Tuesday, August 12, 2008
A recent history of jackassery
The Falklands. In 1981, the Royal Navy withdrew the HMS Endurance from the South Atlantic, the United Kingdom's only presence in the area. The Argentine government, who had long wanted to reclaim the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas in Spanish, saw this as a sign of British disinterest in the ongoing dispute, and in 1982 hired a band of scrap metal merchants who raised the Argentine flag in the town of South Georgia, and the Falklands war began.
How could the Argentines have been so stupid? The military junta that ran the country had plenty of problems at home, and being seen as the winners of this long standing dispute was a big political win for them. Moreover, the economic cost to the United Kingdom of getting the islands back would be much higher than the islands' actual worth, so the Argentines thought it might be easy. Their stupidity largely rested in the inability to put themselves in the place of the British and Margaret Thatcher, who had political problems of her own at the time. Just as jingoism was popular in Argentina, the jingoism on the other side was a big hit in the U.K. as well. A war was fought, one whose outcome was never in doubt. The superior Royal Navy took the islands back from the minor league Argentinian armed forces, the junta in Argentina was weakened even further, while Margaret Thatcher got to look resolute and strong. 900 military died in this stupidity, as if either side in this truly moronic conflict cared.
The Invasion of Kuwait. In 1990, Saddam Hussein had his troops cross the border into Kuwait to take over the country. His justifications, besides pure greed and taking over the rich oil fields of the small country, was that Kuwait had once been part of the political fiction called Iraq when the British started drawing lines on the maps of the Middle East and carving things up based on their whim as the largest empire in the world.
How could Saddam have been so stupid? If Kuwait's only defense was their own armed forces, this wasn't stupid at all, as they were no match for the Iraqis. Saddam was lead to believe in a meeting with U.S. ambassador April Glaspie that the United States was not interested in Arab-Arab conflicts and didn't care about Kuwait. That, of course, was not really the American position, but Saddam was lead to believe it was. The Americans then started massing troops in Saudi Arabia, built up a large coalition on the premise that the Americans would wage the war and others would largely foot the bill, and then came Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. The allies lost less than 400 soldiers. Iraqi deaths are estimated between 20,000 and 200,000, with 35,000 being the most reliable number. It is clear that more Iraqi civilians died than allied troops. When the war began, it was still undecided whether the war would just be the liberation of Kuwait or would include the overthrow of Saddam in Iraq. The Americans decided the cost would be too great and many in the coalition they had formed would not sign off on the larger goal.
South Ossetia. The homeland of the Ossetians sits in a region that lies half inside the natural border of Russia and half inside the natural border of Georgia. The Ossetians have had centuries of conflict with the Georgians, and South Ossetia became a breakaway province, with Russian "peacekeepers" installed to keep the Georgians from exacting revenge on their rebellious ethnic minority. Note that Chechnya, Russia's largest ethnic headache, shares a border with Georgia, though not with Ossetia. Last weekend, Georgia, now a strong ally of the U.S. with an American educated president Mikheil Saakashvili, launched an air attack on South Ossetia, and the Russians, who lost many soldiers in the attack, have responded with swift and overwhelming force, taking the battle by air and by land into Georgia proper.
How could Saakashvili have been so stupid? Georgia cannot defeat Russia militarily, and their largest protector the United States is tied down in two unending wars. This is a question that still has no good answer, but the lapdog press in the United States is doing a good job of ignoring the question completely. This time, the United States is an ally of the idiot country who fired first, instead of being an ally of the people who were fired upon. Instead of comparing the Georgians to the Argentines or the Iraqis, our senior diplomats, old Cold Warriors all, are comparing the Russians to the Soviets invading Finland or the Nazis invading the Czechs. It is entirely an exercise in sabre rattling, because we can't back it up immediately and may not be able to back it up even in the long run.
There is another suspicious timing element of this attack. In the summer of 2006, our strong allies the Israelis invaded South Lebanon, and the United States did nothing. To everyone's surprise, they soon left, and while they may have met all their military objectives, it looked like a retreat, and as a public relations battle, Hezbollah scored a huge victory by appearing competent at providing relief to the war victims, at a time when America was still remembered as completely incompetent at providing relief to the victims of Katrina less than a year before. If it had gone according to the script of earlier Israeli military adventures, it would have been a big plus for the Republicans in the midterm elections of 2006, as the Republicans are still the party of an aggressive American foreign policy, though by no means an intelligently aggressive one.
Could the Georgians be sacrificing themselves to help the Republicans win an election by reminding the American electorate that it's a dangerous world out there? That would be completely against their national interests, but Saakashvili is a known hothead. If we look at April Glaspie's gambit in 1990 and Israeli misadventure of 2006, the U.S. has a history of provoking hotheads into actions that are not in their nations' best interest. Moreover, in the 21st Century, the general public has forgotten that firing the first shot in a war has generally been considered a bad thing in the history of mankind.
In the statements of the candidates, McCain is painted as the champion of strength and Obama is being called nuanced. We've tried stupid strength for seven and a half years now, and it's gotten us into this mess. There's no promise that nuance and the return of moral authority will be the answer, but it is clear as rain water that more of the same can't possibly work.