The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
To the Editor:
Chester Crocker's thoughtful critique of my article, "Give War a Chance," warrants broader consideration, but here I can only try to respond to his main objection ("A Poor Case for Quitting," January/February 2000). While describing the paradoxical logic of the strategy presented in my article as "compelling," Crocker notes major exceptions to the proposition that wars themselves establish the preconditions for peace, if uninterrupted by outsiders -- including the cases of Chechnya, Sudan, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and Angola.
He is, of course, correct. In all those areas, warfare has persisted for decades, yet there is no peace in sight. But war can become its own remedy only by consuming and destroying the material and moral resources needed to keep fighting. It follows that the speed with which war destroys itself depends on its intensity and scale. In civil wars, the intensity of the fighting is usually low and the scale very limited, except for short (often seasonal) explosions of violence that, in most cases, are very localized. That leaves unaffected the wider environment, whose undestroyed resources can fuel war endlessly. As Crocker notes, Chechen resistance to the Russians began in the 1830s. But during the last 170 years there have been only a few months of truly intense large-scale fighting. Otherwise, the Russians would long ago have achieved an imperial peace through genocide or forced dispersal. Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to achieve peace through all-out victory. But he is unlikely to do so because his war is not destroying the essential war-making resource of the Chechens -- their warrior youth. With Russia's democracy sufficiently established to make genocide or mass deportation impossible, Putin's choices are restricted to an endless war inside Chechnya or the republic's isolation behind a well-guarded perimeter.
In Sudan, the fighting has been limited to some areas of the far south, and even there it has been mostly seasonal. Neither a war restricted by outside interference nor a war so limited in scope can create the preconditions for peace. Kashmir exhibits both the Chechen phenomenon of an imperial power unwilling to destroy or accommodate a rebellious nationality and the interrupted-war syndrome. None of the Indo-Pakistani wars persisted long enough to bring peace to Kashmir (in 1971, Pakistan was spared total defeat by American intervention). Now a nuclear stalemate has inaugurated a protracted cold war.
In Sri Lanka, ethnic war has continued for decades in the northeast, while foreign tourists continue to frequent tranquil beaches in the southwest. Had the intensity of the fighting in the Jaffna peninsula been replicated throughout the island, the war would have ended long ago. Angola has seen periods of intense fighting, mainly when the Luanda government had allies or mercenaries fighting its battles, but the war with the rebels has been mostly localized and desultory.
The logic of strategy is no more than a theoretical formulation of an almost physical process. Had World War II been fought in fits and starts and in secondary theaters far from Germany and Japan, it would still continue. That the paradoxical logic of strategy cannot exceed its limits is no excuse for the current practice of systematically sabotaging war's peace-making potential by outside interventions that are disinterested and therefore both arbitrary and usually inconclusive. Nor is it an excuse for the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) to provide refugee assistance by permanent encampment, instead of providing immediate humanitarian relief followed by a natural dispersion when quick repatriation is impossible. Such an intervention guarantees the perpetuation of refugee polities, the only possible ideology of which is revanchist. This, in turn, guarantees perpetual war -- as in Rwanda's recent case. Again, had the U.N. and today's plague of irresponsible, self-seeking NGOS existed in Europe's past, the continent would contain no stable states but only vast camps of unreconciled refugees, still battling their ancient enemies.
In his letter to the editor, Sergio Vieira de Mello assures us that "the U.N. and other world bodies are gaining more experience in civil-war negotiating..." (January/February 2000). One hopes so, but one also wishes that these organizations ascended the learning curve by experimenting on mice instead of on entire nations. That the U.N. has often played a useful role by helping "combatants steer the path from war fatigue to peace negotiations" is perfectly true -- but only in the Cold War years. The two global powers would alternate between stimulating third-party conflicts and suppressing them through negotiated agreements between themselves. Having done the heavy lifting by imposing their joint will on lesser powers at war, they would summon the U.N. Security Council to appoint mediators, monitor demarcation lines, observe elections, and provide purely symbolic observers and peacekeeping forces. But the real forces were the vast power of the Soviet Union and the United States and both countries' sporadic willingness to use this power to stop wars. The U.N.'s role, in contrast, was merely an optical illusion. Does Vieira de Mello really believe that the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel was stopped by the U.N. peacekeeping battalions that flew in to monitor the cease-fire? Or that Namibia's war was "steered to peace negotiations" by U.N. activities in that country rather than by superpower pressure on South Africa?
Once the Cold War ended, so did the global management assured by its protagonists. Meanwhile, the illusion that the U.N. could be effective by itself had taken hold. The puppeteers had left the scene, but a performance was still demanded by the deluded and promised by the puppets themselves. For example, one decisive cause of Bosnia's tragedy was that, when U.N. peacekeeping troops arrived, the Bosnian population really believed the troops would keep the peace, not realizing that without superpowers to impose their will on the warring parties, the U.N. would only stand by to watch their suffering -- when it was not appeasing their tormentors, not to mention the smuggling and sexual commerce that were the chief activities of several national contingents.
Vieira de Mello states that I neglected to mention the wars in Namibia, El Salvador, and Mozambique, all of which ended through negotiations, rather than through conclusive wars. Really? True, there were negotiations in which the U.N. played a large role alongside others, such as Rome's Community of San Egidio and less-dubious NGOs. But as I noted, South Africa's war with the South West Africa People's Organisation was finally stopped by U.S. pressure, against the background of the Soviet-Cuban intervention in Angola. As for El Salvador, its guerrilla war did end through negotiation -- but only after the insurgents were denied any chance of winning by the increasingly strong army and the Defensa Civil militia, conjoined with the diminishing hope of Sandinista-Cuban-Soviet assistance. Only then did the insurgents want to try the ballot box instead of the gun, but they were defeated electorally as well.
As for Mozambique, the government's rival -- the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR) -- was born as a Rhodesian covert operation and lived on as a South African proxy. Once the MNR's creator had disappeared and its replacement patron cut off further support, the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) won the war. Only then did undoubtedly useful mediation play its small role; so that too was a war ended by victory. The rest of Vieira de Mello's contentions can be answered by my response to Crocker, especially in the case of Sierra Leone, whose own war was inconclusive because, amid many atrocities against civilians, it was hardly fought by the supposed combatants. Outside multilateral intervention was notably ineffectual.
Vieira de Mello notes that "U.N. officials in such places as eastern Angola, northern Sierra Leone, and the eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo face the fact that rebels fight not for victory but because fighting itself offers power and wealth." U.N. officials may "face the fact" but can do nothing about it, other than to legitimize grotesque entities that call themselves states because a U.N. seat has their name on it. Those officials are not earning their keep, because they neither kill rebels nor help them win on the sound calculation that war itself is more savage than the most savage of belligerents.
Edward N. Luttwak
Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies