Belmont Club

Plain omelette. No potatoes. Tomatoes, instead

Some years ago the US Armed Forces tried to build an operational doctrine around the idea that war and conflict occurred in human structures, rather than in geographical places.  “The Human Terrain System (HTS) is a United States Army, Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) support program employing personnel from the social science disciplines – such as anthropology, sociology, political science, regional studies and linguistics – to provide military commanders and staff with an understanding of the local population (i.e. the “human terrain”) in the regions in which they are deployed.”

It tried to understand war as a human phenomenon.  Although the program as designed was a flawed and  terminated in 2014  there was some merit to its core insight.  People, not things, drive conflict. When we read in the papers that refugees are “fleeing from Syria” or Libya; when the Guardian proclaims that “Gaza could soon become uninhabitable, UN report predicts”, one must ask:  are they running from the rocks and the very air?  Or are they running from the Human Terrain?

The question applies not just to Gaza, but whole swathes of the Middle East and North Africa which may soon become “uninhabitable”.  It would be useful to know why.  The reason millions are fleeing is not because they prefer the climate or landscape in Germany but because they prefer the institutions.  The Human Terrain is better in Germany and so the populations of MENA are embarked upon a wholesale relocation.

That was not always the case. Seventy years ago the refugees were running all the other way.  In 1944 the Human Terrain in Europe sucked. What the victorious Allies did was alter the institutions, the culture, the zeitgeist.  Once they did that, war went away.  There are now new institutions that are far different from the old.

But the basic laws of institutional behavior remain, one of the most important is that organizations can only do what is in their repertoire. Bureaucracies are like jukeboxes.  They can’t play what’s not on the list.  One of the most striking examples of this is the scene in the 1970s movie, Five Easy Pieces. in which the character played by Jack Nicholson unsuccessfully tries to order breakfast items in a diner which are scattered in different parts of the menu.  He simply couldn’t get a “plain omelette. No potatoes. Tomatoes, instead”.

In the old days the phrase for this was “just following orders”.  Today the same constraints will apply to the EU’s response to  refugee/migrant crisis.  Even though logic dictates that the only long term policy alternative to absorbing the MENA population  is helping them make their countries “habitable” again by reforming its Human Terrain, this option is not on the menu.

The Eurocrats have looked in the handbook and there’s no entry under “crisis” for effecting the transformation the Allies did to Germany 70 years ago —  described by Dwight Eisenhower in his book Crusade in Europe. The new EU handbook says “Crusades” are strictly forbidden and are to be regarded as “cultural chauvinism” and “evil”.

That’s out so the EU will give you something else. Like the waitress in Five Easy Pieces,  it can provide items from a wide selection of welfare products, even if it’s not what anybody needs or wants.   Is ISIS blowing up Palmyra?  “We can provide you resettlement.”  Are they beheading the sheiks in Anbar?  “We can provide you with public housing.”  Is Saudi Arabia now invading Yemen and vice versa?  “We can point you to the nearest transgender bathroom.”

Pity them.  They’ve got to do something and this is all they can do. You really can’t blame institutions for rigid behavior.  It doesn’t know how to do anything else. To the EU, the refugee/migrants are just more applicants for a government program.  To illustrate just how powerful institutional routines are, consider one of the recent emails which came to light during the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server.  It is from Chelsea Clinton to her mother, expressing horror at the absolute uselessness of the United Nations.

On February 22, after a four-day visit to the quake zone, Chelsea Clinton authored a seven-page memo which she addressed to “Dad, Mom,” and copied their chief aides. …

The memo—by a Clinton, with a master’s in public health from Columbia University, pursuing a doctorate in international relations from Oxford and with a prominent role at her family’s foundation—would have obliterated the public narrative of helpful outsiders saving grateful earthquake survivors that her mother’s State Department was working so hard to promote. …

“The incompetence is mind numbing,” she told her parents. “The UN people I encountered were frequently out of touch … anachronistic in their thinking at best and arrogant and incompetent at worst.” “There is NO accountability in the UN system or international humanitarian system.” The weak Haitian government, which had lost buildings and staff in the disaster, had something of a plan, she noted. Yet because it had failed to articulate its wishes quickly enough, foreigners rushed forward with a “proliferation of ad hoc efforts by the UN and INGOs [international nongovernmental organizations] to ‘help,’ some of which have helped … some of which have hurt … and some which have not happened at all.”

“The incompetence is mind numbing” is a phrase worth repeating and it may go far toward explaining why Gaza, which has been the recipient of UN aid for more than two generations of men, is now deemed “uninhabitable”. Institutions can only be reasonably expected to do what they do. And the UN did what it does. What is unreasonable is to imagine that, knowing this, one would actually rely on the UN to solve the problem.

But bureaucrats press the only buttons they have. In a way “resettlement” is the closest the EU can get to a fix in MENA representing the idea that by diluting the Human Terrain which caused the war with that of Europe,  which built the BMWs, that something like the mix of hot and cold in the shower will result.

Nor are the Europeans particularly dumb.  Politicians only know how to do a limited number of things.  Nicholas Kristoff, a columnist in the New York Times tweeted “I generally agree with Obama’s foreign policy, but he has badly mismanaged Syria, and the result is the tragedy and outflow of refugees.”  So what does the president do?  He goes to Alaska and renames a peak.  He goes and stares down a glacier.  He issues an emergency order to accept refugees from Yemen.  It’s easy to rename rocks.  It’s harder to change people.

The men in Brussels probably don’t have a plan to meet the refugee crisis. The tide of refugees is something they never imagined could happen when they optimistically devised the Schengen agreement to abolish internal borders. Now the EU is like a ship without interior subdivision with a leak in the hull.

But surely now they will learn — or maybe not. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand is widely credited with the argument that bureaucracies never reform. After the Bourbons had returned from exile to France some had hoped that their near escape would chasten them into correcting their mistakes. But in a letter Talleyrand observed that they were unlikely to evolve. “They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.”

But in this Talleyrand was wrong.  We learn nothing and remember nothing.  We’ve forgotten the failure of the UN in Haiti already and are actually relying on it to inspect the centrifuges in Iran. The Human Terrain is one of the hardest of all landscapes to change. You will sooner reach the depths of the ocean than plumb the heart of man.

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