Belmont Club

The Mouse that Roared

Michael Yon, reporting from Afghanistan, repeats a question that is often put to him by villagers. “Why does the Coalition spend so much in the dangerous places like Kandahar and Helmand, when you are welcome here?”

The question has come up repeatedly here, as it does in other more peaceful areas … The Kurdish used to ask this question in northern Iraq. We spent billions on people who blew us up, and mostly ignored those who offered tea. …

We expend huge effort to tame the wild villages while investing scant attention elsewhere. The message is clear. While attending a funeral service for a killed policeman, the governor of Nimruz Province said to me over tea, “Do you want that we should fight you, too?” By contrast, neighboring Helmand Province absorbed substantial Coalition aid and blood. The idea of investing more into our allies and expending less on our enemies is not new. We can strengthen allies with small investments instead of taming the bleeding ulcers with our own blood and hundreds of billions of dollars, which go more into military operations than into nation building.

It was almost as if it were more lucrative to be America’s enemy than its friend. Friends are taken for granted. Enemies are bought off.  The bigger problem that Michael Yon addresses is ‘how do you win the peace’? In the years since September 11, 2001, the US military discovered a strange thing in the course of fighting the War on Terror.  Blowing stuff up is now easy.

Advances in technology mean that it is now a relatively trivial task to defeat the military forces of any given nation. It is the stabilization operations that are hard.  War is cheap. Peace is dear. American forces could smash their way to Baghdad through the biggest and most fearsome army in the Middle East in a matter of weeks.  But putting together a new Iraq was altogether more tricky.

The latest demonstration of the almost unbelievable power of American arms is Libya.  The Duck of Death never had a chance. After US forces smashed open the Libyan air defenses and European forces could operate safely within the now permissive environment, it was just a matter of time before Khadaffy fell. Somewhat more difficult is the question of how Libya will be put together again and whether Islamist politicians will not take advantage of the power vacuum to set up their private fiefdoms in the same way al-Qaeda took advantage of the regime change in Iraq.

It is as if the arts of peace have fallen behind the arts of war. America finds itself in a miniature version of the atomic asymmetry of 1945: in possession of a vast destructive capability without a real idea of how to use it to build a better world. Part of the problem is the lack of a theory about how to use this vast power.

The last words on Khadaffy’s mind before he died might well have been, “what did I do to deserve this?” Not that he wasn’t a bad guy, but what line did he cross and when did he cross it to unleash the thunderbolt that descended on his head? For decades Khadaffy had been drifting in and out of parole; now on the West’s Wanted List, now and again removed from it.

Until recently leaders had a pretty good idea on which side of the line they stood. But things are murkier now. When is the phenomenal power now in evidence going to be used? Is it to prop up the Europeans when threatened with an oil embargo? To influence the “Arab Spring”? To avenge Pan Am 103? To kill terrorist sponsoring regimes on general principle?

It is clear when omeone decides the line has been crossed, then not even the leader of a medium-sized, oil rich country can have long to live.  According to the Washington Post the United States has established an network of killer drone bases all over Africa and the Middle East, operating in at least six countries, operating out of a seventh and in negotiations for expansion to an eighth.

The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said. …

The U.S. government is known to have used drones to carry out lethal attacks in at least six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The negotiations that preceded the establishment of the base in the Republic of Seychelles illustrate the efforts the United States is making to broaden the range of its drone weapons.

And more is on the way. Lasers from space that can incinerate a single man giving a speech on a balcony may now be possible. But where is the line? That is no longer so clear, not even to Congress, who were told that Libya was fought under a responsibility to protect civilians, a justification that has long ago been discarded as a talking point. It is possible that the administration doesn’t know itself, in any rigorous policy sense, what Libya was for and to what end it was fought. Maybe it was just easy to do. And so they did it.

More importantly no one has figured out the most important thing: how to use weapons so they don’t have to be used.  How to threaten their use in lieu of using them in order to build up the peace. For ultimately the mind must control the sword.  Today the sword is there. It is the mind that is AWOL. Sir John Seeley once stated that the British Empire was acquired in a ‘fit of absent-mindedness’. The probable equivalent today would be kinetic conflicts done to fit some kind of impersonal requirement generated by a bureaucracy that generates nothing but requirements. It may be entirely possible that we live in an era where America can win wars without knowing what for.

But it is only “winning” in the most nonstrategic of senses. The ability to blow things up without reference to any strategic aim whatsoever is in a larger sense, indistinguishable from defeat. As Angelo de Codevilla wrote in his essay, The Lost Decade, “America’s ruling class lost the ‘War on Terror'” because they did not know what is was for.  Codevilla suggests that unlike World War 2, nothing should be done to attempt to rehabilitate former enemies in the War on Terror. Going straight was their problem. America’s only problem was to decide whether they had gone straight enough to let the successor regime live.

If a regime, say Iraq or Syria or the PLO, did not stop behaving as it had since the 1970s, the U.S. government could have overthrown it, and turned its remnants over to its domestic enemies’ tender mercies. The U.S. would not have thought in terms of “nation-building,” but instead would have maintained the distinction between our business and other countries’ business. The short military operations that might have ensued would have wiped out the prominent people who are the sources of our troubles, quickly establishing massive incentives for their successors to respect America.

The problem he noted, was that America was incapable of behaving so ruthlessly against regimes whose members were often business partners of the US elites, besides sometimes being their close friends.

At any rate, a generation lulled into believing that Vietnam “proved that a small nation can resist a big nation” must now come to terms with this enormous capability, so at odds with America’s supposed diminished status in the world.  The sheer destructiveness and expense of war has long been one of its greatest defects.  Who had ever thought of the problems inherent in a world where war was cheap but establishing the peace so expensive?

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