WARNING: Minor Spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984 ahead
Like many Americans, I ended my Christmas day by paying $15 to subscribe to HBO Max and watch Wonder Woman 1984. The much anticipated sequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman promised to make the horrors of 2020 fade for awhile. And it did, but only by replacing them with frustration and confusion. It…wasn’t a great film. You can read why, or just watch it yourself. But what really stuck out to me was the particular sort of Orientalism it contained, a lazy Orientalism oblivious to its political implications but still problematic.
Wonder Woman 1984 tells the story of Wonder Woman fighting against a super villain (sorry for the spoilers). But what caught the attention of this Middle East scholar was a sequence in which the villain meets with a deposed (I think) Egyptian King who wishes to return to power and kick the “heathens” out of his land. The villain helps him, but the guy already sold his oil to the Saudis (I guess he pumped it all out?) Then the villain raises a wall, cutting off the poorest people of Egypt from their water sources.
Restraint in US foreign policy is having a moment. That’s a good thing. But I worry it’s unclear whether restraint is a means or an end, and what that end would be. Without resolving this–preferably in favor of re-imagining a continued US leadership role in the world–current calls for restraint may do more harm than good.
The popularity of restraint in US foreign policy should be making me happy. I went to college in the Bush years, and marched against the Iraq war. After graduating, I joined a group in DC trying to formulate a smart, progressive foreign policy vision. A few years later I resigned in frustration that they accepted the troubling aspects of Obama’s foreign policy–like his expanded drone strikes–and focused mainly on helping Democrats sound tough on foreign policy. I cheered the pushback on US support for the Saudis in Yemen, beginning under Obama and continuing under Trump.
The United States is closing in on the 18th anniversary of its first wartime death in Afghanistan, that of CIA operative Mike Spann, providing a melancholy opportunity to emphasize the role of grand strategy as a policymaking tool. To this end, I ask why the United States has done relatively poorly in so many of its so-called small wars, wars against much weaker adversaries. Its poor record is surprising because the United States has done so well in its major wars, including the world wars, the Korean War, and the Cold War.
Some of the United States’ smaller wars have gone as planned. The invasion of Grenada and replacement of its leftist government in 1983 was quick. The attack on Panama to replace President Noriega in 1989-1990 was also relatively short and low cost for the United States. Some small wars (small from the great power perspective, of course) have not turned out quite as planned, but have also not escalated significantly either vertically or horizontally, or in costs. These include the humanitarian military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Why should Iraq and Afghanistan still drag on, then, when the United States and its allies are fighting weak non-state actors whose ideologies hold little appeal? Why did the U.S. intervention against insurgents in Vietnam last 21 years? Why did its intervention against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement, which started out stealing and buying its weapons from the Salvadoran military in the Salvadoran civil war, last 13 years?
Vice President Pence recently pressured the US agency for international development (USAID) to appoint a special liaison to Iraqi Christians. This may not capture the same headlines as the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination fight or the new NAFTA, but it could have significant—and unexpected—implications for Middle East stability. Pence’s move was part of a year-long fight over US aid policy towards Iraq’s religious minorities, with several conservatives voices claiming USAID and the United Nations were failing to help groups persecuted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In response, Pence has pressured USAID to change its approach. While helping persecuted people is a good thing, I’m worried these policies may actually cause more harm then they prevent.
Last October, Vice President Pence said the United States would redirect aid from the United Nations and directly help Iraqi Christians. He followed this up with an announcement that the United States is dedicating aid to charities trying to help Iraqi Christians. The recent appointment of a liaison to work “directly” with Iraqi churches on reconstruction efforts is the latest development in this process.
The publication of the long-awaited Chilcot Report on Britain’s role in the Iraq War last week produced a flurry of activity, with journalists desperately skimming through the 2.6m words within the three hours they were allocated prior to full publication. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of their attention was focused on whether or not Tony Blair could be held legally and morally culpable for the chaos that has ensued since the invasion back in 2003. And despite fears that it would be a whitewash, the report was pretty damning in its assessment of both the justifications for war and its execution. Amongst its key findings, the report found that Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, the case for war was presented with ‘a certainty which was not justified’, the intelligence was flawed and often went unchallenged, advice about the possibility of sectarian violence was ignored and post-war planning was described as being ‘wholly inadequate’. Crucially, the report also concludes that the ‘peaceful options for disarmament had not been exhausted’ and the war was ‘not a last resort’.
Reactions to the report have been pretty incredible, with The Guardian describing it as ‘an unprecedented, devastating indictment of how a prime minister was allowed to make decisions by discarding all pretence at cabinet government, subverting the intelligence agencies, and making exaggerated claims about threats to Britain’s national security’ and The New York Times arguing that the ‘inquiry’s verdict on the planning and conduct of British military involvement in Iraq was withering, rejecting Mr. Blair’s contention that the difficulties encountered after the invasion could not have been foreseen’. But what has been largely ignored in all the furore is the inquiry’s scathing critique of the government’s attitude towards civilian casualties. Given that the discussion on collateral damage is the last section of a twelve volume report, nestled between a chapter on the welfare of service personnel and an annex on the history of Iraq from 1583 to 1960, it is perhaps not surprisingly that there has been little discussion of its findings. But it is well-worth looking at its conclusion because they reveal a lot of about how civilian casualties were framed, why the government was so reluctant to count the dead and how it perceived the data collected by other organisations, such as the Iraq Body Count.
[I’ve been debating whether to post this…it’s a “transcript” of a talk I gave yesterday here at the University of Puget Sound. It’s a bit basic as it was intended for a general audience of, primarily, undergraduate students. I wrote this up for friends who wanted to hear the talk but were unable to attend. It’s a bit disorganized too. So be warned it’s kind of ramble-y and general. Also, I haven’t provided source information or links. If you want any, please ask!]
It’s been a few days since the Paris bombings, and we have some more information about what happened, which has prompted me to reflect on what the attacks—along with those in Ankara, Beirut, and the Sinai—tell us about what ISIS is doing and why, and what these attacks mean for counter-terrorism efforts.
First, it’s important to note that these attacks are occurring in the context of an increase in mass casualty attacks (defined as terrorist attacks causing more than 100 deaths). Between 1978 and 2013, there was an average of 4.6 mass casualty attacks per year. In 2014, there were 26 while to date in 2015 there have been 15. While this is indeed a small n in terms of both number of events and time, it’s interesting to note that there might be a trend among terrorists towards soft target mass casualty attacks.
While we still don’t know for sure the degree to which the ISIS leadership in Syria was involved in any of these attacks, it’s looking increasingly likely that they played a role in at least three of the attacks (the Sinai bombing is the most likely to have been done by some other organization, with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula being the leading candidate). But, if we assume that ISIS is responsible for these attacks, it would represent a shift in their tactics and overturn many of the analytic assumptions about the group’s strategy.
Last week Joe Scarborough from Politico raised the question of why US foreign policy in the Middle East is in “disarray.” Citing all of the turmoil from the past 14 years, he posits that both Obama and Bush’s decisions for the region are driven by “blind ideology [rather] than sound reason.” Scarborough wonders what historians will say about these policies in the future, but what he fails to realize is that observers of foreign policy and strategic studies need not wait for the future to explain the decisions of the past two sitting presidents. The strategic considerations that shaped not merely US foreign policy, but also US grand strategy, reach back farther than Bush’s first term in office.
Understanding why George W. Bush (Bush 43) engaged US forces in Iraq is a complex history that many academics would say requires at least a foray into operational code analysis of his decision making (Renshon, 2008). This position is certainly true, but it too would be insufficient to explain the current strategic setting faced by the US because it would ignore the Gulf War of 1991. What is more, understanding this war requires reaching back to the early 1980s and the US Cold War AirLand Battle strategy. Thus for us to really answer Scarborough’s question about current US foreign policy, we must look back over 30 years to the beginnings of the Reagan administration.
Yesterday, a student asked me about the recent news reports indicating that Iraq did, in fact, have “weapons of mass destruction” back in 2002 and 2003 when the U.S. was attempting to justify a “preemptive” war. The New York Times reported that American soldiers were injured in the past decade by chemically-armed munitions found in Iraq.
Already, a slew of articles in the media have debunked the claim that this vindicates George W. Bush and his Iraq misadventure. This Washington Post piece is perhaps the best since it primarily quotes Bush administration claims from the pre-war period.
The Times piece certainly does not try to claim that Bush is vindicated:
This was another busy week in global politics and I’m going to highlight some of the best tweets in my Twitter feed. Before starting, however, I will acknowledge that this post is late.
I believe my excuse is pretty good as it involves lots of late night baseball. I grew up in Kansas rooting for the local team — and the Kansas City Royals are in the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1985. Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, the Royals won three consecutive extra inning games. All ended after 1 am Eastern Time. I then had to read for 30 to 45 minutes after the long and exciting games just to unwind enough to sleep.
None of those victories featured the longest game of the week. As DC residents know, the Washington Nationals lost to the San Francisco Giants 2-1 in the 18th inning. I caught a bit of that contest:
Welcome to the second edition of “Tweets of the Week.” It was a busy seven days for news and my twitter feed provided much useful information — in micro-form.
The Scottish independence referendum featured especially prominently in my feed. This was perhaps my favorite tweet about the final result:
Prior to the vote, my feed was filled with some great tweets about the #indyref. Here are a few of the shorter ones that I found especially helpful:
The Scottish referendum, of course, was not the only interesting issue in global politics this week. And, over the long haul, it almost assuredly wasn’t the most important either.
For example, the continuing spread of Ebola might be the biggest near-term threat to international security — depending upon how we define “security.”
No matter how depressed you might be about the prospect of new war in the Middle East, this tweet helps provide context:
But read this too, on ISIS/ISIL:
It also seems appropriate to be worried about Ukraine:
Finally, here’s a blast from the past that might be quite helpful in a class that is discussing renewed war in Iraq:
Though I’ve been blogging at the Duck of Minerva for more than 9 years, I haven’t posted much content for several years. My last post here was in mid-February. You can find maybe half a dozen posts in 2013 and 2014. It’s a terrible record. Embarrassingly, I had to look up my username just to log in.
There are multiple explanations for my silence: the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, which was my original blogging muse. I became department chair. My hair is turning very gray. Blah, blah, blah.
However, in my own defense, I should note that I am a much more frequent contributor to the Tweets sidebar here at the Duck. In fact, I can only conclude that I’m now a “microblogger,” at least primarily. Is that worthwhile?
With that question in mind, I’m going to try to post a regular “Tweets of the week” piece. This will mostly be retweets from my Twitter feed, though I may slip in one or two of my own original tweets. I’ll try to highlight major issues of the week.
Re: Upcoming Scottish Independence Vote (which captured my attention while traveling there in August)
Re: ISIS (this is a parking ticket issued by ISIL):
Re: AU department chair:
As I wrote a few days ago, a new pattern of warfare is emerging in the Middle East and Africa. This “new blitzkrieg” isn’t really new, but it is asymmetric warfare at its best, pitting swarms of fast-moving, lightly armed fighters operating as a network against hidebound hierarchies of Western-trained and equipped “professional soldiers”. These state forces have a bad track record of crumbling under the tempo of swarming, networked attackers; and the only thing that has proven capable of stemming the tide is early airstrikes followed with a robust military “prop-up and mop-up” campaign, as demonstrated by French and African Union forces in Mali. The outcomes aren’t that great in any of the recent cases – but it’s much, much worse when any regional government has fallen to the non-state forces. Continue reading
A new version of maneuver warfare is being utilized mainly by Islamic fundamentalist forces to seize territory from government forces trained, equipped and organized along the Western model.
This “new blitzkrieg” relies on lightly armed fighters mounted on “technicals” – 4×4 trucks with heavy machine-guns, light cannons, or automatic grenade launchers mounted on the vehicle. Here are some key factors we should be thinking about in order to potentially combat these forces in the future. Continue reading
With the fall of Mosul to the jihadists of Syria and Iraq, there is much blame-casting to be had. Some are blaming Obama for not keeping a residual force in Iraq although it is not clear that a small US force would have kept the Iraqi military from breaking.
This always, always frustrates me because it ignores what the US faced in 2009–the accumulation of dynamics produced by the bad decisions of the past. In this case, if people remember, there were many stories where Iraqi elites said two things: yes, we want the U.S. to stay, but no, we cannot say that in public. Why?
Congratulations to Jacques E.C. Hymans for winning the 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The award is administered by the University of Louisville’s Department of Political Science. Disclosure: I’m currently the Department chair and for 17 years I directed the award (1994-2011). There’s more on the local angle at the end of this post.
Hymans won the $100,000 prize for his 2012 book Achieving Nuclear Ambitions; Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation. Here’s a brief description from the Cambridge University Press webpage: Continue reading
I am happy to invite my friend Tom Nichols to guest-post about the continuing Iraq War debate. Tom responded so substantially to my original post series on the war (one, two, three), that I invited him to provide a longer write-up. Tom is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. His blog can be found here, his twitter here. His opinions of course are his own, so whenever he says I’m wrong, you probably shouldn’t listen… REK
I’ve been reading Bob’s thoughts – cogent as always – on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. I reject Bob’s exploration of the “culpability” of the IR field for providing any kind of intellectual infrastructure for the war, mostly because I don’t think anyone in Washington, then or now, listens to us, and for good reason. Joe Nye long ago lamented that lack of influence elsewhere, and others agree (by “others” I mean “me”). So I won’t rehearse it here.
Bob and I sort of agree that the outcome of the war doesn’t say much about the prescience of at least some of the war’s opponents: there were people whose default position was almost any exercise of U.S. power is likely to be bad, and they don’t get points for being right by accident. Continue reading
This is a guest post by Konstantinos Travlos of the University of Illinois and Brandon Valeriano of the University of Glasgow.
The mark of the ten year anniversary of the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been, as such anniversaries tend to be, a chance for scholars, pundits and politicians to take stock of the past and evaluate the present. Reactions have ranged from a stubborn support of the war to quasi-celebrations on the side of opponents of the war. For all sides, the causes of the war have been a major point of contention. We concern ourselves with this part of the debate.
Very little rigorous analysis of the causes of the war has taken place. Explanations about the Iraq War have tended to be dominated by narratives that focus on neo-conservative policy goals, the Israel-lobby, oil, personal animosity, and the fear associated with Weapons of Mass Destruction. Usually these mono-causal explanations are amended by ad-hoc additions in order to accommodate the impossibility of any one cause explaining a war. This results in causal stories that are incoherent or lacking a uniting element that would make sense as an orientating device and macro explanation. Using Chapter 6 of Valeriano’s recent book – Becoming Rivals – as the basis, we argue that interstate rivalry is the common thread that links the many different events and behaviors that contributed to the onset of the second Iraq war.
My first post on the Iraq War asked if academic IR had any responsibility to slow the march to war.
The second tried to formulate what the neoconservative theory of the war was, because many of us, in retrospect of a conflict gone so badly, desperately want to un-remember that there really was a logic to the war, that it was at least somewhat intellectually defensible, and that a lot of us believed it. We may want to retroactively exculpate ourselves by suggesting it was just W the cowboy acting ridiculous, or a neocon hijacking of the policy process, or Halliburton oil imperialism, and all the other reasons so popular on the left. And some of that is true of course.
But it ducks the crucial point that the war was popular until it flew wildly off-the-rails, which in turn revealed the staggering incompetence of the Bush administration to act on the neocon logic the country had embraced by March 2003. In short, I argued that the Iraq invasion was not about WMD, preemption, or democracy, although that rationale was played up in the wake of the failure to find WMD. The real neocon goal was to scare the daylights out of the Arabs and their elites by punching one of their worst regimes in the face, thereby showing what was coming to rest of the region unless it cleaned up its act, i.e., crack down on salafism and liberalize so as to defuse the cultural extremism that lead to 9/11. (Read Ajami saying in January 2003 that the war is ‘to modernize the Arabs;’ that’s about as a good a pre-war summary of this logic as you’ll get.)
So what went wrong?
Yesterday morning I forgot to link the National Security Archive’s “Iraq War Ten Years After” page. It highlights some of the greatest hits of the period. I founded the Duck after the start of the Iraq War, but, as was the case for many US political and international-affairs blogs, the team blogged a fair amount on the subject.
Given Jon’s recent post, I thought I’d dredge up an old one that I wrote on the framing of the Iraq War. Given how recent apologias have emphasized certain aspects of pro-war rhetoric, such as the call to democratize Iraq, I think it remains relevant.