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Tarak Barkawi
Tarak Barkawi
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.
Small wars, big consequences
Western involvement in foreign conflicts has a history of backfiring and re-shaping policies at home.
Last Modified: 04 Apr 2011 15:59
Events in Libya will undoubtedly lead to domestic political repercussions in intervening nations such as the US, France and Britain  [AFP]

Did you know that the resistance of some Nicaraguan peasants nearly brought down the mighty Ronald Reagan?

In 1979, Sandinista guerrillas overthrew the US client regime of Anastasio Somoza. Unable to fund a 'covert war' through Congress as the constitution requires and determined to crush the Sandinistas, the Reagan administration resorted to a wacky scheme involving selling arms to Iran via Israel to fund counter-revolution in Central America.

The ensuing crisis, known as Iran-Contra, threatened impeachment at its height and blighted Reagan's last years in office.

The fact that Reagan's officials were willing to undermine a basic principle of American democracy legislative power of the purse begins to tell us something about the political volatility of Western military involvements in the non-European world.

To be sure, the consequences for those who resist the West often are severe, as the Vietnamese, the Algerians and the Iraqis, among others, can attest. The Sandinista regime may not have been defeated by the Contras, but the revolution died in the face of internal corruption and external hostility.

Easily overlooked are the consequences of "small wars" for great powers, which from the late nineteenth century onwards have stumbled into major domestic crises as a result of bungled military adventures outside the West.

The political fortunes of Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, Jules Ferry, Francesco Crispi and William McKinley, among others, revolved in some measure around small wars.

With the turn of the twentieth century, especially its last half, the severity and consequences of defeat began to mount.

France and Portugal suffered regime change trying to hold on to their colonies by force.

Like Reagan's officials, so determined were right wing politicians and soldiers to keep Algeria French, they were willing to undermine their own democracy.

And so, a little over fifty years ago, there was a military coup in a major Western power over a small war gone wrong.

The French military seized control in Algiers, landed paratroopers on Corsica, and were planning to take Paris with armour and paratroop forces when the crisis was brought to end along with the Fourth Republic. Charles de Gaulle was installed in the new presidential system of the Fifth Republic.

Defeat in a war fought 8,000 miles away remains the most significant event in American politics, culture and society since 1945.

Vietnam took down two presidents, and continues to fundamentally inform electoral politics, as John Kerry and John McCain demonstrate.

Hollywood films and popular culture are shaped by the preposterous efforts of the likes of Rambo to recoup in imagination the affront to American masculinity of being beaten in reality by a bunch of 'gooks'.

Vietnam plays out too in US foreign and military policy. Defeat in the 1970s led to the volunteer professional army that made possible the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the twenty-first century. In the 1990s, Kuwait and Iraq were bombed in the way they were in part to avoid the Vietnam syndrome, while invading Iraq was supposed to mark the overcoming of this syndrome.

Why should small wars exercise such powers over the West?

Discussions of Western racism and Orientalism tend to focus on Western constructs of non-European others the Arab, the Asian, the African, the native. We forget that what really is at issue here is the self-image of the Westerner.

The Westerner is civilised, the native barbaric; he is rational, the native emotional. The West is modern, while the primitive natives  still! are in need of enlightened modernisation guided by the West. Above all, the West is strong and the natives are weak.

Or are they?

What defeat in small war does is overturn nearly every element of the West's understanding of itself. We become savages trying to defeat the natives, torturing and bombing our way through their lands; we irrationally commit the prestige, blood and treasure of our countries to quixotic campaigns in hot places; and we are proven to be weak on the field of battle, our soldiers in need of ice cream, steaks and air conditioning while the native insurgents endure everything we can throw at them.

This is why small wars come home to roost in the politics of Western countries.

Because we believe our own propaganda, we are too ready to get involved. A long line of generals and officials from MacArthur to Rumsfeld have badly "mis-underestimated" non-Western foes.

How can these puny countries stand up to us anyway?

We then learn, again and again, that conventional military power is difficult to translate into a successful political outcome in unconventional struggles. By that point, crisis has arrived and the careers of generals and politicians brought to an end.

Sarkozy and Cameron are nowhere near the calibre of statesman Reagan was, and they are rank amateurs in matters military.

Cameron's budget cuts whittled the UK armed forces to the bone, before he sent the remnants off to Libya, bravely not ruling out ground troops although he has none to send.

Obama, guided by the realism of secretary Gates, has played a more deft hand. He has allowed the operation in Libya to be branded as a UK and French-led NATO affair, even though the military assets involved initially were predominantly American.

Nonetheless, the fates of all these leaders are now embroiled in the maelstrom of the Libyan civil war. In war, the enemy always has a vote. Gaddafi and events in Libya now exercise more power over the West than anyone wants to admit.

Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the study of war, armed forces and society with a focus on conflict between the West and the global South in historical and contemporary perspective. He is author of Globalization and War, as well as many scholarly articles.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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