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.
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.
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?
President Bush offered the occasional indication that he and his administration understood what a robust nation-building project in Iraq or Afghanistan would entail: a generations-long commitment, to begin with. Other necessities of that project went unstated: the willingness to be as remorselessly calculating with al-Qaeda and the Taliban as we were in bringing Japan to its knees; to suffer a great many more losses than we have and inflict casualties orders of magnitude more extensive than we have; to expend a great deal more from the treasury than we have. (We were, unhappily, a good deal less queasy about the surveillance apparatus at home and abroad, which has about it the distinct odor of something that was already on the shelf, awaiting the proper occasion.) A maturely executed counterinsurgency campaign is something like chemotherapy: It is an intensive attack on the entire body politic carried out in the hopes that the healthy organs survive and the tumor does not.
We are, in fact, not much inclined to do that. Our military and intelligence operatives make the occasional horrific mistake, but we are not the sort of people who would, for example, massacre schoolchildren with malice aforethought in order to achieve our policy objectives. In the Islamic world, our opponents are in fact such people. It is not that they have no moral code — they have a moral code that excludes us. Al-Qaeda et al. view the West not as a competitor, but as a contagion.
Perhaps there is something to be learned from that view, namely that — the democracy project having failed — our best strategy is a quarantine. Middle Eastern occupations are not going to prevent another 9/11, but border control and immigration reform would go a long way toward achieving that. Visitors who are coming from jihadist hot spots, or who have some connection with them, should be subject to an extraordinary degree of scrutiny and supervision. Student visas, in particular, should be severely restricted: Access to an American university education is a coveted commodity, and denying it is our version of an oil embargo. Beyond that, immigration from the Middle East to the United States should be radically curtailed. That such actions would unfairly burden some citizens of those countries should be considered at most secondary to the fact that they would protect citizens of this country. Terrorism requires terrorists to be in proximity to targets. If the Middle East is indeed to be an exporter of terrorism and violence, we need not be an importer of it.
President Bush was not wrong in his desire to take the fight to the enemy; this was, in fact, an admirable inclination. But a more effective and prudent strategy would be to exclude the enemy rather than seek him out. Our main interest in Iraq and Afghanistan was terrorism, and terrorism can be contained by means other than pitched battles and infantry divisions. There is no army in the Islamic world even within a generation of being able to face the U.S. military without being almost instantly annihilated. (Iran’s nuclear program is a different and acute concern.) The so-called law-enforcement approach to counterterrorism has a bad name among conservatives, but in fact our police and intelligence agencies at home are far better suited to preventing terrorist spectaculars than is a Marine Expeditionary Brigade abroad. Between intelligent domestic defenses and pitiless small-scale operations abroad that continue to make jihad a dangerous business, we have a much better chance of achieving our goals than we did through occupation and nation-building in nations that resolutely do not wish to be built.
The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are lost or are going to be lost; Americans do not have the stamina for those fights. But those campaigns are not identical to the campaign against terrorism, which we continue, resolutely and inexplicably, to refuse to fight on the most critical fronts: on the borders and at the airport immigration windows. The attacks of 9/11 were carried out by men with box cutters, and it is not beyond imagining that those who wish us ill might consider the lawlessness that prevails to our south and figure out which way on the compass is north.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.