The Burdens of General Petraeus

No simple mission.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

I. Our Rules / Their Rules
Several governments have defeated Islamic insurgencies, but usually only after about ten years, and adopting policies of summary executions and carpet bombing or shelling. 

The Algerians in the 1990s finally stopped the so-called Islamic Salvation Army. The Russians decimated Chechnyan separatists. Syria’s Hafez al-Assad brutally exterminated several groups loosely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, most infamously by the thousands at the town of Hama. 

But so far, no recent military has succeeded in defeating a radical Muslim terrorist insurgency, while subject to a constitutional government and an absolutely free media. In this regard, the United States — given its position as the world’s only superpower and recognized as the most sensitive of all countries to easy criticism — is especially at a military disadvantage. 

Witness Guantanamo Bay that is demonized worldwide as the new Stalag or Gulag, when, in fact, it is the most humane detention center of jailed Muslim terrorists in the world. 

Abu Ghraib was reprehensible for its sexual roguery and gratuitous humiliation, but the real military problem of that prison has been the serial release, not American mistreatment, of Islamic murderers. In Iraq, then, the question arises — can a liberal Western government defeat a barbarous Islamist terrorist insurgency while under constant audit — and remaining true to its own democratic principles? 

Gen. Petraeus must cope with the reality that should a half-dozen, or perhaps even one, of his some 160,000 soldiers, in the heat of combat, shoot a wounded terrorist, the damage done could rival losing an entire battle — a fact well known to a religiously zealous enemy that feels no such humanitarian constraints. Radical Islamists may be the enemy, but American forces in the field must downplay, not accentuate religious differences, if they are to keep on their side Muslim forces loyal to an elected government.

II. Fighting For Democracy?
In the Cold War, America justified supporting authoritarian regimes in Asia, South America, and the Middle East on the basis of their expressed and shared opposition to Soviet-sponsored global communism. We had some nasty SOBs on our side in the Shah, Pinochet, Somoza, and Papadopoulos. The U.S. apology was that elected socialist governments would inevitably devolve into Communist ones, either by intent or subversion. With 7,000 nukes pointed our way, we supposedly had no margin for utopianism. So America erred on the side of short-term assumed loyalty, stability, and security. 

But well before the Cold War, the United States put realist concerns above principled idealism. That’s why we generously supplied a mass-murdering Soviet Union in its war against a mass-murdering Nazi Germany or didn’t restrict too much the methodology that Chiang Kai-shek employed against Japanese invaders. 

The present war, however, is again qualitatively different: We are not seeking to quell the violence in Iraq or Afghanistan by the imposition or use of a brute. Instead we expend blood and treasure in the hopes that a consensual government can fight as well as a dictatorship — while at the same time ensuring freedom for its people.

So in Iraq, not only are we waging a war according to American rules of engagement, but for the idea of constitutional government run by a poor, deeply traditional, tribal, and often religiously fundamentalist population. 

General Petraeus knows that Iraq Security Forces can get information out of detained terrorists much easier than we can. But he also accepts that winking at systematic torture would be at odds with his directive to protect and promote constitutional government.

III. War-loving Republicans?
There is yet a third anomaly: We are presently fighting two simultaneous wars under a conservative Republican administration. And that too is fairly rare in the last 100 years, and far more challenging. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton all at times proved bellicose, bypassed Congress if needed be, and (with the exception of LBJ) largely got a pass from the Left. World War I, Korea, and Vietnam were all controversial in their time. Apparently, the intelligentsia and media felt that no liberal Democrat could possibly have preferred war, and had only fought when forced to — despite the use of Democratic preemption in a variety of instances. 

In contrast, it is hard to recall of any war in our history — the Vietnam hysteria aside — that a sitting Senate majority leader declared it lost in the middle of hostilities. We have not previously witnessed senior opposition senators alleging that their own American servicemen were analogous to Nazis, Stalinists, Cambodian mass murders, Saddam’s Baathist killers, or engaging in habitual terrorizing and killing of innocent civilians.

In truth, the United States media and political culture accept different rules of military discourse that are politically governed. Had George Bush recently called for a land invasion of Pakistan, he would have incurred hysterical wrath. The same would be true had a Sen. Orin Hatch or John Warner once declared U.S. pilots analogous to Luftwaffe criminals or Soviet terror strafers, when their bombs went awry and killed civilians during the Clinton aerial campaign over Serbia.

Our officers may expect that a Republican Congress and administration might give them greater latitude in determining how and how long to wage war in Iraq. Yet they also must accept that ipso facto they will be subject to far greater criticism from the American intellectual and journalistic establishment.

IV. From YouTube to Cingular
This is the first extended American ground war in the era of instantaneous global communications. The 1991 Gulf War was short — and in the age before on-the-scene reporting of Al Jazeera and other Middle East news agencies that ape western splashy graphics and delivery, but ultimately must slant in accordance to autocratic dictates. Even during the Serbian bombing a mere decade ago, poor civilians on the ground were not able to easily email, or cell phone daily reports, or post videos on the Internet.

But now an errant bomb or single rogue jailer in Abu Ghraib will be blared live — in raw and unedited fashion without much of a context — to a housewife in Frankfurt or a farmer in Anatolia. Any single untoward incident can splash across the computer screens of billions, and serve as an instant referendum on the service of tens of thousands of American soldiers. 

The result is that U.S. military officials recognize that any possible strike on the Syria border would be broadcast worldwide as carpet bombing of a wedding party or tribal reunion, while the enemy’s mass beheadings and torture will often go unreported. 

My favorite example this week was a syndicated photo of a poor elderly Iraqi woman holding up two bullets with the caption: “An elderly Iraqi woman shows two bullets which she says hit her house following an early coalition forces raid in the predominantly Shiite Baghdad suburb of Sadr City.(AFP/Wissam al-Okaili)”. The only problem was that the bullets shown were unfired and still in their casings!

Remember the operational principle of the new “right-now” communications: There is no news or reward in recounting that barbarous terrorists or savage governments murder innocents, but a great deal if accidental deaths can be pinned on the United States. The former earns a journalist no audience, but often real danger — the latter safety, praise, a possible award, book contract, or university guest lectureship. 

Gen. Petraeus, then, knows that an oft-handed remark by a senior officer to a “friendly” interviewer in an hour could appear as a negative headline across theDrudge Report — or the lurid tall tales of an Army Private playacting as Seymour Hersh headlining an issue of The New Republic.

V. The Oil Bogeyman
American military options in the Middle East are also circumscribed by a global oil market — even more so than during the Cold War fear of a counter-reaction from the Soviet Union. We are in an era of seemingly perpetual petroleum scarcity, one far worse even than the oil boycotts of old that were shortages by intent and directed solely at the West. 

With new players like the Indians and Chinese in the Middle East oil market, and globalized hourly speculation, anything the United States military might do in the Middle East — from taking out an Iranian gunboat to accidentally hitting a pipeline — could evoke furious reaction from newly industrial oil dependents.

Even the appearance of disruption may cost billions of Chinese, Indian, European, or American consumers billions of dollars. Should a military officer think it necessary at some point to request a border strike on a Syrian terrorist camp, or an Iranian IED factory, he must weigh the real possibility that oil speculators in minutes might immediately bid up the price of oil by billions of dollars — with Cabinet and banking officials screaming for his scalp.

What do these new burdens all mean? In the last quarter-century American has proved that it can use military force in the Middle East, in a conventional context, to obtain desirable results — the restoration of Kuwait, the removal of the Taliban, and the end of the genocidal regime of Saddam Hussein. 

But even those successful operations did not occur in a vacuum, but immediately raised the logical question “What next?” 

Increasingly what follows will be a liberal Western superpower, adopting rules of engagement that reflect its own idealism fighting against a primordial terrorists, in pursuit of democratic reform — sometimes under conservative Republican administrations vulnerable to charges of militarism, while being scrutinized by a global media eager for signs of either American hypocrisy or weakness, and a world jittery over world petroleum prices. 

Should Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker stabilize Iraq, it will demonstrate that the United States, under the most impossible of conditions, can still defeat Islamic terrorism while fostering constitutional reform that improves the security of the region and the world at large — and due so irrespective of a hostile world media and partisan politicking at home.

But if they cannot? 

The ultimate irony: The seventh-century terrorists win — and those who habitually demonized American military operations will themselves lose as well.

©2007 Victor Davis Hanson

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