Gary Brecher

How Did We Ever Let This Guy Get Away with Being a War President?


What George W. Bush loved best about his job was being a war president. Playing war, that is, as opposed to making war like a grown-up. Remember him strutting onto that carrier in his little flight jacket? You never saw Eisenhower, a real general, playing out his martial fantasies this way. You can take the drink out of the drunk, but you can't take the swagger out of a fool.

Compare Bush's eight years to Clinton's, and you see how much he loved to play the soldier. No one expected that from a Republican: Reagan and Bush senior were cautious about betting America's chips. Liberals used to make fun of Reagan for picking on tiny helpless nations that couldn't fight back. Now they are remembering with pure nostalgia Reagan's invasion of Grenada, air raids on Libya, and even our 1984 withdrawal from Beirut.

We'll never know how far W. would have gone to find himself a war because he had all he needed delivered by air on Sept. 11, 2001. Remember how people felt in those days? A friend of mine said, "It was like the aliens had invaded."

We needed our president to be a hero and made him into one, even though it was obvious he wasn't up to the job. He didn't take the first plane to Manhattan, stand there and say, "We're coming for you bastards!" Instead he sat in a roomful of children, reading My Pet Goat, then dropped off the radar for hours before his handlers got him ready.

Maybe there's a lesson here: if the president doesn't cut it in a crisis, we're better off admitting that to ourselves and telling him so instead of pretending he's a great leader. When you make a weakling into a hero, you give him a lot of power. If we'd kept our eyes open and faced the fact that Bush reacted badly to 9/11, we might have been able to ask for a little more detail about his big plans.

Those came courtesy of Cheney and his neocon punks. What a crew these guys were! Like their boss, they were also woofers, boasters -- but of a different variety. Dubya was your standard frat boy loudmouth, but Cheney, with his talk about "working the dark side," was more like the ultimate Dungeons and Dragons nerd. And you couldn't ask Hollywood to serve up a goofier selection of dorks than his neocon staffers, who drifted from the universities to D.C. the way has-been pop singers switch to country and western to leech off a new bunch of suckers.

On the one hand, they were scared to death of Arabs and hated all Muslims. On the other, they were convinced that every Muslim on the planet really wanted, deep in his heart, to be magically turned into an Ohio Republican. That was their theory: take an anti-American Arab country, add an invading army, and voila! a nice fluffy democracy souffle.

So we poured American blood and treasure into the Iraqi dust to prove the half-baked theories of a bunch of tenth-rate professors. The most expensive experiment in the history of the world, all to learn something any 10-year-old could have told them: people don't take to foreign troops on their streets, and not everybody wants to be like us. You know those Ig-Nobel awards they hand out to the dumbest science projects of the year? The Iraq invasion is the all-time winner. Retire the trophy with the names of the winning team: Bush, Cheney, Kristol, Wolfowitz, Feith.

But first came Afghanistan -- "the graveyard of empires." Every military-history wannabe was conjuring the ghosts of that Victorian British army slaughtered by the Afghans, along with all the propaganda we'd been pushing about the invincible mujahedeen who'd driven out the Soviets. Looking back, what they had routed was a dying Soviet state, and they didn't even manage to do that until we took the risk of giving them Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. But all the pundits' knees were shaking about going into the Afghan haunted house.

We started slow, the way American armies tend to do, taking a while to limber up. There were weeks of bombing the Shomali Plain to no visible effect and a Special Forces raid on Mullah Omar's compound that was more "Naked Gun" than "Top Gun." Then Mazar-i-Sharif in the north fell suddenly, and it turned into the kind of war that Northern Alliance fighters and fighter-bomber pilots both love: hunting down a fleeing enemy.

The campaign went so well, so fast, that it taught Bush and Cheney the wrong lessons. They started exporting democracy to Afghanistan, even hiring a local Pashtun girl to read the Kabul evening news. When you tell a big, backwards tribe like the Pashtun that you're going to turn their whole world upside down for them, you shouldn't expect them to be grateful. But we did, setting ourselves up for a whole lot of trouble later on.

Worse yet, Bush's people figured that since Afghanistan, the tough nut, cracked so easily, their pet project, a second Iraq invasion, would be a cakewalk. This time they would do it right, occupying the Iraqi cities instead of just crushing Saddam's army and withdrawing like Bush senior did.

Nobody wants to recall what Americans believed back then. That's OK: I'll remember it. People thought that Saddam was "connected to" 9/11, and his agents were going to poison our water, nuke our cities, and gas our subways. At least they claimed to believe all that unlikely James Bond stuff. I don't think they really did. There was just so much revenge momentum after 9/11 that it had to burst out somewhere. Everybody wanted payback. It's natural. But most of the time, in your average democracy, cooler heads are in charge. Not this time. Bush and his team were foaming at the mouth far more than the average citizen. It was like a crazed sheriff trying to talk a lukewarm mob into a lynching frenzy. With the help of people who should have known better -- I'm looking at you, Colin Powell -- he got his way.

That, in the short version, is why George W. Bush is about to leave office the most unpopular American president in history. You can spin Iraq a hundred different ways, but it still comes up bad news because once the dust settles, the Iranians are in control of the whole region, and they didn't have to fire a shot. We destroyed their old rival for them.

It's a simple story: we crushed Saddam's army, occupied the cities, and then acted like the whole country would turn itself into a neocon fantasyland. Paul Bremer's cult kids were talking tax reform while the Iraqi army they had sent home unemployed was busy digging up the weapons they had buried in their yards. Bush's counterinsurgency policy was pretending there was no insurgency then pretending it was just Saddam's "deadenders." When Saddam's capture at the end of 2003 didn't slow the insurgency, Bush's defenders stopped acting like they knew what was going on and just settled for blaming the Iranians -- as if it was a nasty surprise that Iran, the country that openly hates America most in the whole world, might get involved in anti-American operations when we occupied Iraq right next door.

People ask what our counterinsurgency strategy was before the surge. Easy: we had none. We were doing nothing but offering the insurgents moving targets. A standard operation for the occupation force in those dark days was patrolling through an alien Sunni neighborhood, waiting for an IED to go off under the lead vehicle or for an RPG or small-arms ambush. When that happens, conventional forces have a grim choice: do nothing, withdrawing while the locals snicker at your dead and wounded, or open fire on everyone in sight. Either way, the insurgents win. If you withdraw, they've hit you with impunity and gained respect in the neighborhood. If you open fire on the slums, you kill civilians and make enemies.

Effective counterinsurgency means not relying on massive firepower the way conventional forces are trained to do. The idea is not to fire until you know exactly who you're up against. It's the opposite of shock and awe. It's discipline and patience. Gen. David Petraeus implemented a set of reforms usually called the surge, though they were about tactics more than reinforcements. All he really did was initiate overdue standard counterinsurgency doctrine. He integrated U.S. units with Iraqi forces then sent them out into the neighborhoods. You can't run any kind of counterinsurgency plan without good street-level intelligence, but Bush's people wouldn't admit that there was an insurgency, so they wouldn't commit to learning about it. Their style was to ignore it and hope it would go away.

That's why Afghanistan went well in the early stages: we didn't go in trying to turn the Afghans into democrats, but trying to crush the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In Iraq, Bush was dreaming from the start, so the whole effort was doomed.

The surge worked about as well as any good counterinsurgency effort could. We know a little about the enemy now, and there's less violence because all the neighborhoods had already been ethnically cleansed. Baghdad is now a Shi'ite city. There are a few Sunni enclaves, but the Shia rule the city and the country, with the Kurds fortifying themselves up north and wishing they could saw their territory off and relocate it somewhere in mid-ocean.

That's what Bush's trillion-dollar investment in Iraq has bought. Meanwhile, if you look at the rest of the world map, you get a real shock. Regions like Latin America and Central Asia that eight years ago were American protectorates in all but name have turned against us while we were distracted with Iraq. Many times, the real winners are countries that manage to stay out of a war, the way England benefited by not getting sucked into the Thirty Years' War. Iran is much stronger now, and so is Russia. The Russians, who seemed to be in their "throes" when Clinton left office, just slapped down Georgia, one of our few remaining allies among the old Soviet states, and there wasn't a thing we could do but grumble.

It's no puzzle: we pretended a goon was a hero, let him play out his foolish fantasies about remaking the Middle East, and wasted our strength on a losing effort while the rest of the world drifted out of our power. Our leader was a laughingstock around globe, and he made America the butt of the world's contempt. But Bush got his wish -- he was a war president and then some. The rest of us were the casualties.

 

The Taliban Strikes Back

After six years of ignoring Afghanistan, things have gotten bad enough to force American officials to pay attention. For the past two months, U.S. casualties in Afghanistan have been higher than in Iraq. And on July 13, Afghanistan definitely got everybody's attention when nine U.S. troops were killed in what Wikipedia is now officially calling "The Battle of Wanat." Three days after the battle, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the U.S.-dominated military force running the country, announced it's abandoning Wanat completely.

Let's start with a close-up of the battle, then zoom out to the overall situation in Afghanistan. Wanat is in Kunar Province, along the border with Pakistan. It looks a lot like Northern Wyoming: mountain country, steep slopes with pine forests running down to fast, cold rivers. Some of the photos I've seen from Kunar seem like stills from "The Sound of Music" or "Heidi," only some prankster has Photoshopped in a platoon of soldiers in desert camouflage.

The outpost that the United States had just set up in Wanat was supposed to disrupt Taliban supply lines from Pakistan. Instead, it became a tempting target for the local guerrillas, just like hundreds of other remote forward bases in other rural guerrilla wars from Southeast Asia to Algeria. Guerrillas usually avoid open combat with conventional forces, but when they do attack in force it's usually against the smaller, more vulnerable forward bases. The Wanat base was a very tempting target because it was still under construction.

It's not so easy to be sure what actually happened in the battle there on July 13. A big Taliban force -- big by guerrilla-war standards, meaning several hundred -- was able to mass outside the base without being detected. They attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and rifle fire, managed to take part of the base, and then either withdrew or were forced back into the town of Wanat, where the fighting continued in the ruins. The NATO troops had massive air support, and faced with that, the guerrillas dispersed into the hills. Then, three days later, the U.S. forces, who have de facto command of southeastern Afghanistan, also withdrew. Officially Wanat is now in the hands of the Afghan police, but that's a joke.

You can tell how ridiculous that claim is by looking carefully at the casualties from the battle. This is a good example of how to read war news carefully, how to read between the lines of standard press coverage. It's almost like a story-problem for war nerds. Here are the figures: There were 70 defenders in that base, 45 U.S. troops and 25 ANA (Afghan National Army) troops. That's about a 60/40 split. So if both groups fought equally effectively, you'd expect more than a third of the casualties to be from the ANA. But that's not the story the casualty figures tell you. Every defender who died was American; no Afghan troops died. Three-quarters of the wounded were also American, only four out of 19 were Afghan. What that tells you is that the ANA didn't fight. They left it to the Americans. That's a pattern you often see in guerrilla wars: The locals fight very hard against the occupiers, but not very well for them. So in Vietnam, the Viet Cong fought like demons and the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) barely fought at all, even though they were from the same ethnic background.

There are a lot of very familiar patterns in this story. If you zoom out from Wanat and look at the bigger situation in southern Afghanistan, you've got the classic ingredients for a long, bloody guerrilla war: a big ethnic group on both sides of an artificial border, difficult terrain, and dirt-poor peasants with a long tradition of fighting just about everyone who comes along, from Alexander the Great to the 19th century British. The Pakistani/Afghan border is 1,500 miles long, and the people living on both sides of it are Pashtun, the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the support base of the Taliban. The Taliban started as a Pashtun resistance to the Northern Alliance warlords, mostly Uzbeks and Tajiks, who took power after the Soviet pullout in 1989, and the Taliban is still mostly Pashtun. The reason you don't hear so much about the ethnic angle is simple: Neither side wants to push that angle in its propaganda. The Taliban would like to claim to be defending Islam, and the Americans are happy to go along with that, so they can say we're fighting Islamic terror. But the fact is that the Taliban stands for old-school Pashtun tradition more than for Islam. And the Taliban is divided even further, with complicated loyalties to local warlords and tribal chiefs. There are three main factions right now, and the one that runs Kunar Province is run by an old friend of the CIA's from the 1980s, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar was always a tough guy to handle, for the CIA and the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, and when the foreign troops finally withdraw, it's a safe bet that his faction of the Taliban will just switch to fighting the other two. But for now, the three factions seem pretty solidly united against the ISAF, the American-dominated occupying force.

When the U.S. Air Force started bombing Afghanistan in October 2001, the Taliban had beaten the Uzbek/Tajik Northern Alliance and controlled most of the country. Not all of it; the Taliban never had the strength to control all of Afghanistan. In fact, it was overstretched, with small garrisons scattered through hostile tribes' territory. The Taliban had also managed to make itself hated by just about all the non-Pashtun population of the country by pushing its backwoods Pashtun rules on everyone else, and shooting or hanging anybody who complained.

What's scary now, for the ISAF's chances of holding on to the country, is that the Taliban seems to have learned its lesson. It never had a reputation for sophistication, and its hillbilly Pashtun ways weren't exactly calculated to win hearts and minds. The Pashtun have always been a little strange. They have probably the most anti-women attitude of any tribe on earth. Here are a couple of Pushtun proverbs that give you the general idea: "Women belong either in the house or in the grave," and "Even one's own mother and sister are disgusting." They don't even claim to find women attractive; for the typical Pashtun warrior, the sexiest thing around is a little boy.

But, like the old saying goes, "pain is the best teacher," and the pain the Talibs suffered when they were crushed in 2001-2002 seems to have made them a little more humble and flexible. This is something you see in a lot of guerrilla wars: After a defeat, the guerrillas come back much smarter and more patient, because the enemy has been acting like a sped-up Darwin, pruning the movement by killing off the hotheads, the sadists and the crazies, until only the smarter guerrillas, who had the sense to lie low, are left.

At any rate, the new Taliban has been a lot more patient and sophisticated than the pre-invasion model. So Afghanistan hasn't been quiet in a good way these past few years; it's been quiet like the old line in Westerns: "It's quiet -- too quiet."

The new Taliban has learned to tap into the poor peasants' grudges. And Lord knows the Afghan peasantry is poor, and getting poorer, with 70 percent unemployment.

Even USA Today, always ready to put a smiley face on total misery, admits that the average yearly income in Afghanistan is only $300.

So overall, Afghanistan has rotten living conditions -- not a promising market if you're selling the new iPhone, but perfect conditions, lab-level perfect, for selling rebellion. In the early stages, successful rural insurgencies don't even worry about combat much. They focus on quietly setting up a local government that replaces the occupiers' puppet government. If you've read much about how the Viet Cong worked in South Vietnam, you'll recognize the pattern: The puppet government runs around looking busy in the daytime, but when the sun goes down the guerrillas go into action, collecting taxes and settling local disputes, even holding court proceedings in caves, barns or somebody's hut. The idea is to keep the locals from contacting the occupiers, denying them basic intelligence about what's going on in the villages, and at the same time making your group indispensable by helping to handle the local feuds, even helping them in the fields. The Taliban has spent the last six years doing all that, to the point that most of Afghanistan now has Sharia-based Taliban courts settling criminal cases.

Against this sort of insurgency, the only effective countermeasure is good, sophisticated local intelligence. And we haven't exactly won any prizes in that department, in Iraq or Afghanistan. If you'll recall, the first American casualty was a CIA interrogator named Johnny Spann, who got mobbed by Taliban prisoners he was trying to interrogate at Mazar-i-Sharif. Spann was the first to interrogate the infamous John Walker Lindh, our own Marin County-raised Talib, and what he asked Lindh -- up there in northern Afghanistan, in a crowd of flat-hatted, sullen Talibs who were just about to rush him -- was, "Are you a member of the IRA?" (I wish I knew what Lindh said back, in that Marin County stoner drawl: "Nooo, deewd, but I was in the Tamalpais High Jazz Band.")

To make up for the big gaping hole where our military intelligence should be, we've been using William Westmoreland's failed formula: massive firepower. Donald Rumsfeld's doctrine of doing counterinsurgency warfare on the cheap, with very few troops and lots of air strikes, means that the ISAF has very little local intelligence and has to depend on air power, which worked well enough in the initial defeat of the Taliban in 2002, but just plain doesn't work in counterinsurgency warfare, because that kind of warfare is about not firing until you know exactly who you're shooting at. To gain that sort of local knowledge, you need troops settling in to the villages, getting to know people. What you don't need is F-18s orbiting at medium altitude looking for targets. Unfortunately, that's what we've been using to suppress the Taliban.

Those fighter jets can't tell the difference between a wedding party carrying the bride to her husband's village and a Taliban column moving to the attack. And when in doubt, they tend to assume all large groups on the move are Taliban. For six years, ISAF warplanes have been bombing Pashtun wedding parties and processions. It seems to happen over and over again. I'm not sure why. Maybe weddings are the only time that Pashtuns get together in big numbers, big enough to draw fighter pilots' attention. Maybe it's their habit of firing rifles to celebrate. But for whatever reason, we have bombed and strafed enough wedding parties to rouse centuries of hatred from the Pashtuns.

And it's no coincidence that one of the worst of these wedding attacks happened a few miles from Wanat, exactly one week before the Taliban attacked there. On July 7, U.S. Air Force planes killed 47 civilians in a wedding party in Nangarhar. Apparently they mistook a column of relatives taking the bride to her new village for a Taliban force on the march.

That's the kind of mistake that makes guerrillas very happy. If you're a Taliban commander, you couldn't wish for a better scenario than a U.S. air strike on a wedding party to rile the people up against the foreign occupier. The guerrillas don't lose a single fighter in an operation like that. In fact, they gain huge numbers of recruits because everyone who hears about the air strike wants to volunteer to avenge the dead. By trying to do Afghanistan on the cheap, following the Rumsfeld Doctrine that air power can do everything, we've played right into the hands of the new and improved Taliban.

How Birthrate Is Turning Modern Conventional Warfare on Its Head

What was the most important battle of the late 20th century? You could argue it was the one that took place on the southern border of Morocco on November 6, 1975. Of course, we’re not talking about another Stalingrad here. In fact, what happened that day isn’t usually called a battle at all. Its official name is “The Green March.” On one side were 350,000 unarmed Moroccan civilians carrying green (Islamic) flags, and on the other -- miles inside the border, because they were hoping not to have to confront any of the marchers -- was a shaky, demoralized token force of Spanish troops pretending to defend a former Spanish colony, the Spanish Sahara.

The Spanish Sahara hangs below Morocco where the Sahara meets the Atlantic like a crumbling brick wall. It was about the least desirable chunk of coastal Africa around, with no water to speak of and a tiny population, which is why the Spanish got it. By the time the European powers were ready to divide up Africa in the late nineteenth century, Spain had long since lost its glory and tended to get the scraps and leftovers.

But one thing we’ve learned over the last century is that on this crowded, hungry planet, there’s no such thing as worthless land. Spanish Sahara has proven that: in the 30 years it’s belonged to Morocco, big money has been made from the fishing off the coast and the huge phosphate mine at Bou Craa, a hundred miles inland.

That’s why the Moroccan King Hassan II, a wily old sultan with friends in the CIA, decided it was worth his while to ship all those loyal subjects down to Morocco’s southern border, hand out little green flags for the cameras, and send them across the border toward those Spanish troops.

The Moroccans had to think outside the traditional military-conquest box, for the simple reason that Morocco’s armed forces are pathetic. They’re so bad their only contributions to military history have been in the “slapstick comedy” department. For instance, the Minister of Defense once tried to have fighters from the Moroccan Air Force kill Hassan II by shooting down his Boeing 727 as it came home from a foreign trip. They failed. Seriously: jet fighters failed to intercept and destroy a big, fat, slow civilian airliner even when they knew its exact flight path. A military like that pretty much has to resort to unarmed conquest, because its chances in a fair fight are zero.

Of course the Moroccans had the advantage of facing a weak, dispirited colonial Spain just at the moment the Spanish dictator, General Franco, finally got around to dying. If you’re old enough to recall those early SNL seasons, you probably remember Chevy Chase’s running joke, “This just in: General Franco still dead!” The reason that joke worked is that it took the old General a long time to die, and that meant that greedy up-and-coming regional powers like Morocco had plenty of time to plan ways of getting their hands on former Spanish colonies.

It may not have been very exciting for combat fans, but it was an extremely effective invasion. The Spanish troops didn’t fire a shot. The marchers walked over the border, got sand in their shoes, shouted about how this sacred patch of waterless, flat desert was now an integral part of the Kingdom of Morocco, and went back home. And since then, the Spanish Sahara has been dominated by Morocco, although the local guerrilla army, POLISARIO, gave them some serious problems for a while.

What makes this weird episode my nominee for “Most Significant Battle of the Era” is that it showed the new way of winning disputed territory. If there’s one thing that we should have learned over the past hundred years, it’s that traditional armed conquests are getting less and less effective. This is one of the most surprising twists in all military history. All through the nineteenth century, the European powers, led by the British and French, took the land they wanted on the grounds that they had better military technology, transport and organization. Locals who disputed that notion tended to disappear as casualties of inevitable progress. And that was just an updated version of what had been happening all over the world for thousands of years: bigger, stronger tribes displace and wiped out weaker tribes whenever they could. That was the norm, even in pre-contact North America, where the Navajo were displacing the Ute in the American Southwest long before the white guys showed up.

Now, even though the balance in conventional warfare is if anything tilting further toward the first world, the technologically advanced and organized countries are in retreat, and the former victims are pushing back, not just claiming their old territories but infiltrating the former colonizers’ countries. What matters now is morale, national will. The Spanish didn’t have it, and the Moroccans did. So even though the Spanish troops could have wiped out those unarmed marchers, they failed to open fire. Weapons are only weapons if you’re willing to use them. A technologically advanced army without the will to fire is no army at all.

Only us dedicated war nerds seem to realize how weird this is, how totally unprecedented in military history. Until the 20th century, the problem wasn’t usually getting militarily superior forces to open fire -- it was getting them to stop before the weaker tribe, army or country was totally wiped out. I don’t know of a single case, before the 20th century, of a militarily superior tribe or nation lacking the will to defend its territory, or for that matter, take the territory of weaker neighbors.

The 20th century was the big turning point. New powers like Germany and Japan tried to imitate the older colonial powers of the 19th century and suffered total, disastrous defeat, even though they usually prevailed on the battlefield. That’s the weird lesson of the two world wars: military superiority in the narrow sense just doesn’t cut it any more. Despite the total battlefield dominance of the Wehrmacht (and to a lesser extent the Imperial Japanese forces), Germany and Japan ended the war not just without additional territory but with their home territories in ruins, their cultures gelded, their birthrates for generations to come among the lowest in the world.

Even the older colonial powers, Britain and France, finished the century in big trouble, without the will to resist the immigrants from the colonies they’d once ruled. We’re at a very strange moment militarily: our weapons still work but our will is gone.

The colonies that were established earliest are the most successful. For example, northern North America, now the U.S. and Canada, passed into permanent possession of the European settlers (or so it seemed, until recently). Two things determined this: first, they were settled in the 17th and 18th century, before conscience set in, and because most of the native population had been relatively tiny groups of hunter-gatherers (which also holds true for Australia, though it was settled much later). Everywhere else -- in Latin America, Africa, Asia -- the locals have been pushing back the colonizers without coming close to what old-style military theorists would call military superiority. That’s what we’re seeing now in South Africa, and more slowly in Europe and the southern United States. In other places, especially those colonized by the French (who were never as good at it as the Brits), huge colonial populations were totally eliminated, like the million-plus French residents of Algeria.

So there’s a shocking lesson that military buffs have been slow to face: military superiority doesn’t matter nearly as much right now as birthrate and sheer ruthless will.

Ah, birth rate -- funny how it’s become such a taboo subject for both Left and Right. The Lefties wouldn’t dream of telling third-world people to limit their baby-making, and most right wingers can’t bring themselves to endorse birth control even if it could slow the destruction of their own countries.

So birth rate is a weapon without a counter-weapon right now. So it tends to win. The Moroccans made it clear that the Green March was all about birth rate. The number of “volunteers” they sent to the border was 350,000, exactly the number of births per year in Morocco. So this was basically a ”Lebensraum” argument like the one the Germans tried earlier in the century. You might have heard about that one, a little dust-up called the Eastern Front. And you might be saying right now that if any policy ever failed decisively, it was the Nazis’ attempt to elbow themselves a little living space from Stalin. Which is totally true. But the Nazis tried it the old-fashioned way, with armed conquest.

To succeed in the post-1918 world, the world Woodrow Wilson dreamed up where “small nations” have rights even if they can’t defend them, you need to use slower, less obviously military methods, like birthrate and immigration. The classic example of this kind of slow conquest is Kosovo. The Serbs could always defeat the Albanians on the battlefield, even when outnumbered, but the Albanians had a huge advantage in the most important military production of all -- babies. According to the BBC, the birthrate of Kosovo Albanians 50 years ago was an amazing 8.5 children per woman.

The Serb/Albanian conflict offers damn near perfect lab conditions to prove my case that birth rate trumps military prowess these days, because the Serbs always beat the Albanians in battle, yet they’ve lost their homeland, Kosovo. Here again, we can blame Woodrow Wilson and his talk about “rights.” In places where tribes hate each other, a tribe that outbreeds its rival will become the majority, even if it can’t fight. So, after generations of skulking at home making babies, letting the Serbs do the fighting, the Albanians finally became the majority in Kosovo and therefore the official "good guys," being oppressed by the official "bad guys," the Serbs. At least that’s the way the nave American Wilsonian types like Clinton saw it. So when the Serbs fought back against an Albanian rebellion in Kosovo, and dared to beat the Albanians, Clinton decided to bomb the Serbs into letting go of Kosovo, the ancient heartland of a Christian nation that had spent its blood holding off the Turks for hundreds of years.

The Kosovo Albanians proved that military skill doesn’t matter, because they tried and failed to conquer Kosovo the old-fashioned way: armed rebellion by the Kosovo Liberation Army. It was a wipeout: local Serb militias, a bunch of tired middle-aged part-timers and cops, crushed the KLA. What happened next is a beautiful illustration of the way losers win these days: the Albanians took the bodies of KLA men who’d been killed in battle, stripped all weapons and ammo from them, and showed them to gullible Western reporters as victims of a Serb “massacre.” It was a massacre, all right, but only because the KLA couldn’t fight worth a damn. Alive and armed, they were a joke; dead and disarmed, they helped win Kosovo by making their side the "victims," which led directly to U.S. military intervention.

To win the way the Albanians won in Kosovo, you need to make a lot of babies. It’s that simple. And to see how it works, you have to drop the namby-pamby liberal idea that people only have babies out of “love.” In lots of places on this planet, baby-making is a form of weapons production.

In some places, it’s open policy. For example, in Palestine there’s an all-out birthrate war going on between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And one of the most frustrating things about this kind of struggle, from the Israeli perspective, is that the worse you make life for the people in the occupied zones, the more kids they have. The Gaza Strip, for instance, has one of the highest fertility rates in the world outside Africa, at 5.6 kids per woman.

The rate for Israeli overall is about 2.8 children per woman, high for a rich country. But the most amazing rates anywhere, even higher than for the Gaza Palestinians, are in the most extreme Zionist groups, the Haredi “ultra-orthodox” Jews. Until recently they averaged eight or nine children per woman. There was actually a big panic in the Israeli settler press when news hit that their rate had dropped to a mere 7.7 kids per woman.

That’s actually higher than the rate for Mali (7.38 per woman), which has the highest birthrate in the world.

The settlers don’t hide the fact that they’re producing as many kids as they can in order to change the demographics of “Greater Israel” in their favor -- above all to make sure the Palestinians never become the majority.

What’s interesting is that there were plenty of voices in the ultra-Orthodox community in favor of using Israel’s military superiority to settle the problem the old-fashioned way, by expelling or wiping out the Palestinians. Those people lost out; their leader, Meir Kahane, was assassinated by an Egyptian cabbie in New York, but he’d lost the debate long before he died. You just can’t get away with those methods these days, not even with every born-again Baptist Zionist in Texas backing you to the hilt.

If you want an example closer to home, just go to Northern Ireland where the Protestant majority the border was designed to maintain has been getting smaller and smaller, thanks to the higher birthrate among Catholics. As of 2001, the Catholics were about 46% of the population, up from 35% in 1961.

But as the dreaded “Catholic Majority” date approaches, a funny thing is happening up in Ulster: the Catholic birth rate is slowing down even faster than the Protestant rate. This always happens when a tribe breaks out of its slums into the middle class. This illustrates one of the real brain-twisters of contemporary demographic struggle: if you really hate the enemy tribe, the best thing you could do would be to make them rich. Rich people don’t have nearly as many kids. Of course there are exceptions like the Ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who are fairly well-off and just dedicated to making as many kids as possible, but generally, money distracts people from starting big families. So the old methods of keeping down the enemy tribe are usually counterproductive. If the Ulster hotheads like Ian Paisley had had their way and kept the Catholics down in the slums, their birthrate over the past 30 years would have been much higher and they’d be ready to stage a Kosovo-style “majority rule” coup like the Albanians did against the Serbs, complete with the USAF blowing up every television tower in Belfast like we did to the ones in Belgrade, just to teach those Serbs a lesson: “No TV till you let your little Albanian brother have Kosovo!”

Makin'em rich is the only way you’re going to settle the kind of conquest-by-immigration we’re seeing now in Europe and North America. Nobody will even say honestly how many illegal immigrants there are in the U.S. right now, but just from what I see driving to work, I’m inclined to go with the higher estimates, something up to 20 million people who snuck in from Mexico and points south looking for work.

As far as I know, nobody’s claiming the Latino immigrants decided to have a lot of kids as a way of reconquering Texas and California, the way the Israeli settlers are doing. La reconquista, if it happens, will be an unforeseen result of rising birth rates and falling death rates for countries like Mexico that are just moving up from the third world to, say, the second-and-a-halfth.

By 1970, Mexico was at that dangerous stage where there’s just enough basic medical care to keep people alive, so death rates are falling sharply, but people are still poor enough to want a lot of kids. Between 1970 and 2000, the Mexican population doubled, from 48 million to 98 million. So on one side of the Rio Grande you had a lot of young poor people, and on the other, a lot of money and companies eager for cheap labor. And a muddy little creek like the Rio Grande wasn’t nearly wide enough to keep those two groups apart.

As the population of Mexico increased and the living standard rose, the fertility rate actually went into an amazing dive, to the point that the rate for Mexican women now is only 2.39 kids per woman, just two places up from Israel’s 2.38.

And the only thing that’s brought the Latino birthrate down -- in their home countries, not among the ones who immigrated to the U.S. -- is getting enough money that peasant families start thinking of themselves as consumers, and get more excited about buying a new truck or a flat-screen TV than having little Jos.

This is all pretty slow to unfold, compared to traditional military conquest. Birth rate takes decades to have an effect; the Albanian victory in Kosovo is the result of birth rates from the mid-20th century. And in some parts of the world, like the US and Europe, immigrants have a history of being absorbed by the locals rather than sticking to the old tribal hatreds in the style of the Balkans and the Middle East. It’s a cultural deal, after all, not racial. Studies of the U.S. Hispanic population show that within a generation or two, most American Hispanics are ranting about policing the borders and keeping those damn immigrants out of the country. What’s really weird -- and I can testify to this from my own experiences growing up -- is when the local culture infiltrates the immigrants, like the fact that Mexicans in the U.S. are deserting the Catholics and becoming born-again Protestants. Go to any of the younger, feister churchers in the U.S. like the Church of the Nazarene and you’ll see lots of Mexican families with plenty of kids, singing old Scottish hymns in Tex-Mex English. In fact, I ran into a really hilarious article by a U.S. Baptist writer who worried that the Baptist birthrate is going down while the Nazarenes are having babies at a rate of three-plus per woman. So the nightmare scenario that anti-immigrant bloggers are always predicting, where the U.S. turns into one giant Mexico, might end up being true in what you might call “racial” terms -- I mean, your second-grade class photo might be two-thirds Hispanic -- but those Hispanic faces would have absorbed a whole born-again American world picture that actually comes from the Scots-Irish who settled the American south hundreds of years ago.

This is one point where people’s anxiety over these slow, demographic conquests splits according to their real fears: do you just not want to see that kind of face when you go outside, or do you not want to import the culture of the immigrants’ home country? The whole debate right now is so censored, so totally dishonest on both sides, that nobody will come clean about which it is. I suspect for some people it’s the faces: they want the faces on their street to be the same shape and color they were when they were growing up. If that’s what you want, then no matter where you are, I can guarantee that if you’re rich enough to worry about things like this (as opposed to where your next meal’s coming from), then yup, you definitely have grounds for worry. People move around to where the food is, the money, the good grazing, the jobs. The Germanic tribes who moved in on Europe a couple millennia back took a more reasonable view; they called wars “the movements of the peoples.” The Huns push the Goths off the steppe, and boom! Next thing you know, the Goths are wiping out a Roman army at Adrianople.

The faces are going to change. We are in a new military-historical era, in which the only states with the sheer will to resist slow “conquest” by immigration were the Stalinist states. Of course they didn’t have much of a problem there anyway -- not too many immigrants trying to sneak into North Korea or the old USSR -- but even if they had faced real demographic challenge, they had the will to open fire. The Berlin Wall is a nasty case in point, where the will was used to stop people leaving.

But those Stalinist states are not exactly a growth industry these days, and no liberal democratic state has the will to shoot down unarmed people trying to get in (or out, for that matter). Even the Israelis, who are maybe the fiercest first-worlders on demographic issues, don’t shoot the poor Africans who cross to Beersheba for jobs in the cafes. They just send them back to Sudan to be shot there.

So the movement of the peoples, the slow demographic wars, are going to go on. We just don’t have a counter-move, except maybe bombarding poor people with money to stay home. Basically, no matter where you are, the complexions and the features you see on the streets are going to change. If it’s any consolation to face-fascists, Europeans got their licks in first, so to speak. Not many African-Americans around with pure African blood; not many Mexican Indians without some Spanish in them. So now the faces blend the other way.

For most people the real worry, if they were allowed to even say it out loud, is culture: if you’re French, you really don’t want Paris turning into Kinshasa, because let’s be honest, Kinshasa is a Hellhole. If you’re English, you don’t want London turning into Karachi, because Karachi is a nightmare. If you’re American, you don’t want Houston -- oh Hell, ever been to Houston? If you have half a brain, you don’t want Houston at all, the lousy sweatbox.

The thing is, most of the people who invaded from those places tend to agree with you. That’s why they moved in the first place. Nobody knows what a Hellhole the Congo is like a Congolese. I read somewhere that on the Congo riverboats, they have these slang terms for the different decks. The first-class deck they call “Europe.” The second-class deck is “China,” meaning not that great, but livable. The third-class deck is “Congo,” and nobody wants to be there, least of all the Congolese.

So to assess your situation in terms of the new conquests, you have to decide whether you’re in a Kosovo -- two tribes hating each other forever, turning out babies as weapons -- or that Congolese riverboat, where nobody wants it too “authentic” if they can help it. There’s a lot of blurring and overlap between those two models, sure. Take Northern Ireland: a lot of yelling, a lot of noisy tribal hate, but I just don’t think they have it in them to be another Kosovo. Too interested in TV and cars.

That’s what’s funny about the debate right now: the diehards in the U.S. and Europe wish we had the old ruthless will to seal the borders, but the “weakness” of the advanced countries generally works pretty well to turn the immigrants into immigrant-hating locals in a generation or two. The old model, bayonets on the border, isn’t even in the running. Time to face that fact. So the faces will change.

If you can handle these new faces, you’re likely to be surprised to see your “weak” American or European culture win out, slowly, un-gloriously but surely, and you may live long enough to see a whole new crop of pols who look like they just came from Karachi or Kinshasa until you turn the sound on and hear them ranting about how we need to get rid of all these damn immigrants.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.