STRONG SUITS

The inevitable has happened in Iraq as its US-backed government and military have proven themselves unable to exercise any authority over the country without an American military presence on the ground. Shockingly, all that stuff George W. Bush told us about the Iraqis standing up so we could stand down was bullshit and the Iraqi Army consists of a bunch of guys who signed up for a paycheck, food, and a gun with every intention of bolting at the first hint of fighting. Hell, the South Vietnamese put up a better fight than this (and despite the clear and obvious parallels to the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam and the collapse of the Saigon regime, please remember that Iraq is not like Vietnam at all. Nope.)

Believe it or not, the history books a century from now would actually chalk up the Iraq War as a win if some kind of stable, democratic government run by something other than religious extremists or borderline terrorist groups had taken root. For a brief moment it looked like it could happen – the US troops left and everything didn't immediately collapse in a heap. The time for wishful thinking is over though, and we are now forced to confront the reality that this effort at "nation building" has gone about as well as any of our previous efforts.

This raises an important soul-searching question for the United States: What exactly are we good at anymore? At least during the Cold War we were able to prop up right-wing dictators or interfere with the internal politics of tinpot countries enough to ensure that the right strongman was "elected." Now we can't even do that right. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (where all efforts at Nation Building / winning Hearts and Minds have been abandoned and ground forces are now exclusively interdicting terrorists) have proven definitively that our conventional military power – honestly the only thing we have as a nation at this point that we can claim is Number One and not be fooling ourselves – is of limited use in the modern world. We're great at it. We can blow up your tanks, shoot down your planes, sink your ships, and bomb your cities into oblivion better than anyone else. The question is, so what? What good is that anymore? If we have to fight a conventional World War III with Russia or China – doubtful at best – we'll do quite well. With that an a bus pass, as my grandfather loved to say, you can get a ride on the bus.

We've ceded our strengths in manufacturing, education, and non-frivolous technology to the rest of the world. Our welfare state is an embarrassment. Our law enforcement and justice system are a case study in corruption. Our Congress and state legislatures are cautionary tales of what not to do. Other industrialized nations laugh at our health care system. Our standard of living is declining, wages have stagnated for three decades, and the rising cost of living is slowly making 99% of us poorer as we work longer hours with no mandated vacation or personal leave. Is the U.S. still a better place to live than the majority of the countries on Earth? Of course. But we're not comparing the U.S. to Chad. Compared to our peer group, it's hard to figure out what our strengths are anymore other than consuming energy, maintaining a giant stockpile of nuclear weapons, and having a big, powerful, expensive conventional military. Oh, and I guess we're pretty good at spying on everyone's telecommunications, although if I had to place a wager I'd bet the Israelis, Russians, or Swiss are even better at it.

The failure of the Iraq War creates some eerie similarities between the modern U.S. and the final years of the USSR. After wrecking its economy and standard of living with profligate military spending for thirty years, the Soviets found themselves pulling out of Afghanistan in defeat (and the government they installed had collapsed by 1991, too). The rest of the world, including the U.S., looked on and asked, "If you're spending that much on the military and you can't even win a war against a Stone Age country, what CAN you do?" It was a valid question. It is a valid question to ask ourselves as well. We've bled ourselves dry paying for two wars since 2002 and massive annual defense budgets every year for more than a half-century now. What do we have to show for it? Shouldn't we at least be able to do Military Stuff right? If we can't, what exactly do we have going for us?

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61 Responses to “STRONG SUITS”

  1. Dbp Says:

    I think the US CAN do military stuff right, just not when they try to hammer every problem into being one with a military solution. I don't know what the solution to the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan were (assuming they were things the US truly needed to be involved with…) but military was not ever gonna be it unless it was really basic goals like "Kill Saddam" or someone else. There just weren't too many useful goals like that in these situations. Sometimes I wonder if things would have been better if America had pulled out with the death of Saddam to let Iraq sort itself out.

  2. Tim H. Says:

    The armed forces could be seen as a very specific tool, pity we tend to elect Presidents who're unclear which end of the wrench to hold…

  3. Arslan Says:

    As for the nation-building failure, part of the problem may be related to the fact that during the early Cold War the US sponsored dictatorships with very different economic policies, since neo-liberal economics wasn't in vogue at the time. If they weren't propping up such a dictatorship, they at least weren't trying to wreck every country with protectionist trade policies or partially state-owned enterprises. Not all of these countries succeeded, but some like South Korea went on to be major economic powers.

    As for the Soviet Union comparison, it's really inaccurate because the USSR wasn't really "defeated" in Afghanistan. The withdraw was just one of many unilateral actions on behalf of Gorbachev to bring human rights, democracy, etc. Too bad it led to chaos, destruction, and new dictatorships.

    Comparing the US to the late USSR is as bad as the typical "Americuh is like ROME" cliche. You can pick out what seem like superficial commonalities all day, but the core features are extremely different.

  4. Xynzee Says:

    "At least during the Cold War we were able to prop up right-wing dictators or interfere with the internal politics of tinpot countries enough to ensure that the right strongman was "elected." Now we can't even do that right."

    I don't think we've even done those very well since Eisenhower. JFK and LBJ may have done one or two things in that department, not really. JFK may have redeemed himself for Bay of Pigs with the missile crisis, but it's been a fairly steady slide down hill since then. I'd say if Iran hadn't told us we were losing it, Reggie's skedaddle out of Beirut with his tail between his legs and a trail of yellow water following most certainly sealed the deal.

    We spent the rest of the decade with Arnie and Silvester telling us that we'd won.

    So if the US is Number F-IN'!!! 1 in anything it's self delusion.

    Sadly, the fever is contagious. Just look at how many countries are buying into this corporate whoredom and austerity. Bunny and Hoky are trying to accomplish in 3yrs, what Reggie and Maggie took 30 to do.

  5. Talisker Says:

    Shouldn't we at least be able to do Military Stuff right? If we can't, what exactly do we have going for us?

    A valid question indeed, but it does have an answer. I know Ed isn't big on positivity, but as a non-American, here are my top 5 things about the USA:

    Immigration. I know there are a lot of "Mexicans go home" idiots, but seriously, most European countries have many fewer immigrants and much worse xenophobia. Other than Canada, I don't know of any country on Earth which is so good at welcoming immigrants and making them into valued and productive members of society.
    Scientific research. Forget pointless mobile apps being vomited out of Silicon Valley. Places like Stanford and MIT are still the research powerhouses of the world. Again, immigrants are part of the success story — the best and brightest want to come study in America, and many of them stay. It is under threat from political interference and short-sighted cuts in funding, but for now parts of it are still world-class.
    Hollywood. Yes, it produces a lot of trash from Michael Bay and his ilk (although the trash is extremely profitable worldwide, which is not to be sneezed at) but there are a lot of quality films too, not to mention TV series.
    Barack Obama. Disappointing on so many levels, but he has still provided intelligent and responsible leadership when it was sorely needed. I shudder to think of how badly off the USA would be under McCain or Romney. And his personal story is still inspiring — believe me, the UK is nowhere near having a mixed-race Prime Minister with the middle name Hussein.
    Military alliances with other democracies. This is the flip side of all the imperial stupidity. Places like Poland and South Korea are very, very glad to have the protection of an American military alliance against their deranged neighbours.

    Ed is not wrong in pointing out all the ways the USA is deeply fucked up, and I could easily have produced a top 5 list of insane and horrifying things about America. There are some great things too — but they won't last unless Americans are willing to stand up and fight for them.

  6. Talisker Says:

    Apologies, here is a better formatted version of the list:

    1) Immigration. I know there are a lot of "Mexicans go home" idiots, but seriously, most European countries have many fewer immigrants and much worse xenophobia. Other than Canada, I don't know of any country on Earth which is so good at welcoming immigrants and making them into valued and productive members of society.

    2) Scientific research. Forget pointless mobile apps being vomited out of Silicon Valley. Places like Stanford and MIT are still the research powerhouses of the world. Again, immigrants are part of the success story — the best and brightest want to come study in America, and many of them stay. It is under threat from political interference and short-sighted cuts in funding, but for now parts of it are still world-class.

    3) Hollywood. Yes, it produces a lot of trash from Michael Bay and his ilk (although the trash is extremely profitable worldwide, which is not to be sneezed at) but there are a lot of quality films too, not to mention TV series.

    4) Barack Obama. Disappointing on so many levels, but he has still provided intelligent and responsible leadership when it was sorely needed. I shudder to think of how badly off the USA would be under McCain or Romney. And his personal story is still inspiring — believe me, the UK is nowhere near having a mixed-race Prime Minister with the middle name Hussein.

    5) Military alliances with other democracies. This is the flip side of all the imperial stupidity. Places like Poland and South Korea are very, very glad to have the protection of an American military alliance against their deranged neighbours.

  7. Arslan Says:

    Yes, Obama has been very responsible supporting Islamic fundamentalists in Libya, Syria, and antagonizing Russia to prop up a failed state.

  8. neil Says:

    1. higher education
    2. baseball

  9. Mike Says:

    > We've ceded our strengths in manufacturing,

    We're no longer the clear breakout in manufacturing, but that has less to do with us and more to do with other countries industrializing.

    > Our law enforcement and justice system are a case study in corruption.

    Well, compared to Russia or Mexico or Italy?

  10. Middle Seaman Says:

    Talisker gets her/his points. (Don't agree on Obama, though.) Ed, however, hits a bulls-eye. The most important elements in our daily life are rotten to the core. Health care, with Obamacare enhencements, is shamefully lagging; our courts are cruel, partisan, arbitrary and vengeful; the penal system is 3rd world; the 99% are getting poorer by the day.

    As an immigrant I can say that we are treated very well. As a scientist I agree that MIT and Stanford are the best, but money for research is getting scarcer by the year. How long will we stay at the top. Remember, every country has smart people. And by the way, talk about an inspiring personal story: how about the poor kid, no father from Hope Arkansas?

  11. brent Says:

    Small point, but the Najibullah regime in Afghanistan collapsed in April 1992. It was the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent loss of subsidies that did it in.

  12. anotherbozo Says:

    Thank you, Ed. What goes better with morning coffee, arsenic or strychnine?

  13. Assistant Professor Says:

    America's university system is still the best in the world, although it's gotten exponentially more expensive than it was four decades ago. Especially when it comes to research, we're taking in a lot of the best and brightest from the rest of the planet. And although their priorities are problematic–hijacking people's reward center via mobile seems like something that won't historically stand the test of time–our tech sector is still really amazing. Seriously, I know that living in a post-industrial hole is going to color your view of things, but we're actually doing okay-ish.

    As to the thing you led with: building a functioning modern state is *hard,* especially when you don't have any pre-existing civil society to build off of. Remember, when MacArthur rebuilt Japan, he actually worked within it's pre-existing structures after he'd purged it of (most of) its far-right loons. Germany was a bit of a more thorough rebuild, but again, the German-speaking regions of central Europe had a long history of functional states.

    Trying to build a liberal state out of Iraq is fundamentally problematic because the Ba'ath regime and thirty years of continuous warfare and hardship had pretty much effaced any remnants of civil society. Iraq had the same issue that Syria does: when you've got decades and decades of a secularist dictatorship, you don't get liberal democrats as the opposition: you get religious parties. So you got Dawa, Badr, and the Sadrists who wound up ruling the roost once America had tossed the Ba'ath regime, and in Syria, once you got an anti-Assad opposition, the strongest and most dedicated was al-Nusra, ISIS, and the various other Sunni Islamist extremists.

  14. Blakenator Says:

    I'm with Xynzee, self delusion rules. Our attempts at nation building and meddling in the affairs of other countries has been and will continue to be doomed because of a complete disinterest in the local customs and history. Just listen to the politicians and most american media and you can sense they just think all of the places they are involved in are just another american province.
    Sadly, too many of the folks in this country have gone from blissful ignorance to prideful ignorance to belligerent ignorance.

  15. Anubis Bard Says:

    I was working on an interviewing project talking to people about taxation and government budgets. One guy mentioned that in Turkey many people were proud to pay their taxes. While that might be an exaggeration, his point was that Turks knew they were in the process of building a modern nation. The whole Ataturk phenomenon has been baked into the story Turks tell themselves – just as similar national projects of modernization or development or conquest are there for governments and their competitors to build on and exploit. Certainly ISIS has a clear project in building its caliphate.

    What's the US's project these days? The materialism of the "American Dream" is a shambles of over-worked betrayal. US foreign and domestic policy is a goose-chorus of nonsense. US democracy is devolving into the kind of empty election-theater that we used to impose on less fortunate places. Why do we pay taxes? To fill the potholes in roads that are getting worse every year? Or to fill the troughs at the behest of the great hogs of crony capitalism and captured government?

    The project Americans are given these days is to STFU, go to work, work those credit cards, pay your taxes and buy the shit that keeps the economy afloat. For the moment, THAT's what we're good at. We've been training for decades now.

  16. Davis X. Machina Says:

    If we can't, what exactly do we have going for us?

    Why, Freedom™, of course.

    (Freedom™ is a registered trademark of the Republican National Committee. Used with permission. All rights reserved.)

  17. quixote Says:

    Bit of a nit pick: the US didn't do nation-building in Iraq / Afghanistan, remember? Rumsfeld: "We don't do nation-building."

    By the time they finally realized that a fully formed nation was not going to pop out of the end of a gun, most of the demons had already been uncorked and it was too late.

    (Oh, and this, Assistant Prof "hijacking people's reward center via mobile seems like something that won't historically stand the test of time." I am stealing that. Exactly.)

  18. Anubis Bard Says:

    I think one reason that we're so bad at these military adventures is that they have been undertaken in an ever-thickening fog of dissimulation and dishonesty that makes it impossible to have coherent planning, agile re-evaluation, or any real conversation about how to proceed. Americans didn't want these wars, don't want to be the world's policeman, and ultimately their acquiescence to these adventures are only secured by a combination of lies and manipulation, which gradually become more and more incompatible with life in a reality-based community. I think a second reason has to do with the steady erosion of expertise and competence at many levels of government. I have the sense that the halls of power are filled with hacks who's skill sets are more geared to scoring points off of political opponents than they are to actually engaging with problems in the real world. But that is a whole 'nother essay.

  19. Samuardo Says:

    You're still pretty good at generating and wielding soft power (Hollywood, baby!) , as evidenced by the increasingly American-inspired global monoculture. You're also pretty decent at serving huge meals and getting fat, as well as shooting each other.

    Obama? Yeah he's awesome but your farcical congressional situation has negated his potential.

    Universities? First rate, but your education system and socio-economic inequities prevent access for poorer students. Most first-world countries do not change upfront fees for university education. Social mobility in the USA is low.

    Military alliances? Umm, the rest of us form those alliances with you largely so we can under-spend on our own militaries and use the cash on domestic social services instead.

  20. Skipper Says:

    @Talisker, you may want to check out Spain

    http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/exceptional-europe-spains-experience-immigration-and-integration

    The report characterizes immigration policies in Spain as generally open, committed to integration, and more concerned with enlarging avenues for legal immigration rather than limiting flows. Remarkably, such liberal immigration policies appear to have remained in force even after the economic crisis. Furthermore, the report finds that no major social disruptions have been reported since the onset of the crisis and politicization of immigration has not significantly increased. It links the overall lack of anti-immigration discourse to three key factors: a widespread belief among the Spanish public that immigration has been positive to economic growth; Spain’s political culture that employs immigration as a vehicle for expressing democratic values; and the relatively low visibility of immigrants, which make them less of a perceived threat to national identity.

    Whether this continues as the fascists/corporatists keep up their destruction of the middle class remains to be seen. Probably not, but that's the fascist goal, isn't it?

  21. Major Kong Says:

    I wouldn't mind if we built a functioning, modern state right here sometime.

  22. TomServo Says:

    Nonmilitary things we do better than anybody else in the world:

    Electric guitars

    Baseball

    Craft beer

    Bourbon

    Cigarettes

  23. mb Says:

    The situation in Iraq is a little more complicated. Sure, the Sunni soldiers put down their weapons when the Sunni ISIS came rolling into town. But Nuri al-Maliki has been alienating the Sunnis for the sake of giving more power to his own Shia group. I think the Shia soldiers will put up a fight and stop ISIS from moving further south.

  24. Patrick Says:

    Finance.

    We do vulture capitalism and corporate raiding better than anyone, save maybe the Brits.

  25. c u n d gulag Says:

    Reagan's legacy:

    We went from a "Can-do!" country – which won a World War fought on two fronts across several oceans and seas, and then, put men on the moon – to a, "Sorry, we can't do that, we can't afford that," country.

    And then came Cheney and his meat-puppet, W.
    And as soon as they came in (thanks, Ralph, and SCOTUS!), they started banging nails in our coffin by ignoring warnings about a coming major terrorist attack, cutting taxes on the rich – while at the same time, getting involved in two unnecessary wars and occupations (the only feckin' idjits in history to NOT raise taxes during a war!) – giving Big Pharma a handout, letting a major US city drown, and deregulated financial institutions to the point of a near world economic collapse.

    Heck of a job, Dickie and Georgie!

  26. Elle Says:

    @Talisker

    I would probably add New Zealand to your list of immigrant-responsive nations. (I only exclude Australia, the last of the traditional list of four Western "immigrant states" because of that unfortunate refugee thing they have going on.)

    And his personal story is still inspiring — believe me, the UK is nowhere near having a mixed-race Prime Minister with the middle name Hussein.

    Do you think? There's a lot of time for things to happen between now and the 2020-ish UK general election, but I wouldn't be astounded to see Chuka (Harrison) Umunna leading the Labour Party by then. It seems likely that the 2010 intake would be flexing their muscles by then, and his principal competition seems to be Rachel Reeves at the moment. (Or Tristram Hunt, but he's a little bit same-old-same-old.) Of course (Alexander) Boris (de Pfeffel) Johnson is mixed race, with a thick stack of Turkish ancestors, so be careful what you wish for.

    I would wager that the UK will elect a gay prime minister a long, long time before the US elects a gay president, though.

  27. Chicagojon Says:

    I'm with Patrick but I would have phrased it differently than 'finance' and gone with 'financial marketing'. How the US has managed to convince the world that our fiat currency is still valid as the de facto world currency is beyond me.

    I vehemently disagree that the US has the best educational system in the world. Clearly our best schools are among the best in the world and yes research institutions are amazing (if you like indentured servitude of graduate students to the US pharmaceutical industry) but those are partly the benefit of being a big country that has no qualms about inequality in education. Until the median and lower third educational performance and upward mobility through education improve, however, it's a joke to say that the US has anything but a failed educational system.

    Not listed above are:
    We're really good at supporting multinational corporations that are destroying the planet.
    The US in my experience is hands down the best at self marketing. We could make aspiring immigrants read the entire archives of this site and somehow they wouldn't believe it. Peoria would still be as much the American Dream as New York City was hundreds of years ago.

  28. Khaled Says:

    Don't forget using and selling drugs! We're really good at that!

  29. scott (the other one) Says:

    "What exactly are we good at anymore?"

    Entertainment: movies, TV and pop music. We're still the worldwide leader in those categories, even if we're not nearly as dominant as we used to be.

    Also, we're really good at mass shootings, especially (but not exclusively) of young people.

  30. Jeffrey Says:

    As a matter of fact, our first efforts at "nation building" (re-building, actually) went quite well with, unsurprisingly, Germany being a greater success (we should have indicted the emperor as a war criminal).

    "Our standard of living is declining, wages have stagnated for three decades, and the rising cost of living is slowly making 99% of us poorer as we work longer hours with no mandated vacation or personal leave."

    Sometimes you go so far off the rails.

    Yes, wages for anyone with only a HS diploma or a non-technical BA have stagnated – surprise! However, public teachers make more now than they did a couple of decades ago, though still not compensated as well as they should be given their importance. Wages for and jobs available for anyone in tech and engineering are strong, as is to be expected in the economy we have today. You want all the manufacturing jobs back? Get a time machine and make sure China never liberalized its economy. Ditto for S. Korea. Or, maybe you should just go back and freeze the world at 1948? Our economic decline, absolute and relative, was predestined with the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Japan.

    "Our standard of living is declining"? Care to give some concrete examples of this and a list of full-time job in which you don't get vacation and sick leave?

    Finally, while the Iraq war is easily the greatest military and diplomatic blunder in our history, there are no similarities to our failed efforts in Afghanistan and the Soviets other than both being doomed from the beginning. as a result of our wasted efforts there we're not on the verge of complete collapse as was the Soviet Union (something the CIA predicted in 1980). In fact, the economy, save for the growing income gaps between the wealthiest and the poorest, is in much better shape than it was in 2009 and much better than Russia's, Japan's, UK, France, all of Latin America, China's, all of Africa's – shall I continue?

  31. Jeffrey Says:

    HEY! Skipper!

    Skipper Says:
    July 9th, 2014 at 10:30 am
    @Talisker, you may want to check out Spain

    Yes. Spain is a wonderful country with an authoritarian legacy still bubbling just under the surface and something like 20% unemployment. However successful they may be doing with immigration (why would anyone, even from N. Africa, want to go there right now?) is very much a side issue.

  32. Jeffrey Says:

    Assistant Professor Says:
    July 9th, 2014 at 9:00 am
    Trying to build a liberal state out of Iraq is fundamentally problematic because the Ba'ath regime and thirty years of continuous warfare and hardship had pretty much effaced any remnants of civil society.

    Exactly, except that I'd add there really are no "Iraqi people." It's was, is an inorganic, made-up country with competing religious and cultural problems that about 1000 years of history haven't been able to mitigate in most of the nations in that region of the world.

    As much as we like to bemoan the seeming rise of religious conservatism here, Christianity is on an irreversible decline in the U.S. Religion and, worse yet, tribalism, have next to nothing to do with 99% of American life. However, I can't think of a single nation in the ME or Central and South Asia where religion and tribal group don't factor significantly into daily life.

  33. Brian M Says:

    At the same time, the various "tribes" did live co-mingled (if reluctantly) in some cases for generations. Talking about dismembering Iraq because they are not really a nation is a bit of "blaming the victim". Heck…If a foreign power dropped into the United States and destroyed the infrastructure (political and physical), I would probably not be too keen on a Southern Christian Fasist State trying to impose itself on California in the aftermath. :)

  34. Gerald McGrew Says:

    "Shouldn't we at least be able to do Military Stuff right? If we can't, what exactly do we have going for us"

    We CAN "do the military stuff right". Nation building is not a function of the military. The function of a military is to kick the butts of other nations' militaries, so much so that invading you is not an option. Our military does that better than any in the history of mankind.

    As has been pointed out in the comments already, we just have too many politicians who think the military is the default solution to most international issues.

    You don't try and drive a spike with a screwdriver, and after the screwdriver breaks yell "Can't this screwdriver do anything right?"

  35. Nick G. Says:

    Skipper, I have to assume you're using "fascist" in the pejorative sense. The USA *is* a corporatocracy, which means the state is subservient to capital interests. Actual Fascists endorse corporatism, where capital interests are subservient to the state.

  36. Nick G. Says:

    Skipper: Sorry, misread your comment. Didn't realize you were still talking about Spain.

  37. Kaleberg Says:

    The old prop up some corrupt dictator scheme has really only worked in South Korea, and to a limited extent there. In Vietnam, we were backing a guy so bad that when his own military murdered him, we thought it was a great idea. In Iraq, we did the same thing. We did back a goon in Afghanistan, but our heart wasn't in it.

    Granted, we're still up on what LBJ once called the three great American contributions to world civilization: toilet paper, barbeque and finger fucking.

  38. Winstral Says:

    As to the thing you led with: building a functioning modern state is *hard,* especially when you don't have any pre-existing civil society to build off of. Remember, when MacArthur rebuilt Japan, he actually worked within it's pre-existing structures after he'd purged it of (most of) its far-right loons. Germany was a bit of a more thorough rebuild, but again, the German-speaking regions of central Europe had a long history of functional states.

  39. bjk Says:

    Dreamliner. Fracking. iPhone. Transformers IV. Tesla. What is the rest of the world making that's so great? German software? Japanese agriculture? Chinese ghost cities?

  40. Anonymouse Says:

    @Winstral; Iraq was one of the best-functioning countries in the middle east. The women were openly working and living and walking outside, the girls were getting an education, they had electricity and running water and air conditioning and all the earmarks of society. Hussein was keeping the country together. Then Cheney, in search of massive profits, wound his puppet W into believing it was best to "keel Hussein to revenge mah dadddddddy!", and we destabilized the most stable country. We never had any need to go into Iraq; they were not responsible for 9/11 (15 of the 19 suicide bombers were Saudi).

  41. Major Kong Says:

    Iraq was also one of the more secular countries in the Middle East. It had a fairly large Christian minority, with Christians even serving in top government positions.

    Not so much any more.

  42. Xynzee Says:

    @Winstral: Hussein's biggest cockup was "getting of his chain" so to speak.
    Prior to firing a French Exocet—anyone ever find out "why"—into an American war ship, we were happily bank rolling him. That sarin gas he used on the Kurds and Iranians came from somewhere. That joke about "keeping the receipts" on WMDs had some truth to it.
    The Kuwait thing effectively put paid to his longevity.

  43. Matt Says:

    I didn't agree with the conclusion, but the history in this post is fascinating:

    http://m.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-we-stuck-with-maliki–and-lost-iraq/2014/07/03/0dd6a8a4-f7ec-11e3-a606-946fd632f9f1_story.html

    It sounds like the Bushies found a total mirror of themselves in the Maliki government; a paranoid conspiracy theorist leader who stuffed every available office with ideologically-correct but inexperienced people, generals running their units like profit centers, etc. They even took a page from the GOP House's book: "In an ascendant position, Maliki and his aides demanded everything in exchange for virtually nothing."

    I'm unconvinced the people who started the war in Iraq were capable of setting up a legitimate government anywhere; they didn't do it in Iraq, hell they didn't do it HERE…

  44. Assistant Professor Says:

    Anonymouse, Hussein's dictatorship and twenty-odd years of war and sanctions had already hollowed out a lot of the Iraqi state. Yes, the U.S. and the religious exile parties we'd brought in finished the job, but it was already sort of a wreck. Syria's Ba'ath regime created a similar problem: there wasn't any sort of liberal opposition, so when the state finally broke, we got such delightful actors as al Nusra, ISIS, etc. coming to the fore.

  45. Brian M Says:

    Assistant Professor: How much did the Syrian State break…and how much was it broken by outsiders.

    Not denying the underlying tensions and rebelion, but without vicious Salafi monarchies funnelling oil money into the "freedom fighters'" hands, and without the CIA, Mossad, and MI6 meddling, would we have the full on civil war that we are now seeing?

  46. Khaled Says:

    Alright, a serious post.
    One of the narratives that always comes out of any country in a civil war is that "tribal mentality" takes over and "these people haven't gotten along for centuries". I am deeply suspicious of these narratives. One of the few things I know well is history, and usually the "1000s of years of hatred" is usually a great story, but just that- a neat story. History is usually much messier than what is told to us my the great journalistic minds at USA Today and CNN.
    Western Europe is usually held up as an example of stable civil society, but not too long ago, a lot of blood was spilled for dubious reasons. And "ancient rivals" have acted together.
    - France and England have had centuries of conflict, from the Hundred Year's War to the American War of Independence to Napolean. Of course, less than 100 years after the Napoleanic wars, English soldiers were dying on French soil protecting the French from German invasion.
    - Germany and Italy both were not codified into what we now know as "Italy" and "Germany" until the 19th century, and had plenty of conflicts along the way. "Centuries Old" conflicts in Northern Italy don't suddenly blow up into massive armed conflicts- I mean, some people might throw flares at each other during football matches, but whatever.
    - But what about Eastern Europe? you might say. The Czech Republic, Poland and some of the Baltic states (Ivars, I'm looking at you) have made the transition to democracy a lot cleaner than say, France. We tend to forget in the US, but the French Revolution was a big, bloody mess that went on for *years* until a functioning democracy was in place.
    - Germany's "functioning democracy" didn't really get put into place until after WWII- I hesitate to call what came before (Weimar Republic, et al) anything like a "democracy".
    - Eastern Europe's current map of nation-states are modern constructs as well- interwar Czechoslovakia had more Germans than Slovaks. Before WWI, the Hapsburg Empire had ruled Austrian/Hungarian lands for centuries- What is now "Bratislava", and almost 100% Slovak, was at varies times during history majority German or Hungarian. In fact, it was one of the capitals of the "Hungarian" part of the Austria-Hungarian Hapsburg empire. It was a patchwork quilt of nationalities. And no, "centuries old" conflicts did not rip the Ottoman, Austrian-Hungarian and Russian Empires apart- they fell apart for much more complex reasons.

    The re-drawing of the map by the British in a post Ottoman Empire Middle East didn't make a whole lot of sense, and it didn't take any of the history of the place into account. But don't necessarily believe the narratives coming from these places as "doomed to conflict" because of "centuries of hatred". Nationalism and dehumanization of the "other" are not exclusive to the Middle East, and is not a fate that is written in stone. Consider this- America's two closest allies (Canada and the UK) have, at times, been in armed conflict with the US (although, to be fair, Canada was British North America at the time). So before we just throw up our collective hands and say "those Sunnis and Shias will never get along!" take a deep breath at look at history.

  47. Arslan Says:

    "So before we just throw up our collective hands and say "those Sunnis and Shias will never get along!" take a deep breath at look at history."

    THANK YOU! I'm so sick of hearing faux-experts pretending to sound smart by saying "Oh well this conflict goes back centuries." No, most of the time it doesn't. Even when it seems like it does, you typically have actors reacting to more current or recent conditions and using the past(or their understanding of it) as a foundation for their ideology.

    The slaughter in the Balkans in the 90's doesn't really go back to Ottoman times. It goes back to WWII.

  48. George Matthew Says:

    Highly demonic act of killing innocent living beings, sad the so called GOD watching all this bloddy stupidity :(

  49. mothra Says:

    Craft beer

    Ever been to Belgium?

  50. Sunil Says:

    @ Gerald McGrew: When was the last time we used our military against a nation that was a threat to invade us?

  51. DEGEEST Says:

    Tried out lots of methods to get 1 way links over the last year or so, truthfully NOHANDSSEO does a great job on full auto pilot. I absolutely love it! STRONG SUITS | Gin and TacosThank you no hands developers!

  52. Xynzee Says:

    "interwar Czechoslovakia had more Germans than Slovaks."

    I used to work with a Czech guy who had the most German of German surnames. I often wonder if his grandparents had a fun time after the War. Given "repatriation" of Germans was one of the reasons given to annex Czech—seeing as it's a two-fer deal we'll take Slovakia as well.

  53. Xynzee Says:

    @Sunil: Grenada of course! Duh!

  54. Khaled Says:

    @Xynzee-

    My great-grandparents came to the US from what is now Slovakia before WWI. Some of the family is till there, according to a great-uncle of mine who visited in the 90s. A number of the family members, however, ended up in West Germany after WWII- most of the German population of the area (most of which settled in the area in the 13th century) were forced to leave. Most of the remaining "German" population either used "Slovakian" (or Polish in Poland, etc) versions of their names, and have filled out census forms as "Slovaks" (or Czechs or Polish) ever since.

  55. Freeman Says:

    I generally enjoy reading this site, as it provides a dramatically different view than what I am typically exposed to in my line of work (hint: I wear camouflage and spend time in other countries).

    With that being said, as much as I enjoy diversity in perspective, I'll assume someone here might as well. I will first address something you said that is untrue : "we have abandoned all efforts at hearts and minds/ nation building and exclusively interdict terrorists." Now, you could question the effectiveness of those former efforts…. But to say abandoned is a stretch. I think it is also important to note that these are tasks that are best achieved by different elements (granted, working in unison); I think the structure of your original statement implies otherwise. Often it seems like that's the lynch pin in the whole ordeal – getting all these organizations to work together towards a shared goal (often loosely defined, if at all).

    The second issue is evaluating the usefulness of military only in its direct application. To imply that military strength only matters when it is directly employed seems like a fallacy ( your logic that our military strength has "no application" ). The fact that it has no application may be an indicator of its effectiveness.

    I know, sounds delusional. If you are thinking that I count Iraq/ Afghanistan as victories, I don't. And my interest in them is probably more personal than most Americans. There are certainly issues, but in 2014, criticizing efforts in Iraq/ Afghanistan without detailed analysis just seems… easy. You say "We can't do military stuff right," but I feel like you mean something else.

    I might have missed the bus on this post being late, but I enjoyed the article and all the comments, as usual.

  56. Sunil Says:

    Freeman,

    I criticized the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars from the beginning, and I won't pretend to do a detailed analysis here. I don't think there was ever any historical evidence to think we could occupy either country, impose our will, and create governments to our liking. I'm not talking about Germany or Japan, but these regions. Rather, I think the evidence was that we would fail.

  57. Ed Says:

    "As for the Soviet Union comparison, it's really inaccurate because the USSR wasn't really "defeated" in Afghanistan. The withdraw was just one of many unilateral actions on behalf of Gorbachev to bring human rights, democracy, etc."

    LOLOLOLOLOL oh Arslan.

    Right, and the US wasn't defeated in Vietnam either.

  58. jafd Says:

    Back in '04, IIRC, military historian Stephen Budiansky wrote on how many troops were necessary to successfully occupy a conquered country
    http://budiansky.com/Occupy.html

    TL:DR About 1 occupying soldier for every 40 citizens of the occupyed country.

    There are about 40 million Iraquis. There were never a million Coalition troops in Iraq. Blame rests squarely on CinC George W Bush.

  59. Jim Barnett Says:

    We created a bunch of wealthier war profiteers…so yay USA?

  60. Links 7/14/14 | Mike the Mad Biologist Says:

    […] KINDNESS, BUT BECAUSE THEY'RE TOO STUPID TO TAKE IT). The Language Of Teacher Effectiveness Strong Suits Why Bookstores live or die Close Stuyvesant High School: Why super-elite public magnet schools […]

  61. Talisker Says:

    @Middle Seaman: Bill Clinton had an uphill struggle to climb out of poverty, it's true. But once he made it, he was a southern good ole boy with blond hair and a very Anglo name. Racism really wasn't an obstacle for him.

    @Elle: Yes, Umunna is a potential future Labour leader, but I'm cautious about making predictions that far ahead. 5 years ago, who would have guessed at Ed Milliband? As for Boris Johnson, for all practical purposes he isn't really part of an ethnic minority.

    @TomServo: Craft beer? Try Belgium or the UK. There are breweries there which have been perfecting their art for centuries, without any nasty interruptions like Prohibition.

    @Chicagojon: I was pointing out that elite American scientific research is still world-class. I realise the less-elite educational institutions have serious problems.

    @Skipper: Interesting point re. Spain, I wasn't aware of that.

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