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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Welcome End Of Morality In Geopolitics –Machiavelli, Realpolitik, And The Rise Of Nationalism

Most people agree that the war in Iraq was a mistake, but they do not agree on why.  There are those who argue that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who oppressed his people, lived lavishly, and represented a moral threat to the principles of enlightened democracy.  Deposing him would be a clear statement to the world that America was willing and eager to act on its principles and to show the world that it was still a bright, shining City on a Hill and a beacon to those who suffer under authoritarian regimes.

Others agree that while that might have been true, the war was badly botched.  American strategic planners overestimated the expected outpouring of friendship for the US liberators, entirely misread the ethnic rivalries in the region, and instead of occupying the country to quell civil disorder and incipient political unrest, it chose to win over the people’s hearts and minds.

It is hard to imagine how the United States could have missed the point so badly.  If the experience of Yugoslavia wasn’t enough to show that ethnic hostilities fester under dictatorship and never go away, then the painful lessons of the war in Vietnam – programs of hearts and minds do not work, especially when the enemy has few compunctions about civilian casualties and no tolerance for collaborators – should. 

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Nor did the US learn the lessons of WWII when occupation of both Germany and Japan was necessary not only to control remaining restive elements, but to assure a long-term program of renewal and recovery.

Still others contend that the war itself was entirely unnecessary.  The real enemy was radical Islam and men like Saddam Hussein and Bashir al-Assad, Omar Qaddafi, and the generals of Egypt were stalwart if brutal forces against it.  

These last critics understood more than any others why wars should or should not be fought.  They, advocates and exponents of Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger, were convinced that nations should go to war if – and only if – distinct, clear, unmistakable national interests are at stake.  Such interests, the contend, should not be the defense of moral principles.  American exceptionalism – the ultimate rightness of liberal democracy and capitalism – has no place in the war rooms of the Pentagon.  Toppling dictators for the same of promoting civic enlightenment should never be an option. 

There are only three questions to be asked.  Is there  a legitimate, real, and present danger to the United States.  That is, is there a likelihood that the country might be attacked, its foreign assets seized, its expatriate citizens harmed, its allies menaced, or its sphere of geopolitical and economic interests threatened; what are the chances of victory; and what are the consequences of military action?

The war in Vietnam was fought for the wrong reasons. Both American presidents and their military advisors entered the conflict for moral reasons. instead of objectively determining whether or not there was an actual, imminent, and real threat to American interests.   Communism was by nature bad, they reasoned, and no good could ever come from it.  Ipse facto any means to stop its advance was justified.  They ignored Vietnamese nationalism and the country’s historical struggle against Chinese hegemony and French colonialism, mistook such principles for ideological politics. 

To compound their error, US planners misjudged North Vietnam’s ability and will to fight, the canniness and brilliance of their leadership, and the venal corrupt nature of the South.   Not only did the US invade Vietnam for the wrong reasons (like Iraq), it did a bad job of it once they were there.

The United States lost the war in Vietnam for many reasons, but the erosion of political will was at the heart of defeat.  After a while, the country had had enough.  The enemy sensed this loss of will and commitment and the Tet Offensive was a giant political, if not military coup.   Either don’t go to war, pull out quickly if you realize you have made a mistake, and push on to total victory if your sunken human and materiel costs are too high for any retreat.

Advocates of Machiavellian realpolitik understand that errors in judgment will always be made; and that even the most objective, logical, and rational analysis will necessarily have holes, unintended bits, and miscalculations.  If this is the case, they say, fight even harder for victory.  History is written by the victors, and what might have been a dubious adventure, if won may look like genius.

Even more importantly, American victory – right or wrong – will always send the right lessons.  America is willing and ready to act, to commit to absolute and total victory, and to take no prisoners.
Harry Truman has been criticized for dropping the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Japan was already a defeated nation, ready to capitulate; so the devastation wreaked by nuclear war was not justified, even if it would shorten the war. 

This argument missed the point.  The United States, it has been reasonably alleged, dropped the bomb not so much on Japan as it did on the Soviet Union.  Truman knew that the Soviets were developing a nuclear capability, and he wanted to show them that there was only one player on the block.
Total victory has its ancillary benefits.

General William Tecumseh Sherman was another believer in total victory.  His scorched earth march through Georgia and especially South Carolina was meant to send a message to the South – you will never, ever do this again.

Israel understands very well the lessons of Sherman and Machiavelli.   Israelis have no compunction whatsoever using overwhelming force against its enemies regardless of civilian casualties.   Israel must be defended at all costs.  The nation and the Jewish people are at stake.

Vladimir Putin is another canny player in the game of realpolitik.  His annexation of Crimea and his de facto assimilation of Eastern Ukraine was done for specific national interests.  Putin has since he took power made it clear that he wants to expand Russian hegemony where ever he can, root out anti-Russian, Islamic enclaves throughout the Republic, build a powerful military, develop alliances which are based solely on national interests, and reject America’s lame attempts to make it see its exceptional light.

Bashir al-Assad is a formidable opponent because he has only victory in his sights.  The fate of hundreds of thousands of Syrians means nothing, and he intends to remain in power at all costs.  Russia and his other allies realize that although is goal might be self-serving preservation, he does stand against a common enemy – Islamic radicalism.   The United States, still bound by moral concerns, dithers.

ISIS is the most formidable enemy of all because it has clear goals, a military and political strategy, and absolute will and commitment to win.  Morality has no role to play in the conflict since the end – the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate – is absolutely good.  The United States for whom the means have always been as important as the ends, is befuddled.

North Korea and Iran are not rogue states but powerful ones run by smart, canny rulers.  Kim Jong-Un is not crazy at all, and neither are the ayatollahs.

The United States and to a lesser degree Western Europe are becoming marginalized because of their arriere-garde thinking.  The world has become less enamored with American-style democracy.   The West invented the concept of the nation-state, argued Vladimir Putin.  It has no meaning for Russia.  Muslim minorities in France want nothing to do with liberté, égalité, fraternité and French secularism, and reject European, Christian civil codes.  Secular separatism is common – Brexit, Scotland, Quebec, Catalonia, and other jurisdictions are re-thinking heterogeneity – and traditionally tolerant states are changing their minds about ethnic pluralism.

It is time, then, for the United States to join the 21st century, jettison any vestiges of American exceptionalism, adopt a Machiavellian policy of realpolitik, return to the no-holds-barred victory mentality of Truman, learn from Putin, analyze authoritarianism through many lenses, and take a lesson from history.  Victory, not deliberation, is the operational principle.

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