Thursday, September 17, 2009

Belligerence of Arabia

O Camille, where art thou?

It's hard to remember now, but Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae was an academic bombshell when it came out in 1991, and it remains, at least in my opinion, quite an impressive work of scholarship. She never did write Vol. 2, as promised; instead, she now cranks out a regular column for Salon that blends invective, comedy, pop cultural analysis, and rambling nonsense. I don't know you would characterize one passage from her most recent column. She wishes that the United States would have bombed the mountains of Afghanistan to kill Osama bin Laden, but now wants to leave, and she writes:
"In a larger sense, outsiders will never be able to fix the fate of the roiling peoples of the Near East and Greater Middle East, who have been disputing territorial borderlines and slaughtering each other for 5,000 years. There is too much lingering ethnic and sectarian acrimony for a tranquil solution to be possible for generations to come."
This really is the common wisdom today, isn't it?

I mean, the idea that the Middle East is populated by a bunch of "roiling peoples" who only stop killing each other in order to pray in the direction of Mecca five times a day. They've been that way for 5,000 years, apparently. What can you do?

And it's not an entirely new opinion- I stole that Mecca joke from Voltaire, after all. And, let's be honest, if you read the news, they do seem to show the same crowd of young Arabs screaming in the street every few weeks. I think it must be an after school club of some sort... The Young Business Screamers? Lastly, she is right that the territorial borderlines, many of which date to the mid-20th century, as well as the sectarian divisions, will probably make tranquil solutions unlikely in the near future.

But, what's fascinating to me is that I'm currently reading the accounts of Europeans who traveled the region in the 1800s, such as Chateaubriand and Lamartine, and at their time, the common wisdom is completely different.

At the time, the Ottomans still controlled most of the Levant; to be sure, some writers who believed this was because they had read the Koran, which taught them all about conquest. But, that didn't explain all those people, particularly the Arabs, who were under the Turkish yoke. They had submitted to the Ottoman authority for a few centuries at this point, and most Europeans believed they were uninterested in becoming independent. In their case, there were two cliches that supposedly explained their submission:

1. The Koran had taught them to submit. Supposedly, they were uncommonly fatalistic and willing to bow to any sort of tyranny because they believed it to be the will of Allah,

2. People who live in "southern" climates were held to be more indolent by nature. The heat made them lazy and excessively passive, according to a body of thought that was popularized by Montesquieu.

In other words, the common wisdom was not that the people of the region were acrimonious and violently aggressive; instead, they were supposed to be submissive, accepting of their fate, and so passive that it's almost as if they had frozen in time! It's amazing how many books and paintings of the time detail these placid people lounging around and smoking, while quietly acquiescing to whoever wants to rule them. And all "southerners" were supposed to be this way; Chateaubriand even writes, in 1810, that the Greeks should be free, but that he is sure they'll never have the will to demand their independence. (The Greek War of Independence began in 1821.)
I'm doing great violence to Chateaubriand's ideas, but the point is that the "common wisdom" has changed greatly from the vantage point of "The West". And, in general, it's fairly easy to generalize in any way you wish from that sort of distance. If we take a time span of the last 5,000 years, it would be pretty easy to look at Europe, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries, and find enough examples to prove that the roiling peoples of that region are inclined to keep slaughtering each other endlessly over territorial divisions. Similarly, you could look at that region and probably argue that European people are unnaturally submissive to their rulers- in fact, I've heard Americans make both arguments numerous times!

So, to be safe, let's just say that:
1. Human beings are "roiling peoples" who constantly dispute borders, slaughter each other, and act in ways that are acrimonious, and
2. Human beings are rational, civilized, good-natured peoples who love their siblings and want to live in peace.

Fair enough?


Brian Dunbar said...

Fair enough?


But about her main point. Afghanistan - what are we to do there?

We seem to have accomplished our main goal, from back in 2001: make it clear to the world that harboring mass-murdering terrorists is a bad idea and refusing to hand them over is worse.

I do not see how continuing to spend treasure and lives in Afghanistan is beneficial to the West.

However - if the military can come up with a reasonable estimate for being able to ensure a stable Afghanistan, then fine. If the administration is willing to do what it takes to _win_, I'm willing to back them up.

The record of Democratic presidents and conflict is not a good one. LBJ hand-picked bombing targets in North Vietnam. President Peanut had himself a fiasco at Desert One. Clinton had Somalia - and bugged out after 18 Rangers were killed and that foreign adventure started to poll badly.

I suspect that doing what is needful to win a war in Afghanistan is not going to be popular with the people that voted for Obama last year.

Time to declare victory and come home.

Rufus said...

I'm fine with leaving.

When people have said "we need to win in Afghanistan", I've always responded, "Okay, define 'win'." What does victory look like? What are some realistic goals we can set and then leave once they've been met? Indeed, I don't think I've had anyone who could answer that question well. One person told me "the US needs to kill every last insurgent", but good luck with that.

I suppose I support doing what it takes to win, too. But, again, what does it look like when we've won? Do they have elections in which the guy we're supporting doesn't stuff the ballot boxes? Or, is it basically like it is now, but instead, *their* soldiers are protecting *their* country from the enemy?

And, not that anyone talks about it much now, but Iraq is still quite a mess. At least there, however, they seem to be willing to wait until the US leaves to have their civil war, which is polite of them. So, I assume the military can tip-toe quietly out the back door and hope the country doesn't collapse until after they're long gone. And good riddance.

It might be harder to drum up support for leaving Afghanistan, but certainly just declaring victory would help. I'd point out that a lot of liberals actually thought that going to Afghanistan made a lot more sense than going to Iraq, if only because Osama bin Laden was there in 2001. For instance, I remember Jon Stewart saying he's a big supporter of the Afghanistan war, which was sort of a surprise. And so maybe they still want to stay. But, living in a country that has been in Afghanistan since the beginning as part of the "coalition of the willing", I can say with some certainty that most of Canada is no longer willing. And I get the feeling the US Congress isn't either.

So, sure, leave.

I don't get what you mean about Democratic presidents and wars. Well, okay, I definitely do get what you mean about them! But, you do realize that the last eight years didn't inspire a lot of confidence in Republican presidents and wars either, right? I mean, sure Carter and Clinton were lousy. No argument there. Actually, if one word could sum up why I hated Clinton, it would be Rwanda. But, Reagan dicked around in Nicaragua needlessly, Bush I promised to back the Kurds, right before letting them get massacred; and then you have Bush II's great military strategy of bombing the hell out of a few countries in the middle east and hoping that democracy would flourish. Even if the objective was accomplished in 2001, and I sort of see what you mean about that, why in the hell did the US stay? And why open a second front in Iraq?
I mean it's 2009! Why are we still there?

I mean, your argument for leaving is totally valid and correct. But, it's been totally valid and correct for at least four years now. And, you know, this is exactly how Europe ended with all those colonies in the 1800s. The British were only going into India to stop the locals from attacking their merchants, and then they planned to leave. The French would only be in Algiers long enough to stop piracy. Next thing you know, it's 100 years later and they think they can't leave without "losing face".

And the truth is that most modern armies are good at meeting each other on the battlefield, and if I had to wager, I'd probably bet that America's military would be really good at that. But, when it comes to fighting guerrila armies, they all suffer greatly. This is the difference between WWII and Vietnam. It's always a nightmare. So, I think you'd have to be a fool to go looking for a war like this one. When people talked about the "strategy" of making Iraq into 'flypaper for terrorists', I thought, 'God, you people are insane.'

But, yes, I think we basically agree on this one.

Incidentally, the best movie you'll ever see on this topic is The Battle of Algiers. I wish more people had watched it back in early 2002.

Brian Dunbar said...

Incidentally, the best movie you'll ever see on this topic is The Battle of Algiers.

I have seen that, as it happens.

But, you do realize that the last eight years didn't inspire a lot of confidence in Republican presidents and wars either, right?

I was going after their management style. Say what you will about George Bush - he didn't get down in the weeds and direct airstrikes from D.C.

He also didn't let polling deter him from the course of action he felt was right.

I'd point out that a lot of liberals actually thought that going to Afghanistan made a lot more sense than going to Iraq, if only because Osama bin Laden was there in 2001

I wonder how many of those realize what an absolute bitch of a place Afghanistan is to fight in. Or know about the several Russian and British invasions of the place and how well they worked out in the end.

Rufus said...

He also didn't let polling deter him from the course of action he felt was right.

Yeah, I suppose he was pretty forthright when it came to his convictions. But I'd imagine that, if willingness to take decisive action was going to carry the day, it probably would have happened by now.

As for whether or not Obama will be decisive, it's hard to say. He hasn't been too decisive enough in dealing with Congress in my opinion. But he might well have a chip on his shoulder about being a Democrat leading a war. There could be more impetus to stay and prove he's no wimp.

Also, you know, it's definitely possible to be both decisive and foolhardy. I never got the feeling that Bush was swayed by polls, but I also very rarely got the feeling he was swayed by any serious reflection about the potential negative outcomes of the actions he took. I guess this is why I never really thought of him as a conservative, frankly. Sorry, but I just can't imagine Edmund Burke getting behind invading Iraq.

I wonder how many of those realize what an absolute bitch of a place Afghanistan is to fight in.

Yeah, I think they knew. But, at least back in 2001, you were talking about a country whose leaders said, "Yeah we have that guy who launched an attack on your country. What're you going to do about it?" So, most people I knew thought it was justified to go in, and I was on a college campus. I just don't get the feeling that anybody in the US had any idea how to get out.

And, indeed, I think there are probably some people who still think it's not over until they have bin Laden's severed head on the White House gate. I'd be amazed if they were all on the left though.

As for me, I'd agree that the point has been made. It makes more sense to hunt down gangsters like bin Laden the way they deal with organized crime. It's also a hell of a lot cheaper.

Maybe I'm incredibly cynical, but to be totally honest, it's really hard for me to look back on the US over the last eight years and not think, "God, that was a hell of an overreaction, wasn't it?"

The Pagan Temple said...

We can't win Afghanistan if we approach it from the attitude that once we are done they should be like us. That's exactly how Bush screwed up the situation in Gaza even worse than what it already was, by insisting on "democracy". All that accomplished was the replacement of one unbelievably corrupt regime with a fanatically insane one.

All they have to do is pay Afghan farmers the going rate for their opium crop and in the meantime help them to phase gradually into growing other kinds of crops, and further help them build and sustain their infrastructure. You then in time win the people over and make it possible that any further troop increases are of a temporary duration.

The military brass knows all of this, but our culture of civilian control of the military is in this case at least a hindrance, as it just insures a continuation of political demagoguery and grandstanding for the folks back home.

Rufus said...

That's a good point. I recently read something in which the writer moaned about the "massive unemployment" in Afghan villages, and how the US needs to create jobs. I thought to myself- okay, you've got these pastoral people, basically goat herders from the steppes of Asia, and you're talking about getting them a steady job and a 401K?! Why are they supposed to want any of this?

Even with the elections, it was hard to me to understand why these people should care. And when I see the troops interacting with them, oftentimes I think, "Why don't we just decide that they absolutely must understand how to operate an electric sewing machine or the country will 'become a haven for terrorists'?" It would probably make as much sense.

The one real advantage that the US still has, over say the Soviets, is that the Afghans know what life would be like under the Taliban, and they didn't like it. Otherwise, every path forward is going to be a frakking slog.