Monday, 18 October 2010

The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and only Liberals – Can Win The War On Terror and Make America Great Again (Peter Beinart)

The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and only Liberals – Can Win The War On Terror and Make America Great Again
-Peter Beinart

‘Liberal’ is something of a dirty word these days, as Peter Beinart ruefully notes; ‘Liberals’ are blamed for having caused, at least in part, the chaos of the War on Terror that we face today. The charge has a certain element of truth to it; liberals pushed through immigration compromises that were not compromises, liberals opposed the war on Iraq to the point where they half-convinced the enemy that they were stronger than they were, and liberals have often opposed security measures designed to make the world safer. Regardless, Peter Beinart, journalist and editor-at-large for The New Republic, believes that only liberals can win the War on Terror.

Beinart begins with a short history of post-WW2 liberalism in the United States, covering the Civil Rights era, the McCarthy period and the self-destruction of American liberalism. Liberals, according to Beinart, found themselves caught between the demands of their belief system – a theory that the US should always act with pure intentions – and the dictates of the real world. Internally, liberals opposed segregation and pushed for rights for blacks; externally, liberals found themselves caught between the belief that ‘Uncle Joe Stalin’ was a good guy, and the truth of soviet occupation of most of Europe. As Beinart puts it…

“Liberals like Pepper and Gahagan Douglas did not want Greece and Turkey to fall to Soviet aggression. Yet they could not bear to see the US back faulty governments.” (Page 7)

Or, perhaps, they did want to watch the countries fall, as long as it allowed them a chance to play at being morally superior to everyone else.

As the Cold War grew darker, it didn’t get much better. The liberal movement was fracturing and demands for ideological correctness became much more important than facts, facts, and more facts, while opposition to the government became a requirement. Parts of the liberal movement saw themselves as always cast in the role of opponent to the government, whatever was really happening.

“[Paul Berman’s (left-wing journalist)] article called the Sardinists Leninists and condemned their humans rights abuses…but [his] editor tried to kill the story, saying that it would play into the Regan administrations hands. It was an old argument; Berman was saying that liberals should oppose any denial of freedom. For [the editor], liberalism’s only struggle was against the right” (Page 71)

The editor’s name? Michael Moore.

A point that was not made by Beinart, although pretty important to his theory, lies in the distinction between the academic and the real world. Those who opposed civil rights didn’t just operate from racism; they thought that the government would be giving money – their money – to black men, in compensation for actions they personally had nothing to do with. Yes, racism is always wrong, but many – hell, almost all – of the people alive in 1960-70 had nothing to do with forming the conditions that the slaves and the former slaves lived under, and they were not prepared to pay, personally, for repairing the damage. Ideals are one thing, but on the real world, I would not be prepared to pay half my salary to help people who need it, not with my own family at stake.

“At its core, doughface liberalism offers an escape from the choices the real world requires.” (Page 172)

The end of the cold war allowed the liberals their own chance at governing. Many of the wounds within the body politic had healed, others had been allowed to fester, but liberalism failed to learn from experience. Liberals placed their faith in international institutions, failing to grasp that they depended upon almost universal agreement; there was no logical reason, for example, for North Korea or Iran to vote in favour of sanctioning Saddam, despite the evil nature of his regime. In effect…

“From Henry Wallace…to Michael Moore after September 11th, some liberals have preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world.” (Page xi)

Liberals – as a general rule – failed to grasp the simple fact that the world was not perfect and never would be perfect, regardless of how much money was poured down the drain of trying to help the remainder of the world. The net result was that the liberals lost touch with the working classes of America, and to some extent, their support in other areas was bleeding away as well.

And then came 9/11.

In a very real sense, liberals should have taken the War on Terror as a golden opportunity to re-examine and revitalise their beliefs. Although Beinart noted that “Today, however, there is no totalitarian superpower to put America’s actions in flattering context” (Page 195), he was incorrect; the world is full of states that put America in flattering context. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq…all of them acted in ways that should have horrified the liberal mind. Women are treated as second-class citizens at best – cattle at worst – homosexuals are stoned to death, non-Muslims or the wrong kind of Muslim face horrifying persecution, the schools are crammed with teachers who blame everything on the Great Satan and it’s motley collection of Jews, Homos and…you’ve guessed it, liberals. But liberals do not. As Beinart puts it…

“If today’s liberals cannot rouse as much passion for fighting a movement that flings acid at unveiled women as they do for taking back the Senate in 2006, they have strayed far from liberalism’s best traditions.” (Page xii)

Beinart, who supported the Iraq War, recognises that the War on Terror must be fought. But, for many liberals, the term ‘the War on Terror is the war that must be fought’ translates as ‘we must fight the War on Terror.’ Liberals, particularly the hardcore left, found themselves in the trap of believing that military action never solves anything, missing the simple fact that many Americans believed just that…and they were right. Liberals found themselves out in the cold.

“The premise that America could best fight terrorism by fighting its own imperialist impulses made it difficult [for liberals] to endorse a military response to 9/11.” (Page 171)

The net result of liberal actions is that liberals are often regarded as ivory-tower intellectuals at best, or outright traitors at worst. Liberals may be able to rise above the very human desire to just hit back – although I doubt it – but that is not true for the vast silent majority. The legal system that liberals are so fond of was never designed to handle an international terrorist organisation with no strong links to a government that was actually willing to help. Regardless of the deeper causes of problems, liberals – who have every incentive to get behind the War on Terror and push – ended up smearing themselves as enemies. Beinart may have supported the Iraq War, but he criticizes it heavily, apparently unaware of the simple fact that there were elements that were beyond the US’s ability to control.

“Had the Bush administration realised before the war that Iraqi democracy had to be built and not simply unleashed, the occupation would have gone better. But that does not mean that it would have gone well.” (Page 158)

It is in proposing alternatives that Beinart’s plan falls down. The main set of proposals cover international involvement and a long-term project of social work that might alter the face of the Middle East, perhaps based on the Marshall Plan. It is an interesting concept, but both of them fail; the international community simply could not provide any large-scale unified help for Iraq, regardless of how much the US offered for the help. French interests – not the same as American interests – dictated opposition. Russian interests dictated opposition. Turkish interests dictated opposition. There was nothing – literally – that America could have offered to make their support worthwhile…and as for states like Libya or North Korea, which had good reason to fear American military actions…well, would you expect them to vote in favour? They’d be signing their own death warrants.

And as for reshaping the face of the region? It is, I concede, a better suggestion, but again, it possesses fatal flaws. What Beinart fails to grasp – what most liberals fail to grasp – is that there is much about the liberal agenda (homosexual rights, female rights, religious freedom, to name, but three) that is anthemia to many of the people who live in the Middle East. Anyone trying to teach girls that they could be equal to a man would have to cope with the fact that the girls would probably be beaten back into submission, or that they would have no chance to actually use their education, or that…there would be no protection for them. The liberal vision of law and order misses the point that there is no law and order in the Middle East…and that no one will protect those who take his aid. If the price of accepting American aid is being killed by insurgents, no one is going to take American aid. The region needs law, order, and justice…and the only way of actually ensuring that is to take over, crush resistance, and rebuild the area. This is what we did in Germany and Japan…and it worked.

Dreams are interesting, Mr Beinart, but they have to be practical as well.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Ministry of Defeat - Richard North

Ministry of Defeat
-Richard North

The odd thing about the American defeat – if such a word can be used – in Vietnam is that it came about through internal problems, not military defeat. The Viet Cong were beaten. The North Vietnamese Army was beaten. The bombing of North Vietnam was shockingly effective (although this was not appreciated at the time.) The US effectively won the war. It was defeated by the home front and an astonishingly effective propaganda campaign. Not for the first time, the communists probably didn’t believe their own success.

The odd thing about the British ‘victory’ in Southern Iraq is…well, it was a defeat. Worse, it was a defeat that came about because of flawed political and military decisions, taken not by the men on the spot, but men in Whitehall. The scale of the disaster was never understood by the home front – even I didn’t know the half of it, and I am as well-informed as any civilian could reasonably hope to be – due to a compliant media and a sheer lack of comprehension. The British government preferred to believe it’s own ‘spin’ rather than the truth. In doing so, they betrayed the British soldiers who went to war without the right equipment and no clear plan, and the country itself. Charges of treason would not be inappropriate.

That is the conclusion, one I strongly endorse, of this remarkable book. There are actually relatively few British writings on the subject of Iraq, although Sniper One and Eight Lives Down provide some insight into the lives of the soldiers there. It should be noted that Sniper One paints a picture of Basra – and Iraq – that was at variance with the official government-promoted version of events. Ministry of Defeat provides an overall history of the occupation – something that has been sorely lacking – and details, in a very ‘take no prisoners’ attitude, just went wrong in Iraq.

[EDIT - since writing this, many other books have been written on UK involvement in Iraq.]

The core of the matter, North writes, is that the British Government refused to recognise that it had a serious problem on its hands. As the militias gained power in Basra, the government preferred to believe that it wasn’t a serious issue – little more than a public order issue – and convinced itself that Britain’s expertise from Northern Ireland gave it an advantage over the US. That might have been true if the expertise had actually been used (it wasn’t)…but in any case, Basra was not Northern Ireland. This little piece of self-delusion cost lives, Mr Blair! The troops in Ireland had far better intelligence and much higher troop levels. Much has been made of the shortage of American troops after the Fall of Baghdad, but the British had the same problem and, unlike the US, the MOD learned fuck-all from the experience.

If that wasn't bad enough, the equipment procurement process was badly screwed up. When the RAF was being allowed to spend billions on the Eurofighter, the Army had to make do with the Snatch Land Rover – which Northern Ireland experience had shown was badly under-armoured – which caused the deaths of many British soldiers. The issue was not that the British Army was under-funded – although soldiers were being underpaid for their role – but that the money was being spent on long-term programs that would not provide useful equipment (if that) in time to be useful.

It is quite typical, as Donald Rumsfield pointed out years ago, that countries go to war with an army that is unprepared for the task. It is rather less typical that a country would go to war, find itself in serious shit…and then continue blithely developing technology that was effectively useless, prepared for the wrong war. Instead of fighting the last war, the UK was looking towards a hypothetical European RRF, one of Tony Blair’s pet projects. Billions have been spent – for nothing. Common sense would tell someone of Blair’s intelligence – surely – that a European force wasn't on the cards. When has the EU ever agreed on an enemy?

The British media also comes in for bashing. Not, it should be noted, for the largely American left-wing media army bashing, but for being the dog that didn’t bark. The MOD generally tried to spoon-feed propaganda to the British TV, which largely ate it up and came back and begged for more. Early signs of trouble were ignored, or taken out of context, and even when the media did pick up on signs of trouble, they never understood the underlying factors behind the war. The media did pick up on problems with the Snatch vehicles, but took the ‘under-funded military’ line rather than realising the truth. Reporters who questioned the army line, such as Christina Lamb in Afghanistan, found themselves blacklisted.

The core reason for British ‘success’ in Iraq, North notes, was that the UK never really had control over Basra. The Shia inhabitants of the area, after the events of 1991, preferred to organise themselves rather than trust the coalition. Iran was seen as a better ally by some, a deadly threat by others, but always as a far more significant player than the coalition. Under constant attack, the British forces were slowly withdrawn from the area, conceding control to the militias, who started to loot, rape and slaughter at will. The inglorious end to the story – the retaking of Basra by Iraqi forces with American support in 2008 – was barely a footnote in the British media.

The contrast between Iraq and the Falklands is staggering. The Falklands were another ‘come as you are’ war, one fought by a far more determined PM for limited goals…and one that Britain came closer to losing than anyone would like to admit. After that war, the lessons were learned and incorporated into new developments. Iraq seems, instead, to be the forgotten war. If that wasn't bad enough, most of the mistakes are already being repeated in Afghanistan.

This is an angry book, written by an angry man. It isn’t pleasant reading for anyone with a British heritage, but it is necessary reading. God help us.