Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nigel Farage's Counterfactual Conclusion to World War I

I’m not inclined to agree with Ukip leader Nigel Farage on many policy issues, but he may be correct in his recent speculative comments about the conclusion of World War I.

As The Guardian recently reported, Farage argued that “Britain and its allies should have continued the First World War for another six weeks in order to achieve an unconditional German surrender, even at the cost of another 100,000 casualties.”
“I believe we should have continued with the advance,” Farage said as he delivering the annual Tom Olsen Lecture at London’s St Bride’s Church on Monday night, hours before Armistice Day was due to be marked across Britain, parts of Europe and the Commonwealth.”
“We should have pursued the war for a further six weeks, and gone for an unconditional surrender. Yes, the last six weeks of the war cost us 100,000 casualties, and I’m prepared to accept that a further six weeks of war might have cost us another 100,000.”
The failure to do pursue this approach ended up being catastrophic, Farage argued.  Indeed, “the armistice was the biggest mistake of the entire 20th century.”  
To bolster this point, Farage argued counterfactually:
“Had we driven the German army completely out of France and Belgium [and] forced them into unconditional surrender, Herr Hitler would never have got his political army off the ground. He couldn’t have claimed Germany had been stabbed in the back by the politicians in Berlin, or that Germany had never been beaten in the field.”
“The Ukip leader said that the reason why Hitler had been able to get his party off the ground in Germany – drawing on “the myth of the stab in the back” at the treaty of Versailles – was because one of those marching through the streets in support of him in 1923 was Erich Ludendorff, a commander of the German army during the first world war.”
“He added: “It was Ludendorff who gave Hitler credibility. Yet none of this would happened if someone had made Ludendorff surrender unconditionally.”
“The Ukip leader said: “The consensus is that the treaty of Versailles was too punitive. It led directly to German hyperinflation, which in turn led to seven million unemployed, and which in turn led to National Socialism.
“But I don’t actually think Versailles was the mistake. I believe the real mistake, the anniversary of which we remember today, was the armistice.”

What should we make of this claim?

Farage is wrong that the Treaty of Versailles was not a mistake (its punitive character did, in fact, lead to a right-wing backlash against the Weimar government that signed the treaty).  But he is right that an unconditional surrender would have certainly prevented Germans from disbelieving the fact that their army had actually lost the war in the field (instead of being stabbed in the back by civilian traitors).

That said, it is entirely possible that the Allies would have followed up an unconditional surrender with an equally punitive peace treaty like Versailles – one that would have led to some kind of German backlash.  Farage’s claim may thus be overly optimistic.

It is interesting to contemplate whether the Germans would have pursued some kind of insurgency against Allied occupying forces.  After World War II, the country was so destroyed and the population so exhausted from six years of fighting that the Werewolf insurgency of 1945-47 was weak and ineffectual. 

After World War I, by contrast, Germany would have been much less destroyed (even if Entente forces had laid northern areas of the country waste on the way to Berlin).  Perhaps South Germans (whose territory might have been spared) would have risen up to expel the invaders with the aid of a rightwing revanchist movement. 

The scenario is a provocative one that is certainly worth mulling over.  Farage may not deserve credit for much else, but he certainly earns points in the area of provocative counterfactual proposals.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Friedman's Counterfactual Comparison of ISIS and Vietnam

In his recent New York Times column, Tom Friedman draws parallels between the United States’ developing campaign against ISIS and its ill-fated battle against communist forces in Vietnam.

In the attempt to provide a boost to the former, he highlights the shortcomings of the latter, writing:

“It’s a long, complicated story…but a big part of it was failing to understand that the core political drama of Vietnam was an indigenous nationalist struggle against colonial rule — not the embrace of global communism, the interpretation we imposed on it.

The North Vietnamese were both communists and nationalists — and still are. But the key reason we failed in Vietnam was that the communists managed to harness the Vietnamese nationalist narrative much more effectively than our South Vietnamese allies, who were too often seen as corrupt or illegitimate. The North Vietnamese managed to win (with the help of brutal coercion) more Vietnamese support not because most Vietnamese bought into Marx and Lenin, but because Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades were perceived to be the more authentic nationalists. 

I believe something loosely akin to this is afoot in Iraq. The Islamic State, or ISIS, with its small core of jihadists, was able to seize so much non-jihadist Sunni territory in Syria and Iraq almost overnight — not because most Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis suddenly bought into the Islamist narrative of ISIS’s self-appointed caliph….They have embraced or resigned themselves to ISIS because they were systematically abused by the pro-Shiite, pro-Iranian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in Iraq — and because they see ISIS as a vehicle to revive Sunni nationalism and end Shiite oppression.”

At this point, Friedman lays the framework for an interesting counterfactual:

“Obsessed with communism, America intervened in Vietnam’s civil war and took the place of the French colonialists. Obsessed with jihadism and 9/11, are we now doing the bidding of Iran and Syria in Iraq? Is jihadism to Sunni nationalism what communism was to Vietnamese nationalism: a fearsome ideological movement that triggers emotional reactions in the West — deliberately reinforced with videotaped beheadings — but that masks a deeper underlying nationalist movement that is to some degree legitimate and popular in its context?

I wonder what would have happened had ISIS not engaged in barbarism and declared: “We are the Islamic State. We represent the interests of Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis who have been brutalized by Persian-directed regimes of Damascus and Baghdad. If you think we’re murderous, then just Google ‘Bashar al-Assad and barrel bombs’ or ‘Iraqi Shiite militias and the use of power drills to kill Sunnis.’ You’ll see what we faced after you Americans left. Our goal is to secure the interests of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. We want an autonomous ‘Sunnistan’ in Iraq just like the Kurds have a Kurdistan — with our own cut of Iraq’s oil wealth.”

That probably would have garnered huge support from Sunnis everywhere….”

Friedman goes to explain why, then, ISIS has been so ideological extreme, concluding that it reflects the leadership’s recognition that its jihadi-nationalist alliance may, in fact, be quite tenuous.  In answer to the question “why did ISIS behead two American journalists?”, Friedman writes: “Because ISIS is a coalition of foreign jihadists, local Sunni tribes and former Iraqi Baath Party military officers. I suspect the jihadists in charge want to draw the U.S. into another “crusade” against Muslims — just like Osama bin Laden — to energize and attract Muslims from across the world and to overcome their main weakness, namely that most Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis are attracted to ISIS simply as a vehicle of their sectarian resurgence, not because they want puritanical/jihadist Islam. There is no better way to get secular Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis to fuse with ISIS than have America bomb them all.”

Friedman’s counterfactual works relatively well in isolating and identifying one of the causal forces underpinning ISIS’s rise to prominence: secular Sunni nationalism.

At the same time, the counterfactual is implausible on the face of it, insofar as there is little likelihood that ISIS would have ever been able to make a non-ideologically radical appeal of the kind Friedman proposes.  What defines ISIS is precisely its ideological fanaticism, which cannot be seen merely in utilitarian terms.

There is a clear precedent in Nazi Germany.  Although many adherents of the NSDAP supported the party for diverse reasons, we should not lose sight that Hitler and Nazi core leadership was fanatically committed to an ideological agenda. 

As long as the leaders of tyrannical groups behave in accordance with strict ideological principles – and as long as they remain in charge -- we cannot expect their “moderate” allies to exert much of a modulating effect.