Philosophic Resignation

Things should be settled before summer begins. Teachers grade the last tests and read the last essays and assign that one final grade the sums up each student’s whole year, and reach for the scotch. Students know there’s not one thing they can do about any of that now and head for the beach, or that cool dark room where they’ll spend the summer as a mighty warrior or urban thug on the small screen. There’s nothing left to do. Resign yourself to what has been decided. Make the best of what is. There isn’t anything else, until September, when another cycle begins.

That’s also how we think about life beyond school, seasonally. Summer itself is too seductive. The long lazy days seem to be made for kicking back, just as spring, with new life busting out all over, seems to be made for all sorts of new things, done enthusiastically – a biological response that’s instinctive. Do things, then assess them, and beginning on the summer solstice, practice philosophic resignation in the leafy shade with some lemonade for a few months. What’s done is done.

The most curious example of this instinctive season thinking comes from September 2002:

White House officials said today that the administration was following a meticulously planned strategy to persuade the public, the Congress and the allies of the need to confront the threat from Saddam Hussein.

The rollout of the strategy this week, they said, was planned long before President Bush’s vacation in Texas last month. It was not hastily concocted, they insisted, after some prominent Republicans began to raise doubts about moving against Mr. Hussein and administration officials made contradictory statements about the need for weapons inspectors in Iraq.

The White House decided, they said, that even with the appearance of disarray it was still more advantageous to wait until after Labor Day to kick off their plan.

”From a marketing point of view,” said Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff who is coordinating the effort, ”you don’t introduce new products in August.”

Those guys knew that you don’t do anything in the summer. You present the dire problem in the spring, let people worry themselves sick about it in the summer shade, if they’re so inclined, and then introduce your new product, that wonderful something that will fix everything, just after Labor Day, the day that ends summer. Then you market the hell out of it, when folks somehow know that it’s time to get back to work. Summer is when everyone shrugs at everything. Shaking them out of their passive and pleasant resignation is impossible. Human nature is seasonal.

Two can play that game. The Obama administration seems to know the same thing about summer, the time when America kicks back and shrugs. Forty-eight hours before the summer solstice, Obama announced what we would be doing about Iraq falling apart.

Iraq is falling apart – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) surprised everyone. They are very angry Sunnis who have been fighting Assad in Syria, and because half of them are former Iraqi military, they’re fighting Maliki in Iraq now, and have taken over the north of the country and are moving on Baghdad – and they’re so nasty that even al-Qaeda, who once had the corner on Sunni terrorism, has renounced them. These guys are a real problem, and we spent eight years rebuilding Iraq into a country again. This could end Iraq, but if we fight them we’re propping up our Maliki guy, a Shiite who hates Sunnis and wishes they were all gone, as does Assad in Syria and as do the Shiite theocrats who run Iran, a nation that is our sworn enemy. Our guy, who runs the country we rebuilt for him, wants us to defeat some very bad guys that could end his newly improved country, which seems like a good idea – we did lose nearly five thousand troops and spend eight years and a trillion dollars to have there be no Iraq after all that. Except that defeating ISIS is what our enemies want too, so Shiites can rule the Middle East and maybe even get rid of our long-time ally there, Saudi Arabia, which is wholly Sunni, and also where Osama bin Laden is from, and run by folks who have funded al-Qaeda off and on over the years.

That’s the shorthand version, oversimplifying things and also without reference to how this came about – a massive war that we didn’t have to fight in a place that we didn’t understand, but marketed brilliantly, and a long series of bonehead decisions made in the years we stayed there – but that doesn’t matter. This is a geopolitical nightmare and the best we can do now is to try to hold Iraq together, even if our guy there is a jerk, because the bad guys are very bad guys, even if they’re also enemies of our enemies, and even if we may not be able to hold Iraq together.

That’s why Obama came up with this:

President Obama authorized additional military assistance for Iraq’s fight against advancing Islamist militants Thursday, but made clear that he will continue to hold back more substantive support, including U.S. airstrikes, until he sees a direct threat to U.S. personnel or a more inclusive and capable Iraqi government.

Obama said he would send up to 300 additional U.S. Special Operations troops to better assess the situation on the ground, where forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have moved ever nearer to Baghdad, and to determine “how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward.”

With the “situational awareness” provided by the advisers and with intelligence assets being increased in and around Iraq, Obama said, “we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”

But “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again,” he said, a point he made repeatedly during remarks in the White House briefing room. “Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by Iraqis.”

Face it. We can’t do much here, so we’ll do these few things, and that satisfied no one. Those on the left are appalled that he’s sending advisors, and that bit about taking targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it, sounds like the first step toward another eight years there, fighting on for no god reason. Do we want to make Iraq secure for Iran? Do we want to take the pressure off Assad? Those on the right are appalled that we’re not doing more bombing the crap out of the bad guys and sending in the troops. This is throwing Iraq away after all we did to create the 2.0 version of it. This is spitting on our troops, the heroes who died so there’d be an Iraq that finally made sense. The anger on the right is deep and profound, but the dread on the left is just as deep and profound.

This is why you announce such things just a summer begins, those months when philosophic resignation to what has been done, and what can’t be fixed now, is the order of the day, day after last summer day. The Obama team knows all about summer too. They may introduce a new product after Labor Day, but not now. In the summer, folks are philosophical about things, except on talk radio.

Maybe we should be more philosophical about things, and at the Economist, Matt Steinglass argues here that one problem with the way we conduct foreign policy, as we once did in Vietnam and have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that we’re always looking for an ethically sound position that simply doesn’t exist:

Over and over in the wars America conducts we attempt to create political entities that meet our ideological criteria, but have no natural constituency in the countries themselves. Maliki, Karzai, Diem: we become infuriated at the leaders we install when they fail to carry out our vision of progress. We are the world’s biggest Hegelians, analyzing every conflict as a clash between two opposing principles that need to be resolved, and then trying to create that synthesis.

We have the same longing in domestic politics, for that matter. If only some great moderate could bridge the gap between the two parties, and bring us all together towards the reasonable consensus! We cannot seem to understand that if there were a constituency for that middle position, someone would be occupying that space; if there is no one in that space, it is because the middle position has no constituency. We keep trying to create a third force that does not exist.

We need to stop it. The forces on the ground are the forces on the ground. If we support one side, we should back that side, and if not, not. If the two sides want peace, we can help them reach peace. If they want to fight, they will.

Steinglass is of course referring to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel:

Hegel developed a comprehensive philosophical framework, or “system”, of absolute idealism to account in an integrated and developmental way for the relation of mind and nature, the subject and object of knowledge, psychology, the state, history, art, religion, and philosophy. In particular, he developed the concept that mind or spirit manifested itself in a set of contradictions and oppositions that it ultimately integrated and united, without eliminating either pole or reducing one to the other. Examples of such contradictions include those between nature and freedom, and between immanence and transcendence.

All that is popularly summed up as thesis-antithesis-synthesis – the world is always working toward opposites slamming into each other to form some final better thing that incorporates those opposites. Steinglass is arguing that Hegel was wrong about that, and, in support, Andrew Sullivan offers this:

We constantly seem to forget that the supremely smart and moral choices today can become deeply problematic tomorrow. So the CIA’s coup in Iran in 1953 seemed like a good idea at the time – until you realize the astonishing cost over the long run. Funding the mujahedeen in Afghanistan as a gambit against the Soviets also seemed like an inspired way to win the Cold War without risking a global nuclear clash. But there’s a straight line from that decision to September 11, 2001.

What we don’t seem to be able to grasp is that there are realities in the world we cannot change, and some of them are not going to be completely beneficial for the United States or the West. But that doesn’t mean we have to fix them or indeed can fix them. We might try as an alternative to live with them, until they sometimes resolve themselves. It seems to me, for example, as if the West’s interventions in the Middle East – often well-intentioned – have done very little but slow or scramble that region’s natural historical development.

Leaving alone, while guarding our own security, may lead to occasional bad results. But constant meddling only guarantees them – in an endless, fruitless and draining cycle.

Forget Hegel. Philosophic resignation is what is called for, especially now, and in National Interest, Chase Carter argues here that this also applies to continuing to support any Syrian rebels against Bashar al-Assad:

American idealism frequently clouds the judgment of our policy makers. We want to promote democracy everywhere, and we have a seemingly nonnegotiable aversion to dictators. But sometimes there simply isn’t a better alternative—toppling a despotic regime often creates more problems than it solves.

The United States is certainly creating more problems for itself in Syria by working against Assad. Obama said the United States needs to support moderates in Syria because they are fighting terrorists “who find safe haven in the chaos,” but arming the opposition to topple Assad is only prolonging the chaotic power vacuum that allows those terrorists to thrive.

Needless to say, all neoconservatives are Hegelians, but in Foreign Policy, Bruce Stokes notes that no one else is:

Despite their fear of extremism spreading and their distaste for Assad, Middle Eastern publics voice no support for aiding those attempting to oust the Assad government. People in the region have seen the results of Western intervention in Iraq. And they may not relish the idea of other Arab states acquiring a taste for interfering in the domestic affairs of their neighbors. There was little support for aid to anti-government forces battling the Damascus regime in 2013, and there is even less backing in 2014.

Roughly three-quarters of Lebanese (78 percent), Tunisians (77 percent), and Turks (73 percent) are against Western nations sending arms and military supplies to the insurgents. (Respondents were not asked to differentiate between rebel groups.) And about two-thirds of Palestinians (68 percent), Egyptians (67 percent), and Jordanians (66 percent) agree.

They simply don’t believe that proper dialectic – arming the Syrian rebels so they can match Assad’s firepower – will produce wonderful synthesis, a new and peaceful Syria. That will just produce more dead people, but we once believed, and may still believe, that mixing up the Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds in Iraq will create that wonderful synthesis, a pro-western secular Jeffersonian democracy there. We tried to force it. We’re still waiting.

The whole Hegelian thing was nutty, and Jeffrey Goldberg, now back at the Atlantic, argues that it was always nutty:

One of the reasons I don’t find myself overly exercised by the apparent collapse of Iraq (and one of the reasons I don’t think it would be wise for the U.S. to rush into Iraq in order to “fix” it) is that I’ve believed for a while that no glue could possibly hold the place together. This is a case in which President Obama’s natural caution, and his understandable desire to steer clear of Middle Eastern slaughterhouses, is a good thing. And I agree with Colin Kahl that Obama did not “lose” Iraq (though I still wish that he had come in early in support of what was then a more moderate Syrian rebellion).

I’m also firmly in the Kurdish nationalist camp (vicariously, of course). The cause of Kurdish independence is a just one, which is another way of saying that the denial of the right of self-determination to the Kurds—the world’s largest stateless people—over the past 100 years has been a terrible injustice. Iraqi Kurdistan, as I note in the piece, was already functionally independent; it is much more so today. It would be a very good thing if a truly independent Kurdistan emerges from the current chaos, liberated once and for all from Iraqi Arab domination.

It was a matter of philosophic resignation:

Almost seven years ago, I wrote a cover story for this magazine about the coming collapse of the post-World War I Middle East map. I conducted the reporting for the story, which we eventually called After Iraq: What Will the Middle East Look Like in the fall of 2007 – pre-Obama, pre-Arab Spring, pre-a lot of things – but even back then, it was fairly obvious that the age of Middle East stability (relatively speaking) was coming to an end. …

We predicted the break-up of Sudan into two countries (although we called what is today known as South Sudan “New Sudan”). We created a “Hezbollahstan” in part of Lebanon, and this certainly exists, de facto. North of Hezbollahstan is “The Alawite Republic,” along what is now Syria’s Mediterranean coast. This is a semi-plausible near-term consequence of Syria’s Assad-directed destruction. Syria also loses territory, on our map, to a “Druzistan” that touches the northern border of “Greater Jordan.” Iraq is, of course, divided into three states, and the Kurdish state even takes in parts of Turkish-ruled Kurdish territory. One semi-perspicacious addition to the map – the Bedouin Autonomous Zone – is what could have developed in the Sinai Peninsula before the most recent Egyptian military coup, and the Egyptian military’s re-energized plan to seize Sinai back from jihadist tribesmen.

In the article, I was very critical of the imperial hubris that motivated the Sykes-Picot division of the Middle East by the British and French. But I’ve warmed to the argument that the Sykes-Picot arrangement was, in one sense, inadvertently progressive. The makers of the modern Middle East roped together peoples of different ethnicities and faiths (or streams of the same faith) in what were meant to be modern, multicultural, and multi-confessional states. It is an understatement to say that the Middle East isn’t the sort of place where this kind of experiment has been shown to work. (I’m thinking of you, one-staters, by the way.) I don’t think it is worth American money, or certainly American lives, to keep Iraq a unitary state. It is, of course, important to invest in plans that forestall the creation of permanent jihadist safe havens, and about this the U.S. should be vigilant, more vigilant than it has been. But obsessiveness – Iraq must stay together because it must stay together – just doesn’t seem wise.

British Tory Daniel Hannan is fine with that:

How much disorder, horror, fear and mutiny might have been avoided had Iraq been divided along ethnographic lines in 2003 – or, better yet, in 1920. (If you don’t like the word “ethnographic”, substitute “democratic”: it amounts to the same thing.)

Any mention of partition sends some pundits scurrying to their keyboards. What about Yugoslavia, they say, or Ireland, or India, eh eh? Well, I wonder whether, in each of those cases, an agreed separation beforehand might have left us with something very like today’s borders without the intervening war. We’ll never know, obviously, but it’s worth noting that several partitions happened amicably enough, from Czechoslovakia to the West Indies Federation. More to the point look at the consequences of non-partition. The civil wars have driven 2.1 million Iraqis and 1.4 million Syrians into exile. How much worse do things have to get before we consider an alternative?

That’s a good question, but Andrew Lee Butters argues here that the states that would emerge from an Iraqi partition might not make it, given the crew that has taken over northern Iraq:

It’s not just the mass executions that are going to leave a bad taste. In the chain-smoking Arab world, the days are numbered for a regime whose interpretation of Islamic law is so severe that it bans cigarettes. And an ISIS regime in northern Iraq can’t exactly put oil on the international market, or get Baiji’s barely functioning gasoline refineries and pipelines up and running at full speed. The billions of dollars in U.S.-donated war material that ISIS is now capturing from the Iraqi army can’t really be put to effective use without substantial maintenance, training and support capability that ISIS lacks.

Substantial checks also remain on the nationalist impulses of both Kurds in the north and Shias in the South. The southern city of Basra may have a ton of oil and access to the Persian Gulf, but if it broke away from the rest of Iraq with a Shia sectarian agenda, it could find itself dangerously isolated or becoming a battle ground for Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Kurdish leadership in the north has consistently shown more interest in consolidating control and the economic viability of the Kurdish region than in national independence. For all their success at boosting trade and relations with their neighbors – particularly Turkey and Iran, each of which has large Kurdish minorities with national aspirations of their own – the old rules still apply. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has power, and the support of these key neighbors, as long as they are bringing stability to their part of a weak Iraqi state. They make enemies if they declare statehood.

Okay, fine – that won’t work. But what will?

This is why Obama rolled out his un-grand plan for Iraq just as summer was about to start, that pleasant time when we all practice philosophic resignation in the leafy shade with some lemonade for a few months. What’s done is done. We can’t do much now. All choices are bad choices. Summer is when everyone shrugs at everything, appropriately – and when no one is reading Hegel.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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