Saturday, February 3, 2007

Lessons Learned in foreign wars

Republican Politics, American Style
By Charles Laffiteau

So what lessons should the United States and its allies like the United Kingdom, take away from our experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and earlier wars such as Vietnam? That we should never get involved in armed conflicts unless such conflicts threaten the lives of our own territory and citizens? That we should never go to war in or with another country unless we are directly attacked by that country first? Or maybe the lesson is that we should abide by the United Nations (UN) Charter and International Law which proscribes the use of force except in cases of self defence, collective self defence or as authorized by the UN Security Council.

I believe such responses are a bit too simplistic and fail to adequately address the issue of when, where, why and how the use of force is justifiable.

If we were to wait until armed conflicts threatened our own territory or citizens, then we never would have become involved in World War I, the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, in Korea to stop the assault by North Korea on the sovereign state of South Korea or in Bosnia.

If we never go to war with another country unless we are directly attacked by that country first, then we never would have gotten involved in World War I or against Germany in World War II, much less the aforementioned conflicts in Kuwait, South Korea or Bosnia.

If we were to abide by the UN Charter and or International Law then we would not be able to use force to stop another country from attacking us unless that country had already made armed incursions or interfered in our territorial or political independence and or we had overwhelming evidence that they planned to do so.

The lessons that I believe the US and its allies should take away from our collective experiences in foreign wars over the last 100 years are these:

While the US may be the only global superpower left in the world, we must be extremely careful when, where, why and how we exercise that power. True wisdom reflects an understanding that the greater ones power, the more judicious one must be in utilizing it. Might does not equal right. We cannot possible hope to serve as the policeman of the world, unless we are willing to accept the social and economic costs of doing so. That means a willingness to sacrifice even more American lives while shouldering the financial burden of maintaining enough armed forces to do the job.

We must respect the fact that not everyone in the world shares our perspective on how to serve the best interests of a nation’s citizens. Democracy works well in countries which have strong legal systems as well as judicial and governmental institutions which support and safeguard the legal rights of its citizens. It becomes very messy in other countries which lack some or most of these democratic foundations. Not every country wants or even needs American style democracy to serve the best interests of its people. The US is still a relatively young and politically inexperienced country. As such, the US could not possibly have all the answers for the problems of this world, many of which have been around for centuries.

As a nation of immigrants the US also lacks experience dealing with the kind of ethnic, religious and sectarian divisions which plague many other nations around the world. Unfortunately, many other people around the world do not regard their fellow men as equals if those neighbours are from a different ethnic, religious or social background.

If we really want to promote and spread our democratic ideals around the rest of the world, then we should start by doing a better job of promoting and sustaining them in our own country. Sadly, most Americans don’t even bother to vote in their own democratic elections anymore. Those who do bother to vote often cast their ballots based on single issues such as abortion and Social Security entitlements or on the basis of TV sound bites and political ads for or against particular candidates.
Television political ads in the US are very expensive and not exactly known for their accuracy. More often than not, the candidate who gets elected is the one who is able to raise the most money to spend on advertising. In American style democracy, money equals power. Hmmm, that sounds very democratic doesn’t it?

Wars against terrorists, guerrillas or other types of insurgents are not fought on battlefields with conventional armies. The real battles are fought over and for the hearts and minds of the citizens in countries affected by these conflicts. You do this with economic assistance programs that address the physical and material needs of the people. You help countries set up judicial and legal systems that are fair and available to all their citizens. You wage public relations campaigns in the local and national news media that address issues of ethnic and religious intolerance as well as the futility of sectarian violence. You try to address the underlying causes of these conflicts such as income inequality, poverty or a lack of social welfare and justice for certain segments of society, instead of just attacking the symptoms. You enlist the aid of other countries to help you apply diplomatic, economic and political pressure on recalcitrant national governments which may be fuelling or supporting armed violence. I know this is not very glamorous stuff but it works if you are patient and consistent with such strategies over a period of years.

When all else fails, you make a commitment to fund and fight those “dirty little wars”, using covert operatives to help you identify and arrest or kill those who seek to harm innocent civilians in their quest for political power. In these wars, the victories are small and don’t make headlines for either side, but they are deadly in terms of their long term effectiveness. Will we ever learn? I sure hope so.