Wednesday, March 30, 2011

2006: Moral Calculus

Yet another iteration of the Law of Unintended Consequences. When it comes to the application of force, the neocons managed to combine an unseemly eagerness with an alarming incompetence and an approach to diplomacy that managed to dismay allies and embolden adversaries. Here's another look at how it was done when the "grownups" were in charge:

The destruction of Lebanon can be added to the list of blunders and tragedies made possible by the Bush administration’s dangerous incompetence. It seems like just a few months ago that Lebanon was Exhibit A in the neocons’ argument that democracy was sweeping the Middle East because Our Policy Is Working and the troops will be coming home to tickertape parades any day now. So, again –how’s that going?

We already know that the Bushistas have a problem with fuzzy math. They can’t run the government without piling up trillions in debt for our kids; they can’t design a prescription drug benefit that actually, you know, benefits people; and they can’t seem to figure out why subcontracting to Halliburton keeps costing so gol-durned much. But in the post-9/11 electoral landscape, so it’s said, security trumps everything. And the perceived toughness of the Cheney Regency is one of its main selling points.

But it turns out that foreign policy is yet another math problem that these guys aren’t too good at. “Toughness” is their only solution, as if they could simply apply enough military force, X to any enemy, Y, and presto, X-Y = zero. But the paradox is that military force alone causes so much collateral damage that you end up creating more enemies than you kill; thus Y increases as a function of X. Oops.

It’s an inconsistent set of equations, and there’s no real solution if X is your only variable. Moreover, there’s another paradox involved, in that an overwhelming monopoly on the use of military force (as enjoyed by, say, the United States or Israel) leaves a weaker adversary no other military option than to resort to terrorism – or “asymmetrical warfare,” as military tacticians put it. Ask the Redcoats.

So too much military power can actually make the world more dangerous, instead of safer. Go figure. But if you factor in the dangerous incompetence referenced above, the potential peril becomes incalculable. For instance, every schoolchild knows that when you multiply a negative number by another negative, the result is positive. So that, say, when you make a huge bonehead blunder, you can counter that by another negative: having to admit you were wrong–and then learning from the mistake to rectify the situation. But this is another equation that George Bush and Dick Cheney can’t solve.

After all, they refused to apply the proven military formula for how many troops would be needed to vanquish and then successfully occupy Iraq–mainly because we didn’t have that many troops available in the first place. So, as usual, they acted as if the numbers didn’t apply to them, and watched as an ineffectual occupation generated an insurgency that has grown exponentially ever since.

Okay, enough math. The other problem is that this crowd hasn’t studied their history–or, if they have, they learned all the wrong lessons. The problem with Vietnam was not that we were too restrained in our application of military force; that aspect was actually applied to devastating effect, and with considerable success. The problem is that we went in thinking we could remake the region to our liking, while remaining largely ignorant of the historical interplay of the forces involved. Does any of that sound familiar? So of course, Bush and Cheney, who spent Vietnam studying blood-to-alcohol ratios, missed that lesson and have now recreated it in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, over in Israel, the folks in charge seem to be ignoring the lessons of their own Vietnam–Lebanon. Like the US in Indochina, the Israelis intervened in the Levant trying to remake it to their liking, and ended up staying for a couple of decades (US in “South” Vietnam from 1954-1975, Israel in south Lebanon from 1982-2000). The Israelis couldn’t “crush” Hezbollah in 18 years, and instead–surprise!–made them stronger. Eventually Ehud Barak decided not to toss good money after bad, and pulled out.

The Israelis don’t even have the excuse of early adult inebriation for repeating this blunder. Ariel Sharon –who, whatever his other failings, at least knew how to learn from his mistakes–would have been unlikely to jump back into that morass. But his successor, Ehud Olmert, seems to be convinced that he needs to appear tough, and thus massive military force was his solution to problem of Hezbollah. And how’d that go last time?

Unfortunately for all concerned, this has only made the problem worse, and it will certainly get much worse before it gets better. Moreover, it illustrates that the perceived interests of the Israeli and US governments, while they may overlap, do not coincide one hundred percent. For instance, the Israelis may well believe that having a weak and destabilized Lebanon to their north is in their interest. They’re probably wrong about that, but either way, it’s not in our interest.

More to the point, it’s certainly not in our interest to have public opinion in the Shi’ite Muslim world enraged by an Israeli rampage over their Lebanese brethren, especially if we are seen to be enabling same–which, with increasing obviousness, we are. After all, the Shi’ia are on our side in Iraq– or at least were, until now. There is no possible military or political solution to the mess we have created in Iraq if the Shi’ia turn against us.

One school of thought holds that the Israelis can’t possibly be that stupid, and that their immediate escalation of a minor provocation into full-blown war, without recourse to any threats or diplomacy beforehand, was probably well-planned in advance. According to this theory, the Israelis created the crisis in order to constrain the diplomatic options of the Bush administration in the region (as if they weren’t already thoroughly constrained). According to this theory, Israel had been alarmed by the possibility that cooler heads in the White House (or at least, relatively cooler heads) were beginning to recognize that, surprise, there is no military solution to our problems with Iran, either, and so were pushing for some sort of deal with Teheran. The Lebanese crisis, of course, precludes that.

If that is the case, Israel is giving far more credit than deserved to the Bushistas’ capacity for diplomacy, cool-headed or otherwise. One look at Bush’s European summit, with the spectacle of a wisecrackin’, shoulder-rubbin’, talkin’-with-his-mouth-full president impatiently skipping out of meetings with his G8 counterparts while the Middle East erupts in flames, should disabuse anyone of the notion.

Meanwhile, one of the presumably cooler heads is Condi Rice, at least relative to the head temperatures of Cheney and Rumsfeld. Watch her tell an infuriated Arab world that we simply can’t have a cease-fire of any kind until we address the “root causes” of the conflict. Since those root causes go back six decades (or more), and the Bush people have spent six years (or more) studiously ignoring them, what our top diplomat is really saying is that Lebanese civilians are going to be killed for a long time to come.

Who thinks these clowns have any idea what they’re doing? It seems more likely that the Israelis aren’t stupid enough to believe that this White House is capable of cutting a deal with Iran, and yet they are stupid enough to think they can improve their security with yet another war. Yet another paradox.

The enduring tragedy of this is that the Lebanese are dying by the hundreds as a result of this dangerous incompetence, along with their Israeli civilian counterparts, who are contending with missiles raining down on them. This war isn’t in anyone’s interest, and it’s just another manifestation of the dangerous incompetence that has killed and maimed tens of thousands in Iraq, while allowing the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.

For the Israelis, the lopsided “toughness” of the Bush/Sharon/Olmert has set back by at least a generation any effort to get at those root causes– after Bill Clinton had come tantalizingly close to what all agreed a final settlement would have to look like. The rejected Israeli map at Camp David was full of noncontiguous cantons that neither Arafat nor any other Palestinian could ever accept (nor would the Israelis, if the roles had been reversed). But the offer was modified at Taba, Egypt a few months later, and there is every reason to believe that further progress might have been made if Bush and Sharon had not taken over and dead-ended the process. Even the offer by every single Arab state to recognize Israel if it returned to its 1967 borders was a non-starter.

For the Lebanese, they have been plunged back into hell after cautiously clawing their way out of a quarter century civil war– one that began, in part, because Henry Kissinger gave a green light to a Syrian intervention. Beirut, once the Paris of the Middle East, became synonymous with chaos, and was left in ruins. Their tortuous progress towards recovering from that legacy is now reversed. And neither they nor their Arab brethren will forget how the US helped Israel, any more than they have forgotten our previous interventions under Eisenhower and Reagan.

And for the United States, this ongoing and expanding mess goes way beyond counterproductive. We will be lucky to escape even greater calamities arising from the dangerous incompetence of our government. Putting an arrested adolescent in charge has given us an adolescent regime: obsessed with toughness and image, routinely lying to cover its misdeeds, convinced that its simplistic “good-versus-evil” worldview is the only correct one, and possessed by an outsized fealty to conformity.

As blogger Matthew Yglesias has neatly summarized it: “Nothing threatens American interests more in the long run than actions which push the Islamic world's masses into the arms of the extremists. That is precisely the main effect of this incursion.”

One of the hotter heads in the White House, recess-appointed UN Ambassador John Bolton, has characteristically managed to pour gasoline on the flames of Arab public opinion by rejecting any moral equivalence between civilian deaths in Israel and those in Lebanon. By his reckoning, terrorists target civilians deliberately, while folks like us only kill them accidentally, while trying to avoid it. So it’s not the same.

The problem is that if you rely on methods of warfare, like aerial bombardment, which tend to cause plenty of civilian deaths, and you reject alternatives to war before rushing in on shaky rationales and with massive overkill, the civilians end up just as dead, and in far greater numbers. This was the case in Vietnam, where we killed more civilians in South Vietnam than in the north. It’s the case in Iraq, where far more Iraqi civilians have been killed by US bombs than by the insurgents. It’s the case in the whole history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, where dead Palestinian civilians can number as high as ten times those of the Israelis.

The point is that since warfare is such a blunt instrument and creates such havoc, unintended consequences, counterproductive results, and enduring suffering, one ought to be extremely careful before selecting it as an option. Too bad for us these guys flunked moral calculus.

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