U.S. policymakers and pundits proclaim that America’s role in the world is all for the good. But more objective observers see a pattern of clumsy and brutal interference that can touch off cascades of chaos and death, as ex-State Department official William R. Polk describes.
By William R. Polk
As we have seen in recent crises — Somalia, Mali, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Iran — “practical” men of affairs want quick answers: they say, in effect, “don’t bother us with talk about how we got here; this is where we are; so what do we do now?” The result, predictably, is a sort of nervous tick in the body politic: we lurch from one emergency to the next in an unending sequence.
This is not new. We all have heard the quip: “ready, fire, aim.” In fact, those words were not just a joke. For centuries after infantry soldiers were given the rifle, they were ordered not to take the time to aim; rather, they were instructed just to point in the general direction of the enemy and fire. Their commanders believed that it was the mass impact, the “broadside,” that won the day.
In a sense, our modern leaders still believe it. They think that our “shock and awe,” our marvelous technology measured in stealth bombers, drones, all-knowing intelligence, our massed and highly mobile troops and our money constitute a devastating broadside. All we have to do is to point in the right direction and shoot.
So we shoot and then shoot again and again. We win each battle, but the battles keep happening. And to our chagrin, we don’t seem to be winning the wars. By almost any criterion, we are less “victorious” today than half a century ago.
Professionally, I find it disturbing to keep repeating such simple observations. Like some of my State Department colleagues, I had hoped that the “lesson” of Vietnam would have been learned (that one should think a problem through before plunging into warfare). But the lesson was not learned.
Indeed, the guru of the neoconservatives, Sam Huntington, memorably proclaimed that there was no lesson that could be drawn from Vietnam. He led the way in that refusal to learn, but today he has many acolytes. Despite the Iraq War and other disasters, they are still acting as guides of our government and the media.
So what do these people tell us? Like Huntington they say that we have nothing to learn from the expenditure of our blood, sweat and tears — not to quibble about the trillions of dollars.
As each crisis explodes, our guides tell us that it is unique, has no usefully analyzed background, is not to be seen in a sequence of events and decisions. It just is. So it requires immediate action of the kind we know how to take — a broadside.
Also never-mind what motivates the “other-side.” What they think might be of interest to ivory-tower historians or a few curious members of the chattering class, but in the real world they do not command attention. Real men just act!
The Somalia Case
Examples abound. Take Somalia: those wretched people are just a bunch of terrorists living in a failed state — the pirates of the modern world. Simple. We knew what to do about them! That “appreciation,” as they say in the intelligence trade, was reached some years ago, and we are still doing “our thing.”
As a few of us pointed out, “our thing” did not stop out-of-work, hungry and able men from doing “their thing.” When fishermen found their fishing sites virtually destroyed by industrial-scale fleets, armed with sonar, radar and mile-long drag nets – in other words, when Somali fishermen were unable to catch fish and faced starvation – they discovered piracy.
Since they already had boats, were good sailors and were near a major cargo-shipping lane, transition to that new trade was easy. But we knew the answer: military force. However, we have seen that sending the Navy is expensive and it did not stop desperate men. No one considered stopping the overfishing before the fishermen turned to piracy.
Also, in Somalia, we smugly talk about a “failed state.” But, as the Somalis see themselves, they are not a state at all; rather, they are a collection of separate societies living under a shared cultural-religious system. That, in fact, is how all our ancestors lived until the nation-state system evolved in Europe.
Now most of us find it almost inconceivable that the Somalis do not adopt our system. Why are they so backward? If they would just shape up, piracy would end and peace would come. So we try to attach our institutions to their social organization. However, when the Somalis stubbornly try to retain their system, we try our best to modernize, reform, subvert or destroy it. We are still trying each of these or all of them together.
Variations on the Somali theme can be witnessed around the world as we jump from one crisis to the next. We prove to be good tacticians but not strategists, shooters but not aimers, and, above all, loud talkers but poor listeners.
In Syria also we see exemplified our penchant to rely on force, for leaping before we look. From almost the first days that it emerged from under an oppressive French rule (that included artillery barrages on its capital), we have been engaged in subversive actions designed to overthrow its inexperienced leaders and the fragile institutions they represented.
Only recently have the West’s past actions been documented for us, but, having been affected by them, the Syrians have long known about them. Cumulatively, over more than half a century, our actions have created a record of threats and subversive acts of which we are largely oblivious but which is common knowledge to them. Consequently, it is the rare Syrian of any political or religious persuasion who believes that our aims are benevolent.
Thus, when Syria suffered four years of devastating droughts that created conditions like the American “dust bowl” of the 1930s, and we turned down their request for emergency food aid, many Syrians read into our action a sinister purpose. Our public proclamations substantiated their interpretation.
And not only proclamations. We and our allies trained, supplied and financed irregular military forces — about which we knew practically nothing — to overthrow the Syrian government. And last summer, we came within hours of a military strike that would have gotten us into another messy, illegal, ill-conceived and probably unwinnable war. That danger appears to have subsided (temporarily?) but we are still engaged in the actions we began in 1949, trying to overthrow the Syrian state.
Let us be clear: the Syrian state is not an attractive organization. Few states are. All states, even democracies, are to one degree or another coercive. We do not let this bother us when we deal with those states that are important or valuable to us and, truth be told, we apply the criterion of freedom rather loosely to our own actions.
Looking in the Mirror
America’s domestic record in civil rights is hardly unblemished, our dealings with the Native Americans constituted genocide and what we did in the Philippines would today be regarded as a war crime. We have engaged in over 200 military actions against foreigners — an average of one a year since we became a state.
But, even if we put legality and morality aside, the fact is that we have never managed to find ways to reform other peoples in the idealized image we have of ourselves. So we keep proclaiming the image while acting as our interests appear to demand.
What are those interests? I think that most Americans would today define them largely if not almost exclusively in terms of security. We don’t want to live in fear, and we believe that the danger is foreign.
The irony, as one of the authors of our Constitution put it over 200 years ago, is that our principal danger is ourselves. Of course, he could not have guessed the extent: we murdered almost 200,000 of our fellow citizens in the first decade of this century. (That was with guns and knives; we killed about twice that many in the same period with our most dangerous weapon, the automobile.)
During the same period, the number of Americans killed by foreign terrorists in America was less than 3,000. The odds of an American being killed by a terrorist were said to be about 1:20,000,000.
The Military-Industrial Complex
Logically, we should ask why we are willing to pay all the human and budgetary costs for our recent wars especially since they have not accomplished our aim of becoming more secure. I find three answers:
First, some of us make our livelihoods from the “military-industrial complex,” both directly from employment in the arms industry or indirectly such as working for a think tank or a lobbying firm financed, at least in part, by military contractors.
Second, politicians find that they win elections by catering to our fascination with war and the arms industry has cleverly parceled out production so that virtually every congressional district contains one supplier and many workers whose jobs depend on it. The industry’s lobbyists also hand out large-scale donations, explaining why Dwight Eisenhower thought to add “congressional” to his famous identification of the “military-industrial complex.”
Third, the lesson our military drew from the Vietnam War was to keep those of us who count most politically – the white, still-relatively prosperous middle class and above – from getting hurt in war. Many of those deployed in harm’s way today are not the reasonably well-off members of society, but those who are politically and economically marginal or foreigners.
Now, as we watch day-by-day in the media, we can see that we are on the brink of a replay of our last failure: Iraq. So, at the risk of exposing myself to the charge that I am an ivory-tower historian, allow me a minute or so of “chatter” on how we got where we are and speculate on what might happen next.
First, the prelude: like Syria, Iraq had a relatively short time to develop its governing institutions. When I lived there in 1952, it was “technically” independent but, as everyone knew, the British ruled the country though their proxies who were allowed to enrich themselves as long as they caused no problem about the issue that was really important to the British, exporting at minimal cost Iraq’s oil.
But the proxies and the British made a serious mistake. They allowed increasing numbers of Iraqis to get educated. Worse, those Iraqis began to copy their British and American teachers: they bit into the “apple” of nationalism. Iraq’s expulsion from the British-ruled Eden was just a matter of time. When it happened, it was sudden. In 1958, the army staged a coup d’état.
Coups d’état are not unusual. We have promoted many not just in the Middle East but also in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The successful ones are usually carried out by the single effective organ of weak states, the security forces, which alone are unified, armed and mobile.
Those states most susceptible to coups rarely have functioning civil institutions that can balance the military. Iraq had none. So the country fell under the rule of successive dictators. However we felt in principle about the dictators, in practice we either found them useful or at least did not object to their activities.
After the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iraq became our ally against Iran with Saddam Hussein’s army invading Iran in 1980. During the next eight years, we supplied Saddam with military assistance, including satellite intelligence and even the precursor chemicals to manufacture poison gas.
It was only after the Iran-Iraq War was over in 1988 that Saddam’s value to us diminished. Saddam also got into a dispute with Kuwait over money that he had borrowed to fight Iran (partly to protect Kuwait’s oil fields). The dispute ended with him blundering into Kuwait and seeming to pose a threat to Saudi Arabia where we had the truly strategic interest of oil.
At that point, we decided to drive his troops from Kuwait and ultimately get rid of him. The initial task did not appear difficult. Iraq’s army was battle worn; its equipment was obsolescent; Saddam’s treasury was empty; he had many enemies and few friends — even Hafez al-Assad’s Syrian regime was on our side.
So the war looked easy, which wars often do to those who want to start them. But as Clausewitz warned, warfare is always unpredictable. Once the “dogs of war” are unleashed, they can turn rabid, destroying the good with the bad, the adults and the children, civilians and their civic organizations. Chaos almost always follows.
We saw this clearly in Iraq. Saddam was a ruthless dictator who refused to share political power and did some terrible things; however, in some spheres his regime functioned constructively. He used much of the increase of Iraq’s income that resulted from the removal of British control of oil to fund economic and social development.
Schools, universities, hospitals, factories, theaters and museums proliferated; education became free and nearly universal; the citizens benefitted from the one of the best public health systems then in operation; employment became so “full” that a plan was developed to siphon off some of Egypt’s vast peasant class to work Iraq’s fields.
Iraq became a secular state in which women were freer than in most of the world. True, Saddam suppressed the Kurds and the Shiites, but we didn’t object much to similar policies against minorities in Asia, Africa and parts of Europe and Latin America. Saddam’s unpardonable sin was not what he did in Iraq but what he threatened outside Iraq: oil in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia — and Israel’s relations with the Palestinians as well as Israel’s regional dominance.
War for Saddam’s removal could have been avoided by adroit diplomacy but it was avidly embraced in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration and its neoconservative guides. Their policy convinced the Iraqis that nothing they could do would stop it. They were right. We fired the broadside.
The broadside destroyed not only Saddam’s regime. Inevitably, it killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Our use of depleted uranium artillery shells is believed to have caused a seven-fold rise in cancer among survivors; our bombs, shells and the nearly 1,000 cruise missiles we fired destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and caused millions of people to lose their homes, their jobs and their access to education and public health care.
And, in the chaos that followed the invasion, the fragile “social contract” that had linked together the inhabitants was voided. Terror set the rules. Hope bled into misery. Whole neighborhoods were emptied as violent and newly empowered armed men “ethnically cleansed” them. Former neighbors became deadly enemies.
The Whirlwind of War
A whirlwind, as the Old Testament warns us, is the inevitable reaction to the sowing of the winds of war. That is what we are seeing today in Iraq. Now, it seems, President Barack Obama has decided to try his own skill at whistling into the wind.
Whistling into the wind is the least dangerous interpretation of President Obama’s decision to put 300 “advisors” into Iraq. Where have we heard of such a move before! Those of us who are old enough will remember that President John Kennedy began in the same way, though he sent about six times that many “Special Forces” (then called “Green Berets”) to Vietnam to start. Both Kennedy and Obama swore not to send ground troops.
So instead of “security,” or even an approximation of what that word might mean or how to achieve it, we find ourselves in the following disarray, starting points west and moving east:
In Libya, having destroyed Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, we unleashed forces that have virtually torn Libya apart and have spilled over into Central Africa, opening a new area of instability.
In Egypt, the “non-coup-coup” of General Sisi has produced no ideas on what to do to help the Egyptian people except to execute large numbers of their religious leaders; Sisi has also made clear his suspicion of and opposition to us.
In occupied Palestine, the Israeli state is reducing the population to misery and driving it to rage while Israel’s extreme right-wing government is thumbing its nose at its benefactor, the United States. Those relations have never been worse.
In Syria, we are engaged in arming, training and funding essentially the same people whom the new Egyptian regime is about to hang and whom we are considering bombing in Iraq.
In Iraq, we are trying to salvage the regime we installed, which is a close ally of the Syrian and Iranian regimes that we have been trying for years to destroy; yet in Iran, we appear to be on the point of reversing our policy of destroying its government and instead seeking its help to defeat the insurgents in Iraq.
Admittedly, in my day planning U.S. policy in the Middle East, we never had to find our ways out of such disarray. My tasks were comparatively easy (occurring in a much earlier stage of U.S. engagement in the Middle East). So, perhaps I’m just not clever enough to understand the intricacies of this era. I certainly hope so.
But even if there is some logic to the apparent chaos, what is the “bottom line,” as businessmen like to say? How are we advancing the goal of “security”?
Allow me a personal answer. When I first traveled through the deserts, farm lands, villages and cities of Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, unfailingly, I was welcomed, invited into homes, fed and cared for. Today, I would risk being shot, at least in those areas most affected by U.S. policy.
Get the broadside ready. But in which direction should we point it?
William R. Polk was a member of the Policy Planning Council, responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia, for four years under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He also was a member of the three-men Crisis Management Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He is the author of some 17 books on world affairs, most recently Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change and Blind Man’s Buff, a Novel, both available at Amazon.