Thursday, June 01, 2006

In Praise of Warlords

A provocative piece by John Hulsman and Alexis Debat, appearing in the Summer 2006 issue.

A few excerpts:


Legitimacy comes in many faces. Westerners like to see it in the glow of freedom fighters ascending to high office in a sweeping democratic process, preferably after mass rallies in the squares of capital cities with the attendant flags and banners and rock concerts. But we are loath to grace with “legitimacy” the evil, greedy chieftain of Western imagination—the warlord—conjured in no small part by the portrayals of Indiana Jones movies. Of course, the West might work with such unsavory characters in alliances of convenience, but they are to be despised (not least in their immoral challenge to Western democratic superiority) and then quickly done away with at the first possible opportunity—to be replaced by “proper” political figures.

Our cinematic reaction to warlords has carried over into the policies of American state-builders to an uncomfortable degree. When looked at in the glare of reality, America’s state-building record in the post-Cold War era is dreadful because of our reflexive antipathy for warlords and our unwillingness to co-opt them. America’s failure to identify and engage warlords has contributed again and again to the most conspicuous of U.S. nation-building failures. ...

This dismal record is matched by an unwillingness to seriously assess the flaws in the standard Western model of state-building from afar. Debates continue to focus the potential roles of the United States, United Nations, World Bank, European Union or International Monetary Fund in state-building, with indigenous leadership—chiefs, elders and yes, even warlords—playing either a secondary or adversarial role in the process.

As long as international admiration trumps local legitimacy in selecting who we are willing to work with in state-building, our efforts will fail. This means, in many parts of the world, we have to come to terms with so-called warlords.

But just what do we mean by “warlord?” A “warlord” is a leader whose power has been attained by non-democratic means but who exercises authority usually on the basis of an appeal to ethnic or religious identity, and who usually controls a definable territory where he has a near monopoly on the use of force. A warlord, as opposed to a gang leader or petty crook, operates within a clear and defined political framework. ...

T. E. Lawrence, in the flower of his youth, was one of the most famous men in the world. The conqueror of Aqaba at 29 and Damascus at thirty, he was a major leader of the wildly romantic and improbably successful Arab Revolt of Emir Feisal—a warlord—against his Turkish overlords during World War I. ... Lawrence’s approach was based on a few simple principles, encapsulated in an August 1917 memo he wrote for British serving officers with Feisal’s legions, and in a September 1920 article he wrote anonymously for the British journal Round Table. What Lawrence advocated in these primary sources represents a dramatic break not only with state-building as it was then practiced, but also as it continues to be implemented today.

Local elites, Lawrence held, must be stakeholders in any successful state-building process. At root, almost all state-building problems are political and not military in nature; with political legitimacy, military problems can be solved. To work against the grain of local history is to fail. It is critical to accurately assess the unit of politics in a developing state—and in the case of the Arab Revolt, it was the tribe, and hence tribal leaders, or warlords.

To Lawrence, the seminal operational fact in dealing with the Arab Revolt was that the framework was tribal. By working within Bedouin cultural norms, rather than imposing Western institutions, the Arabs accepted the legitimacy of British objectives. As he wrote in his 1917 memo, “Wave a Sharif [local warlord] in front of you like a banner, and hide your own mind and person.” Lawrence understood that the sharif, not he, had local legitimacy. The common British custom was to issue orders to the Arabs only through their chiefs, and only when agreed upon. Lawrence did not take this approach out of some romantic belief in the unspoiled ways of the Arabs. Rather, he saw it as the only practical way to achieve results. Lawrence worked with local culture, history, political practice, sociology, ethnology, economic statutes and psychology to get the job done.

Early on, Lawrence realized that in Emir Feisal he had happened upon the ideal warlord of the Arab Revolt. As son of the sharif of Mecca, Feisal was imbued with religious and political legitimacy. He led in the name of his father, who as keeper of the Holy Places had an unrivalled political position in the Hejaz (western Saudi Arabia). Lawrence worked within the tribal structure and collaborated with warlords, an approach he employed later on his way to Damascus, when he successfully constructed another alliance of Syrian tribes, including the Howeitat, Beni Sakhr, Sherrat, Rualla and Serahin.

The contrast with modern Western efforts at state-building could hardly be greater. Too often, modern-day Wilsonians assume that because a nation-state exists on paper, they can dispense with the need to forge alliances and compacts among sectarian, tribal, ethnic and religious factions and simply deal with “Iraqis” or “Somalis” or “Afghans”—disregarding or ignoring the traditional sub-national centers of authority in favor of anointing “modern” leaders.

A very interesting excerpt, indeed.

The problem, of course, is that we in the West don't accept the idea of a multispeed human community, e.g. that some regions and societies are at different levels of development, and that development is not just about technology but about societal mores. So why shouldn't feudal societies turn into modern civic democracies in a matter of months?
This is just as bad as the earlier postings and discussions about using mercenaries as "peacekeepers"! Basically this is a strategy to employ local thugs to keep "order." And do we think warlords are going to be enlightened modernizers who are going to let the populations they oppress become real participants in governing the country?

This seems like another variant of the Nigeria or Angola strategy: either you bring in the mercenaries (hired goons from outside) or you find local strongmen to keep the population down so you can extract the wealth. Realism at its finest.
So we're back to the usual debate on this: the liberal view that mercenaries are bad, warlords are bad, send in U.S. forces everywhere to do the good work, except that there's no popular support for remaking the world in our image, so let these areas go to hell as long as our conscience is pure.
The difference seems to be that idealists want rapid change and are willing to accept high rates of failure; realists want success but are willing to wait for generations.
I would have to read the article but from the summary it appears to conflate two very different meanings of the term "warlord": (a) a local leader whose authority and legitimacy derive from ideas and customs alien to our own but whose activity has no direct adverse effect on us, and (b) those instances of (a) whose activity, eg. drug smuggling, harboring al-Qaida fugitives, do adversely and directly impact us. It is of course a separate question what we should do about cases of (b), but I don't think it is correct to treat (a) and (b) as analytically the same, if that is what the authors do. At least the two meanings should be distinguished more clearly and sharply.

The historical analogy is also problematical, although I applaud the authors for trying to draw on historical precedents.

First, insofar as he spoke for anyone in British policy besides himself, Lawrence spoke for the so-called Westernists in Cairo in backing the claims of the Sharif of Mecca and the Hashemite family. In doing so he opposed the Easternists in British India, who were more sympathetic to the claims of Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia. At that time, the question for British policy with regard to indigenous leaders in the Arab world was not whether to support them but which ones to support. This is always the problem with traditional elites when local sovereignty is not already clear and established. It is certainly the case in Iraq today.

Second, the strategy of the entire British Empire shifted in the 1860s from trying to assimilate indigenous coastal elites to supporting traditional and less assimilated elites farther inland (tribal chiefs, local kings, rajas, sultans, etc.). The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was partly responsible for this shift but so was (1) a new sense of realism about the limits of British power and (2) a diminishing of evangelical enthusiasm for remaking India and the rest of the empire in Britain's image. Two consequences followed. One was that Westernized people in the empire became alienated and eventually formed the nationalist movements that won independence after 1945. The other was that traditional elites were essential to British influence. Eventually these elites followed the lead of local nationalists or were displaced by them.

The one thing that support for traditional elites did not accomplish was real modernization, except insofar as traditional groups didn't really stand in the way. But true warlords are not going to establish the rule of law essential to modern forms of contract and I do not see how transparency can be defined, let alone achieved, with any outside aid channeled through them.

The basic question today is the urgency of change in traditional parts of the world. If other societies pose no threat, then there is no urgent need to force them to change. In the future, however, private groups and rogue sovereignties with cultural or political grievances against the West may acquire the means to inflict catastrophic damage on us or on the planet (as a result of nuclear proliferation, the ability to make and broadcast carcinogenic nanoparticles, or the ability to synthesize and spread killer viruses). If these threats materialize, and if traditional sovereignty and traditional society are factors contributing to them, then traditional sources of authority may become incompatible with the security needs of the wider world.

Traditional societies will in all likelihood modify their views to preserve as much of their own identity and way of life as they can, while accommodating the needs of the outside world. If they are unable or unwilling to make this change, and then only if the threat to others is urgent enough, then the outside world will make the sacrifices necessary to force change. But I very much doubt that this will be necessary if the new kinds of threat move from the realm of the hypothetical into the realm of the real.
The very existence of warlords is symptomatic of the break-down of a centralized state; pre-Communist China, Somalia, and Afghanistan are examples. That means that conditions of civil war obtains in that area.

For US, if her interests warrant intervention in such situations, the prudent course of action will be to select one warlord, commit to him decisively & massively, and help that warlord win the on-going civil war and thus re-create the state.
There is a larger question--to what extent does peace and stability in the world require all countries to more or less subscribe to the same values system.

A second point, one paraphrased from Scheuer's "Provocations" a while back, is that no way of life, traditional or modern, has any "right" to exist.
All countries, as centers of power, subscribe to exactly the same value system: maintain power, increase power, defend power. The currency is, has been, and will be human lives.

People who inhabit these states may have different value systems but I do not believe those value systems are germane.
11:55 AM Anonymous:

THe US can't commit to a single warlord because of our single-issue politics and COngressional micromanaging. Warlord X might stop the drug trade (good) but then has an American missionary arrested for preacing (bad).
If US cannot commit to a single warlord and thus help end the civil war decisively and quickly; then it is best for US not to get involved.
Anonymous 8:36

But that's not how it works here--there is always pressure to "get involved" and to "do something" even if the end result is to make things worse (Iraq is the best case in point)
Anonymous 9:43 PM


But "here" also means those making such decisions are "dumb, fat, and happy".
What is with the fascination with Lawrence? Didn't neocons like Wolfowitz also embrace him? How much of this is based on the movie image?

And why don't we ever ask about long-term success? The British edifice in the Middle East didn't last that long.
Fascination with Lawrence comes courtesy of the three personal traits no proper imperial British hagiography can be without -- autobiographical erudition, a melancholy life of sensational adventure, and a fanatically serious attitude toward native populations. Add Lawrence's untimely death -- with which the Victorian era also really died -- and the power of his legend strikes one as a natural (even indispensible) component of Anglo-American cultural receivership.

Had the British followed the advice of Lawrence -- and his handpicked successor, Glubb, who ran the Arab Legion out of Jordan -- the old "edifice" might have turned out much differently: meaning it mightn't have been stomped into the ground by the disasterous Nasser/Nuri situation. Only months before Suez, Israel's founding warriors considered military interaction with the British, in all likelihood, to involve a war in which the nations fought on opposite sides.

On a less ironic note, long-term success in the Middle East has eluded every would-be bringer of order since Alexander. The problem of the disunited Arab peoples has been an historical constant, which only the suzerainty of the Turks was able, for a time, to occlude behind the veils first of sudden Ottoman victory and then protracted Ottoman defeat. Lawrence was not the first man to lay bare the profundity of Arab (and Muslim) disunity, and he certainly wasn't the last.
I disagree with the observation of disorder in the Middle East since the time of Alexander; where in the world has this (disorder) not been the norm rather than the exception? I raise this becuase this type of generalization numbs the mind and lulls it into sleep.

The fascination with Lawrence is dangerous since it misreads the fundamental changes that have happened in the character of the non-European people since the end of WWII.

The non-European people have changed: they have more confidence in themselves than early 20-th century, they are better educated, better organized, have a higher standard of living, and better governed than any time in the past.

Therefore, they can no longer be treated and governed by the "White man" in the same way as before. They will no longer accept the assumed intrinsic superiority of the "White Man" and his "burden".

Times have changed and Lawerence is as relevant to the current situation as Sula was to Mussolini.

Some might criticize me for using the term "Whiet Man" and all the allusions that goes with it but I believe that casting the discussion in these term is more illuminating.

In 1991, papers in Mexico referred to the First Gulf War as the war of "whites against the browns".
Anonymous 4:03 -

"In 1991, papers in Mexico referred to the First Gulf War as the war of "whites against the browns"."

The Saudis and other Arabs fought alongside us in the first Gulf War. But I agree that any semblance of outside domination of the Middle East will be impossible to continue as nuclear weapons spread to all of the main countries in the region. The only question is whether US or international action will delay this result and if so by how long.

But value systems are germane, in the sense that different values are the long-term reason why the European West achieved global superiority a century ago. The question about values today is whether the Middle East can sustain any military-technological advantage it is able to acquire, and more generally be competitive in the long run, without changing the traditional patterns of its life and culture.
The first task is not to revolutionize an area and then leave, which has been the great American failing from Vietnam onward, but to contain disorder and other problems from spilling over to negatively affect us and then over time creating the conditions either for modernization and development or barring that isolation of the problems. East Asia did the first, Africa is on the second track. The "Lawrence strategy" allows you to do both at more limited costs.
David Billington:

Europe and the West are the exception in the world history; Perrine's thesis.

The pre-industrial people of the Middle East are changing, have changed, and will change but that change will not be in line with Western Diktat; those days are over.

The Arabs in the First Gulf War were tokens providing cover for US. Saudi Arabia has no military worth the name.

Israel has to be disarmed; until and unless that has occurred proliferation in the Middle East cannot be checked.

Conservative Realist:

The US policy of trying to select winners and loosers must stop. It failed in the Levant and it failed in the Persian Gulf.

Modernization is a loaded word. Japan, China, Thailand, Russia, Iran, and Turkey have been trying to modernize for almost 150 years. Yet they are not there.

If US were truly interested in modernization in the Middle East, it would have to support Turkey, and Iran to the hilt. These two non-Arab states are the only "modern" Muslim state existing in the contemporary world.
I don't know what value Yglesias sees in this kind of out of the box thinking, nothing really of value for anyone looking for a progressive alternative for foreign policy.
What does "Progressive" mean?
"Progressive alternative" means convincing Americans that national interest doesn't matter and that ordinary Americans shold be supporting with their blood and treasure the causes that the liberal elite deems to be "just".
Yes: liberal fantasies that gave us the Vietnam War, the Progressive fantasies that gave US Kosovo & Dayton, and now the neo-conservative fantasies that are being pursued in Iraq and elsewhere.
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