Someone famously suggested to Richard Nixon early in his first term (it was George Aiken of Vermont — I had to look it up) that he should declare victory in Vietnam and get out. This was sound advice. Followed, it might have saved Mr. Nixon’s presidency — and South Vietnam and Cambodia.
Indeed, it is evident even to the layman that the field of military history — I admit I know next to nothing about it — is strewn with the wreckage of armies that went too far, or stayed too long, or tried for too much. Why did Lord Cornwallis — reputed to be a fine soldier — overextend his forces and try for a flanking campaign in the south when he could fight a war of attrition from a safe base in New York? Robert E. Lee, surely one of our greatest and most humane strategists, knew the war was lost when fought to a stalemate at Gettysburg and he could not follow up with the march on Washington that he had hoped would bring a settlement; yet the Confederacy fought on and in consequence the South was ruined.
Bad and evil men are prone to hubris, and pay for it. Bonaparte, Hitler wildly over-reached after early victories that might have been accepted by their enemies. The Japanese militarists were mad to attack us on our home ground. Everyone has his examples. German and Italian armies were destroyed in North Africa — in Libya — setting up the liberation of the European continent.
The good guys are far less prone to these kinds of errors, because they are good guys, less inclined to shed their sons’ blood and punish adversaries mercilessly. Free men remember they have families and work, want to get the job done and return home. But for all kinds of reasons, we can still get tangled up in our priorities. With the easy advantage of hindsight, it does indeed seem President Nixon could have saved everything by applying the strategy in 1969-70 — airpower and logistical support — that proved its efficacy in 1972, when it was already too late due to the larger strategic picture, which by then included the opposition party’s noxious mix of defeatism and blind hatred of Nixon.
But hindsight is not history. You have to consider how it was when it was. In ’68, ’70, perhaps we did not have the conditions that made that strategy possible — our forces still fighting Northern regulars in the Delta, the South’s army still insufficiently trained, the Chinese and Russians not yet diverted from their original aims by Kissinger’s flanking diplomacy. Who knows? Still, hindsight of this kind at least serves the purpose of forcing us to remember an adage that the military commands in free societies — those, again — are more able to make use of than those functioning under mad dictators, namely: follow the plan, yes, but reconsider the options. Debate never hurts, and the game is always changing.
The game continues. This is, remember, the Hindu Kush, the vast wild frontiers of a Raj otherwise at peace due to the benevolent power of the British Empire. Scheming Russians, marauding Tadziks, Uzbeks, Chechens, crafty Persians and more saw to it the place remained a cauldron of violence and brutish short lives. We must not forget the projection of our power and the humane decent efforts of our diplomacy are amongst our finest traditions and even when there seems to be no final bell, we maintain the peace wherein civilization has a chance to flourish.
And yet — this round, we won. It is a great success. We got the enemy who attacked us. We have shown the world, for ten hard years, that it does not pay to attack the United States, and with the culminating blow of the men and women involved in the raid on Abbottabad, we have underscored the price is steep indeed.
The teams involved in this raid were fairly restricted: intelligence agents on the ground to pick up the enemy’s trail and confirm his location; the decision-makers at the highest level weighing the different options for seizing the opportunity presented; and of course the commandos who have written a chapter in our national story that every schoolchild will learn for generations to come.
It scarcely needs saying, however, that this brilliant operation was made possible by the decision of the president, on the advice of his generals, to “surge” in Afghanistan. The men and women who have given so much in that bitter land are the ones who pushed the Taliban and their Pak enablers into the corner that, in turn, brought the latter — or factions within factions in that nest of scorpions — to see that the al Qaeda leader was not only expendable, he might be a liability. Maybe some treacherous Pashtun police official looked at the odds and decided this was a good time to send a signal to his American contact. Sources indicate the original hint of the terrorist lair came from an Afghan spy — whether or not a Pashtun is not clear — while other sources credit an American-Pak team for identifying a key al Qaeda courier and following him for months through an extraordinary combination of high-tech and old-fashioned shoe leather.
Perhaps we will never know. But we do know that these faraway places are not trustworthy. Until these clannish and devious societies free themselves and develop at least a modicum of the kinds of institutions of governance that give people a stake in the way their countries are run, we will never know for sure whose side anyone is on.
We are in no position to change these societies. We can give them a huge boost, as we have been doing, by defeating the mischief-makers, the killers, the nihilists. We cannot build nations for them. Even the advice we give them will be discarded as soon as we turn our backs; you may change deeply rooted bad habits when a healthy and big and wealthy coach is standing right next to you, but when he leaves, forget it.
So in fact, it may well be that the moment has come for us to bid all these people a fond farewell. S’long, folks, it was nice to know you. But you are on your own now. You have seen the alternatives, it is up to you to choose.
TO BE SURE, our role is not over. It never is. We are the top country, and that is what we do, have a never-ending role. I am no expert, but, to revert again to President Nixon’s tragedy, it may be possible to devise a strategy of supply-and-interdict, though God knows it will not be easy and we may be forgiven for saying it is not our problem and it is not worth our men’s lives. I am sure that in the inner corridors of the defense establishment, our experts are thinking of ways of giving Afghans, Iraqis, Kurds, a fighting chance — patrol their borders, kill invaders, confound the wicked men in Pakistan and Iran plotting death and trouble.
A fitting symbol of our intent might be to put the American embassy in Baghdad, and the corresponding compounds in Kabul, up for sale. Offer Donald Trump, for example, a mission to go over there and make deals to convert those places into co-ops — mixed income housing would be excellent. Put your houses in order, we could say, and here, to show you we are nice guys, do what you want with these. (Though you may have to pay rent to The Donald.) And for the rest, to the black hats who might interfere with the rebuilding of your neighborhoods and sending your kids to school —
Over there, over there, send the word over there
That the Yanks are comin’
Say a prayer ’cause we’re comin’
We’ll be comin’, goin’ over,
An’ we won’t come back
’till it’s over over there!