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Beware the stated war aims of great states

March 18, 2012 2 comments

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I love history books that cast light on the modern turmoil in the former Ottoman Empire and beyond. The trouble is I often get bogged down in the details, and the pile of unfinished, pencil-scored volumes has long been steadily rising by my bedside.

Not so with historian Sean McMeekin’s new book The Russian Origins of the First World War (Belknap/Harvard, 2011). I raced through its 323 pages and put it down thoroughly satisfied that my understanding had been much broadened with new explanations of how Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbours got into the mess that they remain in today. The book also challenged many of the myths I have long believed about a conflict that cut a traumatizing swathe through my own extended family on the Western front of the war.

Myth #1. “The Germans started the First World War”. I didn’t even know there was a debate about this. But McMeekin convinced me that Russian leaders wanted the war more than their counterparts in Berlin, London, Vienna and possibly even Paris. The French seem to have been just as much to blame, but the skill of their statecraft in allying with Russia turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for their country as Russia’s war aims turned out to be very different to those of France.

Myth #2. “The First World War was mostly triggered by competing ambitions in the Balkans”. This all came to a head in Sarajevo with the assassination of Crown Prince Ferdinand of (Germany-aligned) Austro-Hungary by a (Russia-aligned) Serbian conspirator. Balkan frictions did exist, of course. But McMeekin shows that the war was much more about competition for the best parts of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, and in particular the Russian war aim of conquering Constantinople (Tsargrad, in Russian). While Britain and France no longer took the Ottoman Empire seriously, “for Russia”, McMeekin says, “the war of 1914 was always, ultimately, about Turkey”. (Indeed, Stalin’s same aim of controlling Russia’s main warm-water trade route through the Turkish straits was behind Turkey’s decision to throw its lot in with the West during the Cold War. It probably is also why Russia today shows no sign of putting at risk its one port asset in the Mediterranean, Tartous in Syria).

Myth #3. The “Armenian genocide”. It’s not often one sees the Armenian genocide put in inverted commas these days, especially in a respectable book. I nearly fell off my chair recently when  a former chief of the Turkish foreign ministry calmly told his fellow dinner guests that he now used the word “genocide” on Turkish TV shows. But McMeekin deploys plenty of new evidence that – despite the Ottoman excesses against Armenian civilians, especially in 1915, which he condemns as wholeheartedly as anyone – the Armenian nationalist movement was indeed a willing fifth column for Russian war aims and that the Russian command was even embarrassed by the Armenians’ willingness to massacre Muslims. The tragedy for the Armenians was that the Russians promised much more than they were able or willing to deliver, were cynical about others’ casualties, attacked where they thought resistance would be least, were mostly late for battle, or simply didn’t show up for the campaign at all. Thus when the Russians finally conquered eastern Anatolia in 1916, there were few Armenians left to be rescued. “The Armenian revolutionary movement received most of its arms from Russia and aimed above all to provoke armed intervention from the same”, McMeekin says in a chapter that should become required reading on the Armenian question, “and Russian [officials] sought intentionally to exacerbate ethnic tensions as a prelude to invasion.”

Myth #4. “The British know what they are doing”. If Britons think it is only in recent years that the British policy elite has been asleep at the wheel, McMeekin’s findings can make them squirm from a much earlier date. Complacent British diplomats were blind-sided by aggressive French-Russian scheming in the run up to the war; the British Mediterranean fleet was unable to capture two German warships before they took refuge in Istanbul at the war’s start, a strategic game-changer; and the British failed to prepare militarily for a successful Gallipoli campaign in a way that was matched by the topsy-turvy politics of the enterprise. Britain and France attacked Gallipoli to help their Russian allies, but the Russians never turned up to do their share of the fighting. The Entente also explicitly promised that Russia would be handed the prize of Constantinople afterwards, even though, as McMeekin points out, the idea of Russian control of the Turkish straits “had been a full-on British casus belli as recently as thirty-six years [before, in the Crimean War].”

Prof. Sean McMeekin, Bilkent University

All this iconoclasm is lively and well-written. McMeekin cites diaries, long-secret documents, memoirs and letters to make the reader feel like an intimate from Choristers’ Bridge (St Petersburg) to the Ballplatz (Vienna) to Whitehall (London). The portrait that emerges of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov is particularly compelling, showing how misleading it can be to believe what people say about their own role in history – in Sazonov’s case, in his post-war memoir, which sought to airbrush out Russia’s warlike intentions.

I liked the polemical, clearly argued tenor of McMeekin’s prose, even if the language did sometimes border on the patronizing and Russophobic. St Petersburg’s policy is said to be “grasping” and characterized by “guile and procrastination”, while Russian suffering is dismissed because “Russians are inured to the cold”. Caustic critique is reserved for almost every actor in this drama. There are slippery Ottoman ministers (who were probably quite right to be evasive, since the Russians had spies even in their Cabinet meetings), rival historians who pay insufficient or no attention to Russian sources, and uncounted British leaders and officials who, McMeekin believes, acted as unwitting “ventriloquists” for Russian policy.

One thing that this up-and-coming, Ankara-based historian keeps returning to is that everyone should be very wary of the stated war aims of great states, whether it is supposedly “Slavic honor and the Serbs” (aired by the Russians in 1914) or “to reconstitute the internationally recognized boundaries of Kuwait” (used by the U.S. in 1991). Behind the fig leaves of such language, McMeekin clearly believes everyone should check for “cold, hard national interest”.

The world has waited a century for someone like McMeekin to demonstrate scientifically the centrality of the Turkish Straits question as it propelled Russia into the First World War — although McMeekin notes that the Bolsheviks, “mad political savants” that they were, did keep drawing rhetorical attention to this imperialist fact. I hope we will not have to wait so long to learn the real reasons why the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2002, or the hard interests propelling the zig-zags in Washington’s current Iran policy. The U.S. is clearly still in a strong position against the main autocratic powers of our days — China and Russia, again – and no new great war seems to be looming (fingers crossed). Nevertheless, some parallels can be drawn between the U.S. today and the struggles back then of liberal, democratic, public opinion-respecting Britain, which lost its global pre-eminence in the First World War. As McMeekin concludes:

“The bamboozlement of the British by clever Russian diplomats like Sazonov has much relevance for our own age. The cardinal weakness of a democratic power in the international arena is not so much inconsistency as naivete.”

Take my money or die

November 3, 2011 1 comment

Informed by his State Department employers that he could either serve in a Middle East war zone or watch his career wilt, Peter Van Buren chose active service helping to rebuild Iraq. His year embedded in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the notorious Sunni triangle resulted in We Meant Well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a delightful, 269-page book that I devoured in 24 hours flat. By turns tough, tender and eye-wateringly funny, it rises far above its principal ingredients of garbage, boredom, heat, camaraderie, hypocrisy and the constant spectacle of wanton waste.

The mind boggles at the $63 billion US effort Van Buren describes as he and other Americans of good will and otherwise “helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck”. Arabic translations of American classics are dumped behind schools, bureaucratic programs live and die in fashion cycles of a few months, and short-term photo-opportunities usually beat the occasional focus on long-term problems. And in 2009-2010, Van Buren happened to be there with the cool and independence of mind to note the nonsense down, even as his desert outposts were mortared by insurgents who scorned the “so-called Awakening, a program through which we paid money to Sunni insurgents to stop killing us.”

Van Buren doffs his hat first to the Vietnam-era Dispatches by Michael Herr and to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from the Second World War. There is not the same epic depth to We Meant Well, but van Buren gets close. Chapter after chapter details narcissistic, ill-adapted and commercially impossible American schemes: stillborn facilities supposed to commercialize milk marketing in a country that lacked refrigeration, projects that wish bees on unwilling Iraqi widows and a Potemkin chicken-processing factory that only worked when putting on a show for visitors.

One triumph of absurdity is Van Buren’s team’s efforts to improve something as basic as water supplies and sewage treatment, until, as usual, the project stumbles over a vital but unbudgeted extra item. After all, how would Japanese and Belgian planners and funders know that an Iraqi sewage plant needs machine-gun nests to stop people stealing everything as soon as it is installed? He continues:

“The old saying ‘Any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going’ seemed to apply. Our efforts, well-meaning but almost always somewhat ignorant, lacked a broader strategy, a way to connect local work with national goals. Some days it felt like the plan was to turn dozens of entities loose with millions of dollars and hope something fell together (monkeys typing might produce Shakespeare) … You don’t know what you don’t measure, leaving much of our work to have all the impact of a cheap direct-to-DVD martial arts movie.”

Along the way, dissidents like Van Buren were quickly apprised by their peers and superiors of an unspoken rule that they should believe that “you can’t really tell, but we’re winning”. Failing that, they should “stop making a fuss. No one cares about the money, we have lots of money, and not spending it angers people. We all know we are not going to really change much in Iraq, so just do your year in the desert.”

Much of the US effort was hobbled by America’s wish to believe its own preconceptions, formed by high-minded ideology and a willful disinterest in what mattered on the ground. Van Buren finds that Americans running the war effort aimed to “hide the US role and make it seem like all the projects were local efforts, something we made ourselves believe while no one else did”, had the illusion that “Iraqis want to be like us”, and were unwilling to face the possibility that “some people became insurgents not because they lacked fast-food jobs and iPads but because they hated the presence of a foreign invader in their country.”

I found this fascinatingly similar to the problems of US journalistic coverage of the Middle East, which in my book Dining with al-Qaeda I try to show can often be an artificial and misleading hybrid between reality and what Americans want to believe. Van Buren watches a visiting reporter fail to see that the U.S.-funded project he has come to inspect is fake, noting dryly that “it turns out most journalists are not as inquisitive as TV and movies would have you believe. Most are interested only in a story, not the story.” The soldiers, of course, are always dutifully upbeat about their duties when speaking to reporters on hand to witness hand-outs to Iraqis. Afterwards, Van Buren reports, the soldiers reveal their real feelings in between spitting chewed Skoal into empty Gatorade bottles: “fuck these people, we give ‘em all this shit and they just fucking try to blow us up.”

The Iraqis had their reasons to be upset. The 2003 US invasion made several aspects of everyday life worse for Iraqis than when Saddam was in charge – at the same time as the US had taken over many of Saddam’s palaces, secret police outposts and jails. Power supplies remain completely inadequate, although the U.S. found solipsistic ways to pretend they had improved; few kids attend rural schools, and even then only for half the previous amount of time, because in the new Islamic Iraq “boys and girls were not allowed to go to class together as they had been under the mostly secular Saddam regime”. A veterinary doctor points out that “under Saddam we at least got medicines once in a while. Now we are free, but we don’t have medicine.” Or clean water. All this, eight years after the American-ordained era began.

Most interestingly of all, the book gives a deeply satisfying account of what it is like to live on Forward Operating Bases in the Iraqi desert. Unsentimental passages describe the life and language of soldiers (for instance, when frozen shrimpette served in the canteen makes it appropriate to say “we suck less tonight”); how an occasional random project to help Iraqis actually worked (an aging American lady who helped Iraqis with their cows, and the founding of a boy scout troop); the understated companionship of soldiers when one of their number commits suicide; and how the American bases’ sharia-like bans on sex and alcohol were often violated (a graffiti message in the Sri Lankan-cleaned latrines advertises ‘eight-inch cut dude needs rough sex tonight behind gym’.)

Peter Van Buren

Van Buren takes a quietly naïve approach, making his points about the real Iraq through acutely observed detail with a minimum of ideological finger-wagging. But in the acknowledgements, he does drop his guard, a moment of bitterness from a Japanese- and Chinese-speaking foreign service officer who feels profoundly let down by the policy choices of the George W. Bush presidency. In a comment that is, as usual, applicable to matters well beyond those of his professional purview, Van Buren gives in his acknowledgments “not thanks really, but a special notice to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who led an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned it there.”