The American Conservative
March 18, 2011
The newest fad in foreign intervention is the slim-line approach. I swear, it really is like fashion news. A few years ago, the neocons were pushing a full-figured style of intervention, which ended up with us wasting hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives in Iraq. Since that went so badly, the fashion has swung the other way, and the same idiots who brought you Iraq are pushing for a smaller, smarter style of intervention that leans on small groups of special-forces troops and covert operations.
Watch this play out with Libya: it starts with Sen. John McCain saying we should just impose a no-fly zone. Before you know it, there’s talk about a few airstrikes, providing logistical help to the rebels, maybe sending some troops with NATO or the UN—you know, to keep the “peace.”
The notion of not intervening, period, never enters the neocons’ heads. I got the shock of my life going through the Weekly Standard a couple of years ago when I saw the headline, “The Case Against Intervention.” But it turned out to be about the American economy. I should’ve realized, the only place these people don’t want us to pour money into is the USA.
When it comes to sending American GIs into harm’s way, they never met an intervention they didn’t like. Some of their proposed military interventions are so crazy you have to wonder if they weren’t chuckling to themselves over at Bill Kristol’s magazine when they wrote this nonsense. Craziest of all was the flurry of calls a couple of years back for us to intervene in Zimbabwe.
Too Stupid For Bush
If you actually know anything about contemporary military doctrine, you have to laugh at this notion. Zimbabwe has every deal-breaker in the book. For starters, it’s landlocked. America is and always has been an air/sea power; projecting that kind of power to a landlocked country is a nightmare. Zimbabwe is also mired in one of those endless ethnic feuds that just don’t respond to foreign pressure—in this case, deep and abiding hate between the two biggest tribes, Shona and Ndebele.
There’s also the fact that the dictator we’d have intervened against, Robert Mugabe, is a former guerrilla who still commands the allegiance of a tribal/irregular army. That’s the last thing U.S. conventional forces want to face. And finally—the factor that should veto any intervention—Mugabe has a long history of using foreign threats to prop up his regime. In fact, a foreign intervention is just about the only thing that could make Mugabe popular in Zimbabwe again, just as a foreign invasion to depose Obama is the only thing that would make him popular in Texas—well, maybe not Texas but, say, North Carolina.
So you think that stopped the neocon “let’s you and them fight” propaganda machine? Not for a second. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post , living proof of the old saying that “there’s an idiot born every second, but unfortunately they take much longer to die,” wrote a column calling for us to use cruise missiles fired by an unmanned drone, the ultimate in “smaller, smarter” interventions, to kill Mugabe, in a column with the supposedly humorous title “Predator For a Predator.”
But Cohen didn’t go far enough for James Kirchick, the same genius who once wrote an article called “Hail, Mauritania” lauding the Coup Capital of the Sahara, often nominated for worst place in the world, as a beacon of democracy. He wrote an impassioned plea for full-scale military intervention in Zimbabwe, based on the fact that his Zimbabwean guide/lackey had broken down and cried, right in front of poor Kirchick, about the local situation.
Luckily, not even Bush was stupid enough to take that idea seriously. But the neocons never stop, and they don’t have a very high opinion of the American public’s memory or IQ. So they’ve developed new ad campaigns specifically designed for the wary buyer who has a bit of a problem with the Iraq lemon they sold us last time around. They’re using the notion of “smaller, smarter” interventions to lure us onto the lot the way car dealers use subcompact base models, sold at a loss, so they can talk us into the all-options luxury model intervention.
Small Wars, Big Mistakes
All “limited” interventions suffer from something the armed services call “Mission Creep.” They’ve seen it happen so many times: you go into some country promising to get ’er done, pack up and leave. But once you’re there, the mission starts creeping toward total occupation. The most obvious and insane example of mission creep is Vietnam. It’s hard to believe, but in the beginning, that was supposed to be a small, smart intervention too.
I don’t have to tell you, it suffered from a severe case of mission creep. In fact, missions don’t get much creepier than that one turned out to be, and all for nothing; Ho Chi Minh’s people won just like they would have if we’d left the place alone. Everyone else lost: the ordinary people of South Vietnam, the taxpayers of the United States, and 57,000 trusting working-class American kids who were too decent to go for the sleazy college deferment like Cheney did, along with a few thousand other chickenhawks who always love interventions that get other, braver and more honest people killed and maimed.
The closer you look, the worse all of our small-scale interventions appear, even the ones that supposedly succeeded. Take Clinton’s mini-war on Serbia in 1999. The official version is that we did a great job, stopping a Serbian massacre of Kosovo Albanians without losing much. Wrong on both counts.
For starters, you may have noticed that the Chinese air force is deploying a new stealth fighter. And how’s that related to the war against the Serbs? Well, a brand new F-117 stealth fighter went down over Serbia on its way to bomb the afternoon reruns. The stealth tech from that downed fighter found its way to the China’s aircraft designers, who reverse-engineered it to make radar-invisible fighters. America was never in any danger from the Serbs; China’s another matter.
That’s what happens when you start indulging every pundit and ethnic lobby’s pet interventions: you lose sight of what the real job of American security is supposed to be. I mean: keeping America secure.
Take a look at what that supposedly successful intervention in the Balkans actually did. The Serbs had been having a problem with a so-called army of Albanian irregulars called the KLA, “Kosovo Liberation Army.” These guys couldn’t fight at all and had already been beaten by Serb militia, tired middle-aged cops and veterans. But they realized that with the gullible Beltway pundit crowd, losing can be your fastest way to win. They took the corpses of their men who’d been killed by the Serb cops and militia, stripped them of weapons, and showed them to the international press as victims of Serb massacres. This being the Balkans, where massacres have been every tribe’s way of making war since the glaciers retreated, nobody doubted them.
The American press took it from there. The Beltway pundits can’t imagine a situation without a good guy and a bad guy, so they made the Serbs the bad guys and the Albanians the good guys. Now, I have no trouble with the Serbs as fairly bad guys when provoked—though I wish more people remembered what happened to the Serbs in World War II, so they’d understand why the Serbs are so easy to provoke—but the idea that the KLA were ever anything even slightly resembling good guys was just ridiculous. The KLA is a gang of bloodthirsty tribal killers who make it a policy to kill any Serb civilians they catch and have also been involved in heroin smuggling, human trafficking, and even organ sales. They actually harvested Serbian prisoners for organs to sell on the black market. And unlike Saddam, the KLA are genuine about their Muslim militancy and have tight connections with al-Qaeda.
At least the Serbs weren’t pro-al-Qaeda. That might have counted for something if anybody in D.C. had actually been thinking about us, the Americans they’re supposed to be protecting. But it didn’t figure into the decision to help the KLA. It never does.
One of the lessons you could learn from Kosovo, if anybody inside the Beltway was into learning lessons, is to take a look at the world you’re butting into. Kosovo is the heart of the Balkans, where tribal warfare is a way of life. What are the odds yougoing to find one tribe of totally evil people and another of totally good, gentle people in a region like that? But that’s the idea behind interventions like Clinton’s: bad, bad Serbs and good, sweet Albanians. God, just imagine how the rest of the Balkan tribes laughed at the idea of the Albanian mafia as noble victims.
Most American interventions come from two closely related childish fantasies: first, that one side in a tribal war is all good and the other all bad; and second, that the weaker tribe are the “underdogs” and therefore the good guys. Just look at those two ideas and you’ll see that they’re a series of disasters waiting to happen. The first one is bad enough, idealizing one bunch of desperate killers—but idealizing the weaker bunch of killers is even worse. That means you’re stuck propping up totally evil people who can’t even fight, like the KLA.
There are no good guys in tribal wars. The novelist V.S. Naipaul has a good line about that kind of world in Bend in the River , his surprisingly cool novel about the Congo War: “It’s not that there’s no right or wrong here. There’s no right.” The best thing to do about a place where everyone’s wrong is stay the hell away from it.
If the world had enough sense to do that, even Congo might not be so bad. If the Europeans and the do-gooders had left Congo to sort itself out, it’d be at peace now—a Roman-style peace, under the strongest and best-organized tribe, the Tutsi, hardcore warriors, the only tribe in that part of the world that can fight and stay disciplined.
Instead, the First World keeps clawing at the Tutsis every time they get stronger. They must be evil because they’re strong; that’s how the argument went. So when almost a million Tutsis were hacked to death with machetes in Rwanda, there really wasn’t much complaining from those compassionate Euro-lefties, or Bono, or any of the usual suspects. But oh, the minute the Tutsis organized a relief force and entered Rwanda to save the few of their people who were still alive, you should have heard the screaming from Paris! Aggression! Actual military progress, actual accomplishment! Mon dieu , we can’t have that! And so General Nkunda, the Tutsi leader and the one man who could have brought a kind of peace to Central Africa, is on trial for “war crimes,” while most of the Hutus who hacked up his people are sitting pretty.