“Power corrupts, an old truism but why does it also make the powerful so stupid? Their power schemes become unstuck in time, at cruel cost to other; then the powerful put their stupid important heads together and invent the next similar schemes.”
― Martha Gellhorn, The Face of War (1987)
General Mattis’s resignation letter is essentially a position statement on our larger strategy in the Middle East. I think I’ve made it clear that I’m no supporter of Trump, but I’m with him on this one. I firmly believe that we are mired in a never-ending, no-win conflict in the Middle East. It is no-win, because it is essentially a battle for political power among the inhabitants of the Middle East which has raged for thousands of years. Clearly, there is an undercurrent of religious fanaticism, but aside from the occasional “true believer,” the religious bent merely serves the purposes of those who aspire to political power.
At different times, different leaders use that chit strategically to give their struggle for power some kind of moral legitimacy. In my mind, it is no different than Trump pandering to the religious right or Nancy Pelosi showing up at the oval office meeting over the pending government shutdown and claiming to come “prayerfully” to the discussion. Trump panders unapologetically. At least Pelosi’s supporters can hope she was being ironic.
We couch our participation in the conflict in Syria as a humanitarian effort, and we claim the same moral high ground that is claimed by the Arab leaders. Is anyone really kidding themselves anymore that we are not just fighting for our own economic interests? The difference between us and Russia and China, is that we feel the need to justify ourselves to the world. Our intentions are no different. Would we really be involved in the Middle East if it weren’t for our long-term oil dependency? Clearly, the Israeli state complicates this matter substantially, but I question whether it would have ever been supported by the West if not for vast Western economic interests in the region.
Mattis made a show of the need to support our allies. The fact is that we’ve carried the burden of providing the vast majority of combat personnel and funding while our “allies” around the world have criticized us at every turn. I’m willing to let Russia and China take up that mantle. Remember how it worked out the last time we tried to “save” another country from them. Vietnam. Look it up if you don’t remember. We’ve already learned that you can’t win the hearts and minds of people by killing them. While killing people is not our over-riding intention – putting Robert McNamara’s accounting aside for the moment – that’s what happens in war. When it happens, we fuel the anti-American hatred that gives credence to the claims of the power-seekers to moral superiority.
In the end, they will win, because we will leave at some point. If we haven’t “secured” Afghanistan in the last 17 years, what possible indication is there that another 1, 5, or 17 years will accomplish that? It is a lesson Russia learned in the 1980’s and has been roundly ignored ever since. We simply stepped in to fill the void created by their exit under the auspices of ridding the world of Saddam, then Bin Laden. Everything else has been an attempt to restore order in their absences. But order has rarely existed in the Middle East absent some totalitarian authority, whether it was Persian, Arab, Turkish or Western-backed.
This backlash from Mattis’s resignation is an example of how our politics keeps us mired in these conflicts. You hate Trump, so you oppose all of his policies. You wed yourself to a position and continue the conflict to the detriment of our people and the benefit of the War Machine. “Follow the money” sounds trite, but that tends to provide all the answers when it comes to politics here and everywhere else in the world.