Skip to comments.The Election's Over--Now Fight the War
Posted on 11/06/2004 6:47:58 AM PST by Valin
This isn't just any fall season in America. Our nation is at war. Instead of raking leaves in their backyards, munching freshly picked apples, and shopping for holiday turkeys, tens of thousands of our neighbors and friends and fellow citizens are currently at risk on foreign soil. They get up every day, pull on body armor and helmets, and set off on dangerous missions whose success or failure could ultimately affect the lives of millions of people. Some of these Americans will die. And they are doing this on my behalf and yours.
I'm intentionally writing about what America should do next in Iraq without knowing who our next Commander-in-Chief will be--for this task is bigger than political personalities, and the nation will have to make steely choices no matter who leads us. To me, the sharpest indictment in Zell Miller's speech at the Republican convention was his recollection of how careful Wendell Wilkie was when he ran for President in 1940 to avoid making hay against FDR in a way that might undermine America's position in World War II. Miller's expression of regret that his Democratic Party was not similarly able to run a political campaign today without undercutting our national war effort was just right. What was John Kerry's chief spokesman thinking when he handed Iraq's gangsters a ready-made opening by calling Prime Minister Allawi "an American puppet"? How sickening to see America's life-and-death fight against implacable enemies tossed into the fire to heat the boilers of partisan politics.
Presidents come and Presidents go, but pestilent enemies of America will always be lurking, probing for cracks in our foundation, gnawing at the boards and shutters of our homes, watching us, festering, plotting. Middle Eastern ex-tremists hated us when Jimmy Carter sat in the White House; they humiliated our nation in Tehran on his watch. They resented us under Ronald Reagan, and killed our Marines in Lebanon as we tried to shelter war-ravaged civilians. They spat at us while George Bush the elder held the reins (and were surprised when we struck back for the first time in Kuwait). They loathed America under Bill Clinton, and even dared to come to our own shores to attack us--not once but several times.
Only on September 11 did we finally begin to pay attention. Middle Eastern extremists have attacked us again and again--dating back at least to 1979 and the kidnapping of U.S. embassy employees by Ayatollah Khomeini. The destruction of the Twin Towers was merely a giant double exclamation mark at the end of a long paragraph that includes scores of vile attacks, ranging from the murder of an American retiree in a wheelchair aboard the Achille Lauro to the Pan Am 103 bombing that ended 270 lives in one boom. Fanatics from Islamic nations have struck at embassies and nightclubs and barracks and office buildings. They've killed with huge bombs, and with slender knives drawn across necks. They will attack again, no matter who occupies our White House.
Americans need to start thinking of our war against Middle Eastern terror in the same ways we approached our long struggle against communism and our harsh fight to stop the Nazis in times past. We must be prepared for what JFK called a "long, twilight struggle," and remember his pledge that the U.S. would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Fanaticism rooted in the Islamic world is the giant challenge facing the current generation of Americans; we will simply not be secure and free until that part of the world is pacified. Americans understood this after the horror of 9/11. But too many with short attention spans have already forgotten what it was that dragged us to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other hellholes, and why we can't just return to our blithe innocence of September 10, 2001.
As we decide what to do next in the war on terror, the first step is to remind ourselves of the high stakes: We are fighting formidable and merciless global enemies. They have the ability to cripple our economy, to damage our culture, to undercut our international position, and to kill any one of us. Our children will not be safe until this danger is eradicated. This is a real war, a diffuse one, but one as serious as any we have fought in the past.
The second thing we must do, as we assess the war against terror, is to think clearly and with some historical perspective about the costs. It's very reasonable to ask whether our fights in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other locales are worth what we are expending in blood and treasure. Can we afford this struggle?
In 2004, the U.S. spent 4 percent of our GDP on national defense. That is far less than the 10 percent of national output consumed by military efforts during the Vietnam War. It is but a drop in the bucket compared to the 38 percent of GDP eaten up by defense during World War II.
Last year when Congress was wrangling over the request for $20 billion to help rebuild Iraq, I went searching for baselines against which I could measure that mind-numbing sum. I did some math and discovered that Americans will spend $37 billion this year on salty snacks like pretzels and potato chips. We'll collectively spend $31 billion on candy. Can we afford $20 billion to help set a free Iraq on its feet? We might better ask whether we can afford not to. Particularly when you consider that just the immediate damages done to the U.S. by the attacks of 9/11 have been estimated at $161 billion.
And then there are the costs in lost servicemen. All of us mourn these deaths and injuries (some of them people I came to admire during my times in Iraq). But there has never been a war against wrongdoing without losses, and there never will be. Over the four years of World War II, the U.S. lost an average of 300 men every single day. In Iraq we are losing an average of less than two per day. Bear in mind also that just keeping our communities safe here at home costs us one brave American about every 29 hours--police officers, prison guards, firefighters, etc. We are fortunate beyond words to have millions of men and women willing to expose themselves to those risks so their fellow citizens can remain safe. There is an inescapable blood price for civilization, and the guardians of the peace who serve here at home, and our soldiers who fight overseas, pay it for the rest of us.
Having given some sober thought to the costs of the war on terror, the third thing we need to ask is "What are the benefits--both those already realized and those potentially down the road?" Here are a few of our accomplishments since 2001:
For more than three years, there have been no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. As some of my soldier acquaintances put it, we are now playing an away schedule, with the fighting in this war having been shifted to the other guy's backyard--which is what an army is for. According to separate studies from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and Canada's Project Plough-shares, both the number of people killed in war and the number of conflicts across the globe fell to their lowest levels in the post-World War II era during the last year. Claims that the world is now in chaos are wrong. About two thirds of al-Qaeda's leadership has now been killed or captured, its communications choked off, its fundraising disrupted, its training sites and sanctuaries eliminated. Instead of aiding al-Qaeda as in the past, Saudis and Pakistanis and Gulf Arabs have begun pitched battles against the network. The Pakistani ring that was selling nuclear technology to rogue nations like North Korea and Libya was exposed and broken up in 2004. Sobered by Saddam's fate, Libya renounced terror and nuclear proliferation, and Syria has announced it will accede to U.S. pressure and pull troops out of Lebanon, where it has long incubated international terrorists. Under similar U.S. pressure, the Saudis have finally stated they are willing to allow women to vote in the future. In Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 50 million people who previously lived under two of the cruelest governments on Earth are free to choose their own leaders for the first time ever. And Saddam Hussein, one of the most hideous despots on the globe, will soon face courtroom justice at the hands of his own victims. None of these are small matters; we must resist the temptation to become blase about such accomplishments. Historians will look back at many of these as major milestones. And if you look over the full roster you begin to see that perhaps the sacrifices of our soldiers and our taxpayers have not been fruitless or unconscionable after all.
And the very top potential benefit of today's tough fight in the Middle East is a work still in progress--namely, our effort to nurture governments that can serve as beacons toward a less cruel way of living. The real monster behind 9/11 was not Osama bin Laden; he was merely the immediate threat. The deeper problem is the abyssmal history of oppressive rule throughout the Middle East. Amongst the 22 Arab nations, there are exactly zero decent, self-governing democracies. The dreadful governments that have emiserated these countries for the last several generations have produced only one thing in abundance: a bumper crop of homicidally frustrated young men eager to take out their shame and envy on more successful nations.
America dispatched troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to overturn their ruling parties (two of the very worst on the globe) because we realized that until that region has models for more humane and representative governance, resentful killers will keep pouring out to savage us. This is a tough assignment, but we have no choice. It is hard-nosed practicality that motivates today's effort to remake these cradles of terror, not some sort of dreamy Don Quixote crusade for democracy. Until there is change in that forbidding ratio--22 states, zero decent governments--the shadow of Middle Eastern violence will hang heavily over us.
While fighting to establish less despotic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq is the right way to solve our ultimate problem, it is lousy politics. The politically smart thing for President Bush would have been to knock off the Taliban, dust his hands, and announce that he had saved America. He could have basked in the easy win and then coasted to re-election. That is more or less the strategy all American Presidents followed in the Middle East for more than a quarter century: Respond to attacks with pinprick reprisals, leave the entrenched despots alone in the interests of quiet, punt on all tough cases, and hand the problem off to the next guy. That eventually culminated in a colossal roar in lower Manhattan, a hole in the Pentagon, and scores of torn bodies in a Pennsylvania field.
Had George W. Bush taken that easy path, he would have been much safer politically. But America would not have been safer. The President deserves credit for tackling the deeper illness, for extending the fight outward to the next circle, for putting our enemies on the defensive on their own turf, and using his Presidency to clean out long-festering sores, rather than simply hewing to the shortsighted course that would have brought the least electoral risk.
And now that the election is behind us, I hope we as a nation will get very tough-minded about what to do next. As Becky Gibson, mother of a young paratrooper who served in Iraq, wrote to me recently, "We are in a war. Lives are on the line. We need to hunker down and unify and let the systems work."
Tommy Franks, who planned the campaigns that unseated the Taliban and the Baath Party, has warned that "We have a tendency to blame ourselves for things that we ought not. America is not responsible for terrorism against America. Terrorists are responsible." He recently told Parade magazine, grimly, that "The terrorists read our papers and see our news, and the enemy is being given to believe that they are winning." The U.S., he says with distress, "has to stop flogging itself," and instead fight to win.
Wars are not sporting matches; they are hard, they are ugly, they can be long. We don't enter them lightly, but when we do, we must show the stamina and ferocity to win. As journalist Michael Kelly (who died in Iraq last year) encouraged Americans never to forget, "accepting death is indispensable to defeating death."
We forget that despite meticulous planning and the application of every national resource, it took the demise of 2,500 brave soldiers in 24 hours for the U.S. to prevail on D-day. We forget how many "screw-ups" and "setbacks" (as they would now be quickly labeled) occurred in critical victories like Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge (where our soldiers were sent to fight in waist-deep snow without winter clothing), or Iwo Jima (where we lost nearly 7,000 Marines contesting a godforsaken stony island, measuring just three miles by four miles, in the middle of nowhere). In this age of instant gratification and fantasies of painless, push-button victories, we must not forget how fiercely Americans have always had to fight to protect our unusual freedoms. We recall the glorious successes of the past while overlooking what it took to earn them.
We are now a year and a half into the Iraq war. At a similar stage in the French and Indian Wars, George Washington was disastrously beaten in a fight where his unit of 1,400 men took 900 casualties and ended up running away. (Washington himself had two horses shot from under him, and took four bullets through his coat.) At about this point in Washington's next experience of war, the American Revolution, the Continental army had depleted 90 percent of its military strength while losing every single battle since the Declaration of Independence. Most of the remaining soldiers declared they were going to go home when their enlistments expired, and in many parts of the new nation citizens were pledging fresh oaths of allegiance to the tyrant King George.
A year and a half into the Civil War, Lee had actually invaded the North. The federal army that marched on Richmond had been beaten with tens of thousands of casualties. Washington, D.C. was on the brink of being overrun, and it looked as if the division of the country and continued slavery were inevitable.
A year and a half into U.S. involvement in World War II, the Japanese had taken control of all of the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Our British allies had suffered the most catastrophic defeat in their history when they lost 130,000 fighting men in Singapore. The Japanese had just as thumpingly ejected the U.S. from the Philippines, and had actually occupied American soil in Alaska for most of a year. It took 1,000 American dead (more than our combat casualties in Iraq) merely to eject the enemy from their Aleutian Island foothold over a few days in the seventeenth month of the war. In Europe, meanwhile, the entire continent had fallen, death camps like Treblinka had just opened, and German submarines were in the process of wiping out our Atlantic shipping.
We've had some tough moments in Iraq this year. But every war has low points that victorious nations must grind through. The difference between civilizations that triumph and civilizations that surrender is often simply a matter of keeping your determination and fighting spirit intact through the down days. Having spent months embedded with combat troops in Iraq since the war began I have no illusions that there is anything easy about this. But there are some challenges in life that cannot be evaded.
It took years for the U.S. to launch humane democracy in Germany and Japan after World War II. In just 18 months in Iraq we have made important progress. The Shiite middle that is going to dominate Iraq (a much less fanatical group than daily headlines imply) has stuck with us through many trials.
Today's best estimates are that the armed insurgency numbers about 20,000 fighters. In a nation of 26 million, that means about one out of every 1,300 Iraqis is a violent insurgent. To put a little perspective on that, consider that one out of every 305 Americans is a Hindu. Hindus in America, in other words, are four times more common than armed insurgents in Iraq.
Let me acknowledge that the terrorists have a hold over many Iraqis. But it is the hold of fear, not of love. In polls, seven out of ten Iraqis say they believe the lives of their family members will be in danger if they are seen to be cooperating with the new government. We have not done enough to make decent Iraqis feel that it is safe to stand up and be counted. That needs to change. But fearing the insurgents and supporting them are very different things.
Let me also acknowledge that 20,000 sadistic guerillas, many of them well-trained in the black arts of violence, can cause serious problems all by themselves. Particularly since, lacking good human intelligence in Iraq, we have not been able to pick out the piranhas as they swim through a sea of ordinary Iraqis--striking, then melting behind women and children. But Iraq is not Vietnam--its resistance is not a mass movement. There is no Ho Chi Minh, no popular platform, no bottomless well of foot soldiers, no China or Russia on the border constraining our responses.
Better reporting would make this clearer. The American public should have been told, for instance, how relieved the residents of Najaf were when U.S. and Iraqi forces kicked Moktada Sadr's gangsters out of their city at the end of the summer. This was a major and hard-won victory, achieved through a savvy combination of relentless military pressure and cagey diplomacy. Thousands of Sadr's fighters were killed without significant U.S. losses (I know one U.S. cavalry unit that killed 700 members of the Mahdi army without a single fatality of their own). The sacred shrine that Sadr's forces had made their base of operations (partly hoping we would damage it, inflaming public opinion) was saved. Units of the Iraqi army began to coalesce as a fighting force. And Iraq's top Shiite clerics, most of whom live in Najaf, hung with us through many travails (lose them and we've lost the war).
This is an achievement we can be very proud of, and a battle model we can replicate elsewhere. Chastened by the body blow he took in Najaf, Sadr is now mulling a shift to peaceful politics. If he and his militia revert to violence, I believe they will be crushed in a climactic battle in Sadr City. I also believe the U.S. military and our Iraqi allies now have the strength, fighting strategy, and political lan to clean out Fallujah, the nation's other snake pit, should that become necessary in coming weeks.
Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan will look like Switzerland any time soon. But they don't have to. If we can keep them on a path toward a rough pluralism and stability along the lines of what we've established in the Balkans, that will be an enormous accomplishment--in a part of the world where voting and real constitutions and self-rule have never, ever, been seen before. The recent election in Afghanistan and the optimism now being expressed by the Afghan people are high achievements. If we are able to pull off even a rough-and-ready election in Iraq in the next few months, future historians will look back and marvel.
Our efforts to bring civility to Afghanistan and Iraq are bold gambles, and there is no guarantee we will succeed. I personally am proud of the way our nation is putting itself on the line in an attempt to unsnarl a part of the world that has been a source of so much heartache for people all over the globe, for so many years. This is a classically daring and noble American effort--only the latest of several occasions where we've stepped forward with the aim of turning history in a less brutal direction. At the same time, this is no fuzzy-headed chase after pie in the sky; the direct benefits to us as a peace-loving people are potentially huge.
Is the price tag too high? The terrorists are certainly hoping we'll draw that conclusion. They firmly believe that modern Westerners lack the fortitude necessary to prevail in nasty fights.
"One thing is for sure: the extremists have faith in our weakness," noted Tony Blair this spring. "And the weaker we are, the more they will come after us." That's why it is time for us to pull ourselves together, fight very hard and unsentimentally over the next year or so, and win a vital war.
Karl Zinsmeister is TAE Editor in Chief.
Excellent - thanks for posting. I learned a LOT.
Ya can never go wrong with Karl Zinsmeister.
Thank you for posting this!! I think it is one of the more brilliant pieces supporting the Administration's policy of pre-emption in Afghanistan and Iraq. This should be printed in every newspaper in the country--and especially in every college/university newspaper!
BUMP to read
A very good article.
Excellent read. I may send this to some of my liberal list, because it makes its points so carefully and rationally. (Although I'm not sure how much effect rationality has on people who still don't understand why we are fighting.)
Well, I've read it twice more and decided to email it to my list. It's brilliant and incredibly informative about putting this war into the perspective of America's earlier wars. If you can get people to read it--and it is admittedly rather long--I don't see how they can fail to be impressed. The author is truly learned in what he writes about, as well as wise.
Bump for later reading...
Perhaps you can get the sidebar moderator to add "must read" and keep it bumped to the top through the weekend. I believe this merits such treatment.
This article, verbatum, should be should be read by Bush as a speech to a Joint Session of the House.
anybody but Gore
Gore? Gore? No sorry the name doesn't ring a bell.
Senator Kerry's denigration of these accomplishments and the Iraqi leader was I feel one of the more egregious acts of his inept campaign.
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