A Hundred Years of Retribution - Given the radical antiwar sentiments I have expressed over the years, I am sometimes mistaken for a pacifist. I am not a pacifist. Though I stand in opposition to every major American military intervention in my lifetime, I am not opposed to all wars or all interventions regardless of circumstance.
I believe the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the Second World War were fought with clear purpose and justifiable cause. I believe that every war since that time has failed on both accounts.
The Korean War was unnecessary because our national interests were by no means at stake. It was unjustified because without the philosophical conflict of the Cold War and the eagerness of the American military to demonstrate its superiority, we would not have been engaged. The stalemate that war produced led directly to the paranoid dictatorship that provokes world powers today.
The Vietnam War was a travesty and a crime against humanity that ranks in its depravity among the worst in modern history: Native American genocide, the Holocaust, the Turkish-Armenian genocide, the Rwanda genocide and Vietnam. It began as an unjustified intervention and became a full-scale war with a fictional account of an attack on our ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. So began the tradition of American presidents lying to congress and the American people to falsify a case for war. Three million Southeast Asians and over 58,000 American soldiers would pay with their lives.
In our long and tortured history of military intervention in Latin America we consistently sided with rightwing military dictatorships over the forces of democracy. Who can forget the world’s first infamous September 11th? Certainly not the people of Chile. It happened in 1973 when the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende was ousted by a CIA backed coup, installing the dictator Augusto Pinochet, beginning a 17-year reign of terror in which dissenters and dissidents were systematically tortured and “disappeared”.
Who can forget Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s incredibly hypocritical comment: “I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
Then came the relatively benevolent foreign policies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Reagan famously traded arms for hostages, empowering our avowed enemies in Iran. Under any other president, his administration’s actions in the Iran-Contra affair would be considered an impeachable offense. His defense was laughable: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it’s not.” This was Reagan’s first term when he was still in possession of his faculties. There can be no doubt that his actions were a blatant betrayal of principle and the rule of law.
To his credit, Reagan refused to be drawn into a bloody war in the Middle East even when the bombs of Islamic militants in Beirut, Lebanon killed over two hundred marines. Those who canonize him now would have called him a coward for withdrawing our forces then. Reagan knew better than to engage in a war without clear objectives, without a visible path to a just end.
Clinton’s turn came in an intervention of choice, an action of distraction in the war-torn land of Bosnia. It was our first experiment in tribal warfare. We pushed back genocide on one side of the conflict and enabled genocide on the other. The moral implications of that intervention, including the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations (and the Chinese embassy), are far more muddled than any Clinton loyalist would have you believe.
The conflict in which Clinton chose not to engage was the genocide in Rwanda. It is important at this juncture to draw a distinction between two types of genocide as defined by international law. When interventionists speak of genocide in Bosnia they generally refer to a forced evacuation or relocation of a segment of the population (think Trail of Tears); when they speak of genocide in Rwanda they refer to mass extermination (think Holocaust).
It is not certain what might have happened had we intervened in Rwanda. We may have failed utterly to stop the slaughter of the Tutsi and found ourselves embroiled in a protracted civil war, spreading from state to state, enflaming a volatile region of the world. What is certain is that we would have been justified in trying. The cause was just though the means were tenuous and the outcome uncertain.
Without retracing the facts (its all documented), there was nothing virtuous about Bush the elder’s intervention in Iraq. A faltering president (and former Director of Central Intelligence) simply wanted an opportunity to prove that America was still the most powerful nation on earth. He proved it so well that his son felt compelled to finish the job years later.
Bush the younger seized the opportunity that tragedy affords and became a self-proclaimed War President. He proceeded to bungle his way through two disastrous wars with a grim determination to fight another. Though the goal was to establish American military pre-eminence and to gain geopolitical advantage (particularly with respect to oil), neither war had a just cause or a visible endgame. We assumed the Afghans would yield their country to American might though they did not yield to Russia or the British or the Turks; they did not yield to Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great but somehow they would lay down their arms to the little man from Texas. We assumed that the Iraqis would forget about our duplicity in the war with Iran (and the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives) and embrace us as the great liberators.
We were wrong. We were so profoundly wrong that the memory and blowback from these strategic blunders may endure beyond Vietnam. In a supreme irony, the most valuable assets we possessed in the war against Al Qaeda after September 11, 2001 were Iran and Iraq. Had we formed an alliance against a common terrorist enemy, engaging Pakistan and the Taliban, we could have crushed Al Qaeda without war. That possibility ended with the president’s proclamation of the Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq and North Korea).
The chronology of events brings us to the presidency of Barrack Obama, who won the White House largely on a pledge to end the war in Iraq. It must be said that he was never an antiwar candidate. He supported the war in Afghanistan. He escalated our involvement there with a surge of 30,000 soldiers in an attempt to capture the “success” of a similar strategy in Iraq. Sadly, that move demonstrated a lack of understanding on both fronts in the war on terror. The surge in Iraq (supplemented by the practice of paying and arming our enemies to fight our common enemies) produced only a temporary effect. It was “successful” only as a political tool to pacify the American people and pass the doomed war effort to the next president. The surge in Afghanistan is even more of a failure.
Now both nations are erupting in renewed civil war and the Obama administration is being tempted by the same Neocons who led us to war under George W. Bush to reinvest. Already he has agreed to several hundred advisors and the possibility of air strikes. Both are or would be mistakes. It has taken our leading foreign policy minds over a decade to understand that we have no allies in Iraq; we have no allies in Afghanistan; we in fact have no real allies in Syria or Pakistan. It would be a mistake because it would represent backsliding on the most critical decision of the Obama foreign policy: ending the Iraq War.
With the exception of the Afghan surge, Obama has resisted the call to war and events on the ground have served only to reinforce caution and diplomacy. Even his limited engagements in Egypt and Libya have had decisively mixed results.
If President Obama wishes to employ military force, he should look to Nigeria and the recent case of Boko Haram, a genuine terrorist group that kidnapped hundreds of girls and young women for the purpose of selling them. In this case and all such cases where the host country is unwilling or incapable of dealing with the criminals, where failure to act would result in horrific crimes (like the rape, murder or selling of school girls), the International Criminal Court should be empowered to convene an emergency session and authorize immediate action.
America should be first in line to answer such a call. The entire world should be prepared to bring its technological, logistical and operational means to track these villains down, free their victims and deliver justice. A timely rendering of international justice would serve notice to all groups intent on committing crimes against humanity. The world is watching and is prepared to act. The same formula for justice could be applied to groups like ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in Iraq or indeed Al Qaeda.
Of course, we would have to ratify the International Criminal Court and that we seem incapable of doing. We would rather commit our soldiers to decades of war and retribution without end.
In the movie Zero Dark Thirty a captured Islamist militant recalls a recruitment letter from the Sheikh: “Continue the jihad. The work will go on for a hundred years.”
Think about that. Remember it the next time an American president wants to go to war in the Middle East. Think about it the next time some Neocon warmonger asks: How long are they going to blame everything on Bush?”
The answer: About a hundred years. Maybe more. People in that part of the world tend to have enduring memories, memories that are passed down across generations. The do not forget British and French attempts to colonize their lands and exploit their resources. They do not forget the British Mandate that carved lines in the sand, creating nations that did not exist, creating Israel without provision for the Palestinians, setting the stage for centuries of conflict and oppression.
They do not forget the American sponsored coup deposing the most progressive and democratic leader in the region, replacing him with a brutal dictator under western control.
They do not forget our double cross, leaving an American military post on sacred land in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War.
They do not forget our support for Saddam Hussein, supplying him with deadly chemical weapons (the same weapons used as a pretense for war) to stem the tide in the deadly war with Iran.
They do not forget and neither should we. Wars in the Middle East have long-term consequences most of which we never see or feel until an explosion disrupts the routine of an autumn morning in lower Manhattan and the world is forever changed.