Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Good News From Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon?

I remember reading an article many years ago, I think it was in the Reader's Digest, although I don't recall for sure. Anyway, the article compared the likely reaction of a farmer on the prairies encountering a lost Québécois tourist who only speaks French to the likely reaction of a Québécois farmer who met up with a Western tourist who only spoke English. The article figured that the Western farmer would be helpful and kind to the Québécois tourist while the Québécois farmer would be offended by the English only speaking ability of the Western tourist and so would be rude and unhelpful.

The point the author thought they were making was that English speaking Canadians are more friendly, generous and all around morally superior to Quebecers who are so uptight about their language issues. But of course that wasn't the point at all. The point was that when people feel secure, as a Western Canadian would be secure in the domination of the English language, they are kind and generous. But when people feel insecure, as a Quebecer might be surrounded by English speaking jurisdictions, they get rude and defensive.

I'm certainly no historian, but I think it is pretty much beyond dispute that the balance of power between offense and defense has change in world affairs over the last couple of centuries. Whether you consider the British Raj where a relative handful of British troops were able to maintain control over a country of hundreds of millions of people for over a century, or you consider the exploits of Pizarro, who effectively conquered the massive Inca Empire with only a handful of soldiers, there was once a time where it was possible for certain countries to conquer and hold vast territories while using relatively few resources to do so.

Fast forward to the modern day, and what is the situation? The world's (by far) leading military superpower is devoting substantial military and financial resources towards trying to control a relatively small and poor country (Iraq) and is proving unable to do so. Next door, an international force is making little headway in Afghanistan. In Lebanon, the regional military powerhouse Israel is finding it difficult to secure villages which lie just across its border from a stateless militia group.

It is an undecided question exactly why this change has occurred. Certainly, these days everybody has guns, germs and steel, but even since the last few decades it seems the balance has turned significantly (the Six Day War was less than 40 years ago). Some people suggest that it is just that the more powerful nations are unwilling to 'get their hands dirty' like they were in the past. Thanks to the media, countries are unwilling to sustain the kind of casualties that are necessary for effective war-making, and so are unwilling to use our big weapons (esp. nuclear) with the forcefulness necessary to instill the adequate level of fear in their opponents.

There is probably an element of truth here, but I figure the larger change has been the spread of guerilla warfare tactics around the world, in addition to advances in global communications, transportation and (hence) arms-trading networks which help supply guerilla movements. I note that in this Wikipedia article on guerilla warfare, the section on successful ones is a fair bit larger than the section on unsuccessful ones.

Regardless of the cause, the fact seems to be that is has become ever more difficult for any power to occupy any piece of territory, no matter how small or poor, where there is significant local resistance to that occupation. Going forward (and generalizing), I see two commonly held views on how this will play out:

1) Unless something is done, it will become impossible for the responsible powers in the world to maintain global order. Iraq will fall into the hands of fundamentalists who will sponsor terrorism against the West and extort money from oil companies, the Taliban will regain control of (at least Southern) Afghanistan, and will make pipeline construction difficult and will also support terrorism against the West. Iran will develop nuclear weapons, and Pakistan, which already has them, will fall into fundamentalism, the Palestinians will get their own state in the West Bank, etc. etc., with the end result being high gas prices, a growing threat from a militant Islamic region of the world, greatly increased terror attacks on Western targets and the possible destruction of Israel via nuclear weapons.

Therefore, the responsible powers must get tough, and do what it takes to prevent all these things from occurring. We must be willing to take the casualties (both our own, and especially those of our enemies) necessary to show that we mean business to keep all the dangerous unstable elements under control. Removing Saddam shows the other local leaders that they should stay in line. Invading Afghanistan demonstrates what happens to those who support terrorism. Allowing Israel to invade Lebanon helps prevent terror groups like Hezbollah from gaining enough strength to become a threat. Cutting funding to the Hamas government in Palestine does the same thing.


2) It will become impossible for the responsible powers in the world to maintain global order, and the actions required to prevent this (dropping numerous nuclear weapons on the middle east, for example) are too barbaric to be considered as serious options and will likely just fail in the long term anyway, leading to even greater pent-up historical resentments boiling over once the responsible powers inevitably lose control.

While all the same things mentioned in scenario #1 (increased oil prices, greater support for terror, increased resources for Israel's enemies) will happen here as well, once countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine are under the control of local inhabitants and local populations who are responsible for their own well-being, they will be forced to 'grow-up' and become responsible themselves. Eventually, once they feel secure from Western intervention to topple their government via coup, invasion or economic sanctions, these countries will moderate their belligerence and will eventually crack down on support for terrorist groups, and will not implement any plans for the destruction of each other or Israel.

Therefore, the responsible powers should follow a balancing act of respecting the results of local elections, even when we don't like who was elected. We should be rewarding behavior which leads toward global peace while using diplomatic and (moderate) economic means to punish behavior which threatens global peace. Overall, we need to respect and not interfere with the internal politics and decision making of places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when their actions do have impacts outside their borders, we must recognize our limited capacity to requite and the ultimate futility and counterproducivity of taking action merely for the sake of revenge.


I can certainly sympathize with those, especially in Israel, who see #2 as a fairy-tale vision which doesn't reflect the character of the bad actors around the world who only respond to cold fear of military invasion and who will use any increase in their own strength to inflict harm on other countries and generally cause trouble. But I think that, taking the long view, the first vision is a vision of endless conflict, conflict that, given the changing balance between offense and defense, the responsible powers won't win - and they will only bankrupt themselves and bloody their hands trying.

The moral approach and the pragmatic approach have converged - the way forward will generally be through diplomacy, peace-keeping and patience, even in the face of occasionally brutal provocation. In a way, I think George Bush's speechwriters had it almost right when they briefly spoke of 'bringing Democracy to the Middle-East'. But rather than democracy, which is a tricky beast, I'd say that what we need to bring to the Middle East is self determination. Of course that last sentence was self-contradictory - it is very difficult to bring someone self-determination - mostly you need to stay out of the way, only offering guidance, assistance and threats when absolutely necessary and/or asked for by the people's themselves.

Once people in the Middle East have control over their own lives and their own countries, I believe that they will then feel secure, and this will reduce the angry desire to lash out at perceived enemies that characterizes so much of that part of the world right now. Of course, the process of people in the Middel East gaining that control could be very bloody. I guess we'll see.

Over at The Pogge Group, Tim has a post which discusses roughly the same phenomenon.


  • Alas, some interests cannot allow the middle-east to grow up.

    The middle-east is like a child movie star. They bring in so much money, their guardians must keep control of them at all costs. Even if it involves abuse or illegal substances.

    I'm glad you can stay optimistic, Declan. I ran out when our PM started siding with Israel against our own citizens.

    By Anonymous famousringo, at 11:13 AM  

  • One note: Saudi Arabia is under control of it own citizens: the tricky part being that those citizens happen to be a royal family. In any other power structure than democracy (or a republic) it is too easy for the influence of power to corrupt. Hell, look at the time we're having with democracies!

    By Blogger Thursday, at 1:02 AM  

  • I've been thinking about this since you first posted it but it's taken until now to put down a response. First, it's typically long and that makes it hard to rattle off a quick response and second, I wasn't sure at what point I stopped agreeing -- or if I did.

    I was especially intrigued by the statement that, "The moral approach and the pragmatic approach have converged - the way forward will generally be through diplomacy, peace-keeping and patience, even in the face of occasionally brutal provocation."

    First, a couple of criticisms.

    1. I think the Reader's Digest example isn't really useful in the argument -- which is strong enough on its own. First, I'm not sure I even agree with the premise that you'd find a friendlier reception on a Saskatchewan farm than a Quebec farm. Second, if you did, I think it's a stretch to see a causal connection between the unfriendliness and and being surrounded by Anglophones. I don't think it works as an analogy between Quebec and Israel since it's been quite some time since the Anglos were lobbing bombs at the Quebecois, I'm not sure the analogy serves very well.

    2. I think you and Tim have written entirely different posts but I may have mis-understood. Your post seems to be making a more strategic point ( the in-ability to use moderate force to effect political change in a region ) while I read Tim's post as a specific criticism of Israel's response to Hezbollah. I think the two are quite different.

    3. There are several obvious counter-examples to the conclusion that: "Once people in the Middle East have control over their own lives and their own countries, I believe that they will then feel secure, and this will reduce the angry desire to lash out at perceived enemies that characterizes so much of that part of the world right now."

    Japan and Germany were entirely in control of their own lives and yet commenced their aggressions in no small part because they perceived their national interest ( access to resources ) to be constrained. I suppose you could claim that point to be in your favor too ( to what extent were they in control of their own destiny if they had external constraints to resource access ) but if you do it seems to me that implies changes to global governance far beyond " getting out of the way ".

    If you don't like those examples then how about the US? Self-determination has not mitigated their aggressive posture or military misadventures.

    Points of agreement.

    1. I think Bush's speechwriters did get it close to right. I'm not sure that Bush and others even see the irony in a using statement like: "Churchill understood that the Cold War was not just a standoff of armies, but a conflict of visions -- a clear divide between those who put their faith in ideologies of power, and those who put their faith in the choices of free people. The successors of Churchill and Roosevelt -- leaders like Truman, and Reagan, and Thatcher -- led a confident alliance that held firm as communism collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions,"
    in support of an active military campaign. In fact, putting faith in people and allowing fanatical Islam to collapse under it's own weight seems more like the position you're advocating than the on Bush is.

    2. In unguarded moments I agree that the West is better served by not trying to enforce a societal order on other countries. All people should be allowed the opportunity of self-determination. Also, it is arrogant beyond words to believe that democracy as embodied in the West is "the solution" that should be applied everywhere. Our democracies are not without some serious problems. One of them being that liberal democracies are the alter upon which all religion is eventually sacrificed. That's something I'm completely comfortable with but ...

    So what does that mean, specifically?

    1. Broadly I agree that the West should allow people in that region, and others, more opportunity for self-determination ( but, I'm a liberal and the desire to 'help' is overwhelming :) )

    2. If I thought Israel was trying to effect large scale political change in her neighbors I'd agree that the current policy was folly. I don't think they are. I think, for the most part, they've been pursuing a policy of periodic risk containment. They engage in negotiation and some unilateral measures to reduce tension ( eg: withdrawal from Lebanon, withdrawal from Gaza ) and they periodically reduce the military threat when it exceeds so perceived level.

    3. Everyone faces a difficult problem when groups like Hamas and Hezbollah that have political legitimacy as well as purely terrorist components. Can you treat with people who seek your destruction. Can you afford not to?

    Trying to manipulate the situation so the you can negotiate with people like Abas instead of head-butting with Hamas seems obviously sensible but kidnapping and arresting foreign politicians you don't like seems so obviously self-defeating I can't imagine why anyone would do it.

    By Blogger KevinG, at 6:00 PM  

  • Interesting segue from lost Canadian tourists to the British Raj to the Middle East...

    On the changing balance between offense and defense, it is not as if the Raj's resources of control were primarily military. It was all about cutting deals with local princes. Same for most 'classical' imperialism. It was only partly about military conquest.

    And it is not as if guerrilla warfare ("asymmetric" conflict) is a recent phenomenon, or has been overwhelmingly successful over time. I suspect the imbalance in the Wikipedia article you cite is more about a natural tendency to remember history's winners more than its losers than it is about there being more winners than losers. There must be many more failed guerrilla campaigns than successful ones, but this is not my area of expertise. (Spend some time at Arms and Influence and you'll probably get a good idea.)

    Looking at current conflicts, note the difference between Afghanistan and Iraq. While Afghanistan is far from a clear-cut success and we won't even be able to pass judgment for some time, it is almost certainly at far less risk of being a grand debacle than is Iraq. And in which one did the employment of alliances with local forces--i.e. something closer to the British Raj model--play the greater role?

    I am sure the Israelis wish they could recreate the South Lebanon Army.

    The point is that, aside from all out conventional war between states (the WWII model), successful imposition of political will on states other than one's own has almost always (a) provoked some form of guerrilla resistance, and (b) been more successful to the extent that the external force had local allies rooted in the population over which control was sought.

    By Blogger MSS, at 11:06 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home