It is instructive how the bully boys of US punditry whine and cringe before the specter of chaos. In the current Atlantic Monthly, Robert D. Kaplan, who 12 years ago wrote of The Coming Anarchy, now offers a panegyric to a US Army brigade in Mosul titled “The coming normalcy?” – better-armored vehicles, intelligence delivery and “drinking a lot of chai” with the locals. The classics scholar and military hobbyist Victor Davis Hanson denounces conservative critics of the Bush administration, insisting that the United States is “close to victory abroad, closer to concession at home.” At The Belmont Club, Wretchard pleads, “Iraq is simply where the West must come to grips with The Coming Anarchy because it cannot step around it.”
All of them are deep in denial, or, as the case may be, deep in the Tigris. Like or not, the US will get chaos, and cannot do anything to forestall it. My advice to President George W. Bush: When chaos is inevitable, learn to enjoy it. Take a weekend at Camp David with a case of Jack Daniels and Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (Red harvest in Iraq, January 27, 2004).
A tragedy is unfolding whose final curtain never comes down. Washington must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, because the Ahmadinejad regime wants an oil empire stretching from the southeast shore of the Caspian Sea to the southwest shore of the Persian Gulf (Why the West will attack Iran, January 24). Reza Pahlavi, son of the late shah, warned of Iran’s imperial intentions in a Fox News interview on Saturday. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad cannot abandon Iran’s nuclear ambitions any more than Adolf Hitler could have kept the peace with Poland in 1939 and remain in power.
Aerial attacks on Iran’s nuclear capabilities – Washington’s only effective option – will set into play Iranian assets in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere, precipitating a regional war (War with Iran on the worst terms, February 14).
America’s triumph after World War II and the Cold War made pessimism unfashionable, although the outcome is less cheery than advertised. The US may be a light unto the nations, but it is not a cookbook. Americans forget that their country was founded in despair. The Pilgrim Fathers’ decampment to a new and unknown world (where half their number perished in the first winter) expressed not only optimism regarding Divine Providence, but pessimism about Europe.
Prince Maurice of Orange had arranged the judicial murder of the republican leader Johan van Oldenbarneveldt in 1619. Protestant forces had lost the first battles of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), and Catholic Spain was poised to invade Protestant Holland; the Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote, “The Spaniard might prove as cruel as the savages of America.” As it turned out, the next three decades saw the death of nearly half the population of Central Europe.
Unlike my namesake, I am not pessimistic about civilizations in general. I am pessimistic about some and optimistic about others. At it turned out, Pilgrim pessimism about old Europe was well warranted. The United States of America became the world’s only superpower not by plan, but by default. Like the Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat, the other powers consumed each other. A touch of pessimism about the Middle East is required as an antidote to the delusional behavior of the present administration.
What compulsion requires the US to wage “holistic and ideological wars of the past,” in Hanson’s words, “such as those waged against Italians, Germans, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese, where we not only sought to defeat entire belief systems, but to stay on and craft a stable government in the hopes of stamping out fascism, Nazism, militarism, or communism”? One can suppress the putrefactive power of chaos, but it will reassert itself. A fifth to a half of the constituent nations of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact will die out by mid-century, about as many as would have died in all-out nuclear war.
Part of America’s impulse is Christian. “The West cannot endure without faith that a loving Father dwells beyond the clouds that obscure his throne. Horror – the perception that cruelty has no purpose and no end – is lethal to the West,” I wrote in Horror and humiliation in Fallujah (April 27, 2004). By contrast, “The Islamic world cannot endure without confidence in victory, that to ‘come to prayer’ is the same thing as to ;come to success’. Humiliation – the perception that the ummah cannot reward those who submit to it – is beyond its capacity to endure.” The Western god of agape and chesed does not castigate without reason; the Muslim god of sovereignty and power does not withhold reward for service performed without reason.
Christianity, though, calls the individual out of his nation, into a new people of God that knows no nationality, for God counts the nations “as a drop of a bucket, and the small dust of the balance.”
Americans evince a generosity of spirit elsewhere unknown, as anyone will discover who travels to the shantytowns of Africa or Latin America. Christian charities funded by middle-class Americans offer help to the truly desperate, whom wealthy locals despise as beasts of burden. President Bush’s adventure in nation-building, I have maintained throughout, stems from the same Christian impulses that bring Americans to tend AIDS victims in Soweto (George W. Bush, tragic character, November 25, 2003).
But the US is in large measure responsible for the chaos that overstretches the world from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. Trade, information and entrepreneurship have turned the breakdown of traditional society in the Islamic world into a lapsed-time version of the Western experience. The West required the hideous religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Napoleonic Wars of the 18th, the American Civil War, and the two World Wars of the 20th century to make its adjustment. To export a prefabricated democracy to a part of the world whose culture and religion are far less amenable in the first place is an act of narcissistic idiocy.
As a policy, what does the pursuit of chaos entail? In essence, it means going back to the instrumentalities of the Cold War: containment, subversion, proxy wars, military intervention where required, and a clear distinction between enemies and friends. Given the absence of a competing superpower – Russia’s diplomatic embarrassment in the Iranian matter being proof of the matter – it is a far easier policy to pursue.
It does not necessarily mean “realism” in the sense of the Kissinger era of diplomacy of the administration of president George H. W. Bush, namely preserving the status quo. When the administration of president Ronald Reagan set out to bring down the Soviet Empire, it did not inquire as to the consequences for Russian or Ukrainian; its object was to reduce a threat to the United States.
The first principle is to reward friends and punish enemies. I hold no brief for the Kurds as a people, recalling that their corner of eastern Turkey once was called Western Armenia. But the Kurds actively seek US patronage and should be accorded it. Turkey is ambivalent about its long-standing alliance with the United States, and Iran needs to be shown that it will not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons, nor interfere with its neighbors’ affairs.
Americans do not wish to shed their citizens’ blood for the purpose of nation-building in countries they do not much care about. The best solution would be to adopt the French model, in the form of a Foreign Legion based offshore. The world still is full of first-rate soldiers with a Russian or South African pedigree who are not suited to civilian life. By extension, Washington might issue Letters of Marque to private entities to deal with enemies at arm’s length.
The US has the wrong sort of military to engage the enemies it currently confronts, for it has the wrong sort of population whence to recruit soldiers. A hundred years ago just 3,000 British officers controlled the whole of the Indian subcontinent, but most of them commanded local troops in their own language. US Special Forces, as I observed in reviewing Robert Kaplan’s book Imperial Grunts (Do you call that an empire? October 4, 2005), display nonpareil technical skill and valor in the field, but unlike the officer corps of the Indian Army, did not cut their teeth on Greek and Latin at school. Of the old British public-school curriculum, the United States has taken only one element, namely the emphasis on games, and ignored the depth of intellectual training that produced a T E Lawrence.
The Israeli army can relegate skilled Arabic translators among its reservists to routine guard duty because Arabic is compulsory for Israeli secondary-school students. Americans lack the cultural depth to manage the welter of ethnicities and sects of the Middle East. At best they can stand back and attempt to contain the damage.
Even at university level, the defeatist left dominates regional studies (Why America is losing the intelligence war, November 11, 2003). The cultural lacuna that cripples US arms cannot be filled quickly. As a long-term solution, the US might establish a National Intelligence Academy in parallel to West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs, and train the sort of intelligence officers it requires from the outset.