The Littlest Invasions
No-fly zones and covert ops are just as bad as large-scale interventions.
The newest fad in foreign intervention is the slim-line approach. I swear, it really is like fashion news. A few years ago, the neocons were pushing a full-figured style of intervention, which ended up with us wasting hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives in Iraq. Since that went so badly, the fashion has swung the other way, and the same idiots who brought you Iraq are pushing for a smaller, smarter style of intervention that leans on small groups of special-forces troops and covert operations.
Watch this play out with Libya: it starts with Sen. John McCain saying we should just impose a no-fly zone. Before you know it, there’s talk about a few airstrikes, providing logistical help to the rebels, maybe sending some troops with NATO or the UN—you know, to keep the “peace.”
The notion of not intervening, period, never enters the neocons’ heads. I got the shock of my life going through the Weekly Standard a couple of years ago when I saw the headline, “The Case Against Intervention.” But it turned out to be about the American economy. I should’ve realized, the only place these people don’t want us to pour money into is the USA.
When it comes to sending American GIs into harm’s way, they never met an intervention they didn’t like. Some of their proposed military interventions are so crazy you have to wonder if they weren’t chuckling to themselves over at Bill Kristol’s magazine when they wrote this nonsense. Craziest of all was the flurry of calls a couple of years back for us to intervene in Zimbabwe.
Too Stupid For Bush
If you actually know anything about contemporary military doctrine, you have to laugh at this notion. Zimbabwe has every deal-breaker in the book. For starters, it’s landlocked. America is and always has been an air/sea power; projecting that kind of power to a landlocked country is a nightmare. Zimbabwe is also mired in one of those endless ethnic feuds that just don’t respond to foreign pressure—in this case, deep and abiding hate between the two biggest tribes, Shona and Ndebele.
There’s also the fact that the dictator we’d have intervened against, Robert Mugabe, is a former guerrilla who still commands the allegiance of a tribal/irregular army. That’s the last thing U.S. conventional forces want to face. And finally—the factor that should veto any intervention—Mugabe has a long history of using foreign threats to prop up his regime. In fact, a foreign intervention is just about the only thing that could make Mugabe popular in Zimbabwe again, just as a foreign invasion to depose Obama is the only thing that would make him popular in Texas—well, maybe not Texas but, say, North Carolina.
So you think that stopped the neocon “let’s you and them fight” propaganda machine? Not for a second. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, living proof of the old saying that “there’s an idiot born every second, but unfortunately they take much longer to die,” wrote a column calling for us to use cruise missiles fired by an unmanned drone, the ultimate in “smaller, smarter” interventions, to kill Mugabe, in a column with the supposedly humorous title “Predator For a Predator.”
But Cohen didn’t go far enough for James Kirchick, the same genius who once wrote an article called “Hail, Mauritania” lauding the Coup Capital of the Sahara, often nominated for worst place in the world, as a beacon of democracy. He wrote an impassioned plea for full-scale military intervention in Zimbabwe, based on the fact that his Zimbabwean guide/lackey had broken down and cried, right in front of poor Kirchick, about the local situation.
Luckily, not even Bush was stupid enough to take that idea seriously. But the neocons never stop, and they don’t have a very high opinion of the American public’s memory or IQ. So they’ve developed new ad campaigns specifically designed for the wary buyer who has a bit of a problem with the Iraq lemon they sold us last time around. They’re using the notion of “smaller, smarter” interventions to lure us onto the lot the way car dealers use subcompact base models, sold at a loss, so they can talk us into the all-options luxury model intervention.
Small Wars, Big Mistakes
All “limited” interventions suffer from something the armed services call “Mission Creep.” They’ve seen it happen so many times: you go into some country promising to get ’er done, pack up and leave. But once you’re there, the mission starts creeping toward total occupation. The most obvious and insane example of mission creep is Vietnam. It’s hard to believe, but in the beginning, that was supposed to be a small, smart intervention too.
I don’t have to tell you, it suffered from a severe case of mission creep. In fact, missions don’t get much creepier than that one turned out to be, and all for nothing; Ho Chi Minh’s people won just like they would have if we’d left the place alone. Everyone else lost: the ordinary people of South Vietnam, the taxpayers of the United States, and 57,000 trusting working-class American kids who were too decent to go for the sleazy college deferment like Cheney did, along with a few thousand other chickenhawks who always love interventions that get other, braver and more honest people killed and maimed.
The closer you look, the worse all of our small-scale interventions appear, even the ones that supposedly succeeded. Take Clinton’s mini-war on Serbia in 1999. The official version is that we did a great job, stopping a Serbian massacre of Kosovo Albanians without losing much. Wrong on both counts.
For starters, you may have noticed that the Chinese air force is deploying a new stealth fighter. And how’s that related to the war against the Serbs? Well, a brand new F-117 stealth fighter went down over Serbia on its way to bomb the afternoon reruns. The stealth tech from that downed fighter found its way to the China’s aircraft designers, who reverse-engineered it to make radar-invisible fighters. America was never in any danger from the Serbs; China’s another matter.
That’s what happens when you start indulging every pundit and ethnic lobby’s pet interventions: you lose sight of what the real job of American security is supposed to be. I mean: keeping America secure.
Take a look at what that supposedly successful intervention in the Balkans actually did. The Serbs had been having a problem with a so-called army of Albanian irregulars called the KLA, “Kosovo Liberation Army.” These guys couldn’t fight at all and had already been beaten by Serb militia, tired middle-aged cops and veterans. But they realized that with the gullible Beltway pundit crowd, losing can be your fastest way to win. They took the corpses of their men who’d been killed by the Serb cops and militia, stripped them of weapons, and showed them to the international press as victims of Serb massacres. This being the Balkans, where massacres have been every tribe’s way of making war since the glaciers retreated, nobody doubted them.
The American press took it from there. The Beltway pundits can’t imagine a situation without a good guy and a bad guy, so they made the Serbs the bad guys and the Albanians the good guys. Now, I have no trouble with the Serbs as fairly bad guys when provoked—though I wish more people remembered what happened to the Serbs in World War II, so they’d understand why the Serbs are so easy to provoke—but the idea that the KLA were ever anything even slightly resembling good guys was just ridiculous. The KLA is a gang of bloodthirsty tribal killers who make it a policy to kill any Serb civilians they catch and have also been involved in heroin smuggling, human trafficking, and even organ sales. They actually harvested Serbian prisoners for organs to sell on the black market. And unlike Saddam, the KLA are genuine about their Muslim militancy and have tight connections with al-Qaeda.
At least the Serbs weren’t pro-al-Qaeda. That might have counted for something if anybody in D.C. had actually been thinking about us, the Americans they’re supposed to be protecting. But it didn’t figure into the decision to help the KLA. It never does.
One of the lessons you could learn from Kosovo, if anybody inside the Beltway was into learning lessons, is to take a look at the world you’re butting into. Kosovo is the heart of the Balkans, where tribal warfare is a way of life. What are the odds yougoing to find one tribe of totally evil people and another of totally good, gentle people in a region like that? But that’s the idea behind interventions like Clinton’s: bad, bad Serbs and good, sweet Albanians. God, just imagine how the rest of the Balkan tribes laughed at the idea of the Albanian mafia as noble victims.
Most American interventions come from two closely related childish fantasies: first, that one side in a tribal war is all good and the other all bad; and second, that the weaker tribe are the “underdogs” and therefore the good guys. Just look at those two ideas and you’ll see that they’re a series of disasters waiting to happen. The first one is bad enough, idealizing one bunch of desperate killers—but idealizing the weaker bunch of killers is even worse. That means you’re stuck propping up totally evil people who can’t even fight, like the KLA.
There are no good guys in tribal wars. The novelist V.S. Naipaul has a good line about that kind of world in Bend in the River, his surprisingly cool novel about the Congo War: “It’s not that there’s no right or wrong here. There’s no right.” The best thing to do about a place where everyone’s wrong is stay the hell away from it.
If the world had enough sense to do that, even Congo might not be so bad. If the Europeans and the do-gooders had left Congo to sort itself out, it’d be at peace now—a Roman-style peace, under the strongest and best-organized tribe, the Tutsi, hardcore warriors, the only tribe in that part of the world that can fight and stay disciplined.
Instead, the First World keeps clawing at the Tutsis every time they get stronger. They must be evil because they’re strong; that’s how the argument went. So when almost a million Tutsis were hacked to death with machetes in Rwanda, there really wasn’t much complaining from those compassionate Euro-lefties, or Bono, or any of the usual suspects. But oh, the minute the Tutsis organized a relief force and entered Rwanda to save the few of their people who were still alive, you should have heard the screaming from Paris! Aggression! Actual military progress, actual accomplishment! Mon dieu, we can’t have that! And so General Nkunda, the Tutsi leader and the one man who could have brought a kind of peace to Central Africa, is on trial for “war crimes,” while most of the Hutus who hacked up his people are sitting pretty.
Playing Castro’s Game
That’s the argument I’d make against “compassionate” or “humanitarian” intervention: it doesn’t work because it’s based on some of the most childish ideas in history. Of course not all intervention claims to be compassionate—though when it’s America doing the intervening, we almost always say so, at least. The funny thing is, when you look at more cold-blooded intervention, done strictly for reasons of state, it’s not very effective either.
Once again, take the case of a supposedly successful small, smart intervention: the CIA overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. That succeeded short-term: the CIA got rid of a nationalist leader and replaced him with Reza Shah, aka the Shah, the guy who fled Iran in 1979 to be replaced by Khomeini. The trouble with these cool James Bond coups is that when you suavely overthrow a democratic government like we did in Iran, people don’t forget. Every Iranian I ever met can give you every detail about the coup that overthrew Mossadegh, like any red-blooded Southerner can give you the starting lineup for Pickett’s Charge. Those bitter memories have a lot to do with all the hate we’ve been getting from Tehran ever since. When you consider that the “reasons of state” behind the coup were to please the Brits, who’d been stealing the Persians’ oil in their usual style and didn’t like getting their hands slapped by Mossadegh, you have to ask: was it worth it?
A year after overthrowing Mossadegh, the CIA took down another democratically elected head of state who was messing with a big industry: Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala. Arbenz nationalized land owned by United Fruit, who called some Agency friends, got them to recruit a little mercenary army, and pushed Arbenz out of office. That short-term success didn’t benefit anybody except United Fruit. It hurt the U.S. and it hurt Guatemala. For one thing, as an article in the National Catholic Reporter once said, “the overthrow of Arbenz inspired the beginning of the Guatemalan resistance, the first guerrilla movement in Latin America after Cuba’s rebels.” And it led to a bad case of mission creep, with the CIA spending more and more to suppress the Resistance. Oh, and there’s the fact that about 250,000 Guatemalans died violent deaths.
You could say those people would have died even if we hadn’t bankrolled the right-wing paramilitary gangs. Maybe so: for obvious reasons, the places where the U.S. has intervened are weak states with bloody histories. But speaking for myself, I’d kind of feel better if that happened without our help. Because when you look at the records for some of these limited interventions, you start to get a little sick. The quarter-million dead in Guatemala isn’t anywhere near a record for messy CIA-funded operations. That goes to the Indonesian generals’ coup that overthrew Sukarno in 1965. About 500,000 people died in that one. In per capita terms, the bloodiest was El Salvador in the 1980s, where 75,000 people died out of a population of four or five million, nearly all of them killed by death squads the Agency was funding to the tune of $1 million per day of your tax money.
That was the “Red Dawn” era. I remember worrying as a kid about Communist armies conquering Colorado in alliance with Soviet paratroopers. It seems a little ridiculous now, like the idea we really needed to hold South Vietnam. Vietnam went over to the Communists and now it’s a major beach destination; El Salvador stayed out of Communist hands and half the population poured into L.A. If we’d stayed out of both, we’d still probably have way too many Salvadorans in L.A., but we’d have a lot more cash, too, and a lot less wasted blood, ours and theirs, on our hands.
So in the long term, even the successful interventions get pretty damn messy. Worse yet, the successful interventions always seem to come against soft targets, relatively democratic governments like Arbenz’s or Mossadegh’s—exactly the kind we probably shouldn’t be messing with anyway. When you look at the U.S. record against hardcore totalitarian regimes, you don’t see even temporary success, just one long series of disasters.
You can sum up our rotten record in trying small, smart interventions in police states with one word: Cuba. All the downsides of intervention are in our record down there. The most obvious flaw is sheer Three Stooges incompetence. If you ever believed in the CIA as big, bad covert warriors, just read up on what they came up with against Castro. The BBC realized that this stuff was comedy gold years ago and made a “Spinal Tap” mockumentary called “638 Ways to Kill Castro.” The sad thing is, that number isn’t a comic exaggeration. There really were 638 attempts by the Agency to rub out The Beard.
And some of them were stupider than anything you came up with in junior high. Everybody’s heard about the exploding-cigars plot, but how about exploding coral reefs? Yup: the CIA scouted all the pet shops in D.C. looking for a Caribbean shellfish big enough to blow Castro out of the water on one of his scuba-diving trips. They were going to paint the shell in bright day-glo colors so Castro would notice it and swim over, and then kaboom! If you ask me, they were way too subtle. Should’ve gone for a big underwater neon sign: “Hey Fidel! Check out this amazing clam here!”
But the most painful of all is a scene right out of Sean Connery’s outtakes: the CIA sent a woman to have sex with Castro and then slip him a poison pill while he was snoring. This genius decided to hide the pills in her cold cream, where they melted. She didn’t think she could get away with stuffing cold cream in The Beard’s mouth while he slept, so she confessed everything. That’s bad enough, but what happened next was the final blow to American manhood: Castro actually handed her his pistol and said something like, “Cara mia, mi Corazon, here is my pistol! If you wish to kill me, this will do the job!” Well, either he’s great in bed or she didn’t like her chances of getting out of the palace after firing that shot because she collapsed in his hairy arms. Score another for Latin lovers and socialism, which makes it 638 for Castro’s team and a big goose egg for the Anglos.
Maybe Castro’s score is even higher than that. I don’t want to jump in the black lagoon of “Who Killed JFK?” but Castro is a prime suspect. Oswald was a KGB asset, the theory goes, the Kremlin passed him on to the Cuban intelligence agency, CGI, and after a few hundred failed attempts on his own life, Castro lost his sense of humor and gave the go-ahead. That was Edwards Jay Epstein’s conclusion in Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, and it’s supported by new German research.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when a democratic country starts playing with the dark, nasty stuff that totalitarian regimes are very good at. The CIA has never had anything like the Cubans’ finesse with assassination and probably never will. I remember William F. Buckley joking about an assassination attempt on Sukarno, way back in the 1960s, saying in that cool stutter of his, “Yes, it was, er, quite … quite clear that it was an, ah, CIA plot because … chuckle … the bomb killed everyone in a crowded room except, ah, Sukarno.” Buckley knew what he was talking about; he worked for the Agency in Mexico City.
When we intervene against democratic governments we make enemies with long memories; when we intervene against totalitarian states we play to their strength and our weak points. It’s always, always worth considering the option of not getting involved at all.
What would have happened if we’d just told the Soviets to get their missiles out and otherwise ignored Castro? Well, if we’d called off the embargo, Castro’s island would’ve been flooded with cheap, cool stuff and it’s a good bet his people would have gotten damn sick of socialist austerity when what they wanted was new cars and better stereos. By imposing the embargo, we managed to let Castro survive a half-century in never-never land. The Cubans even have this great joke about his Toyota-pickup stamina: Somebody gives Castro a present of a giant tortoise, telling him they live 100 years. Castro sighs and says, “That’s the problem: you get attached to them and they die on you.”
And if you look at paramilitary operations, the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961, usually called “The Bay of Pigs,” is the most obvious example of why America should just say no. The invasion was over in a few hours. A couple hundred anti-Castro Cubans hit the beach, ran into opposition, and were killed or captured. Castro’s propaganda services had a great time playing up this latest case of gringo interference, and everyone else was shocked at how just plain inept it all was.
In fact, the whole fiasco was so ridiculous that it may have been designed to fail to make JFK, the new, young president, look bad. Which raises another very dangerous side-effect of all these interventions: they put a little gang of generally creepy guys right at the center of power, leaving the rest of us totally out of the loop. And these guys, contrary to what you see in spy movies, are not usually the best and brightest. Take E. Howard Hunt, who planned two of the dumbest operations in America history more than a decade apart: Bay of Pigs and the Watergate burglary. That freak couldn’t have been elected to the Kern County Mosquito Abatement District; I sure wouldn’t want him deciding my country’s foreign policy with a few of his throat-slitting buddies.
Yanqui, Stay Home!
Like the embargo, the Bay of Pigs made Castro much stronger. That’s what usually happens when a foreign power interferes: the locals get furious and unite against the outsider. And when the country’s had a history of being messed with by foreign powers, the anti-intervention backlash is much more intense. That’s why the people who said we should intervene in Egypt were crazy. The Turks, British, and French screwed with Egypt so many times that foreigners trying to overthrow Mubarak is about the only scenario that could have made him a local favorite.
Which brings us to the latest neocon project, Libya. Right on cue, here’s Judith Miller—the New York Times’ Cheney conduit who assured everybody that Saddam had WMDs in every walk-in closet—back to her old tricks by pushing for a nice, quick, clean intervention in Libya:
One of the options [Obama] should consider is to create a ‘no-fly zone’ over the capital, Tripoli, and the eastern part of the country which Qaddafi-loyal troops still control. President George H. W. Bush imposed such a zone over the Kurdish part of Iraq in 1991 after the Gulf War to prevent another monster, Saddam Hussein, from punishing the Kurds for rising up against him.
Pentagon friends tell us that shutting down Libyan air space to prevent Qaddafi from using his air force to bomb his own people would be relatively simple to do in a few hours. Radar-homing missiles could target Libyan radar, and the country’s 13 airstrips could be bombed to prevent them from being used to land aircraft. Americans could also target Libyan Air Force planes on the ground, along with their contract Ukrainian pilots. Only about half of the 400-plus-plane Libyan Air Force is estimated to be operational, the expert said.
If you wanted proof that neocons never learn anything, this is it. Just as I was writing, there was news that the Libyan resistance has managed to shoot down one of Gaddafi’s planes on its own. That’s going to be a heroic accomplishment that will live in Libyan memory forever. Imagine if we’d gone in with our multi-billion-dollar air force and done it for them. They might have been sullenly grateful for a while, but nobody really wants to be liberated by foreigners. The Libyans want to do it themselves.
If we intervene in Libya, we might manage a clean, quick regime change, though I doubt it, based on our record. But we might also accomplish the impossible: turning Gaddafi a hero to his people, denying the locals the chance to make their own destiny—and making ourselves look like fools doing it.
Gary Brecher, the War Nerd, is the alter ego of John Dolan, a poet and novelist.