"Our national myth showed us that we were good, our technology made us strong, and our bureaucracy gave us standard operating procedures. It was not a winning combination."
So judged a wise historian, Loren Baritz, about how we wandered, open-eyed and fuzzy-minded, into Vietnam. Twenty years ago, when I first read his still-undiscovered masterpiece, Backfire, I cringed. So this is how we do things. This is us. It's going to happen again.
It's happening again. And of late, I've taken to constituting myself as an anti-war movement of one—a man of impeccable conservative credentials and long experience in the national-security field, a grumpy old Marine, who has grown infuriated with and appalled by both the conservative embrace of disaster and the enormity of the smallness of what passes for the anti-war movement today.
Yes, technology makes us strong, possessed of a military such as the world has never seen. But the myths now come to us less out of our own wishes and experiences than courtesy of an ugly cabal, half-Pentagon, half-media.
The Pentagon half: It's not so much el jefe, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (a good man and an excellent "SECDEF"), as some of the little jefitos running around. You want names? Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the denizens of the Defense Policy Board, an unpaid in-house think tank headed by Reaganite retread Richard Perle, a.k.a. "The Prince of Darkness," a moniker he earned in the 1980s for his love of confrontation for the sake of confrontation and of all things nuclear.
The media half? Again, not just the Big Guys, the Foxes (I like O'Reilly) and the MSNBCs (Nachman's cool). It's also a couple slick policy rags more notable for their influence than their circulation. The Weekly Standard and its allied P.R. machine, the Project for the New American Century, come to mind—the Bill Kristols, et al.
WHO ARE THESE people? Generically, they've been called "American Gaullists," after France's 20th-century all-purpose savior, Charles "France Without Greatness Isn't France" de Gaulle. But greatness without grace isn't greatness. The current D.C. version: America Without Greatness Isn't America. Let's go thump somebody. It'll be quick and easy and cheap and great, great fun and anyway, as a recent New American Century fax addressed to "opinion leaders" assures us, Baghdad won't be like Mogadishu because this time we have "the will to win."
Le Grand Charles, who knew from wars both world and colonial, would have scorned anything so stupid and so glib. These men aren't Gaullists. They're Prussians, a new aristocracy of aggression that combines 19th-century Prussian pigheadedness with a most un-Prussian inability to read a map or a ledger book, and a near total lack of military—let alone combat—experience. Ask these people to show you their wounds, and they'll probably wave a Washington Post editorial at you.
As for procedures—the procedures pertaining to going to war—the administration's strategy (or lack thereof) can only be described as bizarre. OK, so maybe they're practicing psychological warfare, or even their own brand of taqiya, an Arabic word connoting the right and duty of believers to lie to infidels. (Why not? The Islamic world seems to have adopted a Jewish communications strategy known as kvetching.) But when a president of the United States tells us that—not to worry—if he decides to go to war, he'll definitely ask the Congress for "support," and—again, not to worry—he'll "explain it" to the American people and we'll "understand," it's enough to make you join the anti-war movement.
What anti-war movement? When you look at what passes for "resistance" nowadays, you cringe in embarrassment that this is what's left of the left. Pompous. Arrogant. Self-righteous. Self-referent. Impotence chic at its finest. Punch up www.notinourname. net and read their "pledge of resistance." Or imagine my feelings—I almost said, "Feel my pain"—when I did a local church panel recently. A man in the audience asked if America would die like Rome, Nazi Germany, and the British Empire. One panelist agreed that, yes, America will die. The audience applauded.
And that's why I've come to be an anti-war movement of one, talking to anyone who will listen, not about how evil or how good we are, but about the world as it is and the vortex we're approaching.
On Sept. 10, 2001, the Beltway couldn't decide whether the defense budget should be $310 billion or $312 billion. The Weekly Standard crowd was demanding Rumsfeld's resignation for refusal to spend more money faster. Today, annual defense and homeland-security expenditures have swooshed past $400 billion. At this rate, we will spend more on defense in this decade than we did directly on all of World War II. So where's the world war?
All around us. Today, depending on how you count, there are between 60 and 100 international, transnational, civil, and regional armed conflicts under way. The world is at war. And we're getting ready for combat around the world. Since Sept. 11, we've been building foreign bases in central Asia, the Persian Gulf, and down the east coast of Africa. The Pentagon speaks of being there for "the long haul." We're concluding training and other agreements with dozens of countries and groups (note well: groups), and generally mucking about with a fervor not seen since the 1950s era of "Pactomania."
Alas, then as now and try as we might, we have few reliable or democratic allies. We have maybe half a dozen friends: Britain, Canada, Australia, Israel (sometimes), Turkey (a better friend to us than we've been to them), and, soon enough, Russia. Beyond that, we have relationships and hookups in ever-proliferating quantity and ever more complex and questionable quality.
SO WHAT'S THIS new struggle, these hundred conflicts already melding into yet another world war, about? Put simply: Maybe half the countries on this planet—and many of the poorest and most volatile—have borders that don't make sense politically, militarily, ethnically, culturally, economically, or ecologically. Before the Soviet collapse, borders were considered sacrosanct, virtually immutable, the sine qua non of national sovereignty. Now sovereignty is breaking down and busting up all over, and borders grow ever more unavailing and unreal. No amount of Western-style "nation building" can hold together nations that never should have been nations in the first place and shouldn't be now. And no amount of American muscle can police a world destined for a century of conflict over resources, religions, identities, and whatever else people care to massacre each other about.
Throughout the Cold War, we failed at Third World nation building, failures we could elide courtesy of local thugs and kleptocrats. During a decade that historians may someday call "The Wasted '90s," we blew it in Haiti, Somalia, and, to some extent, in the Balkans.
We're getting our first hard lesson in Afghanistan, whose continued existence as a collection of feuding tribes and warlords isn't worth the bones of an Arkansas grenadier. If we go into Iraq, if we get our "regime change" and then try to build them a country, the lesson will be harsher still. And as we fail, the chaos—and our involvement and implication in that chaos—will spread. It will spread through the Islamic world. It will spread through Africa. And the consequences and the violence will not be confined to those unhappy lands. Not to mention the fact that, from the jihadist point of view—they who recognize no legitimate borders save those of the Umma, the Islamic world under their brand of Islamic law—destabilization is exactly the opportunity they want.
So what's Iraq about? In the end, it's not about that nasty man or the nasty things he's collecting. It's about what the policy wonks call "destabilization." It's about taking the next step into a regional and a global chaos that could wreck this planet.
So what do we do when the government's careening toward disaster, the anti-war movement's comatose, and the media keep us on perpetual spin? For starters, we dare to risk unilateral rationality. Which tells us that we've yet to begin to develop an effective strategy for coping with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, let alone the imminent fracturing of dozens of nations.
Philip Gold served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps before joining the faculty of Georgetown University in 1982. Since 1992, he has served as a senior fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, specializing in national security. His latest book, Against All Terrors: The People's Next Defense, is available online at www.discovery.org.