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Works and Days

Riding the Back of the Tiger

November 25th, 2009 - 11:00 pm

…is what America has done since 1941. Obama wants to get off. Fine. Many of our countrymen are tired of the ride. But what makes him think that on the ground with the gnashing beast is any safer than on his back?

What Causes Wars?

I do not mean here the existential reasons for strife, brought about through pride, status, envy, honor—or even the supposed desire for riches and natural resources. But rather, less grandly, what allows those aggressions to devolve into legalized murder on a vast scale?

I ask that question, because I am not sure our President or his advisors have ever raised it. But in almost every case in the past, wars were not caused by Bush-like ‘smoke-‘em-out’ rhetoric—no more than they were prevented by “reset” button outreach or bowing to thugs or the League of Nations or the United Nations or things like the Wilsonian Cairo speech.

Usually aggression, bullying, and nationalist agendas evolve into wars—when the aggressive party is convinced it has more to gain through war than lose. And such perceptions, wrong or not, emerge when a Xerxes, a Napoleon or a Hitler are assured that their targets either cannot or will not stop them. Or, if they belatedly try to roll the dice, the resulting losses will be small in terms of what might be perceived as gain.

I am not discounting error and miscalculation. Hitler, after all, got more natural resources through purchase from the Soviet Union (a willing ally) for the Reich between late summer 1939 and June 1941 than he ever did by looting Russia between mid 1941 and 1945.

Hitler also would learn that only postfacto. By June 1941 he was convinced that given Stalin’s poor performance in the recent Finnish War, the Red Army’s so-so record in splitting up Poland in 1939, and the well known past purges of the Soviet officer corps—all collated with Stalin’s mysterious efforts to placate Hitler, and denials of the impending threat—the Soviet Union would be impotent, like Norway or France. He deemed its finish a 4-5 week cakewalk. (Remember, Hitler was also using WWI (faulty) analogies: 4 years /defeat in France vs. 2 years /victory in Russia meant 23 years later, a 6 weeks /victory in France would mean 3 weeks / triumph in Russia.

In the Arena

Take a war. Even the trivial can create dangerous impressions.

Korea? Dean Acheson’s inadvertent slip that South Korea lay outside the US protective shield, coupled with (wrong) impressions about Truman, who was on record as wanting to diminish US conventional forces (remember the ‘revolt of the admirals’?)—all that and more helped to convince the communists that the US would not or could not react to aggression, a perception almost confirmed by the time we were encircled at Pusan.

How about the weird Falkland War (‘two bald men fighting over a comb’)? Why would Argentina take on the reputation of the centuries-old British navy over a few windswept rocks?

Let us count the ways: the sinking Argentine dictators needed a nationalist distraction? They thought the new “female” Thatcher would not be so macho? They thought the withdrawal of a British minesweeper from the Falklands would mean that their invasion would be seen as a fait accompli, not as something the far away, supposedly decadent British would fight over.

Hitler could have been stopped during the Rhineland crisis, during the Anschluss, and in Czechoslavakia, given the paucity and vulnerbality of the late 1930s Panzers. But he gambled that the French and UK were far more traumatized as winners in the Great War’s killing fields than were the defeated Germans.

What is the point of this pop historicizing?

Like it or not, the fragile postwar order was largely enforced by the US and its Western allies, along with a general understanding that the ‘system’ had allowed a Russia, China, or the Gulf monarchies to thrive through maintenance of the “rules”.  We spent trillions because we thought it cheaper for us and the world than what started in 1914 and 1939. And we were largely right.

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