It was the week that was, a week that brought our region to the brink, after Iraqi militias allied with Iran fired missiles at an American base near Kirkuk on December 27 and, six days later, an American drone killed General Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s top military honcho in the Middle East.
In diplomacy, brinkmanship, the practice of pursuing a dangerous policy to its limits before backing off, is common not just in foreign policy but also in military strategy, labour relations and high-stakes litigation. All well and good, if you’re adept at the practice. Unfortunately, sometimes, trying to push a situation to the brink in order to force an adversary to back down by convincing him that you’re willing to resort to extreme measures rather than negotiate, compromise or concede, may have unintended, at times calamitous, consequences.
In this case, that consequence was the accidental shooting down by Iran of a Ukranian passenger jet last week that resulted in the death of 176 people, among them 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians, 11 Ukranians and sundry citizens from the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden.
The good news is that the House of Representatives adopted a resolution barring the White House from initiating military action anywhere, including our region, without congressional authorisation. And not too soon. Who needs a repeat of last week’s dangerous brinkmanship that kept all of us on edge. It was wrong then. It is wrong now.
If that was collateral damage resulting from the provocative killing of the Iranian general, then it was damage that packed a gruesome punch, whose price was paid by essentially innocent folks having booked a flight home. As a newly emerged big power after the conclusion of the Second World War, the United States is known to have pioneered the art of brinkmanship in modern history. President Trump has simply taken the idea to a heedless extreme, with little thought given to its out-turn.
The United States has the mightiest, most sophisticated military in human history and has relied, in modern times, on it as a central feature of its foreign policy, and used it with abandon in myriad settings in order to achieve various goals. And guess what? It almost always failed. You see, Mao Zedong — and, along with him, George S. Patton — was wrong. Power does not grow out of the barrel of a gun, but out of the human spirit, one imbued with the will-to-meaning.
The history of our modern era shows us how futile have been American efforts to impose its will on the world, or to “introduce” those wretches in its “underdeveloped” parts to democracy, often through the barrel of a gun. History has also shown us how the cost of American angst, since the beginning of the second half of the 20th century, was paid by us all around the world.
Consider this angst. President Harry S. Truman, who was, like his countrymen at the time, propelled by a morbid, almost pathological fear of communism, launched the Korean War in June 1950, after claiming that “If we let Korea down, the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow one piece of Asia after another, and if we let Asia go, the Near East would collapse — and no telling what would happen in Europe”.
Around 40,000 Americans had been killed and more than 100,000 wounded by the time an armistice was signed on July 1953, formally ending the war. To this day, North Korea remains a communist nation thumbing its nose at Washington.
The same fear of the Domino Theory took America to Vietnam in the 1960s. If you want an example of how that effort was futile, then consider the Battle of Hamburger Hill (so dubbed by American soldiers), a 3,000-foot tall hill of little strategic significance other than it was occupied by North Vietnamese forces, that the US Command ordered be captured. It was captured — after 72 Americans were killed and 370 wounded. Just days later, US forces withdrew from the hill, and the Vietnamese reoccupied it.
And, yes, closer to home, American marines cleared Fallujah of insurgents in 2004, at a cost of 82 killed and more than 600 wounded. Bravo. Only these marines returned in 2016 to take the town back from a new crop of insurgents called Daesh.
We are America
Phil Kay, a US Marine Corps veteran and a visiting professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post last Sunday: “We’re America. We’re good at violence. At fighting hard. Expelling insurgents from cities in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we’re not good at making sure the violence leads to long-term stability”.
Just as it was doubtful that anyone in the 1950s could have reasoned with US government elite on how worthless the Domino Theory was (as now, in the cold light of hindsight, it is shown to have been), it is equally doubtful that anyone could convince that elite’s counterpart today to get out of the business of nation-building and stop swinging America’s big military ego around.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the House of Representatives adopted a resolution last Thursday barring the White House from initiating military action anywhere, including our region, without congressional authorisation. And not too soon. Who needs a repeat of last week’s dangerous brinkmanship that kept all of us on edge. It was wrong then. It is wrong now.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.