Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Fly Swatter

George Will has recently published an article endorsing "conservative internationalism" as described by Henry R. Nau. This gives me the opportunity to finish a post I began several months ago when I first read this article by Mr. Nau attempting to answer a very important question that almost nobody of any disposition appears to have seriously grappled with: Why did nation building work in Germany and Japan after World War II yet not work in Iraq and Afghanistan? Mr. Nau has accurately diagnosed several problems with U.S. foreign policy and shows an excellent knowledge of the specific issues, problems and options involved. However I cannot agree with his prescribed solution. In his conclusion, Mr. Nau implies that his solution will reduce violence and tame despots in contrast to the straw-man of isolationism, even as it accepts the political reality of a reduced U.S. role in international affairs. Therein lies the primary problem that Mr. Nau has failed to diagnose and fails to solve.

U.S. foreign policy has failed primarily when it is required to adhere to domestic political concerns. This has been the major spoiler in U.S. foreign policy since World War II and its aftermath. The U.S. failed to achieve its objectives in the Korean War primarily because President Truman and theater commander General MacArthur were working at cross purposes to each other for political reasons. Truman put MacArthur in charge of post-war Japan and kept him there because he considered MacArthur a domestic political threat. Truman, ridiculously, believed MacArthur might become a military dictator that would destroy American democracy forever. Equally ridiculously, MacArthur believed it was both possible and desirable that the United States should invade and conquer Communist China to eliminate communism, making the mistake of pursuing an economic and political goal through military means. These political goals were pursued to varying degrees by each figure in the run-up and execution of the Korean War. China was understandably nervous that while Truman publicly emphasized he did not intend to invade China, he still put MacArthur in charge of the Korean War, sending a mixed message about his intentions there. The Chinese and Asians in general don't listen to what you say; they listen to what you do. So when MacArthur ventured way too close to the Chinese border in pursuit of the retreating North Korean Army against the implicit wishes of Truman, the Chinese understandably felt threatened, entered the war and turned what should have been an unequivocal American victory and a united Korea into the situation we still have today. We all know how domestic opposition to the Vietnam War hamstrung the effort from the beginning and ended it before we could win.

After the Korean and Vietnam Wars things become far murkier. In the Gulf War, Bush ended the effort after liberating Kuwait mostly because the coalition of the willing wasn't willing to enter Iraq and end Hussein, despite the fact the U.S. was providing effectively all of the military resources needed for the conflict. As a result there was ongoing violence between U.S. forces and Saddam's Iraqi forces for twelve years, including Tomahawk missile attacks against Iraqi targets under President Clinton in 1998. The Iraq War of 2003 never should have happened, not because it wasn't the right move, but because it was the right move in 1991. What stopped us then? International politics, and the correct reasoning of foreign policy men like Dick Cheney, who argued at the time that Iraq would be politically unstable after an invasion and removal of Hussein's government. Afghanistan is a tougher case, but the one clear lesson coming out of our involvement there is that nation building has utterly failed, though probably not because of anything the U.S. did or didn't do. When I first began writing this, I wrote that even Iraq is better off than Afghanistan. Due to recent events that is no longer clear.

But let's consider, as Mr. Nau does, the case of Germany and Japan after World War II. Germany and Japan were utterly, totally defeated after the war, and the United States and its allies took full political control over those two countries after the war. The U.S. was the sole power in Japan, and Germany was divided into four sections controlled by the U.S., British, French and Soviets, which became West and East Germany. Not only that, but the Marshall Plan funneled $15 billion over four years to European countries to help them rebuild and was by all accounts a great success. The U.S. and its allies provided security for the conquered countries while slowly handing over sovereignty, and in many respects still provides security to these completely independent, sovereign nations nearly seventy years later. Germany and Japan are today two of the world's largest economies, and there can be no argument that whatever the merits of the nation-building strategy generally, it has been undeniably successful in these two cases. Why? Why successful here but not in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Mr. Nau answers this question with an interesting if vague geographical conception of freedom tailored more towards current geopolitics than an explanation of the aftermath of World War II. Perhaps he explains the concept more in his book, but in the article he treats it as self-evident. He advocates that the United States should not engage in promoting democracy and freedom everywhere, but only in those places which geographically border nations which already have democracy and freedom. In doing this, he assumes that freedom and democracy spreads geographically, naturally, and organically, and has no natural enemies capable of limiting its encroachment, at least none that cannot be overcome by U.S. foreign policy. I disagree with both assumptions, but I think Mr. Nau is headed in the right direction here, at least compared to U.S. foreign policy since World War II. At least he admits of factors in play that cannot be absolutely controlled by the U.S. government.

In that time, U.S. foreign policy makers have generally believed that with the right amount of pressure, whether military, economic, diplomatic or some combination, the U.S. can achieve any foreign policy objective that it wants. According to this understanding, the only variable, the only question that is worth answering, is "What do we want?" No one has stopped to ask the question of what is and isn't possible. We have asked that question in short-term, tactical situations of course, but the overriding belief and opinion has been that the U.S. government can make anything happen in the entire world with enough political will, analytical skill and time. I do not say "with enough power", because the center of this belief system is that the U.S. automatically possesses all power. It's no surprise that men of that strain like Mr. Nau adjust their foreign policy to the domestic political realities of the United States and lament the lack of domestic political will for foreign policy goals. It's also no surprise that critics of U.S. foreign policy such as Ron Paul and the hardcore leftists also adhere to the basic assumption that the U.S. can get whatever it wants and conclude the U.S. is solely responsible for all the problems in the world. According to these critics, all problems in the world are the result of U.S. foreign policy mistakes. It is always interesting to me to discover common principles at work in the thought of extremely antagonistic forces. People with such widely divergent views as Ron Paul and George W. Bush all appear to believe that the U.S. government is the primary, essential force moving the entire world. One might even say the U.S. is the "prime mover" of world politics. Very few people have thought to wonder whether or not the U.S. can in fact always exercise complete control over the affairs of other nations, either by action or inaction, correct or mistaken. Mr. Nau is, I think, at least asking the question, but his answer is completely unoriginal and returns to the basic assumption that in foreign policy, the answer to every question is "yes we can".

Though Mr. Nau acknowledges that the U.S. may be unable to achieve "democracy and freedom" in parts of the world that are too far removed from the borders of "democracy and freedom", he advocates a foreign policy position called "conservative internationalism" which assumes that "democracy and freedom" will inevitably spread across the entire globe naturally and that U.S. foreign policy can speed up this process. But he also presents this policy as a domestic political compromise with the express purpose of achieving as active a foreign policy as possible with the assent of the American people in their current political mood. In other words, the U.S. can get as much as the American people want, as fast as they want it, as if there were no other forces acting in the world.

At this point I find myself coming to the difficult task of explaining something I know to be true which I consider self-evident. It is such a basic part of my understanding of the world as a person who has traveled it fairly widely at a very young and impressionable age, that I fear I will fail to explain it to someone without that experience. I will try explaining it abstractly, and then with a story.

Believe it or not, democracy and freedom, wealth and happiness, are not the most important priorities for every culture in the world. Believe it or not, there are some cultures which value all sorts of priorities above their own comfort, liberty and happiness, even above those same things for their entire community. These values may be family, community or national bonds themselves. They may be honor or tradition. Religion is probably the most important value that is almost always completely overlooked in American foreign policy discussions. Men like Mr. Nau may realize this intellectually, but their response is always to argue that democracy and freedom, wealth and happiness, are superior values and will in the end overwhelm all opposition. This is clearly what George W. Bush believes. Many of them even believe these values are never mutually exclusive; that everyone can have their cake and eat it too. They appear never to have considered the idea that many, if not most people in the world are simply beyond convincing. They have made their choice, and no amount of argument, evidence, well-intentioned or not, or foreign policy pressures, either economic, diplomatic or military, can ever change their belief system. It is quite simply beyond any human power to do so, and any view of the world which fails to acknowledge the limits of human power will not only fail to understand the world, but will fail to act rationally and positively within it.

But I promised a story. I think I will tell two, but I could tell many more just like these.

My Christian college group used to spend spring break in Mexico, not having drunken sex on beaches, but building churches and houses for people there. One year we conspired with a local Mexican church to build a house for a very poor family living in a classic shanty house made of cinder block, random wood planks and a tin roof. We had a few architectural students in our group who came up with this really great schematic for a really nice, small prefabricated house that we could assemble mostly before we went and put it up quickly when we got down there. We had the money and the means, and were all set to go with the plan. All we needed was their permission. To our complete surprise, the Mexican family rejected the idea, on the grounds that the house was too nice and it wasn't right that they have such a nice place when all their neighbors didn't. We were flabbergasted. Something like that had never occurred to us, that a family would reject having something nice because their neighbors did not also have it. We tried to push the issue, but the answer came back that they would rather not have us build anything at all then build for them that house. Out of respect for their wishes we made new plans to build a basic wood framed house with a sort of drywall made of concrete instead of gypsum that we could buy locally. Because the new project would take more time, we had to ask them to pour the cement foundation of the house themselves before we got there. Upon arrival, we found the cement foundation had not been poured level and spent four of the five days we had available jury-rigging the wood frame into a compromise between stability and the uneven foundation, complete with shimmys and shanks all over the place. You see, Mexican construction is based on cinder block and cement for mortar. Uneven foundations are not a problem for them, since they just even it out with every row of cinder block they stack. Uneven foundations are, however, a major problem for wood frame construction. We moved everyone in our group off their other projects to the house on the last day just to get it somewhat close to finished, working from dawn till dusk with a gusto and can-do attitude that, apparently, only the Americans had or cared about for that matter. In the end we constructed a provisionally stable structure according to the explicit specifications of the Mexican family who would live in it: it looked like crap. You could not invent a better parable for the project of building American frameworks on foreign foundations.

I went to China in the summer of 2005 with a Christian missionary group posing their missionaries as English teachers, which are in high demand. Many of my students told me their aspiration to be businessmen, and the primary customer of Chinese business is Americans, hence the desire to learn English. These were all high school students, and after awhile it was clear they already knew English better than many Americans. I think we were there just to expose them to native speakers, not really to teach them anything. But I will never forget one night all the American teachers sat up on the stage so the students could ask us questions. I get the feeling they had asked this particular question before and always received the same answer, but could never quite get over it. The question was: If your spouse and your mother were both drowning and you could only save one, which would you save? Of course the Americans all answered by saying the spouse. There was something of an uproar as the students proceeded to explain to us that we were obviously in error. We should save our mothers, for we only have one. One can always get another spouse.

Experiences like these should quickly disabuse intelligent souls of the notion that all peoples and cultures share the same basic values. The idea that the world turns round on the opinions and values of the American public is fundamentally wrong. It is not always our fault when things go "wrong" in the world. There is not always a course of action we could take to kiss it and make it better. There are a great many people who disagree with us about the very idea of right and wrong, or what is better and what is worse. Our "wrong" might be their "right", and it is not our fault if events on the other side of the world go to hell.

The primary goal of U.S. foreign policy should not be to do as much as we can within the political tolerance of the American people. Our tolerance for foreign adventures is not the primary force acting in those places, and it should not be the criteria by which we act there. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why the Constitution gives so much power over foreign policy to the president. It's the same reason Supreme Court Justices have lifetime terms. The purpose is to prevent democratic impulses from exercising influence over processes, such as war and the justice system, where they have so often proven detrimental. Who can forget the public outcry against the business leaders who got billions in bonuses for presiding over failing companies which received government bailouts? But these things were in contracts which have the force of law. It is not appropriate for government to be the vehicle of the democratic urge to wipe out valid contracts whenever it gets peeved. Likewise, it is not appropriate for men like Mr. Nau, who ought to know better, to give legitimacy to the idea that fickle democratic impulses ought to be the primary restraint on U.S. foreign policy. It appears to me, without having read his book, that he accepts this restraint because he doesn't believe there are any other restraints, "borders of freedom" notwithstanding. And that is our problem. It is no less and no more than that. We believe that we are the only power in the world worth consulting. It never occurs to us to let people do the things we know are wrong because it is their decision to make. It never occurs to us that perhaps we should accept a more Westphalian attitude, that the things which happen in other countries are their business not because it is morally right, not because the American public loses interest or willpower, but because they actually do have the power to do what they want, regardless of how or when we interfere. Their choices, their beliefs, their actions matter more than ours do when it comes to the places in which they live, and we don't.

At the risk of this post becoming too long, I have to finish the thought, which is a long and rather complicated one. I began by raising the same question Mr. Nau raised in his article: Why did nation-building work in Germany and Japan after World War II but not in Iraq and Afghanistan? One could argue that Mr. Nau's "borders of freedom" included Germany since it was at least a democracy, but Japan? Japan had never been a free, liberal society and was halfway across the world from any country that was. Was it really a foreign policy concerned with slowly pushing the boundaries of freedom in the world that turned Japan around? Was it anything we did at all? There are really only two things we did. We told them it was their fault, which they certainly already knew, and that we were going to crush them. Then we did, at great cost not only to them but also to ourselves. The rest was up to them. Maybe there is something about total, crushing defeat, but for whatever reason both the nations of Japan and Germany did a rare thing: they repented.  They acknowledged that what they did was wrong, and they turned from their wicked ways.

Can we say the same thing about Iraq and Afghanistan? The question is complicated by the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan are not really nations in the same sense that Germany and Japan are. Iraq has always been three nations in one state, a fact becoming ever more clear after the lightning rise of the Islamic State. The defeat of Saddam Hussein was really the defeat of the Sunni nation's rule over the Kurdish and Shiite nations. Having the Shiite nation turn the tables and rule the Sunnis was never going to solve the problem. This was the only possible outcome of democracy in a state where sixty percent of the population are Shia. The Sunnis refused to accept that, and the Shiites, being something less than the Western liberal democrats we foolishly acted as though they were, refused to work with them. This is the result, and it would have happened regardless of what the U.S. did or didn't do. There is no future for a state with three nations. There is a future for three nation states, and that is now happening. As for Afghanistan, it has never been anything more than a piece of land in central Asia that is too rugged and too tribal to govern. There is no Afghani nation. There is barely even a state. There are myriad tribes and peoples who have never traveled a valley too far from the place they were born, and they know nothing more. There has never been and never will be an Afghani nation, and the state, like Iraq, is a Western construct, a convenience for confused cartographers.

But did they repent? First we must ask what they did wrong. In Iraq, the wrong was primarily Sunni violence and persecution of the other two nations. Obviously the Sunnis have not repented, so there will continue to be violence. It is their fault, not ours. In Afghanistan, the only wrong was the Islamic government living out their religion. In the case of Islam, that is a serious wrong. We have tried to pretend like it isn't. We have advanced the fiction that Islamic terrorists are only a radical, extremist minority. All we have to do is swat a fly and all our problems will be over. Crazy people have suggested that all our problems with Islamic terrorism stem from the fact that the CIA supported a coup against the democratically elected Islamist government in Iran in 1953. Other perfectly rational people say that Islam is a peaceful religion, and our problem is not really with a 1400-year-old religious belief shared by one billion people. (It never ceases to amaze me how much sway recent U.S. presidents think they have over Muslim theologians. Imagine if Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei gave a speech in which he directly addressed the American people to tell us what counts as blasphemy in Christianity. The idiocy is unbelievable. Would it elicit anything other than anger from us? Should we expect any other reaction from them?) Know this: Insofar as the people of Afghanistan or any other Islamic people do not repent of Islam and turn from it, they are not repenting of killing and warring against non-Muslims anywhere in the world, at any time of their choosing or convenience. If we think that a few missiles or yet another Western occupation is going to convince them to change a 1400-year-old belief system, well we don't just have another thing coming. We are already getting it.

Americans are optimists. We believe that every problem has a solution. We'd like to believe that this problem is easily solved. We'd like to believe that it's only a few extremist crazies who believe in Islamic world domination. But look at ourselves. We believe that democracy and freedom will one day dominate the world. Don't we? Is it rational to think that nobody else in the world has the same conviction about their belief system as a bunch of wealthy, comfortable, naive Americans? In most places in the Islamic world, this belief is all they have. It is everything to them. They are not going to give it up. This problem has no solution. There are no "borders of freedom" slowly expanding into the Islamic world. It has nothing to do with borders, territory, wealth, happiness, democracy or freedom. There are no flies to be swatted at the fickle whims of the American public's tolerance for foreign adventures. There is a monster, not of flesh but of spirit. The only solution is to slay it. Otherwise it will live on, terrorizing the world with its evil.

So what do we do about it? The question too often means: what does our government do about it? The answer is nothing. This is not a military conflict. It is a spiritual, religious conflict which no government, not even the most powerful the world has ever seen, possesses the power to resolve. All attempts to do so will fail. There are some immediate, temporary problems tangential to the main issue which can be solved by a proper and realistic foreign policy, but not if we are restrained by the feelings people get when they watch the six o'clock news and realize that, dontcha know it, bad things happen in the world, but only when it happens on my TV set. I have outlined a very simple, but not easy, set of prescriptions for how to handle foreign relations. The current case in Iraq is murky at best, but since the state of Iraq is a Western construct rather than a Middle Eastern reality, I suggest we let it play out. There is certainly no point in airstrikes when we aren't committed to the security of the Iraqi state. When we say the government should act to protect Christian or other religious minorities who live there, we are making it into a religious war. Unlike the Quran, the Bible does not support religious warfare, meaning warfare aiming to force people to live according to different belief systems. Rather, it supports war for all the normal, mundane reasons that states usually engage in it: territory and property rights. It is sad that this is happening to Christian brothers and sisters, but remember what the Bible says about persecution and martyrdom. We consider it pure joy that we have been counted worthy of suffering for the sake of Christ. As Lieutenant Worf so wisely put it, it is not a time to mourn. They will receive their reward. We should not be using military means to solve religious problems. Indeed, part of our problem, perhaps the whole of it, in this area of the world is we consistently fail to acknowledge that the problems there are primarily religious with no military or economic solution.

There are three nations in Iraq. Let them have their three states, such as they are. Let them have whatever type of government they want. Let them kill each other to their hearts content. But if one of those states decides it is in their best interests to cross that line and attack us or our allies, there can be no testing the wind of public opinion. There should be no politically acceptable wrist-slapping centered around the so-called "borders of freedom", wherever the hell that is supposed to be. There must be a clearly defined line, a real border drawn on a map, and once that line is crossed their religious problem becomes our military problem, and our response should be swift with overwhelming military and moral force.

You are men. You have made choices for which you alone are responsible. You have done evil in our sight and in the sight of God. We warned you how we would respond. You failed to heed our warning, and so we will crush you. We hope that you will repent, but we know that you will not. So know this: We will crush you again and again, once for every time you cross the line.

Now that's whack.