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Why We Cannot Win the Long War

I really like the core idea from last Wednesday’s post, “The Pièce de Résistance”, where I proposed a new, different International Criminal Court. Scratch that--I love that idea. It makes so much sense, and everyone I have ever told described it to agrees.

And yet...I know it will never happen.

So if you want to say, “Michael, you’re unrealistic”, go ahead. That doesn’t mean the ideas don’t make sense--they just don’t jibe with the realities of our political situation. (Then again, I would have said the exact same thing a year ago about fixing the combat pay system...and, well, just wait until Friday.)

If you’ve taken a course on international relations, then you probably read Kenneth M. Waltz’ Man, the State and War, where he analyzes the causes of war from three levels: the individual, the state and the international system. For my solution to America’s foreign policy problems (a new Obama doctrine and a new ICC), it’s that juicy middle layer that kills my ideas; domestic politics hamstring foreign policy. And not hamstring in that conservative political-correctness-keeps-us-from-killing-tons-more-bad-guys way.

No, the American people simply refuse to accept any risk.

But I don’t blame Obama. I don’t really blame Bush either. The problem, in the end, is voters. Presidents (reasonably) want a second term, and they generally don’t want to completely hamstring their party’s re-election chances. So, in the end, the president serves at the behest of the people. The American people--right now--don’t like risk.

And if a president had a terrorist attack take place during their term, they wouldn’t get re-elected. (Well, it’s possible they might get re-elected, but chances are they wouldn’t.) Because of 9/11, every president and future president will fear a terrorist attack more than any other political situation. They believe it will cost them their career and legacy.

Can you blame presidents or politicians for thinking this way? I don’t.

But I do blame the people. Yes, fellow Americans, it’s our/your fault. I blame a populace that follows anecdotes, not statistics. I blame a people--liberals and conservatives alike--who justify torture, rendition and wars, saying ”Oh, after 9/11, we were all scared.” I blame my fellow citizens who condemn a handful of nations as backwards and failing--Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and others--but don’t want want to keep them from failing. I blame Americans who refuse to sacrifice their own lives to make the lives of their own children better.

Read “The Counter-Terrorism Consensus” by Michael A. Cohen in Foreign Policy to see this bipartisanship at work. In political issue after political issue--from Guantanamo to drone strikes--democrats and republicans united behind Obama’s continued (or expanded) Bush-era policies against terrorism. Super-majorities of Americans support drone strikes and detaining people at Guantanamo Bay. The same goes for the Patriot Act; if Americans really want it gone, why won’t congress stop re-authorizing it?

If President Obama changed policy, even if it would set us on a course towards winning the long war, it would create risk. Using drone missiles to eliminate every suspected terrorist works, because it keeps killing more and more people. As long as the U.S. keeps the drone strikes going, we can keep the radical extremists off balance. But we keep creating more terrorists. So America cannot take its foot off the pedal without risking its own casualties.

As a result, “the long war”, “the war on terror” or whatever name it takes, continues on. And politicians are helpless until Americans gain the moral and emotional courage to risk their own lives. Until a generation takes political control that doesn’t have the images of two towers falling seared into their minds, though, this change.

three comments

You may be interested in what John Le Carre said, in an interview speaking on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” on 8th September 2010:

“I grew up, in one way or another we’ve all grown up, under the nuclear threat; it was terrifying when the Berlin Wall went up and I was in Bonn and just getting a vague idea of what the contingency plans were, we were living on the edge of world destruction and believed we were. Now it seems that we, so to speak, have lost our nerve slightly with the encouragement of the government. We went through all of that Irish period with the Birmingham bombings, the Brighton bombings, the Guildford bombings, all the other bombings here on our mainland without losing our nerve and there was a notion abroad in those days which I deeply share that in order to remain a decent democracy you’ve got to be ready to take a few hits: there are always going to be crazy people out there who are going to plant bombs and things. I think we’ve been made too much aware of it.” (above quote is at minute 4:40).

The full interview is here:

Exploring the national psychology from the Cold War to the War on Terror is definitely a larger project I would like to take on. The way Le Carre describes it, it doesn’t make sense why we reacted the way we did when terrorism is so much less of a threat. I love his quote.

Side note, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could be the best film of the year and it is a shame it didn’t get nominated.

The screenplay was fantastic as well…