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.Hanson's conclusions remind me of the 2005 Foreign Affairs essay from former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, "Iraq: Learning the Lessons from Vietnam." Laird argues that the Bush administration's record in marketing the mission has been "uneven."
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...?
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.
See also my post, "The War on Terror and the 'Good War'," which cites Jules Crittenden's case that the war on terror has been publically undersold, with the administration reluctant or unable to market the war as it truly is -- a fight against an enemy that will do anything to destroy us.