Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Economist, Always Tumescent for Yet More War

Ah, The Economist, so serious, so sober, so centrist… and always so incredibly tumescent for more war. It was entirely predictable, and therefore probably not all that noteworthy, that the magazine would call for more war in Iraq—and in Syria, too. But the way they’ve gone about it is such a textbook version of everything George Orwell discussed in Politics and the English Language that I couldn’t help being fascinated. Are the people who write this shite so committed to propaganda that they don’t mind coming across as mindless tools? Or, as Orwell suggested, have they lost any such self-awareness?

I don’t know. But let’s have a look…
AMERICA’S last two presidents have got things wrong in Iraq in opposite ways. George W. Bush went into the country in 2003 guns blazing, with 148,000 soldiers and too little thought of how to stabilise it after Saddam Hussein had been defeated. The consequences were disastrous.
I guess the editors made a trip to the memory hole, because The Economist was gung-ho for that war, and offered no more thought than Bush about post-war stabilization. Though really, does anyone believe that with just a little more thought America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq would have been a success?

Actually, scratch that question. Of course The Economist believes that. If you’re infatuated with war, you only question whether a war might have been better executed, never whether there’s anything wrong with war itself.
Barack Obama took a different approach. Americans, he reckoned, were not capable of bringing peace to this complex, violent and distant place. He allowed the troops’ mandate in the country to run out with insufficient attention to what might follow, and then applied the same logic in Syria where he did little to support moderate opponents of Bashar Assad. His policy aided the rise of the Islamic State (IS), a Sunni terrorist group, that has taken territory in Syria and Iraq.
Whatever Obama’s other failings (and there are many), he isn’t the one who “allowed the troops’ mandate to run out.” That was his predecessor. Among things to which The Economist is addicted is the notion of balance, and they know in their bones that if a Republican did X, then a Democrat must also have done the mirror image of X. They know it so well they’ll see it even when reality is to the contrary.

Also: anyone who focuses on whatever Obama did or didn’t do that might have aided the rise of IS, without at a minimum also mentioning the, you know, invasion and occupation that destroyed the country before Obama took office, is, if not breathtaking ignorant, then again blinded by a neurotic addiction to war.
Now the prospect of a caliphate run by extremists bent on attacking the West has persuaded a reluctant Mr Obama that he cannot walk away from the Mesopotamian mess, and he is trying a new tack—combining modest military force with hard-nosed political brinkmanship (see article). Given conditions in the region, the chances of success are limited. But they are better than those offered by any other approach.
There you have it: military force, the tool that’s better than any other approach. The only appropriate question is, “How much military force?” But the notion that military force itself might be the wrong tool is, to The Economist, apparently inconceivable. Certainly the possibility is never even considered in their article.
A politically stable Iraq is needed, run by a government that is broad-based and popular… The one headed for the past eight years by Nuri al-Maliki, a member of the Shia majority, was nothing of the kind… Mr Maliki has been an awful prime minister.
Again, when a war doesn’t produce the results we want, it’s important to remember that the war itself could not have been the problem. The problem is always something else—often, the lousy local government the war installed which then shockingly proved unequal to the task of cleaning up the war’s horrendous aftermath. See also, Iraq, Vietnam, and Why US Foreign Policy Elites Won’t STFU. See also, The Definition of Insanity. See also, This Is Your Brain On War.
Mr Obama’s gamble has been to withhold all but minimal military support in order to force political change in Baghdad. That strategy has come at a cost.
Wars don’t have costs. Only policies short of war have costs.
There are dangers here: if American bombing caused many civilian casualties, the extremists would have more chance of portraying themselves as protectors of Sunnis against a hostile Shia-led government and its infidel allies.
Pro tip for The Economist: even if you don’t care about the innocent human beings your latest war cheerleading will blow up, burn, maim, cripple, mutilate, and orphan, (sorry, better to just use the dry term “civilian casualties,” as Orwell foretold), for form’s sake it’s a good idea to at least mention those horrors, even if only in passing, as one of the “dangers” you’re concerned about. Just so people won’t come away with the impression that you have a near sociopathetic disregard for the suffering of brown people.
The jihadists’ ambitions to establish an Islamic caliphate cannot be tolerated.
If The Economist really were as Serious a publication as they like to fancy themselves, this would have been the topic sentence of the whole piece and they would argue it with logic and evidence. Instead, it’s just a thoughtless and passing cliché.

Can’t be tolerated why? The west has managed to tolerate all sorts of “intolerable” things. And if such an outcome were in fact “intolerable,” it would mean the west must be prepared to do anything to prevent it, no? Is that what The Economist is arguing?

It’s almost... almost as though they deliberately prefer not to say!
But an all-out assault may bolster Sunni support for IS and risk the disintegration of Iraq.
Well, that doesn’t actually sound so bad. Because anyone paying attention knows Iraq has already disintegrated. Which is good news—it means we don’t need any more war to further it!
A break-up of the country could lead to bloodshed on an unprecedented scale.
Did you notice that the only time they use a word or phrase with any real emotional impact—bloodshed—it’s to argue that less war is what would cause it? I don’t think even Orwell saw that twist coming.

Also, it would have to be a lot of bloodshed indeed to exceed the hundreds of thousands killed by America’s war there. But why mention that? After all, everyone knows those deaths were all really the result of bad Iraqi governance.

Remember, war doesn’t kill people. Only too little war can do that.
In all events, Western leaders must prepare the public for a lengthy military engagement in this part of the world.
Ah, a “lengthy military engagement.” Well, preparing the public for that should be easier than preparing the public for something like, say, a “very long war.” War is an upsetting word and therefore best avoided when a magazine does its patriotic duty and assists in preparing the public. Military engagements are ever so much drier. I mean, after all, engagements, in other contexts, are actually happy things!

political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Oh, well.
That raises an uncomfortable truth for Mr Obama. His judgment is that the jihadists can be properly dealt with only by creating long-term stability in Iraq. A similar situation exists in Syria. Yet the president has long resisted intervening there, and been backed in this by a war-weary American public and Congress as well as international lawyers. Still, in the long run America is unlikely to be able to destroy or even contain militant jihadism without involving itself in Syria.
Does bullshit get any more mealy-mouthed than this? What, other than an absence of candor and integrity, is preventing The Economist from plainly acknowledging that what they’re calling for is America to go to war with Syria?
Mr Obama’s new approach in Iraq seems to be working. But more decisive action against the jihadists will be needed. The Americans are back on the ground, and they will be there for a while.
I can’t figure out why this all sounds so familiar. Oh, wait:
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity 
Here are a few questions for The Economist:

If an air traffic controller had, over time, crashed multiple jets into the tarmac, would you want him kept on the job? If a surgeon had killed dozens of patients in the operating room, would you want her to continue performing surgery? If a restaurant poisoned patron after patron, would you want them to go on serving food?

And if a magazine continually called for wars that again and again turned out to be catastrophes, would you take that magazine’s calls for yet more war even remotely seriously? Or would you surmise that the magazine in question is suffering from an unhealthily neurotic attachment to war itself, an attachment so profound the magazine can’t help resorting to breathtakingly Orwellian circumlocutions, along with frequent trips to the memory hole? And would you then surmise that the sane and dignified route for such a magazine would be—at a minimum—to write about topics on which the magazine is other than demonstrably unqualified to opine?

I ask because, if you can manage to take the personalities out of it, you’ll see the magazine in question is you.


ObamaIsAWarCriminal said...

I think you can drop the near from near sociopathetic disregard for the suffering of brown people.

Cirze said...


No doubt.

editor said...

I was disappointed in The Economist in 2003 and no longer subscribe.
I did not see anything in your piece, though, that indicates what you think an appropriate course of action might be.
Surely you do not think that allowing ISIS to control the Mosul Dam and the fate of tens of thousands of Iraqis would be a good idea?
Yes, our character in 2003 is determining our fate in 2014 — but what the hell are we supposed to do NOW? Of course anything we do now is a devil's bargain. If we degrade ISIS and allow the Iraqi army and its Shiite militia auxiliaries (death squads) to purge towns recaptured from ISIS, there will be blood — and it's on us, at least in part. If we ramp up an air war, we will, like the Israelis in Gaza, kill a lot of civilians. If we do little or nothing, ISIS will slaughter at will and cow the Sunni population and a gory status quo will reign.
No good choice, no good outcome. For me, the least worst choice is destroying or at least significantly degrading ISIS and hoping that what fills the vacuum is at least marginally better. Yes, that means more war and that sucks — but we ain't done with this tar baby yet.
Jim Cornelius

Peter L. Winkler said...

So, what would you do with the onrushing ISIS? Greet them with a plate of tea and cookies?

Barry Eisler said...

Indeed, Peter! After all, the only way to deal with any unpleasant development overseas -- especially the kind that's "onrushing" -- is either the military or tea and cookies, with no other alternative even imaginable.

PBI said...

Nice analysis of The Economist's piece, and it's been far too long since I've read an article with "tumescent" in the title. : )

I seem to remember The Economist being somewhat worthwhile, back in the day, but about 5 years ago, I realized I hadn't read anything particularly compelling between its covers in some time, and dropped my subscription. I haven't missed it.

Regarding ISIS/ISIL, we aren't even consistent in our policies between Iraq and Syria; in the former, we're bombing them, in the latter we're essentially providing tacit approval because they're part of the rebellion against Assad. Both situations are awful, but I don't think it's too much to ask that we at least figure out who we're fighting before we get involved in another war.

T.F. Torrey said...

Very well put. Thank you for another enjoyable analysis.