Reflecting on 20 years of anti-war failures          

Back in Autumn 1999, the International Journal published what was either my first or my second academic article (I produced another in the same year and can’t remember which came first). It’s title was ‘“Ready to Kill but not to Die”: NATO Strategy in Kosovo’. As you might gather from the title, it wasn’t altogether sympathetic to what NATO did during its 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The Kosovo war was, you might say, my ‘red pill’ moment, when I went from being the loyal military officer of my youth into someone who realized that his own countries weren’t above a bit of military aggression allied to a hefty dose of falsehood and propaganda.

Since then I have repeatedly argued firmly against war (or ‘military intervention’, ‘peace enforcement’, or whatever other term people prefer to use to make it look like it’s not war) whenever it’s been proposed. I have argued in favour of substantial cuts in defence spending in the countries in which I have lived and of which I am a citizen (the UK and Canada). I published academic articles and chapters in scholarly books laying out the case against ‘humanitarian intervention’, the ‘responsibility to protect’, the ‘obligation to rebuild’, and so on. I even wrote a short book (Doing Less with Less), arguing that the UK would not only save money but would also be much more secure if it spent less on defence and was less involved in trying to set the world to rights through the use of military power. I repeated this argument again several years later in a couple of works for a British think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs.

At the same time, exploiting my position as a ‘public intellectual’, I moved into the world of op-eds and political writing in an effort to influence public opinion outside of academia. In December 2002, for instance, I wrote a piece for The Spectator denouncing the impending invasion of Iraq and pouring scorn on the idea that Iraq was knee-deep in weapons of mass destruction, if only the UN inspectors could find them. And later, in pieces for the Ottawa Citizen and other outlets, I expressed scepticism about NATO’s military and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, the likelihood of military success in Iraq, the bombing campaign against Libya, and the desire to topple Bashar al-Assad in Syria, among other things.

I never expected that any of this would have an immediate impact on public policy. But I felt that someone had to say something, and hoped that my writings might in some small way contribute to a gradual change in the intellectual climate. If nothing else, they would put ideas on the table which could be picked up by others at some later point in time when external circumstances altered to such an extent that it became clear that a change in direction was needed. ‘Surely’, I thought to myself, ‘those in charge will eventually realize what a mess their policies have created and will want to find an alternative. So, we need to prepare the ground now.’

Looking back at it all, I don’t see that I got anything seriously wrong about the immoral and counterproductive nature of the military policies pursued by Western states in the past 20 years. But I was completely wrong on that last point – the idea that those in charge would one day wake up to the folly of their policies. These have been two decades of total failure, not only for me but also for everyone else who has been arguing the counter-interventionist case. It is not just that our governments continue to invest vast amounts of money into pointless military endeavours. More broadly, there has been absolutely no accountability for the multiple failures which have accompanied those endeavours. The op-ed pages of major media outlets, for instance, remain dominated by the same rhetoric, and in many cases even the same people, as brought us the war in Iraq, the quagmire in Afghanistan, and the chaos of contemporary Libya. The belief that Western powers represent ‘good’ in the world, and have a moral right, even a duty, to use military power against those who represent ‘evil’, seems to be as entrenched as ever. The post-Cold War alliance forged between hard-line hawks on the right and liberal human rights interventionists on the left has a seemingly iron grip on public policy.

How has this come about? How is that even the catastrophic mess which the United States and its allies (most notably the Brits) have made of Iraq hasn’t allowed us to make even a dent in public policy, to such an extent that we have found ourselves this week seriously contemplating the prospect of a war between the USA and Iran? Twenty years of thinking about the causes of war provide me with the following possible explanations, in no particular order:

  • Avoidance of cognitive dissonance: admitting that the prevailing paradigm of the past 20 years has been wrong would induce a massive headache of cognitive dissonance in leading Western states. We’d have to admit that we had committed terrible crimes; that we had made enormous mistakes; and that we had acted in distinctly immoral and illegal ways. Admitting that would be a devastating blow to the legitimacy of the West as a whole on the international stage as well as to the legitimacy of the ruling elites within individual states. It is much easier to pretend that none of this is the case, and that what has gone wrong has not been our basic approach, but simply how it has been implemented. The solution then becomes not changing direction but doing the same thing over again, but better.
  • The influence of the military industrial complex (MIC): in a strict sense, there is no such thing as the MIC; there’s no formal organization that people join. But in an informal way, the MIC very definitely exists. Its members have an outsize influence on public decision making, which they influence in a way which benefits their institutional interests. The result is threat inflation, excessive military spending, and a preference for military solutions to problems which are better dealt with in other ways.
  • Military hegemony: simply put, we use military power because we can. Western military hegemony is such that we can bomb and invade just about anybody without suffering too much as a result. This creates an enormous temptation to do so, especially since otherwise our military power is just sitting around doing nothing. Madeleine Albright’s complaint to Colin Powell – ‘What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?’ – demonstrates the point very clearly.
  • Democracy and its lack: democracy – or more accurately, the need to face regular re-election – creates some very undesirable incentives among politicians. In particular, it leads to an obsession with looking ‘strong’. Weakness is seen (rightly or wrongly) as electorally fatal. Associated with this is a perceived need to ‘do something’. The brevity of the electoral cycle creates a preference for action over inaction. At the same time, though, this preference is also connected to severe deficiencies in our political system, above all the fact that they’re not nearly as democratic as they appear to be. Opinion polls in America, for instance, show that the general public would like the USA to extract itself from the Middle East, but yet government after government plunges deeper in. The influence of the MIC, the ‘deep state’, the lack of accountability mentioned above, the dominance of pro-war voices in the media, and so on, all play into this dynamic. So too do the activities of certain (sometimes ethnically-based, or diaspora) lobby groups.
  • Arrogance: the West’s ‘victory’ in the Cold War demonstrated to many that ‘History’ had proved Western liberalism to be right. This rightness, allied with the power mentioned above, led to a belief that there was nothing we could not do if only we had the will.
  • Ignorance: almost as great as our arrogance is our ignorance of the realities of the countries in which we become military involved. The arrogance and the ignorance are connected – it is the former which prevents us from realizing the prevalence of the latter.
  • Ideology: Western states are in the grip of universalist ideology which moralizes international relations, dividing the world into the ‘good’ (liberal, pro-Western) and the ‘bad’ (illiberal, anti-Western). This ideology brooks no dissent. Utilitarian arguments as to whether military action brings more benefit or more harm are dismissed in favour of moral ones – Qasem Soleimani had to die because he was a ‘monster’; Gaddhafi was ‘evil’; Saddam was a ‘bad guy’, and so on.
  • Misperception: there’s a whole literature on the role of misperception in international politics, most notably the work of Robert Jervis. It’s all relevant. States regularly misperceive actions taken by other states for their own defence as potentially hostile, fail to appreciate changes in others’ postures over time (‘change blindness’ in psychological jargon), and so on.
  • Groupthink: the West’s various multilateral structures, including the NATO alliance, don’t help in this regard. Western leaders – political and military – are all members of the same club. They want to get on with one another, and don’t like to be the odd one out. So they follow along. Dissenting views are suppressed. This is, of course, a bit of an over-generalization, but there’s some truth to it – how much condemnation did the invasion of Iraq generate among NATO members? how many states have broken ranks with the USA over its policy on Iran? etc. Not very many.

It’s a heady mixture, and it leads me to something of a revolutionary conclusion. For 20 years, I’ve taken the view that we can argue our way out of the mania for military intervention; that we can logically persuade our leaders to change course. In the midst of this week’s war scare, I’m no longer so sure. The problem goes much deeper than political reason. The multiple wars of the last two decades are rooted in structural deficits in our domestic political systems, in the dominant political ideology, in the system of media ownership and control, and in the broader international system. If we really want to bring these wars to an end, we need to move beyond pointing out how futile and counterproductive they are, and begin to address these wider structural issues. It will not be an easy task.

26 thoughts on “Reflecting on 20 years of anti-war failures          ”

  1. I am not so sure that all these wars are really *counterproductive*. That depends on what the goal is. After so many “humanitarian interventions” that led to a deterioration of the humanitarian situation and certainly did not strengthen the position of liberal democracy, I find it very hard to believe that such ideas are really the goal. It becomes more plausible that the achieved results are compatible with the goals and that these wars are therefore not really counterproductive.

    – For the weapons industry, which has a lot of political influence in many countries, it is hardly a problem if the result of “interventions” are failed states and ongoing violence, rather on the contrary.
    – It may play an important role that the general economic development points towards a shift towards a situation in which the share of occidental countries (North America, Western Europe) is decreasing and the one and the one of China and other non-occidental countries is increasing. It seems that some people in NATO countries have the idea that they can slow the shift of power by putting more emphasis on military matters where with its huge military spending and military bases around the world of a number no past empire ever had can slow this, and this means shifting the focus of world politics towards military matters, which is easier when there is more violence and tensions.
    – If the goal is described by “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” (Michael Ledeen), then it is about Mafia methods for frightening countries into compliance (in areas of geopolitics, economics etc.), and this threat works just as well or probably better if the aftermath of this “throwing against the wall” is very bad for the countries that are affected and the countries afterwards suffer for decades.

    On the basis of what is observable, such goals seem much more plausible as a motivation for starting wars than ideas about liberal democracy and human rights, and then it may be far from clear that these wars are counterproductive relative to these goals.

    Of course, I don’t think the ideological motivations that are used for public justification of these wars are irrelevant, even when they are not very plausible. Without them, “selling” the wars to the public would be even more difficult. I even think that some of the political actors who promote Western wars of aggression even believe in these lofty justifications (while many others, the more decisive ones, must be aware that these can hardly be the real goals). It can still be important to point out that the wars are counterproductive relative to these implausible lofty goals. But I think we can go further and state that the results of these wars are so completely at odds with these lofty goals that these lofty goals are completely implausible as the motivation for starting these wars all the time.

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  2. May I suggest a sightly different way to think about it:
    1. war is the continuation of politics by other means. And
    2. the major political course of the last couple of decades was globalization (or ‘neoliberalism’, ‘Washington consensus’, call it what you like).

    Globalization is an enormous project, an attempt to destroy the Westphalian system, and place Free-Flowing Capital well above national sovereignty. In fact, Westphalian states need to be transformed into a sort of regional services, responsible for managing resources (labor and infrastructure) for the benefit of Capital.

    Obviously, this causes a reaction, resistance, with various elites and mass movements rejecting the idea of supremacy of Capital.

    In some (most) cases, the elites are bought and movements subverted, but sometimes it’s just too hard or even impossible. And thus, well, occasional wars.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Something which I think interplays with this is what I would term the “fuckup feedback loop”.
    Essentially, the believe that they are entitled to their leadership positions because of their “creed” (belief in western/US expectionalism), which endows them with the right “visionary approach” to “stand taller and see further” then others, most certainly then the Hoi Polloi of their own countries (the elites startes being politily disdainfull of the commoners, and now it is open contempt). The thing is, their creed, which is also their propaganda, is so central to their thinking that it completly clouds their perception of reality. Because they do not see reality, but only their creed, they cannot formulate effective, reality based strategies. Due to the lack of effective reality based strategies, their stratagems frequently fail, even on their own terms. Unsurprisingly, these elites are after all very human, they blame malicious external “RUSSIANS!!!!” or internal “TRUMP” forces for their failures, even though the former has essentially very few things to do with it in general and the latter being a symptom of elite dysfunction rather then its cause.
    Essentially, failing makes them change their creed into version that are even more at odds with reality (and thus interestingly enough more “selective” in terms of the number of people who would willingly embrace it, I also think that forced adherance to an ever more irrational creed has a particular strong effect in forcing out more ideosyncratic analyts, whom you would normally want because they generate different reports which give their commander different options), this results in even more reality averse strategies which then result in yet more failure.

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  4. Babble Alert:
    The Kosovo war was, you might say, my ‘red pill’ moment, when I went from being the loyal military officer of my youth into someone who realized that his own countries weren’t above a bit of military aggression allied to a hefty dose of falsehood and propaganda…

    Yes, it was a paradigm shift for me too, For us Germans more generally.

    In hindsight it was a bit of a prelude to the later run up to the Iraq war. “War drums” for public consumption. To use the Trump diction real or fake intelligence? Already then the politicians seemed to be just as transparently as later the American ones dissembling.

    Operation Horseshoe. Perception management?… It felt then.
    Wikipedia: Former Bulgarian foreign minister Nadezhda Neynsky acknowledged in 2012 that the then-Bulgarian government had delivered information to Germany and NATO about Milošević’s alleged plan to ethnically cleanse Kosovo. She said she had delivered the document about the operation to the then German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, in April 1999,[13][14] although Neynsky had denied doing so in March 2000.[14] Neynsky stressed that Germany’s Foreign Minister Fischer took the report of the Bulgarian military intelligence very seriously. She also said the Bulgarian government back in 1999 went for providing NATO with the report on the Horseshoe plan even though the Bulgarian military intelligence warned that the information could not be verified. Neynsky was convinced that “NATO and the international coalition were no amateurs who would just take in some piece of information. It was all verified and it was found that there is truth in it.”[15]

    A friend of mine a medic had left Ruanda really late before. She died young not much later. It must have been horror to witness. Still I couldn’t imagine something like Ruanda or Cambodia could happen here.

    You were still serving in the British army at the time of the Incident at Pristina airport?

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    1. “You were still serving in the British army at the time of the Incident at Pristina airport?”

      I was out of the army by then.

      Three/four years ago I gave a talk at the US Naval War College. At dinner afterwards, I sat next to a retired American admiral who said that he had been chief of staff to General Wesley Clark during the Kosovo operation. So I asked him whether it was true that Clark had ordered British general Michael Jackson to attack the Russians at Pristina airport. ‘Yes’, he replied, ‘I signed the order myself’ (or words to that effect).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Citing myself: Still serving in the British army…

        Should have been in the “British Armed Forces”. My teacher in US military matters may be disappointed with me.

        Thanks

        ************
        The post-Cold War alliance forged between hard-line hawks on the right and liberal human rights interventionists on the left has a seemingly iron grip on public policy.

        I agree vaguely with Adrian E above. But I have no idea if there is a short way out. Considering. “We create reality”???

        I’ve never really read it, but it definitively feels it was “Manufacturing Consent”.

        Which would get us into the reality of “left ideas” vs “Real Politik”*. The standard in the field of ideas seems to be that they are easily copied and twisted to one’s own interests, that’s why some left ideas easily change to the right e.g. like anti-globalism. … Elite? As signifier? What is signified?

        More important:
        Democracy and its lack: … At the same time, though, this preference is also connected to severe deficiencies in our political system, above all the fact that they’re nearly as democratic as they appear to be.

        Above all?
        We (the West are not?) … as democratic as we pretend? … or as the propaganda suggested?

        It always felt this necessarily would nessarily have a backlash? I didn’t realize how far home it would hit … Neither what shape it would take.

        *********
        The assassination of Qasam Solimani hit me the same way the “stand-your-ground” legal murder of Trayvon Martin hit me. I considered TM’s death as some time of inner backlash. War came home. …

        Thanks for dealing with matters your way.

        Like

  5. In the same mood. The failure to improve understanding of Russia within the US establishment haunts me in my decades of work in my very small way on the subject going back to the early 1970s.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “I felt that someone had to say something, and hoped that my writings might in some small way contribute to a gradual change in the intellectual climate. If nothing else, they would put ideas on the table which could be picked up by others at some later point in time when external circumstances altered to such an extent that it became clear that a change in direction was needed. ‘Surely’, I thought to myself, ‘those in charge will eventually realize what a mess their policies have created and will want to find an alternative. So, we need to prepare the ground now.’”

    Breaking news! High-octane liberal individualistic approach to affect the world change from the lofty confines of the Ivory Tower Academia fails again! But first – urgent update concerning ursine defecation habits in the arboreal environment.

    [No, really, you take your sweet time to smarten upto reality, Professor]

    “In the midst of this week’s war scare, I’m no longer so sure. The problem goes much deeper than political reason”

    Ah. So you decided – “Can’t beat them – then join them!”?

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    1. It feels I should tell you why stinkfoot entered my mind.

      Within my own interior monologue on my way out of life, I stumbled across the “Lost Zappa interviews”

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  7. Is there a word missing in this passage? “At the same time, though, this preference is also connected to severe deficiencies in our political system, above all the fact that they’re nearly as democratic as they appear to be.” Is there a “not” or similar negation missing?

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    1. I added “not” too, automatically.

      Besides, confronted with the “bringing democracy” theme, I suppose a lot of us asked themselve that question. I could give you a couple of more popular examples.

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  8. Many commenters made many good points. Normal people can be reasoned with, and told they are making a mistake. I don’t think the people running the Western world today are “normal” people, though. They don’t care about anything except money and power. For them, war is just good business, they make a lot of money from endless war; and it helps to keep them in power forever, even after their logical “errors” are pointed out by rational people.
    In conclusion, this is not about rational thinking or logic, or trying to make things better. It’s about more money and more power for a certain elite.
    The real crime is that the majority of the public in these nations just go along with this B.S., it’s like most people decided to take the blue pill instead of the red pill.
    Kudos for taking the red pill, though. It’s better to suffer agonies for the truth than flourish happily in a lie. (Hey, I just coined a motivational phrase!)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I have to disagree with you Professor on both Canadian and UK military spending. I think that both are too low, and the Armed Forces of both much too small. The military is like the education budget. Cutting it may seem pointless but ultimately it seriously harms your country’s economic and political capability especially in the international arena. Furthermore, low military spending in both these countries encourages both these countries and their respective political elites to follow Washington in any kind of misadventure whatever because they feel utterly dependent on Washington for security and are incapable of thinking of pursuing a security of the country and its global position and greatness that does not involve “Oh golly gosh what will the Americans think?”

    Having larger and more vigorous military establishments does not for one second mean that there *must* be more foreign intervention or that it will encourage it. That is entirely down to the thinking of the politicians and policy elites. After all, if they were *actually* serious about interventions and power why would they keep cutting, cutting, and cutting defence establishments.

    What makes this all so grotesque is that to alot of these people it seems more about ‘manfully’ or ‘strongly’ confronting danger. It is about making those same elites feel tough and powerful, not a reasoned consideration of what national interests are and where military force is a last resort not something to be happily bandied about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that both are too low, and the Armed Forces of both much too small.
      Have you read Pau’s above related article* (and the connected chapter 7); mentioned above on the Institute of Economic Affairs? I wonder?

      Or are you arguing based on present political dynamics resulting from the Trump paradox. Bringing freedom and peace to the US by increasing defense spending?

      Leaving aside the military as some type “of mother of invention” historically over the centuries: What’s national interest? And what outside enemy forces threaten Canada or the UK, especially?

      Is Canada threatened by the US? Don’t have a map. North Korea? Russia? Canada is threatened if it does not follow US demands?

      The UK in the near future by the EU? Or Russia?

      ********
      Ok. Carrots and Sticks. What’s the history of it anyway?

      ********
      So Reagan brought down the Soviet Union by forcing it to spend more money on rearmament. What exactly is Trump’s intention? And what power is it based on, The US armed forces or its economic power?

      * I would prefer to censor my own inner respose …

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    2. Not that I did not expect it. And no, I haven’t read it. Article or comments. But there was much talk lately that the EU would stand tall. With the conservatives challenged from the right leaning more towards “the American protector”, but still standing tall. If they were stronger on defense they would? Would still be standing?

      https://www.moonofalabama.org/

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  10. “This creates an enormous temptation to do so, especially since otherwise our military power is just sitting around doing nothing.”

    Are you familiar with the 1960s proposals to build Fast Deployment Logistics Ships (FDLS), which would have pre-positioned equipment to enable rapid military response?

    The report of the Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Richard Russell, said:
    “Beyond the cost, the committee is concerned about the possible creation of an impression that the United States has assumed the function of policing the world, and that it can be thought to be at last considering intervention in any kind of strife or commotion occurring in any of the nations of the world. Moreover, if our involvement in foreign conflicts can be made quicker and easier, there is the temptation to intervene in many situations.”

    Or, as Russell himself said: “if it is easy for us to go anywhere and do anything, we will always be going somewhere and doing something.”

    https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/fdls.htm

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  11. Concerning the concept of “threat”:

    I am in some ways not a pacifist. The west, in its current posture is threatened by Russia and China, and due to the fuckup feedback loop I mentioned before, this threat will persist, and arguably grow stronger due to the inefficiency of western elites.

    Russias actual economy is roughly on par with Germanys in real terms, Chinas is bigger then that of the USA. Russias real defense budget is the equivalent of UK+France+Germany, Russia is fairly well led right now, and Russia has serious and legitimate reasons to be quite aggrieved. As a German, our armed forces have atrophied, our leadership is wholly emneshed in the fuckup feedback loop, we have sizeable internal and infrastructural issues and have picked up a habit of making far ranging decsisions without a very thorough interrogation of the pros and cons.

    This is part of why I do fear Russia. I do not fear the Russians because they are some “ramshackle opportunistic bears bent on easy pickings and readily deterred by shows of steely transatlantic resolve” (western narrative) but because they are a “heavily armed mother bear that is about to kinetically express her displeasure at us setting her cubs on fire for no reason at all and despite her previous vocal warning to not do such things”.

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