Features

March 1, 2007  

Endurance test

U.S. has track record of outlasting enemies in long wars

It is the conceit of American political, military and academic elites, especially those angered by the policies of President Bush and the difficulties of the war in Iraq, that the U.S. should not, cannot — indeed, does not — fight long wars. We think ourselves too interested in material comforts, too insensitive to the quirks of other cultures, too divided in our domestic politics and, especially, too sensitive to casualties to sustain the kind of generational struggle we see for ourselves today in the Islamic world. Our enemies seem to enjoy all the advantages: fanatically motivated by faith, deeply hostile to Western colonialism and, after all, a long way from the U.S. itself.

Thus the mandarins of American foreign policy counsel "realism" and advocate a "balance" of power based solely on well-defined "national interests." The recent report of the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by Bush family consigliere James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, captures not only the Washington Establishment’s current belief that the war is all but lost and that withdrawal is the only option, but also the underlying conventional wisdom that political progress in the Middle East is all but impossible: "The challenges in Iraq are complex," they wrote.

"Violence is increasing in scope and lethality. It is fed by a Sunni Arab insurgency, Shiite militias and death squads, al Qaeda, and widespread criminality. Sectarian conflict is the principal challenge to stability. The Iraqi people have a democratically elected government, yet it is not adequately advancing national reconciliation, providing basic security or delivering essential services. Pessimism is pervasive."

By contrast to this pervasive pessimism in the policymaking community, their military counterparts are eternally optimistic that they will be able to fight the wars they choose in the ways they like. Commanders express their preference for "rapid, decisive operations" that favor their technological and tactical advantages and avoid attrition. About a week before the Sept. 11 attacks, Joint Forces Command spelled out its vision of future warfare. "Rapid Decisive Operations" — yes, capitalized and acronymized as "RDO" — would: "integrate knowledge, command and control, and effects-based operations to achieve the desired political/military effect. In preparing for and conducting an RDO, the military acts in concert with and leverages the other instruments of national power to understand and reduce the regional adversary’s critical capabilities and coherence. The United States and its allies asymmetrically assault the adversary from directions and in dimensions against which he has no counter, dictating the terms and tempo of the operation. The adversary, suffering from the loss of coherence and unable to achieve his objectives, chooses to cease actions that are against U.S. interests or has his capabilities defeated."

The italics, alas, were very much in the original. And who wouldn’t prefer to fight a war in which the enemy has no counter or coherence and can be assaulted from new dimensions? Not only did the military not want to fight long wars, it was so good that it didn’t have to.

The professoriat — to the degree that the academic community has a collective consciousness — objects to violence in any form unless exercised by oppressed peoples against imperial powers, with the U.S. itself the highest and most heinous exemplar of White European Males’ urge to dominate. The Iraq war has provided an opportunity for academics to refight the Vietnam War, a war that was the shaping political experience for many of them. Robert K. Brigham, a Vassar history professor, asserts that "Americans do not have much patience for inconclusive conflicts. … The Bush Administration has been spared the volatility of the 1960s and 1970s, but the American public is growing war-weary." His book is titled — what else? — "Is Iraq Another Vietnam?"

Our enemies believe this as well, most notably Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. A week before he invaded Kuwait, Saddam lectured April Glaspie, the American ambassador in Baghdad, "about Iraq’s willingness to fight any foe over honor, ‘regardless of the cost,’ while America, unable to stomach ’10,000 dead in one battle,’ was incapable of pursuing a major war to a successful conclusion." The U.S. withdrawal from Somalia made a profound impression on bin Laden; it is said that "Black Hawk Down" is one of his favorite movies. In 1997, he revealed his thoughts to correspondent Robert Fisk:

"[O]ur battle with America is much simpler than the war against the Soviet Union, because some of our mujahdeen who fought here in Afghanistan also participated in operations against the Americans in Somalia — they were surprised at the collapse of American morale. This convinced us that Americans are a paper tiger."

But really, the history of the U.S. is best seen as a succession of long wars, often overlapping but with few moments of pure peace. Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton write in "The Dominion of War" that the American project has had "a profoundly ironic accident" that "the power-abhorring ideology of resistance, republicanism, formed the basis of political culture in what proved to be one of the dynamically expansionist territorial empires in world history." What was true in North America has guided our actions elsewhere in the world, though mostly minus the outright conquest. Robert Kagan describes America as a "Dangerous Nation." Despite our "inward-looking and aloof" self-image, the reality has been "four hundred years of steady expansion and an ever-deepening involvement in world affairs, [marked by] innumerable wars, interventions and prolonged occupations of foreign lands."

It’s also possible to see this American story in chapters, comprising a series of long wars. Each of these struggles was marked by cataclysmic campaigns and bloody battles, but in no case was a single event at all decisive — not Yorktown nor the Revolution, neither Gettysburg nor the Civil War, nor Normandy nor World War II, nor Midway nor the Korean War. Nor did a single strategy or set of strategists guide Americans through these conflicts; rather, strategy-making, the fitting of military means to political ends, often was an imperfect, contradictory and even almost unconscious process. Nevertheless, American actions did manage to cohere across time, and it is not impossible to see a consistent American strategic culture: a set of habits, tendencies and ideals that uniquely shape the way Americans use military force.

four wars

There have been four American long wars: the War for an Independent America, which was the fight to win North America from the French, Indians and British; the War for a Free America, the struggle to abolish slavery and redeem the promises of the Declaration of Independence; the War for Western Europe, which included two world wars and most of the Cold War; and the War for the Western Pacific, the struggle to ensure American access to maritime East Asia — a contest perhaps to be renewed in the context of China’s rise as a great power. Our current predicament finds us in the early campaigns of our fifth such struggle, the Long War for the future of the Islamic world and in particular the crucial Persian Gulf region. The question is whether the strategic culture formed during the previous long wars might guide the U.S. in the 21st century or whether the course of this war will prove a point of deflection in the United States’ long rise to superpower status.

The idea that Britain’s Colonies might one day separate from the mother country was present almost from the moment the Colonies were founded. Yet the initial struggle in North America, once it became clear that the Colonies could be sustained, was to secure these outposts from Indian and, soon thereafter, French and Indian enemies. The series of "French and Indian" wars ran for 75 years, and the conditions of the final British triumph in 1763 provided the ultimate impetus for American independence; the moment of greatest imperial unity quickly became the spark for imperial division. Nor did the Revolution suffice to free the colonists from British dominion; the military value of the War of 1812 was uncertain, but it did provide a needed, final punctuation mark between the British and their ex-colonists.

Independence from Great Britain did not ensure that the U.S. would spread across the entire North American continent; in addition to the native tribes, there were the claims of other European powers and Mexico. But the biggest challenge to creating a single American empire was the problem of slavery; from the writing of the Constitution, it threatened to split the nation in two. The four years of the Civil War were just the eruption that gave violent expression to the underlying struggle to realize the ideals of the Declaration of Independence; the conflict began decades before and continued for a century after. The period of formal Reconstruction was itself three times longer than the Civil War. At the same time, the preservation of the Union and the commitment to political equality allowed the U.S. to realize its potential as an international great power — indeed, a potential superpower.

At the end of the 19th century, the U.S. renewed its close engagement with the great powers of Western Europe, but on entirely new conditions. No longer was the question how the power struggles of the Old World would shape the New World, but how the strength of the New would shape the Old. Through the cataclysm of two world wars and the 50 years of Cold War, the European empires collapsed like dying stars and were drawn into a distinctly American orbit. To be sure, the result was the product of European fratricide as much as any American imperial impulse, but the effect was undeniable: Great Britain, once the mortal enemy, enjoyed a "special relationship" to extend its international influence; France had been shattered by an unbroken string of defeats from Napoleon to Hitler; Germany was unified by Bismark, again divided by Roosevelt and Stalin and finally domesticated and democratized through the Cold War years; Russia became the Soviet Union and then little beyond what the Duchy of Moscow had been 400 years earlier. The 21st century sees a jaded and faded Europe, unwilling and almost unable to make war any more, resigned to live, querulously, under an American security umbrella.

America was originally an Atlantic nation but also soon a Pacific one as well; as a part of the British nation, the Colonies had been a link in a global imperial chain — Virginia’s first western boundary was the western ocean. During the age of sail, Yankee merchantmen, whalers and warships had traversed the Pacific; as the age of steam came on, American strategists expanded their horizons to Hawaii and the western Pacific. Before the U.S. would project its forces across the Atlantic, the acquisition of the Philippines embroiled America in the power struggles of East Asia and, especially, the problem of a rising Japan. For all the cultural differences, the U.S. chose to remain in Asia after World War II just as it chose to remain in Europe and soon found itself engaged in conflicts on the Asian mainland and defending the "first island chain" from northern Japan to Southeast Asia. The rise of China — increasingly a military reality as well as an economic fact — reminds Americans that their enduring interest in Pacific Asia is again in question and suggests that there may be a new campaign in this long war.

The new long war

What has made Americans so successful in their long wars — conflicts that consumed the great powers of the 19th and 20th centuries? To be sure, the material advantages of the U.S. economy, translated into globe-spanning military forces now without historical precedent, have played an important role. But the U.S. has not so much outfought or outspent its opponents as outlasted them; at the core of American power stands a political system reflecting the consent of the governed and an ideology reflecting a set of political principles understood to be universal. These have helped the U.S. to persevere and to see these struggles through to a genuinely conclusive outcome, marked not just by military conquests but by new and genuinely legitimate forms of government.

As in Europe and East Asia, the new Long War in the greater Middle East springs from a local conflict — one underway for a generation when, on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. was attacked by al-Qaida terrorists. The ancien regime, the monarchs and generals who had ruled the region since the 1920s, began to give way in 1979, the cataclysmic year that saw Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution topple the Iranian shah, Soviets invade Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein openly seize power in Baghdad and a band of zealous Saudis occupy the Grand Mosque in Mecca. That was also the year that President Carter established a permanent "Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force," later to become U.S. Central Command and by far the busiest of America’s "theater commands" in the 21st century. But now the contest for power in the Islamic world, like the old contests for power in Europe and East Asia, matters to the U.S. and indeed to the entire world. To prevail in this new long war, Americans must summon not just the reserves of strength but the reserves of endurance if they are to again outlast their foes. AFJ