Wilsonian Wars, Wilsonian Ruin
Published on: June 12, 2012
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  • Kenny

    So maybe the ‘Great Loon’ was all that bad aftger all.

  • Daniel Ehighalua

    The key question here, as always, with these sorts of fluid situations, is: When is it apposite, to intervene on humanitarian grounds?. The issue has been the absence of an ‘internationally acceptable norm’ – whether customary or Treaty based – to be applied as a set of key indicators for intervention to be justified. The doctrine of the responsibility to protect, the so called R2P, was effectively stymied by the decision of the US to ‘unilaterally’ intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is why we are where we are now with Syria, Mali et al. Nigerians are now seriously concerned with the Mali situation, given the fledgling relationship between Boko Haram and remnants of the Jihadists, allegedly infiltrating the northern reaches of Nigeria. Nigeria is already a tinderbox!

  • The points that both Libya and Mali are a mess cannot be disputed. There is a non sequitur in the argument nevertheless: the implication that the mess is somehow CAUSED by the Nato intervention in Libya.

    The fact is that the situation in Libya was very unstable. The longer Qaddafi remained in power by violent means, the more unstable it would have turned out, in all probability. The spillover of violence to neighboring countries would have been if anything more difficult to contain.

    Unfortunately the situation is Syria is similar. The longer Assad stays in power, the messier will be the aftermath of his downfall. And because a realistic opportunity for constructive outside intervention doesn’t seem to exist, we have to prepare for the worst. I agree with your analysis, but the contrast with a “nice festive humanitarian intervention” is an attack on a straw man.

  • Nathan

    A question for Professor Mead: Do you think that some of these negative ramifications from the Libyan conflict could have been avoided if either NATO or (preferably, we can’t afford it) the Arab states had been less shy about putting boots on the ground?

    While the US has experienced the heavy costs of nation building intimately in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can’t help feeling that “nation building” has gotten a bad rap in light of the consequences of not doing so. This recent trend toward impersonal bomb-throwing conflict resolution carries a lot of downsides that I don’t think are being recognized.

  • What do all these societies have in common besides Islam?

    Answer: extended families, clans, tribes, consanguinity, in a word, inbreeding. Inbreeding shapes culture, a lesson that we are only beginning to understand. Hbd* chick blogs it 24/7:


    Who is she? One of those obscure gifts of the digital age.

  • anh

    ‘Humanitarian war’?

    Will someone think up ‘humanitarian genocide’? Oh yeah, it’s happening against ‘racist’ whites in S. Africa and Europe.

  • WigWag

    Adam Garfinkle, who has a fascinating and reinvigorated blog at the “American Interest” entitled, “The Middle East and Beyond,” was one of the most eloquent original critics of the Libyan intervention. His prediction of what would transpire in the wake of Kaddafi’s overthrow has proven prescient.

    The problem with both Via Meadia’s and Adam Garfinkle’s assessment of the Syrian situation is that it’s virtually incoherent. I don’t use the word “incoherent” to be negative. Recognizing, as everyone does, that the Syrian situation is complicated; neither of them offers many useful recommendations on how to proceed. Unlike Mead and Garfinkle, policy makers don’t have the leisure of lofting stink bombs from the peanut gallery; they have to decide to act (or not act).

    Garfinkle seems modestly more willing to recommend an activist position on Syria than Professor Mead is; unless I am missing something, he’s also in favor of a more activist position on Syria than he was on Libya.

    Dr. Garfinkle has said,

    “An accompanying theme refers almost invariably to the lack of palatable U.S. options in the face of this growing crisis. What none of the commentary mentions is that we actually did have some options several months ago, before the crisis reached its current level of potential malignancy. None of these options was foolproof or risk-free, but there were some…Wait long enough in passivity, and many an international security problem will get worse, often to the point that both passivity and relatively painless responses become impossible.” (See, “The Pitfalls of a Passive Policy,” http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/garfinkle/)

    Professor Mead seems to believe that the United States would be making a big error if it repeated the mistakes we made by intervening in Libya in current Syrian imbroglio. Although he doesn’t precisely say it, in light of the fact that he believes U.S. intervention would be a bad policy, presumably he believes that the decision of the Obama Administration to take little overt concrete action is the correct one.

    Adam Garfinkle has a somewhat different perspective although he does tend to share Professor Mead’s penchant for exaggeration. Perhaps he should remember the quotation from Jean Francois de la Harpe that he provided to the readers of the wonderful book he wrote, “Jewcentricity,”

    “To exaggerate is to weaken”

    Adam actually goes so far to compare the Obama policy on Syria to the Munich Pact; the 1938 agreement between the Nazis and Great Britain, France and Italy that allowed Hitler to annex the Sudetenland.

    Specifically Adam says,

    “Our government and our intellectual class are filled with people who repeat, mantra-like, the incantation that diplomacy is always superior to force, and that it anyway can do no harm. They appear to be genuinely incapable of understanding the strategic uses of insincere diplomacy by bad actors. I can imagine, I suppose, how young people could indulge this disastrous conceit, simply because they don’t yet have enough experience to know better. But it is truly beyond me how so many otherwise intelligent adults can do so, because this requires willful ignorance. Did every single one of them miss the high school lesson on Munich 1938? “(See, “Obama Gets Tough on Syria, Cancels Assad’s Library Card,” http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/garfinkle/)

    Given his reference to “Munich 1938” which is universally viewed as a humiliating act of appeasement that was a proximate cause of World War II, Adam obviously believes that much more muscular action against the Assad regime by the United States is desperately needed.

    Professor Mead tells us that more muscular action was tried in Libya and that it made things worse not better. From Professor Mead’s perspective the more we speak quietly and carry a small stick with the Syrians, the better.

    Who should we believe, Garfinkle or Mead?
    Is Mead suggesting that Garfinkle is a wild eyed and irresponsible Wilsonian? Can Garfinkle be suggesting that Professor Mead was smoking in the boys room during the lecture in his high school history class on Munich, 1938?

  • Nobody really knows where the mess in Mali will lead? Of course we do. We just don’t want to say it. It will lead to tyranny.

  • @ WigWag – re: the Munich analogy, who is supposed to be playing the role of Hitler? These Middle Eastern tyrants, with the exception of Sadam, have shown little interest in cross-border aggression. OTH I can see why the U.S. and Israel might have an interest in seeing that whichever tyrant finally emerges on top is friendly to our and Israeli interests? Isn’t that really what you are worried about?

  • It took centuries for us to evolve liberal democratic institutions in the West. Why do we suppose the time-scale will be any different in other parts of the world?


  • Jim.

    What if we can actually keep up these “savage wars of peace”?

    Italy, Spain, and Greece could pour on some good old-fashioned Keynsian Military Spending, and ship their young and unemployed off to fight whatever good fights Wilson would have approved.

    You brought up an interesting point in one of your previous posts, Professor. Nowadays, Europe (aside from the money troubles, and leaving aside Wilson’s appalling racism) looks quite like the place Wilson envisioned nigh 100 years ago.

    What really is on the other side of those multitudinous seas, incarnadine?

    On the other hand, perhaps playing Devil’s advocate can get a little too literal sometimes.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    10. Luke Lea has the right of it, these cultures must evolve in their own way and in their own time. In most cases interference is going to have unforeseen consequences.

    “Cultures evolve at Glacial Speeds” Jacksonian Libertarian

  • Anthony

    Two salient points: NATO didn’t so much prevent massacres as move them offstage; and the question in Syria is a complicated one.

    WRM, Syria fits the description of an anocracy (a form of rule that is neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic). Where Syria has been a truly autocratic state, it has now loss control of its population and is viewed by parts as less intimidating – thus nascent civil war. U.S. policy certainly recognizes Syria’s vulnerability to civil war; but, can we honestly do much about it given contours of its praetorian regime and all that entails? Additionally, can we be cocksure that Iran poses via Syria clear evidence of peril – a road we have traveled only too recently at cost of lives and treasure? You intimate as much WRM by writing “our strategic interest in pressuring Iran…makes….”

  • kris

    [email protected]:

    I read Garfinkle’s “Munich” analogy not as reference to Assad’s evil but rather as an object lesson in the perils of avoiding war at all costs.

    “These Middle Eastern tyrants, with the exception of Sadam, have shown little interest in cross-border aggression.”

    This isn’t quite an accurate description of the Assads. Syria has 4 neighbors. It has had a sometimes very tense relationship with NATO-member Turkey, but has not dared attack it. It has been in several wars with Israel, until Israel’s military grew too strong. Iraq was simply not a realistic target. That leaves one possible avenue for foreign adventurism: Lebanon. Sure enough, …

    For what it’s worth, I share some of the opinions expressed by both our host and Adam Garfinkle:
    (i) I truly don’t know what the best solution currently is. None of the realistic possibilities are good. US boots on the ground strikes me as completely unrealistic.
    (ii) An earlier intervention would have had better upsides.
    (iii) Humanitarian interventions are most worthy in theory. In practice, …

  • kris

    Oh, for the love of…!

    Correction to the above: Iraq has 5 neighbors, the fifth one being Jordan. Syria actually launched an invasion of Jordan at one point, but turned back when Israel threatened to intervene (at the request of the US).

    Summary: Syria (the Assads) attacks whenever it thinks it can get away with it.

  • Maid Abusing Socialist

    @Luke Leah: Inbreeding? Are we also considering Prof Mead’s royal jubilee posts?

  • I supported the Iraq war strongly but as I wary Ed it play out I thought some of the criticism leveled at Bush in regard to the war was well founded. Particularly the danger of unintended consequences in a war of choice. I was therefore genuinely surprised when the current administration intervened on slightly different Wilsonian grounds, that is the duty to protect rather than to spread democracy. As much as I think it is in US interests to break up the alliance between Iran and Syria I am cautious about interventiion there based on the experience of Iraq. And as tempting as it was to protest the Libyan interventiion with a large “No Blood for Oil” placard I knew that was nonsense because a good friend is an oil exploration engineer who was working in the souther Libyan desert until about a week before the festivities got serious.

  • Consider this: Prior to its direct intervention, Western Europe & the USA angered Khadafy. Khadafy, realistically, could have retaliated by killing US & European civilians. For sure, there is the argument that they shouldn’t have angered him, etc. It’s our own fault, etc. But as I see it, once he was angered he was capable of doing anything down the road. The intervention, in this light, comes across less as Wilsonian idealism than self-defence. For people like me who fly often and who pass through metro stations that were bombed by terrorists in the past, this is something that sticks on the mind and I’m not alone…

  • Sorry Charlie

    We can’t save people from themselves. Even if we did, are we supposed to mediate / rule them forever after? If the French wanted the job, they should be prepared to finish it. And by the way, the key difference between Libya and Syria: Syria doesn’t send oil to Europe. Follow the money.

  • Lyle Smith

    These guys actually hold Timbuktu? What’s that mean for all the antiquated books and papers there?

  • VA Teacher

    It should be clear by now that the neo-con dream of “fixing” failed states was a bit of a pipe dream. I hope somebody (like the new Secretary of State) is thinking about a plan B…if we can’t drain the swamp where the terrorists breed, how can we keep them out of our yard? Because the alternative is using the DDT, and I don’t relish the idea of genocide…

  • j011254

    I was against the undeclared war in Libya. I’m not enthusiastic about going to war in Syria. Nor do I think we have an obligation to intervene in Sudan/Darfur. That also leaves Mali out of the picture. If the French want to intervene, by allmeans the French should intervene. Afterall, they are pulling thier military out of Afghanistan so they have plenty of resources to apply to the effort. Let’s stay out of these regional conflicts as long as they don’t spill over into a general world war. We do not have a responsibility to protect others, we do have a responsibility to protect ourselves. So far, these regional conflicts do not threaten us so we should stay out.

  • john lynch

    This article falls into the trap of thinking that everything that happens in the world is caused by the West. There have been several Tuareg revolts in the last 100 years. This one has been more successful for a number of reasons, Libyan guns being only one.

    The weakness of the Malian state is the real culprit. Otherwise, a few thousand men, perhaps as few as 1500 armed men, could not take over half the country no matter how hard NATO bombed Libya.

    What we are seeing isn’t the result of the use of Western power, but its absence. For example, thirty years ago Libya began a long war against its southern Sahelian neighbor, Chad. After a long and bloody struggle the Libyans were seen off by Chadians armed and equipped by France and the US, with French aerial support. Nothing of the sort is happening in Mali, despite the obvious presence of Jihadis.

    Mali is a creation of the French colonial empire, and what we are seeing is its final stages of collapse. Much like the barbarian kingdoms set up after the fall of Rome, the postcolonial states that inherited the Western empires’ governing apparatus are falling to pieces. In the Congo this has already happened. Sudan has already split. The colonial legacy borders were always temporary, since they no longer make any sense.

    Africa is transitioning to a simpler system than the old imperial structure left fifty years ago. That doesn’t mean that what will come next is better, just that in a world of Western powers less willing to enforce the old borders local powers will become more important.

    If we wish to maintain the old international borders and the structures of our international system, set up when the West was ruling most of the world, the it will take some force. Otherwise, the breakup of African countries into units that can be ruled locally is inevitable.

  • Mike

    Good point. There are essentially three options when going to war with a country whose government is not likely to survive:
    1. Go in with a plan for afterwards (World War II)
    2. Go in, and wing it (Iraq)
    3. Beat the [heck] out of it and let the chips fall where they may (Libya).
    Clausewitz is crying somewhere.

  • stoicheion

    What a juvenile article. Wilson had no B-2’s to work with, No Army worthy of the name. He had no choice but to cower in fear.
    Somebody wake Walter up. It’s the 21st century. There is no such thing as a regional conflict in a world with ICBM’s and Jet airplanes.
    Walter sees that we are ALL connected but then fails to draw the proper conclusion; That connection means the USA is automatically part of any conflict between Mudholestan and Nowhereland. A 21st century reality that cannot be ignored and will only get worse.
    Dealing with 3rd world despots is like cleaning up graffiti, fixing broken windows and picking up the trash. It makes a difference. Linear thinkers have trouble seeing that but the evidence is clear.
    The mistake in Iraq and the ‘stan was boots on the ground. We tried twice to get Saddam with a de-cap strike. Should have kept trying until we got him. We only had to get lucky once, Saddam had to get lucky EVERY time. Good odds, for us.
    We need to send the Assads a picture of Osama with an extra hole in his head. Tell him he and his brother and sister have 24 hours to get out of Syria. If they don’t leave, we hunt them down like the vermin they are.

  • Kris

    [email protected], I’ll be happy the day I learn Assad has met an untimely death; I’ll buy a round for everyone. But then what? Do you think you can prevent a very messy civil war from the air?

  • dcdoc

    Will those calling for the US to intervene be so good as to tell the rest of us:

    – how exactly the US would go about it, specifying such things as whether it would all be done from the air, as it was with Serbia, or will there be boots on the ground in the beginning and/or end, and if so, how many and for how long;

    – will we be going it alone or will we have more than nominal assistance with the fighting and costs from our unprepared NATO allies, the undeclared Turks, other Arab states, etc.;

    – who will undertake what in the effort;

    – where will the fighting forces be based and launch from; and so on.

    – how much will it cost both in $s and lives.

    – what would be the best outcome we might hope for and what would be the worst one we should fear, with the respective probabilities.

    Are those unreasonable questions to expect to have answered before we commit ourselves to a course of action we won’t be able to back out of?

  • There seems to be a common tahred running through these attempts at change regimes. Those in the ME that were pro or ambivalent about Iran seem to be on the teeter-totter as well as those, excepting Saudi, that have tried to be perhaps too accommodating in the past re the USA.It’s something like the double con job poker game on the train to Chicago in “The Sting”. There is more than just a really crooked deal upcoming. If I was Israel, I would expect to be “Gadaffied” one of these days with an all star cast of leftists, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, et al, sobbing and rending their garments and putting on a great show while the MSM laps it all up.

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