “cousins” -- not just the Neanderthals --  hit dead ends.. Fortunately for us, our ancestors, the homo sapiens,  “evolved.”  Their adaptations – not all of which represented “progress” -- took place over tens of thousands of years.  Evolving became a trait of our species.  In our times, the pace of change has speeded astonishingly.  What was a dream – or a nightmare – barely a generation ago is today the norm.

Ability to change is of enormous importance to the way we relate to other societies and cultures: given time and opportunity, they (and we) can adjust.  In adjusting we tend to grow more alike.  “Convergence” was a “politically incorrect” term when broached in the 1950s and 1960s, but can anyone today avoid admitting its reality after visiting China, Vietnam or even Cambodia?

Clearly, however, convergence, evolution or adaptation do not happen in all circumstances. The retrograde and inward-seeking actions in the more extreme of the salafiyah[4] movements among Muslims show its limits.

Actions of the more extreme Muslims today are shocking, but what we are seeing is just the latest stage in a long sequence. Think of today’s Muslims in terms of our own history:  in Sixteenth century Europe, Catholics and Protestants regarded one another as agents of the Devil, rebelling against God.  As they fought one another, leaderships of each faction went to the most violent who led their adherents into genocidal wars abroad and domestically into vicious persecution of heretics.  Their actions were as brutal as anything we see today.  Yet, over time, and as wars became less continuous, people began to return to the chores of “daily life.”  They did not necessarily come to love one another, but they became less inclined to torture and kill one another.

How does this relate to our time?  What we see is that societies that believe themselves to be the most embattled are the less willing or able to change.  The more they feel themselves under attack, the more they turn inward and revert to what may be not an actual but an imagined past, in which they believe they were more secure.  Where our policy is to change them, we often fail.   Our failures have been spectacularly costly. 

But we have seen some “evolutionary successes.”  How can we explain what caused successes and failures?

The great simplifier  and story teller, Æsop,  offered an explanation.  In his fable of the argument between Sun and Storm over their relative power,  he tells us that they agreed on a contest:  which could force a man to change at least his clothing.   Storm came first.  He hurled gales against the man.  But the harder the wind raged, the tighter the man wrapped himself in his cloak.   Storm  failed.  Then, when Sun took over, he warmed the man.  Quickly, the man decided that in his own interest, he should take off the wrapper  that protected but also inhibited him.   The moral of the story is that the harder outsiders attack, the more the natives wrap themselves in their “cloaks.”  One of the Taliban leaders unknowingly translated Æsop for me when I asked him about the unattractive Afghan practice of segregation of women, saying "how can you expect us to reconsider our customs when we are under attack?"   Evolution can be delayed or stopped by threat or violence, but experience shows us that it happens naturally when not attacked by “Storm.”

Another common characteristic is intimacy in our attitude toward suffering and death.   Having been conditioned by the legacy of living generation after generation for millions of years in small communities of kinsmen, human beings even today relate intensely to a misfortune in the family, somewhat less intensely to the suffering or death of neighbors and hardly at all to mass exterminations of distant peoples.   

This is of evident importance in evaluating counterinsurgency.  A recently released CIA paper[5] evaluated “targeting operations.” For those who don’t read governmentalese,  “targeting operations” are what the Mafia calls “hits.” While asserting that assassinations may result in “eroding insurgent effectiveness,” the CIA admits that they may also result in “strengthening of an armed group’s bond with the population.”   

The CIA evaluation did not address the issue of “collateral damage,” but observers have often done so.  It appears that when families suffer the death of members, they are less likely to forgive and forget than to hate and retaliate on the attacker.   In the previous essay, I have cited evidence that drone attacks and Special Forces “targeting operations” in Afghanistan and Pakistan have resulted in an increase in attacks on American troops.  The “pacification” that counterinsurgency advocates claim is precisely what did not happen; rather anger intensified and desire for revenge grew.   Such activities are  not only self-defeating but also are self-propagating: strikes breed revenge which justify further strikes.  War becomes unending.

There is a separate aspect of intimacy in the attitude toward causing harm or death to others that affects the doer.  This is the ultimate “collateral damage” of warfare.  It endangers the whole society of the warring state.  While not often discussed, it is of literally vital importance to America, which today has nearly 22 million veterans.[6]  It must be understood.

The closer the victim and the perpetrator are, the more intense is the experience.   A pilot who can drop a napalm bomb on a village with little or no remorse would be appalled if he were ordered to pour napalm or phosphorous onto the body of  a nearby person.   So to avoid or lessen the psychological cost to soldiers, we attempt to increase the distance between them and those they maim or kill.  Among the methods are euphemisms (like “surgical strike”) and various mechanisms (notably the drone).  But these evasions do not protect the vast majority of combatants.  Mental health statistics among returning veterans indicate that subterfuges have not worked.   Even against armed and determined enemies, soldiers are often overwhelmed by remorse for their actions.  Against the defenseless, the damage is greater.  Their actions have corroded their sense of themselves as decent human beings.   In 2011, more than 1.3 million returning soldiers were receiving mental health treatment.[7]

The cost of this “ “collateral damage” has yet to be fully realized, but the increase in depression, anomie, inability to readjust, violence and suicide warn that it will be significant and long-lasting.  From the campaigns in Iraq, and just counting only those veterans who sought help from the Veterans Administration, nearly 1 in 6 had “affective psychosis;” 1 in 4, “depressive disorders;”  1 in 3, “post traumatic  stress disorder;” and  their suicide rate was double the national average  They total over one million.[8]

Separate from consideration of what soldiers are ordered or allowed to do in combat, the violation of the inhibition to harm or kill another person,  face-to-face,  is what makes torture so repugnant and, ultimately, so destructive of human values.

2:  Self Images and Images of the Other

In traditional societies, it does not appear that much attention was paid to the elaboration of a self-image.  Custom was assumed to be normal, right and proper.  This attitude is summed up in the Arabic expression, ma’ruf,  “that which is known.” What is done or thought is what should be done or thought.   This is an attitude almost everyone has now largely lost.  In our age of rapid change, people everywhere have become less sure about what is normal, right and proper.  Anxiety has made whole societies compensate by becoming more protective.  Our self-image becomes a shield to protect our Persona. We are often baffled – and indeed angered -- when we perceive that other people do not credit our self-image.

Look first at the image we Americans see in our mirror.  Our mirror, like the one in the fairy tale of Snow White, shows us “who is the fairest of all.”  We see ourselves.  We seek peace and well-being for all peoples; we help them with generous aid to uplift them from poverty; we rush to assuage their pains after wars and natural catastrophes, we “build” nations, topple tyrannies, spread democracy and uphold the rule of law.[9] 

If others do not see these virtues, they must be myopic, jealous or simply hateful.  To us, it is increasingly disturbing that numbers of other peoples apparently do not see the image we see in our mirror. 

Worse, we are aware that their numbers are increasing.  As I have pointed out elsewhere, when as a young man I traveled throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, I was everywhere warmly welcomed.  Today I would risk being shot – or perhaps have my head chopped off -- in many of the same places.  This is distressing for me personally and should be alarming for our nation. Ultimately, it may “blowback” against our national security.  We need realistically to examine it rather than pretending that it is simply wrong.  So what has happened?

Look back at earlier times.  We know that generous aid was given by Americans to peoples all over the world in the Nineteenth century.  Most of it came through Church groups, most successfully by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which founded schools and hospitals over much of Africa and Asia. The Commissioners hoped that what they did would cause the recipients to convert to Christianity.  Their activities were supplemented during the First World War by the government-funded but privately-administered Near East Relief Society.  Other non-governmental organizations followed and spread across Asia and Africa.  Notable among them was the Rockefeller Foundation in China.  

The aim of these groups, both religious and secular, was to share America’s good fortune; inevitably, however, their activities created what amounted to love for America and gratitude toward Americans. 

The effect on the American image abroad and on American foreign relations was dramatic:  when President Woodrow Wilson set about his “crusade” for a new world, he was greeted not as the head of a state but as a figure unknown in international affairs, a messiah.  People everywhere virtually worshipped him, but Americans themselves did not support what he was trying to achieve.  They withdrew into their domestic pursuits, first into the fun and frenzy of “Roaring Twenties” and then into the misery and anger of the Depression of the 1930s.  American concern for the world bottomed out.

The Second World War changed all that.  Americans realized that they could not withdraw from the world.  So, in one aspect of their new concern, Americans did what no other victor had ever done:  in the generous and far-sighted Marshall Plan they helped the defeated to rebuild.  

Of course, like the programs of the early missionaries, this action had an ulterior motive.  It aimed to save the Europeans, including defeated Germany, from Russian dominance and Communism.  Subsequent aid programs were sold to the American public by specifically proclaiming these aims.   In practical terms, each administration  including the two I served, realized that they could not get Congressional funding unless the funds were justified as part of our military security program.    Since the recipients understood our objectives, they took the aid we gave but were less grateful for it than their fathers and grandfathers had been for private aid.  Our self-image and other peoples’ perception of us began to diverge.

At least in part, the transformation of America’s image abroad was not unhealthy:  the idea that America was not a state but a humanitarian organization had created expectations that no government could fulfill.[10]  We like to emphasize the continuation of the positive role of non-governmental America but there was also a dark heritage: It was most obvious where America’s involvement abroad was governmental.  

We have tended to see our overseas ventures still as “the fairest of all.” But,  as they became more militaristic, the image became more blurred.  There were many small actions, particularly in Latin America, but consider here the first major overseas war, our 1899-1902 conquest of the Philippines.  What did we see in our “mirror?” What should we have seen?   What did others see?  What really happened?  It is worth pondering these questions because what happened in the Philippines was echoed in other wars down to the present day.  Consider these points:  

The Philippine campaign was America’s first large-scale imperialistic war, but, as we saw it, America started out to liberate the Philippines from the brutal, exploitive tyranny of the previous colonial power, Spain, against which the Filipinos had been struggling for independence.  We disavowed any selfish interest.  President William McKinley announced that American policy was Philippine independence and publicly proclaimed that “forcible annexation [like other imperialist nations were doing elsewhere would be] criminal aggression.” The Filipino insurgents were delighted and grateful.   So, when the American fleet defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila bay in 1898, they proclaimed a republic and  welcomed the incoming American troops as “redeemers.”

It was not long, however, before relations soured.  American officials on the spot regarded the Filipinos, as Rudyard Kipling memorably put it in explaining the “White Man’s Burden,” to be “Half-devil and half-child.” Did they deserve to be free?  Could they manage freedom? And, more concretely, who  was entitled to the fruits of victory?  Keeping the Philippines was tempting but was it “right?” 

McKinley sought guidance.  As he wrote, he  “went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance.”  God replied, he said, “…take them all.”  So he dropped America’s Filipino would-be friends and allies and worked out a deal with Spain.  He “bought” the Philippines for $20 million.

The provisional government was, of course, furious. The commander of the American troops warned that the majority of the people “will regard us with intense hatred…” He was right.  “Blowback” came when an American soldier killed a Filipino soldier.  That was the beginning of the Philippine “insurrection.” “Incident” followed terrorist attack following massacre.

How to “pacify” the country was the urgent question.  An answer had already been offered just

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