by Victor Davis Hanson
Can We Still Win Wars?
Given that the United States fields the costliest, most sophisticated, and most lethal military in the history of civilization, that should be a silly question. We have enough conventional and nuclear power to crush any of our enemies many times over. Why then did we seem to bog down in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan? The question is important since recently we do not seem able to translate tactical victories into long-term strategic resolutions. Why is that? What follows are some possible answers.
No — We Really Do Win Wars
Perhaps this is a poorly framed question: the United States does win its wars — if the public understands our implicit, limited strategic goals. In 1950, we wanted to push the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel and succeeded; problems arose when Gen. MacArthur and others redefined the mission as on to the Yalu in order to unite the entire Korean peninsula, a sort of Roman effort to go beyond the Rhine or Danube. Once we redefined our mission in 1951 as one more limited, we clearly won in Korea by preserving the South.
In Vietnam, the goal of establishing a viable South was achieved by 1974. Congress, not the president or the military, felt the subsequent peace-keeping commitments and air support were too costly. They allowed a renewed Northern invasion that led to a second and lost war, and then were surprised that the North Vietnamese proved to be not campus radicals but hardcore Stalinists.
Panama, Grenada, and Serbia were successful small enterprises. In the first Gulf War, the strategic aim was to oust Saddam from Kuwait — or so we said. That succeeded, though it did not solve the problem of what Saddam would in the future do with his vast oil revenues. In the second war, the mission was to remove him, give birth to a democracy, and then leave Iraq better than before. That more ambitious aim too succeeded — not, however, without enormous costs.
Our strategic objective in Afghanistan was to oust the Taliban and ensure that it did not return to host terrorists on Afghan soil. The former mission was done over a decade ago, the latter hinges on the Afghans themselves after we leave. We vowed to rid Libya of Gaddafi and we did — and did not exactly promise that what followed would be immediately better than what we removed. In such special pleading, the US has won its wars as it has defined them. Note the great success of the Cold War that ended with the destruction of the Soviet Empire.
Not So Fast
But wait — North Korea was on the ropes and now over a half-century later still threatens our interests, and with nukes no less. Should not the destruction of that system have been the real aim of the Korean War? North Vietnam united the country under a communist government, whatever way you cut it. Iraq was a mess, and its democracy may in time prove no more than an Iran-backed Shiite autocracy. In Afghanistan, does anyone think our Afghan partners will keep out the Taliban after our departure? Are the Libyan riffraff that took over all that better than Gaddafi as they kill tribal rivals, hunt down blacks, and desecrate military cemeteries? What exactly were we doing in Lebanon and what did we do after terrorists killed 241 of our people?
Strategy, What Strategy?
Why, then, does the use of American military forces not guarantee sure victory? The most obvious answer is why we argue over the results of our interventions is an inability to articulate our strategic objectives — what exactly do we wish to see follow from our use of force and for how long and at what cost? Do we wish to rid the world of Bashar al-Assad? We could do that quite easily and probably without ground troops. But would the region be more or less stable? Would Iran suffer a blow or find ways to fund more terrorists? Would the collateral damage from funding insurgents or bombing be worse or not as bad as the current Assad toll? Would the insurgents prove reasonable, or more like those in Egypt and Libya — or even worse? Many of our problems seem to hinge on explaining to the public what we wish to do, why so, how, at what cost it is to be accomplished, and what do we want things to look like when we’re through.
Off the Table
Then there is the question of restraint — the inability to use our full forces to their full effect, in the manner that we did in World War I or World War II. From 1945 to 1989 the Cold War defined and limited the rules of engagement, given the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union and its various trouble-causing clients who hid behind it. In Vietnam and North Korea, there were certain options that were off the table because of fear the Soviets or Chinese might strike elsewhere or the fighting could descend into a nuclear exchange. “Limited” wars are now the new normal when so many countries can claim a nuclear patron.
Law, Not War
But in the last twenty years, there is an even greater restraint to operations — a moral, if not smug, self-restraint that has turned fighting from a quest for victory into a matter of jurisprudence in which how we fight a war is more important than what we actually achieve. The old Neanderthal formula — we will level your cities, defeat and humiliate your military, impose our system of government upon you, and then give you our aid and friendship as you reinvent yourself as a free-market capitalist democracy — certainly worked with Germany, Japan, and Italy.
But does anyone believe that we could have bombed Saddam as we did those in Hamburg? The country that tore itself apart over waterboarding three confessed terrorists who had an indirect hand in the murder of 3,000 Americans seems ill-equipped to inflict the sort of damage on enemies that in the past made them accept both defeat and redemption. War is now a matter of legality, or nation-building before, not after, the enemy is fully defeated, and that means, given the unchanging nature of man, that it is very difficult to win a war as in the past. Note, in this context, Obama’s drone campaign, which he expanded seven- or eight-fold upon inheriting it from Bush. Is it not the perfect liberal way of war? There is no media hand-wringing over collateral damage; no burned faces, charred limbs, headless torsos on the evening news; no US losses; no prisoners at Guantanamo. There is only a postmodern murderous video game and a brief administration chest-thump that “we’ve taken out 20 of the top 30 al-Qaeda operatives.”
Wars of Choice
We are forgetting yet another wild card: since World War II, all our serial fighting in Asia, Central America, the Pacific, and Africa has involved optional wars — fighting that did not question the very existence of the US. Other than a few stand-offs with the Cold War Soviets at places like Berlin or Cuba, the United States had not faced an existential threat since the end of World War II. September 11 might have posed such a challenge, since had bin Laden or his epigones been able to repeat the initial attacks, then air travel as we know it would have ceased, along with the idea of an open, modern commercial economy.
But other than the efforts to go after al-Qaeda, most of our fighting has been optional — whether in Somalia or Libya — and that makes it hard to galvanize the American public. (This also explains why administrations try to hype WMD, or Saddam, or al-Qaeda, or Gaddafi, or the monstrous Assad in order to turn these peripheral threats into existential enemies.) In optional wars, the public can disconnect, as fighting can be conducted without disruption of the civilian economy. Victory or defeat does not immediately either please or endanger the public at home. And the result is that our leaders do not necessarily wage these wars all out, with the prime directive of winning them. (Note how the monster-in-rehab Gaddafi, whose children were buying off Western academics and putting on art shows in London, by 2011 was back in our imaginations to the 1986 troll, and how the Assads of Vogue Magazine are once again venomous killers.)
Too Rich to Fight?
Then there are classical symptoms of Catullan otium: societies that become leisured like ours grow complacent (otium et reges prius et beatas perdidit urbes). They see military activity of all sorts coming at the expense of social redistributive programs: each dollar in aid campaigning abroad comes at the loss of one less new expansion in Medicare or Medicaid. Why then spend money overseas, when we could redistribute it for bread and circuses at home? A cruise missile is not seen as a wise investment in deterrence, but as a boondoggle that means one less Head Start center.
In postmodern America, we are all removed from mayhem, the killing of game for dinner, the sight of blood altogether. War is something “they” do, not our far more sophisticated selves, who have far greater claims on the federal treasury. Given that the therapeutic society of iPhones and Facebook believes that human nature has transcended violence, and no longer is prone to Thucydidean irrationality like fear, honor, or perceived self-interest, we believe that Libyan rebels are sort of like errant protestors of Occupy Wall Street, or the sometimes corrupt Chinese communist apparat that can be persuaded to be nice to Tibetans. That means war no longer involves good and evil, much less the elemental dirty means of using the former to destroy the latter.
Or Too Poor to Fight?
But wait, we are $16 trillion in debt, with serial $1 trillion budget deficits. Indeed, we are $9 trillion more in debt than when we went into Afghanistan. Any intervention now requires us to borrow the money from someone else. The truth is that for years we have been like Rome around AD 300 or Britain circa 1950 — lots of supposed responsibilities, not enough money budgeted to fulfill them. The idea of a nation gearing up to smash an enemy when it has borrowed over $16 trillion on mostly social entitlements and pay-outs makes war a bad, if not absurd, investment.
On to Syria — or Not?
With all this in mind, consider Bashar al-Assad. There is a growing movement in the press and Congress to go into Syria — either by arming the rebels, training them, or providing them air cover. But while we know that we have the power to do so (or rather can borrow the money from the Chinese to do so), do we have a strategic aim? What should Syria look like after the war (a constitutional state that would not support Iran, fund Hezbollah, undermine Lebanon, start a war with Israel, or build another reactor)?
Are US arms and influence without ground troops able to see those laudable aims realized, or would a post-Assad Syria end up like Libya or Egypt — and would that still be better or worse than the present-day Syria, for us, for Christians and other minorities, for Israel, etc.? It is not enough to state the obvious: Assad is a US enemy and a monster who is killing his own; we have the ability to take him out; ergo, we should.
Yet the same calculus applies to dozens of renegade states. If some advisor, pundit, general, or senator wants to go into Syria, then he must explain why Syria is more important than, say, the Congo or Somalia or the Sudan (or that we are following strategic self-interest in the Middle East, not humanitarianism) — and why we can leave the nation a far better place than under Assad, and how that is possible, given the nature of the dissidents and the fact it is the Middle East.
Remember, there is also an ironclad law about the Middle East, one we keep forgetting: Arab intellectuals (many of them educated or residing in Western universities) hate the US for backing dictators; they hate the US for intervening to remove them; they hate the US for trying to impose post-bellum democracy upon them; and they hate the US for staying clear and letting Arabs be Arabs on their own.
Take out Saddam — ”you created him in the first place”; stay to rebuild the country — ”a neo-imperial enterprise to impose your values on a traditional society”; stay away and let him kill his own, or allow his successors to kill each other — ”a callous disregard for the suffering of innocent others.”
Remember the critiques of Gulf War I and Gulf War II:
Gulf War I: a needlessly large coalition that curbed our options, a hyped-up war that did not warrant the huge forces we deployed, a shake-down of our allies to turn war into a money-making enterprise, a cynical disregard for the Shia and Kurds who yearned for democracy, a video-game war in which we slaughtered the inept without incurring much risk or danger;
Gulf War II: a too-small coalition that did not win international respect, too few forces deployed for the mission, a wasteful enterprise that did not demand monetary contributions from our allies, a naïve romance that Arabs could craft their own democracy, a dirty war in which we needlessly exposed our troops to mayhem and death.
Common denominator: whatever a Bush was for, critics were against.
We should posit one simple rule about intervening in the Middle East from now on. Please some honesty: we intervene for strategic advantage (no apologies for that), not humanitarianism. If those who advocate taking out Assad claim that it is to stop the bloodshed, then they must explain why there — and not where far more are slaughtered in Africa.
Again, state the proposed mission, debate the need and envisioned cost, articulate the strategic outcome, and then obtain it with overwhelming force — or otherwise forget it.
©2012 Victor Davis Hanson