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This week marks the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, a war that will perhaps never hold a sure place in America’s history. It is time to reflect on what we should have learned from it and to add these to the lessons our combined American history teaches us and apply them to our world today. Though the headlines are still gripped by news from the Middle East, in the bigger picture, we should be shifting our attention toward the Far East. Shifting our concern to China and the East is not an argument of moral imperative based upon violent oppression or extremism, nor is there a justification of self-defense. We’re not being attacked. We have a real competitor, a state of affairs America hasn’t faced yet in all of its years of post-WWII hegemony.
My grandfather fought in WWII, my father in Vietnam, and I fought in Iraq. WWII was a war of industrialized nations fought around the globe. Broadly, our enemy was Japanese and German fascism. Vietnam pitted industrialized America against an underdeveloped Vietnam over fears of the spread of Russo-Chinese communism in Asia. It is much harder to nail down the reasons for the Iraq War since many of them turned out to be false. In the broader scheme, the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns were/are a fight against Islamic extremism in response to 9/11. As time has gone on whom, why and what America fights for is becoming harder to define, as is deciding when we should decide to do so.
The days of war on the European continent are gone and aren’t coming back anytime soon. There are many reasons for this. WWII devastated virtually the whole of the continent and left the major economies—Germany, France, Britain--weak and in crushing debt. The only combatant to come out of the war in a stronger position than it went in was America and this is a position we have maintained with little world competition in the 68 years since. Europeans understood afterwards that they had more to gain from mutual cooperation with each other and with America than they had in competing and trying to strike and shift balances of power.
Out of this understanding came two of the most important organizations to European and American commerce and security—the European Union and NATO. These organizations ensure that European states remain engaged with one another and with America and vice versa. The EU recently—rightly—won the Nobel Peace Prize. Many who don’t know the history and original idea behind the EU and the common market and currency scoffed. What started out as a joint enterprise between West Germany and France involving coal and steel concentrated along their common border to ensure they never went to war over these resources again has evolved into the largest common labor and commerce market in the world, a 27-country block which carries heavy weight in world markets. NATO has and continues to be the security mechanism that ensures America and Europe remain mutually engaged and cooperate in each other’s security, throughout the Cold War and into today.
The attack on Pearl Harbor that finally drew the U.S. into WWII came from Japan and the fight in the Pacific was just as furious as that in Europe. However no huge mechanized U.S. divisions had to make the slog through continental Asia. The U.S. experience in the Korean War—a forgotten war—shows that this would likely have been a more difficult proposition. The atomic bomb ended the war before the U.S. had to make such a major shift. We can perhaps be thankful our enemy was the island of Japan and not on the mainland of Asia. Early American difficulties in Korea may be blamed on defense budget cuts and a general aversion to investing money, equipment, and lives in another war in Asia so soon after finishing a first. Technically, the Korean War is still not over.
Some of this begins to sound familiar. After ending Iraq and soon Afghanistan, America is war weary and will be cutting defense spending—some voluntarily, most via sequestration. Yet world events continue to call. See Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, and other lesser-known fights in places like Yemen, the Philippines, and the horn of Africa. What is different is that Europe seems to be waking up to the world again. European military and diplomatic contributions have been more forthcoming than at any time since WWII. Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, and Mali are proof.
The wars in Iraq and Vietnam are always a controversial parallel to draw. America fought them both virtually alone. They became very unpopular politically at home, unpopular internationally, and they suffered from unclear goals, ‘mission creep’, an enemy hard to define or pin down, and were aggravated by bigger states becoming involved by fighting a proxy war against America. Both wars also have those who feel a better result would have been achieved if America had fully committed and ‘stayed the course’. They’re not necessarily wrong.
It must be understood that every conflict America has fought in the post-WWII era has carried with it the potential to expand into much wider conflict—WWIII even. Even seemingly small events such as the Cuban missile crisis or the fall of the Berlin Wall all carried the specter of a much wider battle with the USSR if things had gone differently. America didn’t go ‘all in’ in Korea because it risked war with the Chinese and perhaps Russia. A larger commitment expanding further outside the borders of Vietnam risked the same and the reason the U.S. only made temporary incursions into Laos and Cambodia. The U.S. didn’t chase bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Afghan Taliban into Pakistan because it didn’t want wider war in the Middle East either. Though there is evidence Pakistan has been playing for both sides and that Iran fuelled the Iraqi insurgency, Americans would not support a fully-committed fight. Yet two years later America invaded Iraq on thinner pretense. We get ourselves into these things easily, but can’t finish them.
This hesitancy to fully commit and stay the course is also not wrong. Before America goes to war it should always decide if it is willing to go the distance. There are times when a small, limited, focused campaign can achieve results—see Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya. But this is the exception and not the rule. Lack of a clear mission with defined goals and commitment to full victory can lead to quagmire and drift as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The current administration’s hesitancy to become involved on the ground in the Arab Spring uprisings, Syria, and Africa seems to come from an understanding of this problem. One should not sleepwalk into wars or try to fight them on the cheap, as early on in Afghanistan.
Though controversial, drone strikes against targets in the Middle East and Africa are one of a few ways for America to act against opponents who don’t have a state or wear a uniform and doesn’t require U.S. boots on the ground or put troops’ lives at risk. The only other alternative, short of going to war, is to do nothing. As America, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Doing something—ground combat, air interventions, drone strikes—is just as unpalatable as doing nothing and allowing extremists to control wider swathes of territory to the terror of the people that live there.
In order to maintain its position in the world, America cannot go back to sleep. Underneath it all, we’re not the lone masters of the universe anymore. Amid turmoil elsewhere, China is growing, flexing its muscles in the Pacific, in the markets, and in the cyber-world. Though the U.S. takes no official position, the arguments between China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines over uninhabitable Pacific islands is actually about the oil and gas deposits under them. China’s economy and military spending has grown by leaps and bounds since 2008. China is indisputably conducting industrial and state espionage against America on the ground and online. With these points in mind, it is clear to see why the Obama administration is making a strategic shift to the East.
As the 20th century has turned into the 21st, moral justifications for going to war have become unclear, politicized, and suspect. Yet, despite outcries, there has never been as much care taken in the military operations of Western states for avoiding unnecessary civilian casualties in combat as there is today. They are a consideration in every engagement. We have gone from indiscriminate day and night bombing raids on urban areas to using intelligence-driven surgical strikes on individual targets which may soon require a judicial process to approve them. As much as this is a laudable improvement, the enemy knows how to create media churn when innocents are killed. This despite that attacks by Islamic extremists often kill scores more innocent civilians for every Western soldier, diplomat, or civilian they themselves kill.
Will there ever come a time again when it is clear America must act or has our thinking become too morally relativist? It is right to always be skeptical of the use of military force. War is an ugly thing for everyone involved and it is always right to question it. My father and I are American veterans of wars that will never have a clear place in our history. Many Vietnam veterans feel America had the communists on the run after the 1968 Tet Offensive, but domestic political and public opinion had turned against continuing to fight. There is historical support for this view. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine that many veterans of that generation didn’t want the same thing to happen to their sons and daughters in Iraq and Afghanistan. This fear informed the ‘stay the course’ mantra of the George W. Bush era and other leaders such as Senator John McCain.
Both Vietnam and Iraq suffered because of a lack of clear ideas and communication to people at home what it was we were fighting for and how exactly we would know when we won, not to mention the huge costs in lives and money. Neither fight was ever short on cited justifications, but in neither case was there an answer in one sentence. In Vietnam, the enemy was communism. Yet we knew that we were never going to actually take on the real sources of communism directly—Russia and China. Similarly yet more confusingly, in Iraq the enemy was a WMD threat, Saddam Hussein, and the ambiguous enemy of ‘Islamic extremism’. There were no WMD. We deposed Saddam. There is no identifiable single source of Islamic extremism and America continues to reiterate constantly that Islam itself is not the enemy. The fight still goes on elsewhere even after killing bin Laden and rendering the original iteration of al Qaeda ineffective as an organization.
It was clear we had to fight WWII because eventually we would be fighting for our own continuing free existence one day. There was also the moral imperative to free other nations from an illegitimate foreign invasion accompanied by ethnic cleansing and holocaust. That is a pretty clear measuring stick. Does this mean that the circumstances must always be this clear before America turns to military force? What did German minorities, Chinese, Austrians, Czechs, Poles, Dutch, Belgians, French, and Britons of that era think? Did America wait too long to join the fight? There is some truth behind the argument that we waited until it really became our problem and that all was forgiven when we came as liberators—though too late for many. We invested tens of thousands of troops’ lives and billions of dollars in the war eventually anyway.
The onset of the Cold War and the atomic age presented new problems. Though clear lines were drawn again between NATO-West and Warsaw Pact-East, the ‘mutually assured destruction’ that nuclear weapons guaranteed ensured we would often come to the brink of WWIII, but never over the line. The West understood, in the words of George Kennan, that, “Soviet power . . . bears within it the seeds of its own decay.” By placing pressure militarily, economically, politically, and socially on the USSR, we were able to hasten its demise, though it did take forty-five years.
In many ways, America continues to apply this strategy to other states today. We’ve pressured states such as Iraq, Libya, Iran, Syria, and others in a similar fashion, attempting to affect change by identifying, creating, and exploiting cracks in their internal systems’ foundations. But these states, especially the Middle Eastern variety, have something the USSR never had—oil and gas wealth and religious, social, and ethnic unity. Even amid regional clashes based upon sectarianism, tribalism, and ethnicity, the people of the greater region often conclude, temporary alliances aside, that their differences with America are bigger than their differences amongst each other.
During the Cold War, the West could offer its foes religious, cultural, political, and economic freedom or liberalization. These were things dissidents wanted and called for and the Soviet state had to suppress. But it is not the same case in the Middle East and Maghreb. Though the people there do strive for political freedom from totalitarianism and more economic freedom, they often still reject the Western culture that is seen to come along with it. This presents people of the region a choice between the lesser of two evils; change their deeply-embedded culture in the name of progress or keep their traditions and suffer advancement at a snail’s pace. They’re not ready to buy what we’re selling, at least not as much as the East block was, or at least not yet. We’re in the position of trying to give something to them they’re not ready for and we want them to thank us for it. It isn’t working.
But it may work elsewhere. Asia certainly has its cultural differences from the West, but the differences between the two do not set us so far apart. America has excellent relations with India, a state that may just end up eclipsing China in decades to come. Japan has every opportunity to regain the economic power it had in the 1980’s. South Korea is also experiencing tremendous growth. America has normalized relations with Vietnam and strong relationships with the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan, among others. Many of these states are seeking an alliance to balance against Chinese regional pressure. Though the region has pariah states in Burma and North Korea, most Asians are looking for the kind of political, economic, and cultural liberalization that America and the West has to offer, albeit with their own cultural twist. A shift to the East is certainly a good idea.
It is perhaps wrong to look at China as an enemy of America in the Cold War sense of the word. It is clear that China is the number one competitor with the U.S. for world hegemony. Moral relativism dictates that this shouldn’t matter and if we walk around with a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Yet it is America’s dominance in the world that allows Americans to enjoy what it is we love in our society. One thing that is clear about Americans is that we will not happily accept a decline in our standard of living so that others elsewhere can have more. We don’t like bumps in the road. Despite fighting two long and costly wars in the Middle East over the past decade, the average American hasn’t felt a bump at all. There is no draft, no rationing, and only 1% of the population serves in the military. If competition means a decrease in security or living standards or increases in costs, Americans will not accept it. Morality aside, this is a facet of the American character.
The truth is that states such as North Korea and Iran do not pose a real threat to American hegemony for all of our concern over their weapons programs. They never have. They do have the ability to harm and kill a large number of Americans or our allies and, in the case of Iran, have done so. I witnessed first-hand the results of Iran’s proxy involvement in the Iraq War through arming and training Iraqi insurgents. Yet there is no scenario in which Iran could overtake America militarily, economically, or diplomatically. Though we should always remain concerned and watchful of such states, the amount of attention devoted to them should be proportionate to the true threat they represent, especially when there are bigger opponents in the game.
China is the only competitor who may present a real challenge to U.S. dominance. It is big enough, land, population, and resource-wise. Its economic growth has been impressive, as has the growth in its military spending. It is no secret that many of the military technologies China has unveiled in the past several years have often been based on pirated U.S. technology. China unveiled its own stealth fighter, having allegedly paid top dollar for pieces of a downed U.S. stealth bomber in Bosnia and from the crashed stealth helicopter used on the bin Laden raid in Pakistan. Recent reports show that China-based hackers, likely from a Chinese military unit, have infiltrated the computer systems of almost every major U.S. government institution, large media and law firms, and major corporations. Chinese agents on the ground in the U.S. are buying our military and civilian trade secrets and technologies.
But cultural and social change is coming along with China’s state-controlled opening and economic prosperity. The Chinese state seems to be making an attempt at a version of totalitarian capitalism and may soon wander into Russian-style ‘managed democracy’. They’ve been able to keep the brakes on any undesirable side effects to this point. But if history is any guide, economic liberalization brings political and social liberalization with it. In China’s case, this may become an uncontrollable, possibly bloody affair that makes Tiananmen Square look small in comparison. When people begin to want more freedoms in life, they begin to question the state as to why they cannot have it. America knows this from its own history. These are questions the Chinese government may not like to hear.
The question of whether or not China should be looked at as a competitor is an academic one. China clearly is a competitor. It remains to be seen if China is a foe. Chinese would likely argue that they’re not doing anything that America isn’t doing itself. They’re not wrong. We still spend more on our military than the next sixteen nations combined. We spy on China as well. From the point of view of moral relativism, it would be unfair to decry them for doing the same things we’ve been doing for decades. But the moral relativist doesn’t pick a side.
Choosing America’s side, China presents an unclear case. China has never really had imperialist ambitions and rarely involves itself in events outside its own borders, yet reacts jealously to actions it sees as taken against its interests or involvement in its domestic affairs. China may not have ambitions against America, but the question is if the competition they present will be a threat to the United States’ hegemony. Moral relativism would hold that they’re just as entitled to it as we are and if they can beat us at our own game then they deserve to win. These sound much like the words of George Kennan speaking on confronting and defeating the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We cannot just say they’re as entitled to it as we are and throw the game wide open. We’re still playing.
What should America do? We’ve always been good at forging long-term mutually beneficial alliances, something many other states have been unable to do, or at least not as successfully. Our enduring security relationship with Europe through NATO and the connections forged with former enemies using the Marshall Plan are examples. America should attempt to build and strengthen similar institutions that build multilateral cooperation in Asia.
Despite rhetorical accusation from the far left, America is not and never has been an empire. This argument does sell books though, as does reports of America’s premature demise. We do use our economic and military strength to push our interests forward, but this is a far cry from Rome, the Ottomans, and colonial powers like France and Great Britain. Though many may grumble America usually seems to get its way like the big kid in the schoolyard, countries that build cooperation with the United States find it is a mutually-beneficial relationship. Compare this with the exploited positions of European colonies or satellite states of the USSR. Even in the overwhelming majority of states where the U.S. has troops stationed or deployed, they are there by agreement, not invaders, and provide an economic boon.
If America is going to continue to compete, we need to give Asian states reasons to choose our side. Ensuring China isn’t allowed to push around its smaller neighbors is a good place to start. If we do, we will have to assure them that we are interested in the area for good and are not just fair weather friends who will abandon them, leaving them to suffer the wrath of their much bigger neighbor China. The U.S. must be ready to make as much a long-term commitment to our Asian allies as it has to our European partners.
Some will argue this will draw Chinese ire and increase friction, but allowing sometimes-ridiculous Chinese claims to territory and waters to stand may look like appeasement and only encourage further infractions. At the current level of Chinese espionage in the United States, they cannot honestly complain of U.S. involvement in their domestic affairs with clean hands. America refraining from playing at China’s borders should be dependent upon them refraining from playing too much within ours.
At the same time, continuing to trade heavily with China will continue its growth and, theoretically, the liberalization that will come with it. However we should encourage and incentivize China raising its product safety and labor standards. This will in turn increase the cost of Chinese goods to a level comparable with the rest of the world and support improved conditions for average Chinese workers to raise their wages to a comparable level as well—and demand more freedoms that come along with them. America should continue and expand military and educational exchange as well to grow a better mutual understanding of one another’s system and culture. America has always been an open book; China has not been.
In our meandering, unclear, adventurist, and sometimes-profligate relations with the rest of the world in the post-Cold War era, we shouldn’t lose sight that there are still sides to be chosen. Our position in the world is not assured by ‘American exceptionalism.’ It is always proper to question whether the choices we are making are morally correct. Yet this questioning must not translate into hesitancy or a failure to understand that we may have to take action, even military action, for the things we want to keep as a country or what we believe in or even for our very existence. When that time comes again—history tends to show it will—we will have to be prepared to compete or even fight with clear objectives in mind and accept no less than victory.
This is the kind of country my grandfather grew up in and the kind of war he fought in, though arguably the lines were much more clearly drawn then and there was a clear and present threat to our country. Things are more ambiguous in the modern world. Many Americans have become too comfortable with our position. Some believe unquestioningly in the absolute creation myth that this is a God-chosen nation that is the unique pinnacle of human development--a belief that ignores the hard work and sacrifice that built this country and keeps it where it is.
On the opposite side, other Americans have come to question so much about our position and dominance in the world that they seem to welcome the idea of the U.S. being taken down a notch and feel little connection to the country despite the advantages and benefits life here affords them. Both of these viewpoints are quite naïve and dangerous, yet represent the sides that divide America today—one believes in American infallibility, the other in unjust American imperialism. Both of these positions are wrong and neither is tenable.
America is moving out of its adolescence. In many ways we’re not fighting to advance anymore; we’re just fighting to hold on. This struggle is most present in the great American middle class, with the children of the baby boom generation facing the likelihood of having a lower standard of living than their parents. The men and women coming home from years of war in the Middle East are struggling to find a place in the workforce and society. In many ways, it seems that America has lost its way. One side holds that our best days are already behind us and it is to these idealized glory days we must return. The other believes we should seek some sort of utopian equilibrium with the rest of humanity that has never existed and likely never will.
America has to find its point again. For us to maintain our good standard of living and spread opportunity to the majority of citizens it must be recognized that we have to do it from a position of strength that continues to put our interests first. This also means accepting that the face of America itself is changing—ethnically, socially, and economically. This does not require an America that believes blindly in its own righteousness and rectitude and always presses its advantage to the pain of others. The world doesn’t need another empire. It needs a power that can provide stability and sound judgment in the rest of the chaos. For the last 75 years America has provided that stability.
There is no shortage of paranoid regimes that seek to wield their influence. Imagine American power in the hands of Iran, North Korea, or Russia. Despite our historical mistakes, America has always refrained from grossly abusing the full power it has in the world. It is true that there has never been a nation as strong as America. It is also true that there is no other power that has shown as much restraint in using it. To those who believe we should use it to our full advantage, know it is this very restraint that has allowed us to maintain it. For those who believe we have used it too often, know that America has used its power more justly than any other great nation before it.
Knowing the balance between when to exercise power and when to hold back is vital to maintaining America’s strength. Our adventures in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq should teach us that. We should have foreseen from the beginning and now in hindsight that these fights were against larger enemies that we either lacked the understanding to recognize and/or the will to take on fully. Lacking that understanding or commitment, we should not have started anything we were not going to finish. That does not mean blindly ‘staying the course’ once chosen, rather it means if we are not willing to pursue the fight from the beginning to the outcome of nothing less than total victory, then every minute, every life, and every cent spent upon it is wasted effort.
America itself is not immune from the strategy it applies against the rest of the world. When al Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11, they did so knowing that America would have to respond. It was what they wanted. It has worked. As a consequence, America has been embroiled in war in the Middle East for over a decade at the cost of thousands of troops’ lives, over $1 trillion spent, and great domestic and international political turmoil. Despite the cost and effort, very little has changed in the region. Islamic extremism remains a threat and new organizations have sprung up every few years.
Our opponents have found cracks in the foundation of our system and are attempting to exploit them. This is a trick we know well because it is our game. When George Kennan wrote of communism containing the seeds of its own destruction he also wrote that American-style capitalism does as well. We must answer to the pressures put upon us by our foes, but do so in a way that does not waste effort, resources, or time. This is no time for America to become complacent. America worked and fought hard to obtain its place in the world and keeping that place will require just as much work and fighting.
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.