Half a Loaf

March 26, 2014

Multiple Pages
Half a Loaf

William Goldman’s fantasy tale The Princess Bride made famous the saying “never get involved in a land war in Asia” (it was purportedly advice General Douglas MacArthur gave to President John F. Kennedy regarding Vietnam). But historically the costs of a land war in Europe have been even more horrifying, which is why it’s important to comprehend the various psychological processes that have been driving us toward World War G.

One force is the general tendency of triumphalist powers to press onward until they’ve backed their rivals into a corner. It’s hard for winners to declare victory and go home. It’s more fun to keep the game going, even if the conceivable gains are rapidly diminishing.

In domestic politics, for instance, the National Rifle Administration followed up its heroic 1990s triumphs defending basic Second Amendment rights with a series of extravagant legislative initiatives in part intended to provoke a liberal backlash to keep the NRA relevant.

Similarly, the gay-rights movement, fearing the boredom of victory, has extended its demands for domestic privilege to ever-tinier minorities such as individuals who demand public approval for having their genitals mutilated (World War T). Internationally, homosexual activists such as Masha Gessen, the US government’s former head of propaganda in Russia, and Jamie Kirchick have gone looking to pick a fight with Russia (World War G).

“It’s hard for winners to declare victory and go home.”

Thus we’ve seen emerge a bizarre alliance of homosexual radicals, banksters, media figures, and old Cold Warriors united by the impulse to bait the ominous Russian bear. For example, the Obama Administration’s ambassador to Russia from 2011 to 2014, Michael A. McFaul, wrote in The New York Times over the weekend in “Confronting Putin’s Russia”:

This new era crept up on us, because we did not fully win the Cold War.

Actually, in 1989-1991 we did win the Cold War, as fully as I, at least, could ever have dreamed: East Berlin, Prague, Warsaw…but Donetsk?

But America’s remarkable triumph in the Cold War wasn’t, apparently, good enough.

Among the more vivid examples of pushing too hard in foreign affairs are the events of 1950, a year in which experienced men who had been tested in the great trials of the 1940s made almost uniformly catastrophic strategic choices. Almost every major decision maker in the Korean conflict had emerged from the previous decade a winner. Yet despite their successful track records—or perhaps because of them—most pressed their luck too far on that divided peninsula, refusing to settle for half a loaf. The result was a drawn-out war that killed more than a million people over three years—without moving the border at all.

The Korean War is largely forgotten today (it had something to do with M*A*S*H, right?), but it was terrifying at the time. It was preceded by a long series of mutual border provocations between communist North Korea, ruled by the sinister Kim Il-sung, and American-backed South Korea, run by the aged and autocratic Syngman Rhee.

Stalin, who was feeling his oats because in 1949 he had acquired both an atomic bomb and a giant ally in Red China, gave Kim Il-sung backing to invade the South. North Korea’s surprise attack on June 25, 1950 routed the corrupt South Korean army.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson had not include South Korea in his public list of countries America would defend, but in the crisis it was decided that South Korea was too important as Japan’s buffer state to allow it to be inundated by communism. In July, American troops began arriving from Japan but were driven back to a small Pusan Perimeter in the southeast of the peninsula.

On September 15, General MacArthur struck behind enemy lines with a masterful amphibious landing at Inchon. He retook South Korea’s capital of Seoul ten days later. The North Korean army was eviscerated. The road to the Yalu River, the border with China in the north, appeared open.

Red China’s number-two man Zhou Enlai repeatedly warned that the continued existence of a North Korean buffer state was a Chinese national necessity for which the huge People’s Liberation Army would fight. But President Harry Truman and Defense Secretary George C. Marshall secretly gave MacArthur permission to cross the border into North Korea. On October 1, 1950 MacArthur set off to conquer North Korea. A week later, the US-controlled UN called for “a unified, independent and democratic government” for all Korea.

In response, on October 19, 1950 hundreds of thousands of battle-hardened Chinese troops began crossing the Yalu. Their original plan was to fight only South Korean forces, but they soon stumbled into American troops. The lightly armed but tactically expert PLA forces drove the Americans, such as my friend sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, then a teenaged artillery officer, into a nightmarish retreat.

Mao Zedong, elated by his victories over the Americans, gave the order for China to conquer South Korea as well.

In the desperate days of early 1951, Washington seriously discussed the use of nuclear weapons. Eventually, the new American battlefield commander Matthew Ridgway, one of the few figures to emerge from the Korean conflict with his reputation enhanced, stabilized the situation. Using the American advantage in artillery to kill vast numbers of brave but outgunned Chinese communists, Ridgway fought back to the pre-war border at the 38th parallel, where the agony finally halted in 1953.

The continued existence of the North Korean communist buffer state between the American-led alliance and China is a horrible burden on the poor and ever-shorter subjects of that regime. If MacArthur had succeeded in conquering North Korea in 1950, the North Koreans would presumably now be as prosperous as their Hyundai-building and break dancing cousins in South Koreans.

On the other hand, the malignant North Korean state continues to serve its purpose: China and America at present do not get into desperate land wars in Asia like they did in 1950.

Buffer states are usually not ideal for their citizens. For example, Belgium exists today less because the Walloons and Flemish enjoy each other’s company (they don’t), but because Belgium serves the purposes of the great powers of Western Europe, especially Britain, which entered the Great War in August 1914 to avenge Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality as it invaded France. The English have sensibly preferred to fight their battles in the Low Countries rather than on their own territory.

In Russian geopolitical thinking, Ukraine and Belarus similarly serve as its buffer states. Just as dominant Germany now enjoys a sizable buffer of NATO allies and EU members to its east, Russia has wanted a couple of scraps of its old empire to remain out of the Western alliance. The Russians believe that enjoying the luxury of buffer states is the mark of a Great Power. (American policy since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine has been to possess a buffer hemisphere.) Thus, Moscow looked askance upon the violent overthrow of an elected friend in Kiev.

On the other hand, Russia’s Crimea response violates a general principle of modern international order that one country can’t legally annex a chunk of another country by a localized secession referendum imposed by military might. (The US would object to Canadian troops carrying out a secession vote in Seattle. On the other hand, if Ontario wants to try that in Detroit.…) Like NATO’s Kosovo adventure before it, Crimea sets a bad precedent. So the US ought to withhold recognition of Russia’s takeover of the Crimea.

Obviously, the Russians are emotional about their historic naval port of Sevastopol and thus won’t give up Crimea. Fortunately, a potential way out of the current impasse might be to induce Russia to sit down with Ukraine and negotiate a fair, mutually agreed upon price for the peninsula in return for international recognition of Russian possession.

You’ll recall that at the end of the Mexican-American War (1848) and the Spanish-American War (1898), the US retroactively semi-legitimized its takings by paying Mexico $15 million and Spain $20 million. Granted, the US paid Spain roughly ten cents on the dollar for the Philippines, but the right of conquest was then only starting to go out of fashion. (The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 marks perhaps the first formal step toward proscription.)

Since Russia didn’t particularly seize Crimea out of calculated economic self-interest, but more out of feelings (not wholly unreasonable) of wounded national amour-propre, deft diplomacy might actually succeed in inducing the Russians to offer an agreeably large price to Ukraine in the spirit of, say, a magnanimous gesture on the part of a great nation toward their brother Slavs. This would preserve the global expectation that you can’t go around taking chunks of other countries without paying for their permission.
Would this work? Probably not, but Russia might eventually realize that it needs to deprive Beijing of an excuse for someday taking back parts of Siberia once claimed by the Emperor of China.

On the other hand, this sort of reasonable resolution of a foreboding situation would be bad for the American promoters of World War G, so it’s not likely to become American policy.


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