When my dad was a young guy, right out of high school, he joined the United States Navy, became a Navy torpedo bomber pilot and fought the Japanese. They were the sworn enemy of the United States of America. … Some 60 years later, I’m at the table, talking about the peace with the Japanese Prime Minister, Prime Minister Koizumi.
Thus George W. Bush, speaking to the Greater Cleveland Partnership in Ohio the other day. I groaned inwardly, reading that. It’s not the first time we’ve heard the Japan-1945 analogy, of course. It was a favorite of Donald Rumsfeld’s (remember him?). My inner reaction to it now, as then, is: “Oh, so Japan in 1945 is the template? Great! When do we get to drop the two atom bombs?”
That’s not a flippant reaction, either. We did indeed achieve a great end in 1945. However, we did it by dint of mighty means, means which included those two nukes. In matters of national defense, as Alexander Hamilton noted: “the MEANS ought to be proportioned to the END; the persons, from whose agency the attainment of any END is expected, ought to possess the MEANS by which it is to be attained.”
The problem with raising the 1945 analogy is that it brings all this to mind. Destroying Japanese militarism was a tremendous end, to which we applied correspondingly tremendous means. Mission accomplished!
Now, what about the War on Terror? (a) How tremendous an end would it be, to defeat worldwide jihadi terrorism? (b) Are we applying proportionate means?
To take the first question first: It depends how great you judge the threat to be. There is a good range of opinion on that. At the low end of the range, the case has been made that we overreacted to 9/11. I am inclined to that view myself. Hunting down and killing jihadis? Yes. Punitive action, including military action, against nations friendly to them? Sure. Decade-long military operations costing thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars? Whoa.
At the top end of the opinion range, there are those who argue that not merely jihadism but Islam itself poses an existential threat to our civilization. There is now a thriving market in books arguing this line — I had a note about them in my June Diary (search on “Islamophobia”).
Our president has, from the beginning, though in terms that have shifted somewhat as events have proceeded, placed himself towards the high end of this opinion range. Though always very careful to eschew Islamophobia, he has made it clear he believes that jihadist terrorism is the current manifestation of the forces of evil.
If you try to parse the president’s thoughts much finer than that, things get tricky. In the 2002 State of the Union address — the “Axis of Evil speech” — he was well-nigh Derbian in his realism:
Our nation will continue to be steadfast and patient and persistent in the pursuit of two great objectives. First, we will shut down terrorist camps, disrupt terrorist plans, and bring terrorists to justice. And, second, we must prevent the terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States and the world.
By the Second Inaugural, though, the president had been to the mountain and seen the promised land:
the force of human freedom … the expansion of freedom in all the world … every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth … the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world … The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations … Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul … By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well — a fire in the minds of men…
Given that, so far as one can judge, the president still dwells on that second, loftier plane, it is fair to ask again: Are the means we are deploying adequate to “the great objective of ending tyranny”?
Surely they are not. Last week the president, at his press conference, accused Iran of supplying the Shiite car bombers of Iraq. He also accused Syria of being a conduit for Sunni terrorists entering Iraq. These are acts of war, which bring about the deaths of U.S. soldiers. We would be perfectly justified in acting militarily against Iran and Syria, if these reports are true (which I am sure they are). So why don’t we? Because that would make the war much bigger, and we don’t want a bigger war.
Similarly with Pakistan, where al Qaeda has its main bases, and where the Number One and Number Two of the organization, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, have been domiciled for the past five years. Why don’t we go in and clean out the rats’ nest up there in the tribal areas of northern Pakistan? Same answer. To do so, we’d need another half million troops in theater, and we don’t want a bigger war.
The Pakistan situation is particularly distressing because it casts doubt on our entire stated strategy in Iraq. We are supposed to be standing up a fairly stable, reasonably democratic government in Baghdad, so that al Qaeda can get no foothold in Iraq, and to serve as a beacon to which Muslims everywhere can raise their suffering, tear-stained faces in hope. Yet in Pakistan, whose government is as stable and democratic as can be hoped for in that neck of the woods (they have even elected a female prime minister — twice!), al Qaeda has settled in very nicely. Nor do the world’s Muslims seem to look wistfully to Islamabad as a shining city on a hill.
Worse yet: The CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, John Kringen, told the House Armed Services Committee the other day that he fears al Qaeda may be entrenching itself in Europe.
Wait a minute: Are not European governments stable and democratic? Which European nation’s government falls below the standard for stability and democracy that we hope to establish in Iraq? If we get a government in Iraq as stable and democratic as that of, say, Italy (I am setting the bar low), yet al Qaeda can, as Mr. Kringen fears, establish themselves in Italy, then what have we achieved in Iraq?
From that July 10 Cleveland speech, a little earlier, the president said:
Some in America don’t believe we’re at war, and that’s their right. I know we are, and therefore, will spend my time as the President doing the best I can to educate people about the perils of the world in which we live, and that we have an active strategy in dealing with it.
That first sentence is pretty odd, when you think about it. Can you imagine FDR, in 1944, saying: “Some in America don’t believe we’re at war…”? Of course, the situations are not comparable. The draft is not in operation, and no one seriously believes it will be. We are not under a war economy. This is not total war. It is barely even partial war. As several people have noted, the military is at war; the rest of us… not so much.
Yet if your entire knowledge of what is going on was derived from reading transcripts of the president’s speeches, with their bombastic blather about “ending tyranny in our world” and “fire in the minds of men,” and the desire of the Creator that we all enjoy political liberty (what was the Creator doing during all those long millennia of despotism in Egypt, Persia, China, Russia?), you would assume that we are engaged in a huge, epochal conflict. So… How big a war are we in? How big an end do we hope to achieve? Have we allocated means proportionate to that end?
I return to the crass inappropriateness of those WWII and Cold War analogies. In WWII we flattened cities and interned an entire ethny, citizens and all. In the Cold War we banned the entry of communists into our country — and, as a matter of fact, the entry of long-inactive ex-communists and “fellow-travelers,” too.
There is no prospect of our doing such things in the War on Terror. We shall not be interning any Muslim citizens or excluding foreign Muslims or Muslim “fellow-travelers” (what would one of those look like? Karen Armstrong, perhaps), let alone annihilating any cities. It’s just not that big a war.
So far as military operations are concerned, our preferred means is counterinsurgency — the “surgical” winkling-out of jihadis from among civilian populations, with as few collateral casualties as possible. There is a respectable body of thought that argues this is a waste of time founded on illusions, that the only effective counterinsurgency techniques are those employed by the Romans, the Ottomans, and the Nazis.
Whether that is the case or not, these dainty means, with their dainty economic and diplomatic equivalents, are all we shall employ. The grosser means of earlier wars — carpet-bombing, ethnic internment, mass exclusion, government requisition of entire industries — are not appropriate. We all feel that instinctively. Why do we feel it? Because we know that the end — the suppression of a worldwide nuisance — is not really that important, except in the president’s flights of gassy rhetoric.