Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Lessons of War and Limits of Force in the 21st Century

Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. – Albert Einstein
I was born in 1959, when a five-star general was president and American prosperity and military might were unrivaled anywhere in the world. Only fourteen years earlier, America had defeated fascism in Europe and Imperial Japan’s aggression in the Pacific. When the war ended, we were the world’s dominant power and stood ready to preside over the “American Century,” as Time magazine called it in 1941. Most Americans accepted that the United States was uniquely capable of creating a better world and shaping the international scene in its own image. We were prepared, as John Kennedy said on a cold January day in 1961, to “bear any burden” and “oppose any foe . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

For my entire life, America has been the most powerful nation on Earth. As a young boy, I glorified military service; I admired the uniforms of our servicemen, and the stars and stripes that adorned them. Like others of my generation, my early impressions of U.S. military force were influenced almost entirely by the history of World War II, when our country was united in aid of friends and allies whose freedoms and way of life were under attack by a brutal, power-hungry despot. The stakes were real, freedom and liberty in jeopardy, the necessity of our involvement clear.

For the first thirty years of my life, American military superiority was balanced only by the military and nuclear capabilities of the former Soviet Union. We were then engaged in a Cold War against the forces of Communism, in which every action, every regional conflict, was seen through the lenses of the East-West rivalry. Although world events would later temper his views, as a presidential candidate in 1960, John F. Kennedy articulated what many Americans then believed, and what the American Establishment propagandized. “The enemy is the Communist system itself – implacable, insatiable, increasing in its drive for world domination,” said Kennedy. We were in a struggle of “two conflicting ideologies: freedom under God versus ruthless, godless tyranny.”

American political leaders, I have since come to learn, have a tendency to heighten their rhetoric and elevate our sense of responsibility as a world power in response to perceived existential threats. Although I admire flowery prose and grandiose statements in service to country as much as anyone, when combined with the arrogance of power, we risk misguided actions and tragic consequences. When we ignore lessons learned from past conflicts and fail ever to accept the practical and moral limits of force, we risk making and repeating grave mistakes.

Grand visions attenuated from historical reality are abundantly evident in a provocative essay first published in the June 9th issue of The New Republic, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire: What Our Tired Country Still Owes the World” by Robert Kagan, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution who advised John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. “Almost 70 years ago,” Kagan writes, “a new world order was born from the rubble of World War II, built by and around the power of the United States.” Until recently, America acted with a “sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world.” We were “vigilant and ready to act with force, anywhere in the world” to protect freedom, spread democracy and expand and deepen the international trading system. During the Cold War, the West’s economic and political success spread throughout Europe and much of Asia. None of this would have been possible, says Kagan, had the United States not been "willing and able to play the abnormal and unusual role of preserver and defender of a liberal world order.”

But today, contends Kagan, the liberal world order is showing “signs of cracking, and perhaps even collapsing.” This is not “because America’s power is declining” or “the world has become more complex and intractable;” it is, instead, due to “an intellectual problem, a question of identity and purpose.” If only the weak-willed Barack Obama would let America be great again, he implies, the problems the world confronts in Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq, among others, would be solved. “A liberal world order, like any world order, is something that is imposed, and as much as we in the West might wish it to be imposed by superior virtue, it is generally imposed by superior power.”

There are several problems with Kagan’s thesis, and with many of the critical voices calling for more aggressive U.S. military intervention in the world’s various trouble spots. First, the so-called “world order” that existed in the decades following World War II based on American willingness to “oppose any foe” is a figment of Kagan’s imagination. As Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate with 23 years of military service and a professor of history at Boston University, noted in a rebuttal to Kagan’s essay in Commonweal, Kagan overlooks that throughout the Cold War, when faced with Soviet aggression, ethnic conflict, and genocide, the United States time and again acted with “prudent self-restraint.” Thus, when Soviet tanks rolled into East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, our nation’s “commitment to freedom and democracy took a backseat to its preference for avoiding a potentially climactic East-West showdown.” Similarly, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, rather than invade Cuba and attempt to liberate its people from Communism, President Kennedy cut a deal with his Communist adversaries. In exchange for removing Soviet missiles from Cuba, we agreed to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey. In each instance, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Cuba remained unliberated, but the world remained intact.

Second, contrary to Kagan’s lofty rhetoric, the United States has repeatedly helped to overthrow regimes not to its liking, with little concern expressed for the ideals of American democracy. One need only examine U.S. actions in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, South Vietnam in 1963, and Chile in the early 1970s. And the despots we have supported over the years, including Batista in Cuba and Somoza in Nicaragua, Musharraf in Pakistan and Mubarak in Egypt, have seldom adhered to American ideals of freedom, justice, and the rule of law. Moreover, according to Bacevich, "[o]ther disruptions to a ‘world order’ ostensibly founded on the principle of American ‘global responsibility’” which resulted in no U.S. military response, included:
the 1947 partition of India (estimated 500,000 to one million dead); the 1948 displacement of Palestinians (700,000 refugees); the exodus of Vietnamese from north to south in 1954 (between 600,000 and one million fled); the flight of the pied noir from Algeria (800,000 exiled); the deaths resulting directly from Mao Tse Tung’s quest for utopia (between 2 million and 5 million); the mass murder of Indonesians during the anti-Communist purges of the mid-1960s (500,000 slaughtered); the partition of Pakistan in 1971 (up to 3 million killed; millions more displaced); genocide in Cambodia (1.7 million dead); and war between Iran and Iraq (at least more 400,000 killed). Did I mention civil wars in Nigeria, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone that killed millions? The list goes on.
In The New Republic essay, Kagan fails to note any of these events, although all occurred during the Cold War when America was, in Kagan’s words, “vigilant and ready to act, with force, anywhere in the world.” In fact, as most past presidents learn once in office, the historical reality is that the United States wields limited power and influence. We have not, and never have been, “ready to act with force, anywhere in the world.” And all too often, when we have attempted ambitious military excursions in conflicts lacking the clear-cut moral and political dimensions of World War II, we have come to regret it.

I only first began to understand the limits of force when I was ten years old. In 1969, Phillip Seel, the 22 year-old son of my dad’s secretary and close family friend, arrived home in a body bag, a victim of North Vietnamese mortar and artillery fire. Phillip died while doing his job as a Navy Hospital Corpsman stationed at First Support Base Neville in Quang Tri Province. On February 25, 1969, he was administering first aid to a wounded Marine lying on the ground in an area dangerously exposed to hostile fire. According to his Presidential citation, Seel, “[u]ndaunted by the enemy grenades and satchel charges impacting near him, he resolutely continued his valiant efforts until he was mortally wounded.” Universally recognized as a kind and gentle young man, he volunteered for the hospital corps because he wanted to serve others rather than fight and kill. In the end, he received a Silver Medal and Purple Heart, and died a hero’s death.

A few months earlier, I had sent Phillip a collection of baseball articles and photographs to raise his spirits, as I knew he was serving our country in Vietnam in a war I knew little about. I can still remember meticulously cutting out articles and photographs from The Sporting News and Sport magazine, pasting them onto lined notebook paper and writing a letter to Phillip explaining my selections and updating him on the latest baseball results from the United States. Sadly, the mailing never reached him; it had arrived too late, only to be dispassionately and impersonally “returned to sender.” I grew up a little the day I learned of Phillip’s death and witnessed the heartbreak inflicted on his mother and family members. It was then that I realized America’s actions abroad had risks and consequences.

I started to pay attention more, and to question accepted wisdom, on America’s role in the world. I now understood why moral and religious leaders were questioning America’s involvement in Vietnam and why thousands of protestors had taken to the streets. I came to see that hundreds of thousands of young American men were leaving for Vietnam thinking they were defending freedom only to find their country embroiled in a messy civil war, fighting to help prop up a corrupt leader who lacked the support of his own people; and that the people of South Vietnam were indistinguishable from the people of North Vietnam and enemies could not be distinguished from friends. It did not take long for those on the ground to realize that the American military was ill-equipped to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and to question what on earth they were fighting for.

But back home, the forces and voices supporting war were powerful men – presidents and cabinet members, senators and generals – who convinced themselves that America was uniquely capable of winning the fight for freedom and democracy over the dark cloud of Communism. Only America, these voices proclaimed, stood between freedom at home and tyranny abroad. How could they be so wrong? How could these distinguished authority figures be so certain and yet be so wrong?

The Voices of War are once again calling upon the United States to re-engage in the latest eruption in Iraq. The Sunni extremists that have made inroads in recent weeks, seizing Fallujah, Mosul, and a string of other Iraqi cities, and provoking a revival of the Sunni-versus-Shiite civil war that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead between 2005 and 2008, threaten to undue the Shiite-led government of Iraq. But American military involvement would be the wrong response, morally and strategically, to what is essentially a proxy war between the Saudi-backed Sunnis and the Iranian-backed Shiites. Our involvement, whether through troops on the ground or limited air strikes, would serve only to further inflame Iraq’s sectarian divisions. There are no good options in Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is corrupt and mostly to blame for the latest round of Sunni revolts. Maliki has excluded Sunnis from power and made a mockery of whatever semblance of democracy we had hoped, unsuccessfully, to instill during the drawn out debacle of the past decade.

Ever since American forces departed Iraq in 2011, President Obama has been attacked by the same hawks and neoconservatives – McCain, Graham, Cheney, Wolfowitz and company – that previously led us into one of the worst foreign policy blunders in American history. The “Obama lost Iraq” mantra is not simply wrong, but misses the entire lesson of the war in Iraq. While it could be argued in a very narrow sense that the United States “won” the war militarily, we never came close to winning the war politically; and that is where the true battle lay. The American invasion and subsequent occupation not only destroyed Iraq’s central institutions, including the army, police, and Baath party, but it resulted in a power vacuum that separated Iraqis into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish camps. Iraq is a forced country, an artificial boundary that has attempted to unite three rival factions against their will. The disputes and rivalries that exist in that region of the world are deep-rooted, complex, and not understood by American policymakers. To shed further American blood, and to have American forces be the cause of Iraqi blood and suffering, would be a huge wrong, a mistake of immense proportions.

As President Obama said last week, “We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq. Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.” The best thing Obama can do at this juncture is provide humanitarian relief – food, clothing, shelter, and medicine – for the estimated half-million Iraqi refugees and three million Syrian refugees who have fled the civil wars in those countries. Rather than compound the suffering with more U.S. missiles, the administration should work with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Turkey in search of a regional political solution.

Rightly or wrongly, the American experience in Vietnam has greatly influenced my modern view of U.S. military force. I am less enamored of calls for war whenever they arise in the halls of Congress or the op-ed pages of our major newspapers. I am admittedly neither a foreign policy expert nor military strategist, but I have enough sense to know that the use of American force in that part of the world has been a disaster. Continued use of American firepower will only inflame the sectarian divisions in the region and once again focus the wrath of extremists on America. I am all for finding creative ways to help defeat ISIS while pressuring Maliki to cease enforcing anti-Sunni policies that only empower the extremists. But to simplistically call for American military force and believe that we have ceded our global responsibility to impose a new world order – democracy and freedom in a part of the world that has historically experienced neither – is to repeat the mistakes of the recent past.

Calls for war are cheap, especially when made from the cheap seats in Washington, in front of microphones and television cameras. Glorifying the past also costs little and, worse, encourages a false sense of mission and responsibility. Time and again – in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq – blinded by false assumptions and visions of America as an all-powerful savior of the world, we became enmeshed in historically complex civil wars in far-off lands we neither knew nor understood. The voices in favor of war were always the same, the propaganda of war always powerful – freedom from tyranny, freedom from communism, freedom from some bad thing the stated mission. But articulating a grand vision and sense of purpose, demonizing the enemy and convincing yourself and your people that you are engaged in a battle of good versus evil, neither wins the conflict nor addresses the underlying roots of conflict, especially where we fail – as we so often do – to understand the cultural, religious and political implications of our actions; and when we consistently misinterpret the actions of others or misunderstand what truly motivates their actions.

A few weeks before he died, President Kennedy spoke with a revised humility and introspection about the use of military force. Speaking at Amherst College on October 26, 1963, Kennedy publicly acknowledged that power and might are not without limits and must be exercised with great care. “The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness,” he said on that cool New England day, “but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when the questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”

As we venture forth into the deeper reaches of the 21st century, will we dare heed the lessons of the past and use our power, wealth, and resources for the good of humanity? Or will we continue to listen to the false prophets who have led us into stupid wars on false and mistaken pretenses, and once again let power use us?


  1. Mark,

    Some random thoughts:

    Trying to understand how to secure peace from a genius theoretical physicist is like trying to learn about human embryonic development by reading Carl Sagan (Parade Magazine, April 22 1990, h/t: Kevin D. Williamson). Being a genius does not make you smart about all things. Force and the credible willingness to use force has been the best way to deter aggression and maintain the peace. Even FDR understood this. If you want to understand how to achieve peace turn to those who spent a lifetime achieving it: Grant, Patton, LeMay, etc.

    I will never understand liberal’s soft spot for communism. Kennedy was correct about the evils of communism and hardly needed to “temper” his views. The Cold War was not a “East-West rivalry” (as both you and Andrew Bacevich describe it) as much as it was a life and death struggle between good and unimaginable evil. When your enemy has gulags for those who escape the fate of 100 million others, the last thing American politicians need to worry about is “heightening their rhetoric.”

    Lessons from past conflicts are only helpful if there are similarities to present conflicts. The North Koreans and the Vietcong did not fly planes into buildings on American soil or give aid, comfort and sanctuary to those who did.

    Why is it that liberals must always “imply” what conservatives mean, while conservatives simply quote liberals? No where in Kagan’s almost 13,000 word essay does he imply anything approaching, “If only the weak-willed Barack Obama would let America be great again, the problems the world confronts in Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq, among others, would be solved,” or in Bacevich’s version: “Feckless, silly Americans, with weak-willed Barack Obama their enabler, are abdicating their obligation to lead the planet.” I have to wonder if you read Kagan’s piece or simply trusted Bacevich’s take on it. If you didn’t, it is worth the effort because it is a well written and balanced summary of the role the United States has played on the global stage for the last 70 years and the changing attitudes toward her responsibilities on that stage that may have significant ramifications for every one on the planet. That Obama is the current president and has distinct ideas toward foreign policy necessitates that he must be part of the conversation, but in no way is Kagan’s article a hit piece on Obama and there is no language even approaching the snideness of the above two quotes. This snideness continues unabated throughout Bacevich’s flippant response and contrasts strikingly with Kagan’s thoughtful analysis.

    Not for the first time you make the unsupportable claim that the “American military was ill-equipped to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia,” ignoring their routine victories over the enemy that were squandered by incompetent or downright evil presidents. The American military has fought successfully over every conceivable landscape this earth has to offer.

    We already know what happens when Muslim terrorists declare war on us and we ignore it. Buildings and planes go boom. Today a new “division” of the same savage army has declared war on America and released videos of their handiwork, doing unto others as they will do unto us. For some reason, unlike other groups, these killers dress in a type of uniform and march behind a flag, making them an easy target for our wonderful toys of war, yet to engage them would be “morally and strategically wrong.” It is time for libs to watch our enemies in action; time to sit through a beheading or two; time to put themselves in the shoes of men lined up on their knees waiting for that bullet in the back of the head. Please defend how exterminating monsters who want to kill your children is morally wrong.

  2. You return to a charge you used to make and then stopped when “your guy” began killing civilians by the truck load with increased drone attacks: that “continued use of American firepower will only inflame the sectarian divisions in the region and once again focus the wrath of extremists on America.” And this is where Kagan hits the nail on the head in his essay and what separates conservative thought from liberal thought (not his words): The failure of liberals (my word) to understand the world “as it is.” You believe that if we don’t piss off the psychopathic Islamic terrorists they will satisfy themselves with killing and beheading only their neighbors. But our new Islamic terrorists with the unfortunately cool sounding name, ISIS, have already declared their intention to bring the fight to us. President Bush understood what President Obama doesn’t: If we are not keeping them busy with the process of dying for Allah over there, they WILL kill us over here. And Americans WILL die as a result of our current inaction. Hopefully it will not be you and yours at a Broadway show or me and mine at a shopping mall (in truth, the poison gas carrying or suicide vest wearing terrorist would have a heck of a time getting me at either venue), but some Americans will surely die from our lack of a military response to their declaration of war.

    Sadly it’s not only the president’s inaction that will doom some Americans to horrible deaths, but also his actions in the form of the five terrorists he exchanged for a traitor. In the president’s world a fitting punishment for the killing of American hero Mike Spann, the first causality in Afghanistan, is 13 years in an American prison that provides better healthcare to terrorists than the country provides to its veterans. Thirteen years! And they left our jail cells with new prayer rugs, Qurans, dental implants, fixed hernias, and weighing about twenty more pounds than when they went in. And while they are greeted at home as heroes, we can only, once again, pray that the future victims are not anyone we love.

    Corroborating Kagan’s observation that “…because many Americans no longer recall what the world ‘as it is’ really looks like, they cannot imagine it,” you offer that you are “all for finding creative ways to help defeat ISIS…” What might those creative ways be? For thousands of years people understood the world as it really was, brutal and unsympathetic, and the defense against this violence was violence. For the first time in human history a world super power used its violence to make the world a tamer place and used its ultimate weapon, not for conquest, but to insure peace. The two halves of the 20th Century could not be more different in terms of wars and misery, with the first half being as the world really is, and the second half, thanks to the United States, being almost a “vacation from history” in terms of lives not lost. The down side to living in the greatest country in the world in the safest half century in history is that this pampered existence can lead one to envision a scenario in which the U.S. works with “Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Turkey in search of a regional political solution.” Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism, has a stated goal of acquiring nuclear weapons to wipe out Little and Big Satan. The Evil Empire has returned because, like in 1962, it senses weakness (or at the very least, ‘flexibility’) in the White House and knows it can act aggressively with impunity. Saudi Arabia finances al-Qaida. And Turkey seems not to know if it wants to fight terrorism or pay for it.

  3. In the world as it is and always will be there are no creative ways of protecting the U.S. from Islamic killers. Only violence. These Nazi wannabes with their black uniforms and black flags must be defeated in the only way that has ever worked: Kill enough of them until they surrender or go away. The only “creative” way to fight them was taken off the table a long time ago, sometime around when President Bush declared Islam a religion of peace (without specifying the century to which he was referring) and that the terrorists were “perverting” Islam. It is only by using Islam against the terrorists that the need for violence can be lessened. But instead we give Osama bin Laden a Muslim funeral, despite his “perversion of the religion,” and send a message to every aspiring fanatic that you will be sent off to your virgin-filled paradise with honor by the very country you sought to destroy.

    Christianity, The Catholic Church and the ultimate expression of Western civilization, the United States of America, have been the greatest sources for good in the history of the world. The flexing of American power has been a net good for the planet and if not for her moral use of power much of the world’s population would know nothing but brutality and oppression, because, as Kagan so rightly noted, “There has been no transformation in human behavior or in international relations.” The world is as it has always been, but for a few outposts of civilization that some people tragically mistake as the norm.

    Rich R.

  4. Rich,

    Well, speaking of “heightened rhetoric,” while your comments may be short on workable solutions to a difficult foreign policy issue, they are certainly high on hyperbole and grand generalizations. With all of your talk of “exterminating monsters” and “life and death struggle between good and evil” you have helped to reinforce the main point of my essay. Unfortunately, as with Kagan’s article, you fail to explain precisely what you would have the U.S. military do in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and other of the world’s trouble spots. Nevertheless, a few random thoughts in reply:

    First, your attempted put-down notwithstanding, I personally read (twice) every word of Kagan’s article, and underlined a good portion of it (and let’s be fair, you only found the article because I specifically linked it to my essay). As someone who has loyally subscribed to The New Republic for 32 years, I did not need to simply trust, in your words, “Bacevich’s take on it.” I certainly agree that Kagan’s article is, as with almost everything in The New Republic, thoughtful and well-written. And Kagan’s perspective should be taken seriously, for he is a well-respected foreign policy analyst. But it remains true that his article, like your comments, is high on grandiose rhetoric and short on policy prescriptions. Moreover, while Kagan is very polite, it cannot be disputed that his article depicts the current White House as presiding over a war-weariness that, in his mind, threatens the global order and breaks with 70 years of more aggressive actions taken by past presidents. And he wants America (specifically, the Obama administration) to reassume a more muscular approach to foreign policy.

    Second, although it may simply be a matter of semantics, it seems that even Kagan agrees with me (as well as Bacevich and the majority of Cold War historians) that the Cold War was indeed an “East-West rivalry.” This is hardly a disputed geopolitical concept. As Kagan wrote: “Justifying everything in terms of the anti-communist struggle may have been, to borrow Acheson’s phrase, ‘clearer than truth,’ but it worked. Fear of communism, combined with fear of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical threat, allowed a majority of Americans and American policymakers to view practically any policy directed against communist forces, or even against suspected communist forces, anywhere in the world as directly serving the nation’s vital interests.”

    Third, I have not “stopped” complaining about the effects and morality of drone strikes since Obama became President. Indeed, Obama’s use of drones continues to be an area where he and I part company, although I have always found it curious that you have never given the President credit for such killings, since your comments strongly suggest that you support the drone strikes. As you know, I am troubled by the use of drones in the manner in which both Bush and Obama have used them. I believe the use of drones for targeted killings outside of combat zones and performed in countries with which we are not at war (e.g., Yemen, Pakistan) violates international law, sets a dangerous precedent that may eventually come back to haunt us, and, yes, creates more terrorists. I understand the temptation to use drones, for who would not prefer to send an unmanned weapon to kill the enemy when the alternative is to risk our own personnel? But we really do need to think this through, because someday soon many other countries will have the same capabilities.


  5. (cont'd):

    Fourth, what I meant by “creative” solutions to defeating ISIS is a fair question. As noted in a recent article in the Daily Beast ("How America and Iran can Defeat ISIS Together"), "One key weakness of ISIS is the extent to which it depends on allies who don't share its ideology. ISIS fighters only number in the thousands; to consolidate gains and hold territory, they need the ongoing cooperation of tribal groups that have been antagonized by the government. In the areas it has captured, ISIS appears to be waging a 'hearts and minds' campaign, distributing free fuel and goods plundered from the government. They are trying to turn a jihadi surge into a broader Sunni uprising."

    Certainly, the United States can help counter that "hearts and minds" campaign with large-scale humanitarian relief and economic aid. We can also play a major role in influencing political reform in Baghdad. Maliki will have to be replaced by a statesmanlike figure that can build coalitions and convince Iraqis not enamored of ISIS (the vast majority) that there is an alternative to ISIS. This will require that the United States engage with Tehran, something that we must do if we wish not to cede all influence back to the Iranians. Once we are satisfied that the Iraqis are addressing the necessary and important issues of political reform, we can provide continued support through intelligence sharing, training and weaponry.

    So, I am not sure if "creative" was, in hindsight, the best term to use, but it is much better than sending thousands of US troops back into Iraq to fight a war we have no business fighting. I agree with President Obama that this is a conflict that Iraqis must fight - we can help from the sidelines (maybe even a little more than that once we are satisfied that Iraq is implementing a more inclusive form of governance; but any American air campaign must be very narrowly defined and limited to what is truly essential to prevent further advances of ISIS; we must not turn this into a US-military campaign designed to kill every possible ISIS-affiliated human being, which will only result in many innocent people and civilians being killed).

    In the long run, I believe the United States would accomplish far more in that part of the world through humanitarian and economic assistance than through military intervention, which only seems to create additional terrorists and damages our credibility. But, like I wrote, there are no good solutions in Iraq - the only question for us is, what are our interests and how can we best accomplish them? I am not advocating that we disengage from the world, only that we not so quickly call for war-like solutions to what are, in essence, political and humanitarian problems (or at least not our military problems).

    Finally, the question remains: How many thousands of U.S. men and women are you willing to put on the ground to defend Maliki? You do not want to align the United States with Iran, but if you are going to intervene militarily to defeat the latest insurgency, that is precisely what you must be prepared to do in the battle against ISIS in Iraq. If not, than what do you propose we do? And what about Syria? How many US troops are you sending there? Unfortunately, this is where the simplicity of your “good vs. evil”, “Christian civilization vs. Islamic monster-terrorists” theories falls apart. This is not a battle of “good vs. evil,” but more like a battle of “not-so-good vs. bad vs. pretty bad vs. really bad.”

    Like it or not, the people of Iraq and Syria, even the ones we don’t like much, are not “monsters” but human beings with families and children. Some of them are dangerous and angry, some with better reasons than others, but they are humans and not some nefarious “other.” To think of any group of human beings, regardless of your beef with them, as monsters and evil-mongers, is dangerous. And it is how countries become embroiled in conflicts with which they have no business getting involved.

  6. Mark,

    Most of your reply, while I disagree, didn’t piss me off. It was well written and you didn’t call me an imbecile or infantile, so that was good. But you sailed off the cliff with the last paragraph…

    But first:

    You are right about only finding Kagan’s article by reading your blog and I thank you. It’s one of the reasons I read you and I thank you, too, for Borlaug, Bonhoeffer, Bayh, Rustin and Shriver. I was not putting you down but drawing a conclusion I would not have, had I read “…thoughtful and well-written. And Kagan’s perspective should be taken seriously, for he is a well-respected foreign policy analyst” in your original piece.

    Now you really have to watch those Obamisms: “…it cannot be disputed”! But even so, what followed these words was much closer to the truth than your “weak-willed” comment.

    Not sure if this counts as “parting company” with the president on drone use: “I continue to believe that drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill and display an American arrogance that reflects poorly on American values in the Muslim world. But admittedly I am more willing to trust Obama’s instincts and decisions on these highly sensitive, secretive matters, because Obama’s words and deeds suggest he is at least sensitive to the long-term effects of American military might.” Maybe it does, but its passive-aggressive wording makes it difficult to determine.

    I think I’ve been very clear on drones, although your readers might not know it, you should since I wrote this to you in an email: “A real leader would not have painted himself into a corner in which his only option is to blow apart the innocent along with the guilty. . . I prefer capturing terrorists and pretending to drown them so that they give us all their information after which we reward them with family visits.  I’m not opposed to blowing them and their children to hell and heaven, but I'd like it to be an option, not a requirement because a man-child president has a twisted sense of what is the greater evil.”

    Now back to the cliff… Your last paragraph continued a terrible fetish you have for ascribing to me things I did not say. I never called the “people of Iraq and Syria” monsters and considering the thousands of words I have written in defense of the Iraq war and the real reasons we went there, I am at a loss to understand how you can claim I was referring to anyone but terrorists. I called the members of ISIS monsters and I don’t give a rat’s ass about their domestic life. When they saw off heads (and it is “saw,” not a painless chop-it really is time to watch) or when they force a man to his knees and praise Allah as the man wets himself waiting for the end, or when they, bored with swords and guns, actually crucify their enemies, they have renounced their God-given soul and it matters not that they have wives, daughters, sons or grandmothers suffering from Alzheimer's. All I want is for those monsters to be dead.

    And we should use as many of our volunteer warriors and their wonderful machines as it takes to accomplish the culling. And it is not to serve Maliki but to save your children and mine. And every monster that is vaporized by bombs or shredded by .50 cal. rounds or sliced by KA-BARs is one less to cross our porous border to kill us. And our warriors know this.

    And that’s something that gets lost in the “Support our Troops” mantra that both sides claim to champion with varying degrees of believability: Our warriors want to kill these monsters. They want to kill monsters the way a cop wants to arrest and a lawyer wants to prosecute. They know every time a monster dies an American gets to live another day (and, too, Iraqis and Syrians). And some of our warriors will die. But they die saving my children and yours and their lives and their deaths have more meaning than most of us can ever hope for.

  7. So you want a number of those warriors I am willing to send into battle? All of them. If that’s what it takes to prevent another 9-11 or worse. You may or may not understand the warrior spirit, but don’t think for a second you have their best interest at heart by holding them back. They know there is a whole lot of evil out there that needs to be dealt with and they are absolutely sure they are the only ones who can do it. And they are right. Because if the monsters get passed them over there, you and I won't stop them here.

    Do I have all the answers? No. But some are easy. If we have access to prime hunting ground like in Iraq then we should be there slaying monsters and if monsters keep coming to our killing ground then we should stay there and accommodate them. I’ve explained this before but will do so again: bin Laden was emboldened to attack us after the Battle of Mogadishu (an humanitarian effort by the way). Not because of how we fought—that, undoubtably scared the hell out of him, seeing the bodies pile up at the hands of so few American fighters—but because after the battle our leader ordered our brave men to tuck tail and run. Osama knew the weak link in our chain—the same weak link the Vietcong observed—and he knew the short game belonged to America but the long game was his. (And yes, he was also encouraged by our response to the 1983 bombing in Beirut that killed 241 servicemen.)

    I’ve always thought one of the main differences between libs and conservatives was that the latter learns more easily from the experience of others. I don’t need to be in a collapsing building or see my child’s nose being cut off to know there is an “other” out there. You are so very wrong about those people being human and it terrifies me. It illustrates an even bigger difference between the two philosophies: Conservatives believe in evil while libs see an almost blameless product of environment.

    Finally, if there is a swan-song for a dying nation you have contributed a verse with, “This is not a battle of ‘good vs. evil,’ but more like a battle of ‘not-so-good vs. bad vs. pretty bad vs. really bad.’” When the majority of Americans hold the same opinion of this country as you and the president, then we will be finished. I would not risk my life for a not-so-good country, nor would I ask a twenty-year-old warrior to make the ultimate sacrifice for the same unexceptional nation. Your moral-equivalence of America as just a lighter shade of grey in a spectrum that leads to the black of ISIS makes me fearful for this nation’s future. You and I grew up in the same retched decades in which traditional ideals that built this country were disparaged and mocked. I watched too much TV and saw too many movies as a youth and mostly what I learned was that America was a bully and that traditional manly virtues were archaic and responsible for most of the world’s troubles (this is a topic for another day but just think of the elevation of the cowardly Hawkeye Pierce as hero and the caricature of the military man Col. Flagg in M*A*S*H). Luckily I grew out of it but your observation does explain your oft-repeated solution to the world’s problems: Understanding. If we are all scattered along the same narrow band of beliefs then there is a middle where we can meet and find common goals.

  8. So the question for you is a simple one: In our current war against Islamic terrorists what are the areas of common ground you can identify? For you, I believe there are none (beyond the overall belief that there are a select enlightened few who should rule over the many). For me, I could agree on their disapproval of abortion, if their objection covers all children, not just theirs, which seems unlikely given their barbarism. So if there is no common ground, what options really exist beyond fight or surrender?

    And I’ll repeat because this is the only important question based on your roadmap for achieving peace: What areas of compromise exist between the United States of America (Western civilization) and millions of Muslim terrorists and their sponsors and supporters (take a look at the polls of Muslim countries regarding support for violent jihad and then do the math)?

    Rich R.

  9. Rich,

    To clarify the portion of my comment that you clearly misread, when I said that “This is not a battle of ‘good vs. evil,’ but more like a battle of ‘not-so-good vs. bad vs. pretty bad vs. really bad’” what I was suggesting was that the conflicts in Iraq and Syria involve the “not-so-good vs. bad vs. pretty bad vs. really bad” – that is, Maliki vs. Shia/Iran vs. Sunnis vs. ISIS vs. Syria/Assad vs. other Syrian insurgents, etc. It seems that you assumed incorrectly that I was suggesting that the United States was part of that mix, which was not the case at all. My whole point is that this is not our battle, in part because there are no truly good guys in this fight (though I do agree that there are some bad ones). Contrary to your beliefs, I love my country as much as you do (probably more, since I actually like most Americans ☺). But I do not want to send our troops into harm’s way unless and until I am convinced that U.S. national interests are truly at stake (or that we are coming to the defense of a friend which shares our basic values). Unfortunately, American governments historically have made some really grave mistakes in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, which have cost the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and resulted in our killing hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, most of whom were not “monsters.”

    I cannot accept your view of humanity or of the world, and we will simply never agree on this. I find it hard to understand how you can call yourself a Christian and hold the views you do. I do not say this to insult or offend you, but I am truly mystified by how you can reconcile your worldview with a religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus. Perhaps you separate your religion from your military and foreign policy positions (you would not be the first to do this). My admittedly less-hawkish views are influenced not so much by liberal politics (a lot of my self-described “liberal” friends are decidedly more hawkish than me), but my being the son of a Lutheran minister and devout Christian mother, both of whom saw it as their Christian imperative to see the humanity in all of God’s children. I understand that there is the risk of naiveté in this universalistic notion of humanity, and I do not for a second think that there are not a lot of bad people in the world. But one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter (e.g., American revolutionists; Menachim Begin and Irgun; Palestinians fighting Israeli occupation; African National Congress fighting to liberate South Africa of apartheid; and so on). The so-called terrorists in Iraq and Syria may not have a cause that we can identify with, but that does not mean they are not motivated by their own perceived grave injustices. For example, if drone missiles landed on houses in my neighborhood, killing my children or my neighbor’s children, I would readily become a terrorist to fight against the forces I deemed responsible. And so would you. And yet, I think you would agree that neither one of us are “monsters” though the perceived injustice might lead us to do monstrously evil things to other people. The problem with terrorism has as much to do with misapplied violence as with politically inspired violence. All of it is bad and misguided but in the long run, I believe it can be corrected.

    There are many ways to fight terrorism, smart ways and dumb ways, easy ways and hard ways. I do not claim to have the answers either, but I know that sending thousands of our young men and women to Iraq and/or Syria to fight on behalf of “not-so-good” (or worse) and make alliances with “bad” while arming “pretty bad” so they can fight against “really bad” is not something I can support. There has to be a better way.

  10. Mark,

    I am happy to be wrong and I appreciate the clarification, although when you proceed “not-so-good vs. bad vs. pretty bad vs. really bad” with "...this is where the simplicity of YOUR 'good vs. evil,' 'Christian civilization vs. Islamic monster-terrorists' theories falls apart,” the problem is not with misreading but with "miswriting." Nevertheless, I am relieved.

    Rich R.