No Way to Run a War

by on May 3rd, 2004

Last Wednesday, Opinion Journal’s editorial page featured an examination of the Supreme Court’s decision to review the Bush Administration’s treatment of the so-called “enemy combatants,” and questioned whether the Supreme Court knows how to “run a war.” The editorial opinion was that the Court should defer to the “elected chief executive” on matters of national security and, yes, warfare. Recent news from Iraq, however, makes one wonder whether the military knows how to run a war either.

First we have the graphic tales of abuse from within an Iraqi prison operated by U.S. military personnel. Then subsequent reports suggest that the abuses may have been committed at the direction of U.S. military intelligence in an effort to “interrogate” the prisoners.

As a preliminary note, one must acknowledge the very real (and perhaps incalculable) harm these reports have done to the already dim view of America (and the American military) in the Islamic world. They already regard us with fear and distrust, believing the worst of our intentions despite our stated desire simply to bring freedom and democracy to the region. Now we have provided them with the evidence they need to validate those opinions. Indeed, reports suggest that the images are being described as documenting the unethical and inhuman behavior of American troops.

More critically, one can only question the relative intelligence of the military commanders who would have approved this course of action (and yes, I know the old joke about military intelligence as an oxymoron – perhaps it is appropriate to recycle such an ancient bit of non-humor for an occasion such as this). Of course, they might say that it’s easy for us back here at home to second-guess them when we don’t have a full understanding of the situations they face, and that these tactics are just some of those unpleasant realities of war that must be embraced in order to win.

The problem with that argument is that one doesn’t have to second-guess anything to see how such a perspective is almost insanely short-sighted and only likely to undermine the potential success of the overall mission. It isn’t enough to say that we’re “at war” with these people, because there are different kinds of war. In the context of a war of “liberation,” which is really the physical extension of a war of ideals, we’re saying that our ideals are better than the ones presently in power. We’ve freed a nation, and are now trying to lead them toward this “something better” that we call democracy. The battle with those who would undermine that transition of power (whether you call them rebels, terrorists, insurgents, or whatever else) is not just a physical contest but is also a battle for the hearts and minds of those who are sitting on the sidelines.

It is possible to win all the battles and yet lose the war. Tactics like these can achieve only short term goals – say, information about other current insurgents or the like. Let’s say that through torture and abuse we learn something that leads to victory over some insurgent cell. In the context of the larger conflict, however, the goal has to be to get rid of the hard core insurgents – those who arguably wouldn’t support true democracy in any form, whether “U.S. led” or not – while convincing the rest of the population that the American ideals of freedom and democracy are more than just words.

These horrible abuses, especially if they were actually committed at the instigation of U.S. military intelligence, can only be said to have done a terrible blow to the overall war effort. They’ve given great credence to the insurgents’ claims that the U.S. is as oppressive as Saddam ever was. They’ve given ammunition to terrorist recruiters, and inflamed the anger of many who might otherwise have supported the overall U.S. effort.

It isn’t enough to say we’re bringing freedom. We need to prove it as well. Let’s be blunt here: we’ve abandoned the whole Weapons of Mass Destruction/Saddam is a threat to the world thing, and now preach that the “liberation” of Iraq was because Saddam was cruel and evil to his own people. Personally, I’ve always tended to believe in that second component of the war effort. But in order to truly succeed in this nation-building project, we need the Iraqis to follow through with the process. We have to lead by example, and our actions must demonstrate the truth of the principles we espouse. If our words are hollow, if we act in ways reminiscent of the tyrants and dictators they’ve always known, we may win some battles, but we will lose this war.

Bill Wallo