Sunday, August 01, 2010

warsocialism's epic failure

HuffPo | Throughout much of the twentieth century, great powers had vied with one another to create new, or more effective, instruments of coercion. Military innovation assumed many forms. Most obviously, there were the weapons: dreadnoughts and aircraft carriers, rockets and missiles, poison gas, and atomic bombs -- the list is a long one. In their effort to gain an edge, however, nations devoted equal attention to other factors: doctrine and organization, training systems and mobilization schemes, intelligence collection and war plans.

All of this furious activity, whether undertaken by France or Great Britain, Russia or Germany, Japan or the United States, derived from a common belief in the plausibility of victory. Expressed in simplest terms, the Western military tradition could be reduced to this proposition: war remains a viable instrument of statecraft, the accoutrements of modernity serving, if anything, to enhance its utility.

Grand Illusions

That was theory. Reality, above all the two world wars of the last century, told a decidedly different story. Armed conflict in the industrial age reached new heights of lethality and destructiveness. Once begun, wars devoured everything, inflicting staggering material, psychological, and moral damage. Pain vastly exceeded gain. In that regard, the war of 1914-1918 became emblematic: even the winners ended up losers. When fighting eventually stopped, the victors were left not to celebrate but to mourn. As a consequence, well before Fukuyama penned his essay, faith in war’s problem-solving capacity had begun to erode. As early as 1945, among several great powers -- thanks to war, now great in name only -- that faith disappeared altogether.

Among nations classified as liberal democracies, only two resisted this trend. One was the United States, the sole major belligerent to emerge from the Second World War stronger, richer, and more confident. The second was Israel, created as a direct consequence of the horrors unleashed by that cataclysm. By the 1950s, both countries subscribed to this common conviction: national security (and, arguably, national survival) demanded unambiguous military superiority. In the lexicon of American and Israeli politics, “peace” was a codeword. The essential prerequisite for peace was for any and all adversaries, real or potential, to accept a condition of permanent inferiority. In this regard, the two nations -- not yet intimate allies -- stood apart from the rest of the Western world.

So even as they professed their devotion to peace, civilian and military elites in the United States and Israel prepared obsessively for war. They saw no contradiction between rhetoric and reality.

Yet belief in the efficacy of military power almost inevitably breeds the temptation to put that power to work. “Peace through strength” easily enough becomes “peace through war.” Israel succumbed to this temptation in 1967. For Israelis, the Six Day War proved a turning point. Plucky David defeated, and then became, Goliath. Even as the United States was flailing about in Vietnam, Israel had evidently succeeded in definitively mastering war.

A quarter-century later, U.S. forces seemingly caught up. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm, George H.W. Bush’s war against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, showed that American troops like Israeli soldiers knew how to win quickly, cheaply, and humanely. Generals like H. Norman Schwarzkopf persuaded themselves that their brief desert campaign against Iraq had replicated -- even eclipsed -- the battlefield exploits of such famous Israeli warriors as Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin. Vietnam faded into irrelevance.

For both Israel and the United States, however, appearances proved deceptive. Apart from fostering grand illusions, the splendid wars of 1967 and 1991 decided little. In both cases, victory turned out to be more apparent than real. Worse, triumphalism fostered massive future miscalculation.