America's greatest danger: There are no more easy wars to fight
Bad news, America: At some point soon, within 10 years or less, we're all but certain to fight a full-blown war. With a presidential election around the corner, we need to understand why — and make sure we know what we're voting for when 2016 arrives.
Premonitions of the crisis have already taken center stage in the Republican pre-campaign. It's a terrible time to be a candidate with a light reputation on foreign policy. Even Rand Paul, the least hawkish of the nascent 2016 field, has had to rein in his dovish tendencies.
Despite the apparent political retread on the way, profound puzzles lurk beneath the GOP's seemingly predictable hard line. At first glance, it's all American greatness and Democratic weakness. Peel back the surface, however, and a more complicated — and sobering — picture emerges.
As is now plain, it's just wrong to say President Obama is a wimp on foreign policy. That's why Republicans have been able to bash him for being too militaristic in some respects and not enough in others. But Democrats have been drawn toward this schizophrenia because of the same alarming strategic landscape Republicans are struggling with.
The problem is simple: There are no easy wars to fight.
Because we can't find any easy wars, Obama has lost the hard ones. Because we can't find any easy wars, the neoconservatives are still distrusted. Americans didn't feel betrayed just because they were hustled into war in Iraq, but also because the war in Iraq turned out to be hard. And like Americans since the time of the founding, we don't have the stomach for difficult wars.
We love easy wars. The 19th century was a boom time for them — from the Mexican War to the Indian Wars to the Spanish-American Wars — and so it was boom time for America, too. Even World War I was, for us, almost laughably easy. Relative to Hitler's other combatants, our fight with the Nazis was (let's face it) easy on us.
What's that? I left some things out? Oh, right: the Civil War and the War in the Pacific, against Imperial Japan. Interestingly enough, these two have something in common. It's important to remember that we fully expected the Civil War to be easy — people picnicked to watch the first real clash between North and South. But the War with the Confederates turned out to be very hard, as did the one with the Japanese, but once we got going, there was no turning back. Why? Because our enemies were absolute enemies: adversaries in a clash of civilizations.
It was widely assumed after 9/11 that we would follow this pattern and fight Islamic extremism to the death. For a couple years, we followed the script pretty closely. But then something happened. It turned out that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were hard to win. They were also hard to lose. We lacked both smashing victories and stunning reversals. There was no second 9/11. Instead of a single, well-defined, demonic foe, suddenly we faced a crazy quilt of rival Islamic factions.
Our vision of the enemy disintegrated. The mullahs in Tehran were bad, but the Saudi princes were good. The Sunnis hated us even more than the Shiites, but then switched, before some of them switched again. The Arab Spring confused us all the worse. Egypt's military was bad, yet better than the Muslim Brotherhood. From Yemen to Libya to Syria, countries that threw off their dictators replaced them with warlords. In theory, there was even a "moderate liberal opposition"; in practice, it was the weakest piece on the board.
And then ISIS. What the hell was happening?
We still don't know. And in our not knowing, we lost the one factor that has always gotten America through its very few difficult wars: righteous wrath. Overcome by risk aversion, we soured on the idea of total victory, unconditional surrender, and full-dress war. And here we are today, lacking conspicuously in both easy wars and in the demonized foes that justify hard ones.
Meanwhile, the deterioration of our global security situation continues to accelerate.
This is an insane aggravation for neoconservatives, who cannot inspire the American people to confront Russia, parry China, or even stage a coup in Venezuela. Americans can't even imagine attacking Iran. The risks are too high, the wars too hard. Why fight if you can't win?
The importance of the resurrected hawkishness of the GOP is that many of its candidates believe in the same harsh but true answer: Fight sooner, and you might create a possibility for victory that will certainly be gone if you fight later. This is a piece of military wisdom so old it even transcends conservatism, but other new-wave conservatives making a splash in Washington — like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas — believe it, too.
From this age-old standpoint, it is an absurdity to think of war as a last resort. Instead, we must think of it as simply a fateful gamble. It is never to be undertaken lightly, but only for a massively risk-averse people must a fateful gamble be a last resort. And without any easy wars out there to win, Americans are stuck in the same frame of mind as a struggling sports team or a person who just suffered a bad breakup.
We need confidence-builders. We have none to choose from.
Whatever your politics, it is true that America has lost the strategic initiative around the world, and that dangerous people and wicked ideas have gained it. In the absence of easy wars, we will not fight until backed into a corner.
Unless, that is, our leaders take us to war first. After eight years of Obama, whether Republican or Democrat, the safe bet is that they will.