What went wrong ?

Looking back over the early history of the blogosphere, I checked the site of one of the early European “warbloggers”, Bjørn Staerk, and found this newly published and very impressive reflective piece. Not many people have the courage to look unflinchingly at their own mistakes, but Staerk does so. A short extract

When I look around me at the world we got, the world we created after 2001, that’s the question I keep coming back to: What went wrong? The question nags me all the more because I was part of it, swept along with all the currents that took us from the ruins of the World Trace center through the shameful years that followed. Iraq, the war on terror, the new European culture war.

This mirror of “What Went Wrong” wouldn’t be a story on the same scale, but it has the main theme in common. It would be about Westerners who had their reality bubble pricked by people from an alien culture, and spent the next couple of years stumbling about like idiots, unable to deal rationally with this new reality that had forced itself on them. Egging each other on, they predicted, interpreted, and labelled – and legislated and invaded. They saw clearly, through beautiful ideas. And they were wrong.

Who were these people? They were us.

As someone else would say, read the whole thing.

29 thoughts on “What went wrong ?

  1. Bjorn Staerk says:

    Our worldview had three major focus points – Iraq, terrorism and Islam – and we were wrong about all of them.

    I bow to no one in my eagerness to mea culpa my bads in the “clash of civilizations”, however one wants to construe it. But I would not be so sure that the Hawkish/Dryish Right were so completely wrong about each and everyone of the Big Three that Staerk mentions. I mark the Right as getting 1.5 out of 3 or a borderline pass/fail. The Left have plenty to fess up on, but have gotten a free pass for their bads so far.

    On Iraq: 0/1. The Hawks Iraq-attack has been a total failure for all concerned, except Sadr in Iraq and Howard in Australia. We should not invade their world and try to make them over into facsimiles of us. Iraqis dont like being invaded and even if they did it is doubtful whether their culture could adapt to modern civic norms.

    On Terrorism: 0.5/1. The militarist counter-terrorist strategies pursued by the UK/US/AUS governments have had mixed results. They have violated due process in various areas (eg Gitmo, extraordinary rendition, habeas corpus etc). The torture allegations have been a real set-back, both operationally (ill-discipline) and politically (public relations).

    So a global legalist, rather than national militarist, policy on terrorism is indicated.

    But the fact is that none of the core GWOT states have suffered ME-sourced terrorist attacks. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have more or less stayed in the anti-Islamist camp. And Al Quaeda has suffered substantial attrition. The Taliban is down, although not out. Bin Laden is still at large, but ineffective.

    Islam: 1/1. Home-grow Islamism is a major threat that the Wet Left has ignored, if not encouraged. The Dry Right have totally trounced them on the issue of ethnic integration versus segregation (or unity v diversity). Multiculturalism as a settlement philosophy is discredited.

    So cultural conservatism based on traditional Enlightenment principles, rather than multicultural constructivism based on reactionary tribalism, is indicated if we are to continue to sustain a high flow of immigrants from Muslim South West Asia.

    While we are about it, is Pr Q ready to re-consider or share with us his positions on counter-terrorist strategy and NESB immigrant selection/settlement policy?

  2. Staerk’s piece is a good one. in relation to the “war on terrorism”, I’ve argued previously that the fundamental problem with it is that it is a metaphor, not a war in the conventional sense of the term. Just like a war on drugs, war on poverty, war on hunger, war on crime etc. Terrorism is a concept, not a nation state. It is more akin to crime; and in the same way that there are criminals who engage in crime, sometimes as organised gangs, even transnational gangs, there are terrorists who engage in terrorism. (not quite identical – more terrrifying, by definition, and done for different reasons – nevertheless the point still holds that “war” in the context is a metaphor). Doctrines developed for the actual fighting of wars between nation states don’t apply or even give satisfactory results when applied to a metaphorical war.

    Perhaps another of the problems is the relative lack of experience of the USA in dealing with terrorism – may be one of the reasons for the gulf between the US and much of Europe over the issue. counter to this suggestion, though, I am puzzled why more of the UK experience in dealing with the spate of Provisional IRA (and like) terrorism attacks in the 1970s (where over time the UK worked out how to deal with this very real terrorism problem) did not seemingly flow through the closeness of the Bush/Blair relationship and influence the US thinking.

  3. “Multiculturalism as a settlement philosophy is discredited.”

    And your alternative is… what? No hijab or yarmulke, English only, no kebabs, compulsory Christmas, no mosques or temples, Christian denominations only?

    Enlighten us on conservative Enlightenment principles, they sound fascinating.

  4. “As for the chance of success, what gave us the idea that we could estimate this? There are some now who say that even if the war supporters got a lot of things wrong, so did the opponents, so there you go, that’s uncertainty for you. Everyone was wrong, but at least we were on the side of freedom, and they were on Saddam’s. But that’s just not true. The opponents were right. They said this was extremely risky, they said it might result in countless deaths and instability. They got a lot of details wrong, but that’s just the point. For the Iraq invasion to go right, war supporters had to get many predictions right. Opponents knew that if any of those predictions were wrong, the whole thing could fail. So the smart choice was to be cautious.”

    Nice thesis until you recognise the fact that most of those same cautious folk about Iraq were guilty of this same lack of caution in respect to Afghanistan. Is that the greater stupidity one might well ask? Personally I think both were worth the punt, but admittedly they were last ditch, desperate measures to try and avoid a total clash of civilisations with Islam. In that respect we have all learned a salutary lesson. These people are not yet like Germans, Japanese or Italians at the end of WW2. No they’re more like some Koreans, which is much more problematic, given their numbers. In that respect we naive infidels have all learned something very important about Islam now.

  5. “last ditch, desperate measures to try and avoid a total clash of civilisations with Islam”

    What, the invasion of Iraq, a secular state?

    Ground control to Major Observa, your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong…

  6. Hal9000,
    Yes we can all laugh now at a futile attempt to set up one, half decent, civil democracy in the ME as a beacon of light for the region. Bloody fanciful really when you consider where so called moderate Islam is still at
    How on earth can this stinking, mediaeval doctrine and its followers coexist with intelligent, decent folk in the satellite, internet age eh? Look at what happens when you take away their Saddams for Christ sakes. As for civilising the Taliban…

  7. “Multiculturalism as a settlement philosophy is discredited.”

    I think you’re mistaking half a millimeter of rain for the end of the drought.

    If the end of multiculturalism consists of the average Alan Jones listener enjoying a whinge about Habib and politicians pandering to the xenophobe vote then I have to say I am unimpressed.

    In order to discredit multi-culturalism there is going to have be
    1) some actual real policies to replace multi-culturalism instead of empty rhetoric
    2) policy successes solving problems that multi-culturalism has failed to

    After a decade in power a conservative government has gotten all the way to removing the word Multicultural from the name of the immigration department. If the processes that produced multi-culturalism had moved at the same pace it would have been absolutely laughable to claim they had any relevance at all.

    As for policy successes, well ask France how its policy of enforced mono-culturalism is going.

    Multi-culturalism has allowed one of the most dramatic demographic changes ever seen in any country happen with barely a ripple. Australia’s major cities have levels of crime and social problems that are staggeringly low considering their present ethnic mix. That’s runs on the board.

    The truth is that the only way to genuinely reverse multi-culturalism, as opposed to tokenistic opposition, is to massively reduce levels of immigration. With high levels of immigration the only way to fill the quota’s is with people from all over the world. There are simply not enough Europeans and Americans interested in living here. People from backgrounds very different to Australia are inevitably going to want to keep some of their home culture and take very long times to adopt an Australian identity. Anyone with one eye open can see that no major political party is ever going to do this. Multi-culturalism is not going anywhere.

  8. swio,
    You laboured under the misapprehension we had genuine multiculturalism until Islam came along. No not your affluent, middle class, take it or leave it, Asian student variety. Your down to earth, common or garden, ME variety. The ones who are taught statues should be blown up among other things.

  9. At any rate, observa, you’re doing a good job of illustrating why your side has lost people like Staerk.

    Those who supported the overthrow of the Taliban and opposed the Iraq war had a correct appreciation of how difficult these things are. With a proper commitment from the start, Afghanistan might have been a success, and opponents of the Iraq war (including me) pointed to the diversion of resources and focus as one of many arguments against this war.

    Unfortunately, what we got was policy driven by a coalition of opportunists, neoconservative ideologues, culture warriors and straight out warmongers.

  10. “stinking, mediaeval doctrine”… “their Saddams”

    C’mon, Observa, this really is thin stuff. Saddam may have been many bad things, but “their man” for AQ he was not. I know it, you know it, even the Bushites knew it – although the depth of their ignorance is indeed a marvel. Any statements to the contrary – eg the alleged AQ-Saddam intelligence meeting in Prague – have never been anything more than crude propaganda designed to confuse and hoodwink the American public, as has been exposed more thoroughly than the Piltdown Man hoax.

    To go over this thoroughly explored territory, AQ wasn’t an issue in Iraq until the posse of cowboys went in. But now it is, although even now AQ is a bit player. The invasion and occupation has never been some kind of clumsy attempt to do good. It’s always been a clumsy attempt to impose imperial hegemony over the oil honey pot and to boost the Israeli colonial project by weakening other regional players. Don’t take my word for it, check out what the lead players in the US war party over at the American Enterprise Institute had to say about the subject back in the ’90s. But of course you know this, which makes your continued parading of these lies rather malodorous.

  11. JackS,

    I’m not sure I agree with you on the 0.5/1 for terrorism. I think that your artificial separation of iraq, terrorism and islam into separate problems suggests too strongly that these problems are not intermeshed, and has allowed you to allocate points where none are deserved.

    What is “ME sourced terrorism”? It doesn’t matter where the terrorism originates from. In actions such as invading iraq and attacking afghanistan, incentives may have been given to home grown terrorists and non-ME terrorists such as in Bali. Dealing with terrorism, may have contributed to the problems associated with islamism, and created other types of terrorism besides ME sourced terrorism.

    Are people in America or Australia actually safer from terrorism? I’m not sure about that. Who cares if al qaeda has taken a hit in the ME, when those who want to harm our society are an amorphous group of individuals all around the world who share more in outlook than they do in organisational membership.

    I’d give them less than 0.5 for terrorism, and about 0.5 for islamism, using your categories – a fail all up.

  12. Sounds like he’s contracted a case of Faux Fukuyama Syndrome.

    We were right about Iraq, we were right about terrorists, we were right about Iran. Lefties believe Saddam Hussein should still be in office killing people but not one of them had the courage to call for his reinstatement to power. Iraq was a “secular state”? Is that why President Clinton bombed Sudan after INSISTING Iraq was cooperating with theocratic Al Qaeda in the production of VX nerve gas?

    The left even opposed the war in Afghanistan. They also lionise Clinton who allowed bin Laden to escape three times and lost his own war against terrorism throughout the 1990s.

    The better class of lefty should lead the way by apologising for what their failed worldview wrought. They could start with Bali and 9/11.

  13. CL, I’d be interested in an explanation of your support for Kim Jong-Il in North Korea, the Communist Party in China, the dictatorship in Uzbekistan, the Saudi theocracy and so on.

    At least, I assume you believe these people should be in office, since you’ve noticeably failed to call for war to overthrow them. Unlike lefties you clearly don’t believe that a balance of costs and benefits should be used in decisions about war, so you must support these regimes.

    Or is there a tiny little hole in your oft-repeated argument?

  14. Still working it out says: “Australia’s major cities have levels of crime and social problems that are staggeringly low considering their present ethnic mix.” Seems that you are at least admitting that a more diverse ethnic mix would tend to increase the risk of social disfunction. And we have somehow avoided this natural outcome how? By funding SBS? And why would we contue to take the risk which you have identified?

    In any case, Jack S has managed to derail the conversation by intepreting the Islam in “Iraq, Terrorism and Islam” in terms of immigration and multiculturalism. I do not believe Bush and the Hawks were against Muslim immigrants. They were against any strong pan-islamic movement that could threaten their oil interests or Isreal. Are Isreal or the oil fields safer now? It is hard to argue that the hawks’ war achieved any progress here either.

  15. “Sounds like he’s contracted a case of Faux Fukuyama Syndrome.”

    Looks like CL continues to suffer from Syndrome Fabrication Syndrome (SFS). Sad.

    “[N]ot one [Leftie] had the courage to call for his reinstatement to power.”

    One did, right here on this blog.

    Does CL have Selective Memory Syndrome? Worrying.

  16. When I was at Uni in the 80’s, the lefties were protesting (somewhat ineffectively) about Saddam Hussein at a time when the US and UK were supporting him – especially when he invaded Iran.

  17. I have some sympathy for an ex post assessment that the Iraq war is a failure, particularly for the Iraqi people. However, what were the alternatives at the time leading to the war? As I recall it, there were concerns about Saddam Hussein having a nuclear weapons program (which even the French and Russians shared) which the international community sought to address through a sanctions regime that seemed increasingly unsatisfactory over time, due to its impact on the Iraqi people. The alternatives then seemed:
    (a) continue the sanctions regime;
    (b) abandon the sanctions regime; or
    (c) topple the Saddam regime.

    Or do people think that the assumption about Saddam seeking to acquire nuclear weapons is wrong and that the relevant decision makers in Washington and London knew this to be the case? Even so, how could the international community go forward indefinitely with a regime that was demonstrably hostile to its neighbours and unaccountable to its own people (thanks to oil reserves)?

    When undertaking an ex post assessment of the costs and benefits of the Iraqi war, what exactly is the relevant counterfactual? I assume the most likely counterfactual is one with a hostile regime bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, and (unless the sanctions regime is abandoned) continued misery for the Iraqi people.

    Another point which I’d be grateful for views on. It appears that prior to the war, large numbers of Iraqis were seeking to leave the country. This no longer seems to be the case, at least going by the number of Iraqis seeking asylum in other countries. I’m sure there are Iraqis that continue to seek asylum, but it doesn’t seem as high as before (i.e., during the Saddam regime). Does this tell us something about the state of Iraq with and without the Saddam regime?

    That said, we should certainly seek to learn from history and I applaud (and admire) people’s willingness to admit errors of judgement.

  18. “It appears that prior to the war, large numbers of Iraqis were seeking to leave the country. This no longer seems to be the case, at least going by the number of Iraqis seeking asylum in other countries.”

    Are you being serious?

    A quick Google will reveal that about 2,000,000 have left Iraq since the invasion. About 800,000 are in Syria alone. Most of them left after the fall of Saddam.

    That represents about 10% of the entire population. These refugees are mostly Sunni. In other words, ethnic cleansing proceeds apace right under the very noses of the COW.

  19. Just to follow up, they aren’t seeking asylum in Coalition countries because they don’t stand a chance of even making it to the gate. Even people facing threats of imminent death by virtue of having worked with the Coalition don’t stand a chance of qualifying as refugees.

  20. “Those who supported the overthrow of the Taliban and opposed the Iraq war had a correct appreciation of how difficult these things are. With a proper commitment from the start, Afghanistan might have been a success..”

    ‘might’ being the operative word John, as if Germany and France couldn’t have done all the serious heavy lifting in Afghanistan, along with China and Russia too? Of course with Saddam holding the fort in Iraq against AQ as we’re so often told, it would be preposterous to think Islamists would have concentrated all their current Iraq efforts in Afghanistan now wouldn’t it? Perhaps if the UN had denounced statues before going into Afghanistan, the locals would have thrown petals at the feet of advancing blue helmets John.

    Now the success of multiculturalism in Australia may be one of history’s great furphys. What may have in fact occurred after Anglo settlement and civilisation was a very selective immigration program, purely by chance. For most of the post war period, this massive influx largely consisted largely of those who were fleeing the results or threat of socialism, be it of the nationalist or communist variety. That includes Europeans to the victims of Ho Chi Min right up to Tiananmen Square victims. It was perhaps this great unifying theme of their hatred of the leftist experience, which made them a great monocultural addition to our society, despite their varied ethnicity. That seems to have broken down now that we are accepting the outcasts of tribal and theocratic conflicts such as from the ME and tribal Africa. It’s almost as if the failed Doctrine of Peace has openly sought out the Religion of Peace to wreak spite on a peaceful and happy congregation of individual self starters, apart from the other dysfunctional tribalists they’ve sought to inundate them with. The way in which the left has turned aboriginals into blame game victims is mirrored internationally with Muslims too. It’s probably no coincidence.

  21. Thanks Katz, John – I wasn’t sure about the number of Iraqis leaving. That would be a telling statistic.

    Any views on what the likely alternative to toppling the Saddam regime would be? Do opponents of the war believe that the international community would have just continued with the sanctions regime (despite its harsness on the Iraqi people), or would have just lifted the sanctions regime and risk Saddam eventually acquiring nuclear weapons? I’m interested in what we think the likely scenario absent the war would have been, not what we think ought to have happened.

    It seems to me that one cannot reasonably discuss the merits of the Iraqi war without having a common view on what the most likely counterfactual is.

    I’m not an expert on international politics, but it does seem to me that the sanctions regime was not working in terms of giving the international community some confidence that Saddam’s regime will not eventually acquire nuclear weapons. Also, given its harsh effect on the Iraqi people, I doubt think the international community would have had an appetite to leave the sanctions regime in place, let alone tighten it further. The problem with Iraq (then) was that it seemed to be under the control of a regime that was fundamentally unaccountable to its people. (Iran on the other hand seems different; there seems to be some level of accountability in that country, notwithstanding its theocratic constitution.)

  22. “It seems to me that one cannot reasonably discuss the merits of the Iraqi war without having a common view on what the most likely counterfactual is.”

    A reasonable point, CYC.

    The sanctions regime was unjust and counterproductive. It was a modern repetition of the stupidity and inhumanity of the Versailles Diktat after the end of WWI. It punished ordinary Iraqis for the crimes of their tyrannical government. (And frankly I’m amazed that anyone with any historical perspective at all could have agreed to it.)

    It is arguable that the sanctions regime arose out of contempt for the weakness of Saddam, not fear of his strength. The general rule being: it’s counterproductive to impose a Versailles Diktat on great people (like the Germans) but it’s ok to impose it on no-account people (like Iraqis).

    The alternative would have been to recognise the facts on the ground. That is, the majority of Iraqis are Shiite and perhaps most have a hankering for some kind of theocracy. This is, of course, anathema to the US because the rise of Shiiism would have amounted to an extension of Iranian influence, and quite possibly equally horrible ethnic cleansing of Sunni as is occurring in Iraq right now.

    But this is the situation we find in Iraq today, except that the US has expended its credibility on a fool’s errand to deny these facts on the ground.

    There was never any neat solution to Iraq. The trouble is that the US has chosen the worst possible course of action, largely because they hypnotised themselves into believing that “Shock and Awe” would produce a neat solution.

  23. […] Quiggin’s published recently haven’t figured in Missing Link – so I’ll link to them now. A link to a mea culpa from someone formerly pro the Iraq War and a reflective piece on the state of […]

  24. Thanks Katz. Perhaps the US/UK should have been more modest in their goal. Just overthrow the Saddam regime, ensure there are no nuclear weapons, put in place an effective nuclear weapons monitoring regime, and have the grace to accept an Iranian style theocracy developing in Iraq (perhaps with autonomy for the Kurds)? The Iranian government’s ambitions to destroy Israel is frightening, but at least they seem more accountable to their people than the Saddam regime or even (say) the Saudis. (So perhaps notwithstanding the Iranian rhetoric, perhaps we can expect rationality to prevail there.)

    I’m not convinced the international community could have safely left Saddam in power in Iraq with an ineffective weapons monitoring regime. Then again, I’m not an expert on these matters.

  25. #11. “As for policy successes, well ask France how its policy of enforced mono-culturalism is going”. (Still working it out says)

    Well, it is not going that bad (you should not watch so much Fox news TV). It worked great for two centuries, with integration of all immigrants within two generations. I am not making this up, I have witnessed myself several waves of immigration under the French way of forced “republican” assimilation since WWII: 30 years later, to track who comes from where, you really need to look at the picture or the name, not at the profession or voting behavior. I have not seen that in the US.

    It seems that this model is now failing. But this is fairly recent (last 15 years). To early to draw general conclusions. The poor shape of the economy during this period could be an independant explanation. In addition, the apparent failure is concentrated on a very particular group/culture, and you can think of specific explanations (particular population from an economic standpoint, recent nasty colonial war and past that the French do not want to face). Also, a big chunk of this particular population is doing great. And in the Paris area, almost 50% of marriages are inter “cultural” or whatever you would call them, an impressive percentage by US or Canadian standards, suggesting that the process is actually working in the longer run.

    No propaganda in this statement, but I believe that it is too early to disqualify this model of “enforced monoculturalism”. It would be worth testing it in an environment with better GDP growth. But it is true that the weak points have become apparent, and that we can no longer see the model as the perfect legacy of the Enlightment, as we liked to do so.

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