If—as now seems extremely likely—the election comes down to Clinton vs. Trump, we'll be headed down the path of prolonged war in the Middle East, a war that could last for generations, even 100 years; a struggle longer, messier and more uncertain than the Cold War. The downing of EgyptAir 804 and Trump's swift intemperate remarks remind us of how wildly uncertain things can be, but even Clinton's more measured response comes out of a hawkishness that offers little reason for long-term optimism.
There has been significant progress in fighting ISIS, shrinking its territorial control, but even if they could be totally defeated, that wouldn't change the underlying cultural dynamics that gave birth to them—dynamics that we have long been blindly fueling—and what comes next after ISIS could well be even worse. Area experts have long warned of our folly in the Mideast—see Ropes of Sand: America's Failure in the Middle East, published by former CIA station chief Wilbur Crane Eveland III in 1980, for example—but things have gotten dramatically worse since the Bush/Cheney decision to react to 9/11 with regional war, rather than a criminal justice response. But as dire as things now stand, we may only be at the beginning, with an election coming up that sheds only heat, not light, when what we really need is a profound deepening of our understanding.
Of course, we've already been on that perilous path for some time now. Many thought that voting for Obama meant a fundamental rethinking and reorientation of our policies, particularly with respect to the Middle East and Muslim world at large. There was widespread hope after his Cairo "New Beginning" speech, but the changes—aside from pursuing diplomacy with Iran—have largely been tonal and aesthetic. Nothing showed how deeply mired in the past we still remain more clearly than our confused and chaotic response to the Arab Spring, most notably holding onto Mubarak as we had to the Shah of Iran decades earlier. It underscored how deeply we were enmeshed with the anti-democratic oligarchies dominating the Arab world, yet how powerless we were to facilitate even the most modest real reforms in the face of a mass democratic uprising.
Still, if Obama at least signaled an awareness of the need for “A New Beginning,” these two candidates—Trump and Clinton—reflect our refusal to think deeply about the lessons we should have learned, but repeatedly have not. Trump flatly lies about his pre-invasion support for the Iraq War—he displayed zero foresight about the destabilization that would result—while Clinton's long-delayed 2014 admission in Hard Choices that she "got it wrong" was marred by her introductory claim that "I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had.” As Lambert Strether noted at the time, Clinton did not actually apologize, nor did she clearly explain what she got wrong. Thus, both Trump and Clinton's attempts to distance themselves from how we got into our current predicament raise more questions than they answer, and show no capacity, much less hunger, for facing up to past mistakes and doing the difficult work of finding a new way forward.
They're hardly alone—we've been on a downward spiral since losing the Vietnam War and refusing to come to grips with it, and our Mideast policy was intensely counterproductive well before that. But the need for avoiding endless war could not be more stark than it is right now, nor could the prospects for avoiding it be more dim with the choices these two candidates offer us.
On the Republican side, Trump acts as a caricature update of Reagan's much smoother, more artfully scripted denialism, epitomized by his rewriting the history of what should have been our most instructive wake-up call, the “teachable moment” on which we deliberately turned our backs. The Vietnam War was “a noble cause,” Reagan claimed in a 1980 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, standing history on its head, claiming “A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. In reality, we were fighting against the very forces that ended colonial rule, led by Ho Chi Minh—who first sought American support for independence from Woodrow Wilson in line with his “14 points” just after World War I, was allied with U.S. intelligence during World War II, and began Vietnam's 1945 Declaration of Independence by quoting our own Declaration of Independence. Contrary to Reagan's claim equating Vietnamese communists with China, the two actually fought a brief war just the year before Reagan gave that speech.
Not only was Reagan in denial about who we were fighting against—Vietnamese nationalists turned communist by our own neglect, but still fiercely independent from outside control—he was also in denial about why they won and why we lost. On the first point, he said, “They had a plan. It was to win in the field of propaganda here in America what they could not win on the field of battle in Vietnam.” This approaches something true, but is deeply deceptive nonetheless. Vietnam had been fighting for its independence for almost 2,000 years, first against the Chinese, then against the French, then us. Against much stronger outside military forces, winning in a classic battlefield sense had never been essential to their military thinking; making the cost of occupation too high to sustain had always been key; and in fighting America they certainly realized it was a political struggle above all.
But it was the GI anti-war movement in Vietnam itself, leading to “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” as Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. described in the Armed Forces Journal in June, 1971, which proved crucial in ending the war, largely the product of first-hand experience by frontline troops, and internal critical discussions in the underground GI press. Put simply: They were just too decent to continue waging an unjust war. The Vietnamese ultimately won by appealing to our soldiers' humanity, and there was nothing shameful in that conclusion. Reagan's denialist fairy tale may have been more comforting on the homefront then, in a time of confusion, but it only helped sow seeds of further failure for the future.
On the second point—denying why we lost—Reagan peddled a now-familiar soft version of the “stab in the back” myth that Germans adopted after World War I, a myth that the fledgling Nazi Party milked repeatedly in its rise to power. “If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail,” Reagan said, “let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.” China has been trying to conquer Vietnam for almost 2,000 years. They have succeeded, temporarily, for periods longer than America has existed, but in the end they have failed—not because their government was afraid to let them win, but because a sufficiently tenacious people cannot be defeated in their homeland, short of complete genocide. That is at least one fundamental lesson we could have, should have learned from losing the Vietnam War, a lesson that Ronald Reagan helped to make sure we did not learn. And because we did not learn it there, we have kept on repeating our mistake, as we are doing now.
Conservatives and Republicans are generally horrified to have Trump and Reagan compared—though no less a central figure in the conservative movement than Phyllis Schlafly has made the comparison herself. But it's strikingly clear that the two were quite similar in their basic orientations; it's just that conservatives have spent so much more of America's accumulated capital—cultural, political, economic, you name it—that the same orientation now comes across as far more strained and hysterical. Still it's quite clear they were riffing off the same basic idea—the idea of a conservative restoration: Trump promises to “make America great again,” but in that same VFW speech, Reagan pledged to unite “a great crusade to restore the America of our dreams.” The fundamental thrust of their politics is the same, but the ideological/rhetorical vehicle for it is falling to pieces faster than anyone can put it back together.
Trump is notorious for his lack of conservative orthodoxy, but people forget how badly Reagan himself would have failed any such test, had more recent powerful gatekeepers been around to check his credentials. He raised taxes 11 times after his initial tax cuts caused the deficit to explode; he struck a deal to save Social Security, which he had previously wanted to undermine by making it voluntary; he struck an immigration deal with amnesty for almost 3 million “illegal immigrants;” he negotiated with the Soviets, even coming close to abolishing nuclear weapons. None of this means he wasn't a conservative, of course. Litmus tests can be very misleading, especially once they proliferate like rabbits. What mattered was that Reagan decisively altered the terms of debate, and did so on the basis of reality-denial and wish-fulfillment fantasies of restoring lost power, which the American political system was strong enough to withstand, despite the damage that inevitably followed. Trump, for all his differences in style and tone, is doing almost exactly the same thing, though the prospects for success are much diminished.
Trump's recent foreign policy speech [video/transcript] is a case in point. Here at Salon, Patrick Smith called attention to some undoctrinaire aspects of Trump's speech, most notably:
Here he is on Russia, an especially stark example given the prevailing state of relations. (He lumps the Russians in with the Chinese. See what I mean about blur?)
“We are not bound to be adversaries,” says Trump. “We should seek common ground based on shared interests. This horrible cycle of hostility has to end.”
On strategy and tactics: “War and aggression will not be my first instinct. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy.”
But if we turn back to Reagan's VFW speech, we will find very similar sorts of sentiments—remembering, of course, that the Russians (then Soviets) were the great evil of the time, occupying the role that ISIS and its kin occupy today. Here are just a few of the things he said in that speech:
I think continued negotiation with the Soviet Union is essential. We need never be afraid to negotiate as long as we remain true to our goals—the preservation of peace and freedom—and don’t seek agreement just for the sake of having an agreement....
I have repeatedly stated that I would be willing to negotiate an honest, verifiable reduction in nuclear weapons by both our countries to the point that neither of us represented a threat to the other....
For a nation such as ours, arms are important only to prevent others from conquering us or our allies. We are not a belligerent people. Our purpose is not to prepare for war or wish harm to others....
Clearly, world peace must be our number one priority. It is the first task of statecraft to preserve peace so that brave men need not die in battle....
What matters in Trump's speech is the same as in Reagan's—not what they may see in one particular sentence or another—even if it's said repeatedly—but how it links up with other things they've said, and how all these different things fit together inside of a more comprehensive worldview. All of Reagan's professions of peaceful intentions were framed in terms of a belief that America was in peril, that its leadership had failed, while its enemies had multiplied and spread—and Trump shares that very same belief. Reagan spoke of “Jimmy Carter’s lack of coherent policy,” adding, "Our allies are losing confidence in us, and our adversaries no longer respect us." Trump derided “the strategic foreign policy vision of Obama/Clinton” as “a complete and total disaster,” saying "our rivals no longer respect us. In fact, they’re just as confused as our allies."
Both men professed to stand for peace, but said it could only be gotten through strength, and the willingness to fight all-out. “If America fights, it must only fight to win,” Trump said, directly echoing Reagan's invocation of the stab-in-the-back myth. Neither could acknowledge that there are limits to what military might can accomplish, especially against a whole people, and neither could tolerate the national soul-searching that could potentially lead to greater wisdom moving forward. Above all, neither could tolerate trying to see ourselves as others see us, or trying to understand ourselves and our choice of options in terms of a broader historical perspective.
On the Democratic side, the problem with Clinton is much easier to grasp: She is significantly more hawkish than Obama, whose desire not to seem "soft" prevented him from truly thinking outside the box that America has put itself in, at least since we started funding the Taliban under Jimmy Carter, a practice dramatically expanded under Reagan. Despite his professed interest in a “new beginning,” Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan, normalized drone warfare with thousands of casualties outside declared war zones, and intervened to support regime change in Libya, which Obama admitted produced “the worst mistake” of his administration, “failing to plan for the day after,” the exact same problem Bush/Cheney created in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, despite being right on the Iraq War, Obama shows little evidence of having learned the larger lesson—and Clinton is distinctly more hawkish, less interested in exploring other options than he was. As his Secretary of State, she was known as one of his most hawkish advisers, she had surrounded herself with a hawkish coterie in the Senate—Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, James Steinberg, William Perry, Jamie Rubin, Kenneth Pollack—and strongly favored of getting rid of Gaddafi.
On Democracy Now recently, Sy Hersh argued that this move was even worse than it's now commonly recognized, since Gaddafi had become an ally fighting terrorism before we helped to get rid of him. “Gaddafi was a tame cat. We got to him in the Bush-Cheney years,” Hersh said. After “we caught a ship full of some dual-use goods” on its way to Tripoli in 2004, Gaddafi “suddenly announced that he was giving up—unilaterally going to give up all his chemical arsenal and his WMD, his nuclear plans or options.... I can tell you that it was a considerable amount of CIA activity involved to turn him around.” So, in 2011, “they were going after a guy that had been doing a lot of good work for us, believe it or not, horrible as he was. He was a horrible human being. Bad things happened inside that country to the people. But he was actively working with us on the al-Qaeda issue.”
This is just the sort of messy situation that “realists,” which Clinton and Obama claim to be, are supposed to handle well, in contrast to purists, ideologues and idealists. This clearly does not bode well for us. We have more failed states on our hands than ever, and more terrorists mobilized struggling to seize power where they have failed. While Trump's erratic conduct could make things drastically worse overnight, Clinton's alleged “steady hand” has not steered us out of dangers in the region—dangers which may, in fact, already be in the process of increasing dramatically over time.
This, at least, is the warning provided by Peter Turchin, mathematical biologist turned macro-historian, some of whose work I described last November. Immediately after the ISIS attacks on Brussels in late March, Turchin wrote a series of posts about the threat ISIS represented as seen through his work. He first noted that the attacks “will put additional pressure on Western leaders, and most importantly Barack Obama, to do more to defeat the Islamic State,” but that “intensifying military pressure on the Islamic State, or even destroying it in Iraq and Syria, will generate precisely the opposite result of what is intended.”
This was not a snap judgment on his part. As he went on to explain, he had “made a prediction about the aftermath of the Allied occupation of Iraq” in his 2005 book, War and Peace and War, which read:
Western intrusion will eventually generate a counter-response, possibly in the form of a new theocratic Caliphate.
The reason Turchin could see almost a decade into the future was because of what he had learned about the rise and fall of civilizations and related multi-ethnic groupings:
[T[hat part of the Middle East was becoming a particular kind of place, a place with a distinctive evolutionary trajectory. It was, to use my own term, turning into a metaethnic frontier, a zone where grand alliances of multiple nations and ethnic groups—metaethnic communities—struggle for territory and survival. Metaethnic communities are the broadest groupings of people that include not only the familiar “civilizations”—Western, Islamic, Sinic etc—but other historical groups, such as Turco-Mongolian steppe nomads. These supranational collectivities are integrated by a shared ideology, such as Christianity, Islam, or Confucianism. In my work on the largest patterns of history, I have studied such zones intensively: the steppe frontiers of China and Russia, the Christian/Islamic frontiers in Iberia and Anatolia.
Because of what he had learned from studying different examples across history he wrote that “even in 2005, ISIS was staring us in the face”:
The basic idea of the metaethnic frontier theory is that intense warfare breeds strong states. War is destructive, but it also exerts a powerful evolutionary pressure. By destroying brittle competitors, it allows the more cohesive groups to survive and expand. War on metaethnic frontiers is particularly intense, and often even genocidal, because deep cultural divides make it easy to dehumanize the enemy. And indeed, the historical evidence has shown that strong, expansionary states are particularly likely to appear in regions in which imperial frontiers coincide with faultlines between metaethnic communities.
Indeed, Turchin noted, “the metaethnic frontier theory has been translated into mathematical models, and model predictions passed the test of data.” He went on to say that—contrary to appearances, “state building by the West was a success, and the name of this success is ISIS.” Both the intense loyalty ISIS generates and the barbaric cruelty it exhibits may well seem extreme to us—and they are. But given thousands of years of human history to survey in a wide range of different settings, they are far from unprecedented, in fact, they fit into a coherent pattern that's been seen repeatedly.
In his third post in the series, Turchin explained something of the dynamics involed:
Atrocities work at multiple levels. First, they energize ISIS supporters, proving the capacity of the Caliphate to inflict pain and horror on its enemies. This serves as an effective recruitment strategy. As anthropologists Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid write, “What many in the international community regard as acts of senseless, horrific violence are to ISIS’s followers part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation.”
Second, the atrocities bring an expected response by intensifying attacks on ISIS. Paradoxically, such a response is welcomed by the ISIS leaders. Shared danger, suffering, and sacrifice create in group members the psychological state of “fusion,” as social psychologists have demonstrated in many experiments. When “fused,” group members are eager to sacrifice their lives in return for advancing collective goals. In other words, the greater the pressure that is brought on ISIS the more internally cohesive and effective it becomes.
The overthrow of the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the weakening of the Assad dynasty in Syria turned large swaths of Mesopotamia into a stateless area, a “realm of war,” which created an evolutionary environment that selects for the groups that are best at recruiting intensely loyal followers who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the collective....
We might reel in horror at the brutality of ISIS’s methods, but it is difficult to deny that they work.... Its ghastly tactics are evolutionary adaptations to an unimaginably dangerous social environment.
Not only was the rise of such a cohesive group a predictable result of the Iraq occupation,” Turchin noted:
It was also predictable that the successful group would use militant Islam as unifying ideology, “since that is the traditional way in which Islamic societies have responded to challenges from other civilizations” as I wrote in 2005, channeling the great Arabic thinker of the thirteenth century, Ibn Khaldun.
After laying this explanation of how and why ISIS came to be, Turchin then turned his attention to the question of how the West could respond. He identified three different broad types of response: all-out war, a war of containment, and withdrawal. However, he goes on to argue that the differences between the first two options are largely irrelevant over time. A containment strategy of “degrading and defeating ISIS” may well be possible, but "destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will merely create conditions for its replacement by another jihadist group, perhaps an even more capable one,” even if we ignore how ISIS has “metastasized” into Europe and Africa.
As long as the conditions remain as they are in the region, the basic logic will remain:
Metaethnic frontiers breed strong, expansionary states. Thus, on both theoretical grounds and in light of historical analogies, it appears that military pressure from the U.S. and allies, whether constrained or aggressive, will lead to the same general outcome: an ever more cohesive, militant and predatory Islamic Caliphate. It might not be the present group, ISIS, but a successor; just like ISIS is a successor of Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq.
On the other hand, withdrawal holds significant promise—if not overnight. There will still be intense conflicts in the region, between Shiites and the Sunnis, and between different ethnic groups—Kurds, Arabs and Turks—as well as between competing political factions such as those who've ruled different states in the region. But it will no longer be a metaethnic frontier—well, except, perhaps for the continued presence of Israel, which is a topic for another day. But, we should note, metaethnic theory tells us that “protecting Israel” cannot be done by conventional strategies of building up support around it—that will only intensify the character of the metaethnic frontier. Israel's best chance for long-term security is to lessen the sense that it's an irretrievable hostile Western outpost, and recover its ancient cultural roots that connect it with the rest of the region.
Turchin points back to what happened in the region after 1300, the last time it ceased to be a metaethnic frontier, as the last Crusader state was destroyed and the Mongol empire of Il-Khans, rulers of Persia and most of Iraq, converted to Islam. This ended the dynamic of relentless, bloody state-building in region until the 19th century, when Western powers began re-entering the region. The rest, as they say, is history, and it's been a predictably bloody one, especially in the last decade or so, as the invasion of Iraq was added to earlier intrusions.
In closing, Turchin writes:
A policy of disengagement is a difficult option to contemplate, and goes entirely against the grain of almost all mainstream discourse on the subject. I understand why this is so: everybody wants evil to be defeated. But we must consider the consequences of our actions, no matter how well-intentioned they are. In the long run, a complete withdrawal will result in much less human misery inflicted on this unfortunate region than continual attempts by the West to solve its problems by military means.
This is what the best available empirical evidence has to tell us. And it's starkly at odds with everything our political elites are primed and inclined to do. Ultimately, the problem with Trump and Clinton in the upcoming election has almost nothing to do with either of them, ironically. How they differ from one another or from other candidates in recent election cycles is relatively insignificant compared to the vast difference between the logic of what's politically thinkable, on the one hand, and the logic of how history actually works, on the other.
Which is another way of saying, we can either brace ourselves for a multi-generation hundred-years war, or we can re-dedicate ourselves to working for a political revolution—one that will be even more comprehensive than what Bernie Sanders has talked about so far.