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Spengler

Why Liberals Really, Really Hate Us

December 18th, 2014 - 12:36 am

They really, really hate us. George Orwell wrote a morning “Two Minutes Hate” session into the daily life of his dystopia in 1984. One blogger notes that 2,000 of Rachel Maddow’s facebook fans wished that Ted Cruz would fall into an open elevator shaft. What would he have made of the hyperventilating hatred that liberals display against conservatives? Over at National Review, Katherine Timpf reports on a hate manifesto published by the chair of University of Michigan’s Department of Communications. Republicans “crafted a political identity that rests on a complete repudiation of the idea that the opposing party and its followers have any legitimacy at all.” wrote Prof. Susan Douglas. “So now we hate them back,” she explains. “And with good reason.”

In fact, they have their reasons to hate us. They are being silly. We know they are being silly, and they know we know, and they can’t stand it. It isn’t quite how we repudiate the idea that the opposing party has any legitimacy at all. But we can’t stop giggling.

“Reductio ad absurdum” does not begin to characterize the utter silliness of liberals, whose governing dogma holds that everyone has a right to invent their own identity. God is dead and everything is permitted, Zarathustra warned; he should have added that everything is silly. When we abhor tradition, we become ridiculous, because we lack the qualifications to replace what generation upon generation of our ancestors built on a belief in revelation and centuries of trial and error. Conservatives know better. G.K. Chesterton said it well: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

The antics of the “small and arrogant oligarchy” that controls the temples of liberal orthodoxy have turned into comic material that Monty Python couldn’t have dreamed up a generation ago. There are now dozens of prospective genders, at least according to the gender studies departments at elite universities. What do the feminists of Wellesley College do, for example, when its women become men? The problem is that no-one quite knows what they have become, as a recent New York Times Magazine feature complained:

Some two dozen other matriculating students at Wellesley don’t identify as women. Of those, a half-dozen or so were trans men, people born female who identified as men, some of whom had begun taking testosterone to change their bodies. The rest said they were transgender or genderqueer, rejecting the idea of gender entirely or identifying somewhere between female and male; many, like Timothy, called themselves transmasculine.

Use the wrong terminology and you’re burned for a bigot. There used to be jokes such as: “How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, and it’s not funny.” You can’t tell that sort of joke about  Wellesley because the LGBTs never will agree on the lightbulb’s gender. There are rare cases of babies born with ambiguous genitalia, to be sure. There also are a few individuals obsessed from early childhood with the idea that they were born in the wrong body. They have difficult lives and deserve sympathy (but not public mandates for sex-change operations). Gender ambiguity in its morphological infinitude as a field of personal self-development, though, has become the laboratory for cutting-edge liberal thinking, the ultimate expression of self-invention. LGTB Studies (or “Queer Studies”) departments have or soon will be established at most of America’s top universities, classifying, advocating and defending an ever-expanding number of newly-categorized gender identities.

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America Is Losing Its Edge

December 13th, 2014 - 4:20 pm

We have heard over and over again that America is still the world’s fountain of innovation, the home of fracking and Facebook. The two “F’s” of American innovation are about to become one: The collapse of oil prices portends a collapse of the shale boom. High-yield energy bond yields have soared from 5% to 12% in the past few months, and investors are fighting to get to the door. Most unconventional oil and gas projects are unprofitable at $60 a barrel, and that’s where oil will trade for the next year or two.

Facebook is a clever gimmick, but it doesn’t do much for productivity.

It doesn’t help to crank up the theme from Rocky and chant, “We’re Number One!” We are in trouble, with a stagnating economy and falling incomes, and we are about to be in much, much worse trouble.

What’s left of the U.S. economy net of alternative hydrocarbons doesn’t look impressive. Here are a few facts about American capital investment:

Take out the energy sector, and capital investment by S&P companies remains 8% below the 2008 peak. We never had an investment recovery.

Take out the top six companies in the S&P technology sector (IBM, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, HP, Micron), and S&P tech capital expenditures are down by a 40% since 2000 and down by 25% since 2013. The top six account for 75% of all capital expenditures among S&P tech companies (in 2000, it was less than 50%). All but the quasi-monopoly tech giants show an investment depression.

In deflated dollars, nondefense capital goods orders from American manufacturers are 20% below the 2000 peak and 5% below 2008.

It’s no surprise that productivity and wages are stagnating: investment in plant and equipment is falling. America is losing its edge. We had better fight to keep our lead before we have to play catch-up.

Meanwhile, R&D and engineering capabilities are burgeoning abroad. As a Dartmouth business school professor reports on the Harvard Business Review blog, U.S. multinationals are building R&D centers in China and India. The quality of engineering and scientific talent in the world’s two most populous countries is rising rapidly:

The remarkable reality is that many big American R&D spenders have undergone a quiet transformation of their product development capabilities during the last decade that includes embedding Asian capabilities much closer to the core of their operation. Offshore engineering centers have become central to businesses such as Microsoft, Abobe, and Synopsys.

As an investment banker active in Hong Kong, I see brilliant innovations popping up in China every day. Per capita, China may be less innovative than America, but with 1.4 billion people, a very small proportion of prospective innovators adds up to a very big number.

America still has the world’s best technology, but the gap is closing. If we don’t change course, we are going to go the way of Britain.

Reaganeconomics was founded on tax cuts and sound monetary policy, but it also included a massive high-tech R&D effort, the Strategic Defense Initiative, driven by federal R&D spending. As a young consultant for the National Security Council, I researched the issue for Norman Bailey, then special assistant to the president–and the president cited the economic benefits of SDI-related R&D in a subsequent speech.

What do we need? I offer 6 ways for America to regain its edge…

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Reason Dreams of Monsters

Francisco Goya’s 1799 etching “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos” usually is mistranslated as “the sleep of reason produces monsters.” The word sueño typically (and clearly in this context) means “dream.” The mistranslation implies that monsters emerge when reason ceases to be vigilant; what Goya meant, rather, is that “monsters are what reason dreams about.” 

Now that we have extirpated religion from politics, we have entered a new age of monsters. Liberal politics, as Joseph Bottum observes, has become spiritualized, with its own Inquisitions and witch-hunts. And our popular culture is populated by monsters as never before (roughly one in eight feature films features supernatural monsters of one sort or another).  Our foreign policy proceeded as if Montesquieu were a universal salve to heal the wounds of distressed societies, and has merely succeeded in launching monsters upon the world on the grand scale.

Holy Russia, Holy Everybody Else

December 6th, 2014 - 3:22 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin took a lot of ridicule in the West for his assertion that Crimea is as sacred to Russia as the Temple Mount is to Jews and Muslims. Even in the context of Orthodox theology, Putin struck a cognitive dissonance. But there should be no surprise at the invocation of Holy Russia. Russia has considered itself holy since the fall of Byzantium, when the headquarters of the Orthodox Church passed from the “second Rome” at Constantinople to the “Third Rome” of Moscow.

Laugh at Putin at your peril. The bell tolls for you. Every nation that ever has existed considered itself holy in some way. It is impossible to have a nation except on the premise of the sacred. Men cannot bear mortality without the hope of immortality, and it is the continuity of our nation that vouches for this hope. We are not immortal as disembodied spirits playing harps on clouds, but concretely, in our earthly form. Nations that give up their hope of immortality roll over and die, often through infertility, for example today’s Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Hungarians and Poles.

To be sacred is not necessarily to be good: the Aztec priest excising a captive’s heart had a sense of the sacred as intense as Mother Teresa’s. Putin’s assertion of the sacred character of his country is no more or less than a statement that Russia intends to survive. After all we have read of Russia’s impending demographic collapse, Russia’s fertility rate has climbed back to 1.7 last year from just 1.2 a decade ago, an unprecedented peacetime recovery. America’s total fertility stands at just 1.86. Russia is in much worse demographic shape because of the extremely low birth rates of the past generation, to be sure. The point is that Russia won’t be written off.

America’s mishandling of Putin shows once again the utter bankruptcy of secular political science. The devotees of Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu and Machiavelli, the game theorists and systems analysts, the liberal idealists and neoconservatives, failed to grasp that Russia would look on any attempt to sever Crimea from Russia as an existential threat. Russia threw itself into the arms of its old rival China, and the Russian population rallied behind Putin, in a response that leaves America at a strategic disadvantage.

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The_Children_of_Hurin_cover

My last post (“May the Farce Be With You“) drew 280 comments, most of them infuriated, and most of them ill-informed. By way of remedy, I repost below an April 4, 2007 review-essay on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Children of Hurin. My literary friends point out that Tolkien’s style is turgid and his literary muse is lame. I don’t care. No writer in the English language did more to uplift popular culture. Star Wars, I observe, derives from Richard Wagner’s noxious Ring cycle by way of the odious Joseph Campbell, and had a corrupting effect on the culture. The contrast with Tolkien is instructive. Rather than remasticate the pagan idea of the hero, Tolkien created a pagan anti-hero (specifically, an anti-Beowulf and anti-Siegfried) in the tragic figure of Turin. Reconstructed from manuscripts by Tolkien’s son Christopher, the Turin story sheds light on the broader purpose of The Lord of the Rings, and illuminates the fraught relationship between the pagan and Christian worlds.

Many readers objected to the way I threw Harry Potter into the same kettle as Luke Skywalker. A qualification is in order: J.K. Rowling stole from Star Wars as well as from Tolkien (and of course from Thomas Hughes), so that one can read a variety of different standpoints into her work. They all are there, in unhappy cohabitation.

Tolkien’s Christianity and the pagan tragedy

The Children of Hurin, by J R R Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

Reviewed by Spengler

J R R Tolkien was the most Christian of 20th-century writers, not because he produced Christian allegory and apologetics like his friend C S Lewis, but because he uniquely portrayed the tragic nature of what Christianity replaced. Thanks to the diligence of his son Christopher, who reconstructed the present volume from several manuscripts, we have before us a treasure that sheds light on the greater purpose of his The Lord of the Rings.

In The Children of Hurin, a tragedy set some 6,000 years before the tales recounted in The Lord of the Rings, we see clearly why it was that Tolkien sought to give the English-speaking peoples a new pre-Christian mythology. It is a commonplace of Tolkien scholarship that the writer, the leading Anglo-Saxon scholar of his generation, sought to restore to the English their lost mythology. In this respect the standard critical sources (for example Edmund Wainwright) mistake Tolkien’s profoundly Christian motive. In place of the heroes Siegfried and Beowulf, the exemplars of German and Anglo-Saxon pagan myth, we have the accursed warrior Turin, whose pride of blood and loyalty to tribe leave him vulnerable to manipulation by the forces of evil.

Tolkien’s popular Ring trilogy, I have attempted to show, sought to undermine and supplant Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle, which had offered so much inspiration for Nazism. [1] With the reconstruction of the young Tolkien’s prehistory of Middle-earth, we discern a far broader purpose: to recast as tragedy the heroic myths of pre-Christian peoples, in which the tragic flaw is the pagan’s tribal identity. Tolkien saw his generation decimated, and his circle of friends exterminated, by the nationalist compulsions of World War I; he saw the cult of Siegfried replace the cult of Christ during World War II. His life’s work was to attack the pagan flaw at the foundation of the West.

It is too simple to consider Tolkien’s protagonist Turin as a conflation of Siegfried and Beowulf, but the defining moments in Turin’s bitter life refer clearly to the older myths, with a crucial difference: the same qualities that make Siegfried and Beowulf exemplars to the pagans instead make Turin a victim of dark forces, and a menace to all who love him. Tolkien was the anti-Wagner, and Turin is the anti-Siegfried, the anti-Beowulf. Tolkien reconstructed a mythology for the English not (as Wainwright and other suggest) because he thought it might make them proud of themselves, but rather because he believed that the actual pagan mythology was not good enough to be a predecessor to Christianity.

“Alone among 20th-century novelists, J R R Tolkien concerned himself with the mortality not of individuals but of peoples. The young soldier-scholar of World War I viewed the uncertain fate of European nations through the mirror of the Dark Ages, when the life of small peoples hung by a thread,” I wrote in an earlier essay. [2] Christianity demands of the Gentile that he reject his sinful flesh and be reborn into Israel; only through a new birth can the Gentile escape the death of his own body as well as the death of his hopes in the inevitable extinction of his people.

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May the Farce Be With You

November 28th, 2014 - 10:31 am

George Lucas will inflict yet another Star Wars film on us momentarily. I detest the series, along with its successor, Harry Potter, and its antecedent, Wagner’s Ring cycle. Luke Skywalker is a retreaded Siegfried, with inborn powers that make him nearly invincible, asserting his will against authority (Wotan/Darth Vader). There are minor differences; at least Harry doesn’t have to kill Dumbledore. George Lucas explained on a recent American Movie Channel retrospective that he dipped into this swamp first as an anthropology student, reading the likes of Joseph Campbell.

Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried are a carryover of the pagan idea of heroes, which is simply the pagan idea of  a god: a being who is like us, but better. Campbell claimed that the “hero” of this ilk is a universal myth, but that is plainly false. This sort of figure is largely absent both from biblical and Chinese narrative (that in part explains Campbell’s unconcealed hostility to the Jews and their sacred texts). The patriarchs could be tough, like Abraham, or averse to conflict, like Isaac, but “heroic” is not a qualifier that springs to mind. For that matter, the protagonist of every Kung Fu creaker is a humble lad who works harder than anyone else, and isn’t too proud to start by carrying slop buckets in the kitchen of the martial arts school.

My friend Francesco Sisci observes that Europe was ruled by a hereditary aristocracy while China was ruled by mandarins:

Even now there are families in Rome claiming a lineage back to Julius Cesar , living in the same area and the same buildings for millennia, despite many changes in the ruling elite of the land. The concept of aristocracy, of blue-blood privileges, was very strong for centuries in the West. Apart from the many crowned heads of State in Europe, England’s House of Lords is a modern vestige of the old Roman Senate: a group of grandees – largely chosen by the merits of their forefathers – ruling the nation of common people. In ancient China… there were no birth-determined social divides, and upward mobility based purely on merit had been encouraged and idealized since very ancient times.

China is ruled by the equivalent of the faculty of Harvard College, which William F. Buckley famously compared unfavorably to the first hundred people in the Boston phone directory. This sort of system has good points and bad points. It is embedded in popular culture, e.g., the plot of almost every martial arts film. It also encourages an educational system in which almost everyone learns calculus, as opposed to America, where one  out of eight high school students learns calculus.

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How Far Down Do You Define Deviancy in Ferguson?

November 26th, 2014 - 11:59 am

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s celebrated phrase “defining deviancy down” first appeared in a 1993 essay in The American Scholar. “I proffer the thesis,” wrote Moynihan, “that, over the past generation…the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized.”

What used to be a civil rights movement has drawn a bright line behind the late Michael Brown, whose guilt in two violent felonies (robbing a convenience store while assaulting a store clerk, and assaulting a police officer) is not in dispute. It is sad, to be sure, that Brown died in a confrontation with a police officer, but no legal case can be made that the police officer rather than Brown chose to make the confrontation deadly.

Two generations ago the NAACP chose Rosa Parks as the subject of its anti-segregation lawsuit in Montgomery, AL, because she was a woman of unexceptionable character and reputation. Today the NAACP and its allies have chosen Michael Brown as their poster-boy, precisely because he was a violent criminal. The argument of what now might be termed a “criminals’ rights movement” is that the police should not have the right to use force against felons whose crimes do not reach a certain threshold. What that threshold might be seems clear from the repeated characterization of Brown as an “unarmed black teenager.” Unless violent felons use deadly weapons, it appears, the police should not be allowed to use force.

To restate the “civil rights” argument in a clearer way: Young black men are disproportionately imprisoned. One in three black men have gone to prison at some time in their life. According to the ACLU, one in fifteen black men are incarcerated, vs. one in 106 white men. That by itself is proof of racism; the fact that these individuals were individually prosecuted for individual crimes has no bearing on the matter. All that matters is the outcome. Because the behavior of young black men is not likely to change, what must change is the way that society recognizes crime itself. The answer is to remove stigma of crime attached to certain behavior, for example, physical altercations, petty theft, and drug-dealing on a certain scale. The former civil rights movement no longer focuses its attention on supposedly ameliorative social spending, for example, preschool programs for minority children, although these remain somewhere down the list in the litany of demands. What energizes and motivates the movement is the demand that society redefine deviancy to exclude certain classes of violent as well as non-violent felonies.

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What Do We Do with Suicidal Cultures?

November 23rd, 2014 - 10:21 am

The overriding, terrible theme of the 21st century is the suicide of cultures. Small civilizations die for any number of reasons; great civilizations die because they want to. My book on the subject was reasonably well received in the U.S. but made no real impact on the public debate, although it seems to have had some influence in Hebrew translation.

The suicide of cultures is incomprehensible to liberalism, which places the human condition in a Petrie dish for the edification of social scientists. It is also incomprehensible to the main currents in American conservativism, that is, the Straussian and Catholic versions of natural right and natural law. We flounder in the face of suicidal cultures because we lack the intellectual tools to confront them. Men do not always seek the good, as Aristotle opines in at the outset of the Nicomachean Ethics: often they seek nothingness. When in history have so many volunteered to commit suicide to murder civilians, as the jihadists now do? When in history has a combatant tried to maximize the number of casualties among its own civilians, as does Hamas? The liberal mind reels with horror at the phenomenon of mass suicide.

We learn how to grapple with cultural suicide from Ecclesiastes, from Augustine’s reflections on Ecclesiastes, and from Goethe’s reflections on Ecclesiastes in Faust, which take us to Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig and Heidegger. The latter’s embrace of “Non-Being,” as Michael Wyschogrod observed in his masterwork The Body of Faith, is consistent with his support for Hitler. Our highbrow culture averts its gaze from the philosophical inquiry into Non-Being; our popular culture cannot take its eyes off the personification of self-destruction in the form of zombies and vampires. Our popular culture is infested by existential horrors which our intellectual culture refuses to acknowledge.

The Muslim Brotherhood (and its Palestine chapter, Hamas) and ISIS are the Arabic-language branches of the NSDAP, and they employ the same theater of horror to demoralize their enemies. Mere rationalism quails before such horrors. We require a phenomenology of the irrational to address it.

We simply do not understand the world in which we live. That is why we mistook the terminal decline of Muslim civilization for an opportunity to extend Western democracy to the Middle East. That is why we mistook Russia’s desperate efforts to revive its old nationalism as an antidote to cultural despair for a replay of Munich in 1938. These have had baleful consequences: we destroyed an ugly but efficient system of governance in the Middle East and left chaos in its place in Libya, Syria and Iraq. We undid one of the premises of Cold War victory, namely keeping Russia and China apart, and stood godfather to a new Sino-Russian alliance. And we did this systematically and deliberately, because we think the wrong way.

In doing so we demoralized a generation, much as the failures of Vietnam motivated the counter-culture of the 1960s. The inability of evangelical Christians to retain a majority of their young people has a good deal to do, I suspect, with disillusionment over America’s frustration in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have lost the confidence of the American public in foreign interventions through overreaching. Our blunders helped elect Barack Obama, the gravedigger of America’s influence in the world.

Alas: there is no-one left to teach the intellectual tools required to repair the damage. I could sketch a full curriculum in philosophy, history and politics (as I have for literature); if a billionaire wrote a blank check, he couldn’t find the faculty for it. Prof. Wyschogrod was among the last (he is now frail and retired). Perhaps there still are a few survivors hiding in remote crevices of academia.

We will make more mistakes. If there is a consolation, it’s that God looks out for drunks, small children, and the United States of America. America never looked worse than it did in 1859, and never looked better than it did in 1865. Abraham Lincoln, as Mark Noll observes in “America’s God,” had no institutional precedent or formal connection to the theology of his time, yet he was his era’s great theological mind. That is as close to a miracle as we are likely to get in politics. I believe in miracles, and I am praying.

Dumbing it away
By Spengler
Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, by Daniel P Bolger

Crossposted from Asia Times Online

http://atimes.com/atimes/World/WOR-01-211114.html

“I am a United States Army general, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism,” Lieutenant-General Daniel Bolger begins his history of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous; step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.”

By this, Bolger means that United States generals, notably David Petraeus, sold short-term fixes to baffled political leaders and

hatched even worse problems for the future.

Bolger’s point was lost on most reviewers, for example Andrew Bacevich in the New York Times and Mark Moyar in The Wall Street Journal. They protested that civilian leaders deserve at least some of, and perhaps the lion’s share, of the blame.

Bacevich and Moyar have no sense of humor, let alone an ear for irony. By placing the blame on the military, Bolger portrays presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama as woefully misguided. The mission was impossible from the outset. Announcing the 2007 “surge” in response to a Sunni insurgency, president Bush said that the US wanted to turn Iraq into “a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people.”

The trouble, Bolger explains, is that majority rule in Iraq meant permanent war: “The stark facts on the ground still sat there, oozing pus and bile. With Saddam gone, any voting would install a Shiite majority. The Sunni wouldn’t run Iraq again. That, at the bottom, caused the insurgency. Absent the genocide of Sunni Arabs, it would keep it going.”

Bolger’s book should be rushed into Russian and Chinese editions. A substantial current of opinion in those countries, supported by some respected foreign-policy specialists, holds that the US has chosen to destabilize the region intentionally. Now that America is nearly self-sufficient in oil, it wants to interrupt oil supplies to China and others in order to assert global hegemony.

That is paranoid nonsense, but it reflects the incredulity of Russian and Chinese observers at the seeming self-destruction of America’s world role. How could the Americans be so stupid? We could, and were. Bolger’s insider explanation of the chain of blunders that led to the present situation in the region is convincing and should be circulated as an antidote to the paranoia.

Proof that America has set out to destabilize the Persian Gulf region, a well-regarded Chinese specialist argued recently before a Beijing foreign-policy seminar, is that the Islamic State is led by Sunni officers armed and funded by General David Petraeus, the US commander during the 2007-2008 “surge”. The observation is correct, to be sure: ISIS shows impressive leadership capacity and mastery of large-unit tactics involving sophisticated equipment, and it learned much of this from the Americans. But the Americans acted out of short-term political expediency rather than medium-term malevolence.

America did not have to choose the wrong mission, Bolger argues:

Bush’s war began narrowly, knocking out al-Qaeda and its Taliban backers in Afghanistan. Within weeks of 9/11, the basic goals were fulfilled, not perfectly, not completely, but probably close enough. Had we stopped there and reverted to the long, slow Clinton-era squeeze of terror cells and Islamist supporters , it might have done the job. … Again, as after the fall of Kabul, the swift seizure of Baghdad offered another opportunity to close out the conventional military phase and go back to the slow, steady, daily pressures of global containment of Islamist threats. That moment passed. Instead … with minimal domestic debate – and, notably, no known military objection – the administration backed into two lengthy, indecisive counterinsurgency campaigns.

Careful what you wish for: by 2006, the US had sponsored national elections in Iraq and brought to power the Shi’ite leader Nouri al-Maliki, who promptly purged Iraqi’s security forces of Sunnis. Fearful of Shi’ite vengeance, Iraq’s Sunnis revolted and Iraq dissolved into violence. In response, junior officers operating in Sunni-dominated Anbar province devised the stratagem that lay at the heart of the “surge”. The commitment of 20,000 additional combat troops helped suppress the Sunni insurgency, but paying the Sunnis not to fight for the time being was more effective. As Bolger reports,

The Anbar tribes had always helped AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq]. … When individual tribal sheikhs objected, the elders lost their heads. Families were attacked. Houses were demolished and cars burned. The AQI men began to impose Wahhabi discipline – no gambling on horses, no drinking alcohol, and no smoking. The AQI leaders had crossed the line at last. The Persian-influenced sheruggis in Baghdad were far away from Anbar Province. The Americans were right there, and they had little interest in what sheikhs did with their tribes. Forced to choose between the AQI boot on their necks and the US military, [tribal leaders] decided to try the Americans.

That did the trick. Petraeus, lobbying for the Iraq command from his post at the staff college in Leavenworth, Kansas, took careful note of the junior officers’ proposals. Bolger has no patience for Petraeus’ politicking. “Junior soldiers wondered about his real motivations. Service or self? With Petraeus, you never knew for sure, but you often suspected the latter, and it meant trouble.”

With the whole of the senior Army staff opposing the surge, president Bush looked for an officer who would improve the optics in Iraq, and Petraeus was his man. Bolger adds:

Combined with the troop surge in Baghdad, the Sunni Awakening effectively ended the sectarian bloodshed by the summer of 2007. It split the Sunni resistance, and they stayed fragmented during the remainder of the U.S. campaign. It was not a victory, not by any of the criteria the optimistic Americans set for themselves back in 2003, seemingly in another lifetime. But it was something like progress.

… The Sunni Awakening expanded rapidly … Ever conscious of marketing, [Iraq commander Gen David] Petraeus and his inner circle settled on a more inspirational name. With the approval of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Sunni became the Sons of Iraq.

Although the troop surge made the news in America, in country, the Sunni Awakening delivered the real and lasting difference in the rate of attrition. … The Sons of Iraq proved overwhelmingly loyal. Nearly a hundred thousand strong, half of that number in and near Baghdad, the Sahwa movement allowed the Sunni to carry weapons lawfully and get paid, effectively removing much of the incentive for the “honorable resistance.” It was by far the most successful and widespread jobs program in Iraq … The Sahwa, however, paid tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs to kill each other, not Americans. Cynical it might seem, but you couldn’t argue with the results. The Sons of Iraq fielded some six times as many Sunni with firearms as the highest estimate of enemy strength. It showed the potential depth and resiliency of the Sunni insurgency.

One might put the matter even more forcefully: by funding and training the “Sons of Iraq”, Petraeus and his team assembled the elements of the new Sunni insurgency now using the name of Islamic State (also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Andrew McGully’s 2007 report in Agence France-Pressedescribes the first meeting of Sunni tribes near Baghdad with Petraeus and his team.

“Tell me how I can help you,” asks Major-General Rick Lynch, commander of US-led forces in central Iraq … One [tribal leader] mentions weapons, but the general insists: “I can give you money to work in terms of improving the area. What I cannot do – this is very important – is give you weapons.”

The gravity of the war council in a tent at the US forward operating base at Camp Assassin is suspended for a few moments as one of the local Iraqi leaders says jokingly but knowingly: “Don’t worry! Weapons are cheap in Iraq.”

“That’s right, that’s exactly right,” laughs Lynch in reply.

“Having armed all sides of the conflict and kept them apart by the threat of arms,” I wrote in a 2010 essay on Asia Times Online, titled “Gen Petraeus’ Thirty Years’ War”, “the United States now expects to depart leaving in place governments of national reconciliation that will persuade well-armed and well-organized militias to play by the rules. It is perhaps the silliest thing an imperial power ever has done. The British played at divide and conquer, whereas the Americans propose to divide and disappear. At some point the whole sorry structure will collapse, and no-one knows it better than Petraeus.”

In 2010, General Stanley McChrystal commanded US forces in Afghanistan with the same nation-building objective. Bolger has a particular dislike for McChrystal’s insistence on “courageous restraint”, that is, accepting a higher level of US casualties to reduce Afghan civilian casualties that might cause a “loss of popular support”.

To tough Pashtun tribesmen, that smacked not of discipline or kindness, but weakness. It wasn’t clear that any significant portion of the Afghan population would ever embrace thousands of infidel foreigners. The locals often hated the Taliban, but those insurgents were natives, and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] troops were not. As for “strategic defeats,” McChrystal mistook [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai’s daily bleatings for the views of Afghan villagers. Many of the average Pashtuns proved to be made of sterner stuff and accepted that in a war, innocent people sometimes got killed. Afghans would never love ISAF, but they might well fear and respect the occupiers. Now, with this kind of guidance, even that was unlikely.

Counterinsurgency only works, Bolger observes, when the occupying power is ready to stay in place indefinitely, as the US did on the Korean peninsula. Otherwise, the guerrillas will bide their time. America had no stomach for another dozen years of war. The Maliki government, which owed its existence to American string-pulling, wanted no American presence, and marked the Americans’ final departure with a national holiday.

Unexceptionably sensible and cleverly written, Bolger’s book deserves attention as the considered view of a soldier-historian who also was a participant in the story. It is likely to figure in the wider political debate as to what went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Too many Republican reputations are at risk for the mainstream of the party to admit to the errors that Bolger documents. Nonetheless, a steady stream of defectors is abandoning the mainstream position. The most recent is the conservative columnist George F Will, who wrote on November 13 that the reappearance of “heterodoxy” in Republican foreign policy discussions is welcome:

Americans generally, but Republicans especially, are thinking afresh about the world. Henry Kissinger’s new book, World Order, deftly diagnoses America’s bipolar mental condition regarding foreign policy, a condition that is perennial because it is congenital. “The conviction that American principles are universal,” Kissinger says, “has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate.” This “suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed; in the meantime, their relations with the world’s strongest power must have some latent adversarial element to them.”

The utopianism that Kissinger decries is falling out of favor, Wills argues:

The last 11 years have been filled with hard learning. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep (“nation building”) in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans’ John Quincy Adams faction: America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Wills’ mention of John Quincy Adams, the nation’s fifth president, refers to the foreign policy sage Angelo Codevilla, whose new book To Make and Keep Peace I reviewed earlier this year in theClaremont Review of Books. A new generation of Republicans is contending for party leadership – Ted Cruz and Scott Walker come to mind – who do not bear the burden of complicity in the foreign policy blunders of the Bush era.

The Republican Party has for the past decade dragged the sins of the Bush administration like the chain borne by Marley’s Ghost in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. George Wills writes of a “potential fresh start for US foreign policy”. Bolger has made an important contribution to that debate, and it bears careful reading by anyone who wants to understand how America got into its present mess.

As for Bolger’s critics: They might better understand sort of irony Bolger applies by reading Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s picaresque novel of the Thirty Years War, The Adventurous Simplicissimus.

Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, by Daniel P Bolger. Houghton Miflin Harcourt (November 11, 2014). ISBN-10: 0544370481. US$18 hardbound; 544 pages.

Maybe They’ll Listen to Kissinger

November 20th, 2014 - 9:42 am

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has been trying to explain to the adolescents in charge of American foreign policy in both parties that our Ukraine policy has been a disaster. As he told the German news organization Der Spiegel Nov. 13:

Crimea is a special case. Ukraine was part of Russia for a long time. You can’t accept the principle that any country can just change the borders and take a province of another country. But if the West is honest with itself, it has to admit that there were mistakes on its side. The annexation of Crimea was not a move toward global conquest. It was not Hitler moving into Czechoslovakia….Putin spent tens of billions of dollars on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The theme of the Olympics was that Russia is a progressive state tied to the West through its culture and, therefore, it presumably wants to be part of it. So it doesn’t make any sense that a week after the close of the Olympics, Putin would take Crimea and start a war over Ukraine…

We have to remember that Russia is an important part of the international system, and therefore useful in solving all sorts of other crises, for example in the agreement on nuclear proliferation with Iran or over Syria. This has to have preference over a tactical escalation in a specific case. On the one hand it is important that Ukraine remain an independent state, and it should have the right to economic and commercial associations of its choice. But I don’t think it’s a law of nature that every state must have the right to be an ally in the frame work of NATO.

Now, of course, we have Western panic over a new Sino-Russian rapprochement. This was obvious from the outset of the Ukraine crisis. What did the West think Putin would do?

Regarding Iraq, Kissinger had this to say to Der Spiegel:

SPIEGEL: In 2003, you were in favor of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. At that time, too, the consequences of that intervention were uncertain.

Kissinger: I’ll tell you what I thought at the time. I thought that after the attack on the United States, it was important that the US vindicate its position. The UN had certified major violations. So I thought that overthrowing Saddam was a legitimate objective. I thought it was unrealistic to attempt to bring about democracy by military occupation.

SPIEGEL: Why are you so sure that it is unrealistic?

Kissinger: Unless you are willing to do it for decades and you are certain your people will follow you. But it is probably beyond the resources of any one country.

The good news is that Kissinger is speaking about these issues; the bad news is that the only major international news organization to interview him at length is German, not American. A few are listening in the U.S. George F. Will, a Reaganite rather than a Kissingerian back in the 1980s, is now listening to the old statesman’s common sense, as in his Nov. 13 Washington Post column.

My Republican colleagues like to deride Obama for being weak rather than assertive. Where we set out to be assertive, though (as in the State Department’s over-the-top support for the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine and the prospect of taking Crimea away from Russian control), we got our heads handed to us, just as we did when we set out to build democracy in Mesopotamia. We have been stupidly assertive where it got us nowhere, and we have been stupidly weak when we should have wielded an iron fist — as with Iran. That was true of the Bush administration as well as the Obama administration, for a simple reason: We could not promote Shi’ite majority rule in Iraq and make war on Iran at the same time. Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen told Charlie Rose on March 16, 2009: “What I worry about in terms of an attack on Iran is, in addition to the immediate effect, the effect of the attack, it’s the unintended consequences. It’s the further destabilization in the region. It’s how they would respond. We have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat envelope right now [because of the] capability that Iran has across the Gulf. So, I worry about their responses and I worry about it escalating in ways that we couldn’t predict.”

It isn’t enough to crank up the volume for the theme from Rocky and feel the testosterone surge. One also has to look dispassionately at the chessboard and think more than one move ahead.

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