The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Wars of Discipline

Shelby Steele provides an interesting take on the kinds of wars that American has fought during the past half century. He calls them “wars of discipline” and describes them in the following manner:
All this points to one of the great foreign policy dilemmas of our time: In the eyes of many around the world, and many Americans as well, we lack the moral authority to fight the wars that we actually fight because they are wars more of discipline than of survival, more of choice than of necessity. It is hard to equate the disciplining of a pre-existing world order--a status quo--with fighting for one's life. When survival is at stake, there is no lack of moral authority, no self-doubt and no antiwar movement of any consequence. But when war is not immediately related to survival, when a society is fundamentally secure and yet goes to war anyway, moral authority becomes a profound problem. Suddenly such a society is drawn into a struggle for moral authority that is every bit as intense as its struggle for military victory.

Certainly, the Iraq War, like Korea and Vietnam, is not a war of survival. America would survive regardless of its outcome. And therein lines the problem. Again, from Steele:
America does not do so well in its disciplinary wars (the Gulf War is an arguable exception) because we begin these wars with only a marginal moral authority and then, as time passes, even this meager store of moral capital bleeds away. Inevitably, into this vacuum comes a clamorous and sanctimonious antiwar movement [and anti-War media] that sets the bar for American moral authority so high that we must virtually lose the war in order to meet it. There must be no torture, no collateral damage, no cultural insensitivity, no mistreatment of prisoners and no truly aggressive or definitive display of American military power. In other words, no victory.

Meanwhile our enemy is fighting all out to achieve a new balance of power. As we anguish over the possibility of collateral damage, this enemy practices collateral damage as a tactic of war. In Iraq, al Qaeda blows up women and children simply to keep alive the chaos of war that gives it cover. This enemy's sense of moral authority--as misguided as it may be--is so strong that it compensates for its lack of sophisticated military hardware.

On the other hand, our great military might is not enough to compensate for our weak sense of moral authority, our ambivalence. If we have the greatest military in history, it is also true that we lack our enemy's talent for true belief. Our rationale for war is difficult to articulate, always arguable, and distinctly removed from immediate necessity. Our society is deeply divided and there is a vigorous antiwar movement ready to capitalize on our every military setback.

This is the pattern of disciplinary wars: Their execution is always undermined by their inbuilt lack of moral authority. In the end, our might neutralizes our might. Our vast power makes all such wars come off as bullying, even when we fight selflessly for the freedom of others.

But what of the global war on terror? Is it a war of discipline or a war of survival? Certainly, we were attacked viciously and had moral authority for a counter-attack. However, those on the political left, if they believe that there is a existential threat at all, consider it one of our own making, and certainly think that survival is not an issue. In fact, a minority of the angry left appear to yearn for a time when our survival will truly come into question.

Even those on the right recognize that Islamofascism has the potential for long-term erosion of western ideals, but represents no immediate threat to our survival as a nation. Therefore, in some ways, the GWoT is also a war of discipline with all of the drawbacks that Steele describes.

That’s the frustration of attempting to prosecute a war of discipline. We struggle with ourselves, and as a consequence, we make only marginal headway against a dangerous and determined enemy.

If Iraq provides us with a model, it appears that wars of discipline are best fought by proxy. Local militias, tribes, and warlords who fight on our behalf (but in their own self interest) are fighting a war of survival. As such, they don’t worry about torture, or collateral damage, or cultural insensitivity, or mistreatment of prisoners or truly aggressive or definitive display of military power. They fight to win—definitively. They fight to destroy the enemy—completely.

In the GWoT, what we need to do is to find the right proxy and then let them do their job. But who or what is the right proxy?