To Keep the Violence Down to a Dull Roar

We lost Davey in the Korean War,
Still don’t know what for…

Anybody who last saw Korea in 1953 probably wonders, like the old couple in John Prine’s song, ‘What for?’

But is 1953 the right measure? Look at Korea today, and realise, everything that the RoK is today, it is because we defended it. Had we not done so, today the RoK would look an awful lot like the DPRK — because it would be the DPRK.

I lack the wisdom to say whether that was worth 50,000 American lives, but our intervention made a difference.

The other poster child for intervention is, of course, the oft-cited example of Malaya. It is a good model, and there is much to learn from how the British defeated that Communist insurgency, but closer examination also provides some warnings, because the British had some special advantages:

Moderate, responsible political parties representing all ethnic groups who became willing partners for the British in bringing the colony to self-government (although when the U.S. did have something like this authority, in the CPA period in Iraq, we hardly used it wisely);

As the colonial power, direct executive authority over all aspects of government; and

(probably under-appreciated, compared to the first two) established police and civil services with a high standard of professionalism among both British and Asian staff, and senior British officers with long experience in the country — for example, Robert Thompson, the actual drafter of the Briggs plan, had begun his career in the Malayan Civil Service before the war; spent the war in the RAF, where he was an Air Liason Officer with the Chindits in Burma, and returned to the Malayan service after the war, becoming Briggs’s civil aide when Briggs came out as Director of Operations — you can see how he came to write the plan.

So there is no cookbook or cookie-cutter; you have to understand the society you are dealing with and adapt accordingly.

Recall that when the Framers of the Constitution convened in Philadelphia in 1787, they were determined that they did not want to imitate British parliamentary democracy, because they believed that it had produced a dictatorship of the majority, against which they had been forced to rebel. So they created something new, which has worked well enough for us to make us the sole super-power. It does have a tendency to impass built into it, and works best with good leadership at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but all systems of governemnt work best with effective leadership. But it is our system; nobody has exactly copied it. Those who appear to have copied it, I think you will find, have made something much more presidential, with fewer checks and balances.

So what did we do in Iraq and Afghanistan? We imposed our own constitutional ideas. The Afghans, left to their own devices, might well have opted for the return of the king, and a constutional monarchy, certainly for something less centralised. And in Iraq our handwork in the hands of Nuri al-Maliki produced a dictatorship of the majority, Shia over Sunni, exactly what our own constitution was designed to avoid.

When we left Vietnam, the Communists triumphed, but at least the country found peace and stability under the rule of a functioning state. More oppressive, probably, than the RVN, perhaps just as corrupt, and bad news for anybody who had served us or the RVN, but it was peace. I know a history professor at Harvard who thinks we should have accepted that settlement in 1948, averting a generation of death and destruction.

But the Middle East has been different. In the Middle East we see country after country where, once a pre-existing equilibrium has been lost it is devilishly hard to restore it. Afghanistan was poor but stable under the king, then in 1973 the Soviets helped pitch it out, and it has been all downhill. Iraq had a brutal stability under Saddam, until we dumped him, with the results we see. In Syria and Libya the loss of stability originated in internal revolts, not foreign intervention, but the intervention that has followed has not been able to solve the problem. Intervene, withdraw, sit on your hands, impose a solution or let the locals look for their own solution, it all just seems to go from bad to worse. All right, Lebanon did finally end its civil war, but don’t get too excited about that; Lebanon exists on a knife-edge.

Before addressing corruption in the Middle East, let me just note that, even though there are loads against corruption in the U.S., we do have campaign contributions. Did you know that until the late 1980s (I think that was the date) when a congressman retired he could privatise his campaign fund? Which in some cases meant a pension pot in the millions.

In the Middle East we face not just corruption, but a political culture based on corruption. Few go into politics to serve the public good; they are there to appropriate the public goods to their family, friends, supporters, and clients. Corruption is not the lubricant of the system, but its backbone, creating a system of personal loyalty based on the privilege to steal. Public employees are not corrupt because they are under-paid; they are underpaid because they are corrupt, and the ruling oligarchies want to keep them that way. A living wage would make them loyal to the state, while the privilege to steal makes them loyal to the person. If, though, we want to strength the state in the Middle East, we need to fight against corruption, labour of Sisyphus that it is.

One consequence of this system is that we have yet to see an Arab Mandela, a leader who, whatever reason for anger he may have, is able to rise above the past, and the factions and rivalries, and bring his country together.

Under the circumstances it is tempting to say that these countries are too difficult to help, so let’s leave them to sort it out themselves. I can understand anybody who opts for that choice, but I don’t agree.

We walked away from Afghanistan after the Soviets left, but thirteen years later we were back, bigger than before. We had not even finished wiithdrawing from Iraq when things started to go down the shoot and we got sucked back in.

If we withdraw, I expect we will fiind that the consequences of instabiity, of these places’ inability to find their own peace, will turn out to be unacceptable, and we will be back, bigger than before. I don’t believe we can solve the conflicts in the absence of the parties reaching their own understandings, but we can limit the damage, which is why I repeatedly talk about ‘keeping the violence down to a dull roar.’