The War to Start All Wars

No major wars were ever fought in Iowa, or any minor ones for that matter, but that was the talk in Iowa this weekend. More than thirteen-hundred of the Republican faithful showed up for their Iowa state party’s annual Lincoln Dinner to hear what the current group 2016 presidential hopefuls had to say for themselves – even if it was only eleven of the nineteen or twenty who are running or thinking of running. Each was given ten minutes to make their case, and they were blunt:

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky highlighted former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s stumbles this week over whether he would have gone to war in Iraq had he known the intelligence was wrong about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. Bush initially said yes and then offered a series of shifting answers before saying on Friday that he would not have.

“It’s a valid question, not because we’re talking about history; we’re talking about the Middle East, where history repeats itself,” Paul said, before asking whether the instability in the nation allowed Islamic State to become a greater threat.

Bush – who spoke before Paul – did not directly address his own remarks about Iraq, but did mention his brother, former President George W. Bush, who launched the war.

“Some of you may know W’s my brother,” Bush said. “I’m proud of that too. Whether people don’t like that or not, they’re just going to have to get used to it.”

Food fight! The crowd loved it, although no one threw any food, but they really loved this:

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a hawk, castigated Paul’s concerns about Americans’ privacy rights being trampled in the search for terrorists, such as the NSA telephone surveillance of Americans.

“If I’m president of the United States and you’re thinking about joining Al Qaeda… I’m not going to call a judge” to get a warrant, Graham said. “I’m going to call a drone and we will kill you.”

As president, if he found out what you might be thinking of doing, he’d have you killed immediately for thinking about doing something very bad – one Hellfire missile and you’d be gone – which is odd, considering his background:

Graham was commissioned as an officer and Judge Advocate in the United States Air Force in 1982. He was placed on active duty and in 1984, he was sent to Europe as a military prosecutor and defense attorney, serving at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany. In 1984, as he was defending an air force pilot accused of using marijuana, he was featured in an episode of 60 Minutes that exposed the Air Force’s defective drug-testing procedures. After four years in Europe, he returned to South Carolina and then left active duty in 1989. He subsequently entered private practice as a lawyer.

Now he says he’d kill American citizens for what they might be thinking of doing, before they get a chance to do it – to keep us all safe. The crowd loved that too. They have pure thoughts, but someone’s thoughts were even purer:

Rick Santorum’s speech was heavy on foreign policy as he assailed President Obama over his negotiations with Iran and asserted that as a former senator from Pennsylvania he has the international experience to be a strong commander in chief. At one point, he distilled his foreign policy views into four short words: “Iran, enemy. Israel, friend. It’s real simple.”

It is? The crowd thought so, but things got even stranger when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker showed up the next morning on CBS’ Face the Nation:

Walker said he believes, if he were to run, he’d have strong foreign policy experience, given his work on trade issues in his state, as well as his travel to China, Japan, Germany, France, Spain and Great Britain. On defense issues, Walker said, his leadership experience would be a strong asset. …

“I gotta tell you, one of the areas people talk to me the most about is the safety and security of this country,” he said. “If I choose to get into this race, I’m going to lay out a very clear plan.”

Richard Barry comments on that:

I recognize that Scott Walker wouldn’t be the first presidential contender without much real foreign policy experience. I also realize that a candidate has got to make the best of what they have to offer. But no, dealing with a few trade issues in Wisconsin, some trips abroad, and “leadership experience” focused on staring down public sector unions doesn’t cut it.

It’s particularly pathetic considering he would likely be running against a well-respected former Secretary of State (and he can say Benghazi all he wants).

If Republicans do intend to make 2016 a foreign policy election by arguing that Clinton’s tenure at State was problematic, they might want to offer up a candidate who is actually in position to say something intelligent about foreign affairs.

At least he didn’t say he could see Russia from his house, but Josh Marshall notes that things were even stranger over on Fox News:

There are so many things going on here: one is the deep, unresolved specter of the Iraq War looming over the Republican Party, notwithstanding what seemed like a rapid-fire consensus last week that it was a bad idea; another is the fact that Marco Rubio just doesn’t seem like the most cognitively dexterous contender for the Republican nomination. Whatever it is, after seeming to come down on the side of ‘knowing what we know now, it was a mistake’ side of the equation, Rubio went back to the other side of the debate and then stumbled and then got miffed when Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace grilled him on his flip-flop and then apparent re-flip live on this morning’s show.

The video of the exchange is at the link, but Marshall is curious about the venue:

One side note to observe in this unfolding debacle about the debacle is that basically every interview that propels this story forward is happening on Fox News, the media arm of the Republican Party, where Republicans go to get safe haven from challenging interviews. Even on Fox, this is happening.

I think we can also see that Brendan James and Daniel Strauss were prescient in pointing out that in his first ‘yes, it was a mistake’ answer Rubio tried to use the cover of President Bush now saying he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq – knowing what we know now – even though Bush definitely has never said that.

Remember that Rubio, more than any other current Republican presidential contender is vying to be the candidate of the neoconservative foreign policy wing of the party. So completely jettisoning the Iraq War and President Bush is a dicey proposition.

Only Rand Paul said something sensible. We’re talking about history. We’re talking about the Middle East, where history repeats itself. What he didn’t mention is that we’re actually talking about World War I – the War to End All Wars. This all started in 1916 with the Sykes–Picot Agreement that created Iraq and most of these countries over there, out of thin air, or hot sand. George Friedman, the Chairman of Stratfor Global Intelligence, sees the original problem:

Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot were British and French diplomats who redrew the map of the region between the Mediterranean Sea and Persia after World War I. They invented countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Some of these nation-states are in turmoil. The events in Syria and Iraq resemble the events in Lebanon a generation ago: The central government collapses, and warlords representing various groups take control of fragments of the countries, with conflicts flowing across international boundaries. Thus the Iraqi crisis and the Syrian crisis have become hard to distinguish, and all of this is affecting internal Lebanese factions.

This is important in itself. The question is how far the collapse of the post-World War I system will go. Will the national governments reassert themselves in a decisive way, or will the fragmentation continue? Will this process of disintegration spread to other heirs of Sykes and Picot?

This is a big deal:

This question is more important than the emergence of the Islamic State. Radical Islamism is a factor in the region, and it will assert itself in various organizational forms. What is significant is that while a force, the Islamic State is in no position to overwhelm other factions, just as they cannot overwhelm it. Thus it is not the Islamic State but the fragmentation and the crippling of national governments that matters. Syrian President Bashar al Assad is just a warlord now, and the government in Baghdad is struggling to be more than just another faction.

And so is every other “government” over there. We made up those countries out of thin air, and that’s why there was this last summer:

On June 29, the Sunni extremist group ISIS released an Arabic-laced but mostly English-language video entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot,” in which an ISIS spokesman identified as “Abu Safiya from Chile” declared a caliphate annulling the border between Iraq and Syria. The group had previously proclaimed “the beginning of the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement” after it had captured Mosul in northern Iraq.

They displayed a big End of Sykes-Picot banner and everything. The War to End All Wars didn’t do that. It seems to have generated our current wars, but there’s more to it than that Sykes–Picot thing. The premise of the Iraq war seems to have been that we would barge in and set up a secular Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq and humiliate the Islamic Jihadists, with our awesome might, and they’d just slink away, because everyone in the region would see that our way of arranging life was far superior to anything those fools could come up with. And the key was to humiliate them, so they’d never make trouble again.

We should have known better. We tried that before, at the end of that same war long ago. It didn’t work out.

The Treaty of Versailles proved that. The First World War was over. Britain and France, with our considerable help, had won it all, and Germany had lost it all. All that was left was negotiating the terms of surrender, but the winners had already worked out the terms of surrender among themselves. There was no negotiating. Exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – that minor incident in Sarajevo that started the whole thing – Germany was told they were going to accept full responsibility “for causing all the loss and damage” from the war. There’d be no whining. There’d be no bargaining. That was laid out in Article 231 – the War Guilt clause. Germany would disarm, completely, and make humiliating territorial concessions, and pay reparations to certain countries. Germany lost. They had no say now – shut up and sign on the dotted line – and they did.

They weren’t happy about that. They hadn’t been the only ones at fault, and after their inevitable economic collapse, and then political collapse, a leader arose who reminded all Germans of the humiliation of that treaty, who vowed Germany would never be humiliated again – and then rearmed Germany in violation of that treaty and started grabbing back territory that should have been Germany’s, really – the Sudetenland in 1938 for example. There was also the matter of German-speaking Prussia, by then part of Poland. The Second World War started on September 1, 1939, with Germany’s awesome new and innovative blitzkrieg that made all of Poland part of Germany in a day or two – and then they got really serious, heading west. It could be argued there’d have been no Hitler but for that Treaty of Versailles. That treaty gave Hitler his lever to move the world, and thus the winners of the first war caused the second one. Winners should never humiliate the losers, as tempting as that might be, even if it’s so damned satisfying. The reason is obvious. Smug people eventually get punched in the face.

We learned that lesson. The second time around we rebuilt Germany – the Marshall Plan applied to them too, or especially to them – and then we bought their little VW Beetles, and every hippie in the sixties had that VW van, and every American male going through his inevitable mid-life crisis still wants that Porsche. Their beer’s not bad either. Japan got to keep their emperor and MacArthur ran our occupation humanely. A wave of their transistor radios followed in the late fifties, then a Honda this and a Toyota that, and now it’s those expert baseball players – pitchers mostly – and sushi for everyone. There’s really no point in humiliating losers. It just pisses them off, for generations. It’s better to show some respect, even if you can’t quite manage to feel that, even if you don’t care for sushi.

We unlearned all that after the attacks of September 11, 2001 – and our anger and our self-pitying sense of victimhood still makes it impossible to even think any Muslim has any justification for being upset with what we’ve done geopolitically. George Bush said they hate us for our freedoms, and everyone decided George must be right about that, even if he was wrong about everything else almost all the time. There couldn’t be any other reason, and that meant that the only option, to keep us safe, was to humiliate these folks, to rub their noses in the obvious awesomeness of our military power.

Dick Cheney led the charge there, but he was not an outlier. There was Thomas Freidman’s famous suck on this comment on why we had to go to war with Iraq, even if they had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, or maybe because they had nothing to do with any of it. Freidman simply put it terms of sexual humiliation, and the concept stuck. They’d be our bitches. That’s what the talk in Iowa this week was about, and the American right is still outraged by Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech – all about mutual interests and mutual respect, the normal stuff of geopolitics. Obama thought we ought to try that for a change. Obama called that “a new beginning” but that didn’t go over well. Obama didn’t want to humiliate the bad guys! This was outrageous! This was un-American!

Mitt Romney made much of this, saying again and again that he’d never apologize for America. His team popped out a book that they said he wrote (maybe he did) – No Apology: Believe in America – but of course Obama hadn’t apologized for anything. Obama had demanded mutual respect – and he explicitly demanded that the Muslim world recognize our view of things too – not that it mattered. America seemed to think it was June 28, 1918, in Versailles, because that had worked out so well. Winning is never enough. Humiliating your opponent seals the deal, and Romney’s team knew that polled well. It was his forty-seven percent comments that sunk him, not that. Having the charisma of a sheet of drywall didn’t help much either – but at least he was big on humiliating others. He did say he liked to fire people. Doesn’t everyone?

Not much has changed since he lost the last election. Now the Republicans want to humiliate Iran, so they won’t even think of developing nuclear weapons. Obama want to negotiate them, developing a bit of mutual respect, so they’ll see that they can do without those things. Do we humiliate ISIS militarily so they’ll slink away and be gone forever, as our only strategy, or do we win over Sunnis in the region so that ISIS will have no appeal to them, while we slowly but surely “degrade” ISIS with pinpoint bombing and Special Forces raids that take out their key leaders? The talk in Iowa was only of humiliation.

We should know better. After the First World War the victors decided humiliation was just the ticket. After the Second World War the victors opted for healing. There’s much to be said for healing. There’s also much to be said for remembering a bit of history. Versailles is a fine place – very pretty – but bad things happened there.

Actually bad things happened at Potsdam. J. P. O’Malley sets the scene:

Up until the second decade of the 20th century, Europe had been home to magnificent feats of cultural brilliance, architecture splendor, and a central hub of cosmopolitan ideas. By May 1945, however, following the surrender of Nazi Germany, most of the continent lay in ruins. Food and fuel were extremely scarce. Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy. Germany, meanwhile, had been reduced to a giant pile of rubble.

Millions of refugees roamed the continent in search of a future that looked extremely bleak: They were often hungry, homeless, and stateless. For some, there wasn’t even a single relative left alive to try and pick up the pieces with. The greatest war mankind had ever witnessed threatened to wipe out western civilization, and replace it instead with a utopian barbarism that had no time for human empathy.

In July 1945, three of the world’s leading statesmen from the Allied side – Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin – all met up in a quiet Berlin suburb: The aim of the Potsdam Conference was to negotiate a lasting global peace to a conflict that had essentially begun in 1914. If Europe was to have any sort of lasting stability – economically, politically, and militarily – it needed an immediate solution. All the delegates arrived determined to learn from the mistakes their predecessors had made when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in Paris in 1919.

That’s the opening to his interview with the historian Michael Neiberg, whose new book is In Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe – all about the effort to move beyond humiliation as policy. Neiberg comments on the difficulties:

It was the First World War that had shaped all of these men. So at Potsdam they were trying to figure out what had gone wrong in Paris 26 years earlier. They were also asking, what were the basic fundamental mistakes that those who had gone before them had made? And they did a pretty good job: they had reset the boarders of Europe so that the political/social/ethnic lines matched up pretty well. They had more or less fixed the problem about what to do with Germany, settling the reparations issue, albeit in a controversial way, by dividing the country up. But fundamentally, they understood this was a problem that stretched back not just to 1939, but to 1914.

There would be no Sykes–Picot nonsense in Europe, and the actual issue was humiliation:

The real problem in 1945 regarding Germany was (a) who is really to blame for this? Is it the German people? That is to say: If you devastate Germany are you in fact punishing the wrong people. And, (b) what is best way going forward to try and re-build a peaceful Europe?

Again you have to go back to Versailles in 1919, where the Allies devastated Germany. However, they also left Germany strong enough to do something about it. And that was a fundamental mistake. So what they did at the end of the Second World War was to apply hard power – they divided Germany, reduced the size of it, occupied it, and kept the army down.

But they also applied liberal solutions too: They tied western Germany into the international economy, and into a wider alliance like NATO, which allowed it to have a military force. But at the same time they didn’t allow Germany to operate that military force independently.

That was quite deliberate:

They thought that if you give Germany enough time, hopefully enough Germans can come to the fore who won’t believe the Nazi ideology that their parents and grandparents believed. And that worked. Germany may be the most dominant power in Europe today; but most Europeans – outside of Athens of course – aren’t particularly worried about Germany as they might have been in, say, the 1930s.

That might even work with Iran. That might work with all the Sunnis across the Middle East. There all alternatives to humiliation. Don’t tell the Republicans, but there are.

But then the Manhattan Project came up at Potsdam:

It appears Truman tried to present the subject of the atomic bomb very casually.

He was saying: We have this new weapon and we are going to use it on Japan. But it seems quite clear that the knowledge of the atomic bomb scared the Soviet leaders the most. They knew despite their victory, and all of their sacrifice, the atomic bomb could negate everything. It was the American use of two nuclear weapons, though, rather than anything that happened at Potsdam, that really reinforced Soviet paranoia about their own security. This began a cycle of real mistrust during the Cold War. And of course it forced Stalin to increase the speed and tempo of Soviet research also.

And now we have Vladimir Putin, as angry and panicked as Stalin ever was. Russia is an economic basket case, with nukes, and our sanctions are making things worse there by the day. Putin is reacting to that humiliation in the only way he can, with belligerence, his only option now. We made this so, long ago actually, in Potsdam. The effort to avoid the mistakes of the War to End All Wars was only partially successful.

As for all the chest-thumping war talk in Iowa, well, that’s how Republicans talk, and how Hillary Clinton talks at times. The crowds cheer. Those with long memories don’t. This will not end well. It seems history never ends.


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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