Lessons of 20 Years of War

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In his “Iron Curtain” speech after World War II, Winston Churchill remarked:

There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented in my belief without the firing of a single shot, and Germany might be powerful, prosperous and honoured to-day; but no one would listen and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool. We surely must not let that happen again.

In these words, Churchill captures several of the most important lessons of that war, lessons with enormous relevance for us today. The first is the importance of moving fast to maintain peace and security. In international affairs, the gravest dangers are like whirlpools that start small but can suck in all the world.

One example from the years before World War II was Adolf Hitler’s success in escaping the straitjacket formed by the Treaty of Versailles and the alliance of Britain, France, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. The key to that alliance was the continued neutrality of Austria and the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia, both of which the Western democracies should have been prepared to enforce by war if necessary.

Had the Allies threatened Germany with war to preserve those pillars of their security, as Churchill frantically urged, Hitler would almost certainly have caved in without firing a shot. We know that Germany started 1938 in no position to risk a general war, and we know that the Nazis were well aware of it. We know that Hitler was almost certainly bluffing the whole way to the Munich Conference, driven by his faith in the suicidal spinelessness of democracies. And we know from the archives that even if he had been willing to risk war at that time, senior generals of the German army were prepared to arrest the entire Nazi government and cart them off to the cages where they belonged.

The Weakness of Democracies

There was, unfortunately, a second lesson in Churchill’s observation, one that may have been lost on him at the time. The policies that could have prevented World War II were easy on paper, especially compared with the awful exertions that proved necessary in the end. But it was no mere happenstance that Churchill’s frantic calls to stand up to Hitler were ignored: Britain was still recovering from the unspeakable trauma of World War I and was still in an overwhelmingly pacifist frame of mind.

The outbreak of World War II revealed a grave weakness in the democratic form of government: The very structure of democratic governance makes it exceedingly difficult for their leaders to devise and maintain effective grand strategies for self-defense. It is a major vulnerability, and addressing it should be the first task of any presidential administration seeking to protect America.

The Cold War was the (partial) exception that proved the rule. Led by the United States, the democracies overcame the challenge of Soviet Communism by enshrining their grand strategy — containment backed by nuclear deterrence — in the institutions of domestic and international law. At the dawn of the Cold War, America moved quickly to enact laws and negotiate treaties that would anchor that strategy. The key components were strong military borders and strong political, commercial, and military institutions such as NATO and the Bretton-Woods system, which were designed to protect democracies, prevent their becoming a fertile ground for Communist subversion, and ensure their ultimate success.

Those institutions served their purpose. As Albert Wohlstetter, John Lewis Gaddis, and Thomas Schelling suggested, the commitments America made to sustain that new grand strategy were never wholly reliable. The twin catastrophes of Korea and Vietnam demonstrated once again the grave weakness that democracies face when devising and maintaining a rational grand strategy of self-defense.

But in general, the strategy worked, mostly because America’s allies on the peripheries of Communism — chiefly in Europe and on the Pacific Rim — were brilliantly successful. The Soviet Union fell, and with it, the Iron Curtain that had kept half of Europe and much of the rest of the world in bondage for half a century.

Yet the celebrations were scarcely finished when a virulent new threat arose, in the form of militant Islam.

September 11

The attacks of September 11, 2001, brought home that the strategies of the Cold War would not suffice to protect democracies from the threat of barely literate extremists armed with the democracies’ own technologies. The administration of George W. Bush moved fast to define a new strategy: zero tolerance for terrorist safe havens; going on the offensive to deny terrorists of global reach the space, finances, and means to conduct mass-casualty terrorist attacks; and a global campaign to defeat the ideology of Islamist extremism, the thing the Islamist terrorists needed most to survive in the long run.

Led by a generation that had properly drawn the first of World War II’s lessons — the importance of moving fast to maintain peace and security — the Bush administration was clear on the need for timely preventive action. The wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq were the centerpieces of the new strategy. With lightning speed and mercifully little cost in lives and treasure, the U.S. and its allies, in a matter of weeks, demolished the tyranny of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the neo-Hitlerian dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Defaulting to the methods of the Cold War, the Bush administration concluded that the part of the world that was fertile ground for Islamist extremism needed institutions – political, commercial, and military – that could survive the Islamist wave and ultimately succeed. Driven by the realization that Islamist extremism was present in 60 or more countries with whom we were not at war, the effort to establish and strengthen those institutions became all-consuming. Hence, the sharp actions of 2001 and 2003 became long wars aimed at “nation-building.”

Recall the second lesson of World War II: that democracies face grave difficulties devising and maintaining rational strategies of self-defense. The Bush administration was able to marshal sufficient political impetus to take timely action, thereby avoiding (or so they thought) the mistakes that paved the way for Hitler’s conquest of Europe. But they never stopped to ask, “What if, having taken Churchill’s advice and threatening Germany with war by early 1938, the Allies had found it necessary to make good on their threat?”

It would then have been necessary to ponder whether the Allied governments could count on sufficient political support to see the war effort through the inevitably disappointing early years and onward to ultimate success.

The key mistake of the Bush policy in Iraq and Afghanistan is that it did not sufficiently account for the factor of politics in the long term. To be fair, it was impossible for most Bush supporters to imagine that a future Democratic president might throw away our gains in Iraq. It seemed inevitable, given the realities on the ground and the limited commitments the U.S. had already made, that the new president would see the need to protect the U.S. alliance with Iraq, whatever he thought of Bush’s original decision.

The Bush administration and its supporters (including me) should have realized that the strategy of institution-building presupposed a degree of long-term political support in America that we simply couldn’t count on a priori. In fact, history suggested that the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan would quickly prove to be a wasting asset, as General Douglas MacArthur said of the U.S. occupation of Japan. The Bush administration therefore failed to ensure a necessary precondition of our whole strategy – namely, the long-term political support necessary to maintain the strategy that we had defined.

It was, in retrospect, a terrible mistake to send so many thousands of young Americans to die for a strategy that, smart as it was, proved unable to sustain sufficient political support to achieve its aims.

Even so, it cannot seriously be denied that enormous benefits had come from the strategy. At the start of 2009, governments allied to the U.S. were firmly in control in both Baghdad and Kabul, with no area of those countries considered a “non-permissive” environment for American military operations. In Iraq, major political groupings were formally allied to the U.S. with significant political support. In Afghanistan, it was the American way or the Taliban way, and millions sided with the Americans.

Iraq was a mess — but at least they had achieved a rudimentary semblance of parliamentary government, which more Americans would know if they had any exposure at all to Iraqi press.

Afghanistan, meanwhile, was still Afghanistan — not a potential success story like Iraq, but instead one of the poorest, most ignorant, and most ungovernable places on earth. But even there, the U.S. was managing to stand up schools admitting girls all over the country. We also helped build water systems and courts for dispute resolution, along with other institutions that we in the democratic world take for granted.

Then the election of 2008 brought to power a president, Barack Obama, who had always opposed the Iraq War and who saw little reason to preserve any of what the U.S. had gained from it. He ended the debate over the wisdom of the Iraq War with a single brilliant move: Throw away everything that had been gained from the war, and nobody would be able to say that the war was worth it. Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from that country in 2011, against the advice of military commanders who begged him to leave at least 10,000 troops there.

Few Americans nowadays think that invading Iraq was the right thing to do: Obama saw to that.

Then came the Trump administration, in which I served on the domestic policy front. President Trump embraced what Colin Dueck has called a “conservative nationalist” approach — essentially, the foreign policy of the Second Amendment voter: Carry a big stick, whack anyone who harms an American, and otherwise leave the locals to their own devices. Trump exacted a painful penalty on those who attacked Americans in Iraq, killing Qasem Soleimani, who was Iran’s terror-master and the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. But he had little interest in the nation-building mission, a posture put into effect when he negotiated with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by spring of this year.

Read the full article at National Review.