Saturday, September 12, 2009

At the Gates of Adrianople


I cannot remember the last time I read a Wall Street Journal. The only reason to do so would be to read Peggy Noonan. One can easily find her columns elsewhere, however, or better yet, watch her over breakfast on Morning Joe. The WSJ ranks low in my estimation for two reasons. First, reading about stocks is every bit as boring as listening to someone drone on about their own stocks. (I am all for owning them, mind you, just not talking about them.) Second, the WSJ continues to peddle sophomoric dreck such as this, The Afghan Stakes, in which Bret Stephens expounds on our crisis in Afghanistan. In his very first paragraph, he states:

...a war that, if lost, would be to the United States roughly what the battle of Adrianople in 378 A.D. —you can look it up—was to the Roman Empire. Things did not go well for Western civilization for 1,100 or so years thereafter.

Perhaps neo-conservative writers should only use historical references that extend no further back in time than, say, the Reagan Administration. Whenever one interprets history simply by projecting their ideology upon the past, then you often end up with nonsensical pronouncements such as Stephens'. In the header, he states that withdrawing from Afghanistan would have terrible consequences in the "war on terror." While this is clearly a fairly standard, boilerplate neo-con talking point, it is not at all clear what possible connection this would have with the Battle of Adrianople in 378 A.D.

Adrianople is now the modern Turkish city of Edirne, located west of Istanbul near the Bulgarian border. It is home to a big-daddy of a mosque, the Selimiye, which is something of a tourist attraction. I have actually been through Edirne on 3 occasions. Coming from Sofia on the Balkan Express, we would arrive at Plovdiv around dusk, the Turkish border crossing about 2:00 A.M., and Edirne sometime between then and morning. Leaving from Istanbul, you pass through Edirne at about 2:00 in the morning. Needless to say, as the old train lumbered through the night, I slept through whatever charms Edirne had to offer.

I do not discount the importance of the Battle of Adrianople in 378 A.D. The discontented Goths, already living within the empire, made a march on Constantinople. Valens, the eastern emperor, awaited assistance from Gratian, the emperor in the West. Unwisely, he chose to attack before these reinforcements arrived. The Goths routed the Byzantine army, inflicting losses of perhaps 2/3 of the fighting force, including Valens himself. So, Adrianople was an ignominious defeat.

What exactly, were the long-term consequences of the battle--for this is the connection Stephens is attempting to make? Very little changed, actually. The Goths were already within the Empire, and they remained. Adrianople itself was not captured. The Gothic army marched to the gates of Constantinople, but the city held firm. The eastern Roman Empire actually was just building steam, and would endure (and often flourish) for another 1,075 years. The deterioration in the West was well underway already, and it is hard to see how the outcome of this battle materially changed things one way or the other. But Stephens contends that because of this battle "things did not go very well for Western civilization for the next 1,100 years." Really, now. The author is basically saying that things were pretty dismal in Europe until the Renaissance, and all because of Adrianople. Even if you do not consider Byzantine civilization as "Western," such a claim remains patently false, and a bit silly. While certainly those times could be fraught with peril, this was also the age of Augustine, Charlemagne, St. Benedict, Alfred the Great, Chaucer, William the Conquerer, Chartes, Frederick Barbarossa, Dante, Gothic architecture, the Magna Charta, etc. In point of fact, Western civilization emerged from this very crucible, the fusion of classical Roman culture with barbarian vitality. Whether you believe medieval Western civilization to be a good thing or not, it was little affected by the outcome of the Battle of Adrianople. If Stephens were grasping for a battle with horrendous repercussions, he should have used the Battle of Manzikurt (1071) instead. But here again, neither battle has any discernible parallels with our situation in Afghanistan.

From this opening salvo, Stephens goes on to make a number of points. He contends that Afghanistan matters because that is where 9/11 was "imagined." Also, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan has played into the hands of Islamist mythology, for as he says "if one superpower could be brought down, why not the other?" Stephens believes that from this misconception flow a number of conclusions on the part of the terrorists:

1. Since attacks such as 9/11 are not fatal to radical Islam, then future attacks on the U.S. "homeland" could yield similar results.

2. The U.S. has no stomach for long-term counterinsurgency.

3. "The U.S. is not prepared to stand by its clients in the Third World if it believes those clients are morally tainted....Ergo, other shaky or dubious U.S. allies in the Muslim world—Algeria, for instance, or, yes, Saudi Arabia—are prime targets for renewed assault."

4. A U.S. that doesn't have the stomach for a relatively easy fight like Afghanistan...will have even less stomach for much tougher fights.

5. Withdrawal would force Islamabad to abandon its war on terror

6. Withdrawal would invite the al Qaeda remnant in Iraq—already on an upswing—to redouble its efforts, and do so with the confidence that the U.S. has permanently soured on Middle Eastern interventions.

Stephens concludes:

This is not the noblest fight, and no sane nation would wage it by choice. But we did not choose it and, if we keep our nerve, we can win it. Otherwise, the consequence will be ashes flying again in our own streets, something to remember on the eve of another 9/11 anniversary.

Mr. Stephens is currently a foreign-affairs columnist for the WSJ, and prior to that was the youngest editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post. From his writings, it seems that he could have also served a term as speechwriter for President Bush circa 2004.

As to his first point, were we to occupy every square mile of Afghanistan, and empty its borders of every suspected terrorist, it would not destroy al Qaeda, but would in fact, embolden them. As I recall, the 9/11 terrorists were not Afghans at all, but rather, our good friends the Saudis. And while we are at it, let's drop the "homeland" business, shall we?

As to his second point, that is, I believe, already common knowledge. And exactly how many American lives should we lose just to prove to the Islamists that we don't like long counterinsurgencies?

Stephens' third point is particularly loathsome. The point is interesting, however, in that I believe this is the first time I have ever seen the words "U.S. ally" and "Algeria" in the same sentence without a "not" in between. But to tie our continued presence in Afghanistan, and the ongoing loss of American lives, to support for the House of Saud is simply despicable. When the Saudi royals finally fall, I am sure we will be even less pleased with what initially replaces them. But the fact remains that there is no more malignant regime in power today. The death of even one American soldier lost even tangentially in support of the Saudis is a crime.

As to his fourth point, Stephens believes this is the "easy" fight. He might want to do a little research in the British Archives, or even arrange to interview some surviving Soviet soldiers.

Fifthly, Stephens believes that our leaving Afghanistan will cause Pakistan to abandon its own "war on terror." Good Lord. Until very recently, it was hard to even detect a Pakistani effort in this direction.

Sixthly, in a bit of convoluted logic, Stephens believes that if we leave Afghanistan, it will encourage al Qaeda to stay in Iraq. As I recall, they only came to Iraq because we where there.

As to his conclusion, I am still waiting to hear what "winning" would look like, exactly? His last line, an alarmist tactic promising another 9/11 if we don't stay in Afghanistan is equally loathsome. But then, he is a neo-con. What is completely lacking in his article is any realization of a great truth, one that Osama bin Laden has stated time and again. That truth, briefly stated is this: they oppose us not for who we are, but for what we do. Unless we have grown fond of constant war (and I am not sure we have not), the wise course, it would seem to me, is to stop doing it.

I apologize to my regular visitors here, for the strident tone of this post. I usually try to keep things as mellow as possible. But the sort of mendacity being dished out by Stephens here--the kind that affects policy and costs lives--always gets my goat.

For a more professional savaging of Stephens' article, see Daniel Larison, here.


Kirk said...

Your problem, John, is that you believe yourself to be ethically bound by the facts of history; Stephens does not burden himself with this limitation. To him, reality is a mere trifle. Perception is what matters. See, for example, the widely-held perception that the founding fathers of our nation were Bible-believing, Trinitarian Christians. And so, when we start to hear calls for withdrawal from Afghanistan from conservatives such as George Will, someone must speak for the neo-conservative wing of the party. Truth here is not determined by the individual facts utilized to make the argument, but by the position of argument itself. The conclusion of the argument is pre-ordained and pre-approved, the means to that conclusion are inapposite.

Milton T. Burton said...

Besides, the Goths were Germans, culturally almost identical to many tribes that had been living within the Empire for centuries. Many of the Germans had converted to Christianity, so their presence was hardly the catastrophe to Western Civilization that would have resulted had the Moors won the Battle of Tours and conquered France.

Milton T. Burton said...

Kirk, do you read H.L. Mencken?

Kirk said...

Milton, I have not, but if it he who said, "the common man is a fool," then perhaps I should.

Gerald said...

War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.