March 27, 2006

Hey, Zhou Enlai Is In Vogue!


Recall Zhou Enlai's near unsurpassed quip? Queried by Henry Kissinger on the consequences of the French Revolution, he is said to have replied: "It's too early to say". Well, I'm a little late to the party, but this memorable utterance came to mind as I read Donald Rumsfeld's op-ed in the Washington Post last weekend.

Check out this snippet:

The terrorists seem to recognize that they are losing in Iraq. I believe that history will show that to be the case.

Fortunately, history is not made up of daily headlines, blogs on Web sites or the latest sensational attack. History is a bigger picture, and it takes some time and perspective to measure accurately.

Fair enough. But let's put things in proper perspective, shall we? The war in Iraq, important as it is, is not a massive historical pivot point on par with the French Revolution. When the regicide occurred amidst the Jacobinian fervor, the world literally moved from the pre-modern to the modern era--with the pre-ordained system of aristocratic privileges born of heriditary status torn asunder forever. Much like trying to game the moment we moved from the modern to the post-modern (was it the horrific massive killing fields of the 'lost generation' of World War I? Or was it the most supremely cruel irony presented by the sign that hung above Auschwitz: "Arbeit Macht Frei" or "Labor Will Make You Free", that moved us into cynical post-modernity?), these are enormously complex questions that will occupy historians for decades if not centuries more.

But Iraq, much like the war in Vietnam, say, I believe is less complex to analyze. Things, at this juncture, could probably go down a few main paths. Iraq could, as the talking points have it, have looked into the proverbial "abyss" after the Golden Shrine bombing and, if a cohesive government can take root, and an Army loyal to the central state grows in power, somehow cobble together an imperfect, unitary democracy in the coming years. Alternately, perhaps, a de facto loose confederation could (relatively peacefully) arise, albeit with some nevertheless significant ethnic cleansing in major cities and mixed population areas. Or, alas, a full-blown civil war could erupt, a la Lebanon, with Baghdad and other major population centers enduring agony for years, and large-scale ethnic cleansing occurring in significant swaths of the country. There are variations and degrees to all these scenarios, of course. For instance, more direct foreign intervention by neighbors is likelier if full-blown civil war erupts.

But this much is clear, Iraq will either inch towards relatively democratic stability, and perhaps the region will, over the years, carve out more political space lessening the allure of radical jihadism and proving a strategic triumph, in hindsight, for the U.S. Or, it won't, and we'll have a cluster-eff of significant proportions, and after the parties exhaust themselves killing each other, some vaguely authoritarian government will likely arise, and life will go on, albeit not for the thousands who died because of the grossly ill-fated adventure.

But here's the point. Unlike the French Revolution, we're going to have a pretty good sense about all this in the next 2-5 years, if not sooner. Much like Vietnam, when the North Vietnamese swooped into Saigon, a victory of, say, radicalized, revanchist Shi'a (more Sadr than Sistani), with Turkish-Kurdish tension and Sunni-Shi'a bloodbaths, well, this would prove a major defeat for the United States on a strategic and moral level. Or, alternately, as I said, sustainable Iraqi governance structures and forces will, just somehow, turn the corner and move Iraq towards unitary stability.

So, no, history isn't made on blog pages or the daily front pages of the New York Times. But Rummy, even though he's a good 73 years old, can rest assured he'll still be around when the first major historical retrospective/verdict is written on this Iraq War. And, not least given his piss-poor stewardship of it, the narrative is likely not going to look too good.

A final point. Rumsfeld also writes, in his rather underwhelming op-ed:

Consider that if we retreat now, there is every reason to believe Saddamists and terrorists will fill the vacuum -- and the free world might not have the will to face them again. Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis. [emphasis added]

I dealt with the Hitler hyperbole in a previous post. But "postwar Iraq"!?! Speaking of historical judgment, anyone who thinks Iraq is in a post-war stage (I'm not speaking of blogospheric buffoons who declared the Iraq War over sometime around March of '03, but serious policymakers, or what passes as such these days) is really smoking something funky, eh? Sounds like Happy Days in the E-Ring, and Pass the Pipe! Too bad there is a war raging in the field, with Americans and Iraqis dying daily. But no less an estimable personage than our Secretary of Defense thinks we are in a post-war phase! On this score, read Kagan/Kristol too.

Iraq is at a critical turning point, and U.S. forces are essential to helping the Iraqis get past it. Reducing the U.S. presence in the near future makes no sense, and constantly talking about reducing our forces is counterproductive and enervating. If U.S. force levels are (at least) kept steady while reliable Iraqi forces continue to increase--and the U.S. Army and Marines continue to join with the Iraqis in aggressively fighting the insurgents--the overall level of force that can be brought to bear against the insurgency, and in support of a political process that can hold the country together, will increase. And victory will then be achievable.

We trust President Bush is not going to squander this opportunity just so some congressional Republicans can say in this fall's campaign that the American military role in Iraq is decreasing. We trust that he will not permit his defense secretary to draw down troops when a major rotation occurs next month. After toughing it out through his own reelection campaign in 2004, the president, we trust, will not now capitulate to pressure and throw away the chance to succeed in Iraq.

Mssrs. Kagan and Kristol are right to be concerned, of course. If our Secretary of Defense thinks we are in a "post-war" stage, why not scale back the troops? Game over, no? Mission Accomplished (again)! And History marches nobly forth, but for the querulous nay-sayers, bloggers, and other defeatist pansies who don't get the Long War is going OK, but for the cheap carping from those who have become but dreary chroniclers of the low-grade ethnic cleansing underway in the very capital of the country that we must secure if we mean to create a stable Iraq.

Posted by Gregory at March 27, 2006 01:57 AM | TrackBack (0)

I keep reading this phrase about this or that potential outcome in Iraq representing a defeat for the United States "on a strategic level."

What is this supposed to mean? What strategy are we following that would be badly compromised by, say, the emergence of an authoritarian but weak government to preside over an Iraq exhausted by civil strife? I would have thought that at its most basic level American foreign policy strategy would seek to devote resources and attention to the really critical areas of the world at the expense of the others; from that point of view we suffered a strategic defeat all the way back in 1991 and have been compounding it ever since.

The unworthy thought suggests itself that when certain people say something would be a "strategic defeat" they mean only that it would be a bad thing. Well, that's not exactly the way I think of the phrase. But I'm against bad things happening too. In this particular case I think the course Greg is determined to follow -- no wavering, no slackening of effort, just keep on keeping on until whenever -- is a little short in the political realism department, but if it weren't would prove productive of a great many bad things. You could call them defeats on the strategic level if you want.

Posted by: Zathras at March 27, 2006 04:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It is interesting how the quip about it being too early to say about the consequences of the French Revolution is nowadays being attributed to Zho Enlai. I read this comment attributed to a "Chinese historian" in Readers' Digest in 1963 or 1964, as a two-line filler under an article.

May be some enterprising scholar could search for the source where the comment appeared for the first time.

Posted by: Jamil Ahmad at March 27, 2006 04:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Jamil, a quick web search shows this statement attributed to Mao about a third of the time. One source reported it from much earlier, from an ancient diplomat who attributed it to a "cadet" in one of the communist countries, perhaps Gromyko or Deng.

It got attributed to a young chinese student in one of the western christian schools in the 1930's.

I remember seeing it in an old Reader's Digest that was printed during WWII, attributed to "a chinese historian".

I vaguely remember seeing it attributed to a prominent frenchman sometime in the 19th late century -- perhaps Victor Hugo.

And I vaguely remember a chinese history class where some chinese historian sometime in the Ming dynasty made that statement about the revolution that started the Han dynasty.

If the last is true, then it might also have been repeated by the chinese schoolboy, Mao, Chou, Deng, and perhaps Victor Hugo too.

Posted by: J Thomas at March 28, 2006 12:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It would be a strategic retreat if it gives our enemies hope of ultimate victory.

Iran is already saying that America does not have staying power. Thus they believe because Ford,Carter, Reagan, Clinton would rather retreat than fight that all they have to do is stay on the field of battle until we retire.

Until we change that belief we are in for a very long rough ride.

Thanks Greg for giving the Iranian leaders hope.

Posted by: M. Simon at March 30, 2006 02:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

M. Simon, local movements everywhere have believed this about colonialists since WWII. The large majority of foreign powers have been driven out.

And of course "stay on the field of battle until they retire" was basicly Washington's strategy in our own revolution. Though he also tried to get things that could be represented as victories to get support from foreign countries and to maintain support from his own people.

British forces chased american forces but didn't have enough troops to pin them down and finish them. Sound familiar? One difference was that there was a large group of locals -- the Tories -- who supported the british. And in the fights among civilians, it turned out that the british armies were of no use whatsoever protecting tories from rebels where the rebels were in the majority. And after the british withdrew, the rebels had no sympathy for tories and confiscated so much of their property that a large fraction of tories ran away to foreign countries.

In some ways it isn't a good comparison. We didn't have enough catholics to get a big religious dispute going, and the british didn't decide it was a war against catholics and spare protestants. The americans had a rather unified resistance, and the british had a strong minority that actually supported them. But the strategy of waiting out the guys from the other side of the world until they're ready to go home is nothing new.

The truth is, we don't have a whole lot of staying power except when the public is convinced there is no choice. And most of the public is getting sceptical about the giant islamic menace. It doen't do any good to talk about how we need staying power at war any more than it does to talk about how we need a president who can lead or a Defense Secretary who can plan with the military or a Congress who can oppose really stupid ideas.

When we don't have it, we just don't have it.

Posted by: J Thomas at March 30, 2006 04:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian, an international lawyer and business executive, comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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