A useful battle among conservatives began last week when National Review‘s Rich Lowry fired a salvo at those he calls “the ‘to hell with them’ hawks.” Lowry aims at the head of the conservatives who grow more skeptical of the president’s strategy. Lowry accuses them of writing off the reform of Islam, of misunderstanding the lessons of Vietnam, and of failing to understand that our goal in this war is to win the hearts and minds of all Islam. Lowry has picked a good fight, and his challenge must be met because the neo-Wilsonians such as he are profoundly wrong about the nature of this war and how we must fight it to win in the long haul. This is not an argument over who is braver or a more stalwart supporter of the president. It’s about who understands this war, what it will take for us to win, and when we will know if and when we have. Who can most accurately define victory and thus chart a path to it? It is not Lowry and the Bush-Wilsonians who believe victory in this war can only be achieved by democratizing the Middle East.
The nascent Iraqi democracy is neither the center of gravity in this war nor a factor determinative of victory or defeat. Iraq is but one key campaign in a larger war and if it becomes a democracy that is a collateral accomplishment, nothing more. To say that doesn’t make the sayer an isolationist or someone who wants to abandon Iraq. We didn’t invade Afghanistan and Iraq because they weren’t democracies. If the lack of democracy were a casus belli we’d be at war with about two-thirds of the world. We counterattacked the Taliban because with malice aforethought they provided the base from which Osama bin Laden organized an attack that killed three thousand Americans and then refused to turn him over to us when we gave them the choice between doing so and war. In Iraq we sincerely believed that the Saddam Hussein regime posed a threat to Americans and attacked only after the UN failed, as it always does, to deal with such a threat. The only goal of this war, which Lowry and the others lost track of, is to end the threat of radical Islam and the terrorism that is its chosen weapon against us.
We mean to win this war by destroying the regimes that provide terrorists with weapons, funds, people, and sanctuary. We mean to defeat the radical Islamist ideology (for that is what it is, not a religion) as we defeated the Soviet communist ideology. I and those who agree with me aren’t “‘to hell with them’ hawks”: we are Endgame Conservatives.
We understand that Islamic terrorism cannot threaten us significantly without the support of nations. We are impatient with Mr. Bush’s neo-Wilsonianism because it allows the enemy and its apologists to control the pace and direction of the war. We are unwilling to allow the prosecution of this war against the terrorist nations to be delayed for however long it takes for Iraqis to sort themselves out. It is impossible for them to do so while neighboring nations — Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — actively interfere. Endgame conservatives don’t want to be caught in the web of failed nostrums of Vietnam. We won’t wait for Islam to be reformed or to win the hearts and minds of the mullahs in Tehran. We don’t consider Islam unreformable; but we understand that it is unreformable by non-Muslims. And we understand that the only way to spur Muslims to accomplish that reformation is to break the hold radical Islam has over a growing number of nations.
Lowry says that the global war on terror is most like a counterinsurgency, and that it can only be won by persuading radical Islamists to either lay down their arms or not take them up at all. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the war we’re in, and what our goals must be to defeat the enemy. Like Vietnam, this war is not only a counterinsurgency. First, it is a war against nations that has to be fought both diplomatically and on the battlefields, both conventionally and otherwise. Second, it is an ideological war that can’t be won with soft words and euphemisms. And third — in Iraq, the Philippines, and much of the Horn of Africa — it is both a counterinsurgency and war for ascendancy among tribes and religious sects.
We don’t, like Lowry, completely mistake Vietnam. Lowry accuses us of missing the point that we only began to win in Vietnam when we “started to fashion a true counterinsurgency strategy focusing on hearts and minds, on holding territory and on training Vietnamese security forces.” Endgame conservatives understand the principal lesson of Vietnam is something else entirely: if you fail to prosecute a war in the manner that will produce victory decisively, you will lose it inevitably. Iraq, by the President’s and Lowry’s formulation, is a self-imposed quagmire. They believe that unless and until we establish democracy there we cannot prosecute the war against the other national sponsors of terrorism. We are now at the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion, almost five years since 9-11. If we had prosecuted this war as we did World War II, we would not be facing a pre-nuclear Iran, Syria’s Bashar Assad would be only a bad memory and Saudi Arabia would have been forced to cease its support of terrorism. And Iraq would be a much more peaceful place, closer to the goal Messrs. Bush and Lowry seek.
The “hearts and minds” campaign in Vietnam was essentially irrelevant to winning or losing. What lost the war was President Johnson’s gradualist approach to fighting it. LBJ was a stringless yo-yo. His stop-and-start, fight today, negotiate tomorrow and fight again the next day strategy, if you can call it that, was a disaster. When we pounded the North, we moved toward victory by depriving the insurgents (and the regular North Vietnamese forces) of the support on which they depended. When LBJ sputtered and stuttered, we lost what we had gained and gave the enemy time to recover and retake the offensive.
Lowry’s formulation is, at its core, colonialist. He writes, “The project in Iraq is an attempt to shift the terms of the competition to who can better deliver peace, prosperity and representation.” How shall we compete for hearts and minds of the Muslim world by offering Western democracy in a culture that, even at its most benevolent, cannot separate church from state? The only way would be to re-create the British Raj of colonial India. Would Lowry commit the hundreds of thousands of troops and tens of thousands of civilian bureaucrats to running a colonial government in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia for the next hundred years? I doubt it. And neither should anyone else interested in winning this war. We cannot and should not abandon Iraq. There, we should stay the course at least until the terrorist regimes that surround it are removed and their interference in Iraq ended.
Lowry’s argument boils down to unquestioning support for the President’s push to democratize the Middle East. He questions whether “the ‘to hell with them’ hawks” can support a responsible foreign policy and accuses them of wanting to put our civilization into a “permanent posture of strategic defense.” No Endgame conservative wants to cut and run, or thinks Iraq is lost. Nor do we want to prevent America from ever engaging in another campaign. What we want to do is prosecute this war decisively to its conclusion, which Mr. Bush isn’t doing.
Mr. Bush’s democratization strategy, naive and Wilsonian, has put us in the posture of strategic defense. His original formulation — that nations are either with us or against us — has been whittled away to a confrontation-cum-engagement strategy that enables Iran to offer cooperation in Iraq while buying time to build nuclear weapons. The President is in the process of putting the UN in control of the Iran nuclear issue. This will result, in all probability, in allowing Iran enough time to achieve nuclear weapons. In Iraq, we are on the defensive because we haven’t taken sufficient action to end the foreign interference that disrupts the nation-building effort. It’s time to extricate ourselves from the Wilsonian policy quagmire. Let’s press on with this war through the endgame and defeat the enemy decisively on both the military and ideological fronts. When that happens there will be time to encourage the rise of democracy in the Middle East, and many more of its peoples willing to undertake it.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004).