Historically, in their strategy and tactics, the military was often justifiably accused, of fighting the previous war. This does not apply currently, however, to the Department of Defense under the leadership of Secretary Rumsfeld. He has been pushing a revolution in military doctrine and weapons to fight the war on the Islamicists (jihadists) and their state supporters. It is now Western diplomats and their coterie of civilian-academic national strategists that are fighting the last war. Specifically, the American State Department is still conceptualizing the war on Islamicists with concepts and doctrines once central to the Cold War, but no longer appropriate. For example, State continues its doctrinaire adherence to stability (order, balance, constancy)
To understand this, two histories are relevant here, one of the normal diplomatic abhorrence and fear of international instability, and the other of the Cold War.
International agreements and understandings of who are friends and foes, who can do what to whom, and what lines nations dare not cross with each other, are painfully arrived at among nations through conflict and war, difficult international conferences and meetings, tough bilateral and multilateral negotiations called treaty making, and judgments of each other's ambiguous capabilities and intentions. These all involve nations establishing mutual social contracts--a status quo. And the violation of this for all except democracies among themselves, can risk war. These multilateral social contracts tie nations together.
Imagine that these many and diverse ties are like rubber bands stretched to connect as many poles as there are nations, all the bands also being connected to each other as though a net made by a drunken fisherman. Push the net of rubber bands and it will be resilient. It will bend and distort, but spring back to its former shape. It is resistant to change. It is stable. But, cut any of the bands and the whole web shifts in one way or another, usually in an unpredictable way. Such is what happens when a government violates its treaties, invades another nation, or falls and a radically different one takes its place (such as when communist Fidel Castro overthrew pro-American dictator Fulgencio Batista of Cuba).
Historically, therefore, except for those nations willing to risk or pursue war, diplomats have tended by nature to be very conservative about change. Engraved on the diplomatist's underwear has been this simple axiom:
Keep things much as they are, for presently we are at peace, the risk of war is remote, and lets keep it that way by not upsetting the status quo.
This respect for the status quo and stability became an explicit doctrine during the Cold War. Justifiably so. When the United States and the Soviet Union could destroy each other with nuclear weapons (mutual assured destruction), three concepts dominated American foreign and defense policy: deterrence, credibility, and stability. The idea of deterrence was to threaten the Soviet Union with massive retaliation if we were attacked with nuclear weapons (except for an outright attack on the American homeland, what else "attack" meant was purposely left vague).
That of credibility was to make the Soviets believe that we would so attack them in retaliation for an attack on us. Credibility was assured in many ways, such as by displaying our retaliatory capability, showing our intention to use them if attacked, and actually defending the status quo when threatened (as in the Berlin supply airlift, Korean War, Cuban missile crises, and Vietnam War).
Moreover, from the end of World War II until the late 60s, through dangerous crises and specific actions and responses, treaties and agreements, implicit and explicit understandings the United States and the Soviet Union arrived at a global balance of terror. This was not only in nuclear weapons, but also in who were the enemies and friends of each, and where the territorial or political encroachment of either could mean war. The disruption of this global status quo would mean uncertainty, and unpredictability, the tinderbox of hot misunderstanding and miscalculation, dangerously perceived threat, and the thus the perilous risk for a humanity of a Soviet-American war. How dangerous changes in the status quo could become during the Cold War was well evidence in the erection by the Soviets of the Berlin Wall, and their attempt to emplace nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba.
Preventing pro-American governments from a communist overthrow, or revolution, was part of the maintenance of this stability, over and above that of abhorring the lethal consequences of a communist government. Thus, the United States not only supported many pro-American dictatorships, but provided them aid and comfort, and signed treaties promising to defend them if attacked. To have not done so where communist revolution threatened involved the risk of war, ultimately with the Soviet Union, with the high probability of it ending in a nuclear war. Those who think this stretches reality should ponder that we came within inches of such a war over that little island 90 miles off our coastline a year or so after Castro's successful communist revolution there.
Now, the Cold War is over and nuclear deterrence has little meaning. If terrorists set off one or two nuclear bombs in the United States, whom do we retaliate against with our own unmatched nuclear capability? Moreover, our nuclear capability is so overwhelming against such nuclear midgets as North Korea and Pakistan, and even middle level nuclear power China, that our deterrent capability hardly need be declared or underlined. Nor does our credibility need to be assured. There can be no doubt that we would massively retaliate against any nation's dictator using nuclear bombs on us.
However, the doctrine of stability is still with us, but sometimes hidden under the label "pragmatic." John Kerry, the defeated Democrat nominee for President, had made stability part of his foreign policy. For example, in his defining foreign policy speech at Fulton Missouri on April 30, he said about Iraq, "To bring NATO members and others in, the President must immediately and personally reach out and convince them that Iraqi security and stability is a global interest that all must contribute to." In his "Comprehensive Plan to Fight the War on Terror," released on February 27, 2004, he announced that, "He will also increase active duty end strength and tailor forces to be better prepared for post-conflict and stability operation. . . ." And he will, he said, "Create Real Iraqi Security Forces for Stability."
Many decisions of the State Department are infused with the idea of stability. Consider, for example, the May 14, 2004, statement by State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli: "The United States maintains that stability in Burma is dependent on a substantive dialog that engages ethnic minorities and the democratic opposition as well as the government." Last year the head of the State's South Asia bureau, Robin Rafael, aided the Saddam's Al-Baath Party to maintain control over Baghdad University, since it would contribute to stability. This was the same reason that the bureau initially supported the bloody and absolutist Taliban's takeover and consolidation of power in Afghanistan, despite its human rights violations and mass murder. As Joel Mowbray wrote for www.townhalal.com in, "Saddam's Doctor Selected by State Department,"
Foggy Bottom places such a premium on "stability" that principles--like liberty and human rights--often get trampled under foot. The Taliban brought the promise of "stability." Keeping Ba'ath Party members and Saddam's personal physician in place contribute to "stability." Which is why State keeps promoting Rafael--she shares its worldview. An anonymous State Department official justified Rafael's recent decision to the New York Times as a "pragmatic" one. Being "pragmatic," of course, is the means to a "stable" end. Which is why State officials in Iraq also recently tapped Ali al-Janabi, a senior Ba'ath Party member, to become Minister of Health.
Of course, the State Department is not alone in this. Many in Congress share this obsolete belief in stability. For example, on February 6, 2002, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence asked Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Carl W. Ford, Jr. "Questions For The Record" about the evidence for the stability of the regimes of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
Stability? Of Syria? When it is ruled by a regime of mass murdering thugs who allow its people virtually no human rights? And Saudi Arabia? It is ruled by an absolutist monarchy that treats half its citizens--all women--as virtual slaves, and worse for non-Muslim males or females. Then there is State's concern about the stability of Burma. Nothing shows how outdated this idea is than its application to Burma, a nation ruled mercilessly by a gang of generals, who have been waging war on minority groups for decades, and is responsible for the mass murder of tens of thousands, including those who were simply demonstrating for democracy.
This idea of stability must be given due honor for the role it played in winning the Cold War, and retired to a rocking chair and leg blanket. In its place, President bush has articulated the best policy, a Forward Strategy of Freedom. I wrote about it in my 12/1/03 commentary. So,
Rather than try to maintain stability, we should support democratic movements, human rights activists, and freedom lovers to peacefully overthrow where possible those thugs that repress, torture, rape, and murder their people by the tens and hundreds of thousands.
Stability is not a natural right. It is not a right guaranteed by international law, international treaty, and the resolutions of the United Nations, as is human rights and freedom from genocide and mass murder. It is not what people ardently desire in their bones and for which they are willing to sacrifice their lives. Democratic freedom is such a right, the core one, and it should be the fundamental basis of our diplomatic and foreign policy decisions, even by our diplomats. And guided instability may be a tool to this end.
You are the visitor.
Return to commentary page.