The Iraq War as a warning for America

Part V of a series about America’s new Long War

Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.
Robert Louis Stevenson, source unknown

We live in a time in which fourth generation war is the dominant form of conflict. Adapting to this means confronting harsh truths. Like those of the Iraq War.

Failure to achieve our objectives in Iraq (peaceful, united, stable, and secure …) means that our military score since WWII will be no wins, one tie, and two defeats. Not a pleasant portent for those believing we wage a new Long War. Should we learn nothing from this about 4GW, as we did from Vietnam, America’s only hope for survival might be prayer.

Three big picture lessons emerge for America, as we look about in the middle of this war. First, two important but lesser warnings:

  • Where possible, do not invade states. Instead limit ourselves to aiding our friends and hurting enemies using the normal international trade and diplomatic machinery. If we must go beyond that, aid friendly elements within our enemies borders – as we did in Afghanistan. If we must invade, quickly establish a local government and leave (do not count on the new government’s survival).
  • Hubris and paranoia make poor masters for a nation – even a superpower. For more on this see “America’s Most Dangerous Enemy.”

A greater warning for America

“Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur” (Change the name and the story is about you.)
Horace’s Satires, Book I, Satire I

Consider Iraq. A sovereign state since 1932. A state so strong that it survived nine years of brutal war with far larger Iran, survived humiliating defeat following its invasion of Kuwait, and survived 13 years of painful trade sanctions. This apparently strong state disintegrated almost instantly in spring 2003.

While an extreme case, Iraq is a paradigmatic story of our time. The Decline of the State. People’s allegiances shift from the state to larger entities, such as transnational ideologies or religions – or smaller entities, like clans or regions. Or to other allegiances, such as to ethnic groups.

We should heed the words of a not yet famous historian (see footnote below):

The disintegration of Iraq was not an event in itself, isolated in the scheme of human development. It is only a small step in an intricate drama which began a century ago and is accelerating continuously. I refer to the decline of the nation-state, whose shadow affects every aspect of our lives. …

The decline of the State is a massive thing and not easily fought. Caused by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, and a hundred other factors. It has been going on for a century, and it too a majestic and massive a movement to stop …

You might ask “Is it not obvious that the State is as strong as it ever was?” The appearance of strength is all about you. It would seem to last forever. So the rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of might it ever had. Listen and you will hear it creaking.

The edifice of the state began cracking in Europe during WWI. The power of the state peaked almost everywhere during the 1970’s. It is happening everywhere. The America political regime is deteriorating slowly, not like the collapse of Iraq’s regime, but it is declining just a surely.

The decline of the state is too slow and too large a process for most of us to even see until someone points out the cracks in this gigantic edifice. That someone is Martin van Creveld.

For an introduction to his thinking about this see his essay “The Fate of the State.”

For the full story read his magnum opus “Rise and Decline of the State.

Footnote:

This paragraph paraphrases the words of the historian Hari Seldon speaking about similar events in our distant future. From chapter one of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” (1951).

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