April 08, 2006

Narcissism and Paternalism as Foreign Policy, and Kerry's Profoundly Objectionable and Dishonest Article

Everything that is wrong and destructive about United States foreign policy over the last century is reflected in John Kerry's op-ed article in the NYT last week. Furthermore, the overall tone and perspective that Kerry brings to the question of what we should now do in Iraq are deeply objectionable. In personal terms, I can only describe Kerry's approach as sickening in the extreme. What is additionally shocking to me is the extent to which almost no one has commented on exactly why it is so sickening; instead, the majority of Democrats and liberals, for example, praise Kerry for his "bravery" and "courage." But there is nothing in the least brave about Kerry's article, because of a huge dishonesty buried in the middle of his proposed strategy.

Before I proceed to a consideration of Kerry's article, let me offer a brief historical reminder. The Western powers have treated the Middle East as their personal playground since World War I. Many Americans apparently still wonder "why they hate us." If we learned, understood and remembered history as many others do, the question would never arise. Britain and the United States in particular have viewed the Middle East as a region to be exploited, to be ruled, and to be endlessly manipulated -- and we have rarely given a damn about the people who live there, their history, their cultures, and their desires for their own lives. The only real questions are why the backlash we've suffered has not been much worse, and why it did not strike us much sooner.

In the Introduction to his invaluable book, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, David Fromkin writes:
As you will see when you read the book, Middle Eastern personalities, circumstances, and political cultures do not figure a great deal in the narrative that follows, except when I suggest the outlines and dimensions of what European politicians were ignoring when they made their decisions. This is a book about the decision-making process, and in the 1914-22 period, Europeans and Americans were the only ones seated around the table when the decisions were made.

It was an era in which Middle Eastern countries and frontiers were fabricated in Europe. Iraq and what we now call Jordan, for example, were British inventions, lines drawn on an empty map by British politicians after the First World War; while the boundaries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq were established by a British civil servant in 1922, and the fronters between Moslems and Christians were drawn by France in Syria-Lebanon and by Russia on the borders of Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan.

The European powers at that time believed they could change Moslem Asia in the very fundamentals of its political existence, and in their attempt to do so introduced an artificial state system into the Middle East that has made it into a region of countries that have not become nations even today. The basis of political life in the Middle East--religion--was called into question by the Russians, who proposed communism, and by the British, who proposed nationalism or dynastic loyalty, in its place. Khomeini's Iran in the Shi'ite world and the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere iin the Sunni world keep that issue alive. The French government, which in the Middle East did allow religion to be the basis of politics--even of its own--championed one sect against the others; and that, too, is an issue kept alive, notably in the communal strife that has ravaged Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s.

The year 1922 seems to me to have been the point of no return in setting the various clans of the Middle East on their collision courses, so that the especial interest and excitement of the years with which this book is concerned, 1914 through 1922, is that they were the creative, formative years, in which everything seemed (and may indeed have been) possible. It was a time when Europeans, not implausibly, believed Arab and Jewish nationalism to be natural allies; when the French, not the Arabs, were the dangerous enemies of the Zionist movement; and when oil was not an important factor in the politics of the Middle East.

By 1922, however, the choices had narrowed and the courses had been set; the Middle East had started along a road that was to lead to the endless wars (between Israel and her neighbors, among others, and between rival militias in Lebanon) and to the always-escalating acts of terrorism (hijacking, assassination, and random massacre) that have been a characteristic feature of international life in the 1970s and 1980s. These are a part of the legacy of the history counted in the pages that follow.
Fromkin's analysis is a perfect demonstration of The Folly of Intervention, which I discussed in my Iran series -- and the history he recounts reveals yet again why World War One was the critical turning point for countless reasons.

Recently, I have been watching Simon Schama's fascinating series, A History of Britain. Schama is a compelling and insightful commentator and historian, and the series is unusually well-done. An episode about two-thirds of the way through his retelling of this history is entitled, "The Wrong Empire." Schama discusses how Britain properly regarded itself in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the focal point of liberty in the world: Britain had finally achieved liberty within its own borders, but only at great cost. Once Britain had finally understood what liberty meant and what it required politically, it believed this great achievement was one that should be shared with the world.

So Britain determined to create an "empire of liberty" -- just as many of the prowar hawks maintain that our aggressively interventionist foreign policy will do today. Britain originally conceived of an empire built on trade and the free exchange of goods and ideas, an empire shorn of military conquest and coercion. And then it all went wrong: when confronted with the challenge from the American colonies, Britain made the fateful choice to maintain its empire by force. That choice resulted in the loss of America -- and at the same time, Britain relied on force in other parts of the world. Thus, in place of the East India Company maintaining non-governmental trading posts throughout India, for example, Britain ended up with an India ruled by brutal, destructive military might. It had an empire -- but, as Schama accurately characterizes it, it was "the wrong empire."

In a tragic demonstration of the common phenomenon of children internalizing and then acting upon the worst lessons they have absorbed from observing their parents' behavior, the United States embarked on the same course in record time. We followed the path of free and open interaction with the world and the avoidance of "entangling alliances" only for a century. Then, with the Spanish-American War and the calamitous war in the Philippines, we set out toward foreign conquest and perpetual intervention across the globe (a momentous decision which I discuss in an entry about Thomas Reed)-- a goal which became still more central to our foreign policy with our entrance into World War One. (And in yet another example of children repeating their parents' errors, we committed the same tragic error with regard to Vietnam that Britain had made with the colonies. As Barbara Tuchman notes: "Not ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence and, more fundamentally, refusal to grant stature and fixed purpose to a 'fourth-rate' Asiatic country were the determining factors, much as in the case of the British attitude toward the American colonies. The irony of history is inexorable." And now, we repeat all this again in Iraq.)

In my series on Iran, I stressed the nature of the overall Western mindset in terms of its relevance to questions of foreign policy. This is not a matter of partisan politics: it is a perspective shared by Woodrow Wilson, both Roosevelts, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and both Bushes, and virtually every major American political leader. I discussed the manner in which the current Bush falls squarely within the general tradition of United States foreign policy in more detail here. As I summarized a few of the key elements of the Western perspective at the beginning of one of the later installments:
In Part III, I discussed certain of Chris Hedges' observations about "mythic war," as well as Robert Merry's thoughts about the Western "Idea of Progress." I showed how these aspects of Western thought make up part of the foundational context out of which the Bush administration's approach to the fatally ill-conceived "War on Terror" and the attack on Iraq arose. In Part IV, I explored how a very dangerous racist element is inextricably and necessarily implied in these ideas. And in Part V, I identified some additional elements of this same overall tapestry: the conception of war, destruction and death as "a serious moral adventure" and a "crusade" in the name of certain "ideals," and the profoundly destructive search for "meaning" by means of violent conflict.
With this background and these elements of the Western perspective in mind, let us consider Kerry's article. In one very narrow sense, I might otherwise approve of Kerry's argument: to the extent he is attempting to broaden the discussion of what we ought to do -- and to the degree he is trying to make it "legitimate" to consider a quick withdrawal from Iraq -- I would enthusiastically applaud his efforts. But given what Kerry has written, I cannot approve in even the smallest degree -- both because of his overall perspective, and because of a deep dishonesty underlying his proposals.

Kerry's general view is first revealed in two sentences in the introductory paragraphs. We have this: "Our valiant soldiers can't bring democracy to Iraq if Iraq's leaders are unwilling themselves to make the compromises that democracy requires." And then, there is this: "No American soldier should be sacrificed because Iraqi politicians refuse to resolve their ethnic and political differences."

Kerry thus places himself squarely in the midst of the rogues' gallery identified by Rosa Brooks: those people, including Daniel Pipes, Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw, who condemn those "ungrateful Iraqis" -- who dare to be ungrateful "after all we've done for you!" As Brooks points out, Kerry also appears to have forgotten that no one asked us to "sacrifice" our "valiant soldiers" for the Iraqis' sakes. Our self-defense was involved at no point in this unforgivable catastrophe: Iraq constituted no threat to us, and our leaders knew it. That is the single fundamental point of any significance in this context:

We have no legitimate right to be in Iraq at all. Period. If we don't want to "sacrifice" American lives for this immensely destructive fantasy, we should never have sent even one American there in the first place. And if we don't want to sacrifice any more, then leave.

But like the parent who decides that the first brutal beating wasn't enough, Kerry insists that "Iraqi leaders have responded only to deadlines." You see, they're simply children who are misbehaving -- so we need to give a few more orders, and make sure they understand that we mean it this time:
Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to put together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military. If Iraqis aren't willing to build a unity government in the five months since the election, they're probably not willing to build one at all. The civil war will only get worse, and we will have no choice anyway but to leave.

If Iraq's leaders succeed in putting together a government, then we must agree on another deadline: a schedule for withdrawing American combat forces by year's end.
Of course, Kerry isn't proposing that we withdraw all American combat forces -- none of which, I repeat, are there for any legitimate reason. Oh, no: "Only troops essential to finishing the job of training Iraqi forces should remain." And: "To increase the pressure on Iraq's leaders, we must redeploy American forces to garrisoned status. Troops should be used for security backup, training and emergency response..."

That's a handy loophole -- one big enough to drive a decades-long occupation through, even if it is "only" an occupation confined to those "enduring bases" we're spending so much money on. In this manner, Iraq will remain our staging platform for our neverending efforts to control the future of the Middle East, just as we have attempted to do ever since World War I.

And let us pause for a moment to consider the precise nature of the great "gifts" we have brought the Iraqis out of our wonderful beneficence. Patrick Cockburn is one of the top four or five reporters writing about the Middle East, and about Iraq. His stories are informed by having spent a great deal of time there, and knowing his subject thoroughly. In the wake of the terrible massacre yesterday, he writes:
A cruel and bloody civil war has started in Iraq, a country which Bush and Blair promised to free from fear and establish democracy. I have been visiting Iraq since 1978, but for the first time, I am becoming convinced that the country will not survive.

Three suicide bombers disguised themselves as women yesterday and, with explosives hidden by long black cloaks, killed 79 people and wounded more than 160 when they blew themselves up in a Shia mosque in the capital.


The savage attack, the worst for months, came almost exactly on the third anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by American and British armies on 9 April 2003. The war was portrayed at the time as freeing Iraqis from fear but Iraqi officials have told The Independent that at least 100 people are being killed in Baghdad every day.


The bombing of the mosque, a religious complex linked to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, pushes Iraq well down the road to outright civil war between Sunni and Shia Arabs.


I have been covering the war in Iraq ever since it began three years ago and I have never seen the situation so grim. I was in the northern city of Mosul last week protected by 3,000 Kurdish soldiers, but even so it was considered too dangerous to send out heavily armed patrols in day time. It is safer at night because of a curfew.

In March alone the US military said 1,313 people were killed in sectarian attacks. Many bodies, buried or thrown in rivers, are never found. The real figure is probably twice as high. All over the country people are on the move as Sunnis and Shias flee each other's areas.

I was in Lebanon at the start of the civil war in 1975. Baghdad today resembles Beirut then. People are being murdered solely because of their religious identity.


The formation of a national unity government is now being presented as an antidote to violence. "Terrorists love a vacuum," said the Defence Secretary, John Reid, citing his experience in Northern Ireland. But one Iraqi official remarked caustically that the three main communities - Sunni, Shia and Kurds - do not "hate each other because they do not have a government, but rather they do not have a government because they already hate each other".

The coalition of religious parties, the United Iraqi Alliance, won almost half of the seats in the 275-member parliament in the election on 15 December. They fear the US and Britain are trying to break up the Shia coalition and deny them the fruits of their victory. This is why they have resisted demands from Washington and London for Ibrahim al-Jaafari to stand down as Prime Minister. Even if a national unity government is formed it will control little outside the Green Zone. The army and police take their orders from leaders of their own communities.

Three years ago, when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled, Iraqis were promised their lives would get better. Instead, Iraq has become the most dangerous place in the world.
Keep the scope of this catastrophe in mind -- and never forget that we chose to launch an utterly unjustified, aggressive invasion and occupation of a nation that did not threaten us in any serious manner whatsoever. Given the incomprehensible horror that Iraqis now must live with every minute of every day -- horror that is the direct result of our actions -- who the hell are we to be making demands of anyone? We ought to beg their forgiveness, with every fiber of our being. But for Kerry, and for all our other national leaders, none of this matters and it is hardly ever discussed in any detail in terms of how it affects the Iraqis themselves. Oh, no: it's all and only about us.

The nauseating depths of the Western conviction of its own "exceptionalism" and its unquestionable "right" to coerce the rest of the world to act as we demand are revealed in Kerry's final paragraph:
For three years now, the administration has told us that terrible things will happen if we get tough with the Iraqis. In fact, terrible things are happening now because we haven't gotten tough enough. With two deadlines, we can change all that. We can put the American leadership on the side of our soldiers and push the Iraqi leadership to do what only it can do: build a democracy.
Let me repeat the only fundamental point that matters here: we have no right to be in Iraq in the first place. Since we have no right to be there at all, by what damnable "right" are we entitled to get "tougher" with the Iraqis? Endless violence, instantaneous death or dismemberment, the inability to live any kind of normal existence, and the destruction of an entire country are the "gifts" we have brought to Iraq. And now we're going to get "tougher"? To call this sickening does not even begin to capture the degree of immorality and dishonesty involved.

Kerry's approach thus veers perilously and disgustingly close to the American military commander who said toward the end of 2003: "You have to understand the Arab mind. ... The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face." As I wrote about such comments (and the full essay has much more on the mechanisms involved):
It is time for some very harsh truth-telling, and it is time to strip away the comforting and false self-delusions in which many hawks wrap themselves. There is nothing kind or benevolent about a parent who beats his child, while claiming that he does it out of love and concern for the child's well-being. And there is nothing kind or benevolent about forcing Iraqis (or anyone else) to adopt a form of government or a way of life which they may not want -- and which they certainly do not want if it comes at the ends of the guns wielded by an occupation force.
If Kerry wishes to push this destructive, brutal and implicitly racist line, he should be more honest and say exactly what he means, just as the American commander did.

There is one final, absolutely awful aspect of Kerry's article. It is contained in this brief phrase: "An exit from Iraq will also strengthen our hand in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat..." That one phrase, together with other Kerry pronouncements, confirms that Kerry shares the perspective on "the Iranian nuclear threat" held by Bush and his supporters, and by all leading national Democrats: a potentially nuclear Iran is "intolerable" and "unacceptable." We cannot allow Iran to get even one step closer to that possibility -- and it is our unquestioned and unquestionable "right" to stop it, by any means necessary. And those means might well include the use of tactical nuclear weapons; see Seymour Hersh's latest article for many more details.

The stage is now set for a still greater and much worse catastrophe: a military attack on Iran. And there is not one national political leader of any significance who will oppose it. Most of them will support it, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some of them will say they "regret" it, but they will view it as a "tragic necessity."

We are in love with death, and every day we bring death closer -- and on a scale that we dare not even imagine.

(I will have more about Hersh's article, and much more about Iran, in the coming week.)