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September 11, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Global War on Terror: Year 7

It's been seven long years since that awful day in September when everything suddenly changed forever. Many of us knew immediately that our nation was at war, and that it would be a long and difficult conflict. Our country did not choose to begin the war, and likewise it is beyond our power to end the war simply by "choosing" peace. Whether we like it or not, the United States, and indeed much of the Western world, will be in a state of war (or virtual war) for years and years to come. That does not mean that our troops will be engaging in protracted bloody firefights month after month, or that our pilots will be dropping bombs on terrorist hideouts year after year, but we will be subject to potential attack in one form or another for the indefinite future.

For amnesia-prone Americans, the idea of a conflict lasting for many decades is simply beyond comprehension. Europeans, on the other hand, tend to have a better appreciation for history. They know all about the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) and the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). Having suffered through two world wars in the past century, however, they are correspondingly less inclined than Americans to defend their civilization, which seems to be withering away. (Read Mark Steyn's America Alone.)

To put the "GWOT" in proper historical perspective, you would need to go back to at least the mid-20th Century, when Arab nationalism was beginning to rise, in opposition to Zionism. It would be even better to go back to World War I, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and left millions of Arabs and other non-Turkish populations without any governing authority -- save for the British and French. This sudden power vacuum exposed the Arabs' stagnant, backward culture for all the world to see, creating a deep, abiding hatred for Western imperialism. But the "Clash of Civilizations" really goes back to the 19th Century, when Charles Gordon (played by Charlton Heston in the movie Khartoum) heroically resisted the jihad waged by the Mahdi Mohammed Ahmed. (Both men died and then came the Whirling Dervishes.) Or perhaps it goes back to the late 18th Century, when the newborn United States took on the Barbary pirates in North Africa -- those "Musselmen," as Thomas Jefferson called them. You get the idea. This conflict has been a long time coming, and it's got a long way to go.

That being the case, we need to think seriously about our options in how to prosecute this war: Which targets to hit, and how many troops and other resources to devote. This, of course, is one of the main policy choices that the election in November will determine. In today's News Leader, Mary Baldwin College Professor Gordon Bowen looked ahead to how the wars will proceed after the Bush administration has ended. He rued the waning attentiveness of many Americans to the very real progress that is being made in Iraq:

George Bush's unaltered determination to persist to victory in Iraq fortunately was paired with a shift in war strategy: General David Petraeus' "surge" in street level counter-insurgency operations by U.S. and (pro-U.S.) Iraqi militias and armed forces

That point is paralleled by Bob Woodward's new book, The War Within, being excerpted this week in the Washington Post. It was not so much the increased numbers of U.S. troops that turned the tide as it was the adoption of more aggressive yet politically-sensitive tactics. Surprise: the Sunnis in Iraq are now on our side, and Anbar province is largely free of Al Qaeda! All it took was some astute negotiations with Sunni tribal leaders and a show of U.S. determination to prevail. Dr. Bowen is critical of several aspects of the Bush administration's conduct of the war, but unlike many pundits these days, he grasps the essential nature of the struggle we are in. What does he consider the most dangerous crisis zone in the world today? "Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state of 164 million, is close to unraveling." (Asif Ali Zardari was just elected to replace Pervez Musharraf on Saturday, but few people expect him to pacify the country any time soon.)

Anyway, some of the the online comments that were made in response to Dr. Bowen's column were off-topic, but I took the opportunity to add my two cents anyway, taking issue with someone who suggested that John McCain is a war-monger:

If you're going to talk about Obama's aversion to war, Pakistan is a bad example. Indeed, he has sounded even more gung ho than Bush about sending troops there to hunt for Osama bin Laden. Or maybe that's just talk.

Going back to the topic of Dr. Bowen's op-ed piece, it is also useful to contrast the relative degree of success in Iraq, where the U.S. has led the counter-insurgency effort in a determined (though often flawed) fashion, to Afghanistan, in which a hodge podge of NATO allies lacking in commitment has failed to secure the countryside. What more proof do you need of the inherent shortcomings of Obama's preference for multilateral, diplomacy-focused foreign policy?

Listen to McCain. When he says he hates war, he means it. He is not a swaggering "imperialist" bully, but he knows that you'll never get far in foreign policy if you rule out the use of force. He also knows that Bush made some serious errors, such as ignoring the political makeup of Iraq and failing to ask the American people to make sacrifices, and he's not about to repeat them. But that doesn't mean he's going to shirk responsibility for Iraq and just pull out.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 11 Sep 2008, 11: 55 PM

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