February 1, 2006  

The ‘who’ question

Tom Donnelly’s editorial “The ‘who’ question” in the December issue leaves me with more questions than answers. The thrust of the article is that the Bush administration has been focusing on the notion that if we have sufficient capabilities for war fighting, enemies will not dare to attack us. This notion is quite mistaken, as Mr. Donnelly points out. There is not any doubt that many potential enemies of the United States are dissuaded by the thought of facing our military, and this is even more true than it was prior to the Bush years. As many have pointed out, however, the fact that we actually have fought armed conflicts on the ground has generated its own crop of discontents, dissidents and disenfranchised enemies. Moreover, and worse, we are teaching the rest of the world how to fight.

The question raised by Mr. Donnelly is a valid one: Who are our enemies and who are our friends? And how should we treat our enemies and our friends? These questions are very hard to get a grip on, especially in the sphere of international politics. In the context of the war on Iraq, it was relatively easy to take down Saddam Hussein; the hard part is trying to build a sustainable culture in Iraq that will not immediately go back to strongman rule as soon as we turn our backs.

In this context of human moral decision-making, the truth is that if we cannot finesse Iraq into a semblance of a free society, we probably should not have attacked it at all. This is where all “moral” justifications for war founder; the end game is the real game, and building things is 10 or 100 or 1,000 times harder than blowing things up. At the same time, the Bush vision of Iraq as a free Muslim society — if that is not an oxymoron — is exciting and worth some effort on our part, and on the part of our allies. At the end of the day, however, it is an experiment, and the outcome is far from certain.

It is certainly true that Americans are as good at war fighting as anyone in the world (in my admittedly chauvinistic opinion, considerably better than whoever is in second place), but our society does not seem to be able to deal with the increased loss of life that will of necessity accompany a less mechanized solution. The sense I get from the news media is that killing Americans has become so difficult, that the relatively small number of insurgents have been targeting their own people and non-combatants instead. Yet, the very few Americans who lose their lives are subjects of intense debate every time, in spite of the fact that one-fourth of the deaths are due to nonconflict related causes.

This is not to say that each death is not a tragedy to the person involved, and their family and friends, and even to our nation in terms of blasted potential and the loss of life, but in the overall scheme of things we lose more people each day on our highways than we have in months of conflict, and it does not even enter our minds that something is not as it should be. For most of Iraq, the removal of Saddam and the American occupation has been a good thing, and if we can stay in the race long enough to get the new government on a solid footing, maybe we will have accomplished something that is truly new in modern politics: the birth of a Muslim democracy, and the establishment of Muslim allies (hopefully reliable ones) in a region where we have traditionally had only enemies.

Timothy Malcolm

Chief scientist, BEI Precision Systems & Space

Maumelle, Ariz.