War: Then and Now

Monday, November 10, 2014
Poster Collection, US 2706, Hoover Institution Archives.
Poster Collection, US 2706, Hoover Institution Archives.

Once again, the American public has gotten it right; the results of the midterm elections were a protest against a lack of leadership. Americans expect to improve steadily their standard of living at home and to preserve our influence abroad. At home, eight years of sluggish growth and stagnant wages have irritated and concerned the public. Abroad, America is losing influence.

While our secretary of state has declared we are at war, the Obama administration has offered neither the strategy nor the resolve to win. Indeed, the face of war itself has changed. So now that we are midway into the second decade of the 21st Century, we can look back at the 20th century to compare how our leadership responded to war then versus now.

The 20th Century featured state-versus-state warfare, with entire nations committed to the cause, as exemplified by the First World War. Pushed by his Republican opponents, between 1915 and 1917 President Wilson gradually adopted an uncharacteristic bellicose tone that was ignored by the Germans, who believed that America’s military was too frail to be a threat. Once committed, however, America accepted a draft and rallied to the war.  A comparatively high percentage of Ivy Leaguers even volunteered to fight as enlisted men. Despite poor tactics on the battlefield, the Americans persisted in staying on the offensive. Their fighting determination raised the flagging spirits of our European allies and threw off-stride the exhausted German army. During sustained combat over 16 months, 70,000 American solders were killed in action and another 40,000 succumbed to the flu pandemic. The public accepted these serious losses without political rancor.

In 1938, the leadership of England and France vacillated when Hitler seized Czechoslovakia, leading toward WWII. By 1940, President Roosevelt was convinced America had to play an expanded military role. He worked shrewdly to outfox and win over his domestic opponents. By 1942, American leadership was united in implacably pursuing unconditional surrender. The stunning, horrendous deaths of hundreds of thousands at Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated America’s commitment to a total war. Not since the Civil War and the Indian campaigns in the West had America pursued war to its final conclusion—the total subjugation of one people by another.

In contrast, two decades later in Vietnam President Lyndon Johnson, the foreign policy elite, the press, and most elected leaders pursued war’s elusive middle path, seeking to compromise with a North Vietnamese government fully committed to taking over South Vietnam. Accustomed to cutting deals, Johnson offered to construct a Tennessee Valley Authority in the Mekong Delta, generating vast rice yields and hydroelectric power. Ho Chi Minh refused even to respond. As student protests against the draft escalated, the resolve of American leadership dissolved. While we suffered fewer casualties in 84 months in Vietnam than in 16 months in World War I, that was beside the point. Vietnam had dragged on too long in pursuit of objectives too indeterminate. We pulled all our troops out and slashed our military aid to South Vietnam.

In 1991, America briefly recovered its martial spirit by handily routing the Iraqi Army from Kuwait. Combined with the fall of the Soviet Union, by 2000 America stood as the world’s colossus, having put in place a set of conditions (e.g., a NATO alliance, military technological superiority, freedom of the seas, and a system of global trade beneficial to all participants) that rendered implausible any large-scale war by states against the West.

In place of nation-state war, the 21st Century opened with the non-state war of Islamist jihad. President George W. Bush responded by invading Afghanistan. When al-Qaeda fled into Pakistan, Mr. Bush kept our troops there to rebuild a fractured Islamic tribal society. Similarly, in Iraq he proclaimed his war goals were to spread liberty and build a democratic nation.

Despite the entreaties of his foreign policy cabinet, Mr. Obama withdrew all our troops from Iraq in 2011. This was welcomed by the sectarian prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the Iraqi Shiite parties that defined democracy as absolutism by majority rule. Once American troops were no longer present, the Shiites systematically disenfranchised the Sunnis. This in turn led to the resurgence of murderous Sunni zealots who claimed to be protecting the oppressed Sunni tribes in northern Iraq.

At the same time, in Central Europe, Russia under a revanchist Putin annexed the Crimea, challenging NATO resolve. In the Pacific, China pressed forward in the South China Sea, while its thievery of digital information from Western corporations continued without retaliation. These two nation states posed enduring challenges to the global order undergirded by American might. Neither, however, involved direct hostilities.

Instead, it was in Mesopotamia after two Americans were beheaded that Mr. Obama declared war, sort of. After two Americans were beheaded, American aircraft began dropping bombs to kill Sunni jihadists. This was a war without the risk of casualties—or the reward of success.

The jihadist leader in Iraq and Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, intends to re-establish the caliphate of Abu Bakr, who died in 634 after a two-year rule. Perhaps al-Baghdadi will not live for another two years, given the number of his enemies. But the death of one jihadist leader is not sufficient.

America has the power—viz Fallujah 2004—to destroy al-Baghdadi’s nascent army. But to do so in place of determined Arab Sunni forces would be foolish. An Arab warrior must arise to exterminate the jihadists, who have nowhere to run. They are not going to be driven from Iraq and Syria; for a satisfactory ending, they must be buried there. Only their visible, definite defeat will curtail the recruiting from among millions of disaffected Sunni youths across the Middle East.

Arab leadership is lacking. At the Battle of Sabilla in 1929, Ibn Saud, the father of the current Saudi king, attacked with his warriors and British aircraft to defeat the Ikhwan zealots who threatened his kingdom. Bequeathed the curse of wealth without work and protected by the West, for decades since then the Saudis have exported violent Islamic mullahs while limiting radical ideology inside their own kingdom. Their current precarious condition illustrates what occurs when intrigue and bribery substitute for conviction and a credible armed force. The Saudis lack the determined leaders and capable soldiers to cross the border and crush al-Baghdadi in Iraq.

In the tiny UAE on the Gulf, Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan is reputed to have the right stuff to emerge as a martial and enlightened leader. It's hard, however, to imagine the scenario under which he leads an army from other countries against al-Baghdadi.

Like his father, Jordan's King Abdullah is admired for his skill in retaining power and reasonableness. But any action by his army inside Syria runs too great a risk of an uprising by the Palestinians comprising a majority of his citizens.

The Obama administration believes the road to the destruction of the Sunni caliphate leads through the Shiite government in Baghdad that is heavily influenced by Iran. “There is a different government in place,” General Lloyd Austin, CENTCOM commander, said recently. “Initial indications...are very positive. … I think [Iraq’s leaders] want to do the right things and will do the right things."1

Our military is repeating our past mistake. Americans cannot “make sure” Iraq’s Shiite government treats fairly the Sunnis and Kurds. We are like the teacher who “makes sure” truculent students learn by standing over them. As soon as study hour is over, the students revert to character. Today, the best-known Iraqi military commander is Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Militia that is pro-Iranian and militant Shiite. His mentor is Qassim Suleimani, commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

This gives rise to the suspicion that the real priority in the White House is a legacy based upon an agreement—not submitted to the Senate—with Iran to curb its nuclear development for a few years. Iraq’s Shiite army performed terribly over the last year, lacking both the will and the leaders to wrest cities like Fallujah from al-Baghdadi’s zealots. American interests are better served by providing aid directly to the Kurds and Sunni tribes, while grooming future Arab military leaders who will morally and physically defeat the virulent jihadists.

In sum, unserious leaders have engaged America in a serious war. Secretary of State Kerry has great enthusiasms, none of which endure. Secretary of Defense Hagel seems to be the Dalmatian running alongside the fire truck, rather than the driver. President Obama is reclusive. If he does appoint a new national security advisor, that person is likely to be a cautious establishment centrist. All signs point toward a commander-in-chief who intends to run out the clock, handing his successor a squishy bag of geopolitical problems, topped off by a volcanic war in the heart of the Middle East.


1. Andrew Tilghman, “CENTCOM chief: More troops not the answer in Iraq,” Military Times November 7, 2014.