Tag: war

Meditations on Memorial Day

Benjamin Franklin said, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” Given Franklin’s leadership in the struggle for American independence, we can infer that he did not think that there never was a war that was necessary, or a war that was worth its cost. But he reminds us that even necessary wars have terrible costs.

I thought about Franklin when I read an eloquent column on the meaning of Memorial Day by the novelist Mark Helprin, who is also a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He lamented:

Though if by and large we ignore the debt we owe to those who fell at Saratoga, Antietam, the Marne, the Pointe du Hoc, and a thousand other places and more, our lives and everything we value are the ledger in which it is indelibly recorded.

It’s a worthy sentiment, one heard frequently in Memorial Day addresses, and we do indeed owe our lives and our pursuit of happiness to the freedom that America’s soldiers have sometimes had to defend.

But I can’t help wondering: Have all of America’s wars have been necessary to American freedom? Helprin mentioned the Second Battle of the Marne, the great turning point of World War I and the first battle in which Americans started experiencing the enormous casualties that Europeans had been facing for nearly four years. The problem is that World War I was a catastrophe, a foolish and unnecessary war, a war of European potentates that both England and the United States could have stayed out of but that became indeed a World War, the Great War. In our own country, the war gave us economic planning, conscription, nationalization of the railroads, a sedition act, confiscatory income tax rates, and prohibition. Internationally, World War I and its conclusion led directly to the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War. World War I was the worst mistake of the 20th century, the mistake that set in motion all the tragedies of the century. The deaths of those who fell at the Marne are all the more tragic when we reflect that they did not in fact serve to protect our lives and all that we value.

Did the wars in Vietnam and Iraq protect American lives and liberties? Two weeks ago, Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush said that discussing whether the Iraq war was a mistake “does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot.” It’s understandable that an aspiring commander-in-chief would want to spare the feelings of those who lost a loved one in Iraq. But surely it’s more important that a commander-in-chief ask tough questions about when it’s advisable to go to war.

In my book The Libertarian Mind, I wrote about the effects of war: not just death on a large scale but the destruction of families, businesses, and civil society. And thus:

War cannot be avoided at all costs, but it should be avoided wherever possible. Proposals to involve the United States—or any government—in foreign conflict should be treated with great skepticism….We should understand the consequences of war for our entire social order and thus go to war only when absolutely necessary.

On this weekend we should mourn those who went to war, such as my father, who planned and participated in the liberation of Europe, and his brother who was lost off the coast of Normandy, and we should resolve not to risk American lives in the future except when our vital national interests are at stake.

Four Lessons to Ponder Before Going to War

In about 30 seconds this morning on Fox News Sunday, George Will laid out the prudential case for proceeding very cautiously when contemplating a war:

WALLACE: So George, with that as trailer, what’s the lesson that we should take from Iraq, and particularly as it comes to future U.S. policy?

WILL: Four lessons, I think.

First, the government has to choose always on the basis of imperfect information. I agree with Bob [Woodward]. There were no lies here [in the Bush administration’s incorrect claims about WMD]. It was a colossal failure to know what we didn’t know.

Second, the failure to ask Admiral Yamamoto’s question. When he was asked by the government of Japan could he take a fleet stealthily across the Pacific and strike Pearl Harbor, he said yeah, but then what? He knew they would have on their hands an enormous problem in the United States.

Third, Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule: if you break it, you own it. Just as when the Kennedy administration in November 1963 was complicit in the coup against Diem, in South Vietnam, we owned South Vietnam ever after.

But fourth and most important, the phrase nation-building is as absurd as the phrase orchid building. Orchids are complex, organic things. So are nations. And we do not know how to build nations any more than we know how to fix English-speaking home grown Detroit. 

A Word about “Gotcha Questions” and Personal Responsibility

A peculiar tic of contemporary American nationalism is the notion that the American state, particularly if helmed by a Republican president, makes no errors of commission in its conduct of military affairs. No American war was ill-founded, or aimed at a threat that didn’t exist or didn’t warrant the effort. This logic never applies in the domestic sphere for Republicans, where government programs are at best naïve and bound to make problems worse or at worst, venal and Machiavellian.

This tic is the only reason I can think of that we’re actually sustaining a debate in 2015 about whether, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a good idea to invade Iraq. Jim Fallows at the Atlantic argues that nobody should again ask a politician the question, since

the only people who might say Yes on the Iraq question would be those with family ties (poor Jeb Bush); those who are inept or out of practice in handling potentially tricky questions (surprisingly, again poor Bush); or those who are such Cheney-Bolton-Wolfowitz-style bitter enders that they survey the landscape of “what we know now”—the cost and death and damage, the generation’s worth of chaos unleashed in the Middle East, and of course the absence of WMDs—and still say, Heck of a job.

I actually think this makes the case why the question should be—or at least should have been—asked, since at least one fortunate Republican son, Marco Rubio, belongs in Fallows’ bitter-ender camp. To the extent voters—and donors—care about competent foreign policy, they deserve to know that Rubio strongly opposes it, even with the benefit of hindsight.

But beyond the politics, a weird narrative has begun to emerge on the right that asking about the Iraq war is a “gotcha question.” Keep in mind: we are discussing a policy that was dreamed up by the Bush administration, marketed by the Bush administration, and purchased by the vast majority of our legislators, including the likely Democratic nominee in 2016.

Operation Decisive Failure

A front page story in today’s Washington Post highlights that the failure of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen is already becoming apparent:

Two weeks into a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, airstrikes appear to have accelerated the country’s fragmentation into warring tribes and militias while doing little to accomplish the goal of returning the ousted Yemeni president to power, analysts and residents say.

Foreign Policy makes similar points:

Through its backing of Saudi Arabia—with bombs, intelligence, refueling, and search-and-rescue capabilities—and Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen, the United States is effectively at war with the impoverished land that occupies the southwestern heel of the Arabian Peninsula. That war is going spectacularly badly.

None of this should be surprising. Yemen’s history is replete with tribal conflict and failed invasions, as I highlighted yesterday in the New York Times. Yemeni insurgencies have defeated the British, the Egyptians, and the Saudis in the last 50 years alone.

Confused about the Middle East? So Is the United States

Since the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern countries have fallen into political chaos like dominoes. This week’s explosion of conflict in Yemen is just the most recent example. Though many of these conflicts are based on local grievances, they are being exacerbated by the involvement of the region’s larger states, and by the United States.

America’s leaders denounce intervention by unfriendly states like Iran. Yet the United States ignores or even enables such actions by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. In doing so, America is simply contributing to the mess in the Middle East. Washington should back off and refuse to get more deeply involved in further Middle Eastern conflicts.

Yemen’s conflict is nothing new; the Houthi rebels have been active in Yemen for more than a decade, and captured the capital in January, forcing President Hadi to flee south. This week, as the rebels finally reached the southern city of Aden, Hadi fled, and apparently appealed to Saudi Arabia for help in combatting the Iranian-backed insurgency.

Yesterday evening, that help arrived in the form of a massive Saudi air campaign and a reported 150,000 troops. The Saudi efforts are supported by a number of other GCC and Arab states, as well as U.S. logistical and intelligence support.

But like everything in the Middle East today, this conflict isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The Houthis are indeed aligned with Iran, and probably receive monetary support. But they also represent a sizeable fraction of the Yemeni population, and many of their policies – such as opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Yemen – are widely popular. Even more confusing, the Houthis are also adamantly opposed to Al Qaeda, and have spent substantial time and resources fighting AQAP fighters inside Yemen.

This conflict fits with a broader pattern of post-Arab Spring clashes in the Middle East, conflicts which are complex and local in nature, but which are treated as simply proxy wars or sectarian conflicts. The fear that Iran might make gains in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and elsewhere drives Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to respond militarily, increasing tensions and conflict.

The U.S. response to this complex reality has been to reflexively back traditional U.S. allies. But in doing so, American policy has become confused, contradictory and overleveraged. We’re working towards similar goals as Iran inside Iraq, opposing them in Syria and Yemen, all while trying to reach a nuclear deal before the March 31st deadline. How this mess of policy contradictions is supposed to produce viable results is anybody’s guess.

Yemen has a long history of instability, and any military solution to the crisis will likely fail to produce a long-term solution; it will just paper over the problem. It’s not even clear whether the reinstallation of the Hadi government would be best for U.S. interests: though a Houthi government is unlikely to allow U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda, they might prove more effective at fighting the group than the government has.

America should stop reflexively backing traditional U.S. allies in the region, and refrain from deeper involvement in these conflicts. Instead, we should think more clearly about when (and whether) the United States should be involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, and about how such actions fit our overall strategic goals. Because one thing is certain: further U.S. intervention in the Middle East would be an exceedingly bad choice.   

Hold Politicians Accountable for Debacle in Libya

Will America ever again be at peace? Pressure is building for the U.S. again to intervene in Libya.

Less than three years after Libya’s civil war the country has ceased to exist. This debacle offers a clear lesson for American policymakers. But denizens of Washington seem never to learn.

The administration presented the issue as one of humanitarian intervention, to save the people of Benghazi from slaughter at the hands of Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy.

Although he was a nasty character, he had slaughtered no one when his forces reclaimed other territory. In Benghazi he only threatened those who had taken up arms against him.

In fact, the allies never believed their rhetoric. They immediately shifted their objective from civilian protection to slow motion regime change. Thousands died in the low-tech civil war.

Alas, Libya was an artificial nation. When Khadafy died political structure vanished. The country split apart. Today multiple warring factions have divided into two broad coalitions.

“Operation Dignity” is a largely secular grouping including Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” and the internationally recognized government. Last May Haftar launched a campaign against the Islamist militias with covert support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

“Libya Dawn” is a mix of Islamists, moderate to radical, and conservative merchants which now controls Tripoli. They are backed by Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey, and deny that the Islamic State poses much of a threat.

Yemen’s Chronic Instability

The last few days have brought dramatic news from Yemen: rebels occupied the presidential palace, initially forcing constitutional concessions and then the resignation of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. The president was, at least nominally, a U.S. ally, cooperating with U.S. forces on drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP).

Yemen itself had even been hailed as one of the few successes of the Arab Spring, with a negotiated transition resulting in steps toward democracy. But such an interpretation glosses over Yemen’s long history of instability, as well as intervention by foreign powers. The current conflict is not only a popular uprising, it’s a proxy war, one that has been worsened by U.S. policy in Yemen.

Yemen has experienced chronic instability throughout its history, in large part because of interference from Saudi Arabia, which has long been worried about Yemeni influence. The first Saudi king, Abdulaziz, is reputed to have called his senior sons to his deathbed, admonishing them to “keep Yemen weak.” The Kingdom has at various times provided funds not only to the Yemeni government, but also to various opposing tribal leaders.

The most recent iteration of Yemeni instability is a decade-long civil conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, Sunni militias, and a Zaidi Shi’a militia group known as the Houthis. This latter is also known as the Shabaab al-Marmineen (or the Believing Youth), and is believed to receive large quantities of funding and arms from Iran (and formerly Syria). The insurgency has spanned a decade, with only sporadic ceasefires, resulting in widespread death and displacement. The Houthis even initiated cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia in 2009, which led to a large-scale Saudi invasion of Northern Yemen.

The Houthis were also heavily involved in the 2011 protests against Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, although they rejected the Saudi-negotiated transfer of power to then–Vice President Hadi. Since late last year, the Houthis have controlled large parts of the capital Sanaa, although power has remained nominally vested in the hands of the Hadi government.

The crisis in Yemen is thus not only a civil conflict, but also a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this, it is similar to the early Syrian civil war, which was initially driven by Saudi support for rebel groups and Iranian support for the Assad regime. While the situation in Yemen is unlikely to deteriorate in this way, it is worth focusing on the fact that many conflicts in the Middle East are actually driven by larger regional actors, some of them U.S. allies.

U.S. involvement in Yemen has also helped to worsen this crisis. The Hadi government’s support for U.S. drone strikes against AQAP contrasts strongly with Yemeni popular opinion, which has been widely outraged by the killing of innocents. Such unfortunate killings are driven by U.S. reliance on Yemeni targeting data: Yemeni leaders have a tendency to present political rivals as terrorists in order to engineer their demise. These deaths have driven growing anger at the Hadi government.

Ironically, the Houthi fighters are themselves strongly opposed to AQAP and actively engage in combat against the group. There is even evidence that the United States has cooperated with the Houthis on targeting AQAP.

The situation in Yemen remains fluid. The country appears to have no leader, and it is unclear whether the Houthi occupation of the capital constitutes a coup or not. But in either case, the United States should stay out of the conflict, evacuating the embassy if Sanaa becomes too dangerous. The crisis in Yemen is typical of the country’s long-running instability, and the pressures it faces from regional powers. U.S. involvement won’t help.

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