Foreign Affairs and Humanities professor Walter Russell Mead writes in the Wall Street Journal that we Americans are naively optimistic about the direction of history, due to our own relatively mild and happy experience as compared to the rest of the world; and this is why we are so frequently disappointed that our democracy-and-peace initiatives around the world so often crash and burn.
He discounts the differences in character and values between such disparate Americans as George W. Bush and Barack Obama to say that both “radically underestimate the dangers and difficulties in the path of historical progress.”
This assertion is generous to Mr. Obama, assuming that his vision of what constitutes “historical progress” and Bush’s are essentially the same. Obama’s promise to “fundamentally transform America” was not some throwaway campaign promise; he meant it, and he has made good on it as few politicians ever have.
But let’s take Mead at face value and learn the lesson. Even if the world yearns for freedom and Democracy, which some may reasonably doubt, achieving them requires more than knocking down a couple of walls and bringing the boys home before Christmas, or even after nine years. It means holding onto and continuously defending the ground gained, not just until the next election, but for good–as if it were as valuable today as the lives and treasure sacrificed to gain it (which it is.) The boys (and women) are still not entirely ‘home’ from Germany and Japan, almost 70 years after the end of major combat operations. (And understand that when we say ‘ground’, we mean dirt to be sure–but also and most importantly the institutions of civil society and political and economic freedom and opportunity that we cultivate).
Our formidable technology and resources afford us a decisive advantage on any conventional battlefield, and in some areas of espionage. But winning battles is only the beginning, not the end. Winning the peace is what matters. And that requires staying around after the initial defeat of the enemy, to ensure that he stays defeated. It means not throwing our friends — those brave ordinary men and women who risk their lives to help us and who we will certainly need again in the future — back to the wolves after we are done with them. It means not sending the girls of Afghanistan back to their burkas and the wrath of the Taliban after building schools for them.
It means that a far higher percentage of US Army captains than now need to know Arabic, Pashto, and Dari, and to recognize dozens of dialects within these general categories. We have to know our friends and enemies personally, not just by remote-control drone. Friends are not disposable; and enemies do not cooperate with our timetables for withdrawal–except to laugh in their caves while they wait us out, ready to strike as soon as we’re gone.
In December 2011, President Obama announced in a photo-op with Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki that “Our war in Iraq ends this month.” Substitute ‘peace’ for ‘war’ in that statement and it would be more accurate.
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