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Thursday, October 19, 2023

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

America remains in a state of geopolitical denial. Peace is possible, it claims, within a commonwealth of understanding, respectful nations joined in democracy, liberalism, and an ethos of diversity and inclusivity.  History's lessons of imperialism, nationalism, and cultural determinism are things of the past. A new age of compassionate sharing of interests is upon us. 

Nothing of course could be farther from the truth.  The Twentieth Century was as violent if not more so than any that preceded it; and the Twenty-First has begun with frightening geopolitical threats.  The idealism of America is countered by the implacable hegemonic desires of Russia, China, and Iran - all of which intend to restore their countries to the greatness of their former empires. 

Since WWII America has consistently put brakes on victory - civilians and their hearts and minds have been factored into conflict.  Wars are not worth winning if too many people die.  Other nations have no such compunctions and have never had.  Wars are for winning, nationalism is the most valid expression of cultural pride and determination, and all calculations are made on these principles. 

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 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 the people's hearts and minds - a policy that led to years of violent civil war and American deaths.  The abrupt pull out of American troops from Afghanistan rather than staying the course against a radical, destabilizing Islamic terrorist regime, has ensured long-lasting insurrection and misrule in the region. 

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 before war is undertaken: 1)  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; 2) what are the chances of victory; and 3) what are the consequences of military action? 

If these questions are answered satisfactorily, then total war, complete victory, and post-war dominance should be the goal.  America's hesitancy, based on idealistic notions of compassion, peace, and compromise, will always predict defeat before history's Machiavellians.  There is no give to Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Kim, or the Ayatollahs.  They have never vacillated when it has come to a validation of their imperial history or their hegemonic designs.  And there is no room in their geopolitical ambitions for compassion, consideration, or morality. 

The current war between Israel and Hamas most definitely meets  all three criteria and the war between Ukraine and Russia with the United States as proxy most certainly does not.  Defending Israel against an implacably anti-Jewish terrorist state which has publicly avowed to destroy is to support the only firm US ally in a turbulent, anti-democratic, hostile, unpredictable region with oil. 


Defending Ukraine does not.  It is a matter of principle - an attack on the sovereignty of a democratic state cannot stand - and has no rational geopolitical basis in realpolitik. There is no evidence that Russia, if left alone, will expand its military aggression to the Baltics.  A Domino Theory for Eastern Europe is as politically-fueled and baseless as it was for Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War period. 

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.

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, his de facto assimilation of Eastern Ukraine, and his current attack on the Kyiv regime have been 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, although off the front pages, 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, his authoritarianism and absolute commitment to power will most definitely be a factor in the inevitable wider Middle East war.    

ISIS was a formidable enemy because it had clear goals, a military and political strategy, and absolute will and commitment to win.  Morality had no role to play in the conflict since the end – the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate – was absolutely good.  The United States for whom the means have always been as important as the ends, was uncertain.  Hamas and Hezbollah are clones of ISIS - defiantly implacable and deeply committed enemies for whom Islamic nationalism and the destruction of Israel are their singular, unshakeable objectives. 

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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