Connecting the Dots: The Search for Meaning in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria


What a stark reminder of how short the road is between heresy and received wisdom.

Even in the mainstream press, today the majority view is that the intervention in Iraq was a barely veiled disaster.

In excess of 100,000 civilian casualties, 4486 American soldiers dead, 32, 226 wounded, and over a trillion dollars spent. The statistics are mind numbing.

And all for what?

With the exception of a recent spate of stories concerning the US rethinking its distinctly white elephantine, imperial embassy in Bagdhad’s not-s0-green zone, memories of the painful episode in Iraq are receding fast. Although images of Shock and Awe, Abu GhraibGuantanamo Bay, and Fallujah occasionally return, spectre-like,  to haunt the popular conscience, it is clear that less than a decade after the invasion began, most people prefer forgetting to remembrance.

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Libya: Lingering Doubts

From the outset of the Libyan episode, there have been ample grounds for reservation. Both the manner in which events have unfolded, and also the longer-term implications, are troubling.

Objections to the lack of public debate, to NATO’s tendency to reach for the gun before exhausting all alternatives to the use of armed force, to the ambitious pursuit of goals well beyond those authorized  by the UN Security Council,  and to the near complete incoherence of Western policy in the region seem well-founded. Quite apart from the unknown number of people killed during the rebellion, respect for international law and for the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect have been among the more notable casualties.

The broader concern is that for NATO participants, policy has become an instrument of war.   But that, and a host of other issues remain unaddressed. With Gadhafi’s execution, these kinds of considerations have by and large been lost in the orgy of triumphalism and self-congratulation.

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War and Diplomacy – Part IV

Two weeks after the shock of Canada’s UNSC debacle, discussions concerning the larger implications of that disaster continue. And so they should. Among the many possible messages, it is clearly time to turn the page on Pearsonian Internationalism and to get on with the job of rebranding this country as the globalization nation.

Where else but in Canada could a professor named Naheed Nenshi get elected as mayor in a place like Calgary? That happened only days after the electoral meltdown in the General Assembly, and the two events taken together represent a powerful symbolic combination – an epochal coda, and quite possibly a new beginning in the history in our national life.

So… Out with the old, in with the new.

But, in the meantime, back to some final thoughts on diplomacy and war.

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War and Diplomacy – Part III

In the past two posts, using the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan, I have tried to show that in today’s highly conflicted world,  diplomacy matters more than ever. That said, the world’s second oldest profession is underperforming and faces a crisis of relevance and effectiveness. Diplomatic institutions and practices have not adapted well to the challenges of globalization, and diplomacy’s image is too often negative.

For these reasons and more, diplomacy has been largely ignored, and not infrequently ridiculed by journalists, think tanks, and international relations scholars. Perhaps most surprisingly, even governments – if expenditure priorities are any indication – have chosen to invest elsewhere. That neglect, I believe, has proven costly, as foreign policy has become increasingly militarized and as states have continued to rely on armed force as the instrument of choice. The results have been calamitous, not only in themselves, but because the more profound threats and challenges facing the world, most rooted in science, driven by technology and having little to do with political violence or religious extremism,  have not received the attention they deserve.

Diplomacy’s problems can be remedied, but the necessary transformation will require a fundamental rethinking of some key elements of international relations, “security” and “development” foremost amongst them. Most of all, the entire “diplomatic ecosystem”, consisting of the foreign ministry, foreign service and the diplomatic business model, will have to be reconstructed from the ground up. But don’t hold your breath. Fixing diplomacy, and getting from fighting to talking, from diktat to dialogue and from coercion and compulsion to compromise and negotiation is going to be one tough slog.

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War and Diplomacy – Part II: A Way Out of Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is a crossroads of civilizations and an almost bewilderingly complicated place.

Over the past few centuries, however, it has more often than not been treated as a pawn in the “great game”.  The country has also developed a reputation as the “graveyard of empires”, not least because outsiders’ forces have never succeeded in pacifying the place. Internal stability, such as it has ever existed, has been predicated typically upon de-centralized, and frequently shifting political arrangements between a weak centre and roiling periphery.

Reeling from the shock of 9/11 and in the absence of adequate reflection,  in late 2001  NATO in effect took sides in a complex ethnic, tribal, sectarian, and geographically rooted civil war. Nine years later, the coalition not only has failed to prevail, but the continuing presence of foreign forces, viewed widely as occupiers by the population, has exacerbated the conflict. The Russians learned the same lesson not long ago, and at great expense.

Such is the burden of history.  Yet today – if it ever was – Afghanistan is no longer the epicentre of transnational  terrorism. That pretext for contemporary Western involvement no longer exists, and indeed, was achieved by early 2002.  Al-Qaeda camps had been dismantled and the membership dispersed . The Taliban, for their part, had and still have mainly national goals with neither the capability nor the intent to threaten international security. The two organizations should never have been conflated.

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War and Diplomacy – Part I

The media has been littered over the past week with reports concerning the departure from Iraq of the last US combat troops. On the margins of that coverage, and to a greater extent in the think tank press, questions have been posed about the conduct of the war, its costs, what may have been achieved, whether or not it is really over, and what lies ahead.

More remarkable, however, is the speed and extent to which the Iraq war, like a bad dream the morning after, has faded from public consciousness.

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While doing the research for Guerrilla Diplomacy,  I came across an especially poignant quotation attributed to the Roman senator and historian Tacitus. He wrote:

They created devastation, and called it peace.

Much the same could be said about Iraq in September 2010. By the time the shock and awe campaign began in the spring of 2003, it had become clear that in the USA, foreign policy had in large part become an instrument of war, rather than vice versa.

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Listening to Lawrence – Part II

By my reckoning, history suggests that at the end of the day there are only three ways to successfully counter an insurgency.

The most obvious technique is that referred to rather disparagingly by T. E. Lawrence and set out in the previous post: suffocate the spark of resistance under the sheer weight of massive military occupation. Estimates vary, but the experience suggests that effective suffocation requires a ratio of counter insurgent soldiers to units of local population somewhere in the range of 1:10 to 1:100 or more, depending on the severity of the resistance encountered.  For example, troop requirements in 2004 during the second battle for  Fallujah, Iraq would have been on the high side of this scale, while in rural Malaysia, even at the height of the emergency in the mid-to-late 1950s, they would have been much lower.

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