In 2006, even as the Bush administration’s misadventure in Iraq was coming unraveled, the Pentagon issued a quadrennial review promoting its “Long War” strategy. The struggle, it said, “may well be fought in dozens of countries simultaneously and for many years to come.”
The generals turned out to be right in ways they did not foresee but that now plague the Middle East and have created new burdens for Washington. Pentagon leaders are now whispering to favored national security reporters that endless war is harder than they promised.
The problem is that distant adversaries are no longer so scared of US military might. They have figured out how to avoid the traditional battlefield, where they would surely lose in the face of superior American firepower. They know that irregular warfare can sow rampaging fear among comfortable US citizens, whose government is bombing their villages (the United States has been bombing the Middle East off and on since 1991; Iraq is still a favorite target).
Americans call this irregular warfare “terrorism” and see themselves as innocent victims of incomprehensible, mindless violence. But this is what our enemies know: The United States trashed the international rules of war a long while back with its own irregular terrorism, which includes the Army’s Special Forces and the CIA’s secret armies, the sponsored overthrow of selected governments we don’t like, and the assassinations of unfriendly leaders through drone strikes and by other means. When American bombs kill defenseless villagers, we write it off as “collateral damage.”
The United States cannot win these conflicts, yet it cannot easily get out of them, either. Why not? Because America’s governing elites have declared us the “indispensable nation,” an exceptional status not mentioned in the Geneva Conventions. President Obama has tried to back away from our aggressive posture, promoting diplomacy over armed conflict and making important progress in some areas. But he’s also tried to have it both ways. One day he talks softly, the next day he’s swinging the big stick, personally supervising individual assassination by drone—arguably a crime when soldiers do it. Right-wing warriors ridicule the president’s limp leadership, but what will they say when one day a foreign power decides to murder an American leader?
Why not victory? That was the battle cry of right-wing politicians when the United States was knee-deep in the big muddy of Vietnam. Their complaint is being recycled by the current generation of chicken hawks. Despite our disaster in Vietnam, the United States has continued to misuse its awesome killing power, often not to conquer adversaries but to persuade their leaders to change policies. That’s why modern US wars are so prone to failure: Our violence is tailored diplomacy.