Monday, November 29, 2004

"What the bloody hell is it for?"

No discussion of how theories of war have changed since 1945 would be complete without an admiring mention of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. The historian E.P.Thompson once identified five different meanings that the expression has, at different times, alluded to. I don't have them to hand, but I think they went largely as follows:
  1. The principle, immediately post-war, that only the U.S. had nuclear weapons, and thus everyone else was deterred.
  2. The principle of the "nuclear umbrella" over NATO countries (and also over the Warsaw Pact countries) which deterred a conventional attack.
  3. Mutual Assured Destruction. That nuclear war would result in retaliation and destruction so total and widespread that an aggressor would be deterred.
  4. Mutual Assured Destruction, second strike variant. The principle that an attacked country would retain enough capability, through the strategic tripod of missiles, bombers and submarines to survive a surprise attack and exterminate an aggressor.
  5. The arms race to maintain Mutual Assured Destruction against the possibility of pre-emptive strike by highly accurate MIRV (multiple independent re-entry vehicle) weapons. Thompson referred to it as "mirror logic" that the deadly weapons in their silos should now be considered naked and vulnerable and requiring yet more resources to be consumed in building systems of destruction to protect them.
These were later followed by the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), that would make nuclear weapons "obsolete", and the "nuclear winter" theory by which Mutual Destruction was again Assured. But by then people were a little less impressed by the claim that nuclear weapons would be obsolete, as it generally meant they would have to pay a whole lot more taxes in order to build new nuclear weapons.

All of these contradictory theories were known as "deterrence", even though the Cuban Missile Crisis happened in the middle of it all, when the missiles that were supposed to deter war came uncomfortably close to precipitating one.

Westphalia and San Francisco

Another change in our thinking since 1945 concerns the nature of national sovereignty. Many commentators consider the iconic status of the nation-state in international affairs to date from the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years' War in which one third of the German people had perished. Here was established the principle of fixed national borders, whose violation was illegal and a cause for war.

If you've worked in a large organisation, you will know that there is a right way to do things and an ad hoc way to do things. The right way can be to follow standard operating procedures, or it can be to set up and carry out a project that cuts across ordinary boundaries. Either way, processes are in place, money is budgeted, resources are allocated and so on.

For the purposes of this discussion, the right way to do things in terms of national sovereignty is to follow existing treaties, from that of Westphalia onwards.

In an organisation, the ad hoc way to do things is for a bunch of people to come together in a meeting. (At least one of them should have some money, to pay for peoples' time if nothing else.) The meeting decides what it is that people are doing, and the participants report back to the next meeting on progress, issues and the like. There is usually an expectation that this meeting-driven activity will produce a programme of work which can then go forward for approval and become a body of projects in the normal fashion, but that often depends on how fast outside events are moving and on the paradigm of change.

The danger to organisations is that the meeting will be seen as a more powerful and direct form of activity assignment and existing processes will be superseded.

To continue the metaphor in international terms, the resort to meetings is the equivalent of resorting to the UN Security Council to resolve the issue of when might national sovereignty be violated.

Thus there is the old paradigm, where the origins of national sovereignty may remain obscure, and the details are a matter of history, and the new paradigm where national sovereignty is sustained by the agency of the UN. From being sustained it is an easy step to imply that sovereignty is now something like human rights, something that people grant to each other at a big world meeting. This is not quite what was envisaged by the founding of the UN, and it has no standing in international law, but just the existence of the UN nevertheless means that it is a change that is occurring.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Limited War

Here is Thomas Friedman in the New York times, which I will cite as the NYT goes behind a paywall after a week, and I'm slow in posting:
But most of all, I want to have the gall to sully American democracy at a time when young American soldiers are fighting in Iraq so we can enjoy a law-based society here and, maybe, extend it to others. Yes, I want to be Tom DeLay. I want to wear a little American flag on my lapel in solidarity with the troops, while I besmirch every value they are dying for.
Yes, I want to be a Republican House member. At a time when 180 of the 211 members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Iraq who have been wounded in combat have insisted on returning to duty, I want to look my constituents and my kids in the eye and tell them that I voted to empty the House ethics rules because I was afraid of Tom DeLay.
This is about values and war. As well as the issue of the hippies being right, there have been a number of significant changes in the way we think since World War II. Here is the first one.

The Second World War was the last genuine struggle for survival by the industrialised countries and, as described by William Manchester in his biographies of MacArthur and Churchill, was characterised by a distinction between what might be called grand vision by the war leaders and a vision of deals and compromises carried out by the civilians.

Manchester suggests in American Caesar that military leaders will act ruthlessly and crushingly in war, and then will behave with unusual magnanimity in victory. To civilians this military behaviour may appear as monstrous egotism, but Manchester implies that it is a constructive part of strategy and psychology.

Of psychology, because the general has a need to keep faith with the soldiers who have died, to deliver a peace that they could have been proud of. Of strategy, because fighting should not be about seizing some trench or some hill, but of destroying the enemy's forces, of grand movements with geopolitical reach. Such thinking must inherently include the post-war settlement and, since it is conducted on the same scale as in wartime is magananimous in comparison to the bean-counters' version.

To civilians, before the event, an operation such as the Inchon landings may just seem like a bunch of boats on a beach, but to MacArthur and to his enemy, the implications for supply routes and the vulnerability of the forward lines are immediate and obvious. The civilian approach is to count, and to minimise, how many vessels are required and to proceed only after full deliberation and preparation. Manchester argues that these considerations turned the landings at Gallipoli into an unnecessary and far from inevitable disaster. The military leaders' approach is to get the vessels there as fast as possible, under cover of surprise, and to use as many as possible.

MacArthur wanted to go further. Having successfully put pressure on the Korean military, he wanted to make further amphibious landings along the Korean coast, and into China. And he wanted to support these landings with atomic attacks. He was only interested in total war.

This is shocking to us, and it was shocking to Truman. But to MacArthur the opposite was shocking. He believed that it was immoral to ask soldiers to die for a limited war, and that eventually soldiers would not do it. Manchester's implication of course is that MacArthur accurately predicted the cause of the failure in Vietnam in this way. Nevertheless, limited war is now what we have, and with all the immorality that MacArthur predicted for it.

MacArthur's differences with Truman foreshadowed not just Vietnam but also Powell's differences with Rumsfeld over the size of the engagement in Iraq. The issue is still the nature of limited war, only by now people ought to know better.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

America Fails: reasons for pessimism

The 2004 election looks to me, and to many people, as the moment when America failed as the world leader. In particular the failure has a finality to it because it is a failure of the American people. And it looks to be a defining catastrophe, rather than just some reversible bungle that we can somehow muddle through.

The incomprehension which the result gives rise to stems from the double-whammy of America denying both its own values and its own interests. I have difficulty with a people who can make such choices as these:
  • the ratification of torture
  • the abandonment of sound finances
  • the ending of the principle of emancipation
  • the smearing of a war hero
None of these are new. But this time they have been chosen, together, deliberately, and exalted as though they are God's mission on earth. There will be consequences.

These consequences are hard to fathom. If America fails, the implication is that America will break, which suggests secession. That can only happen if it is business-driven, no-one is going to secede for the benefit of women, blacks or homosexuals. The world just does not work that way.

Another suggestion is that America becomes a nazi state. History suggests this. But at the moment such an eventuality is signally lacking its fascisti or brownshirt movement. For a totalitarianism to be total, it must impinge on personal safety in everyday life. And geography is on America's side - it's a big place for a nazi government to get round to everywhere. The Soviet Union managed it, of course, but they could use Siberia as a prison.

Which brings me back to secession. I think there is a fast and a slow variety of secession, just as crime was once described as 'slow rioting'. The fast version happens if , for example, Maine decides to join Canada or California decides to go it alone. These ideas seem loopy, which means they are a whole paradigm shift away.

But slow secession is more likely. There will be greater and faster social polarisation. Read Richard Florida on the role of creativity in the economy, and the countless commentators responding to Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas (full disclosure, I haven't read it) on how the response of the "Heartland" to the loss of its brightest and most creative is to resent and retreat from the challenges of modernity. In such an atmosphere, secessionary activity, such as a campaign of refusal to pay federal taxes, can happen and therefore probably will, and probably in a "militia state", one of those that would be most hurt by the very break-up they would promote.

And one issue is dynamite. The last states to secede would be left holding the federal debt.


I've been found. That was quick; no more languorous dallying over how best to phrase the next bit.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Shades of 1972

The second shade:

The second shade of 1972 is John Kerry. It is Vietnam and Iraq, and it is America's failure to recognise how the Vietnam adventure, its conduct and America's inability to recognise itself has led to an inability to conduct progressive politics, with all the dangers that such a condition implies.

In A Fish Called Wanda, John Cleese mocks Kevin Kline with America's loss in Vietnam. The pungency of the scene is lost on international audiences, but the American consensus has not recognised the loss in Vietnam as inevitable nor experienced it with the relief that foreigners did. Many people have said that LBJ was wrong, or McNamara was wrong, but not that the hippies were right or that the draft-dodgers were right. The furthest anyone has gone is to concede that they had principles. The stark truth is that the counter-culture was right.

Instead of an understanding of how the counterculture came about - where did they get their information from, how did they learn to organise, how did they erect their own understanding of America's place in the world to put against the official version - conventional wisdom brought us a series of ever more ridiculous framings of the military myth, whether it is Kenny Rogers, proud to go and do (his) patriotic chore, Sylvester Stallone's Rambo justifying
continuing into the 1990s America's cowardly economic vengeance against the Vietnamese or Clint Eastwood's ludicrous invasion of Grenada.

It has got to the point that Matthew Yglesias can write:
"The Republican brand has been built up over a series of decades, while the Democratic brand was dragged through the mud by the events of 1968-1972." With the exception of the 1968 convention, it didn't look that way to anyone outside the country at the time. And why, pray tell, would the events at Kent State, for example, constitute the Democratic brand being dragged through the mud? Is Yglesias saying that Governor James A. Rhodes' (R- Ohio) interpretation, that the murdered protestors were "worse than brownshirts", is now the conventional orthodoxy? And that no-one challenges this?

It could be argued that the U.S. conduct of the Vietnam War amounted to a series of war crimes - the bombing of Hanoi, the bombing of Cambodia, and the indiscriminate use of Agent Orange are all good examples. If history is written by the winners, and America didn't win, then we need a reason to see why it was never established that these were crimes, even if prosecutions could not be enforced. I see softpower as being that reason and that the perhaps unintended consequence of the activities of the antiwar movement was to reestablish America's honour by articulating its internal strength as a pluralistic democracy, and therefore to confirm America's diplomatic strength.

Yglesias uncritically accepts this as mud; I don't. Because I don't, I see the cultural history of the US, post-1974, as the manufacture of a convenient series of myths. One of these myths has to do with the conflation of defeat in Vietnam with Watergate. Another concerns the elevation of wannabe-military vainglory over practical measures. And a third concerns the decadence of Hollywood, and the creation of a culture of consolation that substitutes for a culture of inclusion. What the narratives of these myths are I will have to leave for another time.

Shades of 1972

The first shade:

After Nixon's re-election, Pauline Kael famously said that she knew no-one who had voted for him. Much the same seems to apply with Bush's election. In a sense, blogs are to blame for this, though this time there is certainly no shortage of blogs that support Bush. What blogs have done for me is they have put me in touch with Clever America, an America that we foreigners always knew existed but only had the most fumbling of contacts with. This sense of connection happened with 9/11, though I didn't read blogs obsessively until I found Salam Pax (who isn't American, see Ground Rule 3). So powerful is Clever America that we eventually became seduced by our own propaganda until, despite the warning signs that there was no clear opinion poll lead for Kerry, we felt the election loss as a personal catastrophe. Which it is, of course.

Clever America won all the arguments in 2004, while noone was listening. Clever America is arguably the future of American softpower, just as Hollywood has been the most obvious manifestation of softpower until now. Pauline Kael was, as we all know, a film critic, so in 1972 she was at the very heart of American softpower. If Clever America is going to be the new softpower of a no longer hegemonic United States, then it will be those commentators today who are the most crushed now by the Bush victory who reveal themselves to be the closest to the power axis of the future. (Did I mention Ground Rule 3?)

Ground Rules

1. I'm writing this blog entirely for my own interest, as a kind of diary. This is not some kind of exhortation to everybody to be more like me, however much it may sound like it at times. That would just be me posting my rage.

2. The title of the blog is America Fails. That was the message that came out loud and clear from the 2004 election.

3. Irony may or may not be present, in huge doses. Irony is a much over-used term, "polymorphic" you might say. I am interested in collecting different interpretations of what constitutes the ironic and I expect I will be posting them.

4. Don't expect pictures.