The Corner

The Gap Between Our Capabilities and Our Will

It is becoming increasingly clear that our elite class not only lacks the courage to fight our long war themselves; they lack even the will to effectively utilize those who do not lack courage. The United States of America has the capability to defend its embassies, it has the capability to end Iranian nuclear ambitions, and it has the capability to make hostile regimes — and even the vaunted “Arab street” — fear us even if they will not love us. Yet we consistently lose American lives and American prestige in an utterly futile effort to win hearts and minds. For all its vaunted commitment to cultural understanding, our elite simply closes its ears to any truths that contradict their fantasy-land academic notions of diversity and tolerance.

Let’s simply dispense with the notion that we can make the Arab world love us. Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama are as widely different in ideology and approach as the American system can reasonably produce, yet Islamic terror and Islamic rage persist and even grow. While we cannot make the Arab world love us, we can still protect ourselves — not perfectly, of course, but certainly better than we have. But we lack the will.

It was and is a source of rage and anguish for many of our soldiers downrange that we know where the enemy is, yet are prohibited from engaging because we can’t identify targets down to the individual level. You see friends die, you know where the enemy lives, yet you sip tea in an effort to persuade villagers or tribal elders to individually identify enemy fighters. They rarely do, however, because — in this perverse moral universe — they fear (and thus often respect) local gangs of jihadist thugs more than they fear (or respect) the most powerful military in world history. But our power is largely kept idle, so it is not perceived as power at all.

In the midst of the worst days in Iraq, I would look at our Paladin howitzers, our Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicles, and our Abrams Main Battle Tanks, and lament the extent to which our nation chose to risk brave men’s lives, chose often to sideline those weapons, in the mistaken belief that it would impress our potential Arab friends while placating our domestic political opposition. Yet it does neither. Our enemies take full advantage of our rules of engagement, potential friends suffer under jihadist oppression while growing ever-more frustrated at our apparent impotence, and “dissent is patriotic” leftists look at the most precise military campaign in the history of land warfare and still decry it as “criminal.”

It is a tribute to American courage and military ingenuity that we so often prevail in spite of our self-imposed limits. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that our restraint wins hearts and minds. We’ve been restrained every day since the hostage crisis in 1979 — and we’re rewarded with the black flag of jihad flying from our embassies. It is past time to close the gap between our capability and our will.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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