How to win the war on militant Islam

What would victory in the war on terror consist of? As I’ve written recently, President Bush doesn’t seem to have any idea. All he says is that we’ve got to “stay the course” in Iraq until, somehow, the Ba’athist and Jihadist resistance ceases. But, I’ve asked, what if it doesn’t cease?

An antidote to the dangerous muddiness of the Bush administration’s thought process is provided by Mark Helprin in an article at the Claremont Review. While the piece, like all Helprin’s writings, is wordy and overcharged with adrenaline, it contains this clarifying insight:

[T]here can be but one effective strategy in the war against terrorism, and that is to shift Arab-Islamic society into the other of its two states—out of nascent ‘asabiya [defined as “an ineffable combination of group solidarity, momentum, esprit de corps, and the elation of victory feeding upon victory”] and into comfortable fatalism and resignation…. [T]he object of such an exercise is not to defeat the Arabs but to dissuade them from making war upon us …

This, Helprin notes, is what the British so brilliantly succeeded in doing to Islam in the 19th and early 20th century. In order to put the Arabs back into that desired state of passivity today, America in the Iraq war needed to impress the imagination of the Arab world with the total futility of resisting us. Instead, we used the bare resources needed to win. Helprin continues:

The war in Iraq was a war of sufficiency when what was needed was a war of surplus, for the proper objective should have been not merely to drive to Baghdad but to engage and impress the imagination of the Arab and Islamic worlds on the scale of the thousand-year war that is to them, if not to us, still ongoing. Had the United States delivered a coup de main soon after September 11 and, on an appropriate scale, had the president asked Congress on the 12th for a declaration of war and all he needed to wage war, and had this country risen to the occasion as it has done so often, the war on terrorism would now be largely over.

But the country did not rise to the occasion, and our enemies know that we fought them on the cheap. They know that we did not, would not, and will not tolerate the disruption of our normal way of life. They know that they did not seize our full attention. They know that we have hardly stirred. And as long as they have these things to know, they will neither stand down nor shrink back, and, for us, the sorrows that will come will be greater than the sorrows that have been.

While Helprin doesn’t mention it, it occurs to me that Bush’s emphasis on the narrow goal of eliminating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (a theme that controlled almost the entire debate on the war, including VFR’s own participation in that debate) had the effect of blocking our vision from the much larger goal we should have pursued, which was the utter demoralization of militant Islam, or, rather, just plain Islam. The neoconservatives, with their stress on democratizing and empowering the Muslims rather than on crushing their will, also contributed to this blinkered vision.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 16, 2003 11:37 AM | Send

“The neoconservatives, with their stress on democratizing and empowering the Muslims rather than on crushing their will, also contributed to this blinkered vision.”

Yes they did: because, being liberals, they have an enfeebled “civilization sense,” so to speak — an appreciation for the rootedness and historical matrix of the world and culture which they move. They prefer abstractions and dubious universals. They prefer ideologues to patriots.

On another note, I am more impressed than Mr. Auster with Helprin’s writing style. He refers to that brassbound complacency among conservatives which allows them to assume that “everything must be all right as long as a self-declared conservative is in the White House.” The supine posture toward the Saudis is captured with a caustic epigram: “the fear of speaking truth to oil.”

Strategic blunders are surveyed with acuity: “we were willing to alienate the entire world so as to thrust ourselves into a difficult situation in Iraq, but unwilling to achieve a commanding position in Saudi Arabia for fear of alienating the House of Saud.” Elsewhere he declaims our clarity with this:L “Because we cannot sufficiently study the nature of an insufficiently defined enemy, our actions are mechanistic, ill-conceived, and a function of conflicting philosophies within our bureaucracies, which proceed as if their war plans were modeled on a to-do list magnetized to some suburban refrigerator.”

That’s good stuff.

Posted by: Paul Cella on September 16, 2003 11:56 AM

I agree with Mr. Cella that there were some zingers in the article, especially that line about conservatives who think that “everything must be all right as long as a self-declared conservative is in the White House.”

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on September 16, 2003 12:05 PM

After reading this article I have published an Iraq War “What’s Gone Wrong” Timeline on my website.

My conclusion in the end is that we lost the war at just about the same time as we won it militarily.

Posted by: Thrasymachus on September 16, 2003 2:49 PM

I just finished reading Helprin’s article. I believe he subscribes to a fundamental error in thinking that is regrettably common among conservatives. He believes that the US could do things right but isn’t, due to bad policy, lack of insight on the part of the leadership and so on. The underlying historical reference point (not stated here directly) is the performance of the US during WWII; 80,000 aircraft produced in a single year, 12 million men under arms, the P51 Mustang going from design to production in only 4 months etc. All of this overlooks the fact that the US in 2003 is not the US as of 1943. And it is not simply a matter of morals, that we are looser than our fathers or grandfathers, it is above all a matter of the expansion of the state in the intervening years.

If we examine the US war effort from ‘42 through ’45 we notice an important characteristic. Large numbers of people involved in the war effort served the government in some capacity coming from a free enterprise background with all the determination, can-do attitude and self-reliance that implies. The entire culture was that way, despite the small, by our standards, interventions of the FDR administration.
It was an overwhelmingly free enterprise economy that was harnessed for war by the government of the day. It was socialized in numerous ways during the war, yes, but the fundamental characteristics derived from this free enterprise origin.

In the intervening 60 years the American economy has been progressively socialized, regulated and burdened with taxation. Education has changed to de-emphasize self-reliance and individual responsibility. What we see at the bottom end of the socio-economic scale is only the tip of the iceberg – it affects even the high-powered people in the government, most of who have worked there all their lives. Industry has changed from can-do to compliance with regulation and the types it promotes reflect that necessity.
Politicians and government workers of all kinds including the military leadership work in a special sphere of reality divorced from the necessity of doing things that actually work. (If you doubt me about the military try reading David Hackworth’s fulminations against the “perfumed princes”.)

Therefore my political and economic model predicts that the Federal Government must act ineffectively and incompetently. It can do no other.

One might as well ask “Why is that middle aged heavy drinker less vigorous than he was at age twenty?”

Posted by: John Purdy on September 17, 2003 12:45 AM

My question about Helprin’s article has to do with specifics. The general idea is to drive Muslims back to their historically quiescent state through some overwhelming display of U.S. military capability demonstrating they have no chance to prevail against us. That idea makes a lot of sense as a general proposition; as I said, it at least offers the outlines of a strategy aimed at victory, which we do not have from Bush. But it’s not clear what exactly Helprin would have wanted the U.S. to do to achieve that result.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on September 17, 2003 1:48 AM

A former VFR poster, now banned, tried to post a comment today which read in part:

“So the weight of neocon lies has become so onerous, that now even Auster feels he needs to re-write the script about why we went to war. WMD were just one cause, but there were many others as well. This was never Auster’s position if you read his earlier writings on this site as well as FPM, but if the neocons (like Auster) weren’t so crafty at wiggling out of the truth, they would have been exposed as hostile agents years ago.”

It’s worth responding to this in order to clear up a basic confusion about the war debate. From 9/11 onward, my primary focus was: what do we do to end the worldwide threat of Jihadism and terrorism. The framework of the discussion was that we were in a war of civilizations or a world war, and that, as in all wars, the goal was to destroy the enemy’s ability and will to harm us. This meant thinking in large civilizational terms about the threat of Islamism and how to incapacitate it. Then the focus of the “war on terror,” as Bush unfortunately had named it, became narrowed down almost exclusively to Iraq. The chief and decisive reason for toppling the Hussein regime was the nexus of the terrorist threat and Hussein’s possession of materials and weapons of mass destruction and his ongoing programs to develop more such weapons. The majority of Americans including me supported the war on Iraq for that reason, but in the midst of the enervating, year-long debate over that one issue, there was a tendency to lose sight of the larger war that the war on Iraq was a part of. In post-Hussein Iraq, the connection between the two has been re-established in our minds by the terrorism campaign by Ba’athists and Jihadists. We realize that we may have overthrown Hussein, but are still facing an enemy whose numbers are unknown and may well be inexhaustible. Which makes us realize the possibility that we may not be able to secure Iraq (which in turn would allow us safely to withdraw from Iraq) without addressing the larger enemy.

The complexity of the situation makes it difficult for us to keep our eyes on all aspects of it simultaneously. I am as much at fault in this as anyone. During the debate about the Iraq war, the thought occurred to me, what happens if we conquer the country, and then face ongoing terror attacks, as the Israelis do from the Palestinians? But I never pursued that thought systematically. I don’t think the administration did either. I also forsaw many horrible problems resulting from the war on Iraq, but believed that the threat of WMDs in the hands of terrorists was so grave that it had to be addressed whatever the costs. All those other possible costs—ranging from high U.S. casualties to uprisings throughout the Arab world to chemical weapons being used against troops to an attack on Israel—never materialized, thank God. But we do face this continuing terrorism by Jihadists and Ba’athists.

But, as I said, that ongoing violent resistance and terrorism in Iraq only brings back into view the larger challenge we have faced since 9/11—the worldwide threat of militant Islam. That problem has not disappeared. It is appropriate that the aftermath of the specific act of toppling Hussein has returned us to a consideration of that larger problem.

Also, the failure to make the connection between the immediate job (overthrow Hussein and leave Iraq with a decent government) and the larger challenge (continuing militant resistance in Iraq) is paralleled by Bush’s disastrously mistaken name for this war, the “war on terrorism.” If it’s a “war on terrorism,” then you just keep going after whatever terrorists or terror supporters are in front of you. But the problem is that those terrorists are the manifestations of something larger—militant Islam. Since Bush refused to name militant Islam as the enemy, he is incapable of going after the sources of the terrorism, and so is left with an unwinnable struggle against an ever-renewed supply of individual terrorists.

As least, that is the current concern. Perhaps I am wrong and Iraq can be genuinely pacified in a reasonable time. But if not, then Bush has to to start thinking about the big picture, including re-naming the war.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on September 17, 2003 10:13 AM

John Purdy’s remarks above are brilliant. The cancerous expansion of the State has enervated our capacity for prompt and decisive action.

Under President Bush’s watch, for example, the State has added nearly a million people to its payroll.

Posted by: Paul Cella on September 17, 2003 10:25 AM

I just received this issue of the Claremont Review of Books in the mail. The article by Angelo Codevilla on the same topic is truly outstanding and not marred by the bluster and lack of specificity in Helprin’s article. Unfortunately it is not on the web, but I strongly encourage everyone to go to Barnes & Noble and give it a read. I can’t really recommend purchasing the whole magazine. Although it is frequently interesting and thoughtful, it is something of a parody of the neocon/Straussian tendency—it seems like every other review pauses at some point to say that “unfortunately this author has failed to fully integrate the brilliant theories of the amazing Harry V. Jaffa.” This is the same Jaffa who says in a letter to the editor that “the right to vote” is unquestionably the most important Constitutional right.

Posted by: Agricola on September 26, 2003 9:47 AM

If Agricola has a few minutes and would care to do so, perhaps he could provide a summary of Codevilla’s main points?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on September 26, 2003 9:56 AM

Some highlights of Codevilla’s article:

“[To win] one must draw a razor sharp, bloody distinction between enemies and friends…For the Bush administration, however, these distinctions proved to be mere rhetoric. It proved more willing to change America than to abandon its own progressive dream of creating a world order in which the issues of war, rather than enemies, would disappear.”

“American authorities did not know, and did not want to do away with the two thousand or so [Ba’athist] cadres who embodied the regime’s anti-Americanism…the Bush team feared that were the Ba’aths’ domestic enemies to take over, they would massacre their former tormentors…Inexorably, Iraqis learned that whereas no one would kill them for being anti-American, some people would kill them for not being anti-American, and that the Americans could not protect them.”

Here, I think, is a very important part of the puzzle. If French/Italian style post-war massacres were domestically and internationally unacceptable, then at least we should be holding war crimes trials and the like. More than the 55 “deck of cards” Iraqis were responsible for the previous regime.

After discussion of our mistakes re: Israel and Saudi Arabia, Codevilla is even better on Homeland Security:

“These plans are all about giving the U.S. government powers and discretion, without any substantive direction regarding how those powers are to be exercised…From the onset of terrorism in the 1960s, the government’s approach has been to mistrust the American people; to assume that only law enforcement, preferably federal and massively armed, could provide security. Although in the 1960s more hijacking attempts were foiled by passengers (often with guns) than by law enforcement, the government in 1972 decided to disarm all passengers. Thus it made sure that only hijackers would be armed.”

“Homeland Security is congenitally dumb, in principle unable to distinguish between the citizens it is supposed to protect and the terrorists it is to protect them against. Whereas at the time of World Wars I and II American society, with the government’s help, required the German American community to cleanse itself of sympathizers with Germany, a fortiori to be inhospitable to German agents, the Bush team has gone out of its way to make sure that no pressures are placed on Muslims, and especially Arabs, in America to distance themselves from terrorist causes. Focusing on such people is politicially incorrect. What is the worth of ading some 430 FBI agents and doubling the budget to fight biological terrorism when, in 2001, the government confined its vast, utterly fruitless effort to find the source of weapons-grade anthrax in the postal system to a hypothetical American “mad right-wing scientist”? At the time, evidence that the September 11 hijackers, and ultimately Iraq, were the source was politically incorrect. What was the good of the government’s vast 2002 search for the Washington-area sniper when political correctness dictated that he be an anti-government white man, and not the Black Muslim who was stopped and released several times during the search?”

In conclusion, “The Bush team is composed of the best and brightest of its generation. Perhaps, then, anything like victory must await a time when America is governed by simpler creatures.” Read the whole thing, if you can!

Posted by: Agricola on September 27, 2003 12:50 PM

Do we have enough time and, in today’s media climate, how will those simpler creatures gain the public eye and survive the political process? HRS

Posted by: Howard Sutherland on September 27, 2003 3:38 PM

Thanks to Agricola for the Covevilla quotes. Sounds like a must read.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on September 28, 2003 10:46 AM
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