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Rethinking the American Way of War

Contrary to popular misconceptions, the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan was never a quagmire. Both wars were concluded with comparatively lightning speed and relatively few casualties. It is not the wars that became a quagmire, but the reconstructions and the occupations, the various euphemisms for the long process in which US troops and civilian contractors spend years trying to rebuild and stabilize the country they just invaded.

And this has unfortunately become the American way of war. While to many people the bomber or the fighter jet may embody American fighting power, the practical reality is that America at war is more aptly reflected by the diplomat trying to keep a shaky and corrupt government in power, or the infantrymen killing long days waiting for an insurgent attack. But it was not always this way, because what we now think of as the American way of war, would more accurately be considered the diplomatic way of war.

But it might be time to reexamine some of the underlying assumptions behind the American Way of War. The first assumption about the American Way of War is that we fight wars in order to stabilize regions that have become unstable. This is of course a very "diplomatic" approach that uses force when diplomacy fails in order to restore the situation to a level of stability that allows for diplomacy to take hold again.

This is the classic "Diplomacy First and Last" approach that Hitler and Imperial Japan effectively finessed in WW2. It presumes that wars are just diplomacy by other means. This locks countries into a very predictable mode that can be exploited by any tyrant who understands just how far he can push, while still keeping negotiations open. "Diplomacy First" governments may be militarily strong, but politically weak. They will negotiate until a line has been crossed so grave that the only response is war. And while they may be formidable during the actual conflict, they default to their previous weakness when the war is over, since their overriding interest is in stability, not victory. 

While to most ordinary people, wars are fought in self-defense or to counter a growing menace, to diplomats wars are fought in order to create a stable regional, continental or global order that can permit them to be the ones to conclude agreements, control trade and maintain all the other accouterments of regional stability. As such they do not fight wars to "win", but to "stabilize". And as such as their wars are 10 percent war and 90 percent reconstruction. And it is why our wars have become 10 percent war and 90 percent reconstruction.

There may be honor among warriors, but none among diplomats who rush in to co-opt the worst butchers and war criminals when the war is done. Because their goal is stability, not morality. When the fighting is done, diplomats work to teach forgetfulness, oddly confident that the defeated enemy is just as forgetful of the war as they are. And yet the vanquished enemy never is. And sometimes there is a blood price to pay for that kind of deliberate ignorance.

9 years after September 11, it may come as a surprise to most people that we have not been fighting the Taliban or Baathists or Islamic terrorists. In fact we're cut deals and are prepared to cut deals with all three. Instead we've been fighting against barriers to "stability", and unsurprisingly in tribal cultures that are never stable and never stop fighting unless there are guns pointed at their heads, we have failed to achieve it. But that is because we have been fighting a diplomat's war, rather than a soldier's war. We have focused on reconstruction, rather than defeating the enemy, getting out and letting the survivors decide if they want to trifle with us again.

But we have forgotten how to fight "war" wars. The only kind of war we can fight anymore is one where the soldiers secure the ground, and then play peacekeeper, well digger and diplomat. And when the casualties mount, we blame the soldiers for not winning against the "dedicated" insurgents, or we blame our leaders for getting us into an unwinnable war, when the war was entirely winnable, just not on the diplomat's terms. Yet that is exactly the kind of war we have been losing ever since WW2. 

In the aftermath of WW2, when the the USSR and the Allies were contending for Western Europe, the Truman and later the Eisenhower administration, unrolled an approach that focused on countering Soviet influence by rebuilding Western Europe and winning the hearts and minds of the population in parts of Europe in danger of going red. Which usually meant the parts that had a strong Communist insurgency during the war, that now might turn on the US occupation forces.

For the next half century, the US and the USSR would fight an extended proxy war around the world, shuttling around diplomats, foreign aid and weapons in a quest for everyone's "hearts and minds" in a prolonged conflict whose toll was mostly economic and diplomatic, except in cases of sporadic warfare in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and Afghanistan. And while the original Cold War may be over, it is not clear whether the lessons of it were ever properly learned.

For all the money and effort the US expended into winning hearts and minds, rather few hearts and minds were ever won. The Soviet Union proved to be better at the game because it didn't simply ship aid, it exported revolution and chaos which proved to be far more potent than digging wells and teaching villagers about elementary hygiene. Meanwhile an American strategy that hinged on incompletely backing weak tyrants and then being surprised when they were unable to stand up to the insurgency is one that would fail over and over again, and one that continues to fail into the present day. Its capacity for wreaking havoc on American foreign policy is only second to the eagerness with which the State Department has sold out reliable allies in the hopes of winning over more enemies.

Only during the Reagan Administration did the US make some real headway against the USSR by not exporting aid, but exporting revolution, most notably in Latin America and Afghanistan. Essentially after repeated disasters and on the verge of the fall of the Soviet Union, the US finally borrowed the Soviet handbook long enough to deliver a few bloody noses to Ivan. Unfortunately the punches were thrown shortsightedly enough that they would rebound to bloody effect against the US.

But the common denominator behind all these problems lay in the premise that the United States needed to seek global hegemony to counter the USSR's drive for global hegemony, without actually understanding the commitment that this would require. The United States was not wrong in believing that the extant Soviet threat meant that the US could not simply pack up its bags and go home, the way it had after WW1. But a generation of leaders were wrong for failing to understand the rules and nature of the game that they had committed the country to.

And even more problematically, with the fall of the USSR and the rise of Islam, the US approach has done nothing more than dust off the old Cold War handbook, while robbing it of vigor and commitment. Foreign aid has boomed, but to little purpose. We are continuing to try and win the hearts and minds of people whose own holy books and sense of national pride tell them that we're the enemy. And the cost being expended is staggering to very little gain.

In Afghanistan and Iraq all the talk of reconstruction was geared toward that old ambition, stability. To create stable governments that can resist "extremist" terrorism and will avoid stepping on any regional toes. But what it has done in practice is put us in the middle of a proxy war with Iran, Pakistan, Syria and any Islamic country willing and eager to promote terrorism and a local insurgency, not to mention such familiar players as Russia. And while the hundreds of billions of dollars we have spent have certainly made an impact, a dollar spent by Iran or Pakistan to arm a terrorist is worth a hundred thousand of our dollars spent providing electricity or digging wells. Because fighting for the hearts and minds of an alien culture and religion against their coreligionists is an essentially unwinnable war. Nor is it a war we should be fighting.

And that is the second fundamentally wrong assumption buried in the standard guide of the American Way of War, which is that stability requires winning the hearts and minds of the population. What stability actually requires is a working government. If the population is capable of electing responsible leaders and maintaining a workable government, then the model we've been using might actually work, as it did in Europe. However we seem determined to use it in Third World countries which are invariably ruled by dictators, no matter how the oppressive regime might be dressed up as, with inevitably disastrous results.

The fact of the matter is that digging wells will not win Afghanistan. Especially if we focus on our well digging to advantage those very same tribal areas that are the friendliest to the Taliban, thereby acting like divorced parents competing for a child's affection. Not only that our aid actually motivates previously stable areas to cultivate insurgencies in order to receive some of the 1.2 billion dollars designated for CERP. Going around the country handing out bribes is at best a short term solution that creates long term problems. And our conflicting task remains the same, that of trying to stabilize an unstable country and win a war without alienating any of the population. Both those tasks are inherently impossible.

Ever since 9/11, we have been working hard to win the hearts and minds of Muslims. In doing so we have compromised our national security and our war effort at every turn. We have set contradictory objectives abroad and we are surprised somehow when we cannot accomplish them. And while the military may be committed to victory, the political leadership never was. And so we stepped out of the way. We avoided military triumphalism in Iraq, and Shiite fronts for an Iranian takeover such as Muqata Al Sadr were happy enough to take over from us. We avoided alienating the tribal chiefs, and as a result we're caught playing pinball with the intricate politics of a tribal culture, which the Taliban not only understand better than us, but know exactly how to exploit our own Rules of Engagement, launching attacks that we are not allowed to respond to, as we would wind up losing the hearts and minds that we don't have anyway.

We can fight wars in our own defense and the defense of our allies, or we can collaborate on some internal hegemony in order to maintain some preconceived form of stability, but we should not confuse one with the other. Our failure to define an enemy in this conflict other than a lack of stability is the key factor behind our inability to achieve victory. Accomplishing the mission first requires defining the mission. And if we define the mission as destroying Al Queda or even Islamic terrorism in general, then that is a mission we can accomplish. If our mission however is to bring stability to the unstable, and good government to the ungovernable, then we have fallen into the trap of trying to use the military to accomplish goals that are not military at all in nature. For America to begin winning again, we must rethink the American way of war, the way of nation building and diplomacy first policy that we have adopted, but that was actually foreign to the American experience. If we want to win, we must know who we are fighting, why and what we are fighting for.


  1. Anonymous10/12/09

    You could just as well be talking about Israel - if anything, even more so than America.

  2. to a degree, except Israel these days is even less assertive than America and less capable of detaching the mission from the moral high ground

  3. Anonymous: SK did just that, in an earlier article highlighting the conditioned attitude of half-assed dithering by Israel to terrorism, being keenly aware that it is she rather than the barbarian being eyeballed by a demented, politically correct world that revels in righteous indignation only when followers of the most Merciful and Compassion murder Westerners on Western streets.

    Jewish life is still cheaper than the sensibilities of those making absurd demands for global submission.

  4. Very nice article.
    Some nations are never going to make anything of themselves and it is useless for us to try to help.
    Iraq is one such nation.

  5. Anonymous10/12/09

    you have a interesting blog

  6. Morry Rotenberg11/12/09

    The beauty of life in the west is that it is so good no one is really anxious to die defending it. We have brave soldiers who are so willing but our politicians and diplomats as you point out Sultan are not so inclined. Our societies have fulfilled the goals of a good life for its citizens and it is understandable why a hot war is not desirable.
    Our real failing is not continuing to take the Regan approach to the problem. RR outspent the Soviets and their system failed. What we need to do now is to defund the radical Islamists. The way to do that is to make energy less and less expensive. We need to "drill baby, drill." We need to have the strongest economy on the planet.
    The environmental movement filled with its "useful idiots" is the last vestige of what remains of the Cold War that we thought we had won. By preventing us from fully exploiting our own virtually limitless domestic fossil fuel resources we continue to strengthen our enemies.
    Until the useful idiots are taken out of positions of power we will remain in this American (Western)way of war.

  7. Anonymous11/12/09

    Energy independence is one of the policies to stop Islam. But the first step is to stop Muslim immigration to the West.

    This is primary defence/offence combined. If this is not done, drilling more oil wells, will simply hand Islam thes oil wells as well.


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