Recent Posts

Language Games and the Lessons of History

Sunday, August 24, 2014

One month ago I wrote about yesterday, the 75th anniversary of the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union.  Hitler would use this pact as the cover to violate a similar pact signed five years prior by him and Poland shortly thereafter, and then turn and invade Russia itself.  At a minimum, 30 million people would die as a result - mostly Russians.

This history explains a lot when it comes to understanding current Russian motives and strategic thinking.  But it also offers us a lesson in the difference between words and deeds.  When Obama reacted to the recent beheading of journalist James Foley, his anger was evident.  But his comments leave us to wonder exactly what upsets him.

"One thing we can all agree on is a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century," Obama has said.

It seems Obama is upset to see that his image of what the 21st century is supposed to look like is now in tatters.  When Russia invaded Crimea, Secretary of State John Kerry lamented Russia's "19th century behavior in the 21st century."  Only a fool would think that Obama's response to the former (Russia) did not factor into the strategic calculations of the latter (ISIL).

And now we see in Obama's rationale for his military response to ISIL that this administration does not have the faintest clue about the difference between words and deeds, tactics and strategy, and how these differences can have very real, tragic results.

By Obama's rationale, our airstrikes are designed to prevent a genocide of the Yazidi people and protect American personnel.  While the first is certainly a worthy use of American power, it is a purely tactical goal.  The second reason is frankly laughable; American personnel are usually protected in embassies and consulates with a detachment of Marines or other security forces (unless we are talking about Benghazi, of course).  What is missing in both reasons is a sense of strategic interests.

Obama has now found out - at James Foley's expense - what happens in the absence of American strategic initiative.  A big part of this problem is a complete failure to understand the nature of tyranny.  The thinking seems to be that American strategic initiative creates the pretexts for tyranny on the part of people like Qaddafi (before) Assad (now) and the nascent ISIL.  If we are to learn anything from history it is that tyranny is always its own pretext; if it is not the actions of America the tyrant points to, it will be the actions of someone else (e.g. Israel).  And if not that, the tyrant will manufacture the needed pretexts out of thin air.

And so the absence of American strategic initiative does not do one whit to prevent or avoid tyranny.  It merely leaves us without the ability to influence events ahead of time.  We are left to react after the fact to the near ethnic genocide of the Yazidis, the ongoing religious genocide of Iraqi Chaldean Christians and the brutal beheading of an American journalist.

But what really threatens the peace is how the Obama administration persists in reactionary tactics (air strikes), replacing genuine strategy with empty language games about holding people accountable in the 21st century.  Make no mistake, Putin is watching and listening very carefully.  We have already seen him invade and annex Crimea with troops that were not Russian - until they were.  The calculation is that as long as Putin holds out a few intellectual hoops that Obama can somersault through to avoid having to actually lead America and/or NATO in a military response to aggression, he (Putin) pretty much has a blank check.

About 100 years ago people used to talk about how far humanity had progressed, that war was a thing of the past.  And then World War I shattered the illusion that somehow human nature had changed.  75 years ago the world played the kind of language games Obama plays today, and paid an immensely tragic price.

1 comment

Don't Miss