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May 02, 2006

Can America Still Win Wars?

When was the last time the United States actually won a war? What did we last fight another nation to a standstill, obtain its surrender, and disarm it so we would not have to face it on the field of battle again?

The Gulf War? Not even close. Though the immediate goals of liberating Kuwait and preventing the invasion of neighboring Saudi Arabia were met, that conflict ended in a cease-fire that was violated almost immediately. Saddam was left in power, with his army intact and enough armed helicopters (ostensibly left him to facilitate "civilian transport") to crush a Shiite rebellion in southern Iraq and a Kurdish uprising in the north. The next twelve years were spent trying to contain a smaller, weaker enemy who, in military terms, had been defeated on the battlefield yet was never brought to heel. In some quarters of the Arab world, this very likely smelt like victory.

Viet Nam? By all accounts the U.S. was winning that war on the battlefield too, yet we withdrew our forces in 1973 and funding for the South Vietnamese in 1975 after a failure of political will allowed a feckless Congress to renege on promises made to our former ally. Here, too, a message was sent to a waiting world. Though the United States is arguably the greatest superpower, a clever and militarily inferior opponent need only outlast our ephemeral national will to defeat us.

The Korean War? Technically it never ended at all. Kim Jong-Il's North Korea is still considered one of the worst threats to world peace.

That leaves World War II which also, not coincidentally, resulted in the founding of the United Nations, whose charter called for it to:

...act to prevent conflicts between nations and make future wars impossible, by fostering an ideal of collective security.

If the mission of the UN was to prevent future wars, by that standard it has failed miserably. But America's membership in the UN had another, perhaps unintended side effect. Though questioning the morality of war as a tool of foreign policy did not prevent future wars, it may well have made them impossible to win.

Oddly, just as I finished the preceding paragraphs, spd sent me an article which eerily echoed my thoughts. Shelby Steele* attributes our lack of political will to the death of moral authority, rooted in white guilt:

There is something rather odd in the way America has come to fight its wars since World War II.

For one thing, it is now unimaginable that we would use anything approaching the full measure of our military power (the nuclear option aside) in the wars we fight. And this seems only reasonable given the relative weakness of our Third World enemies in Vietnam and in the Middle East. But the fact is that we lost in Vietnam, and today, despite our vast power, we are only slogging along--if admirably--in Iraq against a hit-and-run insurgency that cannot stop us even as we seem unable to stop it. Yet no one--including, very likely, the insurgents themselves--believes that America lacks the raw power to defeat this insurgency if it wants to. So clearly it is America that determines the scale of this war. It is America, in fact, that fights so as to make a little room for an insurgency.

Parsing his arguments, one can trace the origin of "failures" cited by critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions: the decision not to blanket Iraq with troops after the fall of Baghdad, our continued restraint in the face of an increasingly lethal insurgency, our reluctance to dictate terms to the Iraqis as they form their new government. In today's Washington Post we see the fruit of this policy of limited and civilized warfare. Recent graduates of the reinvented, more inclusive Iraqi Army (the first batch of newly-recruited Sunnis) refuse to fight outside their provinces and home towns. Citing fear of Shiite death squads, the soldiers say they'll return home unless allowed to serve in minority Sunni-dominated areas. No army in the world can be effective if its soldiers are allowed to invoke racial, ethnic, or sectarian differences as an excuse to evade the terms of their enlistment; yet, as with our own immigration debacle, the US is powerless to enforce even a simple enlistment contract without provoking the outrage of the "international community":

America and the broader West are now going through a rather tender era, a time when Western societies have very little defense against the moral accusations that come from their own left wings and from those vast stretches of nonwhite humanity that were once so disregarded.

Europeans are utterly confounded by the swelling Muslim populations in their midst. America has run from its own mounting immigration problem for decades, and even today, after finally taking up the issue, our government seems entirely flummoxed. White guilt is a vacuum of moral authority visited on the present by the shames of the past. In the abstract it seems a slight thing, almost irrelevant, an unconvincing proposition. Yet a society as enormously powerful as America lacks the authority to ask its most brilliant, wealthy and superbly educated minority students to compete freely for college admission with poor whites who lack all these things. Just can't do it.

Whether the problem is race relations, education, immigration or war, white guilt imposes so much minimalism and restraint that our worst problems tend to linger and deepen. Our leaders work within a double bind. If they do what is truly necessary to solve a problem--win a war, fix immigration--they lose legitimacy.

And this, really, is at heart with what is wrong with our national (as well as our international) policy, but I would argue that the problem goes deeper than race guilt. Somewhere along the line, Western nations have substituted the unimpeachable moral authority of the underdog for the legitimacy conferred by just and defensible ideals.

We cannot replace totalitarianism and the tyranny of a minority Sunni populace over a majority Shiite one without provoking cries of, "But what about the Sunnis?" Oddly, when a 20% Sunni populace controlled the fate of 80% of non-Sunni Iraqis, the international community remained blithely unconcerned with the representation of those "underdogs" - after all, they were numerically in the majority. The UN, which in the 1940's created a safe harbor for European Jews, has now turned on its own creation and reliably sides with terrorists who want to wipe Israel (and the Jews) off the map. The mantle of victimhood conferred on European Jewry by Hitler's persecution was swept away by the annoying tendency of Israeli Jews to bloom where they were planted. How can one feel sorry for a people so successful and prosperous when the Palestinians have not managed a similar outcome? Surely this is evidence that Israel is somehow to blame.

Taking sides in such conflicts is so much simpler when the underdog card trumps ideology. There is no "wrong" or "right" - only rich, powerful bully nations and the impoverished underdogs they attempt to oppress. The vaunted international community, ostensibly enamored of peaceful, multilateral solutions, evinces no widespread condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombers who murder innocent civilians, nor of rogue nations like Iran who openly defy UN authority and sneer at attempts to force compliance with the will of the global community. Today's Post editorial ignores the twin bugaboos of UN peacekeeping attempts: namely that "legally binding" resolutions are meaningless absent the will to enforce compliance, and the undeniable fact that setting perfect consensus as a prerequisite to enforcement virtually guarantees that even the rare UN agreement will never be enforced.

How can America win wars if, by so doing, we create underdogs that immediately draw the sympathies of both the international community and internal dissidents? On these terms, winning the war means losing our moral authority. No matter how just the initial casus belli, when measured by the yardstick of victimhood we will always lose: identity trumps ideology every time. Mark Steyn states the problem well:

Over in Sweden, they've been investigating the Grand Mosque of Stockholm. Apparently, it's the one-stop shop for all your jihad needs: you can buy audio cassettes at the mosque encouraging you to become a martyr and sally forth to kill "the brothers of pigs and apes" -- i.e. Jews. So somebody filed a racial-incitement complaint and the coppers started looking into it, and then Sweden's chancellor of justice, Goran Lambertz, stepped in. And Mr. Lambertz decided to close down the investigation on the grounds that, even though the porcine-sibling stuff is "highly degrading," this kind of chit-chat "should be judged differently -- and therefore be regarded as permissible -- because they were used by one side in an ongoing and far-reaching conflict where calls to arms and insults are part of the everyday climate in the rhetoric that surrounds this conflict."

In other words, if you threaten to kill people often enough, it will be seen as part of your vibrant cultural tradition -- and, by definition, we're all cool with that. Celebrate diversity, etc. Our tolerant multicultural society is so tolerant and multicultural we'll tolerate your intolerant uniculturalism. Your antipathy to diversity is just another form of diversity for us to celebrate.

By sacrificing our ideals on the altar of racial and ethnic sensitivity, Western nations lose even the age-old right to defend themselves against single-minded enemies bent on their destruction. The rule of law - equally applied to all comers regardless of race or creed - ceases to matter. No law can be enforced; indeed the law itself becomes a means to suppress ideology:

Diversity-wise, Europe is a very curious place -- and I mean that even by Canadian standards. In her latest book, The Force of Reason, the fearless Oriana Fallaci, Italy's most-read and most-sued journalist, recounts some of her recent legal difficulties with the Continental diversity coercers. The Federal Office of Justice in Berne asked the Italian government to extradite her over her last book, The Rage and The Pride, so she could be charged under Article 261b of the Swiss Criminal Code. As she points out, Article 261b was promulgated in order to permit Muslims "to win any ideological or private lawsuit by invoking religious racism and racial discrimination. 'He-didn't-chase-me-because-I'm-a-thief-but-because-I'm-a-Muslim.' " She's also been sued in France, where suits against writers are routine now. She has had cases brought against her in her native Italy and, because of the European Arrest Warrant, which includes charges of "xenophobia" as grounds for extradition from one EU nation to another, most of the Continent is now unsafe for her to set foot in.

That "underdog-ism" and the comforting legitimacy of consensus rather than race lie at the heart of the West's inability to address the most pressing global problems is tragically illustrated by the current situation in Darfur:

The UN is cutting in half its daily rations in Sudan's Darfur region because of a severe funding shortfall. From May the ration will be half the minimum amount required each day. The cut comes as the UN said Darfur's malnutrition rates are rising again.

Nearly 3m people depend on food aid after being driven off their land.

But little has come from the EU and nothing at all from any of Sudan's partners in the Arab League, except Libya, the World Food Programme says.

More than 6.1m people across Sudan require food aid - more than any other country in the world.

The bill to feed them all is $746m.

The United States has provided $188m, but little has been received from elsewhere.

Most victims of the slaughter in Darfur are black Muslims, yet their skin color does not suffice to stir the collective consciences of recalcitrant UN nations. Instead, the Arab League continues to argue that forced intervention is illegitimate against a smaller, weaker African nation, regardless of the undeniable slaughter taking place. The power of being able to define the underdog once again defeats all humanitarian and ideological concerns, and add insult to injury, the largest contributor to Darfur lacks the "moral authority" to intervene.

In the windup to the invasion of Iraq, George Bush attempted to lay out a moral rationale for engaging in that conflict. It was, despite the revisionist attempts of the media and his critics, notably a three-pronged case: the right of the United States to ensure its security by removing state sponsors of terrorism (and that Iraq was a well-known sponsor of terrorists is undisputed by 9/11 Commission Report, the Congressional resolution to use force, and the Iraq Liberation Act signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1998), Hussein's documented atrocities against hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, and Iraq's continuing violations of both the original cease fire agreement and multiple resolutions which succeeded it. Neither this case, nor the agreement of over 30 other nations to participate, prevented accusations of going to war on false pretenses and American imperialism.

Now the chief failures cited by his critics are not that Bush went to war, but that he went to war ineptly: essentially that he yielded to the calls of the international community not to invade with overwhelming force and crush the opposition once and for all, not to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan with massive peacekeeping forces, and not to impose American-style democracy on the Iraqi people. Though we won the short war, we stand accused of losing the long war. In essence, Bush's crime was not prosecuting the war vigorously enough to suit opponents who, at the time, were calling for him to do exactly what he in fact did: fight a limited war.

But can we truly win a limited war? History shows that victory in most conflicts is more a function of sheer will than anything else, and in an open society political will is difficult to summon and almost impossible to sustain. We are fighting this war with both hands tied behind our backs. The enemy is free to spread propaganda, yet attempts to fight fire with fire are fiercely denounced by our own press corps, even when the information to be disseminated is demostrably accurate.

Our national secrets are bruited about on the front pages of major newspapers and any attempt to enforce espionage laws dating back to 1917 is branded as a partisan witch hunt. Our own politicians call for us to announce our intentions to the enemy, giving a date certain for withdrawal (as though this will not cause them to simply outwait us, handing to them on a platter what they could not win on the battlefield). That we have not learned the lessons of Viet Nam is nowhere more apparent than in our own willingness to concede victory rather than defend a principle or honor our promises.

The United Nations altered the balance of global power by hamstringing America and counterbalancing her military might with the weight of international consensus. Internal opponents of war need only cite the disapproval of the international community, which is notably unwilling to enforce even those resolutions on which it agrees unanimously, to imbue our actions with the language of universal opprobrium. Thus we are defeated both from without and from within. No exertion of military force can succeed on principle, because using the means necessary to win will bring about the condemnation of the international community, while failure to employ those very means ensures calls for withdrawal on the basis of incompetent prosecution.

War has often been termed 'politics by other means', but in such a climate political will is the one thing an open society arguably cannot sustain indefinitely. So long as the underdog mentality reigns supreme and legitimacy is conferred only by perfect consensus, the American military may wish to reconsider its willingness to fight and die in defense of "American ideals". If we cannot learn to withstand the disapproval of our critics, if we no longer find our own ideals worth defending or dying for, it may well be that the most irresponsible of our critics have been proven right. To rephrase John Foregainst Kerry, "How do you ask a man to be the last to die for something we no longer believe in?"

It's a good question. We'd better come up with a convincing answer.

*Thanks to Barb for the correction :) Not paying attention again.

Posted by Cassandra at May 2, 2006 06:19 AM


So if we're d*mned if we do, and d*mned if we don't, then we must find the will to "Do".

Posted by: Barb at May 2, 2006 01:00 PM

That would be my take too.

Or, as Yoda once said

"Try not.
Do, or do not
There is no try."

Posted by: Cassandra at May 2, 2006 01:12 PM

Amazing Article!

You took the words right out of my mouth, and gave voice to something which knows no limit of frustration to me. I often wonder how we are supposed to defeat terrorism when we fight with both hands tied behind our backs with a white flag in our back pocket. War should not be "politics in another form" but destruction. Complete and total destruction of the enemy. Tolerance and American apologists have, and will continue to be, the destruction of America. Great article again!

Posted by: Witty at May 2, 2006 05:26 PM

There are socio-political situations that we, as Americans, attempt to understand, and inhumane events that we, as Americans, are confounded in our attempts to understand. We do this so as to not appear entirely confused, imperialistic, judgmental, or vindictive.

That's a f8ck of a lot more choices we have to make than our enemies.

Just saying.

Posted by: spd rdr at May 2, 2006 06:47 PM

Well, as a student of history, I have to say that the US has ALWAYS lacked the will to wage war.

The US only entered WWII because it was attacked at Pearl Harbor. The evil of totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan left the average american unimpressed. Roosevelt was clearly an interventionist, but even he could not convince America to get involved in what seemed like yet another foreign or european war.

In WWI, the Wilson administration was clearly interventionist as well. The snooty, "intellectual" Wilson was outmanouvered and manipulated by French and British diplomats skilled in realpolitik. The British were solely interested in preserving Victoria's world-spanning Empire, and considered Germany an uppitty newcomer to the European stage. The Brits arranged an anti-German coalition (the Entente) to destroy Germany just as a century earlier they had formed an anti-French coalition to destroy Napoleon. No one would ever be allowed to challenge British global supremacy.

Wilson completley fell for the British line. He allowed the Brits, for the first time ever, to declare food and medicine to a civilian population contraband as war materials. The Brits initiated the concept of targeting a civilan population for starvation, just as they had introduced the world to the concept of "concentration camps" during the Boer War a decade earlier. Wilson also allowed US companies to ship weapons and munitions to the French and British in clear violation of the Neutrality Act. When the Lusitania was torpedoed by a german submarine, it exploded and killed hundreds of americans. It was never revealed to the american public that the reason it exploded was because it was secretly carrying ammunition to Britain -- ammunition that was set off when the torpedo hit. This german "barbarity" was used as a pretext for war. Thus, once again, America went to war only after it believed it had been attacked. It was never revealed that the real reason was due to Franco-British manipulation to get the US to bail them out of a war they were losing to Germany.

Prior to WWI, you had the Spanish-American War. While this arose at a time when yellow journalists like Hearst and Pulitzer were whipping up jingoistic patriotic fervor to a frenzy, it still took the belief that the dastardly Spaniards had blown up the Battleship Maine in Havana harbor to win over the american people for war. The primary battlecry was "Remember the Maine!".

Heck, even in the Revolutionary War, it is estimated that one-third of the colonists were rebels, one-third were tories (pro-British), and one-third were neutral.

So you see, the US has NEVER had the national will to go to war, unless it was first attacked. This reluctance can be both a good and bad thing. On the whole, though, I think it is a reflection of our freedom. When you think of nation's with a high degree of "national will", the militaristic states of Prussia/Germany, Napoleonic France, the Soviet Union, or Imperial Japan come to mind. All of them were regimented, close-ordered societies where the State was paramount. I would not want to live in such societies.

Therefore, while the US lack of national will sometimes causes me to despair, I suppose it is better than trading away our freedom for the alternative.

Posted by: a former european at May 2, 2006 11:28 PM

OK, I whittled it down and here's what was left:

Let them hate as long as they fear!


Posted by: JarheadDad at May 2, 2006 11:53 PM

I'll have what he's having.

Posted by: spd_rdr at May 2, 2006 11:55 PM


I agree. I am not arguing for us to become that which we fight against. I have always maintained that we ought to question the need to go to war. It took a lot of convincing for me to get to the point where I supported the decision to go to war this time because I fully appreciated how awful it was going to be.

The tipping point for me was when I took a big step back from the debate and tried to look at everything from an historical perspective. Once I considered everything leading up to this point: Iraq's continuing pattern of aggression and defiance, Hussein's standing in the Arab world, his admiration of Stalin, the potential for an alliance with al Qaeda and the very real possibility that he was already subsidizing their efforts covertly for his own ends, I saw (and still see) this conflict as inevitable - something we had to face now or leave for someone else had to deal with later. Aggressive dictators don't change their stripes. Appease them and they don't go away; on the contrary they are emboldened.

And I have supported some of the decisions of this administration, even ones that have been widely criticized on both sides of the aisle, because I do believe that war is simply politics by other means. Soldiers accept that, and I continue to believe that if we'd gone in with overwhelming force (the eponymous Powell doctrine) we'd have ignited a powder keg that would have blown up right in our faces.

But wartime policy isn't binary in nature: actions exist across a spectrum. Faint-hearted prosecution of a war you've already decided to enter ends up getting a lot of people killed too. Look at how many years the Civil War dragged on b/c the Union couldn't find a fighting general. How many tens of thousands of men never had to die, but did in fruitless and unproductive battles?

By that measure, Grant was a huge relief because he put his head down and fought like he meant to win. He understood that in many ways, war is itself an atrocity, but if you're going to engage in it you ought not to futz around.

I think a society owes something to the men who fight to preserve it. We ought not to send them into battle unless we are serious about the political goals we are asking them to accomplish, and if war requires something of an "us vs. them" mentality then we need to put our game face on and realize there are real lives on the line.

If we take necessary measures during wartime, this doesn't mean we are going to turn into Soviet Russia or Prussia. My argument is not for swinging wildly to the other side, but for a more reasonable accomodation with the fact that this is a life or death struggle and since we have entered it, we owe it to our armed forces and to the Iraqis to try to win. Otherwise, we have gone in and upset the apple cart for no reason.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 3, 2006 06:49 AM

At this point, I think we are slowly winning by attrition. But as multi-tasking Americans, we don't look closely enough at what is going on.

And by "winning" I mean we have seriously impacted the "global jihad" as it exists in Iraq and we'll leave the place in better shape than it was before we arrived.

We won't get gratitude or appreciation, but we've lowered the risk of being attacked again. The Arab mind -- a tribal throwback -- doesn't respect anything but power. It's not a nuanced kind of statecraft unless one considers that lying to your friends and foes is diplomacy.

I'll be glad when we're out but I hope the US doesn't betray Iraq...again. Not to mention betraying the guys over there.

Posted by: dymphna at May 3, 2006 06:50 PM

You are preaching to the choir, Cass. I understand and support our need to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. As an escapee from the Soviet Bloc, I think I am rather bloody-minded when it comes to the necessary use of power than the average american. Then again, it might just be my slavic nature.

Most americans are too coddled and sheltered in the safety and freedom of the US to truly understand the existence of evil out there and how hellish the rest of the world, particularly the Third World is outside of our borders. It is much easier to pull the blanket over your head and ignore what's going on outside your window. This is why liberals cannot admit the existence of true evil in the world. Such an admission might make them actually DO something other than chant cliched slogans and congratulate each other on how enlightened they are.

Liberals would have left Eastern Europe in thrall to their Soviet oppressors forevermore. It took a boorish conservative like Reagan to liberate us by doing what's right and standing up to the commies. Why do you think Eastern Europe is, by and large, conservative? We have nothing but loathing for the leftist appeasers of the West. When the Soviets collapsed, I was all for rounding up the commies and putting them up against a wall for execution purposes. Like Nazi concentration camp guards, once you have descended to such a pit of evil and inhumanity, i.e. torture, concentration camps, summary executions, etc., people like the commies who were complicit in those things have lost their right to remain living, breathing members of the human race. The jihadis have now joined that fraternity of evil, in my mind.

Thus, when I traipsed through history re the American Will, I was referring to the average american, not me. I would have slagged Iran into a radioactive wasteland long ago.

Posted by: a former european at May 3, 2006 10:42 PM

Too true. :)
But the thing is, if you don't really understand the consequences, you may not ever reach the stage of 'bloody minded' that you refer too.

You, having lived through the actual experience (real evil), have more of a sense of 'retribution' than someone who just reads about it and thinks to themselves,"Gee, were they really that bad, or just misunderstood?"

Until something really unequivical and ginormous happens to shock the Holy Hell out of people, many people in this country will continue to shilly-shally around. It started to happen after 9/11, but the intellectual apologists for the 'Arab Street' (wherever that is!), convinced us that 'Islam is the religion of peace'.

Winning becomes important only when people become aware of the consequences of LOSING.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at May 4, 2006 07:21 PM

Don, you and afe are correct.

Posted by: Lisa Gilliam at May 5, 2006 03:29 AM

Don, you are correct. Thinking back on it, the guy I knew who had the most similar worldview to mine was a cubano who escaped Castro's regime. He understood the problem, just like me. I thought I was harsh against the evil commies, but there is nothing more deadly, implacable, and vengeful than a really pissed-off Cuban. I really admired that guy's way of thinking. Quite refreshing, actually.

Posted by: a former european at May 5, 2006 05:39 AM

Don, I think if something ginormous happened, the country might be shocked, but after all that has transpired in the last five years it would not be unequivical in the way that I think you mean.
Whatever happened would be blamed on Bush for not securing us, or for provoking the attack with his illegal war.

Posted by: Pile OnĀ® at May 5, 2006 09:45 AM

I fear Pile has a point.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 5, 2006 10:18 AM

Posted by: Vanderleun at May 5, 2006 12:31 PM

I think the essential problem is that many Americans have no conception that evil is real.

I saw it on 9/11, as a manager at work was articulating shocked disbelief that somebody would kill women and children on the planes. She was a mother and couldn't imagine it. Because of this disconnect she couldn't get to the realization that these events were real.

I remember that I mentioned to a co-worker that this meant war, and that nobody but the gang responsible was going to take credit for it... and even they might not, because it was going to be "a LOT of heat, and they might not want it." Even after explaining myself, she just didn't get it... still in shock from the event.

Of course, most people have never bothered to think about a clear definition of morality, much less articulate one. If you don't think about whether or not something is moral, you're not going to have any sense of whether someone else can be good or evil, just sort of a muddled 'kinda-like-me.'

Incidentally, the root of evil is not the love of money but thinking of or treating people as things.* Once you've demoted people, all manner of atrocities are possible.

*Terry Pratchett said that. Or not exactly said, but made it the theme of many of his fantasy-satires.

Posted by: B. Durbin at May 5, 2006 11:54 PM

Outsatnding article. The West is doomed. When it acts as if its enemies were bound to honor the laws of war while these creatures behead captives on television for fun exactly who is serious? While they slit throats of airline personnel we cry over the proper handling of the Koran. Who is serious? While they send their bombers into kindergardens we prosecute our soldiers who act in a manner designed to save lives although it might make our closeted civilians upset at their morning coffee. Who is serious.

When our legal systems seeks to protect these creatures they mock it at every tuirn. Yet we hear from the ignoratti that we are somehow they're "moral superiors." I am sure they had their counterparts as the Vandals sacked Rome.

Americans are great fighters if they have a cause and leadership. We have a cause but no leadership. I wonder if our Founding Fathersw would have given up the struggle because the editorial board of the NY Times or Washington Post didn't approve of the government's policies?

Posted by: Thomas J. Jackson at May 6, 2006 09:41 PM

Most victims of the slaughter in Darfur are black Muslims

Are you sure about this statement? It doesn't square with demographic data I've read elsewhere.

Posted by: Purple Avenger at May 7, 2006 07:16 AM

No, I'm not sure about it - it was based on something I read recently but I didn't check the actual statistics myself, so I could be all wet.

I'll check it out and post a correction if I find out I was wrong - thanks for calling my attention to it.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 7, 2006 05:17 PM

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