The following post is the transcript of a talk I gave on October 17, 2007, at the weekly meeting of the Illinois State University International Studies Seminar

The Unintended Consequences of US Wars (and other foreign interventions)

By Andrew Hartman

The single greatest war reporter of our time is Robert Fisk of the London Independent. What makes Fisk a cut above is not just his bravery, which is immense—he has been a first-hand witness to hell on earth, lucky to still be alive. What makes him great is not just his interest in empirical observation, or in counting the dead, although this is an important task for a war reporter. And it is definitely not any interest in glorifying war, like so many of his American counterparts who wrote home during the pre-“Mission Accomplished” stages of the Iraq War, their manic stories dripping with macho nationalism.

On the contrary, Fisk is a war reporter whose quaint mission is to end war, or, more humbly, point out the sheer folly in it. This is why he infuses his criticism of contemporary war with historical analysis. War must be understood historically. Thus, his recent massive book, despite being about the Middle East, is aptly titled, The Great War for Civilisation, paying homage to “the war to end all wars,” now known to us as World War I.

The military and political leaders who led the world to war in 1914 believed that their respective nations would achieve a swift and chivalrous victory. Instead, they achieved misery, both in war and in the so-called peace that followed. Fisk writes of World War I, his father’s war, and the new global borders resulting from the armistice: “In all, it was to take my father’s generation just twenty-three months to create these artificial borders and the equally artificial nations contained within them.” Fisk refers to the creation of Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Northern Ireland, and the British Palestine Mandate—all created between August 1920 and July 1922. Fisk personalizes the connections between past and present when he writes: “It is, as I often reflect, a grim fact of my own life that my career as a journalist—first in Ireland, then in the Middle East and the Balkans—has been entirely spent in reporting the burning of these frontiers, the collapse of the statelets that my father’s war allowed us to create, and the killing of their peoples” (306).

This connection made by Fisk—between past and present wars—correlates to the premise of my talk. Wars have unintended consequences—consequences which are, more often that not, terribly destructive. This was particularly true of the First World War. Beyond the results of the partitions described by Fisk, we can also make the claim that the rise of Nazism was a consequence of World War I. Thus, so too was World War II. Less tragically, the modern intellectual revolt against progress and other Enlightenment grand narratives was a consequence of World War I. Intellectuals revolted against the civilization that could produce such a grotesque and meaningless waste of life. In this sense, to stretch this line of argument to an almost absurd level, we might argue that postmodernism is one of the many unintended consequences of World War I—for the typical graduate student compelled to read Derrida, one of the more painful such results.

To argue that wars have unintended consequences is not a new historiographic trend. Historians have long extended their explanations of causation beyond human intentions. To limit our inquiries to human intention is to believe in an omnipotent, hyper-rational humanity—a belief that betrays all empirical evidence. That being said, the sub-field of diplomatic history has to some degree lagged behind such a sensible historiographic trend. I don’t wish to overstate my case, but some diplomatic historians continue to put too much faith in their documentary evidence, namely, the diplomatic cable transcript. Such transcripts are too often understood as a self-evident conversation between two human beings who know exactly what they want, and exactly how to get it. In contrast, it must be stressed that policymakers, like the rest of us, often know not what they do. This is particularly the case when it comes to war.

To say as much is not to absolve the war-makers of blame. On the contrary, although wars have consequences that leaders do not intend, many such consequences are predictable. For instance, it was predictable that the use of military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power and to destroy the Iraqi Ba’ath Party would result in sectarian strife and in a newly empowered Iraqi Shiite population, who would logically align themselves closer to Iran. How do we know this was predictable? Because influential members of the Bush I administration, including Dick Cheney, predicted as much when making their case as to why US troops should not take Baghdad during the first Gulf War.

No, it is not my intention to absolve blame. Rather, I would argue that thinking more carefully and critically about the dangerous consequences of American foreign intervention—of wars, of covert operations, of bullying on all matters political and economic, and other such hubris—would perhaps lead to changed American behavior in the world.

I am now going to survey some of the more destructive consequences of US wars, and foreign policy and intervention more broadly speaking. I will begin with how early-twentieth century foreign policy in China started the US on the path to Pearl Harbor and World War II.
Everyone in this room is probably somewhat knowledgeable about the immediate circumstances in the lead up to the attack on US naval forces at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In order to carve out their own imperial niche in Asia, especially in China, the Japanese prepared for war against the western nations. They correctly believed that the US would resist their imperial designs. FDR attempted to impede Japanese war preparations by imposing petroleum and steal blockades, to no avail, as made evident by Pearl Harbor.

This historical narrative is correct, but only so far as it goes. We must take it further back, and ask the question: Why was the US so invested in limiting Japanese expansion, especially into China? The false answer most commonly given is that the US is an anti-imperialist nation and was appalled by Japanese brutality in China, such as the Rape of Nanking. If this were the case, the US would have, presumably, been equally appalled by British colonialism in India and by French colonialism in Indochina, neither of which were benign. So again, why the interest in China?

The US interest in China goes back to the Spanish-American War. It might seem like a stretch to say that Pearl Harbor is one of the unintended consequences of the Spanish-American War of 1898, but that is precisely what I am about to argue. (I owe this interpretation to the wisdom of historian Leo P. Ribuffo.)

The US has never been isolationist. Historians of American Indians know as much. But the Spanish-American War did indeed open up a more intense phase of US imperialism. One of the spoils of the quick victory over the Spanish was the Philippines, although Filipinos did not see it that way, and thus revolted against US rule. This led to a violent war of occupation. 4,000 Americans and at least 200,000 Filipinos died. This war was somewhat similar to Iraq. In fact, some neoconservatives, including Max Boot, have argued that the US war against the Philippines should serve as the model for the early twenty-first century. President Bush even cited it in a speech on Iraq in 2004. I assume they cite it as a success story because they consider the Philippines a model nation now, inasmuch as it is a US ally, not because it in any way resembles a healthy society.

The occupation and war in the Philippines had a dialectical effect. The war was justified to a skeptical American population in the name of the Great China Market, which had the effect of enhancing interest in trade with China. But at the time, the European imperialist powers were considering chopping up China into spheres of influence, much as they had done in Africa, as foreign powers took enclaves along the Chinese coast. President McKinley determined that, rather than consent to these European designs—in no small part because all the best coastal enclaves had already been snatched up—the US would deny the legitimacy of the spheres and affirm the national integrity of China. This policy was announced in the famous “Open Door Notes.” The Open Door Notes asserted that the field of economic competition was not to be closed to the US, with the expectation that Americans had the ability to destroy their economic competitors. Secretary of State John Hay called this an “ideal policy” in that it would allow the US “to do nothing, and yet be around when the water-melon is cut.”

This might sound rather innocuous, and in relation to a spheres of influence policy, perhaps it was. But there were serious problems with the open door policy from the beginning. For one, it assumed that China was a stable, unified nation, which it clearly was not. It also assumed that the Chinese would consent to being dominated economically, which they did not, made clear by the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The US committed 2,500 troops to the anti-Boxer forces, which slaughtered the rebellion and countless civilians. But, above all, the chief danger of the Open Door Notes, from the American perspective, was that the US might begin to believe its own rhetoric about the need to preserve Chinese integrity. It might believe that its national interests were at stake in keeping the door open to China. The question that should have been asked: What happens if some nation—Japan, for instance—attempts to close the door? This is precisely what happened in the 1930s. It is in this sense that, indirectly, Pearl Harbor was an unintended consequence of a policy implemented forty years earlier.

This was not the last time US policies in Asia produced results the opposite of policymaker intentions. Take Vietnam, the greatest tragedy of American diplomacy on record, so far. One of the unintended consequences of US military strategy in the Vietnam War helped ensure US defeat. The large majority of US bombs were dropped on the peasantry in the south, the base of support for the Viet Cong. The cynical idea on the part of US strategists was that they would make the Vietnamese countryside uninhabitable for those who supported the enemy. As a US military commander infamously said, “Sometimes you have to destroy a village in order to save it.” This policy worked insofar as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese peasants, those who survived the bombings, were forced to migrate to Saigon and other cities. However, this forced migration created levels of instability to which there were no military solutions, much like in Baghdad today. In short, it ensured US defeat. There is no military solution to urban chaos, to the wretched poverty and disorder created by massive human displacement.

Similarly, Cambodia is a textbook study of the potential destructiveness of the unintended consequences of war, especially of bombing campaigns. Orchestrated by Henry Kissinger, the Nixon administration secretly bombed Cambodia during the early 1970s. This was the US attempt to destroy the Viet Cong network—the Ho Chi Minh Trail that extended into neighboring Cambodia. Historians have demonstrated that this bombing campaign failed in its efforts to cut off Viet Cong supply lines. However, more to the point, the bombings managed to drive hundreds of thousands of Cambodians into the cities. This, of course, led to disorder and created a political vacuum into which stepped the genocidal Pol Pot. Pol Pot proceeded to force the peasantry back to the rural areas, killing nearly two million in the process, over a quarter of the Cambodian population. As the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pot used his agrarian relocation policy as a cover for his attempts to wipe out entire ethnic groups deemed enemies to the Khmer.

I’m not arguing that the US is directly complicit in this genocide. That would run counter to one of my main messages, that the US is not an omnipotent force. Rather, I’m arguing that the effects of bombing campaigns do not end when the bombs quit raining down from the sky. Counter-factual analysis is helpful here: can we imagine Pol Pot minus the Nixon-Kissinger bombing campaign? Or, more generally, minus the Vietnam War? This would require, in my opinion, a fanciful imagination. The dark results of this bombing campaign should be kept in mind with talk of a potential, so-called “preventive strike” on Iran and its fledgling nuclear program.

Speaking of Iran, and the Middle East more generally, many of the dangers and instabilities in that region of the world can be directly attributed to the history of US policy, near-sighted as it was. To paraphrase Marx, the tradition of past US policymakers weighs like a nightmare on the brains of current ones. This nightmare dates back to 1953, when the CIA mounted a coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. President Dwight Eisenhower authorized this coup—it was one of the first things he did when he took office in January of that year. The US then helped bring to power a brutal tyrant, the Shah, a despotic monarch that ruled with an iron fist for the next 25 years. The Shah was one of many murderous leaders in the world, one of the worst. Furthermore, the Shah was a US puppet, his power entirely dependent upon US money and weapons. It was common practice for the US to align with authoritarian leaders who would protect so-called US interests.

This history is instructive for our purposes in that it demonstrates two of the unintended consequences of US policy in the Middle East. First, just as the US backed itself into protecting the open door to China, it also backed itself into protecting authoritarian regimes across the region, and really, across the world. Once one of the corrupt little puppets to which the US had committed money and guns was threatened, the US believed it was in danger of losing “credibility” in the eyes of all of the other corrupt little puppets. This is the real “domino theory,” which had little to do with communism except rhetorically. The US became addicted to maintaining “credibility.” You still hear this today, time and again. US credibility is at stake in Iraq. US credibility will undoubtedly be at stake with regards to Iran’s nuclear program. They said they can’t allow for such a program, thus they must stop it by any means necessary or risk losing credibility.

Second, this history of intervention in Iran demonstrates that, even if US policy achieves short-term material gains, it often ensures long-term security losses. In the case of Iran, the short-term material gains were all about oil. Iran has the second or third largest exploitable oil reserves in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and perhaps Iraq.

The US helped overthrow Mossadegh because he decided to alter the preexisting arrangement Iran had with foreign oil companies. When Mossadegh came to power, British oil companies controlled most Iranian. The US wanted to change this. The US and Britain, although allies, were in essence competing over who would control Middle East oil for the foreseeable future. Mossadegh thought he could play the British and US off one another to leverage a much better deal. When this failed, Mossadegh and the Iranian parliament nationalized the oil. This spelled his demise. The US and the British then cooperated to get rid of him. But when the Shah was installed, the US removed British influence step-by-step. Thus, the US controlled Iranian oil. Material gains.

But what were the long-term losses? In short, the Iranian Revolution of 1979. A government hostile to the US, one that determines its own economic policy, one that controls its own oil, came to power, and remains in power. By destroying a democratic government with liberal sensibilities—Mossadegh’s—the US helped build the path to Iranian theocracy. The chickens came home to roost in the form of the embassy hostage crisis. Something similar resulted from US intervention in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. This is a history that became all-too-familiar after September 11, 2001.

During the 1980s, the US committed billions of dollars in money, weapons, and experts to the mujihadin who were resisting the Soviets, most of it funneled through Pakistani intelligence services. For example, the CIA provided the Afghan resistance with satellite mapping intelligence and demolitions experts who were able to train the Mujihadin in the use of delayed timing devices for C-4 plastic explosives. The US also provided the rebels with targeting devices for mortars linked to a US Navy satellite, wire-guided anti-tank missiles, and, eventually, the highly effective Stinger missiles. The CIA helped Pakistani trainers establish schools in guerrilla warfare and urban sabotage for the mujihadin. Sniper rifles were given to the rebels for purposes of assassination. The car bomb, used with deadly effectiveness in Iraq to this day, was one of the weapons the CIA helped train the mujihadin to use. In short, the US helped created some of the deadliest urban guerrilla warriors in the world—trained to use weapons of modern-day terror. This, as we now know, was not a very wise policy. The short-term gains, helping to defeat Soviet forces in Afghanistan, were outweighed by the long-term security losses, September 11 and beyond.

All of this ugly history is worth recounting. How else will we destroy the delusional belief that the US has the power, ability, and benevolence to shape the world? This is an extremely dangerous idea, and it is a threat to a peaceful future. I will leave you with an eloquent, yet angry passage from Terry Eagleton, one of my favorite writers:

“The United States has an exalted image of itself, and would be a far more morally decent place if it did not. A touch of skepticism and self-debunkery would work wonders for its spiritual health…It is a demented refusal to limit and finitude, its crazed, blasphemous belief that you can do anything if you put your mind to it, which lies at the source of its chronic weakness…Intoxicated by their own self-image, Americans can perceive nothing beyond themselves, and will find themselves in the most dreadful danger. They will become the enemies of civilization in the very act of seeking to preserve it.” (After Theory, 226)