The Public Humanist

Pulling Out of Iraq

Pulling our military out of Iraq has stimulated many thoughts and memories. I remember a candlelight vigil against the invasion of Iraq on the steps of Church of the Presidents in Quincy. This was only one of many such vigils in cities and towns throughout Massachusetts and the country. But protests against this unjust war went unheard. This ideological war, this war of American exceptionalism has left us weaker. We once were known as a pragmatic people, but in recent years we have been ideological in political economy and in war. Pragmatism requires a clear understanding of a problem plus careful evaluation of various means to deal with the problem.

If the problem were terrorism, attacking Iraq only made the problem worse. If the problem were proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, unilateral preventive war was not needed because the United Nations was working effectively in Iraq (and preventive war is not allowed in international law). If the problem were replacing an odious dictator with a democracy, the US has no authority under international law and no moral right to invade a sovereign nation to change its government. (It is ironic that a nation that is so individualistic has been unable to understand the “individualism” implicit in the concept of sovereignty of nations.)

Moreover, would we want the precedents we have established to be used against us in the future when the inevitable happens and we are no longer the dominant superpower? (It is also ironic that so many American politicians parading their religiosity apparently do not see the application of the Golden Rule to this situation.)

A few weeks ago, the government of Iraq insisted that the US military pull out of Iraqi cities by the deadline stated in the Iraq-United States agreement; the US military has agreed to do so.

How refreshing! The US is respecting the right of Iraqis to rule themselves. But how long will this last? Will there be a massive upsurge of violence in Iraq’s cities, leading to American calls for a return to previous policies? Are we willing to allow the Iraqis to work their own way through the rough spots which will inevitably occur?

Also, are Americans willing to trust their new President if there is an increase in the level of violence? The context for that question is the difficult presidency of Jimmy Carter. His presidency will always be connected to his inability to resolve the Iran hostage crisis. But remember that he had a large amount of bad luck; the military rescue mission was an abject failure. Carter’s presidency would look quite different had that mission succeeded.

But these military ruminations are a diversion from the main purpose of this blog. The US has a chance, under a new administration, to include a more robust concern for the politics of international relations, in contrast to the militarization of international relations which goes back to the Cold War doctrine of containment (George Kennan might have intended containment to be a political/economic policy; but the policy as implemented was heavily military).

We must develop a more pragmatic understanding of power. We have relied on military power even though we should know that political power is often stronger than military power. We should know this because our failure in Vietnam was largely a failure to understand Vietnamese politics, because of the political fiasco of our Iraq war, because of Russia’s failure in Afghanistan, and because we gained independence against Great Britain, the superpower of the 18th century, through an astute combination of political and military power. John Adams stated that the revolution was won in the hearts and minds of the American people before a single shot was fired. What unites all these examples is the inability of imperialist nations to understand the political power of the idea of defending one’s nation against foreigners. Given our own revolutionary experience, why have we, in the last fifty years, twice missed the immense military significance of politics?

Shifting to a robust political approach to war does not mean abandoning the war on terror. But we cannot fight that war effectively if we forget Carl von Clausewitz’s maxim that war is the continuation of politics by other means. War always has a large political component; that is especially true of the war on terror. We must analyze the problems behind terrorist actions. Terrorism is a symptom. What problems are producing this symptom?

We must also abandon our unilateralism. Terrorism has affected multiple countries around the world. Perhaps we could learn from these countries. Terror is not simply an American issue; it is a world issue. Acting as the Lone Ranger does not seem very pragmatic; surely we have a greater chance of success working with other nations just as we had the politically pragmatic good sense to work with France in our own war for independence.
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