Sunday, September 28, 2014

"X" Marks The Spot: The Dumbos/Morons Have Pin-Sized Brains!

Career diplomat George F. Kennan wrote "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" (1947) and the essay appeared under the pseudonym "X." Long before Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park (1990), "X" or George F. Kennan imagined a dinosaur species — Americanasaurus; a large and lumbering creature with a brain the size of a pin. This description fits the large number of Dumbos/Morons in our midst today. If this is a (fair & balanced) description of the Red State inhabitants and their wannabes, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
ISIS And George Kennan's "Americanasaurus"
By John Cassidy

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In an interesting Syria post at Foreign Policy‘s Web site, Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator, quotes George Kennan, the progenitor of the policy of containment, on the tendency of democracies to ignore external threats until, eventually, they overreact. Having just raised the possibility that the Obama Administration’s decision to expand the war on ISIS may have been partly driven by public opinion, I think it’s worth reproducing Kennan’s quote in full:

But I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath—in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.

In addition to being a foreign-policy realist, Kennan was an unapologetic √©litist. These days, few commentators would use the sort of language he did. But, now that we have seen how the United States and other Western polities have dealt with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham over the past couple of years, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the Princeton patrician may have been on to something.

As the jihadi army rampaged its way through northeastern Syria and then moved over the border, into Fallujah and other towns and cities in western Iraq, most Americans (and most Britons and most French people) resolutely ignored it. Even when ISIS took Mosul, Iraq’s second city, obsessing about its black-clad cutthroats remained a minority pursuit.

Now, of course, the dinosaur is on its feet and taking offensive action. In my previous post, I cited some opinion-poll data; here is some more. According to Gallup, sixty per cent of Americans support the U.S. bombing raids in Syria and Iraq, and thirty-one per cent disapprove. That approval figure is a bit lower than what other surveys have found—an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that seventy-one per cent approved. Still, Gallup found that backing for Obama’s strategy extends across party lines. The level of support among both Democrats and Republicans is virtually identical: sixty-four per cent versus sixty-five per cent. (Independents, interestingly enough, appear to have more doubts: just fifty-five per cent of them approve.)

At this early stage, the U.S.-led war against ISIS is confined to air attacks. Although General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that he might, at some point, ask the President for permission to send in ground troops, most analysts don’t foresee an American invasion. Miller, while registering some well-founded concerns about the assumptions and beliefs surrounding the military campaign, says: “We’re clearly not yet on the verge of plunging into another pointless Americanasaurus charge much like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.”

It is to be hoped that Miller is right. But if you think that public opinion would rule out another ground war, you may be indulging in wishful thinking. Gallup’s survey staff asked this question: “Would you favor or oppose the United States sending ground troops to Iraq and Syria in order to assist groups in those countries that are fighting the Islamic militants?” Fifty-four per cent of respondents said that they were opposed: that’s a majority. But forty per cent said that they were in favor—a figure that, among Republicans, jumped to sixty-one per cent.

These figures hardly suggest that the American public is implacably opposed to fighting another ground war. If anything, they point to the fluidity of public opinion, and to the impact that individual events, such as the release of videos showing Westerners being beheaded, can have on sentiment. As the air war goes on and the ISIS fighters get more desperate, it’s reasonable to assume that more of these horrid images will emerge, and that Western governments will use them to rally the public. Public support for military escalation may well increase.

In an article accompanying the release of Gallup’s survey, Jeffrey M. Jones and Frank Newport pointed out that this sort of thing often happens: “Support commonly increases from the time military action is first discussed as an option until it is taken. For example, 23% of Americans favored U.S. military action to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait in August 1990. By January 1991, just before the U.S. began the Persian Gulf War, 55% were in favor. Immediately after the U.S. began the war, 79% approved of it.”

Ultimately, we know, the public tends to tire of foreign wars, especially if they drag on. In a fascinating post drawing on Gallup’s archives, Peyton M. Craighill, of the Washington Post‘s "Storyline" blog, examined how Americans have answered a question that the polling firm has asked for decades about whether the United States made a mistake in sending troops to various war zones.

At the start of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, fewer than one in four respondents to the Gallup survey believed it was a mistake to send in U.S. military forces. Thereafter, though, this number steadily increased. By the time the wars had been going on for two or three years, more than fifty per cent of respondents said that the decision to wage them had been an error. The one exception was Afghanistan, where, after three years of war, the percentage of people describing the decision to dispatch U.S. forces as a mistake was still pretty small. Since then, though, this figure has grown: by 2012, it was close to fifty per cent.

These findings don’t have any definitive implications. Not all wars end badly. In 1999, there was strong backing for Bill Clinton’s strategy of using NATO air power to support the pro-independence forces in Kosovo. As the fighting dragged on, the level of public support declined somewhat, but it stayed above fifty per cent until the conflict ended and the Serbian troops withdrew. If the U.S.-led coalition routs ISIS in fairly short order, American casualties are kept to a minimum, and some sort of post-conflict settlement is cobbled together in Syria and Iraq, this could be another Kosovo war rather than another Iraq.

That’s about the best we can hope for. But, like Kennan, you have to wonder. Ω

[John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He has written many articles for the magazine, on topics ranging from Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke to the Iraqi oil industry and the economics of Hollywood. He also writes a column for The New Yorker’s Web site. His latest book is How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities (2009). Cassidy received a BA from Oxford University as well as an MA (journalism) from Columbia University and an MA (economics) from New York University.]

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