Today, Michael Kinsley provides a survey of post-Vietnam U.S. "strategery" (in the immortal words of The Dubster). In the survey, the USA doesn't show very much skill in avoiding the same ol, same ol' in world affairs. If this is (fair & balanced) schadenfreude, so be it.
The Fire Every Time
By Michael Kinsley
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Growing up in the Midwest during the 1950s and 1960s, I gave little thought to developments in Ukraine. In fact, it’s safe to say that until the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, I gave Ukraine no thought whatsoever. Even after 1991, all I could have told you was that Ukraine was an area of Russia (which isn’t even correct, it turns out) and there was a famous Ukrainian poet named Taras Shevchenko, whose name I knew because there was a large statue of him outside my apartment in Washington. If you’d told me that what was then called “the Ukraine” actually was a nation that had suffered appallingly under Stalin and was still under Moscow’s thumb, I would not have been astonished, but I wouldn’t have been moved to do anything about it.
How about you? Were you concerned about the fate of Ukraine before 1991? How much time have you spent worrying about Ukraine since then? Did you even know that you’re supposed to say “Ukraine” and not “the Ukraine”? (“The Ukraine” sounds like a region; Ukraine sounds like a nation.) If you lifted a finger for Ukrainian freedom before 1991, congratulations. If you didn’t, join the club.
Now everything’s different. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has already absorbed Crimea, which had been part of Ukraine—who knew?—and he wants all of Ukraine back in Russia’s sphere if not fully re-incorporated. Most Ukrainians are not charmed by this idea. Although—also news to me—it seems that a substantial minority of Ukrainians are ethnically Russian and would be delighted to rejoin the mother country. Whoever shot down the Malaysian civilian jet full of children and AIDS workers is probably in that faction. Meanwhile, deep concern and some actual knowledge about Ukraine (like: where is it?) became a test of your foreign-policy chops.
But why? Life in the Ukraine—or, excuse me, in Ukraine—under Putin surely would be better than it was under Stalin (who arranged for millions to starve to death), or even under Brezhnev. For many in Ukraine, it might not be worse than their lives now. If Moscow’s control over Ukraine was tolerable to us before, why should it be intolerable to us today?
The reason the U.S. and other Western nations did nothing about Ukraine, back during the Cold War, had nothing to do with the ignorance of midwestern teenagers. The reason was “containment.” Containment, the brainchild of the American diplomat George F. Kennan, held that the response to Soviet Communist ambitions should be to “contain” them at the lines revealed as the dust settled on World War II, and allow the Soviet Union and its client states to rot from within—but not to try to push the lines back. You have to admit, it worked pretty well. Containment kept everything relatively peaceful for nearly half a century, until Communism collapsed and the good guys won. Is there a similar doctrine to guide us through the 21st century?
Discussions like this often start with Walter Lippmann. (“Of course I knew him,” said Arianna. “He was my first. Or I was his first. One or the other. I can’t remember which.”) Lippmann’s characteristically pompous and unhelpful view was: “Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs.” This was in 1943, when the U.S. and its allies were all breaking this rule—spending more than their resources, borrowing from the future—in order to defeat an unquestionable threat to their interests. This was clearly the right thing to be doing, given the threat. So that’s one problem with Lippmann.
A second problem is that Lippmann’s cost-benefit analysis doesn’t take into account most of the cost, which falls on the enemy or on civilians swept into the war. John Tirman, in his 2011 book, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, estimates that, in World War I, the ratio of civilians to soldiers killed in war was one to nine. Now, in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s more like nine to one, or even higher. Tirman cites a 2006 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins, which calculated that the Iraq war had cost 650,000 Iraqi lives up to that point. American fatalities as of 2014 were about 4,500.
President Obama’s approach to the matter of intervention is, in a word, “drones.” Or, in four words, “drones and trade sanctions.” Deciding to send young Americans into harm’s way, knowing that some of them won’t return or return whole, must be the most awful decision a president is called upon to make. Drones and trade sanctions make the decision easier. They seem so antiseptic, unlike “boots on the ground.” If you could achieve your objective without sending in ground troops (and ground troops are overwhelmingly the combatants who get killed)—that is, without risking American lives—it would be terrific, right?
Well, yes and no. Fighting a war by remote control sounds pretty cool compared with the old-fashioned way, involving human beings. But anything that makes the decision to go to war easier is at best a mixed blessing. And accidents happen. Even drones can have a bad day. So far, bad drone days have claimed hundreds of civilian lives.
Civilian deaths in wartime are usually classified as “collateral damage”: you’re trying to destroy an army barracks but instead you hit a school next door. Trade sanctions are different. Trade sanctions work, if at all, by squeezing a country’s economy until it cries uncle. Making ordinary people miserable is the very point of trade sanctions, and the only way they can be effective. Trade sanctions, like the ones now in place against Iran, cannot be imposed only on the elite, the way a drone can (at least in theory) be aimed at a specific person. In fact, the elite can usually get around the effect of sanctions. (And when you try to target only the elite, which is the sanctions strategy aimed at Putin and his associates, no one really seems to notice.) Iraq was the target of a punitive trade embargo starting with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, in 1990; most of the sanctions were lifted after Saddam was removed from power. In the intervening period, economic distress and the unavailability of basic medical supplies claimed countless lives (including as many as half a million children). That was before the Iraq War itself. One 2013 study notes that, of all the deaths in Iraq somehow attributable to war, about a third could be traced to “indirect causes (such as failures in health, sanitation, transportation, communications, and other systems).”
After Vietnam, there was pretty general agreement that we would like to avoid that sort of thing in the future. And yet we’ve been at war with somebody or other for most of the time since then, even if it’s only a tiny island with a medical school (Grenada). If any consistent doctrine has stayed our hand, it’s hard to detect.
Meanwhile, 11 years after George W. Bush flew to an aircraft carrier for his “Mission Accomplished” moment, the Iraqi economy and society are in shambles. We wake up to learn that some splinter group we never heard of now controls two-thirds of this country we supposedly rescued from tyranny and is busy executing people from some other splinter group. Even so, calls mount for new (or renewed) U.S. intervention in one conflict or another.
On July 20, a day chosen at random, there were three stories on page 11—page 11!—of The New York Times. “5 Bombs Explode in Baghdad as Dispute Continues with Jordan.” Dispute with Jordan? What’s that about? No, don’t tell me. “U.S. Drone Kills Militants in Pakistan.” Our good friend Pakistan, whose sovereignty we ignore daily. And “Attack Kills at Least 21 Egyptian Soldiers at Checkpoint in Western Desert.” The world is a mess, and much of the mess was caused by our blundering attempts to clean it up. Things might be different if we were any good at it. Ω
[Michael Kinsley has become a career gypsy since the advent of online journalism. in 1995, he became the founding editor of its online journal Slate and after leaving Slate because of health difficulties (Parkinson's Disease) Kinsley next moved to the Los Angeles Times as the Editorial Page Editor. He left the LA Fishwrap in 2005 and returned to writing a weekly column which appeared in The Washington Post and Slate. In 2006 he served briefly as U.S. editor of The Guardian. He later became a regular columnist for Time magazine. In May 2009, Kinsley revealed in a story reviewing a new issue of Newsweek in The New Republic that he had been fired by Time. In January 2013, Kinsley joined The New Republic as editor-at-large and then &3151; a year later (January 2014) Vanity Fair announced that Kinsley would become a contributing editor and write a monthly column. Michael Kinsley received a BA from Harvard University and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University's Magdalen College. He returned to Harvard for law school and in his third year (L3?), took a job at The New Republic in DC. Kinsley was allowed to finish his Harvard JD via courses at the evening program at The George Washington University Law School.]
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