Futility in our time

Kevin Drum has an analysis of the recent failures in Iraq that merit some serious consideration. His point is that where many see the Iraq war as a good idea that was ruined by incompetent leadership, there is a more fundamental problem. Setting up the regime people thought they were installing in Iraq would certainly have required the kind of financial resources and force commitment no one has seen since WWII. Was Saddam Hussein really a threat of Hitlerian magnitude? It seems unlikely that many folks would have agreed.

But the more general question is the more interesting one. How do you respond to a world where actually fixing problems is beyond the resources available?

This more general problem goes beyond Iraq to places like Bosnia and Kosovo, where the minimum preconditions for peace – a secure and basically content populace – would stretch the limits of the most generous foreign aid programme. Disrupting peace and security is always far cheaper than establishing it. The economics of insurgency easily favour the insurgents. If vast numbers of troops and truckloads of money can’t bring peace to tiny Kosovo, is there any hope at all for Congo?

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Political issues by Scott Martens. Bookmark the permalink.

About Scott Martens

Scott is a US-raised Canadian living in Brussels with his American wife. His political background is well to the left of centre, even for Europe, and is very interested in immigration, cultural integration and language policy issues. He is presently working against a deadline on his doctorate in computational linguistics and is on hiatus. Wrote Pedantry, also on hiatus.

16 thoughts on “Futility in our time

  1. I think the beginning of wisdom is to realize that there is a pretty long scale of awfulness in the conditions of individual countries, rather than a simple “pleasant vs unpleasant” splitting; and that at very least one should not try to move a country further down the scales. For example, yes sure Indonesia was a dictatorship back in the day, but it wasn’t North Korea. Or sure, Kenya is not perfect, but it is not Zimbabwe.

    And, in general, even poor countries under incompetent government, usually even under positively *malign* government, are still making more progress than countries under war, which in turn are making more progress than countries under civil war.

  2. Might the misery in all three, in large measure, be perpetuated by the UN? I have been reading Stephen Schwartz pieces over the past couple of years in The Weekly Standard & he writes very movingly of Bosnia & his experiences/observations of living in Sarajevo (I think). Just a thought –

  3. Between the UN, the IMF, and the World Bank, I don’t know how any struggling country (whether struggling over rebels, genocide, development, debt, or other sources of stress and instability) is going to make it to the point where they aren’t wholly dependent (or subservient) to the external actors that a lot of people place faith in.

    Name one (just one) prosperous and stable nation on this planet whose success is primarily the result of UN, IMF, or World Bank actions, either directly (by invasion, setting up their government, stationing peacekeepers, etc) or indirectly (loans, loan guarantees, whimsical Security Council resolutions in their favor).

    No, the people of the Congo just realized this week that the UN peacekeepers are nothing of the sort. They just sit around in their uniforms and let the chaos go on. And as for those nations who have to follow IMF and World Bank dictates concerning fiscal policy – in order to get more loans… well…..

  4. The special role optimists around the world attribute to the UN may have been right before 1989. Maybe it’s time we take this proposition by Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay very serious: An alliance of democracies

  5. “Was Saddam Hussein really a threat of Hitlerian magnitude?”

    I don’t think pro-war advocates would put it like that.

    Saddam Hussein was a leading part of set of Middle Eastern cultures which are becoming a threat of Hitlerian magnitude. Defeating him wasn’t like defeating Hitler, it was like having a successful D-Day.

  6. Saddam Hussein was a leading part of set of Middle Eastern cultures which are becoming a threat of Hitlerian magnitude. Defeating him wasn’t like defeating Hitler, it was like having a successful D-Day.

    Huh? Hussein was *against* militant Islam, which I thought was the problem in the middle east. You know, just cause they all have brown skin doesn’t mean they’re all on the same side.

  7. Places that are better off? Sierra Leone, Afganistan, and Ivory Coast spring immediately to mind. Further there are quite a few countries, mainly in africa, where the entire foundation of their security is pretty much “if you invade us the french or the brits will show up and kick your face in” Taiwan and South Korea depend on a guarantee from the US and so forth. The willingness of the west to use millitary force when nessesary is a pretty fundamental pillar of stability in international politics. And the actual interventions we engage in are not always exceedingly costly, nor do they always inspire much resistance. Sierra Leone was pulled out of a really nasty civil war by an astoundingly minimal deployment of british forces for example.

    The problem is that it is pretty hard to predict the consequences of an intervention in advance, and the problem in Iraq in particular was and is that the warplanners where relying on the Iraqis to respond to the forciblie overthrow of their dictator in much the same way the eastern europeans responded to the collapse of communist rule and what they actually got was mass lootings, and millitias of religious wackjobs. Ouch.

  8. Didn’t the communist rule in Eastern Europe collapse because a foreign power retreated? Will the routing of the US force in july do the same?

  9. How do you respond to a world where actually fixing problems is beyond the resources available?

    Voltaire suggested something about tending one’s own garden.

    Seriously, I think this will become a more serious problem when (not if, when) China becomes top nation. Western progressives say nothing about diminishing liberties in Hong Kong, because, frankly, there is nothing to say – protesting against China is useless.

  10. Yup, and that is why Tibet rarely gets the same airtime as Palestine even though Tibet has had a real cultural genocide campaign pursued against it for decades. Even though the situation in Tibet is much worse you can hope to influence the situation in Israel.

  11. You think that’s why Tibet gets little airtime?
    Maybe; but I assumed the difference with Israel was
    (1) a vocal segment of America cares about what happens there for religious reasons (both Jews and lunatic Christians)
    (2) it’s right next to all that oil that the US cares about.

  12. Tibet gets airtime, but it’s all Hollywood liberals, etc., and Sebastian ignores tham. But if US foreign policy decides to support the Tibetans, Sebastian will be the first to scream “Where were the liberals?”

    Or Burma, Indonesia/ Timor, the Congo, Uzbekistan, etc., etc.

  13. Since neither the UN nor any single government seems to operate consistently to save human lives (as a matter of policy priority), but more likely acts either for reasons of realpolitik (or, as in the case of the UN, is restricted in its activity by its very nature), I can hardly see the reason for saying its the fault of liberals or conservatives.

    Why do single nations intervene when the UN does not? Why does the UN intervene so ineffectively (I need no link to Rwanda to say that the UN intervention there was ineffective in preventing the massacre, regardless of the number massacred).

    It’s because few governments, or quasi-governmental bodies composed of representatives of governments with conflicting interests, have any interest in saving human lives unless it’s politically advantageous. Saving the lives of registered voters, or the close personal friends of registered voters might get you somewhere – but saving people who have no political capital in your country, and none at the UN, is not going to happen, no matter how many people are going to die.

    I would bet that Hitler could have been more successful in committing genocide if he had not attacked Britain and the Soviet Union. Had he stopped to consolidate, and massacre as many people as he wished, I do not believe for a moment that the political will existed to invade Europe and stop him.

  14. “I would bet that Hitler could have been more successful in committing genocide if he had not attacked Britain and the Soviet Union.”

    Part of your premise is false and the bet therefore fails. The facts are that Nazi Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Britain then issued an ultimatum to Germany to desist in accordance with an unsolicited offer made on 31 March 1939 to the Polish government to defend Poland’s territorial integrity. Failing a response to the ultimatum, Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939.

    Germany did not attack Britain and there are many indications that Hitler did not want to engage Britain in its war to gain territory in eastern Europe, wisely so as it turned out. As John Lukacs wrote: “Churchill and Britain could not have won WW2; in the end America and Russia did. But in May 1940 Churchill was the one who did not lose it.” [Five Days in London May 1940 (Yale UP, 1999)] It seems to have generally passed unnoticed that in 1939, Britain’s population was almost extactly half that of Germany and Austria. While Britain’s air defences turned out to be sufficiently formidable to win the crucial air Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, its land forces were not up to sustaining a military campaign on the ground in mainland Europe. Of course, had the Battle of Britain in 1940 been lost there could have been no Normandy invasion in June 1944.

    Germany did not invade Soviet territory until 22 June 1941. America entered WW2 in Europe after Germany had declared war on America three days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

  15. I would then submit that if the people who today don’t want to intervene militarily in other countries had been in power in Britain at that time, then Britain would not have declared war on Germany. And if those same people had been in power in the United States, they would not have intervened in the war. They might not have even sent any aid of a military nature.

    If Chamberlain had remained in charge, everyone in Britain would be speaking German now.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that there are limits to negotiation and limits to treaties, etc. Violence sometimes settles things (though not usually in the way that was desired). There seems to be a belief amongst some people that war is never justified, and/or that war is never effective in bringing about desired change.

  16. John: “If Chamberlain had remained in charge, everyone in Britain would be speaking German now.”

    Chamberlain, mindful of the awful slaughter of WW1, wanted to avoid another war, which he appreciated would likely engulf Europe and lead to millions of casualties, an entirely rational perception. The conventional wisdom of those times was that “the bomber would always get through” and what had happened in Spain was a terrible reminder of what bombing could do.

    Granted that Chamberlain was naive in believing that Hitler could be trusted and that the Munich agreement of September 1938 would satisfy Hitler’s territorial ambitions. However, once it was recognised the trust and expectations were misplaced after Germany’s occupation of the whole of Czecho-Slovakia in March 1939, the response of Chamberlain’s government was to make an unsolicited offer of a pact with Poland, to guarantee its territorial integrity, evidently in the hope that might prevent war.

    It was not to be. The Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact of late August 1939 had assured Hitler that he was safe from an attack by the Soviet Union and Britain was not placed to intervene directly in Poland. The Soviet-Nazi Friendship Treaty of 28 September 1939 divided up Poland’s territory and Britain and France were already at war by then. Right up to the moment of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Stalin had been dismissing incoming intelligence from Soviet agents of an attack as “disinformation”. Stalin trusted Hitler.

    The Communists became the mainstay of the resistance in France but only after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Before that, the official party line was that the war was a “capitalists’ war” and therefore no concern of theirs.

    Blaming the war all on Chamberlain’s appeasement is a convenient mythology. But it is simplistic because it ignors the way events unfolded. It also ignors the military realities. Britain’s capability in land warfare was very weak even through to 1942. Rearmament, started in April 1935 by Baldwin, Chamberlain’s predecessor as PM, was increasingly skewed towards, firstly, air defence, and secondly, the navy. And Britain’s population of 40 m was only half that of the 79m something of the combined populations of Germany and Austria.

    In the event, concentrating Britain’s rearmament on air defence and the navy proved a prescient move. The Nazi high-command was fearful of the Royal Navy and sought to gain air supremacy before making the planned invasion of Britain but couldn’t. Had the Battle of Britain in summer 1940 been lost, there could have been no Normandy invasion in June 1944.

    “In 1945, after the defeat of Germany, the Russians asked the Wehrmacht’s most senior operational commander, Field-Marshall Gerd von Runstedt, which battle of the war he regarded as the most decisive. They were expecting him to say ‘Stalingrad’. What he said was ‘The Battle of Britain.'” [Stephen Bungay: The Most Dangerous Enemy (2000) p. 386]

    Invoking misleading historical parallels is a dangerous guide to entirely different situations.

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