One of the problems with the armies of liberal democracies is that above a certain rank — sergeant, by some cynical estimates, though I myself would not presume to say — military leadership becomes proportionally less responsible as one climbs the chain of command: The generals are quasi-politicians who answer to civilian leaders, who themselves answer to actual politicians, who answer to the least informed and most irresponsible members of the chain of command, that being the voters.
The incentive structure across that chain of command is perverse: At the bottom are the gentlemen coming out of places such as Camp Pendleton, ready to do such ordinary and extraordinary things as duty necessitates, up to and including the sacrifice of their own lives; at the top of the chain are the voters, who, when such sacrifices become necessary, cannot bear the heavy burden of hearing about it for 97 seconds on the evening news. As the readers of The Huffington Post
sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn, the man who is known as the commander-in-chief, but who is not in fact at the top of the command structure, must mediate between the soldiers he commands and the easily distracted citizens who command him.
Mosul is lost, with, likely as not, most or all of the rest of Iraq to follow it; Afghanistan, too, is well advanced on the road to reversion. Jihad is not to be denied — at least, not by us. Not by you, American voter.
As Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger argues in his forthcoming Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the fundamental problem we face is that the public, the civilian leadership, and the military have radically different beliefs and expectations about what is possible in the Middle East, and in counterinsurgency campaigns generally — and, more important, about what is necessary to achieve what is possible. “Who’s going to say that we won these two wars?” Bolger said in an interview with Time. “We committed ourselves to counterinsurgency without having a real discussion between the military and civilian leadership, and the American population — ‘Hey, are you good with this? Do you want to stay here for 30 or 40 years like the Korean peninsula, or are you going to run out of energy?’ It’s obvious: We ran out of energy.” President George W. Bush famously proclaimed that in the Middle Eastern democracy project, “We’re turning the corner, and we’re not turning back.” In the event, we have turned many corners, and around each of them we’ve found the same thing: death and frustration.
What is the purpose of the American military? President Bush had an expansive view: “In Iraq, we are helping the long-suffering people of that country to build a decent and democratic society at the center of the Middle East. Together we are transforming a place of torture chambers and mass graves into a nation of laws and free institutions. This undertaking is difficult and costly — yet worthy of our country, and critical to our security.” At the time, President Bush’s sentiments struck more than a few as naïve, and they have not grown more persuasive in retrospect. It is not as if there were no precedent for the sort of thing that the democracy project imagined: We had overseen the transformation of a savage, militaristic society in Japan, formerly our mortal enemy, into a democratic, liberal, and prosperous nation in a remarkably short period of time. We had seen the Republic of Korea transformed from a police state into a liberal democracy and an economic powerhouse virtually overnight. But as Lieutenant General Bolger notes, our occupations and interventions there were not brief affairs; they are, in fact, ongoing.
The critical difference between the Middle East and the Far East is that the Japanese mostly stopped fighting at the end of the war, and the Koreans, though often begrudgingly, welcome our assistance. Furthermore, Japan and South Korea are full of Japanese and Korean people who are corporately committed to building free and prosperous societies. Iraq and Afghanistan are full of Arabs and Pashtuns who are corporately committed to building a caliphate on their high-minded days but the rest of the time are apparently happy to settle for a particularly nasty sort of tribalism dressed up with a bit of jihad ideology held with varying degrees of sincerity. President Bush was simply incorrect in saying that freedom is “the hope of every human heart.” Some hearts harbor other, savage hopes.
But President Bush was right about this much: “The Middle East will either become a place of progress and peace, or it will be an exporter of violence and terror that takes more lives in America and in other free nations.” About that there can be little doubt — but what are we to do about it?