The economics of conquest

Only a reinvigorated United Nations can bring the world's aggressors to heel

The other day I heard John Bolton - who lately resigned his post as US representative designate to the United Nations - saying how unforgivably evil it was of the Syrians to (allegedly) assassinate certain Lebanese politicians who were thought to be obstructing Syria’s ambition to gain political control of Lebanon. If true, that is certainly a despicable thing to do, definitely not the sort of behaviour we expect from a member of the community of nations.

Then, later, I heard that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had affirmed that the US expenditure of materials and human lives on a war intended to obtain political control of Iraq and bring to it US-style democracy is - and has been - as she put it, "a worthwhile investment".

Comparing these two projects, one can see that, although basically similar in purpose, the (alleged) Syrian investment is, in purely arithmetical terms, far more economical in outlay than the US one, in that only one or two lives were lost and little physical damage occurred, rather than the half-million or so lives that are thought to have been lost in the massive destruction unleashed by the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies.

Also, it is worth noting that neither of the projects can really be said to have been cost-effective. Syria has not obtained political control of Lebanon, and, if it ever had it, the US has long since lost political control of Iraq.

Arithmetic aside, we have to ask what has happened to the human race that these appalling projects should ever have been considered in the first place. The first key lies, I suspect, in the plastic weasel-phrase: “Regime-change”.

When one nation adopts the policy which is now called "regime-change", it implicitly arrogates to itself the right to remove by force the government of another nation, just because it, itself, doesn’t happen to approve of what that nation does.

When that happens, it follows that however virtuous its original intent, the nation which chose that policy has, by so doing, created a precedent which any other nation or group - however vile its intent - can legitimately consider itself entitled to emulate.

So now anybody and everybody can follow suit and have a go at the regime-change of their choice. While the world stands aghast at the piecemeal proliferation of random murder-projects that are destroying the once-civilized nation of Iraq, there is nothing anybody can do to stop it because it is all being done, inspired by the US example, in the name of regime-change, or in this case perhaps "regime-destruction".

The fact that Saddam Hussein was a complete despot does not alter the fact that to go to war and stamp on Iraq in order to get rid of him was, and still is, a piece of out-of-date pseudo-imperialist stupidity. Nor can it be regarded as having been cost-effective, because life for the surviving Iraqis is little better, often far worse and always infinitely more dangerous than it was in his time. American-style democracy doesn’t seem to take, perhaps because when you are dodging bombs and bullets, security seems more immediately necessary than enfranchisement.

Conquest?

There is nothing new about war and conquest and international power-politics. The Roman Empire was built on a programme of regime-change. So was the British Empire. So why can’t the American Empire manage it?

There are probably many reasons, but the main one is that old-style conquest just doesn’t work any more. The natives don’t have spears, they have Kalashnikovs. The world is now so awash with munitions that however swiftly the Abrams tank can sweep across the land and apparently conquer it, once the tank has arrived there, the soldiers inside it can’t get out, except in heavily-armed sorties from pre-fortified compounds.

The invaders can destroy the infrastructure of the country and disband its social systems, its police, its public services, but they can’t replace them because they are constantly, literally, under fire, not only from the people of the country, but from anybody in neighbouring countries who doesn’t happen to want the conquerors to be there, doesn’t want them to succeed in their objectives and sees, in the maintenance of chaos by random destruction, a way to keep them bogged down, leaving the world open for their own particular infiltrative brand of regime destruction.

God knows when or how that festering sore can be salved. The process cannot begin until the initial mistake is fully acknowledged and the outraged dragons of vengeance are no longer being nourished by brave gung-ho lies and glib posturings. If that day should one day come to Iraq, perhaps we can also hope that the innate internecine hostilities of its passionate people will burn out in a weariness with death, hatred and vain dominance, and let them walk in their streets again.

Civilization?

But again we have to ask the underlying question: What has happened to the human race that after thousands of years of civilization we are still unable to live in peace with our neighbours?

As individuals, in this country, we can, up to a point, manage to do this. In the square where I lived there were people of many types and colours living in different houses. If we didn’t like them we didn’t have a lot to do with them, but we didn’t shoot them, and certainly we didn’t buy an anti-tank gun and blow them up, house and family, and then take possession of their property. We put up with it or, as a last resort, we complained to the council or called the police, who dealt with it impersonally according to the law.

So why does this not happen in the big round square where nations live? The obvious reason has always been: because there isn’t any council with a real police force backed by impersonal law. This lack has been obvious for many decades. I have seen both the League of Nations, and later the United Nations, rise in hope and strength, and watched the former wither away in impotence and disdain, as the nations which had created the organisation and placed it in authority, shrugged it aside because they could not impose their will on it.

It has become fashionable to dismiss the United Nations as a complete waste of time and money because it is so cumbersome, slow to act and poorly supported, but the simple truth is that it has been deliberately betrayed by its own creators.

Today, now that international violence has finally been shown to be a self-destructive rather than a cost-effective option, the basic arithmetic of international relationships has to change; this time for good.

Now we have to realise that if the human race hopes to avoid committing mass suicide in the ecstasy of "regime changes" and doomed excursions into conquest that will otherwise result from the effects of climate change, nations must put together a proper United Nations, a supra-national body with fully independent dedicated members which is armed and empowered to act impersonally in the interests of the world as a whole, according to international law, rather than on behalf of any particular faction.

Perhaps, in 2007, we could allow ourselves to hope that Ban Ki-moon, successor to the unfortunate Kofi Annan as Secretary General of the UN, will have the courage - and at last be given the strength - to bring the dogs of hubris to heel.

Oliver Postgate was the creator of Bagpuss, the Clangers, Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog. His autobiography depicts his passage from grinning show-off to grisly old git, a journey that included not only a prison sentence but also a thirty-year period working with Peter Firmin in cow-shed and pig-sty, making small films. Oliver died on 8 December, 2008
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue