The memo, of course, was right.
Others have pointed out that this is not uniquely an American weakness. Democracies, in general, are ill-equipped to fight wars unless the nation's existence is directly imperiled. War is an expensive thing and both difficult and painful for any nation to wage; where the decision-making process is sensitive to public opinion, holding to an unpopular course is difficult by definition. Even Tsarist Russia- as absolute a monarchy as can be imagined- was forced out of World War I by popular pressure and eventually brought down by the ramifications of fighting a difficult and unpopular war.
We generally learn from wars. But all too often, we learn the wrong lessons. What we learned from Vietnam was not to use military force except in the direst of emergencies. Then came the first President Bush, and a war that was the opposite of Vietnam in every way. South Vietnam was an artificial country whose government and even whose existence lacked support from its own people. But nobody could doubt the justice of defending tiny Kuwait from a bully like Saddam Hussein. The war was brief and victorious where Vietnam was long and ended in defeat. It inspired a wave of patriotism instead of a wave of pacifism and disillusionment. For a brief moment, the possibility seemed very real that we might actually get the lesson of Vietnam right; choose your wars very carefully, act decisively when you are sure that you really want to do this and are willing to pay the price, and then hold nothing back.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the most powerful nation on Earth. For a time the Soviet Union rivaled it. But the peace and stability of the world have always depended on the greatest power exercising leadership in the international community so that united and concerted action can keep rogue nations in check. That is exactly what the first President Bush did. We did not, as in Vietnam, fight alone, with the exception of small contingents of troops from a few of our allies and the army of the country we were defending. What went into Iraq and liberated Kuwait was the world (or at least the free world) under the leadership of the United States.
The United States did the job history demanded that it do and continues to demand that it do today. And it did it in exactly the right way.
But then came the second President Bush. Unlike Donald Trump, I'll be honest and admit that I supported the Second Gulf War. I still believe that we would have had to fight it eventually. When we found WMD's left over from the first war (Saddam's failure to publicly destroy them as the peace terms required him to do was part of the justification for going to war in the Gulf a second time), the Democrats and the Left moved the target and decided that only new WMD's counted. There remains no doubt that Saddam did continue to deploy new weapons and got rid of them only when the pressure to do so became unbearable. Perversely, he pretended otherwise, thus encouraging the war which eventually cost him his power and his life. And here's the key point: this is the guy who had not only had WMD's but had used them against his own people. No reasonable person can doubt that the moment the intermittent and rather pathetic pressure from the UN and the much more substantial threat of invasion by the United States diminished he would have resumed his nuclear program and the manufacture and deployment of poison gas. There is something profoundly dishonest about attempts to avoid this point.
France promised to support the war and then reneged without warning. England did support us- to Tony Blair's cost. So did other close allies. But the second President Bush's "Coalition of the Willing" was a pale shadow of the coalition his father brought together. The war was fought by America, Great Britain, and a handful of other friendly nations, not by the world. It was equally victorious; the derision of the Left to the contrary, President Bush's overly melodramatic carrier landing and the "Mission Accomplished" motif of the celebration which followed were not inappropriate, even if they were overdone. We did what we set out to do. Thr problem was that we neglected to think through the consequences. As was the case with United States in the Fifties and Sixties, determined to keep at least half of Vietnam non-Communist but unsure how to do so when a lack of popular support and even understanding of the concepts of freedom and democracy and thus forced to defend the "freedom" of a series of unpopular and undemocratic regimes, the second President Bush set about finding a purely military solution to what was only partly a military problem. The problem with "nation building" is not the demolition of the unfree regimes that we want to replace, but actually replacing them with something better enough and stable and enduring enough to make the effort worthwhile.
Few people remember the toothless series of ultimatums the UN kept giving Saddam- and then doing nothing to enforce. In retrospect, knowing what we know now, the war was a huge mistake. There was a reason why the elder President Bush didn't push on to Baghdad and finish off Saddam in the first place. Even then, experts warned that it would create a power vacuum which would have exactly the catastrophic effect that it has. It left a bigger mess than it cleaned up.
The lie continues to be repeated that there were no WMD's found when in reality there were no new WMD's found. But an even bolder lie gained currency and became a rallying cry of the Left: the lie that Bush lied- that he knew that there were no WMD's or at least no new ones, but went to war anyway because he was a demon who thirsted for blood or something. In fact, every intelligence service in the world was absolutely convinced that Saddam was up to his neck in new WMD's. The voices which claimed otherwise did so on no particularly convincing grounds. Dubya took the best advice available to him. It was wrong- and the consequences were disastrous.
Yes, the mission Dubya set for our armed forces was indeed accomplished. His biggest mistake was not thinking through the question of what to do once that mission was accomplished. Again, as in Vietnam, the lesson was not to withdraw from the world into Fortress America. Nor was it never to go to war. It was to think things through, to count the cost, to be clear about our aims and the means by which they can be achieved- and then, once it's clear that war is the only option, to intelligently and thoughtfully try to bring the final result we desire about.
Yes, America does need to be the world's policeman. Or more accurately, it needs to be the world's Chief of Police. Britain and France and Germany and Australia and New Zealand and India- and yes, Japan, and even Russia and China if they can be enlisted, need also to be on the force. John Kerry to the contrary, we cannot utterly renounce the option of taking unilateral action. But the circumstances under which that might be necessary are remote enough that we should seek as a matter of bipartisan and consistent foreign policy to do what the most powerful nation on Earth has always been expected to do: to lead.
The wonderful movie "Charlie Wilson's War," while somewhat fictionalized, does a wonderful job of illustrating that the Soviet Union was brought down in no small measure because of that courageous if quirky congressman and a handful of others who managed to get the United States actively behind a popular movement to liberate Afganistan from Soviet aggression. We led- and the good guys won. But then, we fell victim to a modified version of the syndrome that Vietnamese official wrote about. Democracies operate by political pressure from below, and soon the pressure was for our money to be spent elsewhere. Despite the desperate efforts of Wilson and others, everything we accomplished in Afghanistan was squandered. We effectively abandoned our friends and the Taliban took their place.
It's worth wondering whether 9/11 would ever have happened if we had continued to cultivate the very people who eventually gave rise to al Quaeda. In that event, there would have been no need for us to go to war in Afghanistan in pursuit of bin Laden; there might well have been no need to pursue him and in any case, the regime that sheltered him might never have come to power. But 9/11 did happen- and if ever a nation had a reason to go to war, it was the United States in pursuit of him.
But again, Dubya failed. That pursuit should have been ceaseless and unrelenting. But George W. Bush decided that bin Laden would inevitably be captured at some point anyway and that he had other fish to fry. He did not make the pursuit of bin Laden an ongoing priority. When the pressures became strong enough we started to pull back in Afghanistan without capturing him. We did depose the Taliban- but as our involvement eased, the Taliban came back.
Donald Trump has given voice to a growing chorus not only on the Left but in the more unrealistic and irresponsible portions of the Right to abdicate our responsibility to lead and to withdraw into ourselves, not fighting unless we are directly attacked. The Pat Buchanan school of paleoconservatism tends to this view. Ron Paul advocated it. It might have worked in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. But the globe is far smaller now. Like it or not, the fortunes of every nation in the world are to a greater or lesser extent caught up in the fortunes of nations on the other side of the planet. Isolationism in no small measure was responsible for causing World War II, and for making it the global catastrophe it was. We face the ironic danger that in learning the wrong lessons from Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan we may end up forgetting the lessons of the most destructive war in the history of the world.
In a few months, an administration will leave power which, if not exactly isolationist, has been timid and tentative in its dealings with the world, quick to defer to others and slow to assert American interests or to project American power. This has not gone unnoticed by our allies. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Dane who is the former Secretary General of NATO, has spoken out on the subject of the Obama administration's timidity and its failure to lead the community of free nations. Whoever wins next Tuesday must, Rasmussen argues, be willing to play policeman to the world- or at least Chief of Police. The rest of the police force- the rest of the community of nations- expects no less.
The alternative is chaos. Donald Trump's psychological instability and outright ignorance pose grave dangers to the nation and to the world. But his foreign policy poses even more serious ones. His protectionism will devastate our economy and tumble it back into recession; the economic ties between the nations of the world are too close, and their economies to interdependent for us to avoid the inevitable and catastrophic push-back. The dream of isolation in the age of the global economy, the supersonic intercontinental airliner, the hypersonic strategic bomber, and the intercontinental ballistic missile is the most dangerous kind of lunacy. And if America abandons its role in the world, rest assured that there will not long be a vacuum. The Chinese and Trump's Russian masters will be quick to fill the void.
When I hear foreigners gripe about America's admittedly sometimes heavy hand in world affairs- I'm not talking about friendly, constructive criticism when we mess up from time to time, but cynical whining which calls into question the unarguable point that on balance the United States is a force for good in the world- I have to admit that copping out as Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump advocate is a tempting option. But we are neither economically nor militarily nor politically independent of the rest of the world. No nation on Earth is. And despite its frequent ingratitude, the world looks to America to lead it.
I do not question the premise that we can lead it better than we sometimes have. But abandoning our post is simply not an option.