Special Report: Current U.S. foreign policy is driven by neoconservative ideologues and tough-talking “liberal interventionists” who spread chaos and death around the world while failing to serve real American interests. It’s time for a fundamental rethinking, writes former U.S. diplomat William R. Polk.
By William R. Polk
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 earthly lives. 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. 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. [For more on those past arguments, see William R. Polk. Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs (1997)].
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 advice, 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”?
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 Culloden 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. [See Eric Hobshawm (ed.) The Invention of Tradition. (1983).]
The British later dressed the bedouins of the Syrian desert in a distinctive uniform and sharpened 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. [See William R. Polk. Violent Politics (2007, 2008).]
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, 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 Species of Experimenters
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 does not happen in all circumstances. The retrograde and inward-seeking actions in the more extreme of the salafiyah movements among Muslims show its limits. [For more on the complex nature of salafiyah, see my article “Sayyid Qutub’s Fundamentalism and Abu Bakr Naji’s Jihadism”].
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, Ã†sop, 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 Ã†sop 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 attack by “Storm.”
Intimacy with Death
Another common characteristic is intimacy in our attitude toward suffering and death. Having been conditioned by the legacy of living generation after generation for hundreds of thousands 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 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 a previous essay, I cited evidence that drone attacks and Special Forces “targeting operations” in Afghanistan and Pakistan have resulted in an increase in attacks on American troops. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Losing the American Republic.”]
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, according to a press release by the Department of Veteran Affairs in May. 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.
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. Those affected total over one million. [The literature on this issue is already vast and is growing. See American Psychiatric Association: “Military,” 2015]
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.
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. [For aspects of these policies, particularly foreign aid, see Walter McDougall, “Eight Traditions of American Statecraft,” Foreign Affairs, March/April, 1997].
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. 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.
Fairest of All
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 before the war by one of the most influential advocates of what came to be called counterinsurgency, the English officer Charles E. Callwell. In his book, Small Wars (1896), he recommended the use of “flying columns” (the ancestors of Special Forces) “to strike at once on sign of trouble [forcing] the enemy to fight by depriving [the supporters of the insurgents] of their belongings and burning their dwellings.” The American troops soon implemented his advice by destroying dozens of villages.
The American soldiers, most of whom were Middle Western farmers who had joined the National Guard, knew nothing of the country. A contemporary humorist scoffed that the average American had not known “whether the Philippines were islands or canned goods.”
The soldiers just wanted to go home. So, when attacked by people they did not understand, they became fearful and angry. They quickly adopted Callwell’s advice, burning villages and torturing captives and insulted the Filipinos, calling them “niggers” or “gubus.” One common form of torture was forcing water down the throat of the captive a primitive form of waterboarding.
On their side, not having modern weapons or military training, they fell back on “the weapons of the weak,” terrorism and guerrilla warfare. By 1900, America had 150,000 soldiers in the Philippines. In the next two years they suffered 6,000 casualties. Americans killed tens of thousands of Filipinos. Fighting between the American army and the insurgents was as bitter as the wars of extermination against the Native Americans.
We have never been prepared to accept the harsh reality of intervention and counterinsurgency. We were sure that we went into the Philippines with the very best of intentions to bring democracy and modern habits to a backward people. In other wars, as in Vietnam, we proclaimed that we intervened legally at the request of a constituted government to protect it against foreign subversion or invasion.
Where we did not have an invitation, as in Iraq, we invaded to destroy an ugly tyranny. In our eyes, these ventures, however we justified them and however much they destroyed, were a necessary component of America’s role in bettering the world.
In the eyes of many non-Americans, to the contrary, our actions were neither necessary nor welcome. Constantly repeated surveys of opinion show that many peoples have come to regard us as brutal, avaricious and destructive. Public opinion rating, the index so beloved by politicians, plummeted.
But, one is entitled to ask whether or not this change of attitude is justified? After all, America is a great power and most of us believe that we should be judged in that scale. What we have done was done by other imperial powers from the earliest days of recorded history. What we have done is simply what great powers do. Is realpolitik not justification enough?
Despite what “realists,” neoconservatives and undisguised imperialists, such as Samuel B. Grifith, Edward Lansdale, David Galula, Max Boot and David Petraeus, to name a few, say, the answer is “no.” It is “no” because acting with such disregard of our principles violates our sense of who and what we are.
Also, as we have seen in our application of it, it is self-defeating. And even in selfish terms, the costs of war prevent us from doing what we could do to make our own lives more secure and bountiful. True, we have often not been guided by consideration of our own ideals or even of our own best interests, but they are the best markers toward a livable future we have. Consider our heritage:
From the earliest days of colonial settlement we proudly proclaimed that we were different. John Winthrop told our ancestors that we were a “city upon a hill” not only announcing but even illustrating a new way of life for all mankind. In today’s phrase, he claimed we were “exceptional.”
We were not like other people and did not practice their sins. Thus, we set for ourselves and for everyone a new standard. This line of thought deeply affected the men who wrote the American Constitution and underlay President Wilson’s great crusade.
However, from the earliest days, we often fell short of our proclaimed self-image. Governor Winthrop ordered the enslavement or slaughter of the neighboring Native Americans; many of our Founding Fathers, both southerners and northerners, practiced slavery and, while proclaiming a new world of liberty, President Wilson tyrannized Mexico.
In short, we proved to be much like the Old World while thinking of ourselves as guides to the New World. But, imperfect as our record has been, the loss of aspiration would endanger our own freedom and for world security that might be catastrophic.
We see the dilemmas posed by the contrast between ideal and reality in the way we have dealt with what has been often set out as a basic American belief — what has been called “the ancient right to be left alone.”
Throughout history, the right to be left alone has been far more often proclaimed than observed. In the Twentieth Century, the list of violations is long and ranges from Russia and all the European states to China and all the Asian states.
Among the invaders have been England, France, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan and the United States. Britain holds the lead in the “Third World” and Germany is outstanding in Europe. Many Americans are surprised to learn how often the United States has invaded other countries. Americans have carried out hundreds of military actions in other countries over the course of our history and in just the last 25 years have engaged in an average of six a year. [See Barbara Salazar Torreon, “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2014”].
To Americans, such statistics mean something different from what they mean to others. Leave aside such issues as legality, nationalism and purpose and consider only war itself. The last time Americans personally suffered its reality the destruction, the hunger, the draining fear was the Civil War in the 1860s.
So when we read that we were complicit in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, uncounted injured and the “stunting” of a whole generation of children, they are just statistics. We cannot emotionally relate to them.
The Fears of Others
Many other peoples, of course, do relate to them. For some, the memories are fresh, intimate and painful.
Others have “deep memories” we do not share: so, for example, an aspect of the Russian attitude toward American involvement in Ukraine evokes for them memories of the German invasions while the Chinese attitude toward the rearming of Japan conjures the Japanese “rape of Nanking.” These episodes, like Jewish memories of the Holocaust, remain vivid and personal and are constantly reinforced. [See my essay, “Shaping the Deep Memories of the Russians and Ukrainians”].
Realpolitik, unrestrained by aspiration toward ideals, fostered these tragic events. Would aspirations toward law, morality and humanism have prevented them? We cannot be sure, but it seems likely that they would have mitigated the damage. I argue that the chances would have been better with a deeper understanding. Regard the nature of recent “wars of national liberation.”
While “wars of national liberation” against colonialism and/or imperialism particularly in Indochina/Vietnam and Algeria have become parts of the self-images of these peoples, we have tended to regard them as aspects of the Cold War.
Our fixation on the Cold War has also skewed our view of political events in Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Greece, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Indonesia and elsewhere. Instead of trying to achieve an understanding of domestically inspired reform movements, we have often allowed ourselves to be led by slogans, catchwords and superficial analogies.
One of these, the so-called Domino Theory, has been particularly pernicious. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars and have engaged in dangerous ventures because of its vogue among statesmen and strategists.
The Domino Theory predicted the collapse of state after state as a result of the “push” of Soviet power. In Europe, Greece, Italy and France would tumble and in Asia, Burma, Thailand and even India would be knocked down. Of course, none of these things happened or were ever likely to happen, but the clever image set the parameters of much of our policy for the last half-century. However farfetched, events have shown the domino image and other substitutes for thought and understanding they are still partly guiding us.
Guiding us, moreover, often into activities that have cost not only the lives of tens of thousands of young Americans and trillions of dollars but also what has been perhaps our greatest national asset, the respect in which others have held us.
Central is the ultimate violation of the “ancient right to be left alone,” which the Founding Fathers so valued, in the practices of espionage, assassination and torture.
Despite scattered use of “dirty tricks,” America has no deep tradition of espionage. It is one of the legacies of the Second World War. We became enthralled by what we thought the British were successfully doing outsides the bounds of diplomacy and war.
Actually, we now know that what they were doing was of little benefit to their policies and sometimes produced disasters. But it then seemed to us enormously exciting, and our newly formed CIA avidly followed the trail of their British instructors.
So, when the British government sent one of their senior “espionagists” to Washington in 1952, he had no trouble in convincing Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, then head of the CIA, to undertake an operation to overthrow the elected government of Iran.
While the emissary, Colonel Montgomery Woodhouse, told the Americans that Iran was a “domino” about to fall to the Soviet Union, which exactly fit Dulles’ view of current events, the real British aim was to recover its nationalized oil company. As Woodhouse later wrote, “Not wishing to be accused of trying to use the Americans to pull British chestnuts out of the fire, I decided to emphasize the Communist threat to Iran rather than the need to recover control of the oil industry.” He was more successful with the Americans than with the Iranians. [See William R. Polk, Understanding Iran (2009)]
To us, at the time, the coup we organized appeared a great success the pro-American government of the Shah was restored and a new deal securing the flow of oil to the West was worked out but to the Iranians the overthrow of their first elected government was the cause of great and lasting bitterness.
Indeed, we may take the coup as the beginning of the process that lies at the heart of the Middle Eastern crisis today. The price of this piece of espionage is still being paid and being paid for by damage to American interests not only in the Middle East.
The short-term success of the CIA coup convinced the American government to engage in many other escapades throughout the world. Some of these also appeared to be successes, but a close examination reveals almost uniform losses over the span of several years to America and disasters for targeted peoples.
When such covert actions resulted in the overthrow of leaders, they often left behind a sullen bitterness even among those who hated the former regime; when they resulted in the imposition of a client regime they merely attenuated the issue they were said to have solved (as even Donald Rumsfeld concluded in retrospect on Iraq); and, when applied in conjunction with military force, they resulted in the destruction of the state institutions (such as the massacre of the village of Mai Lai). Then they led to chaos and frequently to civil war. Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya spring to mind.
More bitter and uglier are the results of engagement in assassination as acts of state. In the Vietnamese war, the CIA carried out a program known as “Phoenix” under which American intelligence agents and assigned soldiers killed at least 20,000 civilians who were suspected of being agents or sympathizers of the Viet Minh.
The first head of the program, Robert Komer, set a quota of 3,000 a month. Taking the quota as an opportunity, Vietnamese informants settled old scores by denouncing or “selling” their rivals and enemies and enriched themselves by demanding bribes to protect others. [See Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie (1988), 732-733]
Similar programs under different names have been employed by America in later wars. At the present time, the “Special Forces” known as SEALs (an acronym for Sea, Air and Land forces) and CIA contingents are carrying out a clone of Phoenix now called the Omega Program.
According to detailed research by reporters Mark Mazzetti et al from The New York Times, the main operative group, known as Seal Team 6 has become a “global manhunting machine” composed of about 300 assault troops and 1,500 intelligence, aircraft, weapons-procurement and other support forces.
Segregated from the regular army, forming indeed a secret army within the regular army, SEALs operate outside the chain of command and virtually beyond supervision or control. Indeed, according to The New York Times when their commander, a Navy admiral, attempted to control their activities, they rebelled and drove him out of his command.
According to the U.S. Special Operations Command, SEALs “have been involved in tens of thousands of missions and operations in multiple geographic theaters.” Their most highly publicized mission was the assassination of Osama bin Laden, brilliantly investigated by Seymour Hersh in “The Killing of Osama bin Laden.”
Notably even Afghan former President Hamid Karzai “became a bitter critic of the United states Special Operations troops, complaining that they routinely killed civilians in their raids. He viewed the activities of Team 6 and other units as a boon for Taliban recruiting and eventually tried to block night raids.”
In these raids, according to the report, the team members made “life-or-death decisions in dark rooms with few witnesses [using] weapons with suppressors to quietly kill enemies as they slept.”
The cost to America of the activities of clandestine killers is hard to judge. One cost was identified by President Karzai alienation of the people we claimed to protect by murdering their relatives. Another has been the effect on some of our allies who believe we are acting outside constraints of law and in violation of civilized morals. Our British allies in Afghanistan frequently spoke of their aversion of our activities.
Then there are dangers like the one mentioned when the SEALs drove out their commanding officer. To me, that raised memories of the French Secret Army Organization, the “Praetorians,” who attempted to kill President Charles de Gaulle, threatened to bomb Paris and nearly overthrew the French government.
Paratroopers, they too were the elite of an army. Even short of attempting such violent acts against the state, what will be the legacy from men who routinely murder others? What will they bring back home? In some recent events, we have seen warning signs.
Frankly, to me the question of whether or not assassination “works” is nearly irrelevant. No matter how it is calculated, the cost to us in terms of human lives, money, law, civilized living and political morality is simply too high. However, because some argue that it is useful, please judge the results under these five headings:
As I have noted, on-the-ground studies (which would normally be called “after combat reports”) show that assassinations by drone and midnight raids by SEAL Team 6 and other groups increase rather than lower hostilities. Since their aim is “pacification,” their action is obviously self-defeating. That is the first point.
The second reason why assassination is self-defeating is harder to document but is, I believe, evident and logical: our drones and hit squads aim to kill identified insurgent leaders. They, by definition, are the more senior and experienced people. Since we know that killing them does not stop insurgency, we are faced with the fact that they are replaced. And those who replace them, also by definition, are less experienced and presumably younger.
By the logic of politics within any movement, the younger, newer leaders will be driven to prove their right to leadership by taking initiatives that are even bolder than those of their predecessors. Thus, the result of killing the older leaders, the so-called “kingpin” tactic, is likely to increase rather than dampen violence. There is growing evidence that this is what happened.
The third reason why assassination is self-defeating is that since, ultimately, peace must be made with insurgents, experienced leaders are, ironically, “assets.” We can see this in two examples. In Kenya, the British hanged over a thousand Kikuyu tribesmen (the main supporters of the Mau Mau insurgents) and in Algeria the French executed at least half that many, but both colonial governments were smart enough to keep alive the men who alone could end the insurgency, the leaders, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Ahmad ben Bella in Algeria.
The fourth reason why assassination is self-defeating is that when central leadership is shattered, insurgency metastasizes. Since the splinter groups will be motivated by the same issues that caused the original group to be formed, they are unlikely to wither and die; more likely is that they will continue under local leaders and attract new adherents by their espousal of local issues.
The Russians saw this in Afghanistan. So did we. We are seeing it now in Syria, Yemen and Libya. Al-Qaida, as one of the senior American officers in the Middle East commented, “is now everywhere.”
There is a fifth reason that seems almost trivial in comparison to the others: it is that murdering foreign leaders and insurgent commanders is difficult to do. We tried for years to kill Fidel Castro. Despite dedicating much of the work of our 17 intelligence agencies to the pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden, at the cost of billions of dollars, it was really only by a luck not by sophisticated intelligence that they succeeded. This is the most important finding in the article by Seymour Hersh.
Having discussed espionage and assassination, I will here only briefly mention torture as the third aspect of violation of the “right to be left alone.” Torture as a French commentator wrote about the French practice of it in the Algerian war is “the cancer of the nation.” Use of it there caused the government to violate the “social contract” that formed the French republic.
Tactically for the short term and in the military aspects of the war, torture was initially judged to be successful; strategically and in the political aspects of the war, it was a disaster. Use of it disgusted the French public, tore the army apart and almost caused a civil war. Incidentally, it led to the permanent loss of Algeria to France which, after all, was the French objective.
Revulsion against torture has come more slowly in America. Public outrage is both limited in numbers and less effective in action. It has not moved either the Bush or the Obama administrations. Despite repeated statements to the contrary by President Barack Obama, his administration has continued many of the practices of the Bush administration. And to judge by statements, neither an incoming Democratic nor a Republican administration would be unlikely to change course.
Ideological and Religious Conflict
The history of religious wars in Europe, Africa and Asia demonstrate that they are vicious and long-lasting. Both sides tend to believe that they have a “mandate” from God. The great Nineteenth Century French student of war Antoine-Henri Jomini wrote, in The Art of War, which was used as a textbook at West Point, that what he called “wars of opinion” “enlist the worst passions [and] become vindictive, cruel and terrible since the invading force not only is met by the armies of the enemy, but is exposed to the attacks of an exasperated people.” Attacks and reprisal without restraint are inevitable.
“Crusade” was the word adopted by President George W. Bush to explain American action in Iraq. The Crusades were not, of course, American wars; nor, except for the Philippines were the later European imperial and colonial wars. But, in the eyes of the victims, we have been guilty by association.
Our image in the “brown skin world” is affected by the activities of white Europeans. During the Vietnam conflict, studies made by the Defense Department showed that the natives regarded Americans as just another species of the French imperialists and, as I have mentioned, the Filipinos thought of our soldiers as another variety of Spanish conquistadores.
Because European and American actions affect almost all colonial peoples and are often vividly remembered, they shape part of matrix in which we must operate in our foreign policy in the “Third World.” Even if we did not otherwise know this, we could see by events today that these actions have particularly affected Muslims.
In campaign after campaign, European Christians fought Spanish, North African, Middle Eastern, Balkan and Central Asian Muslims. The campaigns of what we think of as the Crusades lasted 176 years — from 1096 to 1272 — but, in reality, wars between Christians and Muslims began hundreds of years earlier in 636 AD and have continued intermittently to the present day.
To create their empire in Asia, Russian Tsars since Ivan the Terrible crushed kingdom after Muslim kingdom; meanwhile in India, Britain destroyed the great Mughal Empire. The British war against the Sudanese Mahdiyah in the last part of the Nineteenth Century and the Italian war against the Libyan Sanusiah from 1911 to the Second World War were combinations of religious, nationalist, colonial and imperialist ventures. [Further information on the Sudan and Libya is offered in my book, The Arab World Today (1991), Chapter 11 and in my book, Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change (2013), Chapter 14.]
Britain fought Muslims along the “Northwest Frontier” for generations, and when faced with war in its newly proclaimed Mandate of Iraq in the 1920s, bombarded Muslim tribesmen with poison gas. The Dutch fought war after war with the peoples of Indonesia in the four centuries of their dominance.
The French conquered North, West and Central Africa, killing millions of Muslims and destroying their societies. Meanwhile, the Belgians killed between 10 and 15 million people about twice the number of Jews killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust engaged in systematic rape, cut off the hands or feet of unproductive natives and stripped the country of its raw materials.
While these horrible crimes were not attributable to Americans, natives both there and throughout the colonial world tended to group Americans with Europeans as “whites” so we have been dammed by association. [On the Congo see Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (1997). A summary was published by Andrew Osborn in The Guardian, July 18, 2002. Osborn points out that the scale of massacre was almost double that of the Holocaust yet Belgium has made neither apology nor restitution.]
While largely unnoticed for centuries, the American role in the slave trade that bought millions of Africans to America is now being rediscovered. No one knows much about the enslaved peoples, but certainly a large portion of them were Muslims.
In short, Muslim experience mainly with Europeans but also to a lesser extent with Americans has been a key element in their attitude toward the white, Christian “North.” Memory of it is a cause in the growth of Muslim hostility today in such movements as the Taliban, al-Qaida, various movements of Salafiyah and more recently, the Islamic State.
I believe that Muslim memory will play an important role in international affairs far into the future. As Graham Fuller points out “there are a dozen good reasons why there is bad blood between the West and the Middle East today, without any reference to Islam or to religion.”
The most painful and destructive aspect of the North-South, partly Christian-Muslim and partly imperial-colonial hostility has been and continues to be guerrilla warfare and the attempt to suppress it with counterinsurgency. The essence of this struggle was captured in a Kenyan parable about the war of the flea and the lion. It goes like this:
The flea bites. The lion swats. He kills one or two. The rest run away. And with their cousins. Come back to bite another day. (The parable inspired the title of the excellent book on guerrilla warfare by Robert Taber, War of the Flea.)
Lions don’t defeat fleas. Despite their power, armies don’t defeat guerrillas. But, the difference between “lions” and “fleas” goes far to explain the tactics and bitterness of counterinsurgency: since the “lion” can swat; the “flea” must become a guerrilla. As such, he is not treated as a “soldier” under the more or less established laws of war. (Neither are journalists accompanying enemy troops, according to a manual revising the laws of war just published by the Department of Defense). He knows that if he is captured, he is likely to be tortured (for information) or simply shot. He does not wear a uniform. He hides among his people. Usually outnumbered and ill equipped, he fights “to the knife.”
Engaging him on his home ground is costly. Usually it is not popular with the counterinsurgents’ countrymen. They do not care enough about the issues involved to tolerate casualties, so counterinsurgency often depends on mercenaries. No one much cares if they are wounded or killed.
As the Greco-Roman writer Plutarch commented, when a mercenary died, “the loss was borne by other nations;” so, throughout history, states found them cheap and useful. In the Seventeenth Century religious wars in Europe about one in four soldiers was a mercenary. In Afghanistan in 2013, the 108,000 “private contractors” America employed were almost double the number of regular soldiers. Even American generals and the Afghan president were guarded by mercenaries. Supplying them became a $100 billion/yearly business.
And even when mercenaries were not involved, nations have often employed more expendable, politically less sensitive people: in Afghanistan the Soviet Union used more of its Central Asian citizens than Russians; in both Afghanistan and Iraq a large portion of the American troops were poor whites, blacks or foreigners who were enlisted with the offer of bounties or citizenship. In these various ways, unpopular wars were denationalized among the invaders while they were hyper-nationalized among the insurgents.
In addition to the destruction of the physical infrastructure of a country, which is common in all wars, is the destruction of intangible social and governmental institutions in what is euphemistically called “regime change.”
Disorder from ‘Regime Change’
During “regime change,” institutions that took decades or even generations to build collapse. As schools and hospitals cease to operate, police abandon their posts, electrical power and clean water are no longer provided, courts close, jail wardens run for their lives and the population flees.
In Europe in 1943-1945, over half a million displaced persons (“DPs”) flooded out of combat zones while from 1947 about 800,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and in British India during “Partition,” millions of Muslims and Hindus fled. As long as there is war, there will be refugees. There is no light at the end of this tunnel.
Since guerrilla wars are fought without “fronts” and spill over into hamlets, villages, towns and cities, chaos is inevitable. In the Middle East today, particularly in Libya which is an accepted route to Europe, hundreds of thousands of refugees are desperately trying to reach safety.
Following the destruction of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime (and his murder) in 2011, warring militias have torn the country apart, murdered countless Libyans and created a virtual “no man’s land.”
There, what amounts to a slave trade in refugees flourishes. More than 170,000 people in 2013 and, almost 200,000 in 2014 made their ways in appalling conditions through Libya toward Europe. Thousands did not make it.
Now European countries are trying to stem the tide of those who survive. From Italy, the “choke point” of the refugee flow into Europe, the exasperated Prime Minister “made it clear that the fault [for the human tragedy] lies with the foreign powers, including the U.S., that had helped overthrow Gaddafi. He said that ‘If you remove a dictator you must think about what institutional structures will remain.’” No one thought and no institutional structures remained.
In recent years, the United States has intervened militarily and often tried to “regime change” such countries as Guatemala (1954, 1966 and 1972); Lebanon (1958); South Vietnam (the 1960s); Republic of the Congo (1967); Nicaragua (1978 and 1982); Grenada (1983); Panama (1989); Iraq (1991 and 2003-present); Bosnia (1992-1995); Somalia (1993); Afghanistan (2001-present) and 20 other countries.
However much these conflicts have differed, they uniformly point to the simple fact that we live in a multicultural world. Violating their “persona,” national awareness or self-image often leads to perpetual warfare.
Perpetual warfare is also encouraged by the “sale” (which usually amounts to a free gift) of military equipment. This policy is favored not only by America but by the governments of Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Israel to win influence. [Yearly sales by countries are documented by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)].
The Arms Trade
Provision of arms has two particularly pernicious effects: first, it encourages international conflict and, second, it upsets the balance between civic institutions and security forces in both the recipient and the provider countries.
In America, it has created what President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex and the tendency toward militarism that our Founding Fathers struggled so hard to protect America from.
To promote their interests, weapons manufacturing companies lobby and fund election campaigns of members of the Legislature. As President Eisenhower warned, the military-industrial complex represents a significant danger to our democracy. It creates a conflict of interest among the men we entrust to protect our national interests. It encourages corruption the virtual selling of votes in the Congress, improper dealings by military and civilian officers in the Defense Department and even disloyalty among our officials. In sum, it amounts to an infection of our body politic. [See William D. Hartung, Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (2011).]
A personal example: when I was a member of the Policy Planning Council, I was attempting to get the Shah of Iran to stop huge, wasteful and dangerous purchases of arms. That was American policy. But the American military attachÃ©, a major general, was urging the Shah to buy more. His aim was either or both to get himself promoted for running a major program and/or to prepare a post-military career for himself in the arms industry as many of his military colleagues were doing.
Provision of arms to shaky governments often equips the insurgents. In Vietnam, for example, the village defense militias sold both arms and ammunition to the Viet Cong and in Syria, Iraq and Yemen today, arms we and others have supplied to the governments have often been seized by the insurgents.
So what is given to “A” ends up in the hands of the whole “alphabet.” Even children sport the AK-47 or the M-16. It is our bombs and shells that are turned into “improvised explosive devices” and our tanks and artillery that besiege the cities and government posts in Iraq today.
Not only does the supply of arms endanger peace and civil government abroad and endanger democracy domestically, but the huge costs involved have often led to our putting aside what our own people need. President Eisenhower pointed to the costs of military ventures in terms of schools, hospitals and even paved roads.
Just to take one war, Afghanistan, on which we have spent $1 trillion, the “real” costs are to be measured, among other things, in not repairing the thousands of dilapidated bridges over our rivers, in not replacing aging hospitals and in not providing public educational facilities.
Arms manufacturing and sales also have pushed our economy further along the path of militarization. This has ripple effects: giant arms industries fund lobbies to further their interests; congressmen and senators in the unending race to acquire the massive funding required to win elections are virtually compelled to support them regardless of the interests of the nation; and even labor representatives find it almost impossible to question the creation of “quality” jobs in a shrinking market.
All of these impulses come into focus today on the F-35 fighter. To remain a viable product, that is to overcome the huge overruns of cost, it will need major new markets abroad; if it is cut back, not only the industry but also labor and Congressmen will suffer. For them, the question is not the lack of performance of the airplane — although all neutral commentators have described it as a failure — but survival of the whole of what has become the American military-industrial-congressional-labor complex.
As I have pointed out above, giving aid to those who need it has been one of the most attractive activities of Americans. But non-military, governmental aid programs have seldom met expectations. The Marshall Plan was a major exception. It both helped to rebuild Europe and also met American Cold War objectives.
In the latter activity, it set a precedent for many subsequent programs of which many were admittedly undertaken to “rent” military or intelligence facilities or to win adherents to our anti-Soviet activities. But even those aimed at “uplifting” “underdeveloped” economies often failed. Afghanistan development aid illustrates one cause: there, although we spent more than on the Marshall Plan (adjusted for inflation), much of it was wasted or siphoned off by corrupt officials.
According to an article by Geoff Dyer and Chloe Sorvino in the Financial Times, the Special Inspector General John Sopko reported to Congress that in just the one category, reconstruction projects, “’billions of dollars’ of those funds had been wasted or stolen on projects that often made little sense for the conditions in Afghanistan.” Dyer and Sorvino quoted a US official as saying, “The dirty secret about this war is that the Pentagon or anyone else in the government cannot tell you how much it has actually cost us.”
Additionally, both there and elsewhere, our efforts were often hampered our failure to understand the aims and capacities of the recipients. Finally, even where help was needed and when what we offered was sensible and well-planned, our aid was viewed both by the recipients and by us as an adjunct to our own program in great power rivalry. That is, it was seen as not aid but rent.
End of Part One (Click here for Part Two)
William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.