Wars Change History

What are neo-conservatives reading these days? I wouldn’t know. Probably not books by Edmund Burke or Gabriel Kolko.

Burke may be considered the father of modern conservatism, but his outlook is much too realistic for neocons in love with foreign policy adventurism. “Men,” wrote Edmund Burke in 1790, “have been sometimes led by degrees, sometimes hurried, into things of which, if they could have seen the whole together, they never would have permitted the most remote approach.”

A Burkean imagination tends to make people careful. Few individuals would have enlisted or supported their leaders, had the horrors of the First World War been anticipated. 15 million soldiers and civilians were killed and at least 20 million wounded. Central planning and socialism received an enormous boost in Great Britain. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered. The Ottoman Empire collapsed. Communism triumphed in Russia. The utter defeat and humiliation of Germany paved the way for Hitler – and another World War.

Wars change history. No one can foresee how. A war in Iraq would be no different. America ought to have learned this lesson by now. It has had the opportunity to do so on more than one occasion in the recent past. For those who need a reminder, I recommend the brief overview of American foreign policy in Another Century of War?, by Gabriel Kolko.

Look at Afghanistan, for example.

The United States began to aid the mujahideen in Afghanistan after the Soviets invaded the country in December 1979. The CIA spent $3 billion in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s, more than all of its other covert programs combined. This was done in close alliance with the rulers of Saudi Arabia.

At least fifteen thousand, and perhaps as many as thirty thousand, foreign fighters joined the mujahideen. The Saudi regime saw Afghanistan as a useful place to send its own potential opponents, thereby neutralizing them. The chief of Saudi intelligence chose a man called Osama bin Laden as the key leader of the Arab Brigade. Kolko notes that Bin Laden's tasks included establishing recruiting offices in thirty-five countries. There were thirty such offices in American cities alone.

The network that was established during those years — with enthusiastic assistance from the US government — became crucial when bin Laden created al-Qaeda in 1989. Training camps were established in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Sudan, and Somalia. Many of the extremist Islamic movements that were launched in a number of nations thereafter had in fact been incubated in Afghanistan:

"Thousands — about two thousand in Bosnia alone — subsequently fought in Chechnya, Algeria, Somalia, Kosovo, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Some remained in Afghanistan, joined later by others, as the backbone of the Taliban regime. Ultimately al-Qaeda may have trained and indoctrinated up to seventy thousand potential fighters — and terrorists — and created cells in at least fifty countries."

An intended consequence of the CIA operation? Of course not. But these things happen in war.

The world is a dangerous place. Politicians frequently add to the danger by joining fights that are really none of their business. "The United States after 1947 attempted to guide and control a very large part of the change that occurred throughout the world, and a significant part of what is wrong with it today is the result of America's interventions", writes Kolko. "Others have paid for their consequences, and now the United States too must pay."

Gabriel Kolko is a war historian. But he is more than that. He provides not just the relevant facts and figures, but also a dose of cynical wisdom:

"Political systems are not constructed to obtain and confront unpleasant facts, and they have few safeguards against irrational behavior. This myopia is increasingly dangerous."

There is not much hope for change in the political camp:

"Those who become the leaders of states are ultimately conformists on most crucial issues, and individuals who evaluate information in a rational manner — and therefore frequently criticize traditional premises — are weeded out early in their careers."

So-called conservative leaders are no better than the rest. George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 as a critic of big government. Things turned out very differently. What was to be a conservative agenda has been discarded in favor of a project Gabriel Kolko calls military Keynesianism:

"All the pillars of the conservative faith were crumbling, and overwhelming bipartisan approval of bailouts, public spending in the name of defense or fiscal stimulus, and projected deficits confirmed (if confirmation was needed) that conservatives were no more true to their articles of ideological faith than were liberals."

Sad, but hardly unexpected.

December 2, 2002