In his great civil war history, Decision in the West (1992), Albert Castel describes the last Confederate hope of victory. If in 1864 the Confederate armies continue to exact a steep cost from the North, "the majority of Northerners will decide that going on with the war is not worth the financial and human cost and so will replace Lincoln and the Republicans with a Democratic president and Congress committed to stopping hostilities and instituting peace negotiations." He cites the resolution of the Confederate Congress that: "Brave and learned men in the North have spoken out against the usurpations and cruelties daily practiced. The success of these men over the radical and despotic faction which now rules the North may open the way to...a cessation of this bloody and unnecessary war." Plus ça change....
The administrations of George W. Bush have virtually assured such a displacement by catastrophically throwing the country off balance, both politically and financially, while breaking the nation's sword in an inconclusive seven-year struggle against a ragtag enemy in two small bankrupt states. Their one great accomplishment—no subsequent attacks on American soil thus far—has been offset by the stunningly incompetent prosecution of the war. It could be no other way, with war aims that inexplicably danced up and down the scale, from "ending tyranny in the world," to reforging in a matter of months (with 130,000 troops) the political culture of the Arabs, to establishing a democracy in Iraq, to only reducing violence, to merely holding on in our cantonments until we withdraw.
This confusion has come at the price of transforming the military into a light and hollow semi-gendarmerie focused on irregular warfare and ill-equipped to deter the development and resurgence of the conventional and strategic forces of China and Russia, while begging challenges from rivals or enemies no longer constrained by our former reserves of strength. For seven years we failed to devise effective policy or make intelligent arguments for policies that were worth pursuing. Thus we capriciously forfeited the domestic and international political equilibrium without which alliances break apart and wars are seldom won.
The pity is that the war could have been successful and this equilibrium sustained had we struck immediately, preserving the link with September 11; had we disciplined our objective to forcing upon regimes that nurture terrorism the choice of routing it out with their ruthless secret services or suffering the destruction of the means to power for which they live; had we husbanded our forces in the highly developed military areas of northern Saudi Arabia after deposing Saddam Hussein, where as a fleet in being they would suffer no casualties and remain at the ready to reach Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh in three days; and had we taken strong and effective measures for our domestic protection while striving to stay within constitutional limits and eloquently explaining the necessity—as has always been the case in war—for sometimes exceeding them. Today's progressives apologize to the world for America's treatment of terrorists (not a single one of whom has been executed). Franklin Roosevelt, when faced with German saboteurs (who had caused not a single casualty), had them electrocuted and buried in numbered graves next to a sewage plant.
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The counterpart to Republican incompetence has been a Democratic opposition warped by sentiment. The deaths of thousands of Americans in attacks upon our embassies, warships, military barracks, civil aviation, capital, and largest city were not a criminal matter but an act of war made possible by governments and legions of enablers in the Arab world. Nothing short of war—although not the war we have waged—could have been sufficient in response. The opposition is embarrassed by patriotism and American self-interest, but above all it is blind to the gravity of the matter. Though scattered terrorists allied with militarily insignificant states are not, as some conservatives assert, closely analogous to Nazi Germany, the accessibility of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons makes the destructive capacity of these antagonists unfortunately similar-a fact, especially in regard to Iran, that is persistently whistled away by the Left.
An existential threat of such magnitude cannot be averted by imagining that it is the work of one man and will disappear with his death; by mousefully pleasing the rest of the world; by hopefully excluding the tools of war; or by diplomacy without the potential of force, which is like a policeman without a gun, something that doesn't work anymore even in Britain. The Right should have labored to exhaustion to forge a coalition, and the Left should have been willing to proceed without one. The Right should have been more respectful of constitutional protections, and the Left should have joined in making temporary and clearly defined exceptions. In short, the Right should have had the wit to fight, and the Left should have had the will to fight.
Both failed. The country is exhausted, divided, and improperly protected, and will remain so if the new president and administration are merely another face of the same sterile duality. To avoid the costs of a stalled financial system, the two parties—after an entire day of reflection—committed to the expenditure of what with its trailing ends will probably be $1.5 trillion in this fiscal year alone.
But the costs of not reacting to China's military expansion, which could lead to its hegemony in the Pacific; or of ignoring a Russian resurgence, which could result in a new Cold War and Russian domination of Europe; or of suffering a nuclear detonation in New York, Washington, or any other major American city, would be so great as to be, apparently, unimaginable to us now. Which is why, perhaps, we have not even begun to think about marshaling the resources, concentration, deliberation, risk, sacrifice, and compromise necessary to avert them. This is the great decision to which the West is completely blind, and for neglect of which it will in the future grieve exceedingly.