My recent posts on Syria were argued against a more global backdrop: considerations of war and how it is entered into, with what achievable (or other) ends in mind, and, more specifically again, how the United States engages in it. In focus were questions of American empire and the nature of victory and whether it can be achieved. Syria, like all the Middle East, offering up so much tyranny, appealing to so much humanitarian feeling, calling on so many instincts toward real politique – and with the ever present wild card Joker of Israel in the deck – seems to roil all settled understanding of right and left in politics.
The following post from 2010, in response to an essay by Andrew Bacevich, addresses all these issues, with the addition of the always fundamental matter of definition: in addition to wonder about the effects of our (warring) actions, there is the question of how we define victory, a pivot around which we assess past and plan future policy. There are, too, the distinct elements of the quality of our analysis and the quality of our inferences from it. From July 30, 2010:
This Is the End (of History, War, the Enlightenment, and Western Civilization) Or Not
Andrew Bacevich is appropriately critical of the American impetus to hegemonic empire that grew out of its post World War Two ascendency and the commitment to communist containment. That was the subject of his 2008 The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Essential to any continuing practicability of this American role, he argues in yesterday’s HuffPo was a belief in the possibility of definitive victory in war. His post is entitled “The End of (Military) History? The United States, Israel, and the Failure of the Western Way of War.” The ostensible reasoning behind the connection of Israel to the U.S.in this regard is the shared belief, still, in the possibility of military victories. The differences – American hegemony versus Israeli existential concern – make the connection more problematic, but the meaning of the making of connections, real and imagined, between the U.S. and Israel, while a continuing interest of this blog, is not the subject today.
“In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history.” This sentiment, introducing the essay that made Francis Fukuyama a household name, commands renewed attention today, albeit from a different perspective.
Developments during the 1980s, above all the winding down of the Cold War, had convinced Fukuyama that the “end of history” was at hand. “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea,” he wrote in 1989, “is evident… in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”
Today the West no longer looks quite so triumphant. Yet events during the first decade of the present century have delivered history to another endpoint of sorts. Although Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal, the Western way of war has run its course.
Now, we want a critique that has correctly identified its problem to successfully analyze it, but the introduction is a curiously self-refuting start. Although the communist era ended, socialist critiques of Western capital domination continue in various forms, Islam has reemerged as a starkly countervailing force to the Western idea, and the liberal idea, in relation to the first two forces, is strikingly challenged by among some of its own product. Notice that Bacevich himself felt reason to write “Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal.” Fukuyama was clearly wrong. It is on this parallel foundation then that Bacevich wishes to rhetorically support the claim that the curiously attributed “Western way of war has run its course”?
Certainly, the Second World War left many with the idea that military conflicts, even grandly scaled wars, can be fought to definitive and just conclusions. I think Bacevich is right to attribute to this consequent overconfidence the American military misadventures in the post war period, but he seems, in his critique, similarly shortsighted as well as selective in his vision. There were in this period American military actions, however relatively small in scale, that achieved their clear aims: Panama, the Dominican Republic, the Gulf War – and one rightly hesitates to add Granada. And however emblematic of indeterminacy Korea has been for nearly sixty years, it did achieve its original aim.
More significantly, though, if one excludes World War Two, from what historical evidence does Bacevich draw his claim of a particular way of war and the running of its course, upon which to predicate an accurate vision of the future? He confines himself to the twentieth century.
All of this furious activity, whether undertaken by France or Great Britain, Russia or Germany, Japan or the United States, derived from a common belief in the plausibility of victory.
Victory may have been the common belief, but what was ever the historical justification for it? And how was and is victory defined? In total conquest? That surrenders were offered? An armistice signed? An immediate pressure released? An international tension long or forever resolved? Bacevich isn’t clear beyond suggesting the Second World War model.
Campaigns of terror – e.g. nineteenth century anarchist movements – are not new, though possible now on a scale that requires strategic consideration and developed doctrine, not dismissal in simplistic oppositions of war and peace. History is replete with successful guerilla wars, depending, of course, on how success is defined and the duration of the achieved goal – wars in which great powers were perpetually harassed by smaller or insurgent armies. Wars badly fought or that ended in apparent victories only to set up over decades or even centuries the conditions of future war – the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian war, almost the whole history of European warfare – are not a new development in war, only a departure from the dominant U.S. expectation. There is, too, if the subject is going to be explored meaningfully, no reason to limit the historical and developmental review to the West.
If the U.S. had withdrawn from Afghanistan after routing the Taliban, and if, rather than embarking on nation-building, it had pursued the kind of counter-terror strategy it will probably pursue after a now likely withdrawal without a nation built, could the U.S. have rightly claimed victory – not the end of all Islamic terror, but the thwarting of Al-Qaeda’s access to a national base? Had Saddam Hussein actually possessed WMD, they would have been found and destroyed, his regime toppled, as it was, and with a relatively quick withdrawal after, the purported goal of the war – a Victory – achieved. These are complex and to some degree hypothetical considerations, but my point is that there does not seem anything structural in the historical development of war that precludes the possibility of victory, as long as one does not define victory so far up that one makes it almost by definition unachievable.
Alter these factors, and the narrative of a stumbling, crumbling U.S. giant is not as easily written. Writes Bacevich,
Politically motivated violence will persist and may in specific instances even retain marginal utility. Yet the prospect of Big Wars solving Big Problems is probably gone for good
This qualifier is significant. Is Afghanistan a big war? By what measure? Are Israel’s wars big wars? Is it accurate to say that Israel these days perceives itself as fighting to solve big problems, or does it fight to maintain a safe power balance in a developmental holding action?
Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?
It’s a neat antithesis, but weakly and unnecessarily argued. American leaders and commanders do not have the luxury to argumentatively pretend that the Taliban-supported Al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan could have been left to function. Israeli leaders lack a similar luxury to ignore the ideological and military threats of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. That the expansive hegemonic reach of the U.S., an outgrowth of the Cold War, is now destructive of U.S. interests can be well argued. The claim does not require an overreaching corollary that is actually a bit suspect in its formation and application. It isn’t that humans have developmentally overcome their inclinations toward war – war has ceased, essentially, to work, and it has ceased to do so, when, according to Bacevich, only the United States and Israel, as he defines it, still engage in it.