History, Hubris, and War

Putin’s war of aggression is criminal in every aspect but the West has much soul-searching to do about its enduring sense of exceptionalism, and the geostrategic uncertainty it is now facing.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, several Western pundits and policy-makers developed a then oft-repeated narrative about Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s “miscalculations” in ordering the take-over of the Gulf emirate. The perspective was cemented soon enough in mainstream media reporting, and, in time, academe about the 1991 Second Gulf War.

Beyond the importance of time and timing in war and the age-old axiom that wars are easier to start than to end, Iraq’s ill-advised invasion of its weaker southern neighbor was, in point of fact, a more complex matter as I researched it thirty years ago.

Historically, all Iraqi regimes since the country’s creation in 1920 had made moves of sorts against Kuwait, including a failed invasion in 1961. Militarily, the August 1990 invasion was a blitzkrieg against feeble Kuwaiti forces conducted in the aftermath of Iraq’s eight-year conflict with Iran, which had ended in 1988. Politically, the invasion was seldom seen for what it arguably was, namely a pre-emptive Ba’ath regime assault to keep a restless and historically coup-prone military at bay from the Baghdad palace, more than the assertion of a regional power move it was portrayed to be. As always, politics are local. A miscalculation the invasion of Kuwait certainly was but – importantly – one set against this layered backdrop of regime paranoia, domestic post-1980-1988 Gulf war bankrupcy and international post-Cold War incipient moment.

The ‘miscalculating’ discourse heard in the West was of different nature. It sprang from a superior Orientalist undertone about difference and inability to perform, a discourse all too familiar on the part of some Western military experts and military historians often reflexively displaying paternalism when characterizing ‘failed’ attempts by ‘Global South’ leaders of the likes of ‘Saddam’ or Egypt’s Gamal Abd al Nasser (‘Nasser’) as leaders (‘strong men’ is the preferred vernacular for such places) displaying poor judgment and questionable execution.

At the tail end of the war – Iraq lost because of the untenability of the invasion in the face of an international economic embargo followed by a coalition operation led by the United States from bases established in Saudi Arabia (and relocated to Qatar in 2003) – a related story spun by the Pentagon of a ‘brilliant’ strategic move against Iraq by US General Norman Schwarzkopf, the so-called Left Hook, completed the superiority tale.

The self-serving nature of Western narratives of centrality as regards contemporary war is arresting, as are declamations about mistakes, failures, and miscalculations by others.

This historically-shaped worldview (one fundamentally grounded in the colonial and imperial experiences of the different concerned countries) is today paradoxically and counterproductively at the heart of the Ukraine conflict.

Though the ‘Saddam Miscalculation Paradigm’ was reverted to in the case of Putin’s war, armed conflicts are not exhausted by this perspective. (Tellingly, the US failed wars in Vietnam and Iraq or France’s fiasco in the Sahel are rarely depicted as ‘miscalculations’.)

As one analyst noted early on: “What if, however, the [Western] analysts are seeing the lessons from Ukraine incorrectly, through lenses refracted by their own biases and hubris? What if the key variable is not the professionalism of the Russian military, but the nature of this war?”

Amidst his ruthlessness and authoritarianism, Vladimir Putin led his country into an unwinnable war of aggression, in violation of international law and through the perpetuation of war crimes against Ukraine and the Ukrainian population.

The war of aggression has exposed Russia geopolitically and forced it in a defensive mode for a long period, all in the name of a cause that is neither obvious to most Russians (beyond generic appeals to Mother Russia) nor necessary to the country’s international security (NATO expansion could have been handled peacefully through diplomacy and mediation).

Rising societal discontent, military quagmire, defiant ambitious private military contractors (PMCs), economic sanctions, irresistible global social media, and invigorated Ukrainians are the harsh realities new-old war Putin has to now deal with lastingly as a result of his aggression.

In at least four key ways, however, Western countries have also made it easier for Russia’s illegal and ill-advised invasion of Ukraine to proceed the way it has with the West wrestling now to convince many of what should have been a slam-dunk case. For all its necessity and power, even the resort to the International Criminal Court seemed desperate – and revealing of double standard.

First, Europe and the United States watched the Russian inexorable march towards war build up in slow motion – extraordinarily with no consequential reaction. In some ways, the nonchalance of Europe was akin to the US before 9/11 waking up late to the seriousness of its foes. The insistent nature of the events leading to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and thus their inevitability for casual observers, much less policy-makers – was not limited to those months in 2021 during which Putin upped the ante as he explicitly geared up for invasion. Russia repeatedly denounced NATO expansion for two decades.

The dangers of that policy were there to be seen as early as 1997 with one analyst summarily remarking: “Expanding NATO could complicate its ability to achieve consensus, weaken the security of those countries not brought in, increase demands on defense budgets when they are already overstretched, and alienate Russia. In the process, Europe’s security could well diminish, not grow”.

Russia then invaded Georgia in 2008 before proceeding to annex Crimea in 2014, a move tepidly opposed by the international community. If ever territorial seizure writing was on the wall, this was it.

Two, following the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia, one of the most repeated notion – amongst many Western policy-makers, scholars, journalists, and citizenry alike – was that ‘war had returned to Europe’. This perspective was faulty and self-serving. The argument proceeded from a dual misleading notion that war somehow had become obsolete and that somehow Europe had at some point become immune to war.

As one seasoned scholar noted, the question of war obsolescence is strictly a Western one, adding that it was primarily European for that matter. Wars never ceased since the nineteenth century. The twentieth century is considered one of the bloodiest. Contemporaneously, war abound round the world. War metamophisized but never ended.

War never left Europe. But for a brief interlude immediately after World War II (not to go back earlier than this common historically-arbitrary demarcation point), which itself became a forgotten period of savagery in Europe, violence steadily materialized anew in variegated martial forms across the dark continent. Widespread Western European terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s (German Red Army Faction, Italian Red Brigades, French Action Directe, Belgian Communist Combatant Cells, Irish Republican Army, and Spanish ETA) was followed by the Balkan Wars throughout the 1990s and the Kosovo NATO intervention in 1999. The 2000s and 2010s brought post-9/11 terrorism across the continent (with attacks in Madrid, London, Paris, and Brussels amongst other European cities). Therefore, indulging the exoticization of war in an othering and cantonization logic is ahistorical both as regards martiality itself and in relation to European history.

Three, the Ukraine war witnessed displays of discrimination, which alienated many people and countries and forced course-correction on the part of Europe. Early cases of racism (notably at the Poland border) against African refugees and subsequent differential treatment of some of those accepted refugees were documented, allowing Russia to use this display of bias all too easily in its anti-West propaganda (notably in Africa)

Such self-centeredness accelerated a geostrategic transformation away from Europe, which had already been in the making. Global South countries considering this ‘a European conflict’ and choosing not to endanger their relations with Russia (even when they had none to begin with). This was vividly seen with the displacement of the French in the Sahel, as the Russian PMC the Wagner Group was invited by both Mali and Burkina Faso, and the French military unceremoniously asked to leave.

Finally, as the war enters its second year, Europe and the United States still appear to have no clear, much less unanimous, strategic outlook to counter the invasion. The United States is leading a technology-testing proxy war, in effect accepting the Russian fait accompli, with the Joe Biden administration regularly caught off guard reacting to Russian initiatives (including nuclear sabre-rattling) or displaying a Cold War reading of 2020s geostrategy. Short-termism (e.g., President Biden shunning and then courting Saudi Arabia’s autocrat Mohamed Ben Salman; France shunning and then courting African states) is no answer to ‘war returning to Europe’.

The US has seen recent commentary regretting the lost role of a unipolar sheriff, in ‘a world gone awry’ where the jungle has grown back, a now apocalyptic. These narratives are predicated on failure to address a challenging situation, as it if was necessarily in the systemic ability of the US – a country with a collapsing social contract – to address these challenges.

Europe, for its part, is torn between what US Defense Secretary once dismissively termed ‘old Europe’ (France, Germany), trying to balance things with Russia and China, and what would be ‘new Europe’ (Poland, Hungary) actively supporting Ukraine (the latter an approach that has the merit of clarity). A twenty-five year search for a post-Cold War ‘role’ is a bit long for repositioning. The UK is stuck in that model even deeper after Brexit, and France is one step ahead having already ‘lost’ the Sahel to Russia after a ten-year military presence in Mali and largescale investment in the region.

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes”, wrote Oscar Wilde, adding that “consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative”. But lack of imagination is not the West’s problem. Rather, it is the mental block and the inability to consider that other perspectives may be pursued against its design. Ultimately, that stance is a case of what we can term international relations entitlement.

The Ukraine war has yielded a picture where Russia is now in Africa. China is getting footing in the Middle East. India has refocused and expanded its global political economy. Gulf countries and other Arab states have remapped their foreign policy while Turkey can hold NATO hostage. When the West is unable to win a war, it is often decreed ‘long’. That was the case recently with the Global War on Terror, it is so now with Ukraine (“The war in Ukraine, it’s clear by now, won’t end soon” repeat pundits and officials alike).

The world has changed indeed, and what the Ukraine war really shows beyond Putin’s crimes is the diminishing importance of Europe and the United States in the emerging twenty-first century strategic order. This is not so much a return of a multipolar world but the steady birth of a new order characterised primarily by the eroded influence of the US and Europe and new zones of engagement.

By the middle of the century, one can surmise that it is that order that is more likely to cement than the old liberal one whose loss is bemoaned in Washington, London, Berlin, and Paris. Ultimately, the explanatory horizon of Ukraine is not the 1990s’ misleading end of history but the middle of the twentieth century when a self-serving vision of exceptionalism resurfaced when the lessons of war should have been otherwise humbling.

Illustration: © Rudolf Schlichter, “Blind Power”, 1937.