The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought

The war on terror encompasses more than military action, but military action is a necessary part of it. However, as with the Vietnam War, the military response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, have been half-hearted and therefore inconclusive. What should have been done? The answers are given in two recent essays at the Claremont Review of Books.

In “The Lost Decade” (October 20, 2011), Angelo M. Codevilla writes:

America’s ruling class lost the “War on Terror.” During the decade that began on September 11, 2001, the U.S. government’s combat operations have resulted in some 6,000 Americans killed and 30,000 crippled, caused hundreds of thousands of foreign casualties, and spent—depending on various estimates of direct and indirect costs—somewhere between 2 and 3 trillion dollars. But nothing our rulers did post-9/11 eliminated the threat from terrorists or made the world significantly less dangerous. Rather, ever-bigger government imposed unprecedented restrictions on the American people and became the arbiter of prosperity for its cronies, as well as the manager of permanent austerity for the rest. Although in 2001 many referred to the United States as “the world’s only superpower,” ten years later the near-universal perception of America is that of a nation declining, perhaps irreversibly. This decade convinced a majority of Americans that the future would be worse than the past and that there is nothing to be done about it. This is the “new normal.” How did this happen?…

America’s current ruling class, the people who lost the War on Terror, monopolizes the upper reaches of American public life, the ranks of those who make foreign and domestic policy, including the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties. It is more or less homogeneous socially and intellectually. In foreign affairs, the change from the Bush to the Obama Administrations was barely noticeable. In domestic matters, the differences are more quantitative than qualitative. Dissent from the ruling class is rife among the American people, but occurs mostly on the sidelines of our politics. If there is to be a reversal of the ongoing defeats, both foreign and domestic, that have discredited contemporary America’s bipartisan mainstream, heretofore marginal people will have to generate it, applying ideas and practices recalled from America’s successful past.

The world of 2011 is even less congenial to America and Americans than it was on September 10, 2001. The U.S. government is not responsible for all the ways in which the world was menacing then and is menacing now, of course. Regardless of what America did, China’s challenge to the post-1945 Peace of the Pacific was going to become more serious. Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet Russia was not and could not be anything but a major bother. Western Europe would be living off civilizational capital it had lost the will to replenish, irrespective of any American deeds or entreaties. The Muslim world would be choking on the dysfunctions inherent in its government and cultures.

But U.S. policy has made things worse because the liberal internationalists, realists, and neoconservatives who make up America’s foreign policy Establishment have all assumed that Americans should undertake the impossible task of changing such basic facts, rather than confining themselves to the difficult but vital work of guarding U.S. interests against them. For the Establishment, 9/11 meant opportunities to press for doing more of what they had always tried to do….

After 9/11 President George W. Bush told the American people to go shopping and behave normally. In short: forget that you will never again be free to live as before. Think about money. This advice followed naturally from the government’s decision to persist in its ways instead of lifting terrorism’s burden from America. What might have happened if, instead, Bush had told Americans that the terror threat would not last forever, because their government would now undertake some expensive military operations that would soon allow normal life to resume? To support those operations the government would have had to cut back other spending and perhaps raise some taxes. No doubt, in fall 2001 the American people would have accepted these sacrifices. But they would have demanded results. Since the administration was not about to try that, it sought to satisfy the American people with the pretend-safety of “homeland security,” with images of U.S. troops in combat, and perhaps above all with domestic prosperity fueled by record-low interest rates and massive deficit-spending.

This pretend-prosperity aimed not only to anesthetize criticism of endless war, but also to feed both political parties’ many constituencies—the ruling class’s standard procedure. Both parties joined in expanding federal guarantees for sub-prime mortgages, subsidies for education, alternative fuels, and countless activities dear to well-connected players. Both parties congratulated themselves for establishing new entitlements for prescription drugs and for medical care for children. When the “great recession” began in 2007 Democrats blamed Republicans’ excessive spending on “the wars,” while Republicans blamed it on Democrats’ excessive spending on everything else. Both are correct, and both are responsible….

What should have been done? Mark Helprin gives the prescription, in “The Central Proposition” (same source, September 13, 2011):

True shock and awe following upon September 11, when the world was with us, could have pitched the Middle East (and beyond, including the Islamists) into something resembling its torpor under European domination or its shock after the Arab-Iraeli War of 1967. That is to say, pacified for a time, with attacks on the West subsiding. And if the West could have resisted the arrogance of the victor and been magnanimous, who knows for how long such a period would have been extended? Instead, we exhibit the generosity of the soon-to-be defeated, otherwise known as concession and surrender.

Comporting with the idea that if you’re going to have a war it’s a good idea to win it, and with the Powell Doctrine, General Eric Shinseki’s recommendations, the lessons of military history, the American way of war, and simple common sense, an effective response to September 11 would have required an effort of greater scale than that of the Gulf War—i.e., all in. With a full and fully prepared “punch through,” we could have reached Baghdad in three days, and instead of staying there for a decade or more put compliant officials or generals in power (which is more or less what we’re doing now) and wheeled left to Damascus, smashing the Syrian army against the Israeli anvil and putting another compliant regime in place before returning to the complex of modern military bases at the northern borders of Saudi Arabia. There, our backs to the sea, which we control, and our troops hermetically sealed by the desert and safe from insurgency, we could have occupied the center of gravity in the heart of the Middle East, able to sprint with overwhelming force within a few days to either Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh.

Having suffered very few casualties, our forces would have been rested, well-trained, ready for deployment in other parts of the world, and able to dictate to (variously and where applicable) the Syrians, Iraqis, and Saudis that they eradicate their terrorists, stay within their borders, abandon weapons of mass destruction, break alliances with Iran and Hezbollah, keep the oil price down, and generally behave themselves. These regimes live for power, do anything for survival, and have secret police who can flush out terrorists with ruthless efficiency. Such strategy, had we adopted it, would have been demanding and imperious, yes, but not as demanding and imperious as ten years of war across much of the Middle East. Our own economy and alliances need not have been disrupted, our polity not so severely divided, and far fewer people would have suffered.

What happened between World War II and September 11, 2001, to change the American way of war from tenacity to pusillanimity? A lot of what happened has to do with the ascendancy of leftism, which too many conservatives seem bent on accommodating for fear of seeming mean-spirited and (in the case of too many conservative politicians) for the sake of gaining office.

Beyond that, and more importantly, there is the decline of willpower. On that point, I turn to Andrew Klavan:

A book called Willpower has been making a splash lately and will, I’m told, appear on the New York Times bestseller list next week. I have not read the book yet, but while in New York last week at the behest of the Manhattan Institute, I attended an MI-sponsored presentation by the book’s authors, psychology researcher Roy F. Baumeister and science writer John Tierney.

Willpower surpasses even intelligence as a predictor of success in life. And Baumeister has performed a number of experiments that convinced him that willpower is something like a muscle:  it can be strengthened, conserved, and fatigued. Like a muscle, it also needs to be fueled. Baumeister’s assertion that glucose in the blood is essential to willpower has featured in the headlines about the book.

But in the question period after the presentation, I asked Baumeister how else, aside from eating well, could willpower be strengthened. His response was this:  Exercise strengthens willpower just as it strengthens muscles. Even a meaningless exercise of will — training yourself to use your left hand for a task instead of your right, for instance — can make the will stronger over time. He added — I quote from memory: “When I was a boy, I used to be baffled by the idea of profanity. I used to wonder why there should be all these words that everyone knew but nobody used. But now I understand:  that strengthens willpower.”

Well, right. In other words, behaving well, behaving responsibly, learning the norms of politeness and refusing to abandon them without good reason tend to make you a more self-controlled, successful, and finally better person.

This is precisely the wisdom my generation threw away. Their promiscuity, adolescent foul-mouthedness, bad manners, and disregard for tradition — all of which they claimed were a new kind of freedom — were in fact the precursors to the very oldest kind of slavery:  slavery to one’s own impulses and desires…. (“‘Willpower’ and the Suckiest Generation” (Klavan on the Culture, September 26, 2011)

In so many words, a lack of staying power. If one goes through life expecting to be rewarded at every turn for having done nothing, one acquires a habit of mind that precludes doing what is necessary to remain alive and free.

Drone warfare is not wrong (as leftists and extreme libertarian would have it) because it uses technology to kill our enemies. But drone warfare is symptom of the moral torpor that has overtaken most Americans, especially our so-called leaders. It is an (illusory) easy way out of a situation that defies an easy solution and demands the application of vastly more military might than our so-called leaders have been willing to muster.

Related posts:
Vietnam and Iraq as Metaphors
Getting It Wrong: Civil Libertarians and the War on Terror (A Case Study)
More about War and Civil Liberties
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy
Wisdom about the War on Terror
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy, Revisited
Libertarians and the Common Defense
Libertarianism and Pre-emptive War: Part I
An Aside about Libertarianism and the War
Right On! For Libertarian Hawks Only
Understanding Libertarian Hawks
More about Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
War Can Be the Answer
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Philosophical Obtuseness
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Now, Let’s Talk About Something Else
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression?
The Fatal Naïveté of Anarcho-Libertarianism
Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
More Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Thomas Woods and War
Moussaoui and “White Guilt”
In Defense of Ann Coulter
In Which I Reply to the Executive Editor of The New York Times
Post-Americans and Their Progeny
“Peace for Our Time”
“Proportionate Response” in Perspective
Parsing Peace
Not Enough Boots
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
How to View Defense Spending
The Best Defense . . .
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Terrorists’ “Rights” and the Military Commissions Act of 2006
More Stupidity from Cato
The Military Commissions Act of 2006
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Blood for Oil

It *Is* the Oil
Liberalism and Sovereignty
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
A Point of Agreement
Our Sacred Honor?
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
Delusions of Preparedness
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Next 9/11?
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
September 20, 2001: Hillary Clinton Signals the End of “Unity”
Patience as a Tool of Strategy