Belmont Club

In Search of Plan C

Andrew McCarthy lays much of the blame for the disaster in Iraq on George Bush, whose greatest mistake he argues was lacking a clear vision of who the enemy was. Bush refused to see the problem was radical Islam. Instead of focusing on destroying it, Bush futilely tried to reform it. Failing that, he put a faction in power hoping it would ‘evolve’ as time passed.  But as McCarthy implies, no evolution was forthcoming and the disaster was compounded by Obama.

In late 2008, several weeks before Obama entered the Oval Office, I wrote here about the status of forces agreement (SOFA) the Bush administration was then entering into with the ingrate Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki. … far from democratizing the country in any cultural sense, Bush officials fortified these tendencies by encouraging Iraq’s adoption of a constitution that enshrined Islam as the state religion and sharia as a primary source of law. …

the Bush doctrine morphed from a crackdown on the jihad into a reimagining of the Middle East. When democracy predictably didn’t take, the dreamers decided to define democracy down rather than admit failure. “Democracy” somehow became fully compatible with repressive sharia, and we fantasized that anti-Western Islamic supremacists were democratic allies and that Iran would play a constructive regional role.

Has President Obama been a disaster in Iraq — as in every other place? Sure he has. … Let’s not pretend, though, that America’s Middle East mess is strictly an Obama production. Today … it happens after more than 20 years of willful blindness to the ideology of our enemies, and more than 20 years without a strategic vision of the global jihadist challenge.

Obama took the alternative strategic route of denying that Islam was a problem in need of reform; rather it was our inability to understand and deal with its nuances that lay at the root of security problems. Rejecting the Bush approach of overawing the locals followed by a semi-colonial nation building strategy, Obama substituted engagement, pay-offs and flattery, epitomized by assigning NASA to boost the ego of the Muslim world. The result, as McCarthy notes, bordered on madness:

Today, a Sunni jihadist in Iraq might be killed by an American drone in support, incredibly, of the Iranian military intervention to prop up Iraq’s Shiite government. But if that same Sunni jihadist instead crosses the border into Syria, he will be given American-supplied weapons to fight against the Iranian military intervention that props up Syria’s Shiite government.

As recent events in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Iraq show, the problem with Obama’s conception is it doesn’t work.  It is so bad that it makes GWB look good by comparison.  The world didn’t jump from the frying pan into the bright clear uplands. It jumped into the fire. The threats as it turns out, emerge whether America invades anything or not. For starters, countries in the region were constantly invading each other without any prompting. Iraq invaded Iran in the Saddam years; gassed Kurds and massacred the Shi’ites.  All by his lonesome.

Syria, which was never invaded, unraveled just fine. So too did Libya, overrun by jihadis supported by a president whose name I need not mention, under the Doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect.  And then there’s Egypt, once our ally, now arguably a foe.  Of course September 11  happened before GWB invaded Iraq, as the did the attack on the USS Cole, Khobar Towers, the African embassies, the first WTC attack, etc. though no one can remember that now, except maybe the man who prosecuted the Blind Sheik.

Obama pulled out the Middle East only to prove Trotsky’s dictum “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” America may not believe in invading Syria from Iraq, but Iraq may be invaded from Syria all the same. And it is combat of a most peculiar sort. In contrast to the GWB method of war by nation building and the Barack Obama method of war by surrender and bribery, there is a third model of conflict, exemplified by the way Islam wars on itself.

The tribes of the region, drawing from centuries of experience fighting one another, do so without quarter. It is characterized but not limited to treachery, forced conversion, the carrying away women and children, unlimited cruelty upon the vanquished and ethnic cleansing.  Anything goes, and usually does. Its goal is frank extermination.

While the humanitarian West rends its garments at the sight of Americans handling Korans without gloves, in pointed contrast half a million Iranians and half a million Iraqis died in their short war against each other.  They sent groups of children over minefields to clear them. About 160,000 Syrians have died so far in the civil war, from barrel-bomb, nerve gas, land mines, rocket, gun and dull knife. The roads to Baghdad are reportedly lined with the decapitated bodies of thousands of vanquished men. That’s the Islamic way of war.

One is almost tempted to say McCarthy is right. Maybe radical Islam is the problem.  No take that back: the technology of the West plus radical Islam is the problem. For as academic departments will soon point out, the White Man started it all. Before he supercharged the region with petrodollars, ruined the pastoral paradise, before the West created the air routes, sea routes and highway building technology to enable the locals to import AK-47s, nerve gas, uranium enrichment centrifuges and missiles, they were limited to pounding each other’s skulls with rocks. By destabilizing paradise with modern weapons the White Man has unleashed yet another disaster upon the world.

Yet think for a moment what it might mean if McCarthy is right and Radical Islam is the enemy?

The horrifying implications of treating Islam as an enemy akin to Nazism were explored in 2003 in my essay The Three Conjectures. It argued that the nature of warfare in the region would eventually compel the West to adopt Islamic rules of fighting, for Muslims would resist destruction to the full extent of human ingenuity which centuries of their tragic history had taught them.  The West would be forced to fight like them, since they could fight no other way, which eventually would result in the literal extermination of the Islamic world — or near enough.

This outcome was so horrifying that trying everything else first was the only chance of saving our souls.  This is what GWB failed to achieve; or maybe he only publicly claimed it as a goal, to make it sound good. Yet it seems indisputable that he failed, even though we are perhaps the better for having tried it, even if we failed.  Future historians (if there are any) may draw a parallel between events in 2008 and those of 1953.

One of the key moments of the Cold War came when Dwight Eisenhower continued the containment policy of Harry Truman.  It did not look like a winner then. Harry Truman at that point in history was one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. He had “lost Eastern Europe”.  He had “lost China”.  He had committed the unmentionable crime (to the Left) of dropping not just one but two atomic bombs on civilian targets. And he had just been fought to a draw in Korea by the Chinese, at the loss of 33,386 American combat deaths.

Eisenhower could have rejected Truman’s policy as a ‘failed Democratic policy’. He could have demonized HST and embarked upon a ‘fundamentally new foreign policy’. But Eisenhower continued containment and the rest is history.

Although President Dwight Eisenhower (1953–61) toyed with the rival doctrine of rollback, he refused to intervene in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. President Lyndon Johnson (1963–69) cited containment as a justification for his policies in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon (1969–74), working with advisor Henry Kissinger, followed a policy called détente, or relaxation of tensions. This involved expanded trade and cultural contacts, as well as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.

Containment in 1953 was not the obvious winner. But as Reagan showed in 1989 it was the right choice and Eisenhower had the courage to take it. Whether someone other than Obama might have fixed the Bush-legacy problems and gone on to spreading Democracy in the Islamic world will forever be a what-might-have been.  But the fact is that Obama didn’t and it is now the road not taken.

The track we find ourselves on is unfamiliar territory. We only know is not the fine broad highway that Barack Obama promised to lead us on when he waxed lyrical about himself. Every turnoff leads deeper into the forest and there’s not even room enough to turn around.  If anything, Obama took America from the rutted, but graveled road of the Bush era into an axle-breaking trail to nowhere.

The danger is that events will lead the West by the hand.  Committed to Obama’s forest road, Western security chiefs are already warning a new generation of al-Qaeda, more powerful than the last, has been forged in the furnaces of Syria, Libya, Iraq, Africa and Afghanistan ready to attack.  We already know, if we haven’t guessed already, that Obama’s is not going to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, which in any event, Pakistan already has.

It’s more than likely the West will face attacks in the near future that will make 9/11 look like a Sunday School picnic by comparison. It is more than likely that the Islamic world will continue to unravel and that the inhabitants thereof will not stop until they buy nuclear rocks to pound each other on the head with. Yet if Obama declared Bush’s Plan A to be a mistake and events have shown Obama’s Plan B to be an even greater mistake, it leaves us, as Andrew McCarthy implies, in search of a Plan C.

What is our Plan C?

Are we, as I feared, on the way to the terrible trajectory of the Three Conjectures or is there an escape we haven’t found yet?  One thing seems likely. We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect things to get better.

I believe there is an exit, though I do not know what it is. But the key to finding it lies in facing the facts, even so unpalatable a set of facts as McCarthy proposes, full in the face.

For perspective, let us go back to the widespread pessimism for the future of mankind at the dawn of the nuclear age.  The smartest men of that era looked at the situation and concluded humanity was going to perish. Albert Einstein, shortly before his death, signed a declaration together with Bertrand Russell arguing that mankind was on a pathway of doom. “The prospect for the human race is somber beyond all precedent. Mankind are faced with a clear-cut alternative: either we shall all perish, or we shall have to acquire some slight degree of common sense. A great deal of new political thinking will be necessary if utter disaster is to be averted.”

The gist of the Einstein-Russell manifesto was simple. Better Red than Dead. “The abolition of war will demand distasteful limitations of national sovereignty. … Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

It seems shocking to read now. But if Einstein, Russell, Max Born, Linus Pauling and others could come to that conclusion, you can be sure that the alternatives were not self evident. Do not imagine that the lesser intellects of the Obama administration will not come to a derivative conclusion similar to the old one: better a world under Islam than a world under war, though I should hasten to add the former is much like the latter.

Yet even as Einstein and Russell were despairing, a breed of younger intellectuals were “thinking the unthinkable”. Men like Thomas Schelling (under whom I had the great good fortune to study) looked the Gorgon in the face and with others and created a doctrine for using the nuclear weapons Einstein and Russell lacked. Their great achievement was to quantify the use of nukes as signalling devices.  Deterrence was what made containment work. Deterrence was what gave the militaries something besides fighting to do.

Until this intellectual revolution atomic weapons had been regarded just like big World War 2 iron bombs.  Before the theory of deterrence America literally had no idea about how to use nuclear weapons. The only thing people were agreed upon was they were terrible. Had this mental fog remained in place the worst fears of Einstein and Russell might well have been realized. It was only by “thinking about the unthinkable” that Schelling and his contemporaries found an exit from the nuclear trap that even the geniuses declared was inescapable.

The question of what the War on Terror is — and who the enemy is — will sooner or later shoulder its way to the fore. The unthinkable will force its way past political correctness; push aside the diplomatic evasions, unmask the arrangements of convenience and force us at last to look upon it.

And then we will too hestitate to glance upon it, not only for the sake of “our humanity”, but out of frank fear. And yet if we are to find an escape from the current dilemma this is exactly what we must do. Today’s intellectuals will have to do 13 years after 9/11 what an earlier generation of thinkers did nearly 15 years after Hiroshima: think the unthinkable, say the unsayable — in order to find a way out. If we are to have a war of civilizations, then how do we win it without becoming criminals?

We will have turned the corner, I think, when it becomes intellectually acceptable to discuss fighting radical Islam without being shut down by the PC crowd. Only then may thoughts turn to ways of waging that struggle without predominantly resorting to force. Perhaps beggaring the enemy through the development of cheap nuclear energy gives us a chance. If the White Man’s oil wells created this monster, than the White Man’s new-tech nukes can undo the original sin.

But it will not do to remain in denial, to value talking points over all else. In that way the danger can only grow. The Einstein-Russell exhortation: “remember your humanity, and forget the rest,” is self-evidently wrong. Einstein forgot to remind us — well he was dying — not to forget our brains as well.

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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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