Small World: A law governing foreign relations

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Probably many readers in their personal lives have run into this law: that of unintended consequences (LUC).  Say you have a great plan to reach an ideal objective. Yet, something goes wrong and you end up with a result you didn’t anticipate.

The classic example is the introduction of rabbits into the Australian countryside to provide good hunting. The rabbits multiply, eat vegetation and the countryside erodes. An intended sporting diversion becomes a natural disaster.

Smart, scholarly academics developed this idea and, as you might expect, they say LUC originates from ignorance or follows upon error (plus two other causes too complex to explain here.) Let’s look at a few examples from the Middle East where we know ignorance and error abound.

In 1967, Israel smashed the armies of its neighbors and brought a huge amount of territory under its control, offering to trade it for true peace. Israel’s friends were elated. Almost 50 years later, thousands have been killed, billions spent on defense and peace is a fading dream. All unintended consequences.

Or, take our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the first, we planned to go in, chase al-Qaeda and the Taliban government out and set the country on the path towards modernization and democracy under a wise leader of our choosing. Twelve, yes 12, years later, we are still struggling and preparing to give up, leaving behind a country little changed in basic ways from the primitive one we found — which few in Washington knew and understood. If we had been knowing and wise, our objectives might have been limited and more realistic: Punish al-Qaeda for 9/11, warn the Taliban against giving them renewed hospitality and then leave.

Iraq is an even more pernicious case of LUC. A small group of zealots (neocons) persuade the Bush Administration that American power should be used to remove Saddam Hussein and his regime and army so that democracy might flower and its example spread to Iran and across the autocratic region, creating a new Garden of Eden in which the United States would be loved and Israel secure. Billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives later, Iraq is riven by sectarian strife, its feeble democracy is dying and our antagonist Iran has acquired a new friend.

Now, think quickly about Libya and Syria. We helped knock off Qaddafi and install a faint semblance of democracy. Meanwhile, some of the former dictator’s thugs picked up their arms and moved to neighboring North African countries where they have helped take over northern Mali and threaten others. Some surplus Libyan weaponry was smuggled into Syria where rebels – funded by Persian Gulf monarchies — have in mind overthrowing the Assad dictatorship. We and freedom-loving Western Europeans applaud their stated aspiration for democracy and provide quiet support. Another act of pure LUC: over 60,000 Syrians dead, sectarian strife breaking out, al-Qaeda (whom Assad helped us to fight) big in the opposition and a real danger that the conflict will spread across the region.

Finally, there is the threat of war with Iran being argued by the same neocon bunch that brought us the Iraq disaster. (False prophets are always in demand, it seems). They tell us that surgical strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities could end the nuke threat (which in fact, may not exist) and turn the people against their clerical overlords. The economic effects would be hardly noticed by the energy-consuming world, they reassure us. Ha! Talk about LUC! Ignorance of the nationalism and diverse capabilities of Iran and the errors natural to military engagements guarantee another, perhaps worse disaster. The ensuing damage to the fragile economies of Europe and this country would put millions more out of work — all except, to be sure, the false prophets.

Henry Precht is a summer resident of Bridgton.

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