Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The definition of "success" in war: Part II (colonialism and occupation)

[Part I can be found here.]

Shelby Steele, a supporter of the war in Iraq, discusses the semantic and conceptual problem we face when we have no clear definition of victory:

Without a description of victory, a war has no goal.

Historically victory in foreign war has always meant hegemony: You win, you take over. We not only occupied Germany and Japan militarily after World War II, we also--and without a whit of self doubt--imposed our democratic way of life on them. We took our victory as a moral mandate as well as a military achievement, and felt commanded to morally transform these defeated societies by the terms of our democracy. In this effort we brooked no resistance whatsoever and we achieved great success.

But today, as Nancy Pelosi recently put it, "You can define victory any way you want." And war, she said, was only "a situation to be resolved." If this sort of glibness makes the current war seem a directionless postmodern adventure, it is only because those who call us to war have themselves left the definition of victory wide open.

Steele thinks--and I agree--that it's not just the Iraq War that's lacked a definition of victory. As Richard Fernandez writes at his blog Belmont Club, we seem to have a problem with the general concept of a war--except for limited, targeted "operations" such as the first Gulf War.

Any proposed solution to the current conflict with Islamic totalitarianism that fails to take into account its worldwide scope, relentless nature, and willingness to fight very dirty, is going to be a half-baked effort. In order to mount a "successful" campaign with an effective plan, we not only need creativity and intelligence, we need commitment, focus, and an understanding that this will be a long hard fight.

In the beginning of the so-called "War on Terror," Bush's rhetoric did indicate a long, hard fight. But I don't think he prepared the American people for what the Iraq War would entail. Whether this was because he was afraid they wouldn't go along if he described it, or whether he himself (and his advisors) were unaware of how very long and difficult it would be, I don't know. Probably it was some combination of the two; not a good thing.

But at this point we know it will be very long and very hard. I'm pretty sure Bush and all his advisors know that by now, as well. An asymmetrical war against those who will use terror not only with relative impunity but with joy, who believe themselves divinely inspired, and who number in the millions and are spread throughout the world, and who have an interest in foiling us in Iraq--by definition, that's going to be a long hard slog.

But besides the inherent difficulties in defining "success" against a shadowy, non-state entity, Steele thinks Americans have other difficulties in understanding--or, perhaps, accepting would be a better word--what victory in Iraq would look like. Steele thinks the problem stems from our modern-day ambivalence over our superpower status, which makes us want (in this postmodern, anticolonial world) to deny the responsibilities that go with it--duties that hark back to that dread word, imperialism.

Steele thinks that reluctance to accept responsibility is the reason we lack the will to impose the sort of occupation I discussed here. At the end of WWII, America had virtually no such guilt about the occupation of Japan and Germany. This ambivalence/guilt is mainly a post-WWII (and, specifically, post-60s and post-Vietnam) phenomenon.

Steele doesn't mention any psychological reasons for this rejection of responsibility (although, for the boomer generation, I would posit them), but rather, philosophical ones:

Today our antiwar movement is essentially an argument with this fate, a rejection of superpower responsibility.

And this fear of responsibility is what makes us ambivalent toward the idea of victory. Because victory is hegemonic, it mimics colonialism. A complete American victory in Iraq would put that nation--at least for a time--entirely under American power and sovereignty. We would in fact "own" the society as a colony.

He is correct; an occupation does mimic colonialism. But, although related, it isn't quite the same. We did not "own" post-WWII Japan or West Germany as traditional colonies, for example, although we did exercise a great deal of control over them and took responsibility for them.

Traditionally, colonies existed not only as spoils of war, nor as objects of occupation for reforming their governments into functioning democracies protective of human rights and therefore unlikely to aggressively threaten us again (the motives for our occupations of Japan and Germany), nor even as ways to expand a certain culture and way of life (although they were often that, too). Colonies were also ordinarily taken over in order to exploit their natural resources to the good of the imperialist power: in other words, to plunder.

This accusation of motivations of plunder--of an "unjust" motive for the Iraq War--has been at the heart of the belief system (or at least the rhetoric, sincere or not) of the antiwar movement. It's at the base of the "no blood for oil" cries, for example.

To those making the charges, there's no real need to prove we actually are exploiting or appropriating the oil; the accusation stands as symbolic of what colonial powers always do. If the accuser accepts that the US is an imperialist colonialist power, then ipso facto our motivation must be this sort of economic exploitation, which would be both morally wrong and a throwback to the age of colonialism and subjugation of the third world for our (historically, more often Europe's) own purposes.

The causes of the Iraq War have been disputed, and for many they are a confusing and troubling aspect of the war itself. In contrast to Afghanistan, which was known to harbor al Qaeda and therefore was directly implicated in the 9/11 attack on the US, the stated rationales for going to war with Iraq were legalistic, defensive, and moral.

The legalistic and defensive reasons for the war were Iraq's multiple violations of the terms that ended the Gulf War, including Saddam's spotty "cooperation" with weapons inspections. And these reasons were, in turn, part a defense of--of all things--the power of the UN to put teeth into its resolutions.

As such, the current war was actually a continuation of the 1991 Gulf War after a more than decades-long pause. The UN resolutions that were violated included ones concerning WMDs, part of the armistice for that Gulf War, as well. Saddam's noncompliance had been winked at many times, but in light of 9/11 it was considered far more important than before to make sure Saddam did not have nuclear weapons that he could put into the hands of terrorists or use on his neighbors. This was the directly self-defensive part of the rationale for the war (and, by the way, Bush's speech on the subject said that we did not have to wait till this threat was "imminent" in order to act).

Then, of course, there were the stated humanitarian goals of the war. We wanted to liberate the people of Iraq from an oppressor, Saddam. This was not the only reason to go to war, of course, but it was definitely part of it. And even this part got us into trouble--paradoxically, because it's the most morally "pure" part of our motivation. One way it got us into trouble was that--to those who think the US is an evil imperialist power--it was considered just a screen for the "real," selfish motivation for the war: colonialism. Another reason is that with the toppling of Saddam went the responsibility for establishing a functioning government in a country that had been ruled by tyranny and terror for many decades. It was predictable that there would be a jockeying for power among factions, and that it wouldn't be pretty, and that the occupation would require a firm hand and would take a long time, although I don't recall this ever being explicitly stated prior to the war. I believe it should have been emphasized.

To have been emphasized, of course, it would have to have been acknowledged and known. I'm not sure that was the case; if it was not, that would have been a huge failing on the part of the planners of this war.

Transforming Iraq into a nonchaotic state has proven very difficult. But in my opinion, one of the reasons it's been so very hard is that we were ambivalent in our dedication to that goal from the start. We tried to implement it with half-measures that smacked of PC correctness--the best example being the hands-off policy towards al Sadr when his support was still relatively small.

Without an acceptance of the fact that we are an occupation force in Iraq, and all that entails, there's no way the country can be prevented from sliding into chaos, or from falling under the domination of neighbors who are up to no good. That knowledge, I believe, is what's behind the current calls to increase the number of our forces there, if only temporarily. Because, make no mistake about it: if we're reluctant to "occupy" because of the resemblance of occupation to colonialism, our enemies entertain no such moral quandaries.

As with the USSR during the Cold War, Iran would like expand its power and influence in the region. But Iran is only one of the faces of our enemy. There are others (al Qaeda, or Syria, for example). They resemble each other in ignoring the niceties we pay so much attention to. For the most part, they couldn't care less about human rights--or human life, for that matter. And of course, being third-world countries, they are somehow exempt from those nefarious charges of colonialism and imperialism--even though they nakedly and boldly lust for those things (and in some cases, already practice them) themselves.

So, what would victory in the "War on Terror" (better phrase: the war against Islamic totalitarianism) look like? Would we at least know it if we saw it? Would it be a decrease in the number of terrorist attacks, or just in our perception of their likelihood? That would certainly be part of such a victory.

Would it have to include a relatively well-functioning and prosperous Middle East? Try as I might, it's hard to see how the first goal (decrease in the risk of terrorist attacks on us) could be effected without the second, because the hatred and jihadism in that part of the world is fueled by its dysfunctional governments and societies, which are legion. In the modern world, we cannot effectively wall ourselves off from this threat; we must do something about its wellsprings.

That was the real basis for the "moral" argument for starting the Iraq War. Those who were against that war and who argued that, since there were so many other tyrants in the world, why not depose them as well if we were going to go after Saddam, were trying to make the point that there was some self-interest behind our altruistic words about tyrants. And indeed, there was.

But that doesn't invalidate them. Sometimes things are both morally right and in our best interests. And both things are true of reforming the Middle East.

But what a task! How much of this could--or should--be under our control? And how best to go about it (that's what the arguments regarding Iran are all about: talks, vs. clandestine operations to support anti-government groups, vs. military action, limited or otherwise)?

Even if reform of the area is something we could effect, at least theoretically, how much are we willing to spend in money, time, and blood, to achieve it? We've never answered these questions, but the answers depend in good part on how high we evaluate the risk of doing nothing.

To me, the choice is obvious. In fact, it's not even a choice; we chose neither this war nor this enemy. They chose us, and they are not about to change their minds and unchoose us. We cannot ignore the situation, or leave and pretend it will go away. It will not.

So we need a government that is not afraid to use the "s" word--success--and is willing to define it, and able to describe to the American people just what it will take to achieve it.

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