From a war of choice — to war without end

When the Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1815, the French diplomat Talleyrand is reported to have said of the Bourbons: “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Ten years after the start of the Iraq War, the question is whether anyone – Americans, Iraqis, Iranians, other Arab states – has learned anything from this terrible experience.

By the standards of modern warfare, America’s losses were much lower than they were in other recent conflicts – more than 12 times as many American soldiers were killed in Vietnam. Yet the Iraq war has scarred America in many ways. It was, as many have pointed out, a war of “choice,” a formulation rarely, if ever, used to describe America’s previous wars…

For some, sectarianism in Iraq appeared like a summer storm, which quickly passed once the “surge” of US troops became American strategy in 2007. But even the colossal mistakes of “de-Baathification” (the dismissal of all Iraqi officials who had been members of Saddam’s Baath Party) and the decommissioning of the Iraqi army – measures so foolish that nobody now admits to ordering them – cannot fully explain Iraq’s continuing political crisis.

To believe that sectarian fighting started because of a foolish US decision, and ended because of a subsequent wise one, is to ignore the role of sectarianism in a country that straddles the Sunni and Shia worlds and the Turkic and Arab worlds. These divisions, obscured by Saddam’s totalitarianism, never went away.

Indeed, the Sunni-Shia divide exists in many parts of the Arab world. While Americans saw in Bahrain’s protests in 2011 a people’s democratic aspirations, no one in the region doubted that the real source of the troubles was a restive Shia majority (perhaps inspired by Iraq, or even, as Sunni Arabs claimed, Iran) trying to remove a Sunni monarchy…

In fact, the Middle East – buffeted by the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, and the sectarian showdown in Syria – is unsure where to go next: liberal democracy and the rule of law, or Islamist rule? Yet, for the Sunni world, Iraq is the mistake that not only must not be repeated, but also must be reversed. Thus, Sunni Arabs and Shia Persians alike view Iraq as still up for grabs, a question rather than a country, a “great game” of the kind with which the world is very familiar…

Ten years after Saddam’s removal, Iraq’s future remains where it always has been: in the hands of Iraqis, who will have to rise to the occasion. No one can create a stable political order for them; with the Americans gone, meddlesome Arab neighbors and anxious Iranians can only lose by dooming Iraq to remain a tinderbox.

As for Americans, we need to learn from what happened in Iraq, lest our hubris doom us to similar ventures. And, when it comes to the vision that sent us there, that means that we must also forget.

RTFA for the nuances excised by blog editors like me. It’s not really that I think every passing pair of eyes is owned by a short attention span. Many visitors here click through to the original to catch up on details and additional links. I just have a habit learned as a blog diarist of poking out a lead – maybe asking a question or two – and leaving folks to their own devices.

Christopher Hill‘s article in Project Syndicate is representative of the sort of primary source history I find interesting. Not least being the glaring contradictions between old-fashioned American politics, someone who chose to spend his professional life in public service – and populist dirtballs who call themselves Real Americans by virtue of their bigotry and greed, rationales that range from religious fundamentalism to xenophobia.

China in transition – 5 Easy Pieces from Project Syndicate

There are dozens of pieces in this collection linking the latest with the recent, butting the detailed up against broad data sources, contrasting old hands with new analysis from within and outside China. Some of my favorite writers from Project Syndicate. Some I haven’t read before. I’ve picked out five – to start.

Xi Jinping talks with local people in the home of Roger and Sarah Lande in Muscatine, Iowa

President Xi’s Singapore Lessons

China is at a crucial point today, as it was in 1978, when the market reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping opened its economy to the world – and as it was again in the early 1990’s, when Deng’s famous “southern tour” reaffirmed the country’s development path.

Throughout this time, examples and lessons from other countries have been important. Deng was reportedly substantially influenced by an early visit to Singapore, where accelerated growth and prosperity had come decades earlier. Understanding other developing countries’ successes and shortcomings has been – and remains – an important part of China’s approach to formulating its growth strategy…

China’s House Divided

There has been much talk about America’s decline in recent years, with the corollary that China will take its place. But, while the United States does indeed face problems that urgently need to be addressed, if China is to rise further, to say nothing of supplanting the US internationally, it must first put its own house in order.

Those who argue that America is in decline have a difficult case to make in economic terms. For all its recent woes (which many countries would gladly exchange for their own), the US remains a dynamo of industry and innovation, and may be emerging as an energy powerhouse as well.

What threatens America’s global leadership is, rather, some of the most divided and disruptive domestic politics in its history. A country whose people have traditionally prided themselves on practicality is experiencing a debilitating bout of excessive theorizing, ideology, and so-called “new ideas,” thereby forestalling the practical ideas that come from constructive interaction with one’s political opponents…

A New Agenda for China’s New Leaders?

Political leadership transitions typically signal either a change in direction or continuity. But the mere prospect of such a transition usually postpones some important political decisions and freezes some economic activity, pending the resolution of the accompanying uncertainty.

China’s decennial leadership transition, culminating at the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Congress, is a case in point. And, while many will remember when a Chinese leadership transition was a political and cultural curiosity that had few direct economic implications for the world’s major powers, those days are long gone.

The Renminbi Challenge

Last month, China unveiled its first aircraft carrier, and is gearing up to challenge the United States in the South China Sea. By initiating a plan to internationalize its currency, China is similarly seeking to challenge the dollar on the international stage.

In carving out a global role for the renminbi, Chinese policymakers are proceeding deliberately. In the words of the venerable Chinese proverb, they are “feeling for the stones while crossing the river…”

China is Okay

Concern is growing that China’s economy could be headed for a hard landing. The Chinese stock market has fallen 20% over the past year, to levels last seen in 2009. Continued softness in recent data – from purchasing managers’ sentiment and industrial output to retail sales and exports – has heightened the anxiety. Long the global economy’s most powerful engine, China, many now fear, is running out of fuel.

These worries are overblown. Yes, China’s economy has slowed. But the slowdown has been contained, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. The case for a soft landing remains solid…

The voices in our press that speak for official wings of American politics are still locked into Cold War ideology. I doubt the difference is more than one of degree between the NY TIMES and FOX NEWS. Without this commitment, the single largest wasteheap of taxpayer dollars – the Pentagon Budget, public and hidden – cannot be justified. The built-in subsidy to America’s war machine is impossible to pass in a nation at peace, working for peace, a nation that considers peace a critical goal.

A sound deficit-free economy is still held hostage to the military-industrial complex Eisenhower feared – and every president since has worked to increase, fatten and fawn over.

Abroad with Obama 2.0

It’s over. After a year-long campaign costing $2.5-6 billion…President Barack Obama has won a second four-year term, with 49 states reporting their results on election night (Florida, for the second time in four presidential elections, did not). Obama now has a chance to define the United States’ role in the international system for years to come.

Second terms can often be productive times for US foreign policy, largely because presidents cannot seek a third. George W. Bush, for example, used his second four years in office to fix mistakes made during his first (his second-term team was busy).

Presidents in their second terms often apply old-fashioned American pragmatism to tough issues, which they often cannot do during their first terms, when reelection is their first priority. Obama’s infamous open-mike remark to Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev that he would have more flexibility after the election may have shocked some, but, for most foreign-policy experts, he was stating the obvious. The president’s challenge is to use his new freedom of action quickly, before the perception sets in (as it inevitably does) that he is a lame duck…

US policy in Asia requires a steady hand, and, in Obama, the US has just that. But it also needs effective communication that makes clear to the American people that the relationship with China truly is too big to fail and thus requires a long-term process of thoughtful engagement. Such messages must be issued more often by the president himself, and not only by officials several bureaucratic layers below. American policy in Asia in general, and toward China in particular, has enjoyed consistent bipartisan support. When a US president has bipartisan support on any issue, he should flaunt it.

There is no question that dealing with China, which is in an anxious mood of its own, has become increasingly difficult. But the way to address China’s internal tensions and emerging nationalism, and the resulting strains in its relationships with its neighbors, is not to put the region’s countries in the position of having to choose between China and the US. The right approach is to be constant, to stress long-term commitments, and to speak in a calm and measured way, understanding that good China policy is about relationships, not transactions. No one does that better than this president…

No president in recent decades has had a better temperament and a clearer vision for facing the world’s challenges than the one that Americans have just reelected. Obama now has an opportunity to put that talent to work in ways that he could not in his first term.

RTFA for the broader range of issues and question Christopher Hill includes in this article. Between his career in foreign service to the United States and his understanding of education and administration – his present gig at the University of Denver – he brings a boatload of common sense to one of America’s most anachronistic political venues.