Thursday, September 19, 2013

Pirates, Putin and the Mid East

Early in Act 1 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘the Pirates of Penzance’ the Pirate King tells us that:

“Many a King on a first class throne,
If he wants to call his crown his own,
Must manage somehow to get through
More dirty work then e’er I do.”

That little piece of wisdom – painful wisdom, but wisdom none-the-less – Keeps coming to mind over the course of the last five or six weeks.

The first instance involves history: 78 years and a few weeks ago the Emperor of Japan announced the surrender of Japan.  This followed, as I suppose (hope and pray) everyone knows, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima (6 Aug 1945) and Nagasaki (9 Aug 1945).  In the years that have followed those bombings there have been countless arguments made about ‘what Truman should have done’ and further arguments that there was in any case no reason to drop the atomic bombs on those two cities.

I’ll begin by stating that I am not a big fan of the concept, as first postulated by General Giulio Douhet and later BG Billy Mitchell (and Gen. Walther Wever and Marshall Hugh ‘Boom’ Trenchard, et al), of strategic bombing; the idea that large scale bombing of civilian populations will so undermine morale that it will force any nation to surrender.  For one thing, the idea has been shown to be fallacious in almost every case: the German bombing of the British in World War II, the British and American bombing of Germany in World War II, the American bombing of Japan in World War II (with an important ‘footnote’ – see below), the US bombing of North Vietnam; in each case bombing served mainly to stiffen the resolve of those being bombed.  Certainly, the bombing had other effects, many of them supporting the military aims of those dropping the bombs, but the central concept of undermining morale, and thereby bringing an early end to the war, never panned out.

Second, if you have ever seen a city or town that has been burned out, it is not something that you would want to have happen to anyone, to include your enemies.  War is a brutal business and once you are in it you have to do extreme things.  But all in all, if you can avoid it, and particularly if it isn’t necessarily working, I’m more or less against the idea of carpet-bombing cities.

The footnote or exception of course, is the outcome of the two bombs – atomic bombs - dropped on Japan.  Their immediate effect was to destroy the two cities, and immediately killed perhaps 140,000 people total.  Tens of thousands more died over the following years.  But, more importantly, it forced the Emperor’s hand and he surrendered – with conditions – but the war was over.  (It is worth noting the discussion on how much this bombing affected German and Japanese wartime production – until early 1945 their production of war materials climbed each year, as they learned how to do more, under more extreme circumstances.  Also, while there is the oft repeated argument that this bombing deprived tactical forces of all the various air defense assets, that blade cuts both ways; US and British et al investments in the strategic bombing campaign were massive and arguably would have been as productive if not more productive if used elsewhere.)

What is often forgotten in any discussion about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the actual situation Truman faced: the war was dragging on; bond drives in the US were coming up short, after 10 years of depression and 4 years of war Americans were tired.  Truman had several options: he could continue the conventional bombing of Japan and hope that they would eventually surrender – nothing that we knew of the Japanese suggested that would happen.  All experience during the war had shown, as mentioned earlier, that bombing of cities only made people more determined to resists.  Second, he (Truman) could order an invasion.  The casualty estimates of an invasion were staggering: US intelligence in fact suggested that the Japanese were hoarding weapons for a vast national spasm of violence to save the homeland from the invaders, and casualty estimates for the US assault forces ran from a low of perhaps 30,000 dead and 90,000 wounded for the initial assault (Codenamed Olympic – a landing on the island of Kyushu), to a high of approximately 250,000 dead and another 1 million wounded – US personnel only.  Japanese casualties were estimated to be at least 3 times US casualties.

The second – follow-on – invasion of the main island of Honshu would occur almost 6 months later.  Casualty figures for this invasion (Operation Coronet) – an invasion that would be twice as large as the D-Day invasion – were several times greater than those for Olympic.

In short, the invasion of Japan would cost the US more casualties then it had suffered in all of the World War up to that point.  Japanese casualties would be in the millions.

The third option was to drop the bombs and see if they ‘pushed the Japanese government’ to surrender.

Truman thus found himself in the situation that any leader – like the fictitious king referenced by the Pirate King above - often finds himself: facing a series of at best very unpleasant options.

Truman could continue wide-scale conventional bombing, which was killing tens of thousands of Japanese every week; invade and kill millions – and suffer hundreds of thousands of US casualties as well, or use the new weapon and see if they could force the Japanese to ‘quit’ early.  If they chose to continue fighting, then he would probably have ordered the invasion.  He had nothing but bad choices.  He chose the bombs, the war ended early, and, as unpleasant as it was and unlikely as it may seem, he probably saved hundred of thousands of US lives, and probably millions of Japanese lives in doing so.

The point in all this is that the real world is never like the discussions held in academia, where there are clear choices and the results are definitive and final.  In the real world no decision is final and few if any choices are clear.  Add to that the simple truth that most of the people you are dealing with in ruling circles around the world aren’t really very nice.  They are not altruists, and though they do sometimes have their nation’s best interests at heart, at least in some sense, they are often also quite willing to keep their people on tight leashes.  In a world where many nations face the choice of anarchy or police state we often find ourselves dealing with governments that choose police state and government controlled societies.

There is a natural tendency, particularly among Americans, who have grown up in a blessedly free country, to bridle at the thought of dealing with such governments.  But before we make the choice to back some revolutionary movement, we need to ask ourselves a simple question: what is the real US interest?  In short, we need to first look out for the US.

The common objection to this roughly follows the argument that supporting a revolutionary movement that advocates political freedom and representative government IS in the US interest.  But, while it is preferable to pursue long-term vice short-term interests, the simple fact is that the US has a difficult enough time pursuing short-term interests; trying to chase down long-term interests when it involves the actions of other nations is nearly impossible.  And sometimes you just can’t make all the pieces fit together.

Two different thugs have made the US look foolish in the course of the last several weeks: Vlad Putin and Bashir Assad.  Assad in particular, in his interview with Fox News and Dennis Kucinich (tip of the hat to both of them for that effort – it is always good to get a look at the evil around us) made a mockery out of the US foreign policy community, turning their language back on top of them.  He did at least demonstrate for another generation just how smooth and slick is real evil.  Putin of course, continues to play the US leadership for fools.  The US may be in the right, but our leadership isn’t playing in the same league as these two.

And so we arrive at the questions of the day: What of Egypt?  What of Syria?  What of Iran?  For that matter, What of Russia and Vlad Putin?  What is the US to do?  The answer is simple: act in the US interest.  The problem is more complex: what is the US interest?  And here is the great failure: we can’t really identify the US interest.  We are back to the same old chestnut: what are US goals?  ‘Goals’ is the impolite word for ‘US interests.’  And what we need to ask ourselves is this: what do we want Egypt (and Syria, and the rest of the Mid East, and Eastern Europe, and Asia) to look like in 1, 3, 5 and 10 years?  And what are we willing to commit – what assets – to make that happen?  This requires that we take off rose-colored glasses, and more importantly, that we refrain from getting too wrapped up in our own moral high-ground and look at the world through what might be called a ‘Machiavellian squint.’

Take Egypt, which we have conveniently ignored for the last several weeks.  What is the US interest in Egypt: is it the Suez Canal and World Trade?  Is it the security of Israel’s western border? Is it general stability in the Middle East?  Is it the rise of democracy in the Arab World?  Is it prevention of the rise of another Sharia State in the Arab World?  Can the White House and the State Department put those – and any others – in order of importance?  What is it that we are trying to do?  What are they willing to commit to achieve these goals?  Money?  Equipment? Political or economic pressure?  Force?  Troops on the Ground?  They need to accurately answer them – and soon.

None of this will be easy, and assuredly, none of this will yield pleasant answers.  Like the ‘king on a first class thrown,’ the folks in the White House keep finding to their dismay that a good deal of this is dirty, unpleasant work, difficult work, and that in the end everyone ends up with a little ‘stink’ on them.  And it doesn’t ever end, and it will never end.

(There is a pedantic argument that some will enter into about ‘vital US interest’ vs simple ‘US interest.’  There is a simple way to settle it: consider two cases – defense of an ally from foreign attack – say Canada.  And, US desires to see international sports free of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).  Both are, strictly speaking, matters of some US policy.  In the first case the US is willing – over and above any and all treaty obligations – to defend Canada with US lives.  There is no question: Canadian security is in the US interest.  In the second, the US is – I would hope – probably unwilling to spend more than some hot air to further that issue.  Simply speaking, while it is something we would like to see, we have many other things that warrant concern before we get to the issue of PEDs in international sports.  If it will directly affect the lives of average Americans and we are willing to commit US forces, it – whatever ‘it’ is – is ‘in the US interest.’  If we are not willing to commit forces, then it really isn’t in the US interest.  We are only willing to expend hot air.  (The point is not lost on many; arguments inside trade organizations about this or that price point for this or that commodity may sound important – and they are – but unless it actually threatens the US standard of living or US security the simple truth is the US will be more likely to ‘roll over’ to preserve the trade agreement as a whole then to harrumph over one particular issue inside the trade treaty.)) 


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