Monday, July 14, 2008

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

So I said I'd be bringing up Power and Plenty and there's no time like the present! During a discussion of the decolonization of Asia and Africa, and the wars against Communist insurgents that this in some cases involved, O'Rourke and Findlay write (p. 483):
Malaysia was the exception that proved the rule. The British did manage to defeat the Communist insurgency there, but this was at least in part because ordinary Malaysians were convinced that the British were sincere in their stated intentions to grant them independence, which they in fact did in 1957.
Two points:

1) I've read a shit-ton of books on Vietnam, and all of them mention the "Malayan" sucess. All of the ones I read mentioned Malaya in the context of America's attempts to win a guerilla war in Vietnam, and explore the difference between UK and US tactics. Not one that I've read thus far gave the kind of precedence to the UK effort to convince Malaysians they were leaving that O&F do in the above quote passage. To put it more plainly, every book I've read that was written from a military perspective, for a military perspective, emphasizes military means. But the obvious lesson to learn has nothing to do with the military, but with politics -- or more clearly, policy. There are many reasons the UK would have been able to convince Malayans that they were serious about leaving -- not the least of which was that they'd recently let India go, and with it the entire purpose of their Asian posessions.

Note how America was entirely unsuccessful in Vietnam because it's stated ambition -- the preservation of the Saigon government -- was exactly what the actual people of South Vietnam came to oppose.

So it's clearly a valuable lesson: Malaya -- literally the only example of a successful postwar counterinsurgency operation by a foreign power -- was successful exactly to the extent that the leaders of the imperial power made it clear they had no interest in staying.

And this point is most clearly made not in a military history but in a book of economic history where 20th century warfare -- indeed, the 20th century itself -- plays only a small role. For some reason, military history has de-emphasized the role of the British desire to leave in the only counterinsurgency "victory" of the postwar period. Counterinsurgency has de-emphasized this for the same reason, I think, that theorists of nuclear war de-emphasized that whole "fallout and gigadeath" thing, because if you think about it seriously it undermines the entire rationale for fighting the war in the first place.

2) Which brings us to the news that America's attempts to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement -- the neocolonial documents that guarantee the Americans immunity from prosecution for crimes committed while they protect the Iraqis from themselves -- have collapsed under the weight of Iraqi nationalism and American incompetence. To quote at length from Abu Muqawama:

Because talks were not occurring against the backdrop of negotiating a U.S. withdrawal and a clear signal that we did not want to have the rights and prerogatives to stay in Iraq indefinitely, two things happened:

1. Iraqi sovereignty and nationalist anxieties were exacerbated by the perception that we were negotiating a permanent occupation (regardless of how many times the administration asserted it wasn't seeking permanent bases). This made it difficult for Iraqi officials--including those that wanted a long-term agreement negotiated under Bush--to sign on to anything.

2. U.S. negotiators framed the whole thing to the Iraqis as us wanting to negotiate a way to stay in Iraq. This reversed the leverage in negotiations, making us appear increasingly desperate to give the Iraqis concessions so we could stick around indefinitely. This made it look like we needed them more than they needed us, which is completely back-ass-ward.

If, instead, U.S. negotiators had framed the talks around setting a timeline for a U.S. withdrawal and then sought to establish the conditions for the Iraqi government to receive the residual U.S. support it desperately needs (especially support to the ISF which, despite Maliki's rhetoric, the Iraqis will need for years), then the sovereignty/nationalism issues would have been at least partially addressed and the leverage would have worked in our favor. But because this administration doesn't believe in negotiating a withdrawal and because they have never been willing to impose strategic conditionality on our support to Maliki, they didn't adopt this approach. And they failed.
Now, why would America be unwilling to commit to leaving Iraq? Probably for the same reason that they've been building permanent bases since 2004 -- they don't intend to leave, and never, ever want to put anything on paper to suggest they will. Iraq is supposed to be America's latest unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Middle East, and nothing as trifling as Iraqi domestic politics will be allowed to get in the way.

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