Action and consequences

By Lorenzo

First, a minor bit of boasting. I occasionally submit pieces to Agora, the journal of the History Teachers of Australia Victoria (HTAV). They are doing a “reprint” edition, the best of the last five years, and two of my essays will be included:

Finding Patterns in Ancient Civilisations Agora No.3 Vol.43 2008
Discovery, Connection and Trade  Agora No.2 Vol.46 2011

Patterns in history are an enduring interest of mine. I recently read an excellent essay (via) by Adam Garfinkle on Algeria and the recent bloody storming of a natural gas complex with foreign hostages by the Algerian military. The complex had been seized by jihadis, so was part of the messy and continuing Jihadi War (what is not very usefully described as the War on Terror), as was the vile and bloody Algerian Civil War which provides the context framing the seizing of the complex and its subsequent storming. The essay is very informative, and I recommend it to folk.

Islamic warriors crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan in 1985 when that meant they were allies

The essay provoked a dates-and-places comment sheeting home blame for the Jihadi War to the Carter Administration and specifically Zbiginiew Brzezinski and Cold War warriors more generally.

This is a line of argument one sees regularly. There are two difficulties with it. First, the Afghan mujahideen were neither puppets nor creations of the US and US policy. Only about a third of their funding came from the US, the rest came from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim sources.

Second, there is a much more fundamental difficulty. Suppose we accept that the Jihadi War grew out of the Cold War (which, in some sense at least, is true). Much less flows from this than one might think. For what did the Cold War grow out of? The Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany. Was saving the Soviet Union from Hitler via massive aid (supplying most of rolling stock and trucks used by the Soviet Army, diverting the Luftwaffe and thousands of 88mm guns from the Eastern Front to defend Germany against the Bomber Offensive, providing enough canned food to supply one meal per Soviet citizen per day, etc) worth it? Of course it was.

Soviet troops advancing westwards in 1944 when that was a good thing

If the Jihadi War was a result of Western victory in the Cold War, was it worth it? Of course it was. The jihadis are brutal and nasty and, yes, if they get hold of one or more functioning nuclear weapons they will use them. But the jihadis are not the existential threat the Soviet Union was and the Jihadi War is not as remotely costly, bloody or dangerous as the Cold War.

So yes, new struggles are born out of previous victories. But that, of itself, does not make those victories not worth having. The Cold War was an acceptable cost for defeating Nazism, the Jihadi War is an acceptable cost of defeating the Soviet Union. It would be nice if these victories could have been had without those costs, but that was never very likely. The Western is, above all else, a universalist civilisation and so will end up in struggles with competing universalisms–in these cases, Leninism and radical Islam.

There are those who think Nazism was never going to win, nor was the Soviet Union. Victory tends to look inevitable afterwards. It rarely seems so at the time. After all, said victories involve actually putting in the necessary effort. As historian Geoffrey Blainey observes somewhere, there is nothing easier or more pointless in historical analysis than “proving” what did happen had to happen.

Moreover, a Nazi Empire dominant in Europe was definitely not preferable to its defeat. A Soviet Union dominant in Eurasia was definitely not preferable to its defeat. A Soviet Union continuing to oppress its peoples and vassals was not preferable to its defeat and collapse either. If the Jihadi War is the cost of our post-Cold War world, then that does not remotely make the Cold War victory not worth having (even if it was just outlasting the other guy).

Our lesson for today is taken from Matthew 6:34; sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Saying that the Jihadi War is a consequence of how the Cold War was prosecuted says much less than folk who bang on about that seem to think.


  1. Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Very nice post. The one thing I guess I’d quibble with is the line “It would be nice if these victories could have been had without those costs, but that was never very likely.” I think it’s worth looking more at how things could have been done better. Granted that it was necessary, say, to arm some jihadists to beat the Soviet Union, it does seem that the way it was done empowered some of the most brutal and anti-western ones. I suspect that could have been avoided with no loss of effectiveness if we’d been more sensible about things. Similarly I think we could have beaten the Nazis just as well without incinerating the inhabitants of Dresden.

  2. Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been reading up on a fair bit of history lately, and in the last few days have gone through WW1 and WW2. WW1 comes across as the last great hurrah of the old guard, while WW2 is the consequence of the old guard no longer being around to keep the genocidal psychopaths in check.

    Reading the way that Garfinkle describes the Algerians as hard and ruthless is interesting. It perhaps gives some perspective into how the Soviets were viewed given everything they did to defeat the Nazis, implement their ideology and initially in overthrowing the Tsars. The communist ideology also had far more global reach and appeal than Islamic one currently does.

  3. kvd
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post Lorenzo, and congratulations on the due recognition you have received!

    You skip right past the Korean and Vietnam conflicts? Maybe you see them as distracting from ‘the main game’ – but then I also can’t see how they fit in the bigger pattern you describe, except as out-of-town tryouts. And now we’ve got China operating on a couple of fronts; where will the ‘preferable result’ lie in those confrontations?

    Also, you end with the last line of what basically is the hippy part of the Bible. Where the Big J is telling his flock that they should not worry about ‘stuff’ because it’s all part of the big plan; that they should concentrate on the more important task of worship, and that He will provide all the practical bits: like food, clothing, flowers in the hair, etc.

    Sounds a bit like socialism to me. But then that’s being judgemental – and (several lo’s and a behold! later) I am admonished in the very next verse “judge not lest you be judged”.

  4. Mel
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Some want to see the West as the cause of everything bad that happens in the world. This piece by a lefty feminist in the Guardian has even managed to implicate White Imperialism in the widely reported alleged Delhi gang rape.

    *** bangs head on desk ***

  5. Posted January 24, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Yes, Dresden is a good example of Things Which Could Have Been Better Not Done. The argument that it was also to intimidate the Soviets is a bit thin; especially given the A-bomb, though how many of the key decision-makers regarding Dresden knew about it is a good question.

    On which mujahideen received what support, much of the problems there was from the outsourcing to the Pakistanis (who were regarded as having better knowledge and contacts). Which they did, just not the same goals. Also, if you are providing only a third of the funds, your ability to pick and choose is that much more limited.

    [email protected] I have seen the argument that there are far more committed jihadis than there were committed communists. Not convinced and, as you say, Leninism had much broader appeal, at least in global reach.

    [email protected] I regard the Korean and Vietnam War as the “hot” bits of the Cold War. Where, indeed, it clocked up a lot of its casualties. (I will pass on the Gospel exegesis.)

    [email protected] The “India is poor because the West is rich” is, indeed, nonsense on stilts. Trying to parse “rape cultures” in some sort of downward comparison is not terribly edifying either.

  6. Adrien
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    The jihadis are brutal and nasty


    Afghan freedom fighters are struggling valiantly to avoid complete Soviet domination

    Jimmy Carter
    The Blood of Abraham, 1985

    The freedom fighters of Afghanistan are defending principles of independence and freedom that form the basis of global security and stability.

    Ronald Reagan
    Proclamation 4908
    21 March 1982
    “Afghanistan Day”

    The Northern Alliance are now the ‘freedom fighters’. Freedom fighters are people we get to fight so we can remain free.

    Was the emergence of the Taliban, and thereafter al-Qaeda, a necessary consequence of the Cold War? I have doubts. The US courted the Pakistani military during the 80s and then duped them and then reacquired them post-911. In behaving, from the Muslim point of view, with such inconsistency they have branded themselves untrustworthy which is one of the reasons it took so long to find OBL. When they took out OBL they violated Pakistani sovereignty, They violated a lot more than national sovereignty when they parked their military in Arabia. And

    if they get hold of one or more functioning nuclear weapons they will use them

    Pakistan is a nuclear power with a political history that makes Italy look like Switzerland.

    The tendency of the Anglosphere to break its promises, retract its friendship and disregard contracts has been noted. The idea that the rise of Jihadism is just one of those things and that we are not in any way culpable is mere convenient fantasy.

  7. Posted January 24, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The Taliban were mostly a consequence of Pakistani post-Afghan War policy. The Northern Alliance were never the problem, from a Western point of view. That was why al-Qaeda assassinated their most prominent leader immediately prior to the 9/11 attack, to give then Taliban cover. Blaming the West for Pakistani policy, which has been sadly consistent, is actually fairly pathetic.

    As for violating Pakistani sovereignty with OBL, the choices were notifying the Pakistanis, in which case OBL would have vanished (likely before any arrest) or Pakistan would have arrested him and refused to extradite him. (Or, even worse, refused to arrest him.) No American President was ever going to put himself so at the mercy of Pakistani politics. Particularly not a liberal-Democratic black President. This is, after all, a state where a bodyguard assassinates a Provincial Governor for being against executing a Christian woman for blasphemy and then gets treated as a national hero. Pakistan is more a pathology parading as a polity.

    Jihadism was building for decades, it is not a creation of Western policy. Islam is a civilisation in its own right and has its own internal dynamics. It is like suggesting that if we had been nicer to Stalin, there would have been no Cold War.

  8. Mel
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    L @5: “The “India is poor because the West is rich” is, indeed, nonsense on stilts.”

    Agreed. India was poorer before it opened up. I feel depressed when lefties come out with such crap and can only say for the one hundredth time that units in economics should be mandatory in all soc sci uni courses.

  9. Adrien
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo, I belong neither to the Chomsky School which holds the USA liable for everything nor that of Bernard Lewis whose embossment of long-stand deep problems in Islamic political culture is used to eviscerate us from all historical responsibility. Just sayin’.

    Your post could well be subtitled “A Big Bully’s Bonehead Plays”. US policy in the Middle-East as been dishonest, inconsistent, short-sighted and foolish. Moreover its been very very expensive.

    The US is not responsible for the basketcase that is Pakistan but it is responsible for the foreign policy time bomb that country represents. History is not, I agree, predetermined. Providence is only ever apparent in retrospect. When the US started funding those battling the Soviet Union they were unwittingly boosting the aspirations and self-confidence of future enemies. But their double-dealing had fostered enmity in the region and would do so afterward. They have not played fair.

    Consider their attitudes to the development of nuclear weapons. In 1998 a senior Pakistani military officer wrote the following:

    ..sanctions should have been imposed only on the country that started the niclear race in the sub-continent and posed a threat to the region.

    Sound fair? I think so. But when India did just that by testing a ‘peaceful nuclear device’ (they actually said that) in 1974 the US reacted by boosting aid to India!

    Pakistan reacted by developing its own nuclear weapons programme. This is entirely to be expected. The US started imposing sanctions even before this happened. But the Pakistanis, hopeless as they might be in economy and civics, are pretty good at chess. In the early 80s impositions on Pakistan were relaxed by the US in exchange for co-operation with the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis tried their best attempting to genuinely forge an alliance with the US.But as soon as the Sovs left the US reimposed sanctions on Pakistan!

    Aw gee, thanks mate!

    Too late, they got their bomb. And a few years later they realigned themselves, sort of, with the US in the fight against the Jihadis. After all military governments in Islam are almost as bad in the eyes of the Jihadist.

    Still the co-operation was, this time, obviously not so enthusiastic. Yes, tactically speaking, the best play was to violate Pakistan airspace in order to assassinate bin Laden. But the fact that he was there says…

    That’s just Pakistan. The Persian Gulf? Fugedaboudit! Blaming Carter is amusing, and to be sure he is the first president to publicly assert US military control of the region. It’s one of his last little bits of ironic folly. But it was Reagan that made it so! And it was Bush I, Clinton and junior who promulgated the Carter Doctrine to its current status as a multi-billion dollar industry.

    It was the Americans who funded the nasty government of Mubarak precipitating the Arab Spirng and resultant levantine Calvinism. It was the Americans who signed into law a decision to rid Iraq of its government and then proceeded to deploy policies which have made wretched the lives of Iraqis for a generation leaving them a few years from now with an all-out civil war – all in the name of their, in Clinton’s terms, desire for freedom. It was the Americans who redeployed the Shah leading to the first Islamist Revolution.

    It was the British who created both the Shah and Iraq against the interests of the inhabitants and in the short-term interests of their country, That is, in their own interests.

    We have taken part and we have made mistakes. Most of which can be boiled down to the inconsistency between our behaviour and our so-called principles. There is a paradox at the heart of American history, the Americans are at once both opposed to empire and relentlessly expansive. When Carter came to office the Persian Gulf had a very low priority on the US ‘defense’ radar screen. By the time Reagan left office it was on a par with Europe and Asia. Now Central Asia, long subject to the Russian equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine, is subject to US influence. Iran, which is a long standing civilization of much great dignity has been emasculated and seeks nuclear weapons to compensate for the loss of power sustained in the 1980s…

    I could go on. But can we really entertain the fantasy that this mess has nothing to do with us? And the treatment of war as an enterprise opportunity? Prisoners in ni**ertown it’;s a dirty little war,

    It’s a lot of ’em.

  10. Posted February 1, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Much of what you say could and was said against the British when they were the prime managers of the international system. Captured in the phrase “perfidious Albion”.

    Actually, I think the US has done relatively well. And yes, much of their worst problems were handed to them by preceding European imperialisms (French in Indochina, the British in Iraq and Mandate Palestine, etc).

    Yes, policy is going to be inconsistent because one is never able to have an entirely inconsistent set of goals. The US was never going to be keen on Pakistan getting the bomb. But while the issue was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that became less of a priority. Once the Soviets were defeated and withdrew, non-proliferation rose in importance again.

    But US anti-nuclear policy has very little to do with the current Afghan mess. Much more to do with it was the Pakistani ambition to have an Afghanistan that provides them with “strategic depth” against India.

    As for Iraq; it is doing surprisingly well economically and is about as internally violent as Pakistan. (Kurdistan much less so.) And keeping the place together by aggressive strongman is a losing policy. But the conundrums of whether Iraq was, is or can be a good idea was one of those colonial legacies the US is now stuck with dealing with and there is no easy answer.

    And who is entertaining the fantasy that “this mess” has nothing to do with us? The problem is there is nothing we can do that will make it go away, we only have a range of “messy” options.

    There is a reason why the Middle East is such a problematic area, and it is not oil; oil makes it matter much more than it otherwise would and oil aggravates negative features. But much the deepest reasons for it being so problematic have to do with its internal social structures and cultural and religious dynamics.

  11. kvd
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    [email protected] without seeking to embarrass you I would just note that your above reply is remarkable both for its clarity, and direction to the points raised. Would that all postings (mine included) used it as a template.

  12. Adrien
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    The US was never going to be keen on Pakistan getting the bomb. But while the issue was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that became less of a priority. Once the Soviets were defeated and withdrew, non-proliferation rose in importance again.

    No. But once India gets the bomb then the Pakistanis are going to get the bomb, or try. Makes sense?

    And the double standard the US applied to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and then Pakistan will register with the Pakistanis especially after they are dispensed with despite their co-operation.

    The United States has made many many mistakes in its foreign relations and a good portion of the enmity toward them is reflective of this.

    Okay so you can’t please everyone, and there’s no permanent alliances only interests etc. But it seems to me that one learns by confronting mistakes and that the US does not do this as a matter of course.

    Australians don’t, in general possess the same cultural blindness as the United States. The elites in the United States are pervaded by what Milan Kundera calls the parochialism of great nations. The interests of other nations don’t interest them. And they keep repeating the folly this bears.

  13. Posted February 1, 2013 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Thank you.

    [email protected] Pakistan represents the famous n+1 proliferation problem. But an Indian bomb is inherently less troublesome than a Pakistani one since India is both internally much more stable and externally significantly less aggressive.

    The US elite is actually quite internationally aware; Australia has small country nervousness which does make us somewhat more aware as a population.

    As for the issue of confronting mistakes, in international policy, it is not always clear exactly what was a mistake and what would be better. This makes learning from them more difficult.

  14. Adrien
    Posted February 3, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Pakistan represents the famous n+1 proliferation problem. But an Indian bomb is inherently less troublesome than a Pakistani one since…

    We seem to be talking at cross-purposes here. I understand, in general terms, the reasons that the US government has taken the decisions it has since the WWII, I also understand that we are here in the delicate space where etiquette, rank and love of country intersect.

    However I feel that current good form requires that we ignore a very big, bloated and gluttonous elephant in our best friend’s room. Doing this we dispense with the hard-won privilege – to think and speak freely.

    I am not in any way questioning the Austral-American alliance. Pacifists who’d like to tear it up don’t realize the extent we’d have to militarize to avoid colonization. But I do believe that the facts of history and whatever is still relevant in tradition best inform us as to correct policy as much as a distilled list of priorities composed by persons trained in the business of dealing only with those facts relevant to the accomplishment of a goal.

    America decided not to hassle India when they got a nuke. India’s a very old culture, it’s a democracy, it was near the Iron Curtain. But when India got a nuke it made it necessary for Pakistan to acquire a nuke too. And they did so only after America proved to be a fair weather friends.

    America is bad at Other People; they don’t get it. There are some, Richard Armitage for example, who do understand something of the people on the business end of imperium. But they don’t get thru much. The parochialism of great nations blinds its members with their own light.

    America patted India on the back when it got an arsenal. This was met with outrage by many who expected America to punish India. It was the US and not the UN that was held responsible for curbing India violation of world security.

    This is the paradox of the American order. Humanity’s known to states of being: constant warfare or peace imposed by a great power. Profligacy is corrosive to great power. And the failure to confront past mistakes lead to hubris, folly and decline.

    We in Australia don’t want that. Do we.

  15. Adrien
    Posted February 3, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    ‘two states of being’ sorry.

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