Saturday, January 25, 2014


Wars are destructive. Peace can be illusory. Leo Tolstoy knew both in their former heydays. Nowadays he would suffer from writer's block. Wars have become indiscriminate. Peace is an induced coma.

Today, even when armed conflicts are waged for causes which look "just," their tolls always feel contrary to their justification.  Nevertheless, the great (?) wars often followed a pattern of agreed "management":  declaration of war, ultimatum, surrender, peace treaty, and later on, the Geneva Conventions. Those agreed steps could not hide the atrocities of World War I, or the genocidal folly of World War II.  Still, they came to a more sobering halt and after World War II, to some form of contrite reparation, which avoided the gross mistakes that were made in Versailles. Reparation is a dangerous concept, by the way, to be handled with the utmost care, since there is no room for such an existential pause when applied to the inexplicable horror of the Holocaust.

In history and in the realm of culture, warfare has been--paradoxically--often an inspirational source of creativity in music, letters, the arts, allowing for a sort of recuperation phase, an exorcism of the demons. There were even instances of gallantry between opposing factions and armies. Wars were more often than not born out of a lack of creative thinking than out of malicious deliberation. Machiavelli, Sun Tzu or Clausewitz glossed more that they steered. 

Maybe Normandy represented the last spasm of "classical" war. The waves washed away the deaths, together with the concept of the "just cause." The colonial and liberation wars which preceded or followed announced the aberrations wherein we find ourselves now. The body bags continue to pile up but rogue conflicts without any rules have overtaken warfare. Yesterday's actors have been marginalized. The few rules of engagement which survived are no longer. Today, the beast crosses borders with impunity and the "normal" powers are reluctant to get involved in conflicts which are alien to their political culture. Here and there, theories such as COIN try to bring some rational element to the chaos but the hybrid has a longer life span than the conceptual coherent approach, which is in retreat everywhere.

The clash of civilizations is becoming more apparent because the battles which are waged oppose a "culture" of death against the world which still dares "to question."  In Syria, fighters ask less what they are fighting for than for how to die. This diabolical metaphor is spreading and finds few obstacles to its progress because the existing means of defense and offense pertain to opposite civilizations.  NATO or the Security Council "usual suspects" look like relics to be overtaken by the Golem.

In case we still find ourselves in a "classical" tension (the Asian Bermuda Triangle), the unwanted outcome would probably be the result of some miscalculation or accident and not a "strategic" choice.  A contrario, on the growing periphery there is no longer room for strategy. The "indiscriminate'' has overtaken the probability. Warfare, in the absence (for how long?) of the nuclear option, has become the hostage of inter-tribal rivalries wherein the good and the bad become indistinguishable. The West tries hard to fill this incremental void through other approaches such as nation-building (where there is generally no such thing as a "nation") or regime change (when the bogey-man ends up being replaced by numerous equally unsavoury factions). The nuclear weapon between "adult partners" worked out well.  A nuclear weapon in the hands of rogue actors is a shortcut to hell.  One Pakistan suffices.

Many references have been made to Vietnam. They are inappropriate. Vo Nguyen Giap excelled in classical warfare as well as in guerrilla and was driven by the notion of statehood rather than by some incoherent ideology (communism is not a "quick" recipe). Vietnam ended up being solved through proper internal dynamics. The big power players concluded that a face-saving cynical admission was better than the continuation of a battle rooted in wrong assumptions, after the French debacle in Dien Bien Phu. President Nixon could shake hands with Mao while Cambodia went up in flames.  The Paris conference on Vietnam was a sophism but all the players knew what the cynical subtitles were. In comparison, the Bonn conference on Afghanistan was the perfect overture for the cacophony which is still going on and spreading.

Now we are confronted by puppet masters who organize mass-killings from a distance and by individuals who slaughter each other under the banner of nihilism. Responsible powers prefer to keep their distance since their arsenals don't fit the many theatres which multiply, impervious of rational intervention. Maybe an "imposed" humanitarian alternative might still bring relief in the absence of political settlement.  The major powers had better stick together since Iraq, Afghanistan, South Saharan Africa inter alia can no longer be the responsibility of "one" as they will affect "all" sooner or later.  The possible void in Afghanistan, after Iraq, might be more ominous for China and Russia than for the United States. The "hearts and minds" mantra is another illusion from the past.  After the Boston bombings, Dagestan became an unwanted intruder into our collective Neue Angst worldview. We were supposed to look forward to Sochi but might as well consider  cancelling our reservations.

The war we knew is a thing of the past.  Under the current circumstances "organic" peace is an Utopia. The "reset" needs management without absentees (Medecins sans Frontieres). In Fukuyama's model, the therapy requires realistic institutions, international legitimacy and consent. Otherwise we will muddle by in some modus vivendi, under assault by cyber attacks and new non-state actors.  Drones, on the other hand, kill more innocents than perpetrators. They risk becoming the best fertilizers, multiplying the bad while obliging the good to run for cover. Voltaire would have found in parts of contemporary wishful-thinking ample material for his battle against optimistic determinism.

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