Friday, April 13, 2007

Contra Krauthammer (Vol. 1)

A moment of full disclosure: I intend on spilling an enormous amount of ink on this blog (digitally speaking) criticizing Charles Krauthammer. I know the standards of blogging to which I subscribe discourage ad hominum attacks, so let me be clear: I bear Mr. Krauthammer no personal ill will. I actually took a couple of classes under a former professor of his, and have been told he is a smart, engaging, fundamentally decent man. I wish him all the happiness this life has to offer. I take up a bit of a pet agenda against him, however, because I see in his writing the quintessence of all that is wrong with the way recent American leadership has conducted foreign policy. His views on the nature of international order, and the nature of power more generally, belong in a different century. His logic is simplistic and relies on a pseudo-Manichean worldview that distorts his diagnoses of problems and renders his policy prescriptions asinine and dangerous. He seems capable of adjusting neither his overarching philosophy nor his concrete advice when world events expose both as misguided. In short, he is the popular-academic equivalent of the Bush administration (indeed, he has provided the current leadership with considerable intellectual firepower). On a somewhat more personal level, both Mr. Krauthammer and I are McGill grads, and I feel obligated to give my alma mater a voice that is not his (even if, speaking from his perch as a nationally syndicated Washington Post columnist, his voice is a bit louder than mine).

This column (admittedly a bit dated) in which he argues that Iraq is the most important front in the war on terror, is perfectly emblematic of the problems with Mr. Krauthammer's way of thinking. Putting aside for a moment the difficulty of fighting a "war on terror" (it is hard to fight a war if one doesn't even know who one's enemies are), Krauthammer's arguments are simply not informed by reality. He considers ridiculous, for example, the notion that "the world's one superpower, which spends more on defense every year than the rest of the world combined, does not have the capacity to fight an insurgency in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan." What is ridiculous is to judge a nation's power - or even the power of a nation's military - based simply on how much it spends on its fighting forces. Yes, the United States spends enormous amounts of money on its military, but it has clearly not put those resources into building a counter-insurgency force. American cash supports a global navy, an air force, and an impressive (if somewhat frightening) array of high tech weapons systems, in addition to training and equipping its 'boots on the ground.' The US volunteer military is not designed to fight long, drawn out counter-insurgencies. Indeed, the military made a conscious decision to turn away from such tasks after the debacle in Vietnam.

The focus on military spending also shows that Mr. Krauthammer has no notion of the modern realities of asymmetric warfare. We don't live in the nineteenth century, and the assumption that great powers can continue to behave essentially as colonizers, engaging in hostile occupations as they see fit, has been disproven time and again in recent years (Russia in Chechnya, Israel in Lebanon, and now the US in Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind as immediate examples). Putting such larger concerns aside for the moment, it has become clear that the US does not have the capacity to fight simultaneous counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, however much Mr. Krauthammer wishes it did. Time's recent cover story only highlights what many people in the military have been saying for some time now: the army is nearing its breaking point, and cannot continue to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely. Since the war in Iraq is now all but un-winnable (in a military sense) absent drastic and politically-unfeasable measures such as the institution of a draft, it strikes me as perfectly reasonable to begin refocusing American military resources on Afghanistan, where victory remains possible by most accounts.

Beyond the common neo-conservative mistake of wildly overestimating America's ability to enforce its will upon the world, Mr. Krauthammer's column betrays his skewed strategic priorities. He argues that Iraq is clearly of greater strategic importance than Afghanistan because it is "one of the three principal Arab states, with untold oil wealth, an educated population, an advanced military and technological infrastructure that, though suffering decay in the later years of Saddam Hussein's rule, could easily be revived if it falls into the right (i.e., wrong) hands. Add to that the fact that its strategic location would give its rulers inordinate influence over the entire Persian Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf states." Does Mr. Krauthammer actually believe that a US withdrawal from Iraq would lead to any person or group taking over the levers of a functioning Iraqi state and economy? A protracted, fluid, bloody civil war seems to be a far more likely outcome. While that situation would induce many headaches for US foreign policy makers, I doubt the worry that Iraq's conventional military capacity could be harnessed to negative ends would be chief among them. Keeping the region from imploding around a collapsing Iraqi society would be the far more difficult task.

Mr. Krauthammer's focus on the problems that could arise if a functioning Iraqi state fell into the wrong hands serves to highlight one of the principal problems of the neo-conservative worldview: the continued focus on the threats posed by state power in a world where the chaos wrought by failed states is far and away the more significant menace. I don't disagree with Krauthammer when he asserts that a US defeat in Iraq will cause massive problems, I simply think that he grossly misidentifies what those problems will be.

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