AS I tried to fathom the colossal blunder of the world’s mightiest superpower, the United States, in its ignominious defeat by the Taliban, I realized it was another testament to that old, nay, ancient, adage: Actions have consequences, always.
A truism that may sound but read on; the adage applies not just to nations, but also to individuals. It could be the most important principle you may want to remember in your life.
On April 14, President Joe Biden announced that US troops would start leaving Afghanistan in May, the withdrawal to be completed, for dramatic impact, on Sept. 11, on the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks that prompted the invasion of that country two decades ago. The Biden government would later make the excuse that it was Donald Trump who had committed to the policy in his last year in office – which Trump defense officials are now claiming to be a ruse in the negotiations. Biden probably thought he couldn’t let his predecessor go down in history as the peacemaker and not him.
Biden’s announcement had terrible consequences, although it is unclear whether he had ignored the advice of his security team or that perhaps even the Pentagon had grown tired of what Biden called the “forever war.”
The biggest mistake not only in such military actions, but in other major actions, is ignoring the reality that these are not undertaken in a vacuum. There are other players in the “game” who obviously have all the liberty to react as they please.
In Afghanistan’s case, the Afghans heard not just “withdrawal” but US “surrender.” It destroyed the morale of the Afghan administration the US had propped up and the 300,000 troops it had trained and armed while the Taliban shouted “Allahu Akbar.” That was the consequence Biden refused to see with his announcement of a withdrawal. Provincial capitals fell one by one to the Taliban, by August Kabul had fallen.
It is astonishing though that the US defense establishment – with its scores of think tanks and military colleges – forgot that this was also how the Americans lost Vietnam, which started when Nixon announced his administration’s “Vietnamization” policy, which was to withdraw most US forces, except for a few battalions of “advisers” and Central Intelligence Agency operatives. Vietnam interpreted “Vietnamization,” of course, as a US withdrawal, and in a few years, there would be that memorable scene of American Marines frantically evacuating civilians at the roof deck of the US Embassy in Saigon – a scene that would be repeated in Afghanistan four decades later.
It is the denial of the adage that actions always have consequences that afflicted the Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino 3rd regime, his very pro-American former Foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, and the country’s most prominent Sinophobe, Antonio Carpio, in their move to concoct a belligerent foreign policy against China and file an arbitration case against Beijing.
The only consequences of that action that they foresaw were those they wanted to see or stupidly saw – that China would be pressured by international opinion to comply with the arbitral award, which would have allowed a trio of oligarchs to explore for gas at the Reed (Recto) Bank, which China has blocked since March 2, 2011. What they thought would happen was that most of the world’s nations would condemn China for not complying with the award.
The actual consequences were totally different. China shrugged off the award by a mere panel as a “piece of paper,” which the prominent historian Graham Allison had expected: “Of course, China, like all great powers, will ignore an international legal verdict.” Five years after the award was handed down, only a handful of countries – the US and its usual minions – demanded that China comply with the award. Nearly all nations either rejected it or ignored it, either on grounds that it was just an arbitration award and not the ruling of an international court.
But there would be very bad consequences of the suit. It was the height of stupidity for Aquino 3rd and his gang to assume that China would stand idly by as a Third World country shamed it and threatened, even if only through an arbitral panel, to pressure it into vacating the seven reefs it had occupied in the Spratlys since 1988. Carpio, who has boasted about being the brains behind the filing of the arbitration case, didn’t realize that filing a case vs China was so totally different from the many cases his once powerful “The Firm” filed against relatively hapless people and companies.
China embarked on one of the most expensive and massive land reclamation projects ever undertaken on the planet, spending an estimated $20 billion. In a span of a year, starting right after the Philippines filed its arbitration suit, China transformed its seven tiny reefs into the Spratlys’ biggest and best fortified artificial islands. The Philippines pressured it through “lawfare” out of the reefs; the superpower retaliated by turning them into huge islands. That is a classic case of the “sunk-cost” strategy in geopolitics when a nation fortifies a disputed territory to make it costly for another nation to try seizing it.
From having practically zero land in the Spratlys, China now has the biggest “property” with 1,300 hectares, seven times bigger than the 187-hectare area of islands and reefs claimed by both Vietnam and the Philippines. Aquino 3rd and his cohorts with their arbitration suit drastically changed the geopolitical and military landscape of the Spratlys. The Americans who prodded Aquino to file the suit must be tearing their hair out in regret. Aquino’s actions had terrible consequences his gang and the US did not foresee.
To his credit, President Rodrigo Duterte shelved that arbitration award that was useless anyway and junked his predecessor’s belligerent policy against China. This is because of his keen grasp of that adage, “actions have consequences.” He said that pursuing our claims against China could have the consequence of war between the two countries, which we would undoubtedly lose.
He may have exaggerated. The most probable Chinese reaction would have been its transformation of Scarborough Shoal into a huge fortified, artificial island to spite us, and worse, the cutting off of its trade with the Philippines.
China is our biggest trading partner, accounting for 30 percent of our exports and 21 percent of our imports. The share of the US and Japan – our former biggest trade partners – has been reduced to half of that for each. In sharp contrast, Philippine exports to and imports from China account for just 1 percent of its trade total.
That means the Chinese economy would not have missed losing Philippine trade. For us, though, it would have been an economic disaster with the billionaire Albert del Rosario probably having to flee to Spain or the US and Carpio to his Vietnamese wife’s family home in Saigon. China, in fact, gave us a taste of such retaliation when during the Scarborough stand-off in 2012, it stopped our banana and then all fruit exports on some excuse that some pests were found and therefore required additional inspections – leaving the fruit shipments to rot in the ports. Mindanao exporters raised a howl, claiming they lost billions of pesos in revenues and that the jobs of over 200,000 workers were being threatened.
So, if you’re so mad that other motorist cut into your lane and you want to give him a bloody nose, if you think a business rival had wronged you and you want to get back at him, or if, guys, you think having a mistress would be fun, remember first this adage “actions have consequences,” most of which you won’t foresee and you’ll be happier in your life.
Even nonaction is really action if you deny science and believe some study most epidemiologists missed but which you read in some blog and you don’t want to get vaccinated. That action will have its terrible consequences.
I didn’t want to mention the word as it’s so much used that it’s a terrible cliché. But the short term for that adage is “karma,” first mentioned in the Vedas written 3,500 years ago.
But don’t mystify it or put a religious or moral spin to the term. It’s just an inherent part of this world, but which we often forget because of our egos. In the amoral world of physics, it is one of Newton’s laws: for every action there is an opposite reaction. In a world of living minds and nations consisting of living minds, it means a vast array of unpredictable reactions.
So, before taking action, better be sure you mull first over the possible reactions.
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