The United States can usually win even postmodern wars abroad if it can play to its strengths — which are marshaling our enormous material, intelligence, and technological advantages to defeat the enemy before he inflicts enough casualties to convince an affluent and comfortable public at home that such losses are simply not worth the envisioned aims.
So how are we doing?
As expected, many of our traditional advantages are being nullified.
How can Americans use air superiority against an enemy that hides among civilians and dares them to destroy infrastructure essential to our friends?
We create sophisticated communications at great cost and investment; the parasitical terrorists simply bore into them and use them at no cost and sometimes with greater effect than do their inventors (e.g., Why are not jihadist websites deemed as dangerous as IEDs, but not attacked in similar fashion?).
Money and know-how can rebuild Iraq along the designs of Western material society — but that only makes it more vulnerable as a single transformer blown up or a pylon brought down can suddenly take away the newly found improved life. It’s not just that a suicide bomber with a $100 vest can destroy $1 million worth of electrical infrastructure, but in the gruesome equation cast the American engineers into the role of the incompetent or sinister by their failure to repair and rebuild faster than an illiterate can destroy.
The globalized media is an American epiphenomenon, but the narrative of the war is still the IED, not the purple finger. We apparently have no way of convincing the world that the primordial enemy commits daily something far worse than the sexual humiliation of the entire Abu Ghraib fiasco. Somehow “thousands have been killed” is never qualified as those mostly butchered and blown up by insurgents — since the loose use of the passive voice lends a general sense that somehow Americans are directly involved in, or responsible for, the killing.
Our soldiers are fighting brilliantly, and history will record they are defeating the enemy while suffering historically low casualties. But if the sacrifice of American youth is not tied — daily, hourly — to larger strategic and humanitarian goals by eloquent statesmen who believe in the mission, then cynicism follows and, with it, despair.
The establishment of consensual government in Iraq, with the concomitant defeat of jihadists, will have positive ripples that will undermine Islamism and help to cleanse the miasma in which al Qaeda thrives. But again, unless explained, most Americans will not see a connection between the ideology of the head-drillers and head-loppers we are fighting in Iraq and those who try to do even worse at Fort Dix and the Kennedy airport. The war to remove Saddam was won and is over; the subsequent and very different war in Iraq that followed is for nothing less than the future of the Middle East — and now involves everything from global terrorism and nuclear proliferation to the world’s oil supply and the future of Islam in the modern world.
We need to confess that the jihadists are not only keen students of insurgency warfare, but good observers of the American psyche. We think their kidnapping, childish infomercials, gruesome tactics, and horrific websites are primordial and counterproductive; but they are more likely horrifically simple in inciting the most basic fears and self-preservation instincts of ordinary people. Precisely because decapitation belongs to a different century makes it more gruesome now, not less. Because the al Qaedists steal many of their talking points from the Western Left does not make them unimaginative as much as eerily familiar. And because we can daily predict the serial barbarity of the jihadists makes it not so much unimaginative as savagely inevitable.
So what to do?
We can quibble and fight about tactics on the ground, manpower numbers, strategic postures toward Iran and Syria, the need to prod the Iraqis, but our problem is more existential. Either stabilizing Iraq now is felt critical to the United States and the West or it isn’t. If the Left is right that it isn’t, then we should flee; if they are wrong, and I think they are, then we must start using our vast cultural and media resources to explain what is at stake — in a strategic and humanitarian sense — and precisely what it is costing America and why it in the long run is worth it, and how we have adjusted to counter our enemies who in the last four years have not won in Iraq or anywhere else either.
By our relative inaction on these critical informational fronts, we are only raising the bar impossibly high for General Petraeus when he reports back to Congress in the autumn. For election-minded Republican senators and representatives (whose defection alone can end the war) the barometer of success unfortunately may be soon not be improvement in six months, but only an impossible demand for absolute victory in 2007.
So more explanation, less assertion; more debate with, rather than dismissal of, critics. And the final irony? The more brutal honesty, the less euphemism and generalities, the more Americans will accept the challenge.