Saturday, November 29, 2008

Unintended consequences of US Foreign Policy


I am not just interested in what went wrong but why decisions go wrong. My talk therefore starts with some conceptual assumptions. I believe that important decisions which affect the lives of millions of people need to be taken in harmony with the environment. There is a cosmic plan that is in motion and if we are not in harmony with it there will be a backlash from the environment. When we violate nature, nature will react adversely. We see this in adverse reaction of nature in the form of global warming.

Let me give another example. When we swim in a river and if we do not take into account the current of the river then we may have to use more energy and we may still not get to where we wanted to go. In all the analyses of what went wrong with the Iraq War one statement that is made is that we needed more Military or in other words more energy.

On the other hand if we swim with the current behind us then we will be in harmony with the river and more likely to get to our destination and reach it with less energy.

This is a large part of why there are “unintended consequences.”


Decisions taken in a digital environment tend to ignore the analogue consequences of those decisions.

The preference for short term fixes results from a lack of foresight and vision.

Also when solutions are imposed on people by force, they tend to be short lived because the people affected were never consulted.

The carve up of the world after the two world wars, are all backfiring. Iraq, Palestine the rest of the Middle East for that matter are unhappy with those solutions and a roll back is taking place.

Destiny is built into History but never recognized by any but the few. The coincidence that the major oil reserves of the world are in Islamic countries or that the haven to Al Qaida is a no mans land called Waziristan are no coincidences. Do we understand that unless we partner with the environment, we risk ending up in the opposite direction to the one we intended?

Do we understand that whether we are interested in the so called war on terror or not, the war on terror is interested in us.

1.The rise of Islam

Reaction to 9/11, the attack on Iraq and the continuing support of Israel at all odds has sent a strong anti Muslim message. Over a billion Muslims world wide are beginning to view the US as seeing Islam as an enemy. Even moderate Muslims are puzzled and upset by this stance.

The Muslims, if they were at all united, which they are not, have been discarded to the dustbin of History ( deservedly so). So far they have been reactive only. Although being proactive is a much better alternative but a people pretty much asleep for the last 100 years are only just waking up to their vulnerabilities. Had it not been for Oil no one except perhaps Israel would have bothered to wake them up. My thesis is that the Muslim countries will be forced to unify as a matter of self preservation, that in the process they will overthrow the governments imposed on them by the US and that they will look to Islam as their alternate whether Islamic ideology has been thought through or not, in the modern context.

There has been a growing interest among Muslims and non Muslims about Islam. Islam is talked about and read as never before. Moderate secularists want to know if Islam is being unjustly maligned. Secularist Muslims want to know more about their religion in order to defend it properly. The Quran has become a best seller. The general population in Muslim countries have become anti US and the mosques on Fridays all over the world are full as never before.
The steep increase in oil, helped by the US threat of attacking Iran has helped fill the coffers of Oil producing Islamic countries and Russia. These countries feel under pressure to defend a Religion under siege.

The word Jihad has become the best known Arabic name in the English Language without any one knowing what it really means except something negative.
Muslim Nations hitherto poor, colonized or dependant on Western largess are beginning to realize that the West does not have their best interest at heart.

Although the economic or military stranglehold that the US has over Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Jordan remains intact, the public in these countries are ready to overthrow their Governments, the moment there is a free and fair election. The prospect of anti US governments in these countries will lead to the closing of these countries to American Influence and a greater leaning for Islamic countries to look to themselves as a pro Islamic bloc. This would not be dissimilar to events in South America.

Muslims in America are getting better organized in order to protect themselves from unfair discrimination and beginning to take an interest in standing for public office. Even as the deliberate demonization of Islam continues, there is now one Muslim in the US Congress.

2. 5 million refugees in Iraq

Conditions in Iraq have created a huge refugee problem. Syria, Jordan, Sweden have all pitched in to help but there is a very large homeless population within Iraq. These people are not allowed to work in their host countries but most cannot afford to educate their children. The reasons that they are there is because frequently the men of the family were killed in Iraq by the US or the other faction in the Civil war. Shias and Sunnis who have been used to living peacefully under Saddam are now forced to compare their misfortunes now as compared to the better times under Saddam.
The massive refugee problem is just one side effect of a destroyed country. After 12 years of sanctions and 5 years of occupation and ravaging it is small wonder that the country is breathing. There are 5 million stories at the individual level each more harrowing than the other. The occupation of Iraq has been followed by the torture and displacement of Iraqis. If this does not constitute a war crime then what does?

“... There is a number of Iraqi women who are alone without families; whose husbands or families were killed and they remained alone, waiting to be re-settled. They face improper advances and molestation by this and that, looking towards a life more dignified and more settled, in some spot in this world.

At work, I daily receive women who were beaten and treated cruelly by their husbands. Poverty is the reason in most cases; or the frustration that befalls the man because of poverty and unemployment; they turn him into a wild, cruel, and aggressive creature. This is what happens to some Iraqi families here; the conditions of displacement, poverty, estrangement and degradation all put pressure on the men and the women and increase the rate of family violence…”

3. Loss of credibility in its belief in Democracy, Human Rights and other long held principles.

Reaction to elections in Algeria, Palestine, Pakistan and the continued support of Dictatorship in Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, has shown a US double standard to the world.
The torture of people not given a fair chance to prove their innocence. The mocking and violation of their religious and cultural beliefs.
The open contempt for the Geneva conventions.
Placing the US outside the purview of International law.
Resorting to a preemptive attack on a country which posed no threat to it and generally being bellicose about solving issues through the use of force has made people very skeptical about what the US believes in other than its own self interest.

The loss of moral authority has been one of the biggest casualties for the US image and no where is this more visible than in it’s handling of the Israel/Palestinian issue. Through not accepting the election results in Palestine and accepting illegal settlements, the US has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

4. Handing over power to the enemy

Removing Saddam has also meant removing Iran’s biggest enemy. This has promoted the Shia constituency in Iraq which has close ties to Iran. The successful defense of Lebanon by the Shia Hezbolla was also a plus for Iran.

Although Iran is regarded as US enemy number one, at every step The US appears to strengthen its hand. The US intelligence estimate shows that Iran abandoned its military Nuclear program in 2003, embarrassing all those who insist that Iran is a few years away fro a Nuclear bomb.

South America, once considered the back yard of the US has spun out of control. Left wing Governments in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia have created leadership for the rest of South America and they want a lesser role for the US in the entire continent.

A resurgent Russia has taken advantage of the US preoccupation with the Middle East and feels emboldened to act in places like Georgia.

5. Lost opportunity to lead the world.

After the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, the US became the undisputed leader of the world. The victor of the cold war. It had a rare opportunity to become a non partisan arbiter of world policies and issues. Instead it chose to look after it’s own interests even if they were to the detriment of the rest of the world. It chose to pursue policies in International Law, Global warming , free trade, the UN and other common issues solely for the benefit of its own interests or those of the West and left the world in no doubt that it had to press forward not because of the US but inspite of it.
Sole Super Power status resulted in the Imperial Presidency and the tendency to use force as an arbiter of imposing solutions on people instead of an end to domination through power and a more consultative process.
The fact that the Obama candidacy was even more popular in Europe and the rest of the world speaks to the desire of the world to be led by the US and the failure of the US to lead it. There is a bright shining moment, with the Obama Presidency, when the leadership role can be assumed again or lost for ever.

6. Exposed Vulnerability to non conventional warfare.

Vietnam was the first exposure to guerrilla warfare but Iraq became the first encounter with the suicide bomber. The US was ill prepared and suffered heavy casualties and serious injuries. Like Vietnam, there is a strong commitment by so called insurgents to fight for their country while US troops suffer from doubts about what they are doing in Iraq in the first place. The extended tours of duty are compounded by the repeated exposure to civilians rather than another army. This impacts the morale of the American forces, who were ill prepared for this war and are likely to be haunted the rest of their lives by the senseless brutalities of their own acts.
Until such time as the US is able to deal with this type of war, their enemies in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere are emboldened by the prospect of creating a stalemate even if they cannot defeat them.
A stalemate simply bleeds America slowly and creates unpopularity at home.
“If the global war on terror has produced one undeniable conclusion, it is this: Estimates of U.S. military capabilities have turned out to be wildly overstated. The Bush administration's misplaced confidence in the efficacy of American arms represents a strategic misjudgment that has cost the country dearly. Even in an age of stealth, precision weapons, and instant communications, armed force is not a panacea. Even in a supposedly unipolar era, American military power turns out to be quite limited.
How did it happen that Americans so utterly over appraised the utility of military power? The answer to that question lies at the intersection of three great illusions.
According to the first illusion, the United States during the 1980s and 1990s had succeeded in reinventing armed conflict. The result was to make force more precise, more discriminating, and potentially more humane. The Pentagon had devised a new American Way of War, investing its forces with capabilities unlike any the world had ever seen. As President Bush exuberantly declared shortly after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, "We've applied the new powers of technology… to strike an enemy force with speed and incredible precision. By a combination of creative strategies and advanced technologies, we are redefining war on our terms. In this new era of warfare, we can target a regime, not a nation."
According to the second illusion
The Weinberger-Powell principles expressed the military's own lessons taken from that war. Those principles also expressed the determination of senior officers to prevent any recurrence of Vietnam.
Henceforth, according to Weinberger and Powell, the United States would fight only when genuinely vital interests were at stake. It would do so in pursuit of concrete and attainable objectives. It would mobilize the necessary resources -- political and moral as well as material -- to win promptly and decisively. It would end conflicts expeditiously and then get out, leaving no loose ends. The spirit of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine was not permissive; its purpose was to curb the reckless or imprudent inclinations of bellicose civilians.
According to the third illusion, In the wake of Operation Desert Storm, "the American people fell in love again with their armed forces." So, at least, General Colin Powell, one of that war's great heroes, believed. Americans could be counted on to "support the troops." Never again would the nation abandon its soldiers.
The All-Volunteer Force (AVF) -- despite its name, a professional military establishment -- represented the chief manifestation of this new compact. The AVF embodied the nation's claim to the status of sole superpower; it was "America's Team." In the wake of the Cold War, the AVF sustained the global Pax Americana without interfering with the average American's pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. What was not to like?

An odd alliance that combined left-leaning do-gooders with jingoistic politicians and pundits succeeded in chipping away at constraints on the use of force. "Humanitarian intervention" became all the rage. Whatever restraining influence the generals exercised during the 1990s did not survive that decade. Lessons of Vietnam that had once seemed indelible were forgotten”.( Bacevich)

There is also the question of being in denial about the fantasy of being an unbeatable power. There can be no greater humiliation for the sole super power having the worlds strongest economy and the most awesome technologically advanced army to be thrashed for 7 years in one of the poorest countries in the world by a man sitting in a cave. The denial is so great that the US wishes at least in it's rhetoric to start another war. ( with Iran).

According to Dr. Roubini Professor of Economics at NYU, "US policy mistakes in economic, financial and foreign policies will steadily erode the power of the American Empire. This process will not be sudden and will take a couple of decades. But the trend is clear.”

Hawkish belligerence on the part of America which results in stalemates is the surest way of ensuring that the changes that take place in the world will be unfavorable to America.

Bacevich, The limits of Power.
Roubini Professor of Economics NYU

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