Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Vocabulary of Victory

     In his original address to Congress and the American people, after the attacks of September 11th, President George W. Bush stated, “Our ‘war on terror’ begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” Bush exhorted Americans to find the best in themselves and rise to the challenge of their time. “Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us. Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail.” Bush promised it would be a long war that would test our patience and determination. “It is my hope that in the months and years ahead life will return almost to normal. We’ll go back to our lives and routines and that is good. Even grief recedes with time and grace. But our resolve must not pass.” Essentially, the president challenged us Americans. With the announcement this week that our military withdrawal from Iraq will be virtually total, and our continuing commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan with the Taliban undefeated, it is not clear how well we have met that challenge.

     On the other hand, given the historical pattern, perhaps the president was overly optimistic that Americans could seriously maintain a decades-long conflict. And if that is true, then one of the lessons of the War on Terror should be to pick limited, attainable objectives.

     By one measure, we have succeeded in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Saddam and Osama are dead. That alone should be enough to declare victory. After all, no one should seriously have thought we could pacify either Iraq or Afghanistan without a massive and effectively permanent military presence. President Bush was apparently willing to commit to that course of action, but he is no longer commander-in-chief. No American president can make operational plans beyond eight years, and public support for military operations rarely lasts even that long. From this perspective, the current plans to withdraw from both nations seem the only feasible moves. However, remembering President Bush’s original declaration, our dual departures have the taste of defeat. We know that taste from Vietnam, and it is ashen.

     This kind of defeat is also dangerous. Every time we walk away as anything less than an unquestionable victor, we diminish the worldwide deterrent effect of American power. That power, like the Roman might of two millennia ago, is the guarantor of peace for millions of people. Roman military campaigns against barbarians and Parthians preserved the citizens of the Empire for centuries. Rome was yet another example of peace through strength, which is the only plan that has ever preserved peace for any length of time. When Rome lost its reputation of military invincibility, it began a decline that featured barbarian armies torching the countryside and, in the end, the sack of the City. In the proudest days of the Republic, the Roman Senate led the people through the war with Hannibal. The Romans did not tire, they did not falter, and they did not fail. But by the time of the late Empire, the legions could hardly find recruits.

     The American Republic has yet to falter in a serious way. We are still strong; we still live in liberty. However, the well-intended but enervating doctrines of the Left are sapping our vigor. Like the corn dole at Rome, our entitlements accustom us to dependency. Every year there are more calls for trading away a little more freedom in exchange for a little more government assistance. Our technology will protect us for a long time, but eventually it will not be enough. In the end, centuries after the death of Roman liberty, after the once-invincible Empire had withered to a vestige, the previously impenetrable walls of Constantinople fell to Muslim cannon.

     As long as the United States retains dominant military force, and as long as American citizens remain vigorous, we will enjoy both liberty and security. But our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan should remind us to be as patient, as resolute, as the Taliban. Or the North Vietnamese. Or the Romans of the old Republic. And if we cannot be that patient and that resolute, then next time we should at least articulate an attainable mission. Instead of declaring war on terrorism, which is a technique, we might have done better to declare war on al-Qaida itself and made getting bin-Laden early our prime objective. Had we slain him in 2003, for instance, we might have been out of the country with our credibility intact by the next year.

     And now? In Afghanistan, our stated mission had nothing to do with getting bin-Laden. Since the commitment to confronting and defeating terrorism worldwide kept us engaged in Afghanistan long after we might otherwise have departed, we were still there when the Taliban inevitably crept back in. Our surge will have failed because it had a declared end point. All the Taliban had to do was hold on until 2011, and we would be gone. When we do leave, nothing will prevent the Taliban from retaking the country. Afghanistan will revert to what it was before, with the difference that there will be a new blood bath to account for all those who were our friends in the time when the Taliban were out. So much for the people—and especially the women—of Afghanistan. In Iraq, where the surge worked because of the famous intractability of George Bush, our departure will hasten a tipping of the state back toward strongman rule. The difference this time will be that the strongman, and his regime, will be Shi’a Muslims in sympathy with Iran.

     As for us, we will have failed on the very terms we originally declared. Terms matter. Words matter. Knowing the historical irresolution of democracies, by declaring war on “terror,” we may have consigned ourselves to defeat.


  1. The American Republic yet to falter in a serious way? I don't think the US can maintain its status without a strong economy and a strong and trusted currency. The general view - I think - is that the national debt is so large that the only way it can be dealt with (other than by eventually defaulting) is by inflating it away. So the dollar looks risky long term.

    All this undermines confidence in the US as a major world power and potential long term ally. Not so long ago the US was the ultimate powerful friend. Americans and their culture are still highly regarded but the nation seems to be faltering and headed for decline.

  2. Mark, well, yes, we aren't what we were. When I say we haven't faltered in a serious way, I mean that (a) we can, in principle at least, recover our strength but that (b) if we do not, we will go the way of Great Britain. It's not that American decline has not begun; it's just that we have much further to fall than we have fallen so far.

  3. RAND war games in the 50s posited that one player (Blue Team, aka USA) would seek and maintain unequivocal military superiority, while the Red Team would seek to degrade it. The assumption was that what constitutes an effective deterrent against attack is that the enemy's cost to itself of attacking us is too high -- not just the risk that it could be defeated per se, but that the price is too great in resources, lives and living standards.

    This principle holds up well. One reason for the fall of the USSR, according to Gorbachev, was that Reagan's Star Wars program was beyond competition and defending against it would break the bank in an already weak system, so that the arms race would lead only to ruin. The catchy version is, the USSR could no longer afford to be Communist, mostly because it could no longer remain a superpower.

    The RAND assumption continues to hold up, even though the US has shot itself in the feet with an economic policy of "guns 'n butter," placing ourselves in considerable debt by funding ever growing entitlements along with an extremely expensive military. Something's gotta give, it would seem. But as long as we remain strong militarily, there is a significant cost our potential enemies must factor in, whenever they seek to attack us. Since WWII we have tended to interventionism. Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq are considered by some to be "defeats" or failures, but in fact all three demonstrate that we are not, as Mao used to insinuate, merely paper tigers. Should an entity (whether nation or terror group) choose to engage us directly, we will come to their country and lay waste. The "victory" may be relative, not total. But their territory will be violated, their sovereignty will be compromised, their people will be devastated and their economy will be in tatters for years. Leaving aside all the political posturing and fretting, the fact remains that attacking the US is an extremely bad idea, because the consequences are a #$%^@! hassle.

  4. The upshot of the above observations is this:

    Limited engagements, precision strikes, and tactics that do not rely on "occupation" might be just as effective as invasion -- and certainly more cost effective. Libya may prove this out. I doubt the fiction that there were "no boots on the ground" but it's significant they were not the boots of occupation. In Iraq, as soon as we got Saddam (it was only about 15 months, if I recall), we could have left and the result we will see five years from now still would be the same. A Shi'ite Iraq, dominated by Iran.

    As soon as we got Bin Laden, we could have packed it up and told the Taliban "Dont ever try that again." It is not our obligation to rebuild your country. But it could be destroyed again, so stand down.

    But then ... I may have put too much honey in my oatmeal this morning and I'm crowing out of line. I just dont think we're in such bad shape as a leader of the free world. It's getting freer all the time.