America the Frightened

It can be both enlightening and frightening to work for a daily newspaper, in that the necessity to listen to and respond to people who have thoughts about what you have written can offer fascinating insights into the thought processes of ordinary Americans. This was brought home to me recently after I did a piece on the pros and cons of going to war with – or even undertaking some kind of cross-border military action against – Iran.

My piece, I thought, amounted to a reasonably nuanced argument against initiating military action, even a bombing campaign against suspected nuclear sites, against Iran. Not only is U.S. intelligence about Iran even less reliable than intelligence on Iraq was prior to the decision to wage war, but a bombing campaign would almost certainly only delay Iran’s acquisition of the capacity to build a nuclear weapon rather than prevent it, and might even reinforce determination to get one eventually. And there would be other repercussions.

I noted that if bombs fell Iran would almost certainly ramp up activities against U.S. troops in Iraq, which it could certainly do, and that "Hoover Institution scholar Abbas Milani, who founded the Iran Democracy Project, believes a U.S. attack would cripple the burgeoning democracy movement and unite Iranians in support (at least for a while) of the mullahs." Furthermore Iran could mess with oil shipments through the Persian Gulf and increase support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Not to mention that such an attack would play like a recruiting poster for al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremists and terrorists.

Well! A few readers called or wrote to say they appreciated my measured analysis, but most were almost apoplectic. How could I not see the grave threat that the Iranian regime poses to America and our way of life, and how could I be so shortsighted as not to understand that it was imperative that we take the regime out, preferably with as much force as possible?

One reader kept me on the phone for almost an hour, insisting that I take seriously his fear that if Iran were ever to acquire a nuke it would be only a matter of time before there were 20 of them planted in major American cities and the Iranians would hold us hostage and demand our capitulation. It was obviously only my willful blindness that kept me from acknowledging that this was such a likelihood that war – as immediate and violent and destructive as possible – was the only alternative to the eventual destruction of America.

How fascinating certain Americans are. This is the most successful country in the world, with the largest, most powerful, most technologically advanced military the world has ever known – although not necessarily one adapted to the kinds of challenges the U.S. faces at present, as we’ll discuss anon. Despite doomsayers who say our economic day in the sun is over, the United States continues to grow economically, providing most Americans (though not all, to be sure) a standard of living most people in the world can only envy. And while it’s less important than it was before vastly improved transportation and communications were developed, having two large oceans on either side of the country and generally friendly countries on the other sides gives us a unique security.

China or India or both may eventually have larger economies since they have larger populations and are becoming less hostile to entrepreneurs, but it is simply unlikely that such a powerful and successful country is likely to be destroyed by any other country anytime soon.

Yet many Americans (not all, of course) seem to live in perpetual fear of every pipsqueak country with a nasty dictator who talks nasty and may someday have the capacity to have a couple of nasty weapons. They will embrace the most outrageously unlikely scenarios to justify the fear and the desire to wage preemptive or preventive war against whatever regime was currently in the headlines.

To a great extent this predisposition made it relatively easy to sell the Iraq war to Americans. The fact is that even if Saddam Hussein had had WMDs, he would have posed no serious geopolitical threat, let alone an existential threat to the United States or to its core interests, even if those interests are viewed more expansively than I would define them. In 2003 Saddam did not even pose much of a threat to his neighbors, and his neighbors were not demanding that the great United States rush to deal with the neighborhood bully.

Yet a significant number of Americans were able to be persuaded or dragooned into feeling (I won’t dignify it by saying believing) that if this tin pot dictator weren’t taken out posthaste that the United States would be in grave danger. When the supposed drones that might have carried WMDs across the Atlantic to attack the U.S. (!) were shown to be chewing-gum-and-kite-stick contraptions it made little or no impression. We Americans were trembling in our beds at the thought of Saddam staying in power.

This tendency toward fear and trembling is often accompanied by an almost childlike faith in the ability of military force to erase any and every threat. All we have to do is bomb them back to the stone age – I’ve heard this phrase at least since the early days of Vietnam – and they’ll stop bothering us – until we discover some other tin pot tyrant who poses yet another threat to our sacred way of life.

Curiously, this touching faith in overwhelming military force is often accompanied by a conception of military force that seeks to divorce it from political objectives or any consideration of political consequences at all. Clausewitz famously taught that war is simply politics by other means, implying that it should be undertaken when it is undertaken with political objectives uppermost in leaders’ minds. (He didn’t seem to consider the corollary, that politics is war by other means, but nobody’s perfect.)

Yet Americans want war to be apolitical. Many Americans still believe that if the politicians had only unleashed the military and not kept it in check with political considerations that winning the Vietnam war would have been a slam-dunk. We’re already hearing a similar justificatory incantation regarding Iraq – if only the politicians would take the shackles off and let the military operate unencumbered, we’d soon show those insurgents/terrorists/whatever what-for.

This is magical thinking.

Jeffrey Record, who teaches strategy at the Air War College in Alabama, explains a good deal about Americans’ attitude toward the military in a paper he did last September for the Cato Institute. "Americans are frustrated with limited wars, particularly counterinsurgent wars, which are highly political in nature," he writes. The military concentrates on conventional warfare capability and large, expensive weapons systems, and won’t even consider more intensive concentration on counterinsurgency warfare. Consequently, "Expecting that America’s conventional military superiority can deliver quick, cheap, and decisive success, Americans are surprised and politically demoralized when confronted by Vietnam- and Iraq-like quagmires."

Guerrilla insurgencies almost always prevail over or wear down conventional military forces deployed by a foreign power – as Americans did against the British in our own revolutionary war – but we maintain a childlike faith in conventional military power. And we want to use it again and again, despite repeated disappointments, because against all rational calculation we keep convincing ourselves that various inferior ramshackle regimes are about to overrun us.


Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).