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Why Are Wars So Hard To End?

After 52 years of war, the guns finally fell silent in Colombia at midnight on Sunday, when permanent ceasefires were proclaimed both by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government.

But this only happened after 220,000 people had been killed and 7 million were displaced by the fighting – and it took four years just to negotiate the final peace deal. Yet the original causes of the Columban civil war have been largely irrelevant for decades. Why is it so hard to end a war?

We’re not talking about big conventional wars between major powers here. Those last only a few years (the two world wars), or a couple of months (India vs. Pakistan) or just a week or two (the Arab-Israeli wars). We’re talking about the low-intensity civil wars that go on for ages, like Northern Ireland (30 years), or Angola (42 years) – or maybe Syria.

The Syrian civil war is much more intense: as many Syrians have already been killed or fled from their homes in five years of war as the total number of victims of the Colombian civil war in half a century. But everybody in Syria is well aware that the civil war in next-door Lebanon, which has much the same mix of ethnic and religious identities, lasted for fifteen years.

When the fighting began in Colombia in 1964 the population was mainly rural, 40 percent were landless peasants, and barely half the country’s people were literate. It seemed an ideal environment for a Marxist guerilla movement promising land reform, and FARC fitted the bill perfectly.

FARC grabbed a lot of territory, but Colombian governments, though usually corrupt and incompetent, were never quite wicked and stupid enough to lose the war, and over the decades Colombia changed. The economy grew despite the fighting, there was a mass migration of peasants to the cities (partly driven by the fighting), and education worked its usual magic (98 percent of younger Colombians are now literate).

Land reform is still a big issue for the quarter of the population that remains on the land, and the current peace deal promises to deliver it, but even 20 years ago it was obvious that FARC could never win. The Colombia it had set out to change had changed without it, even despite it.

On the other hand, government troops could never root FARC out from its jungle strongholds entirely, so it was time to make peace. And the peace talks duly began in 1998 – and continued on and off until the final push for a settlement began four years ago under President Juan Manuel Santos. Why did it take so long?

Because the “losers” had not actually lost, though they could never win. FARC’s leaders and its 7,000 fighters had to be amnestied, given garantees for their safety after they disarmed, and even allowed to become a legitimate political party. The two sides were not divided by ethnicity or religion, but they had been killing each other for a long time and trust
was in short supply.

It took 17 years to reach this point, and even now the deal could collapse if Colombians do not vote in favour of it in a plebiscite on 2 October. They probably will approve it, but the vote could be close because so many people hate to see the rebels being “rewarded”, not punished.

Now consider Syria, where the destruction and the atrocities have been much worse. In Syria there are profound religious and ethnic cleavages, and it’s not just two sides fighting but five: the government, two mutually hostile organisations of Islamist jihadis (so-called Islamic State and the Nusra Front, now calling itself the “Army of Victory”), the remaining Arab insurgents of the “Free Syrian Army”, and the Syrian Kurds.

Each of the five sides has fought every one of the others at some point in the past five years. Not one of them has a reasonable prospect of establishing control over the whole country, but none of them has been driven out of the game by a decisive military defeat either.

Every one of the local sides depends heavily on foreign support, but the foreigners all have their own agendas. Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have all sent money and arms to various local players and even dropped bombs on the country, but the beneficiaries and the targets vary from time to time according to the foreigners’ political priorities of the moment.

There are those who see the increasing engagement of the United States and Russia in the Syrian war as a hopeful development, since if these two superpowers can agree (and they sometimes do) then maybe they could impose some kind of peace on the country. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be better than endless war.

Perhaps that is true, but it may just be wishful thinking. If a relatively simple, small-scale civil war like Colombia’s took so long to end, why would we expect Syria’s war to end any time soon? Remember Lebanon. Fifteen years.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 3 and 13. (“We’re…Syria; and “Every…moment”)

The Index of Ignorance

To cut to the chase, the five most ignorant countries in the world are Mexico (a world leader at least in this), India, Brazil, Peru and New Zealand. And the five best informed are South Korea (take a bow), followed by Ireland, Poland, China and the United States. Ignorant about what? About the realities in their own country.

Every year the London-based polling organisation Ipsos Mori does its “Perils of Perception” poll, asking people in many countries what they believe about, say, the proportion of the population who are immigrants, or overweight, or over 65, and comparing their answers with the true numbers.

Putting all the results together, Ipsos Mori then comes up with its famous Index of Ignorance. The level of ignorance is startling – and yet these mistaken beliefs can play a big role in the political choices that countries make.

Take immigration. Almost every country over-estimates the number of immigrants in their population, sometimes by huge amounts. The Chinese, for example, believe that 11 percent of the people in their country are immigrants. The real number is 0.1 percent, so their guess is 110 times too high (and maybe just a little paranoid). Brazilians are just as bad: they think 25 percent of the population are immigrants; it’s really just 0.3 percent.

Most countries do better than that, but not that much better. Americans think 32 percent of their population are immigrants, when actually only 13 percent are. The Japanese think it’s 10 percent, when it’s really only 2 percent. And the Poles recently elected a right-wing nationalist government in large part because they fear being overrun: they think 14 percent of the population are immigrants, when it’s really less than half of one percent.

Or take the number of Muslims living in countries that are historically non-Muslim. The highest proportion of the population is in France, where 8 percent are Muslims – but the average guess of the French people polled was 31 percent (and Fox News seems to believe it’s nearly half). Only one percent of Americans are Muslim, but Americans believe it is 15 percent. In Canada it’s 2 percent, but Canadians think it’s 20 percent.

These huge over-estimates are probably driven in part by the fear of Islamist terrorism, which in turn is driven by the media’s fascination with the subject. It’s quite striking, for example, that while Americans guess three times too high when asked about the proportion of immigrants in the country, they guess fifteen times too high when asked specifically about Muslims.

One could go on and on about how wrong people get things. Indians (urban, educated Indians who take part in internet polls) think that one-third of the country’s population is non-religious. In fact, less than one percent is.

Saudi Arabians think that 28 percent of the population are overweight or obese, when actually 71 percent are (the highest proportion of all 35 countries polled). But the more interesting question is: how much do these misperceptions affect politics and policy?

Not much, probably, when we’re talking about religion or obesity or the share of the population that is over 65 years old (which was over-estimated in every country polled). But it’s pretty clear that a huge popular over-estimate of the number of immigrants in Great Britain contributed to the “Leave” victory in last June’s referendum on British membership of the European Union.

But the ignorance often gets a lot of help. London’s population, for example, is more than a third foreign-born: almost 37 percent. But Londoners are quite comfortable with this, and voted strongly for “Remain”. In fact, almost all of the big English cities voted “Remain”. Whereas in suburban and rural parts of England, where immigrants are rare or entirely absent, people were so panicked by immigration that they voted equally strongly for “Leave”.

This was not just a coincidence. For many years a big chunk of the British media, including the country’s three largest-circulation morning papers, the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, has constantly exaggerated the scale of the immigration and the problems it causes. So in parts of England where immigrants are scarce, people don’t believe the evidence of their own eyes; they believe the media instead.

The same phenomenon has played a big part in the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. When he talks about building a wall to stop hordes of Mexican rapists pouring across the southern border of the US, or promises to ban all Muslim immigration to the country, the media-fed misconceptions of Americans about immigrant and particularly Muslim numbers make his lies easier to believe.

There is a chicken-and-egg question here, of course. Are the media just pandering to existing popular fears, or are they actually creating them? The unsatisfactory but inevitable answer is: a bit of both.

In the century and a half when there have been free mass media (and now social media as well), nobody has come up with a solution for this problem. “Free” includes free to make mistakes, and free to distort facts and tell outright lies.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“But the…instead”)

Trump in Power

Let us suppose that it is July 2017. Let us suppose that Donald Trump, nominated as the Republican candidate for the US presidency exactly a year ago, won the November election – quite narrowly, perhaps, but the polls are certainly suggesting that such a thing is possible. So he was inaugurated six months ago, and has started to put his campaign promises into effect.

We may also assume that the Republican Party retains control of both houses of Congress. If it doesn’t, then Trump’s ability to execute his plans would be seriously circumscribed, but the surge of support that gives Trump victory would probably also give the Republicans a win in some close Senate races. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives, thanks to extensive gerrymandering, is practically fireproof.

Trump’s three most disruptive campaign promises were also the three that had the most appeal to his core voters, and he is implementing them fast. They are: a 40 percent tariff on all foreign imports, an end to free trade deals, and tight curbs on immigration – especially the famous “wall” on the Mexican border.

It won’t actually be a wall, of course. It will be the kind of high-tech barrier that countries build when they are really serious about closing a frontier. There will be a ditch about three metres deep and ten metres wide extending for 3,000 km along the US-Mexican border. It will have a three-metre-high razor-wire fence along the front edge of the ditch, facing Mexico, and another along the back edge.

The front fence has a high-voltage current running through it. The back fence carries the video and infra-red cameras and motion-sensors that detect attempts to cross the ditch, and the remotely controlled machine-guns that respond to those attempts. There are also land-mines down in the ditch. Why is it so lethal? Because long experience has shown that the only way to really close a border is to kill people who try to cross it.

The “wall” is not yet finished in July 2017, of course. It will take several years to complete, at a cost of $30-50 billion. Already, however, there are daily deaths among the tens of thousands of Mexican protesters who gather at the construction sites – and a few among Mexican-American protesters on the other side of the fence as well.

The Mexican government, faced with economic disaster as the millions of manufacturing jobs created in Mexico to export back to the United States evaporate, has broken diplomatic relations with Washington, as have several other Latin American nations. State Department experts are worried that a radical nationalist regime may come to power in Mexico, but “establishment experts” are not welcome in the new White House.

Negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and European Union have been broken off, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership will never be ratified by Congress. The legislation for a 40 percent tariff on foreign imports is still making its way through Congress, as is the bill to end the North American Free Trade Agreement (which is causing panic in Canada, 73 percent of whose exports go to the United States).

The new laws will go through in the end, and the most important casualty will be US-China trade (as Trump fully intends it to be). China is already in a thinly disguised recession, and the impact of the new trade measures will turn it into a political crisis that threatens the survival of the Communist regime.

Beijing will certainly respond by pushing forward with the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would include sixteen nations of the Asia-Pacific region but exclude the United States. However, it may also manufacture a military confrontation with the United States to distract popular discontent at home with a foreign threat. The dispute over the South China Sea would do nicely.

Japan, which is starting a major military build-up after Prime Minister Abe finally removed the anti-war Article 9 from the constitution in March 2017, will be at America’s side in this confrontation, but its European allies may not. Trump’s pro-Putin posture has not gone down well in the EU, which worries about Russia’s intentions, and his demands that Europe’s NATO members pay more of the alliance’s costs have not helped either.

The European Union, still in shock after Britain’s Brexit vote in 2016, has been further shaken by the near-win of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right, anti-EU National Front, in the May run-off of the French presidential elections. The spectre of EU collapse comes nearer, and Europe has no time for America’s Asian quarrels.

In the United States, the economy is still chugging along despite the stock-market crash of November 2016. Trump’s big increase in the military budget, his huge expansion of infrastructure spending (with borrowed money) and the rise in the minimum wage have kept the machine turning over for the time being. The effect of declaring a trade war on the rest of the world is not yet being felt at home – but it will be.

And it’s only July 2017. Trump still has another three-and-a-half years in the White House.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“We may…fireproof”; and “The European…quarrels”)

Iraq: Endless War

“Suppose that…the Iraqis feel ambivalent about being invaded and real Iraqis, not (just) Saddam’s special guard, decide to offer resistance,” wrote British prime minister Tony Blair to US president George W. Bush in December 2001, two years before the US and the UK invaded Iraq. At least Blair had some doubts, but neither man could really imagine that the Iraqis would see them as conquerors, not liberators.

Another 13 years have now passed, and at last we have the Chilcot Report, an impartial official investigation into why Britain joined the United States in that invasion. (There is no equivalent American document.) It’s a 12-volume study that illustrates just how ill-informed and reckless the planners of that illegal war were, but it doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know.

There are some juicy documents about the pre-war connivance between Bush and Blair, like Blair’s promise in 2001 that “We are with you, whatever.” But there is comparatively little on the scale of the disaster that the invasion inflicted on innocent Iraqis: thirteen years of war, up to 600,000 Iraqis killed and a country effectively destroyed. So this is a good time to recall the fate of the city of Fallujah.

Fallujah was a city of a third of a million people, less than an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, that was occupied by US troops in April 2003. It was the first place where American troops fired on Iraqi civilians (they were protesting against the takeover of a local high school by the US 82nd Airborne Division). It had fallen under the control of Iraqi resistance forces by the end of the year. That was the “First Battle of Fallujah”.

Fallujah was recaptured in November 2004 by US forces, at a cost of 95 American dead and 560 wounded. An estimated 1,350 insurgents were killed in this “Second Battle of Fallujah”. A large but uncounted number of civilians also died, as the American offensive involved massive artillery bombardments including white phosphorus shells. 9,000 of the city’s 39,000 homes were destroyed in that battle, and more than half were damaged.

The city was never properly rebuilt, but by 2006 about two-thirds of its residents had returned. Despite constant attacks on the occupation forces by the group that later turned into Islamic State, the United States returned Fallujah to Iraqi government control in 2008 – or perhaps we should say Iraqi government occupation, for by now the American-backed government in Baghdad was almost entirely Shia, and Fallujah is a Sunni city.

Sunni insurgents took back control of Fallujah in January 2014, six months before rest of western Iraq fell to the forces of Islamic State virtually without a fight. The pattern was the same: the new Iraqi army built up by the United States at a cost of $26 billion simply collapsed and ran away.

The “Third Battle of Fallujah” began in May of this year. Iraqi government forces (mosty Shia, of course), supported by Iranian troops and American air strikes, took almost six weeks to recapture the city, which by the end of the fighting contained only a few tens of thousands of civilians. More will return in due course, mainly because they have nowhere else to go, but most of the city is just ruins.

Other cities in Iraq are less comprehensively wrecked, but none of them are safe places to live in. The most recent bomb attack in Baghdad, on Saturday evening, killed at least 250 people. When the current Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, visited the scene of the bombing on Sunday, he was chased away by a crowd hurling stones, shoes and insults. And there is no end in sight.

Thirteen years, half a million excess deaths or more, millions of refugees, general impoverishment and insecurity, and an astoundingly corrupt government that is strongly and successfully resisting Abadi’s attempt to reform it. It is no wonder that even most of those in Iraq who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule now wish he had never been overthrown.

“Saddam has gone, and we have one thousand Saddams now,” said Kadhim al-Jabbouri in a recent interview with the BBC. Jabbouri, who became famous for taking a sledgehammer to a statue of the dictator as American forces entered Baghdad in 2003, added: “It wasn’t like this under Saddam…We didn’t like him, but he was better than those people…There was no corruption or looting. You could be safe.”

The cautious ruminations of the Chilcot Report underplay the most important fact about the invasion of Iraq, which is that all these appalling consequences were entirely predictable. People who had any real knowledge of the political, ethnic and sectarian politics in the region and especially in Iraq DID predict them, including the relevant experts in the US State Department and the British Foreign Ministry.

Never mind whether or not the decision to invade Iraq was a war crime (though it was, under international law). Never mind whether the invaders’ motives were good or bad (they were the usual mixture of both, actually). What shines through is the sheer arrogance and ignorance of those who brought this calamity down on the Iraqis, who must now live out their lives in misery and terror. Thanks, guys.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The city…city”; and “Saddam…safe”)