25 June 2012

A dangerous interventionist era

I occasionally look at the Lowy Interpreter blog from the Lowy Institute, though it tends to irk in an old familiar way, as did so much reading of writing within the frame of reference of foreign affairs and defence in days gone by. Oodles of erudition, too often limited vision.

Yesterday my eye was caught by a piece on Afghanistan by the "Arthur Tange Doctoral Scholar" Raoul Heinrichs, formerly an adviser to Kevin Rudd, and also to responses to his piece. While also in the back of my mind visualising and hearing Sir Arthur reading Raoul's piece (grumping, sounds of exasperation, chucking the paper left and right, protesting this and that but also noting that this was a person who could think freely and would be put in harness sometime for something big) I wrote a comment which turned out to express a broader view of mine which has been evolving. 

I wrote

I don't understand Harry Gelber's assertion that our war in Afghanistan did not seek 'victory'. War is a choice of an absolute, and the absolute word for success is 'victory' - why else go to war? Not to play with words, we sought victory, we didn't get it, let's not just fudge goalposts..
The puzzlement of some about Heinrich's assertions perhaps arises from the alarming propensity of thinkers and mobs in the west in recent times to regard acts of war as reasonable (while also morally imperative), feasible and effective early policy responses to international problems in concert with a general failure to recognise costs and consequences. We think war works, governments are urged to war in democratic countries repeatedly.  
I wrote in 2003 regarding Iraq that:
I have become increasingly of the view... that it is in the nature of modern war that it tends, more than anything else - certainly it does not tend to ‘victory’ - to import into the righteous invading countries the problems you seek to eliminate by invading... Your [Howard Government] assertion of effectiveness of violence in international policy drifts down to validate the use of violence by non-states in international affairs, and increasingly by individuals in national and sub-national affairs, and indeed, I suggest, in domestic life. We are dealing not just with a narrow national security issue but a large ethical dimension.

Basil Liddell Hart wrote in Strategy  [around p 369 I think] that he thought the ferocity of the Spanish Civil War could be attributable to the vicious nature of the Peninsular War against Napoleon wherein was coined the term guerrilla; that the rise of terrorism in the middle east at the end of the 1960s could be sheeted home to Lawrence of Arabia. We give little thought to such historical consequence; we cannot even see properly the short term destabilising consequences of interventions of the recent/current active interventionist era, a period with far more dangerous long term consequence than the proxy wars of the cold war.
Where Heinrichs writes:
Governments, militaries and societies almost always find it easier to sugar-coat their strategic failures than confront them head-on. In so doing, they can defer taking responsibility, fail to recognise their mistakes, ignore hard lessons, and avoid making corrections that might preclude similar failures down the track.
the incomprehension by some correspondents of his perspective is reflective of the problem he identifies. 
I have a very clear recall of the refusal to talk about, the refusal to think about the Viet Nam years within official processes. We were trapped for a time in anti-Soviet, pro-Chinese postures in Indochina, then engorged with revived militant spirit by the first Gulf War (which even dead Clausewitz could see a failure, in the absence of any defeat of the will of the enemy) and we have gone on from that to this new era of intervention replacing thoughtfulness, with democratic enthusiasm for restraint vanished more quickly than restraint on the freedom to market R-rated video games.  

So much technical strategic discussion these days seems lost in its own artifice rather than opening broad perspectives to scrutiny. I am reminded constantly in reading your pages, as others, of M C Escher's 'Print Gallery'