Saturday, April 13, 2013

Please Don't Say "Mullahs," And Can We Please Wait A Few More Years Before The Next War?

So some "distinguished professor" at the University of Texas named Jeremi Suri has an Op-Ed in The New York Times where he calls for us to "Bomb North Korea, Before It's Too Late." The piece itself is the type of dry academic prose that I typically try to avoid, but it's is calling for a policy that could result in a war in which hundreds of thousands of people could die, so I think I should respond.  Suri starts out by listing all the weird and bad things the North Korean regime has been doing in the past few months in the second paragraph and then in a Apollo Moonshot jump-to-conclusions states in the next paragraph that, "The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests. The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched." That is, bomb North Korea.

It's amazing to read, if only because it highlights the blind ignorance and foolish assumptions that got us into the Iraq War, and have been prevalent in numerous other military disasters. For example, Suri explains that when longwalkdownlyndale worries that bombing North Korea might cause a war in which a lot of people might get hurt, it's okay because it's "unlikely":
The North Korean government would certainly view the American strike as a provocation, but it is unlikely that Mr. Kim would retaliate by attacking South Korea, as many fear.
Yes but how unlikely?  If you played Russian Roulette with one bullet in the gun it's "unlikely" you will die (only a 16.7% chance that is) but that doesn't make it a good idea.

From a historical context his argument seems to come out of another dimension.  History is filled with examples of his type of thinking leading to disaster.  I'm sure Agamemnon would have loved to have this Suri fellow around to say things like:
The Trojans may view our fleet arriving as a provocation, but it is unlikely that Priam will resist us as many fear.  We are mighty Greeks while he is an old weakling and his son Hector will bow before us and return Helen. 
Then three years into the siege Suri could write a book about other great things the Greeks had done, and two years after that he could write another book about "lessons learned."  Too bad we couldn't have learned any lessons from the Iraq War.  No matter, "distinguished professors" of international relations rarely have to man the parapets, or admit they were wrong.

A more modern example of Suri's folly is that his foolish assumption at the core of his Op-Ed, that no small country would ever defy American power, lays at the heart of the Vietnam War.  Or if you'd like a foreign example of Suri's foolishness it's that he is profoundly underestimating the chaotic nature of war.  At the outbreak of World War I the German military assumed it was facing a short war against France and Russia that Britain wouldn't even enter.  The German armies invaded Belgium in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan, to outflank the French, surround and destroy the French armies and capture Paris.  There was one problem, their core assumptions were wrong.  Because of the closeness of Belgium's channel ports to Britain, because of British public outrage over a tiny neutral country being pulverized by an aggressive power and because Britain had guaranteed Belgium's independence since 1830, Britain declared war.  And now the two front war Germany was already facing would also involve a country with the most powerful navy on the face of the earth and an empire that included a fourth of the world's landmass.  The German general staff probably thought this was "unlikely" too.

These are all hallmarks of a bad Op-Ed and the sorry state of our public debate about foreign affairs but they are not Suri's worst sin.  No, his worst sin comes in a throw away comment, I assume to gin up support for Korean War Reloaded with neo-cons chomping at the bit for a war with Iran.  Suri writes:
Most of all, North Korean threats will encourage isolated states across the world to follow suit. The Iranians are certainly watching. If North Korea can use its small nuclear arsenal to blackmail the region with impunity, why shouldn’t the mullahs in Tehran try to do the same? 
First he plays the Iraq Card, "Weakness anywhere will make every bad country get nukes everywhere, tomorrow."  But what is really terrible is how vague a so called "expert" is in one of the US's more widely read newspapers.

So called "experts" are always dropping the term "mullahs" to try and scare us.  A cheap trick to gin up support for whatever they are hocking these days.  But the use of these buzz words only strike me as an example of their ignorance about what they are suppose to know about.  It would be nice if instead of playing the "Islam is dangerous" card, they could answer some basic questions.  What is a "mullah," and how does one become one?  What are the names of the "mullahs" who run Iran?  You used the plural so how many of them are there?  Three in a sort of "mullah troika?"  Or 2,000 in a "mullah politburo?"  How old are they?  What are their family backgrounds?  Does their education stress deliberative answers about esoteric questions of theology?  Or practical politics?  Or electrical engineering?  How much of a role do how many of the "mullahs" have in economic policy?  Foreign policy?  Supervision of the Iranian Film industry?  I know  nothing about most of these questions, but if you think Iran is some dictatorship controlled by "mullahs" you obviously don't know what you are talking about.

I used to get annoyed about political reporters who didn't know, or wrote as it they didn't know, how a bill becomes a law.  Or economists who were completely oblivious to what's going on in my country.  Now I guess to have to add people who style themselves as knowing something about foreign affairs, but obviously don't.

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