History, Ideals, and Global Conflict

by Wayne McCormack for the Global Justice Blog – 

The United States is having severely detrimental effects on the post-Soviet world. This short essay is a sympathetic attempt to bring our society back to its own professed ideals. In most simple terms, those ideals of liberty should lead us to leave people alone except for defensive reasons. “We the People” founded a nation on ideals resting on a moral high ground to which the nation aspired but may never have achieved completely. For a variety of reasons, we the current generation have abandoned those ideals not just to our detriment but to the detriment of the globe.

The United States squandered not just the goodwill of the entire world after 9/11, we threw away somewhere over $2 trillion and thousands of lives in Iraq for no discernible purpose other than lining the coffers of select corporate enterprises. We threw away another $2 trillion and countless lives in Afghanistan when all that was needed was the initial strike to clean out the terrorist camps in Tora Bora.

Before I go any further, let me emphasize that I am not just criticizing the Bush Administration for these debacles. President Obama campaigned on putting an end to the abuses of the previous eight years and not only failed to stand up and reclaim the moral high ground but has continued and even expanded some of the prior abuses, such as building the platform for an utterly uncontrollable battle of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones).

Obviously, life is more complex than can be subsumed in one simple appeal to liberty. And geopolitics (with various shifting allegiances and baffling ethno-cultural conflicts) requires paying close attention to various lessons that can be gleaned not just from our ideals but from experience. To summarize, here are a few history lessons that I hope to elaborate:

1. “Never throw good money after bad.” This basic rule of poker should be guiding our decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

2. “It’s their country.” As much as we may abhor abuses by others, one nation can totally remake another only if the invader is willing to displace the entire ethno-cultural population of the occupied nation.

3. “Violence begets violence.” It should be perfectly obvious by now that every killing of a “radical jihadist” produces multiple converts to that cause.

4. “Blaming is not solving.” Even if politicians were willing to place blame where it properly belonged, that would not aid the question of going forward.

5. “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” This is a common paraphrase from George Santayana and ties to similar truisms about refusal to learn.

To elaborate:

#1. Many politicians of both parties are clamoring for the U.S. to intervene in Iraq’s civil war and to continue a military effort to occupy Afghanistan. There was never any reason to believe that we were likely to be better at “nation building” in those locations than any of the thousands of years of predecessor regimes that had made the attempt. Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empires” for good reason – Alexander, Genghis Khan, Persia, Ottoman, Britain, and let us not forget the Soviet Union, all foundered against the fierce and confusing loyalties of Aghan tribalism. Iraq, on the other hand, was never a nation until the British tried to create one there following World War I. The details of that earlier history are far too complex for this setting, but the basic truth is simply that we can no more expect to make a difference there now than we could in 2001 or 2003. Why should we now invest the lives of additional young men and women in a hopeless venture? Throwing good money after bad refers in gambling to refusing to keep investing in a losing hand just because you already have put money on the table. Here we face the prospect of sacrificing healthy potential contributors to our future for the misguided purpose of refusing to realize that the previous sacrifices were a waste of humanity. The mantra of “we broke it so we own it” may work in a department store, but not in geopolitics.

#2. My heart truly bleeds for the women of Afghanistan, some of whom I came to know during a 2008 visit here by Afghan prosecutors. These are lovely people who deserve far better than what the Taliban and tribal elders will offer up. Indeed, if the Taliban had agreed to provide basic human rights to women, I suspect the U.S. could have happily withdrawn from that country long ago. But the fact remains that it is their country to build. We can provide support, both moral and financial, to human rights efforts in-country but there is not the slightest shred of hope that a foreign invader can impose decency on a recalcitrant miscreant group. Similarly, Iraq may be not just one country but at least three. Regardless of how it should be divided up or will be divided by civil war, it is perfectly obvious that it is not our country. To repeat, there is nothing in any of human history to encourage the thought that we can remake either of those countries in our image. Only when invaders have completely dislocated the indigenous population have conquerors successfully remolded a given region.

#3. We continue to make matters worse for ourselves by accepting the jihadist “declaration of war” and continuing to escalate the violence. It is absurd to continue repeating the mantra that we are “at war with radical Islam,” as even Supreme Court Justices have said. President Obama could have entered office by confessing to the errors of the previous Administration and emphasized that the U.S. seeks peaceful resolution of legitimate grievances. (No, there was no chance of prosecuting any of the prior Administration for war crimes, but it was time to admit that crimes were committed in the form of torture, unlawful disappearances, and aggressive invasion.) “Turn the other cheek” is not a weak or meek answer to violence but sound practical advice for how to behave after first exercising necessary self-defense. We want President Putin to defuse tensions in Eastern Ukraine by standing down and letting that country play out its own destiny, but yet for some reason we think it is our business to “rebuild” countries that we invaded.

#4. Republicans want to blame Obama for the two wars that they started. Now they want to “blame” him for his efforts to govern despite the refusal of Congress to govern. When the Supreme Court ruled that his “recess appointments” during “pro forma” Senate sessions were invalid, even some usually alert commentators took this as a rebuke to executive power. What the pundits failed to realize is that the entire left-wing of the Court voted against these appointments – presumably not to hamper the President but to place increased pressure on the Republican majority in Congress to confirm appointments and get on about the business of running the country. It may seem strange to place this conundrum into the arena of “Global Justice,” but the failure of the U.S. Congress to allow sensible governance of this country is part of the “blame game” that could drive us into further disastrous military conflict.

#5. There is another quote from Santayana that counsels against following lost causes: “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” A variation of this thought has been attributed to many wits but is probably just a truism that has as many ancient sources: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Fanatic devotion to lost causes is the way of insanity. That was proven in recent history by such groups as the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Party. I most emphatically am not comparing anyone in the U.S. political structure to those evil hate groups, but staying far away from those dangerous precipices requires due attention to where they went wrong. Indeed, it is the radical jihadist of today who must be educated about the excesses of hate. Their rhetoric about “lost glory” resonates with those of us who grew up in the days of KKK rhetoric about the “Old South” and “States’ Rights.” The strongest response the West can make to the jihadist movement is education, not more violence.

The only reason I can imagine for the Obama Administration’s continued warfare mentality is their fear of being viewed as “soft” or “weak” in the next round of elections. To “turn the other cheek” is not an act of weakness but an act of great courage. Of course one takes appropriate defensive measures (e.g., take out the terrorist camps in Tora Bora) but that’s the end of it. The violent perpetrator has to be shown that he cannot intimidate you into further violence, that he cannot change your way of life through his own violence. At home, the Tea Party should not be allowed to intimidate Congressional leadership into hamstringing the government.

To conclude with another time-honored paraphrase, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” is not unique to Christian doctrine. The same thought can be found in practically every culture with a written history. Confucian and Taoist China, ancient Egypt, Sanskrit India, Babylonia are just a few of the ancient cultures with written admonitions for reciprocity. We expect this in our personal lives, so why not in our political lives, and certainly in geopolitics.

Wayne McCormack is the E. W. Thode Professor of Law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. Professor McCormack teaches Constitutional Law, Counter-Terrorism, International Criminal Law, Torts, and Civil Procedure.