Archive for Japan

Stupidity, Brutality, and the Failure of Military Occupations

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Iraq War, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2012 by whatafteriraq

In the past decade, the United States has engaged in the military occupations: one (Iraq) that was the result of an American invasion and conquest, the other (Afghanistan) as part of a coalition of states seeking to rid the occupied state of the remnants of Al Qaeda. To put the matter mildly, neither excursion has been an unambiguous success.

There are, of course, numerous reasons why these occupations have not yielded the results the United States set out to accomplish in both of these adventures, including the adoption of unattainable objectives (e.g. representative democracy in countries with no tradition of democracy as we think of it), the lack of clear interests that are supposedly served, misstatement of the conditions being rectified, dealing with allies whose primary interest was in getting rid of us, and a host of others (e.g. a botched occupation administration in Iraq). Some or all of these no doubt have played a role. Let me suggest that there is another reason both have failed (technically, Afghanistan has not failed yet, but will): it is simply impossible to run an effective occupation of a hostile country in the modern electronic world in which we live.  

The problem of running an occupation is that those occupied generally do not want to be occupied and thus resent whoever is doing the occupying. This revelation is, of course, a classic BFO (blinding flash of the obvious) that American leaders never seem to grasp. Just last week, General Allen (the comander of American forces in Afghanistan) tried to buck up the troops after the murder of several American soldiers by reminding them of our mission there: to help out our “friends.” Hello, General! Very few Afghans think we are their “friends”; most of them think we are foreign occupiers, a genre to whom the Afghans have never especially warmed. To make matters worse, they are apostates (as the Quran burning episode demonstrated), a further source of disfavor. To the vast majority of Afghans, I would submit, the friendliest thing the United States can do is to go home (preferably leaving several large suitcases of money behind when we do).

That occupations are resented is no revelation. That they are opposed is further no more than a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious): that we do not understand this simple truth is beyond my personal comprehension. But why? Are we just that dumb?

I  can think of three possible reasons for this self-delusion. One is that we do not see ourselves as occupiers, but rather as liberators freeing first the Iraqis and now the Afghans from vile oppression. That is a much happier role, and one that fits our self-image much better (especially if you are a neo-conservative). Everybody likes liberators, after all. Well, everybody (except the former oppressors) like the liberators when they are being freed; it is when the liberators stick around and become occupiers that their initial action loses acceptance. Just ask the citizens of the Philippines, whose 1898 “liberation” from Spain lasted until 1946.

A second explanation is that occupations can be benign and poular with the subject population. The post-WW II occupations of Germany and Japan are always cited in this regard: it worked there, so why not other places? The answer, of course, is that other places are not like Germany and Japan (absolutely defeated western-style countries) who were essentially bribed into embracing the occupation with generous dollops of reconstruction assistance. There is no equivalent transfer of resources to Iraq and Afghanistan, which the American people whould not accept.

Self-image (we are not really occupiers) and faulty analogies (with Germany and Japan) help explain why we are blind to why those we occupy don’t appreciate our effort and thus oppose us, but that is only part of the problem. The crux of the problem (and the third explanation for why our occupations fail) is the dynamics of occupation in the modern world. Historically, the principal dynamic of successful occupations has been their brutal suppression of dissidents. Occupied populations can be won over by bribing them or by the departure of the occupiers, but if the occupying force stays–especially in a long, open-ended tenure–it will be opposed. If one wants to maintain an occupation, the only way to do so is to eliminate the opposition–the more brutally, the better. The Nazis understood this, Genghis Khan understood it, and so have countless others.

The problem is that the kind of ruthless brutality necessary to cow a population into submission just does not work in the modern electronic world, because there is no longer any fully private behavior. The Syrians are today’s best example of slow learning on this point, but it is becoming universal. To repeat, the only ways to have any chance to run an occupation that has any chance of success is to egregiously bribe the entire population into accepting it or to engage in massive and ruthless violent suppression that will inevitably be on the six o’clock news “in living color” that will outrage everybody. If one is willing to do either of those two things, occupation has a chance. If not, forget it!

The United States is unwilling to do either of these things in Iraq or Afghanistan. Massive economic assistance (bribery) has no domestic constituency and its simple advocacy would be political suicide in today’s fiscally restrained environment. Overt brutality broadcast on worldwide cable television is similarly unacceptable. So that leaves the United States with a series of half-efforts that don’t work. The drinking water of anyone to whom any of this is a surprise should probably be tested for hallucigens.

Oh yes, there is one foolproof method to avoid these dilemmas, and that is not to go around invading, conquering, and occupying places where you are unwilling either to bribe or slaughter the population. Too bad no one thought of that in 2001.

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Deadly Kabuki in Korea

Posted in Diplomacy, North Korean Nuclear Weapons with tags , , , , , , , on December 20, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The current crisis between the Koreas is now over a month old, with the North and South Koreans gnashing their rhetorical teeth and one another and the world wondering if this could be the onset of a second Korean War. The current flap began last month over the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, a part of South Korea only seven miles off the North Korean coast, by the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). Recriminations flew back and forth between the two sides and came to focus on South Korean atrillery exercises scheduled for this month off the island–an activity that the DPRK argued was provocative and could lead to renewed hostilities. These pronouncements were met in kind by the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea). Where will it all go? 

The whole episode has taken place in a familiar atmosphere in which common elements to other crises between the DPRK and ROK have worked themselves out. Three elements, two familiar from the past and one a recurring wraith that hangs over relations, stand out.

The first, and most obvious, source of tension and concern is the wraith of the DPRK nuclear arsenal. Without going into detail, North Korea is now generally acknowledged to be the world’s ninth nuclear power, with probably 6-8 nuclear weapons deliverable over moderate ranges that certainly include most of Soth Korea and probably Japan as well. The DPRK has alternately announced intself as a nuclear power, than backed away from the designation only to reassert it. The reasons the DPRK feels the need to keep a nuclear arsenal are numerous and include the prestige of having joined the nuclear club and thus the status it provides to a regime and country that would be highly inconsequential without them. The North Koreans were almost certainly motivated by the fact that they faced a nuclear-armed United States across the 38th Parallel (the de facto boundary between the Koreas) when they decided to launch a nuclear program in the 1950s, and the deterrence of attacks against them equally certainly underlays their commitment to being a nuclear power.

Regardless of why North Korea has gone nuclear, their possession has at least two important consequences. One is that it raises the deadly calculus of war on the peninsula. Almost all observers agree that the DPRK would lose such a war and that one of the consequences would be the overthrow of the regime and the probable reunification of the country under South Korean control. These outcomes are, hopefully, well enough known and unpalatable enough to keep the DPRK from starting a war in the first place, but should they launch such a war anyway, these dynamics might well lead to a decision to use their nuclear arsenal as a last-ditch, desperation way to avoid defeat. Such an action would equally likely result in a nuclear strike against them, and the Korean peninsula would be the sure loser. Second, the failure to convince the DPRK to back away from its nuclear program could lead other regional powers, notably the ROK and Japan, to conclude they must develop comensating capabilities, thereby initiating a nw nuclear arms race.

There are also two familiar dynamics at work here that have been present in past crises. One is a succession process in the DPRK. Thecurrent leader, Kim Jung-Il, is known to be in failing health, and following the lead of his father (Kim Il-Sung, the original DPRK leader), he has designated a son to take his place. Until his elevation, Kim Jong-Un was virtually unknown prior to his designation, and the twenty-six-year-old was quickly appointed as the world’s youngest four-star general this fall. Covering the succession process with a crisis was also done when the current leader was annointed. Third, North Korea is apparently undergoing one of its periodic, chronic food crises, and it has been the case before that the DPRK has precipitated crises as a way to extract needed aid from the outside world rather than having openly to beg for them.

Thus, the current crisis has a slightly familiar ring. The North Koreans provoke, the South Koreans rise to the bait and issue counter-threats, the world holds its breath and intervenes (currently through the “unofficial” Bill Richardson mission–with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer along for the ride). The news today suggests that the ritual kabuki is going according to script: the South Koreans have delayed their artillery exercise, with bad weatheras the excuse; and the North Koreans have suggested to Richardson they might let American forensic personnel into the DPRK to examine recently discovered remains of fallen Americans from the Korean War.

The current crisis could deviate from the past script and degenerate into warfare that no one wants and which would benefit no one, but there is a hint of a familiar kabuki in the air. Let’s hope the participants don’t forget their roles and their lines, paticularly since the failure to do so could have particularly devastating consequences in a nuclear-armed Korean peninsula.