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DEFCON 17: Hacking Deep Ecology in Sin City

Current Intelligence

Tim Stevens reports back from the DEFCON 17 conference in Las Vegas: are hackers thinking meat isn't just meat anymore?

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  • DEFCON 17

    Current Intelligence

    Tim Stevens reports back from the DEFCON 17 conference in Las Vegas: are hackers thinking meat isn't just meat anymore?

    Read more...

  • The Occidental Guerrilla

    Book Review

    Michael A. Innes reviews David Kilcullen's new book The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. A timely and astute synthesis of experience, research and analysis, the author pinpoints the political shear between minority existential threats to US interests and the majority of the world's locally invested guerrillas who just want to be left alone.

    Read...

  • Architecture & Biopolitics

    Interview

    Berlin-based writer Daniel Miller's October 2008 interview with Swedish philosopher and SITE Magazine Editor-In-Chief Sven-Olov Wallenstein, on his new book Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009).

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  • Wired For War

    Symposium

    The second symposium in CTlab's 2009 series, focused on Peter Singer's new book, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin Press: 2009), ran from 30 March to 2 April. Singer and half a dozen scholars from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Austria debated the use and ethics of robots in war.

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  • The Limits Of "Security"

    Current Intelligence

    Kenneth Anderson explores the link between international financial instability and global security in response to Judy Shelton's recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.

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Sunday
02Aug

Chomsky: How The US Won The Vietnam War

[I found this interview with Noam Chomsky today. It's a few months old, and perhaps his ideas are already familiar to those who have read more of his work than me, but it made me think about a few things, so I unapologetically review it here]

Old Noam's views can sometimes verge into conspiracist territory, but I've decided to run with his argument that America had effectively won the Vietnam War by the mid-1960s and just wasted their time (and a horrible number of lives) by hanging around for any longer. There are clear parallels to Afghanistan and Iraq to draw out of this theory.

Chomsky argues that postwar American foreign policy was mostly concerned with maintaining dominance in its areas of interest, and that the biggest threat to this were cocky little upstarts like Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh who seemed to think they could run their countries on their own terms without bending to American whims. Henry Kissinger viewed their actions as a dangerous infection because it set an example that, if successful, might be copied by other erstwhile vassals of the American empire.

A crucial part of stopping the spread of this infection was therefore to make the example look awful; make it look like Cuba and Vietnam's decision to go independent from the US was the most disastrous move they ever made. This was not particularly successful in Cuba (although the ongoing US sanctions regime shows they are still trying). But in Chomsky's view, it sure worked well in Vietnam.

"The US basically won the war," he says. "By the late '60s it was very clear that Vietnam was not going to be a model for anyone, if it even survived." He quotes McGeorge Bundy (Kennedy and Johnson's national security advisor) as saying that: "In retrospect, we probably should have stopped the Vietnam War in 1965 because the virus was pretty much killed by then and the contagion wasn't going to spread."

I think this is a pretty convincing narrative of how the US perceived its interests in this period. What I find interesting is that the White House had a clear idea of its objectives, which were fairly limited, but they just got carried away in Vietnam and didn't know what the finishing line looked like anymore, not least because there was considerable disparity between the rhetoric they fed to the American public and the goals they espoused behind closed doors.

Punishment

The narrative Chomsky proposes is that US foreign policy was essentially punitive in nature, regardless of the "democracy-spreading" guff it spouted for the cameras. One might see similar dynamics at work in the conflicts of the 21st century. Once again, punitive action was taken against states who were perceived to be harming American interests. And once again, the US got drawn into a long, nation-building project - not because that was ever the objective, but because it was bound by the ethical structures that it had itself created in an attempt to disguise the punitive nature of its actions. The US talked so much about the humanitarian dimension of its punishment missions that it could no longer justify a quick exit strategy.

Some good might come of this, I would argue. For a start, it demonstrates the need Western governments have to justify themselves on ethical grounds, even as they manipulate viewers and sex up documents. And it shows how those ethical principles then bind the government into debilitating projects that go beyond their real agenda. The US went into Iraq to slam the butt of a rifle into Saddam's insolent face, hoping this would eliminate whatever threat he posed and scare his neighbours into obedience. But because the Bush administration had spent so long dressing this up as a heart-warming gift of democracy to the Iraqi people, they couldn't just turn around and leave. Suddenly, the US found itself having to make good on its promise to create a better society for the Iraqi people, which was never the real intention and turned out to be a horribly difficult task.

The same is true of Afghanistan where the simple objective of disrupting some jihadists never had much to do with building girls' schools and creating a functioning state out of nothing. But because the invasion was described in ethical terms of democracy and freedom, the US and its allies found themselves drawn into the hell they're in today.

As with Vietnam in the 1960s, the Afghanistan invasion was really about setting an example - in this case, that states are not allowed to harbour terrorists. That point could have been made without putting many troops on the ground. Things might have turned pretty ugly if the US had just wiped out the government with a few bombs and some Special Forces and then made a hasty exit. But they've turned out pretty ugly anyway, in both Iraq and Afghanistan,and the situation is perhaps worse for the presence of foreign forces, as the infamous memo from a senior advisor in Iraq laid out this week.

Learn to admit victory

I mentioned earlier that some good could come from all this. I hope the main lesson for politicians is that there is nothing to be gained from creating a divide between the real agenda and the one presented to the public. Politicians will only end up skewered by the ethical standards they project, even if they are only meant as PR spin. Hopefully, that will teach our leaders to have a clearer view of objectives and a more daringly honest relationship with their public. Sadly, I fear that the pressure to comply with liberal-sounding ethics is a curb on pragmatism in conflict that will see the West drawn into battles far beyond its needs, and - the real worry - far beyond its capabilities.

All of which has left me wondering whether the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion was in fact the best thing that could have happened to America. Repulsed in their attempt to exact military punishment, perhaps it saved them from getting dragged into a localised insurgency and nation-building quagmire. The US government was forced to quench its lust for revenge by applying punitive economic measures instead (coupled with a few quiet assassination attempts, of course). While terrible, they have certainly created less devastation than the attempts to punish countries militarily.

There's a lot of debate about the metrics of success in Afghanistan at the moment. The original goal was to prevent it from providing safe havens for terrorists. Was this ever a realistic goal? There's a lot of pretty impenetrable mountains round those parts.

Or should we follow Chomsky and see that the real goal was to punish the Taliban for giving support to Al Qaeda? That objective was achieved pretty quickly I think, and perhaps it was an understanding of this true nature of the mission that led Tony Blair to expect a "very quick" exit back in 2001. Might we conclude that constructing the illusion that we are not a bunch of vindictive bastards has cost us dearly. Too many ethical principles have made it difficult for us to admit victory.

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