Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Punditry of the Flea

On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Robert Kaplan wonders:

What does the European Union truly stand for besides a cradle-to-grave social welfare system? For without something to struggle for, there can be no civil society--only decadence.

Thus, with their patriotism dissipated, European governments can no longer ask for sacrifices from their populations when it comes to questions of peace and war. Ironically, we may have gained victory in the Cold War, but lost Europe in the process.

I read this book: it's called Of Paradise and Power, and it was written by Robert Kagan. In this era of "reality-based" liberalism, it's hard not to be warmed by retrograde neoconservative disdain for Old Europe, but I strongly suspect that Kaplan is full of shit. Surely there is a post-Holocaust effeteness that stretches like a caul over much of Europe. One of its grotesquer products is the assessment that Israel is uniquely evil and its neighbors are innocuous. But this is hardly the whole story behind Europe's rejection of Bush's Iraq war.

The travel-weary thinker who is unafraid to draw ethnographic conclusions -- that's Kaplan's shtick. He's the closest thing we've got to Sir Richard Francis Burton. Yet he writes as if only conventional war matters. By that metric, yes, Europe has crouched in the protective shadow of the American military since 1945. But small wars matter too. In fact, they matter a lot more now than ever. Our war against totalitarian Islam is two small wars and a constellation of similar flash points. Europe, as the last, great locus of colonial power, has fought more of these conflicts than us. It's easy and satisfying to pillory the sick man across the ocean, but it ought to occur, especially to a writer like Kaplan, that Europe's chariness of military adventurism might in part come from hard-earned experience.

I'm all for humanitarian military intervention and totalitarian "regime change" -- when they are strategically appropriate and tactically sound. But those are exceedingly difficult conditions to meet. Nation-building can't be done quickly, cheaply or bloodlessly.

Ridicule of the French is the show stopper in the anti-Europe vaudeville, but perhaps they provide the best example. From 1954 to 1962, the French brought savage violence to bear on their Algerian problem: 700,000 dead Muslims and a torture regime that would have put a permanent wet spot on Dick Cheney's gimp suit. They lost Algeria. All they achieved was the erosion of French liberal democracy.

Pundits should come with little warning stickers, like prescription drugs. Expertise in one area is matched by frivolity in another. I've never shared the just-incidentally-self-promoting excitement about the potential of the "blogosphere". The main reason is when a premier journalist like Kaplan -- which is to say, an experienced professional with access to a deep well of resources -- publishes this kind of bong-smoking rhapsody, you have to wonder about the intellectual hygiene of most of what is written on blogs.

Update: Robert Kaplan is a Senior Fellow of John Nagl's Center for a New American Security! That's the cutting-edge counterinsurgency think tank, folks.

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