Belmont Club

The Desert and the Sown

Two pageants held the attention of the media over the last few days.  The first was the burial of the Saudi King, which though ceremonially simple attracted presidents and kings, prime ministers and potentates, a testament according to the BBC’s Jonny Dymond, of “Saudi Arabia’s global standing”.

The second was the world economic forum at Davos, which had so many “power” figures that its participants had to be categorized into divisions like the Oscar awards. You can read about the The 2015 Power Women Of Davos, for example.  Both spectacles proved Barabara Tuchman was wrong when she wrote, in her account of the run up the Great War, that the age of royalty had ended. The well known passage from her book, the Guns of August, was intended as the epitaph of an era.

“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”

Today royalty has risen from the grave. Had Tuchman foreseen the burial of a Saudi King or the gathering of a global elite to which the preferred mode of transportation was the private jet she might have known that royalty never went away, just changed the alias it was living under. But if kings live once again in castles, the brigands for their part still haunt the hinterland. That much has not changed either.

Walter Russell Mead argues it would be a mistake to think that every armed host that arrives without the gates are come to make their obeisance at court.  For there are still brigands and they have other uses for knives besides spreading butter.

There are three subjects on which virtually everybody in the Western policy and intellectual establishments agree: think of them as the core values of the Davoisie: The first is that the rise of a liberal capitalist and more or less democratic and law-based international order is both inevitable and irreversible. The second is that the Davos elite—the financiers, politicians, intellectuals, haute journalists and technocrats who mange the great enterprises, institutions and polities of the contemporary world—know what they are doing and are competent to manage the system they represent. The third is that no serious alternative perspective to the Davos perspective really exists; our establishment believes in its gut that even those who contend with the Davos world order know in their hearts that Davos has and always will have both might and right on its side.

But Putin lives and thinks outside of the Davos box. By Davos standards, Putin is a heretic and a renegade. He thinks the whole post-historical Western consensus is a mix of flapdoodle and folderol. It is, from his perspective, a cocktail of ignorance, arrogance, vanity and hypocrisy, and he wants no part of it.

Putin, argues Mead, is “in it to win” in a way that we are not.  Our royalty has forgotten the meaning of the word.  The Wall Street Journal described how America went about supporting the “moderate rebels” in Syria with reams of forms and a handful of ammunition.

CIA officers secretly analyzed cellphone calls and email messages of commanders to make sure they were really in charge of the men they claimed to lead. Commanders were then interviewed, sometimes for days.

Those who made the cut, earning the label “trusted commanders,” signed written agreements, submitted payroll information about their fighters and detailed their battlefield strategy. Only then did they get help, and it was far less than they were counting on.

Some weapons shipments were so small that commanders had to ration ammunition. One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter.

Anyway the Islamist enemy, as per our intellectual establishment, don’t even exist. “You cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists,” former DIA Chief Michael Flynn told a conference in Washington.  Flynn:

[Flynn] said the administration is unwilling to admit the scope of the problem, naively clinging to the hope that limited counterterrorist intervention will head off the ideological juggernaut of religious militancy.

“There are many sincere people in our government who frankly are paralyzed by this complexity,” said Flynn, so they “accept a defensive posture, reasoning that passivity is less likely to provoke our enemies.”

Enemies, shenemies.  We don’t want to get into “winning” and “losing”.  We want to play the Davos game. If only they would too. But in fairness it’s not just the administration that thinks like this. Passivity has now become the ethos of our civilization. Robert Beckhausen at War is Boring writes that 44 Filipino police officers are dead because the Philippine government didn’t want to defend itself because it might break the ceasefire. The police were sent “on a ‘law-enforcement operation’ against Malaysian bomber Zulkifli bin Hir, alias ‘Marwan’ … on Washington’s list of most wanted terrorists with a $5-million bounty while Usman carries a bounty of $2 million.”

But the SAF [cops] didn’t tell the army about the operation, fearing the mission’s timing would leak to the rebels. Nor did the SAF tip off the two agencies responsible for coordinating with the rebels and maintaining the cease fire.

“Yes, we did not coordinate as we don’t want any leak,” one SAF officer told the Philippine Star. “But was it correct to just let your brother-in-arms die in the hands of the enemy?”

But had the army intervened, it would break the ceasefire with the MILF. Then a lot more people would die.

For the army’s part, the troops “were ready to reinforce the police commandos, but that their hands were tied by the government’s ceasefire agreement,” the Star reported.

Of course the Islamist rebels don’t really care about the ceasefire — and perhaps neither does Putin. But our side does and believes in the three rules of Davos with the fervor a fanatic. And we are never going to stoop to their level.  Floyd Whaley of the New York Times writes: “Botched Philippine Police Raid Jeopardizes Peace Deal With Rebel Group”.

Naturally US helicopters helped lift out the dead cops.  Doubtless politicians will be ‘deeply saddened’ and you will read about it in the papers.  There will be hashtags and candles and wreaths.  Our dear leaders will try to have it both ways at once as usual and  promise safety without defense, freedom through surveillance, ease through delusion and something for nothing.

But its hard to think about police versus “M-60 machine guns, modified long-arm sniper rifles, .50-caliber heavy weapons, mortars, improvised explosive devices, landmines and various types of automatic assault weapons” and not recall the 16 bullets per month per fighter.

Perhaps the greatest service those dead cops have performed by perishing in some little known town is to demonstrate just exactly what lawfare looks like. It looks like a war you deliberately set out to lose.  And it probably looks that way all across the world as men risk their lives for — what exactly? Flynn was right: “you cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists”. And eventually people will stop going through the motions when they realize that it’s dumb to be the last to know.

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