Join 3,497 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Gabriel Kolko - Lessons From Iraq and Lebanon & Another Century of War ?
September 5, 2006 2:17 PM   Subscribe

...The United States, whose costliest political and military adventures since 1950 have ended in failure, now must face the fact that the technology for confronting its power is rapidly becoming widespread and cheap. It is within the reach of not merely states but of relatively small groups of people. Destructive power is now virtually 'democratized.' If the challenges of producing a realistic concept of the world that confronts the mounting dangers and limits of military technology seriously are not resolved soon, recognizing that a decisive equality of military power is today in the process of being re-imposed, there is nothing more than wars and mankind’s eventual destruction to look forward to.
The Great Equalizer - Lessons From Iraq and Lebanon
By Gabriel Kolko, author of Century of War: Politics, Conflicts, and Society Since 1914,
The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World
and Another Century of War?
posted by y2karl (20 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
See also
...The large technical and ideological cadres that purvey intelligence, rather than becoming a source of rationality and clarity, deluge the already insupportable complexity of foreign policy formulation with data, and accurate information becomes worthless as soon as it fails to reinforce what America's political and military leaders wish to hear. Intelligence functionaries accept the constraints of the system quite willingly because it pays their salaries. These personnel transform themselves into peddlers of just one more economic activity and they never transcend the policy limits that the non-technocratic ruling elites impose. This is just as true in all areas of domestic affairs as in foreign policies.

The state's intelligence mechanisms are constrained by a larger structural and ideological environment and by the inherent irrationality of a foreign policy which foredooms any effort to base action on informed insight to a chimera. Even when the insight is exact, and knowledge is far greater than ignorance, political and social boundaries usually place decisive limits on the application of "rationality" to actions. The political and ideological imperatives and interests define the nature of "relevant" truths. Intelligence's pretension to being objective is a hoax because those parts of it that do not reconfirm the power structure's interests and predetermined policies are ignored and discarded. There are innumerable reasons we must conclude this, not the least because there is a growing number of published insider memoirs and even the official American intelligence community’s assessments. But more important is the entire experience with Iraq and the U.S.'s failed confrontation with the Islamic world for over half a century. To expect the U.S. to behave other than as it has is to cultivate serious illusions and delude oneself.
Familiar Foreign Policies and Familiar Wars: Vietnam, Iraq - Before And After
posted by y2karl at 2:17 PM on September 5, 2006


See also The Tragedy of U.S. Empire

See also
We live in a tragic world and war is considered more virtuous than peace--and since arms-makers profit from wars and not peace, conventional wisdom is reinforced by their lobbies and by preaching the cult of weaponry.

The US may explore how to end its predicament in Iraq but only Iran can help it. Ironically, Iran has gained most geopolitically from Saddam Hussein's defeat and has no incentive to save the Bush Administration from the defeat now staring at it--both in Iraq and in future elections in the US.

The world is escaping American control, and Soviet prudence no longer inhibits many movements and nations. World opposition is becoming decentralized to a much greater extent and the US is less than ever able to control it--although it may go financially bankrupt and break up its alliances in the process of seeking to be hegemonic.

This is cause for a certain optimism, based on a realistic assessment of the balance-of-power in the world. I think we must avoid the pessimism-optimism trap but be realistic. Although the Americans are very destructive, they are also losing wars and wrecking themselves economically and politically. But for a century the world has fought wars, and while the US has been the leading power by far-in making wars since 1946, it has no monopoly on folly.

But it is crucial to remember that the US is only a reflection of the militarism and irrationality that has blinded many leaders of mankind for over a century.

The task is not only to prevent the US from inflicting more damage on the hapless world--Iraq at this moment--but to root out the historic, global illusions that led to its aggression.
The Decline Of The American Empire
posted by y2karl at 2:18 PM on September 5, 2006


See also
...By the beginning of 1975, the regime in South Vietnam was beginning to disintegrate by every relevant criterion: economically and politically, and therefore militarily. The Saigon army abandoned the battlefield well before the final Communist offensive in March 1975. Moreover, with the Watergate scandal, the Nixon Administration was on the defensive after 1973, both with the American public and Congress, and after Nixon's forced resignation the new American President, Gerald Ford, was simply in no position to help the economically and politically bankrupt Thieu regime. The American army, at this point, was too demoralized to re-enter the war. Washington correctly assumed that its diplomatic strategy had won Moscow and Peking to its side by threatening to swing its power to the enemy of whatever nation would not support its Vietnam strategy--triangular diplomacy.

But it was irrelevant what Hanoi's former allies did--and essentially they did what the Americans wanted by cutting military aid to the Vietnamese Communists. The basic problem was in Saigon: the regime was falling apart for reasons having nothing to do with military equipment. The Communists were stunned by their fast, total victory over the nominally superior Saigon army, which refused to fight and immediately disintegrated.

Thus ended the most significant American foreign effort since 1945. There are so many obvious parallels with their futile projects in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and the lessons are so clear, that we have to conclude that successive administrations in Washington have no capacity whatsoever to learn from past errors. Total defeat in Vietnam 30 years ago should have been a warning to the U.S.: wars are too complicated for any nation, even the most powerful, to undertake without grave risk. They are not simply military exercises in which equipment and firepower is decisive, but political, ideological, and economic challenges also.
Lesson from a total defeat: Vietnam 30 years after
posted by y2karl at 2:19 PM on September 5, 2006


See also
...By the beginning of 1975, the regime in South Vietnam was beginning to disintegrate by every relevant criterion: economically and politically, and therefore militarily. The Saigon army abandoned the battlefield well before the final Communist offensive in March 1975. Moreover, with the Watergate scandal, the Nixon Administration was on the defensive after 1973, both with the American public and Congress, and after Nixon's forced resignation the new American President, Gerald Ford, was simply in no position to help the economically and politically bankrupt Thieu regime. The American army, at this point, was too demoralized to re-enter the war. Washington correctly assumed that its diplomatic strategy had won Moscow and Peking to its side by threatening to swing its power to the enemy of whatever nation would not support its Vietnam strategy--triangular diplomacy.

But it was irrelevant what Hanoi's former allies did--and essentially they did what the Americans wanted by cutting military aid to the Vietnamese Communists. The basic problem was in Saigon: the regime was falling apart for reasons having nothing to do with military equipment. The Communists were stunned by their fast, total victory over the nominally superior Saigon army, which refused to fight and immediately disintegrated.

Thus ended the most significant American foreign effort since 1945. There are so many obvious parallels with their futile projects in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and the lessons are so clear, that we have to conclude that successive administrations in Washington have no capacity whatsoever to learn from past errors. Total defeat in Vietnam 30 years ago should have been a warning to the U.S.: wars are too complicated for any nation, even the most powerful, to undertake without grave risk. They are not simply military exercises in which equipment and firepower is decisive, but political, ideological, and economic challenges also.
Lesson from a total defeat: Vietnam 30 years after
posted by y2karl at 2:19 PM on September 5, 2006


See also Jeffrey Record's The American Way of War: Cultural Barriers to Successful Counterinsurgency [PDF]
posted by y2karl at 2:19 PM on September 5, 2006


y2karl, I do really like your posts, but I feel compelled to ask: your own blog - though about it?
posted by GuyZero at 2:23 PM on September 5, 2006


Uh, wow.
There has now been a qualitative leap in technology that makes all inherited conventional wisdom, and war as an instrument of political policy, utterly irrelevant, not just to the U.S. but to any other nation that embarks upon it.
So, the one time that the US effectively executes a proxy war by the same methods we're now losing (Afghanistan) doesn't count? The fall of the Soviet Union can be traced back to their failure to defeat the muj in Afghanistan... that sounds like a well fair victory for the US, doesn't it?

I'd argue that Kolko has a point (domination through sheer military may no longer work anymore) but to argue that the US is totally unable to press foreign policy measures through /other/ means is just... well, wrong.

One could argue that we'd be better off prosecuting the war in Iraq in a more ruthless manner than we have, but that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.
posted by fet at 2:28 PM on September 5, 2006


The greater the likelihood that small bands of individuals can challenge an entrenched power structure, the better. See e.g. Hydraulic Empire.
posted by jet_silver at 2:29 PM on September 5, 2006


“Destructive power is now virtually 'democratized.'”

Maybe I read too much metafilter, but I can’t help but wonder what Foucualt would make of that.

Also, I’m thinking Kolko is missing a few things. For one - the Iraq war was short and decisive. The major combat operations being over thing was dead on. The U.S. trounced the Iraqi army fairly handily.
The Iraq occupation? Whole other set of dice.
Which I think highlights the problem more than his emphasis on technology, although he alluded to it several times. The problem is one of mobility and non-state actors. The folks one fights under certain conditions don’t have an infrastructure and/or don’t have a ‘people’ to retaliate against. Which is one of the major flaws in the “fight ‘em over there” philosophy. The Iraqis are muslims and such, but they are not “their guys” (the “them” in the terrorist equation).
By making them “their guys” in order to tie “them” to something we can hit back at with the current tactics, we make more of “them.”

The Chinese had similar issues with the Mongols. Pretty much any time one side is yelling “stand still so we can fight you” that side has lost the initiative and it’s a matter of time before they immobilize themselves (dumping your liquids at the airport check in is just a symptom).

And some of the other comments, although accurate - fail to account for the fact that just because corruption or politics has eroded (or eliminated) for example the intelligence communities effectiveness, doesn’t mean it is impossible for it to be effective. Gathering intelligence and fighting this kind of asymmetric warfare has been a well known and well anticipated field for quite some time (Kennedy formed the SEALs).
That small unit tactics and the law enforcement method of fighting terrorism doesn’t feed the large corporations doesn’t mean the end of mankind.
...end of civilization as we know it maybe. But the Mongols did kinda thing too. (”people from hell” and so forth)
Certainly lotsa changes. But I think silver has always ultimately had more influence than lead on those affairs.

From the Cato link:
“The United States runs a significant risk of failure when it enters small wars of choice...The United States should abstain from intervention in such wars, except in those rare cases when military intervention is essential to protecting or advancing U.S. national security.”

F’ing duh. But Haiti worked out pretty well (for us). The Racak Massacre showed the direction Kosovo was headed - probably evened out there - but we acted without U.N. approval (NATO /= UN) and that was all air power (still lots of uncertainty in that region tho). In terms of stated objectives Panama was a success (looting afterward - and other issues aside) as was the Gulf War - of course that one we had a UN coalition in. Restore Hope (Somalia) was also a joint forces operation spearheaded by the UN, so...point?

Certainly a war of choice, but if there is any sticky situation in which I feel happy about carrying a weapon into it’s protecting shipments of food to starving people. Unfortunately the will to fully prosecute that mission wasn’t there - so yeah, culture. I’d argue that wasn’t a ‘counterinsurgency’ mission in the first place, although I’d concede it was ‘irregular’.
Still, I’d concede it’s exactly what that political and military culture currently want - embarrassment or not it makes them money. Trash some equipment and some guys get contracts to make more. It failed? Well let’s upgrade the specs and see how much more we can charge.
But then we aren’t REALLY threatened, are we? I suppose the Chinese thought the same though. Lotsa money went into that wall.

Lots to read and chew over.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:00 PM on September 5, 2006


fet : The fall of the Soviet Union can be traced back to their failure to defeat the muj in Afghanistan... that sounds like a well fair victory for the US, doesn't it?

As for historical facts: Can you elaborate?

As for what this seem to imply: Are you telling us the US actively won the cold war - instead of being the last one standing after the other side self-destructed?
posted by uncle harold at 4:30 PM on September 5, 2006


Sorry, there was a 'partially' meant to be inserted in that phrase -- the slow bleed of billions of dollars in manpower and materiel that the Soviets poured into Afghanistan from an economy that couldn't afford it was far more damaging to the USSR than the Soviet's counterpoint in Vietnam was to the US.

...and what is winning, other than being the last man standing, anyway?
posted by fet at 4:43 PM on September 5, 2006


Perhaps one of you know of a link that outlines all the wars fought by powers in foreign lands and what thoese wars cost the powers...and the resulting economic disruptions to the invader?

Over the years, I've seen a paper here and there pointing out the looting of treasury X paying for war in land Y.

Most of the time it it offered up as to why the Illumanti/Rome/Rothchild/someone else is in charge, so I've never bothered to collect 'em all.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:17 PM on September 5, 2006


As for what this seem to imply: Are you telling us the US actively won the cold war - instead of being the last one standing after the other side self-destructed?
posted by uncle harold at 4:30 PM PST


Depends...if you think Leo Wanta's story is correct, then yea there was quite an active effort. VS the other side just fell apart....

If you think that Saudi Arabia pumped oil all out per US request to collapse the price of oil to deny the soviet union hard currency...VS the other side just fell apart.....yea there was an effort.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:22 PM on September 5, 2006


This is what I think hawks just don't get.

We are never going to "win the war against terror" if we fight it using a war...

I remember seeing some Coulter talk where she was going on about how we would never be able to get everyone to like the United States, so we had to fight them instead. I'd say it's the other way around. We're never going to be able to kill everyone who dislikes the US, so we're going to have to figure out a way to make them willing to at least live with the US.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:56 PM on September 5, 2006


For one - the Iraq war was short and decisive. The major combat operations being over thing was dead on.

Except for Fallujah in April and November 2004; the second assault involved "some of the heaviest urban combat Marines and Army infantry soldiers have been involved in since Vietnam."

I dispute the idea that we won the war. The war doesn't end when we say so, it ends when we make the other guy say so.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:05 PM on September 5, 2006


fet writes "So, the one time that the US effectively executes a proxy war by the same methods we're now losing (Afghanistan) doesn't count? The fall of the Soviet Union can be traced back to their failure to defeat the muj in Afghanistan... that sounds like a well fair victory for the US, doesn't it?"

Surely you mean a pyrrhic victory.
posted by clevershark at 7:09 PM on September 5, 2006


“The war doesn't end when we say so, it ends when we make the other guy say so.” - posted by kirkaracha

Define ‘other guy.’ Define ‘war.’ Casualties do not a ‘war’ make. The war ends when the victory conditions are achieved. Pushing over the Iraqi army was - at first blush - the condition for victory. As was the capture of Hussein. That the actual war continued has little to do with the result of the state on state action. Iraq is taking a shellacking. The USA has yet to suffer one assault from Iraq within our territory (that is - the continental US, outlaying regions, et.al.). This is what we did to Germany and Japan in WWII and it took far more of a sacrifice at home. There was plenty of resistance from partisans in both cases - they did not make much difference because they were not the “other guy.” We didn’t get bogged down in fighting them. For the most part we supported the new governments in eliminating them. (Difference there being we could have just up and split any time...hmmm....)
So I hope it’s obvious that I agree the old conventional terms don’t apply to this engagement as a whole and our war with Iraq as a state was irrelevent to the execution of the goal (whatever the hell that actually is). That I did not mention that this administration used the older definitions to obfuscate a variety of issues surrounding this engagement doesn’t mean I support them. It just means as far as the state on state war goes - yes, the U.S. easily defeated the Iraqi army with relatively few casualties while inflicting tremendous damage on the enemy and their power to make ‘war.’ The state of Iraq got it’s ass so badly kicked that not only are they not able to mount a counter-offensive on our territory (although in retrospect it seems they never were) their government is partnered with us to defeat its internal resistance to us.
Was France defeated in WWII? Poland? They got clobbered. Period. The only reason they “won” that “war” (looking at the conflict as ‘WWII’ as opposed to the individual state vs state conflict) is because of the U.S. and Russia. Over time had the German occupation continued resistance would have faded into irrelevancy. In Iraq we cannot (and should not) take the same measures as the Nazis or Romans, but if the US is there long enough it can instill a new order into that region. This does not mean I support building an empire, it’s simply recognition that it can (and has) been done. (And in either case if that’s the goal we’re doing it poorly). As far as state actors go however, we’ve won. But again, yes, the ‘war’ between the US and Iraqi ‘insurgents’ (partisans or guerrillas really) is ongoing and is the meat of the conflict. And in either case we have not achieved our victory conditions (being that none are apparent). I’m not being a contrarian, I took that position to counterpoint Kolko’s position. Wars can still be (and have been) decisively won when the proper strategies are employed. Asymmetry is not new, nor is symmetry. Nor is democratization of effective weaponry (the English longbow for example). The principles of warfare remain the same. That they are misapplied doesn’t invalidate that. And I agree with Kolko on that point - they have been misapplied and inefficiently used. Most likely to line the pockets of certain interests. It is this, not the failure of or democratization of weapons technology, that will hurt us more in the long run.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:21 AM on September 6, 2006


The US won a state-vs.-state conflict against Iraq, but we have never controlled the entire country or population. (Largely because--as documented in Cobra II, Fiasco, and other sources--we never had enough troops to secure the country.) As a result, I don't think it's possible to accomplish whatever our goals are. When he announced the war, President Bush said our goals were "to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger."

Since Iraq didn't have any WMD to be disarmed of, and they weren't a grave danger, mission accomplished on those. But he gets an incomplete on "helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country."

I don't think it will be politically possible to keep US troops in Iraq long enough to ever accomplish that. We won't institute a draft, and we're starting to send units back for their fourth tours. (The unit's going back for the fourth time, but only one of the soldiers is, which suggest that people aren't re-upping.Eventually we will run out of troops.)

The USA has yet to suffer one assault from Iraq within our territory

Whoop-de-doo. They didn't have the capability to.

There was plenty of resistance from partisans in both cases

Not really.
According to America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq, a new study by former Ambassador James Dobbins, who had a lead role in the Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo reconstruction efforts, and a team of RAND Corporation researchers, the total number of post-conflict American combat casualties in Germany--and Japan, Haiti, and the two Balkan cases--was zero.
Tje National Review's John O'Sullivan said, "Not a single 'Werewolf' emerged from his lair" in his April 2003 the allies will be welcomed as liberators piece.
O'Sullivan also said, "What these setbacks allegedly foreshadow is a long-running guerrilla warfare campaign against the allies that will continue long after Baghdad has fallen and Saddam Hussein has been dispatched to enjoy his 70 virgins." Which I guess is still accurate since Saddam hasn't been dispatched yet.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:18 PM on September 6, 2006


“The US won a state-vs.-state conflict against Iraq, but we have never controlled the entire country or population.”

Uh, yeah. Already implicitly conceded that. If you agree with the first part - we won the state vs. state conflict - you agree with the first part of my position.

“the total number of post-conflict American combat casualties in Germany--and Japan, Haiti, and the two Balkan cases--was zero.”

1. Post-conflict American combat casualties do not a ‘partisan resistance’ make. In terms of post-conflict - the werewolves never assassinated anyone? Pro-allied mayor? Penzberg? Never happened? No Japanese holdouts on island? That didn’t occur? Retaining one’s values under the new order, not a partisan position? But partisan also means behind the lines. No Nazi sabotage efforts? Nothing like that went on? Stood up in big red coats and fired at us in a line did they? No switching uniforms? No infiltration of any sort?
2. The point you are arguing is tangential to mine. I am not and did not make the case that Rice makes.

“But he gets an incomplete on "helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country."”

Oh, you’ve crushed my argument that...oh, wait a minute, I did say anything about that.

“Whoop-de-doo. They didn't have the capability to.”

Uh...pretty much exactly what I said when I said “they never were.” Did you miss that? Either support what Kolko has to say and refute my rebuttle or shut up. Or go argue with someone who wants to argue for no fucking reason like you seem to.

I will say I was unaware of some of the details in that RAND link.

It is an excellent example of my position however: “The most important lesson from the U.S. occupation of Germany is
that military force and political capital can, at least in some circumstances, be successfully employed to underpin democratic and societal transformation.”

Kolko argues that this is an impossibility, at least now, due to the resymmetry in weaponry and the inefficiency of state actors.
I disagree with that on the grounds that the inefficiency is artificial and subject to change whereas general strategic principals and the “political capital” aren’t.
So now, what, your just going to cut and paste quotes and reference links that have nothing to do with my refutation of one aspect of Kolko’s assertion again?
Or are you going to read stuff like “Wars can still be (and have been) decisively won when the proper strategies are employed” or stuff where I say I agree with you but I’m refuting Kolko’s point on technology?
You and I are aguing semantics on ‘war.’ (Well, you’re arguing...)
I’ve explained why I took that position - to highlight the flaw in Kolko’s argument. I’m not taking any position on the success or failure of Iraq. At. Fucking. All.
I can’t make that any clearer.

So - yes or no - under the current conditions, given that we have had - even as recently as WWII asymmetric (Panzers & 88’s) and symmetric (at the end of the war) combat with a variety of conditions - using WWII in this instance not as the prime example only as a detail - since I don’t want to have to reference the Roman conquests, the Mongols, and every other damned situation where there was resistance of whatever kind - does the technological parity with the U.S. armed forces make the decisive difference in societal transformation or does it not?
posted by Smedleyman at 2:28 PM on September 6, 2006


/on further review - with the above exceptions - I think I agree with or cede to nearly everything you’ve said here.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:25 PM on September 6, 2006


« Older 151 Changes to The Empire Strikes Back...  |  Ice bubbles... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments