Batondor on Moby Dick in Iraq

0486432157 Batondor wrote to me with this.
"Pat, On "economic determinism", all I will add to the argument is that I remember recently hearing someone put it most succinctly when it was suggested that saying that the Iraq Wars were fought over oil is like stating that the novel "Moby Dick" is about whaling… … and as for Afghanistan, a small thought experiment is worthy of consideration: how much would the world's oil supply and general economic stability be impacted if a major earthquake shut down all of Afghanistan's LOCs for a good year or two? On the other hand, I am at pains to accept at face value your implication that this is just about Israel. If I am to understand you correctly, you are suggesting that the CNAC types in both the US and Israel consciously cultivated artificial confrontations from the circumstances at hand in both 1990 and in 2000 in order to commit the US militarily in the region while we would remain relatively indifferent to and disengaged from the implications of Israel's expansionism within the West Bank… … though in all honesty, Pat, I'm not sure my greater pain is not the suspicion that you might be correct in contrast with the angst that comes from observing the more vicious reactions that the process can and has inspired (not to mention the personal aspects of those reactions when attempting to discuss them with family and friends on both sides of the matter). As for Obama's defense of strategy in Afghanistan, I also heard the interview with Rory Stewart on NPR yesterday and was wondering whether you would conceptually endorse his vision that a relatively small foreign military presence (~20,000 SF) could be coupled with modest but durable civilian development programs (though without the social/political engineering) to perhaps avert the impending catastrophe of creeping quagmiredom… … and as for myself, I can only hope that Obama's personal reaction to the PPT was the same as ours and that his greatest challenge in that regard is to find a meaningful alternative strategy that can pass political muster both in DC and with the public. PS: Did you (or any of your readers) see the interview of Chuck Hagel and Lee Hamilton on Meet The Press last Sunday? I was struck by the somberness, the lack of ambiguity, and I am equally struck by how little coverage it has received. I also noticed that Senator Kerry did not go to Afghanistan with Senators McCain, Graham, Lieberman, and Collins but that he is going later this month after having undergone hip surgery: imho, this is a good thing because he will not be obliged to speak in relative harmony with them while on foreign soil…"
The "Moby Dick" thing is most apt.  My position in regard to the circumstances leading to the US intervention in Iraq has long been established.  It was laid out fully in my article "Drinking the Koolaid,"  Middle East Policy, Summer, 2004. (available on line)  In a word, we were "bulldozed" into accepting an unnecessary war with the argument that Saddam's Iraq was an existential threat to the US.  It was not.  Your description of the culprits as the PNAC crowd both here and in Israel is just about right.  At this point it seems apparent that Cheney was a member of this group throughout the Bush presidency.  Bush himself?  He seems to have been along for the ride in his first term. 
I think that the program in Afghanistan should be to secure the capital and a coalition redoubt around Bagram and then use those areas as a base for counter-terrorism operations aimed at truly international Muslim zealot groups rather than the Taliban confederation of rebels.  Numbers of our troops in this?  20,000, 30,000, something like that.  Forget about building an Afghan nation-state.  That task would be so large that it might bleed us dry.  Some infrastructure projects would be a good idea but only in the context of an international consortium.  Buy the opium crop.  Destroy it, use it in the pharma industry, something.  The offensive operations against the international terrorists should be intelligence driven and consist largely of raids against specific people and organizations.  We should rely on CIA and the Special Operations people in the military.  We should take advantage of the "rentability" of many Afghan groups to use them as auxiliaries in this struggle.  This would be money well spent, just as it was well spent in Iraq.  What is going wrong in Iraq?  The fantasy Shia government has given the Sunni Arabs reason to believe that it will not honor the overt or implied promises that we made to them. 
Sadly, the price of quiet in both Iraq and Afghanistan will be measurable in dollars spent in "subsidies."  pl
This entry was posted in Current Affairs. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Batondor on Moby Dick in Iraq

  1. batondor says:

    Thanks (and you can obviously forget about my concern in the reposting on the earlier thread that this had gotten lost in transmission when I attempted to correct my confusion of Meet The Press for Face The Nation… though that’s hardly an unusual faux pas, n’est pas?).

  2. N. M. Salamon says:

    Please post the url for Drinking the kool-aid, as the Middle East Policy has server problems.
    Thank you.

  3. Dave of Maryland says:

    I think that the program in Afghanistan should be to secure the capital and a coalition redoubt around Bagram and then use those areas as a base for counter-terrorism operations aimed at truly international Muslim zealot groups rather than the Taliban confederation of rebels.
    Are you forgetting that Osama’s original complaint was peaceable US military bases in his home country of Saudi Arabia? Let the boys on the base drive around shooting at things & you only encourage every man-jack with red blood in his veins to “go kill a commie for Christ,” I mean, kill an American for Mohammad, Peace Be Upon His Name.
    If the government in Kabul has the support of a majority of its citizens, if the proposed venture is a matter of formal treaty between the two countries (which means Congress), if it has UN sanction, then, well, maybe it could be a good idea, though Richard Clark was of the opinion such matters were better handled by police than overt military force. Cops are certainly a lot cheaper and a bit less lethal.

  4. jonst says:

    If you have one, what is your position, in general, about ‘outsourcing’ these tasks to private entities. And by that I don’t simply mean entities like Blackwater that seem, and have seemed, almost from the beginning compromised.
    I think it is one thing to outsource some operations to local “auxiliaries”. But I am against outsourcing the ‘business’ to private industry in the States. Think it a very slippery slope.

  5. par4 says:

    I hope you realize that if we bought and destroyed the opium there it will be grown somewhere else.

  6. Patrick Lang says:

    of course.
    I would never hire US mercenaries for anything. Local forces are a different matter. pl

  7. batondor says:

    CNAC should be PNAC…
    “Project for a New American Century”
    a la Kristol, Perle, & Co.
    My mistake, not Pat’s…
    Sorry to all for any confusion.
    PS: not to be confused with PNAS…
    “Project for a New American Security”
    which is obviously better (though they’ve got their problems, too) and equally obviously hooked into the Obama Administration, but we’ll have to see where it leads in the long run… imho.

  8. N. M. Salamon says:

    Thank you for posting Drinking the Kool Aid. Found it very enlighting.

  9. Jose says:

    We should take advantage of the “rentability” of many Afghan groups to use them as auxiliaries in this struggle.
    Col. are you saying that 65,000 troops is only enough for Kabul and the suburbs?

  10. Sean McBride says:

    Thanks for the clarification — I thought I knew the neocon/neolib landscape quite well, and CNAC wasn’t ringing any bells. 🙂

  11. Patrick Lang says:

    I put a number in the post. pl

  12. Jose says:

    O.k. Col, I screwed up the post badly…

    We should take advantage of the “rentability” of many Afghan groups to use them as auxiliaries in this struggle.
    Col. are you saying that 65,000 troops is only enough for Kabul and the suburbs?

    Should have also included:
    Your recommendation is to start over with the capital:
    1. build and hold the Afghan Army
    2. while the tribes begin to fight each other over their petty disputes
    3. then use the disputes to our advantage by renting alliances
    4. hunt down al-Qaeda infrastructure to extinction
    If so, sounds better than anything I’ve heard from anybody else.
    No more posting from my iPhone…

  13. PL! Question does not your strategy sound quite like the Soviet strategy for its proxy at the end of the Communist regime?

  14. batondor says:

    I remembered where I heard the Moby Dick reference: it was Ambassador Christopher Hill talking to Charlie Rose on July 20th of this year…
    Why can’t they pass a hydrocarbon law?
    Well, you know, people say, “This is a hydrocarbon law; it’s just about oil.” Well, it’s about
    oil the way “Moby Dick” is a story about a whale. …
    … and I don’t know whether to consider it ironic or not that this interview has been posted on the website for the US embassy in Baghdad:
    … but I do not find it ironic at all when I am reminded of another exchange in this interview:
    I assume we’ve communicated to them to stop it, aren’t we?
    I think the Iranians are very well aware of our concerns about this malevolent influence.
    I mean, I assume General Petraeus told them, actually — stop it.
    I don’t want to confirm any individual discussions. But I can assure you the Iranians have
    been made well aware of our concerns. You know, in my backyard…
    What are the consequences if they don’t stop?
    I wonder what you think of Amb. Hill in his present job, Pat…
    … on the other hand, no comment is necessary regarding Mr. Rose, a journalist with whom I have become increasingly exasperated with each passing year (i.e., I must admit that he was once one of my preferred interviewers…).

  15. David Habakkuk says:


    How far the ‘PNAC types’ in Israel and the U.S. have consciously cultivated artificial confrontations is I think a moot point. I suspect that the common propensity for propagandists to come to believe their own propaganda is evident — and also that a good deal of Orwellian ‘doublethink’ may have been at issue.

    I also think a combination of the very genuine and deep trauma arising from the treatment of Jews in Europe, and the very genuine vulnerability of Israel, has led both the Israeli government and its foreign supporters into a deeply dangerous dead end.

    It has doubtless been all too easy for Israelis to see their Arab antagonists in the image of the German Nazis — although this was always deeply misleading. But more than sixty years after the Holocaust, with Jews accepted — and thriving — throughout the Western world, the significance of doing this is very different from what it was in the early years of the Israeli state.

    When in the 1996 ‘Clean Break’ paper a group of Netanyahu’s American supporters worried about ‘eroding critical mass’ in Israel, they were not wrong. But implicit in Netanyahu’s own propensity to see Israel’s Arab — and latterly Persian — enemies as latter-day Nazis is an obvious question as to why Israelis concerned for their own survival should not move to less dangerous neighbourhoods.

    And in fact many Israelis — and in particular the educated and technologically sophisticated elites on which the country’s survival depends — are doing precisely that, in a way that poses a potentially acute threat to its ‘critical mass’.

    This creates what may be an insoluble dilemma. To say that fears of a renewed Holocaust in the West are without foundation threatens to collapse the Zionist project. But to attempt to maintain that project by continuing not simply to manipulate Holocaust guilt, but by grossly exaggerating the extent of latent anti-Semitism in the West, may not in the longer run preserve support for Israel, and may actually increase anti-Semitism.

    Compounding the difficulties here is the fact that the immense power of the United States seems to hold out the promise of achieving an objective which is in fact unachievable: the “unconditional acceptance by Arabs of our rights, especially in their territorial dimension,” which the ‘Clean Break’ authors described as the “only solid base” for the future.

    To enlist American power in support of this objective, however, it has been necessary to provide reasons why forces considered ‘existential threats’ to Israel are also ‘existential threats’ to the United States. And this leads naturally to the kind of lunatic hyping of the threats to the U.S. evident in the Powerpoint presentation to the JCS which Colonel Lang recently discussed.

    But this does not imply that one should see the ‘Clean Break’ authors and their successors as no more than conscious cynics — still less that they are deeply cunning Machiavellians.

    It seems to me highly likely that the authors of the ‘Clean Break’ had genuinely persuaded themselves that what they advocating was as much in the interests of the United States as of Israel. And here, one has to take into account the curious naivety of so many of these people.

    After all, they moved from the extraordinary suggestion that a Hashemite restoration in Iraq might remodel it in the image of Jordan, to the equally fantastic notion that empowering the supposedly secular Shia would lead to an Israel- and U.S-friendly regime in that country which would be a dagger pointed at the heart of the theocratic regime in Tehran.

    In the event, as was predictable, the empowering of the Iraqi Shia has greatly improved the strategic position of Iran. As a result, the contradictions in the PNAC project have become even more acute. The possibility of an Iranian nuclear capability is indeed a real threat to the ‘critical mass’ of the Israeli state — precisely because even as a prospect it encourages emigration. So the pressures to dramatise the threat to Israel, and to hype up an ‘existential threat’ to the U.S., become intense.

    But in trotting out the well-worn Nazi analogies in relation to Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu and his American supporters are backing themselves into a corner. In creating this nightmare image, they threaten to intensify precisely the pressures for Israelis to emigrate which they fear.

    Accordingly, they have created a situation where the alternative to inveigling the United States into attacking Iran is catastrophic for them — and as a result are likely to go to any lengths to make this happen.

  16. Patrick Lang says:

    I don’t think so. soviet 40th Army was a very poor organization. It was from one of the Cnetral Asia military districts. It performed badly. Officer/enlisted men relations were terrible. there many combat refuals of orders. Operations and logistics were poorly done and soviet troops often went hungry and bare a—d in the field.
    The Soviets tried to construct a viable host country government and to have it rule a unified country. That was a miserable failure.
    They tried to consruct Afghan military forces. They were never any good, No stomach for the fight. There were various soviet style economic projects. None of them worked any better than they did in the USSR.
    The tribals were pretty much all on the Mujahid side except I suppose for the Hazara. Who knows about that?
    Sounds like COIN to me, not my old fashioned “let’s use’em against each pther stuff. pl

  17. Babak Makkinejad says:

    David Habakkuk:
    You are cutting Israelis too much slack.
    Their major effort has been to gain land, by hook or by crook (mostly the latter) while hiding behind the dead of the Shoah.
    The damage they have done to Judaism’s relationship with Islam cannot be properly estimated – suffices to say that they (the Israelis) and their US and EU enablers have succeeded in introducing something that had not existed for 1400 years: a religious war between Judaism and Islam.
    They (the Israelis) do have an alternative. They can get on their cars, trucks, and whatever else they have and leave the Occupied Territories.
    The War will not end in Peace – too late for that – but at least the possibility of Truce exists.

  18. Bill Wade, NH says:

    I find it oh so very frustrating that if you say the things that Israelis need to do to save themselves, you’ll be labeled an “anti-semite”

  19. rfjk says:

    I have been reading your blog for a long time, and so far you have more often than not been spot on in pinning the end game before these affairs played out. I suspect Afghanistan will wind up shaking out the same way, with the US following polices your experience informs is the proper mission and footprint in-country and the Af/Pak border lands.

  20. J says:

    Notice how Israel is actively working to colonize parts of Iraq.

  21. David Habakkuk says:

    Babak Makkinejad,

    You are more sanguine than I. I think that the ‘PNAC types’ have probably effectively destroyed the possibility, not simply of peace, but of a hudna. It is precisely because their conviction of an ‘existential threat’ to Israel has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that they are so dangerous.

    As to the catastrophic role of Israel’s ‘US and EU enablers’ I do not disagree with you. We almost all of us have a very strong common interest in avoiding religious wars — in which category I include global crusades for democracy.


    Among others to use the ‘Moby Dick’ analogy was the co-founder of the New York Review of Books, Jason Epstein, in an article in that journal in May 2003. Among other things, he described the way many German Jews shared the then prevalent enthusiasm for war in 1914 — recalling Martin Buber’s vision of it as a “sacred spring” which would finally unite Germans and Jews in a “joint historical mission”: to civilise the Near East.


    Epstein also quotes a comment by a very notable Jewish opponent of the war, the great Viennese satirist Karl Kraus. In Kraus’s view, that catastrophic conflict was the product of:

    ‘a disastrous failure of the imagination and an almost deliberate refusal to envisage the inevitable consequences of words and acts…made possible above all by the corruption of language in politics and by some of the major newspapers.’

    Interestingly, Epstein was — I think still is — the husband of Judith Miller.

  22. Babak Makkinejad says:

    David Habakkuk:
    I am sanguine because I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is a broad consensus in US that the war in Palestine serves the national interests of the United States.
    Consider: it leaves Israel with no strategic alternative that to do what US asks her to do – Mr. Begin, in fact, in an interview alluded to this without elaborations: “we are doing things for you”.
    Secondly, the existence of the nuclear arsenal of Israel gives US the ability to sell protection in Eastern Mediterranean – the Dom Amerigo thesis.
    Moreover, US positioning as the one indispensible interlocutor for both sides gives her additional leverage over both sides of the war. In that sense, an acceptable settlement in Palestine is not in the interest of US since she will then lose her leverage.
    All the while, the leaders of the United States and large segments of the population, calculate that they can either control the religious dimensions of this war or else can live with its consequences.
    Israelis understand this, in my opinion, and thus continue on stealing Palestinian land.
    This is a fool’s errand but polities and states learn only through getting burnt, and sometime not even then.

  23. Babak Makkinejad says:

    David Habakkuk:
    Thank you for the information: ” recalling Martin Buber’s vision of it as a “sacred spring” which would finally unite Germans and Jews in a “joint historical mission”: to civilise the Near East.”.
    Good God man, the height of their hurbris and the depth of their foolishness truly astonished me.
    Should a man from the Near East then express his deep and heartfelt gratitude to the Forces of Providence for WWII?

  24. David Habakkuk says:

    Babak Makkinejad,

    ‘Good God man, the height of their hurbris and the depth of their foolishness truly astonished me.’

    That was precisely Jason Epstein’s point. His article concluded:

    ‘In the summer of 1914 even the war’s most severe critics could not have foreseen the extent of the catastrophe to come. Today in a chastened and wiser world such blindness is unforgivable, the more so given the nearly universal opposition abroad to Bush’s war. Should the United States nevertheless persist in the crusade that Mr. Bolton’s remarks foreshadow, the unforeseeable consequences can be imagined only with horror.’

Comments are closed.