Robert Kaplan, Atlantic correspondent, occasional travel writer, and neocon gadfly, has a new and embarrassingly thin assessment of the situation in Iraq. Embarrassing because it reduces the future of Iraq and the whole of American foreign policy to a mere two options. It shows Kaplan to be made of lighter stuff than I'd realised.
The two options, modes of assessment really, are Vietnam and Munich. The first is a now-classic argument for disengagement and the latter an equally classic argument for military intervention. It’s not hard to see how these map onto Iraq. What’s surprising, and this is an assumption endemic in most corners of American foreign policy thinking, is the idea that there are really only two options in important international military intervention or nothing at all.
There is, of course, any number of multilateral, diplomatic, and other methods available in the diplomatic toolbox. European states and others have been using them for centuries. But the Washington intelligentsia continues to view its actions in the broader world on a sliding scale between doing nothing and full scale war. The habit brings to mind a stock negative comment from kindergarten report cards: “Does not play well with others.” Washington has begun to look like an antisocial child: it acts as if it can only interact with its peers through violence.
For what it’s worth, Munich was probably never a useful analogy in Iraq. Saddam was never, by any measure, Hitler. At the outset of the war, Vietnam did indeed seem like a useful analogy for what might happen. Additionally, the wars in the Former Yugoslavia looked like relevant cases as well—a large multiethnic state breaking down violently into its component parts. The role of the Americans is inverted here—in Iraq they incited the war rather than stopping it—but the situation on the ground remains much the same.
Looking forward now, however, things appear altogether worse: a more useful analogy in Iraq and the surrounding countries is not so much the Second World War as the First (see my previous argument to this effect). Another useful analogy going forward might be the recent war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, wherein eight surrounding states were drawn into an ongoing civil war, leading to more deaths than in any conflict since WWII. If Iraq’s are drawn into a protracted war, no one anywhere will be able to control the outcome.
The risk of another Munich these days is probably none too great; certainly not compared to the risks of other historical events recurring: the Spanish Flu returning as Avian Flu, or Bosnia recurring in Darfur (arguably, it already has). For that matter, historical examples only get us so far. One need only think of climate change, which is unprecedented in recorded history.
These are interesting times yet—anyone wanting to understand them might do well to arm themselves with more than two historical examples.