The Long View 2003-03-28: Police War

I think it was John who first pointed me to Eamonn Fingleton. Fingleton is one of the few journalists who seems to truly understand Japan, and be willing to say what he thinks in public. I suspect this is a matter of personality, since in many cases you can read between the lines of other authors who take a more indirect approach, but I value frankness. Fingleton didn't write the first paragraph of this post, but he could have.


American Mideast Foreign Policy

American Mideast Foreign Policy

On the second Iraq War, let us pause to remember the poor fool Iraqis who resisted the invasion of their country. They didn't have a chance or a choice, and some of them fought us anyway.

It is nonetheless true that Black Hawk Down is an episode Americans should pay more attention to. Our involvement in Somalia illustrates the strange attractor of American foreign policy: we keep making small changes in our trajectory, but continue to return to the same path over and over again.

If you want an illustration of what I mean, look at John's three points at the end of this post. A lack of order in shitty little countries really has become the problem of the American people because the current international order is setup with us as the ultimate guarantor of security. We are the international security utility. The converse side of this policy is our current imperialist immigration policy. From the visa lottery to widespread disregard for formal immigration procedures and policies, we act as if the rest of the world is already part of our imperial umbrella. It is always standard imperial policy to allow free movements of peoples within the oecumene. Finally, while John applies this analysis in a partisan way, we can see clearly in retrospect that ever since the first President Bush, we have been doing things in the Middle East that inflame the local hotheads. Each succeeding President has tried a different approach, but the overall result has been the same. The one thing that will ensure George W Bush will continue to be widely hated is the also managed to kill and maim lots of Americans. While the other Presidents managed not to do this, we should reflect that we haven't managed to prevent chaos or violence in the other cases; we have just made other people do the dying for us.

Police War
Back in the early 1980s, Americans who worked in the Japanese financial services industry often went through three stages in their assessment of it. When they arrived, they looked at those corporate balance-sheets that consisted mostly of debt and at the rigged securities markets. Their first impression was that the whole thing was lunacy. Then, after they had been in Japan for a while, they began to understand the Japanese way of doing things. They would decide that no, the financial system was not lunacy; it was just different. After they had been there long enough, however, they would finally conclude that, yes, the system was different, but it was still crazy.
I suspect that is going to be the sequence in which we will understand the Iraqi strategy as it has developed by the second week of the war. What they are trying to do is stage a much larger version of the scenario from Black Hawk Down. They are not doing this just in the general sense of harassing US forces with irregulars until the US goes away. They have adopted the Somali tactics in some detail. They are using noncombattants as shields during urban engagements. Most strikingly, they have created their own corps of what the Somalis called "technicals." The Iraqis call them "fedeyeen" (remember Dune?), but they are still irregulars who ride in trucks with heavy guns mounted on them.
Quite aside from the question of depraved indifference to civilian life, one cannot help but be struck by how ill-advised all this is. The technicals made a certain amount of sense in Somalia, where they could sweep through a market place and shoot up some lightly defended target. The Iraqi technicals, in contrast, are being sent against tanks. Additionally, the Somali clans were able to mobilize loyal mobs to overrun the downed helicopters in the Battle of Mogadishu. That is not the case in Iraq. Although there have been no mass uprisings in southern Iraq, it does seem to be that civilian and even regular Army resistance to the Coalition has been occurring quite literally at gunpoint.
What we have here is a regime engineering the motions of a guerrilla war, but without the popular base necessary to conduct one. The Baathist Party is conducting a police war. The key elements are the sort of special political units that Stalin used to ginger up the Red Army during World War II. The Iraqi problem is that the bulk of the fighting is being done by the special units. The result is lost engagements that can be turned into the legends of martyrdom. That's not merely a consolation to the Baathists; it's the strategy. It's different, but it's still lunacy.
* * *
The choice of Somalia as a model was not arbitrary. That really was where the post-Cold War reputation of the US in the Gulf region began to fall apart. We should remember that the US military counted the Battle of Mogadishu as a victory; the objective of the raid that occasioned the battle was achieved, and the American casualties were not enormous. In fact, the action came close to achieving the political goal of subduing the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. The decision of the Clinton Administration to simply withdraw was widely praised as prudent. In reality, it created the myth that the US cannot tolerate losing its own soldiers. Even at the time, some analysts understood that decision was the gateway to disaster. The Iraq War, 911, and the bombings of the embassies in East Africa, are all among the consequences.
* * *
Should anyone need them, here are short answers to three familiar rhetorical objections to the war:
Why should we attack Iraq when they have never done any harm to us?
That's like saying you object to the police acting against criminals who have not yet harmed you personally. International order cannot be based on force, but it must have some force at its disposal. We have arranged the world over the past 60 years so that there is no one capable of doing it but us.
 
Why can't we just stay in our own country and leave them alone?
Consider that, even with the military deployed to Iraq, there are still more Iraqis in America than there are Americans in Iraq. The Iraqi-Americans are not a problem. Neither, for the most part, are other immigrants from countries ruled by tyrannies. However, such is the flow of populations these days that any international threat creates a domestic security issue. That was how 911 happened.
 
This war simply inflames the Muslim street against the US.
The corners on the Muslim street where the anti-Americans gather were inflamed first by the retreat from Mogadishu, and then by the Clinton Administration's determination to treat the Islamist threat as a law-enforcement problem. The removal of the Baathist regime is the one thing that might calm the street down.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site