May 9, 2015 by Darius
If you study international relations and political science, it’s impossible to avoid coming across Carl von Clausewitz. While Clausewitz’s credentials may have been a bit thin in his primary specialty, military theory, he has given us a number of pithy quotes. One of his most famous is “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Most of the time, though, we never get to war: politics alone suffice.
In my study of international relations, politics, and world history, I’ve discovered a few fundamental themes that seem to get lost in the shuffle. I’ll call them “Darius’s Rules of International Engagement.” Here’s the first one: “Not every conflict has a good guy in it.”
It’s very tempting to look at the world in terms of black and white, good and evil, and such thinking has been applied internationally at least since the times of ancient Persia and probably long before that. In more modern times, the US loves to see the world in black and white, good and evil. Maybe it’s part of our Puritan heritage, filtered through WWII and Star Wars.
Such a vision of the world, though, is fundamentally flawed. Looking around the world, one finds no shortage of bad guys. The good guys, though, are in shorter supply. A good example that comes to mind is Algeria’s civil war of the 1990s. On one side was a bloodthirsty Islamist insurgency, famous for cutting off the heads of children. On the other side was a government that attempted to torture its way into security and “disappeared” thousands of people, many of them civilians and even journalists with no ties to the rebels, and then slaughtered its own army units to prevent the truth from escaping. Algeria in the 1990s was not a fight between a “good” guy and a “bad” guy; it was two sides pushing their own versions of hell in Algeria.
These conflicts haven’t somehow disappeared since arrival of the new millennium. Look at Syria. Look at Iraq. Look at the mess of eastern Congo. Look at Kashmir. All of the actors in these festering conflicts are guilty of heinous crimes.
One of the most obvious instances of the US being blind to the complexities of reality is the case of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The US, seeing the conflict in terms of “freedom-loving” Afghan mujahideen vs. the Evil Empire of Communism, went all-in in support of the mujahideen. We’ve spent the 35 years since fighting the religious extremists and terrorists the mujahideen helped spawn around the world.
The fact that there isn’t always a side fighting the good fight doesn’t mean that nobody is better or worse than anyone else. But human beings and the institutions they create almost never rise to fairy tale levels of good and evil. It is important to remember that the lesser of two evils is still not a good guy. Make sure you have a clear-eyed understanding of who you are supporting and why.