Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Why War Is Not the Answer

In all the discussions I have had over Iraq and the Middle East and, in fact, over the worsening world, everyone in the United States seems to forget one thing: military strength is not the basis of U.S. power and influence in the world.

Indeed, the U.S. military has always been mostly ineffective, with bumbling tactics, worse strategy and useless leadership, depite its sheer mass at certain moments in history. Let's go through some of that history, briefly.
  • Iraq ... well, even Weekly Standard editor William Kristol admitted on The Charlie Rose Show last night that "defeat" is a possibility.
  • Is there anyone still denying that the United States lost in Vietnam?
  • Korea: a stalemate that could have been a disaster if Douglas MacArthur had had his way. The diplomats extricated U.S. troops out of war.
  • World War II: the United States entered late and essentially fought one Axis power, Japan, who surrendered at the threat of further atomic bombing; on the European theater, the U.S.S.R. defeated Germany at Stalingrad. In any case, it was not a victory of tactics and strategy.
  • World War I: again, the United States entered late, when the war was already stalemated.
The point is not to denigrate the efforts and suffering of individual soldiers, but merely to note that purely military means did not achieve what our schoolchildren are misleadingly taught as "victories," nor our did they gain our position in the world since 1918.

Our military is congenitally incapable of conquering anything -- always has been, always will be. That's because we've never been a militarily conquering nation (except when it involved our own nationbuilding).

Want to know our real strength?

The strength of the United States is the dynamism of its economy, its resources, its geographic position, its relative transparency, coupled with the instinctively egalitarian social and political democratic experiment in which it functions.

The American empire is economic, social and political. Ours was the first country in the world to take its name from an idea -- a union of states -- rather than a place name.

During what I now call World War III (the Cold War), Garry Wills once famously asserted that a Russian invasion would be halted at the first McDonald's. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman has updated that notion with his McDonald's Theory of Conflict Prevention: no two countries that have a McDonald's will ever go to war with each other.

Finding chinks in the theory, Friedman has had to change it to something grander and more complex, as he told Wired: "No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain like Dell's will fight against each other as long as they are both part of that supply chain."

American consumer goods (even if they are made in China) are seductive the world over. The may sneer and complain, but teenagers everywhere love Coke, bluejeans and T-shirts with American logos.

But that's only part of the story.

The other part is a certain social and economic mobility and a tendency towards broadly distributed wealth, which together make possible mass consumption.

Whenever these two have been ascendant, the United States has shone brightly in the world. Everyone admires our capacity to improve and adapt to the leadership of great men such as Martin Luther King, Jr. We became the envy of the world when our factory workers could afford ranch houses and stationwagons and even to send a talented child to college.

Why are we at war with the Islamic world? Because they have no realistic hope of ever participating in an economy and a democracy anywhere close to ours -- and it's absurd to think of installing them by force in Afghanistan and Iraq -- so they have nothing to lose by committing suicide crashing planes against our buildings and blowing up our allies.

That's why more war is not the answer. Instead, the answer has to come from our historic strengths: expanding civil liberties (not contracting them in the name of a false "security") and a widely distributed rising standard of living that ripples outward.

However, this is slipping even here on the American home front. President Bush's domestic policy of stealing from the poor to give to the rich strike at the heart of what is most appealing about the United States: the notion that everyone can accede to a basic common level of prosperity.

We can't credibly sell abroad what we ourselves are destroying at home. When people watch scenes of the poor black population of a major American city abandoned to die after a flood, everyone can see that the American Dream has become just a facade.

The world is not stupid.

To bring the conflict with the Islamic world to at least the level of tolerance we need to show the world we are still a beacon of civil liberties and still a prosperous nation in which hardships and rewards are shared equitably.

We need to change the so-called "war on terror" into a "campaign to share our good fortune." (Someone will come up with something catchier.)

Turn the internal problems from the Department of Homeland Security, which is an abysmal collection of dysfunctional agencies, to Wall Street and the Salvation Army, with the mission of unleashing a bonanza of credit, consumer goods and employment, starting in the slums of the South Bronx and East St. Louis and extending to the Muslim communities in the Western world.

Shift the handling of the Middle East from the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom to Madison Avenue and Caritas, until we find ourselves dispatching our youths to drop Big Macs, instead of bombs, all over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and even Lebanon.

Everyone the world over has known our business prowess since Benjamin Franklin. Even in the 1836, when the country groaned to deliver itself of the "peculiar institution" of slavery, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the American tendency toward generosity.

Going back to being real Americans again ... that's the answer!


Anonymous said...

There's something we can start doing right now!

Anonymous said...

Now THIS is visionary. The question is, where to start?

Anonymous said...

Nice piece Cecilio, again, I agree. (Please forget my errors, English is not my primary language…)

I would add though, another American strength, the strength of ideas.

In reading “Why War Is Not the Answer” a thought that has been pounding my mind these days of war came back with force. It has been said that what Americans began fighting as terrorism has become a movement. If this is true, Shouldn’t America be fighting a war of ideas instead of a war of missiles, neighborly distrust, and twisted rhetoric?

Hatred has never been won by overwhelming force, but with a will to understand the motivations and expectations of the hater.

Although I am not at all sure, I have started to suspect that contrary to the public discourse of Mr. Bush and Co., our enemies do not really hate us for what we think, but for what we do; they probably do not want to destroy our way of life, but want to forestall the destruction of theirs… and after all, who are we to impose our way of life upon the rest of the world?

Best regards,


PS To anonymous 1: What?

Peter Attwood said...

No kingdom's power is basically in military might; there has to be something to believe in. This far we agree.

But imperial expansion has been fundamental to US history from the get-go. As soon as the Indians were disposed of it was the turn of Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. America is addicted to frontier war; they don't say "Welcome to Injun country" in Iraq for nothing.

Moreover, American generosity is much overrated. American society has been extraordinarily contemptuous of poverty and weakness from the early times, and hard times have usually led not ot generosity but meanness by those near the bottom to those lower still.

I believe all this is founded on the Pharisaism of American Christianity going back to 1620, and nothing will get fundamentally better until American Christians are brought to recognize the truth of the past 400 years and what it has made them.

If you like, you can see my own analysis of American Christianity and its pseudo-Christian roots by going to my blog ("Attwood Among the Christoids") and clicking on "Facing Antichrist Today"

Zelo1954 said...

I partially agree. Yes, initially, the power of the USA has been economic and, to a lesser extent, ideology.

However it has now reached a post-pioneering stage when conserving what it has is now most important. The USA has a paranoid fear of any ideology which is in conflict with its own values, and sets about trying to impose its own ideology on the rest of the world with an arrogance all of its own.

The most nauseating immediate post-9/11 image I saw on TV was when, a few days later, GWB was at pains to tell the world in effect "look at this - our financial markets are still functioning - the terrorists have had no effect whatsoever".

Those poor American souls in Iraq haven't died for their country, they've died for the Dow-Jones index. Imagine what the Iraqis think THEIR folk have died for??

Ellen K. said...

It was clear to me long ago that the idea of a "war on terror" is absurd. Fight terrorism by acting in ways that make people dislike us even more? Seems more likely to increase than decrease terrorism. It's false security. Make people feel like they (the government) are doing something to make us safer, when really they are doing the opposite.

It's nice to see a positive spin on the idea; not what doesn't work, but what does.