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Buying Our Way Out of Our Bluff

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Kingdaddy makes an interesting comparison:

If you look at Japan then, and the United States now, you might see some familiar faces. A determined faction of aggrieved nationalists, having gambled the nation’s fortunes on high-risk ventures (the invasion of China or Iraq), now see the expansion of the war as the only way out of the current deadlock. Rather than question the whole enterprise, or the way it is being fought—in other words, to accept criticism—these men would rather find a “solution” through the elimination of foreign support for their enemies (Chinese guerrillas or Iraqi insurgents).

These sorts of men go farther than history should allow if they are propelled by larger, transcendental concerns. In the 1930s and 1940s, many Japanese felt that their government, led by the divine person of the Emperor, should assert its role as a great power. Since 2001, a faction of unilateralists, supported by Christian fundamentalists who believe in a God-sanctioned mission for the United States, have used the 9/11 attacks as the starting point for an effort to re-shape the region of the world most troublesome for US power.

As the failures mount, the transcendental ingredients of this political brew immunize leaders from their own mistakes. Setbacks become a test of faith, not a rebuttal of the original strategy. Normal rules of conduct, such as the Geneva Conventions, become intolerable restraints. Internal dissent becomes a treasonous attack on national will. To hell with what the rest of the world thinks, as long as the government can continue the pattern of lies and apologies, for as long as it keeps foreign leaders stammering in frustration. The worse things get, the more faith has to outshine everything else—diplomacy, democracy, treaties, international law, even mundane tactical questions—for fear that Providence will turn its face away permanently.

Kingdaddy allows, of course, that the US in 2007 and Japan in 1941 are different in important ways, notably in that the US is a democracy and Japan wasn’t. I would add that the US isn’t in quite as deep a spot as Japan was in 1941, but the comparison still resonates. Indeed, I think that it illuminates one of the reasons that democracy matters during war.

Implicit in most wingnut critiques of the anti-war left (and the anti-war right) is that democracy is a handicap in war. Dissent weakens a country at war, so we are told, and therefore democracies are at a disadvantage compared to autocracies. International relations theorists (Stam and Reiter in particular) tell us that this isn’t empirically true; democracies, on the whole, tend to choose their wars better and fight better when engaged. There are certainly some examples of military organizations in authoritarian states performing very well (the US Army never matched the performance of the Red Army and the Wehrmacht, for example) but democracies do very well at the political and strategic levels, and some democratic military organizations (IDF, US Navy) have proven quite formidable.

What Kingdaddy’s example suggests is that democracies may be able to determine when and how to lose a war better than autocracies, as well. Democratic states have a built in system for re-assessing foreign commitments, while autocratic states don’t. The leadership of an autocratic state depends for legitimacy on a certain sense of infallibility, while the leadership in a democratic state can simply be replaced. While I hesitate to draw any empirical conclusions, there’s some anecdotal evidence in favor of this hypothesis. The United States lost a war in Vietnam, but suffered no noticeable lasting detrimental effects outside of a certain inferiority complex. France lost a war in Indochina in 1954, and suffered a near democratic breakdown while losing another in Algeria in 1959, but managed to avoid regime collapse. Israel has lost two wars in Lebanon in the last eight years. On the other hand, we have the Japan example, in which the leadership clique simply couldn’t escape a self-reinforcing cycle of disaster. Similarly, the Soviet Union drove itself straight into the ground in Afghanistan because it couldn’t successfully disengage.

In other words, democracy isn’t just an incidental difference between the US in 2007 and Japan in 1941, it’s the critical difference. Any thoughts?

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