How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?

The Presidential campaign rolls on in the seventh year since 9/11, with the only debate about the Long War being in which nations America should fight. We see this even the speeches of the most “liberal” candidate, Senator Barack Obama.

I recommend reading “The World Beyond Iraq”, his speech about national security given at Fayetteville, NC on 19 March 2008.  He describes his plan for withdrawal from Iraq, but only to focus our efforts on Afghanistan … and Pakistan.  This is doubling down when losing, known as the “gambler’s ruin.” {revisions to this are in red)  This speech is a rhetorical masterpiece, providing strong and specific promises.  He gets right to the point…

… while we have a General who has used improved tactics to reduce violence, we still have the wrong strategy.   As General Petraeus has himself acknowledged, the Iraqis are not achieving the political progress needed to end their civil war…. When you have no overarching strategy, there is no clear definition of success.  Success comes to be defined as the ability to maintain a flawed policy indefinitely. Here is the truth: fighting a war without end will not force the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future. And fighting in a war without end will not make the American people safer.

So when I am Commander-in-Chief, I will set a new goal on Day One: I will end this war.  Not because politics compels it.  Not because our troops cannot bear the burden- as heavy as it is.  But because it is the right thing to do for our national security, and it will ultimately make us safer.

In order to end this war responsibly, I will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq.  We can responsibly remove 1 to 2 combat brigades each month.  If we start with the number of brigades we have in Iraq today, we can remove all of them 16 months.  After this redeployment, we will leave enough troops in Iraq to guard our embassy and diplomats, and a counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy.  What I propose is not – and never has been – a precipitous drawdown.  It is instead a detailed and prudent plan that will end a war nearly seven years after it started.

My plan to end this war will finally put pressure will finally put pressure on Iraq’s leaders to take responsibility for their future.  Because we’ve learned that when we tell Iraq’s leaders that we’ll stay as long as it takes, they take as long as they want.  We need to send a different message.  We will help Iraq reach a meaningful accord on national reconciliation.  We will engage with every country in the region – and the UN – to support the stability and territorial integrity of Iraq.  And we will launch a major humanitarian initiative to support Iraq’s refugees and people.  But Iraqis must take responsibility for their country.  It is precisely this kind of approach – an approach that puts the onus on the Iraqis, and that relies on more than just military power – that is needed to stabilize Iraq.

But in 21st century America, ending one war means shifting our focus to another war. We face so many enemies, and force is our primary tool.

… That is why my presidency will shift our focus. Rather than fight a war that does not need to be fought, we need to start fighting the battles that need to be won on the central front of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Then the ritualistic invocation of all the tactics that failed in Iraq: a coalition of western combat troops plus training the locals.

It is not too late to prevail in Afghanistan. But we cannot prevail until we reduce our commitment in Iraq, which will allow us to do what I called for last August – providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our efforts in Afghanistan. This increased commitment in turn can be used to leverage greater assistance – with fewer restrictions – from our NATO allies. It will also allow us to invest more in training Afghan security forces, including more joint NATO operations with the Afghan Army, and a national police training plan that is effectively coordinated and resourced.

Continuing the ritual, he evokes the magic of developmental assistance — despite its dismal record of failure (successful 3rd world nations tend to be those who we helped least, like China and Singapore).

A stepped up military commitment must be backed by a long-term investment in the Afghan people. We will start with an additional $1 billion in non military assistance each year – aid that is focused on reaching ordinary Afghans. We need to improve daily life by supporting education, basic infrastructure and human services. We have to counter the opium trade by supporting alternative livelihoods for Afghan farmers. And we must call on more support from friends and allies, and better coordination under a strong international coordinator.

Some might be satisfied to transfer our military focus from Iraq (population 27 million) to the larger and more difficult to pacify Afghanistan (population 32 million), but Senator Obama has larger dreams.

To succeed in Afghanistan, we also need to fundamentally rethink our Pakistan policy.

Under President Bush we learned to think more closely about our goals when interfering in foreign lands. What is the problem with Pakistan?

The Taliban are able to strike inside Afghanistan and then return to the mountains of the Pakistani border. Throughout Pakistan, domestic unrest has been rising. The full democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people have been too long denied. A child growing up in Pakistan, more often than not, is taught to see America as a source of hate – not hope.

Instill democracy, provide security … that sounds familiar. And ambitious (162 million people). So fixing Pakistan is a job for America. How we will accomplish this?

Our counter-terrorism assistance must be conditioned on Pakistani action to root out the al Qaeda sanctuary. And any U.S. aid not directly needed for the fight against al Qaeda or to invest in the Pakistani people should be conditioned on the full restoration of Pakistan’s democracy and rule of law. … we should dramatically increase our support for the Pakistani people – for education, economic development, and democratic institutions. That child in Pakistan must know that we want a better life for him, that America is on his side, and that his interest in opportunity is our interest as well. That’s the promise that America must stand for.

Perhaps this help will work better than our several decades of aid to Egypt and so many African nations. But the carrot is never enough in the Long War, we must always use the stick too.

If we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot. Senator Clinton, Senator McCain, and President Bush have all distorted and derided this position, suggesting that I would invade or bomb Pakistan. This is politics, pure and simple. My position, in fact, is the same pragmatic policy that all three of them have belatedly – if tacitly – acknowledged is one we should pursue.

An explanation indeed worthy of Harvard Law School. Senators Clinton and McCain accuse Senator Obama of advocating bombing Pakistan. He says this is a distortion, the truth being that all three of them want to bomb Pakistan. How true. How sad.

Another analysis, same conclusion

Here is a similar conclusion, arrived at from a different perspective, in an excerpt discussing Obama’s proposal for waging our wars in the Middle East — posted at Abu Muqawama, 26 March 2008:

Now this strikes Abu Muqawama as responsible and, to him, smells of a gradual withdrawal that lets brigades deploy to Afghanistan as they are pulled out of Iraq, situation-dependent. Obama’s pledge to deploy two more brigades (7,000 troops) to Afghanistan is a good one, and that kind of leadership by example might encourage more NATO troops to deploy — if they think the Americans are going to launch an Iraq-style surge in Afghanistan under competent Petraeus-style leadership. We have never, sadly, really tried to win in Afghanistan. If we did, the NATO member states might get in line and help out.


The Long War continues without debate among our senior statesmen. Without considering alternatives other than force. Without a stated destination or goals, other than pacification of Islam — purging it of elements we find objectionable. Without balancing of its costs vs. its benefits. Without regard for the damage a sustained high tempo does to our Army and Marines. Without analysis of the structural reasons we have had such little success in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

War without end, without thought. This is the inheritance the boomers bequeath to our children.

In the comments

As Greg Lehmann reminds us in the comments, the United States is a Republic. We have nobody to blame but ourselves; responsibility is the price of liberty.

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6 thoughts on “How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?”

  1. “The Long War continues without debate.”

    There are plenty of folks “debating” the Long War, but they’re not on your list of newsworthy personalities. There are plenty of efforts to stop the war, but none of those efforts seem to be showing up on your radar.

    The Long War has already inspired Winter Soldier II. While we cannot expect an exact repeat of Vietnam, the Americans who are trying to stop the Iraq war are trying every trick in the Vietnam-peacenik playbook. I’m no historian, but around 1970-1972, it seems that Americans became somewhat more skeptical of sacrifice for the common good. The 1970s were a “me” decade. Quite possibly the 2010 era will be similarly “me” oriented, although there will probably be less hedonistic self-indulgence and less prosperity. Another factor was Watergate. American politicians keep getting caught in similar scandals, and Americans seem to be getting numb.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Great point about the debate. Correction made.

  2. I think it is unfair to single out our politicians from the rest of us. “Them is us” as Pogo(?) used to say. We are a culture in love with death and dying. We can show things like “Operation Shock and Awe”, laser guided bombs, etc. on TV but never a bare nipple. From Desert Storm on, I have been appalled by my fellow Americans marveling at the Nintendo war displays from our military with no thought to the “collateral damage”. I think our leaders are just giving us what we want. I think this will continue until our creditors stop giving us credit.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree absolutely, and have said so in the past. Omitting that in this post was an oversight, which I have corrected above. Thanks for pointing this out!

  3. An update was posted:

    Here is a similar conclusion, arrived at from a different perspective, in an excerpt discussing Obama’s proposal for waging our wars in the Middle East – posted at Abu Muqawama (26 March 2008):

    “Now this strikes Abu Muqawama as responsible and, to him, smells of a gradual withdrawal that lets brigades deploy to Afghanistan as they are pulled out of Iraq, situation-dependent. Obama’s pledge to deploy two more brigades (7,000 troops) to Afghanistan is a good one, and that kind of leadership by example might encourage more NATO troops to deploy — if they think the Americans are going to launch an Iraq-style surge in Afghanistan under competent Petraeus-style leadership. We have never, sadly, really tried to win in Afghanistan. If we did, the NATO member states might get in line and help out.”

  4. what do you think greece and turkey were before america Forced them to be added into NATO maybe in the Soviet Influence further more i would um refute this by purely saying Democracies help democracies and this argument is null and void when talking about Georgia

  5. Recently there was a video clip on this site , presumably illustrating ” We’ll Know Victory When We See It “this time featuring the Pakistani Army . A confident looking ,un burdened group of soldiers got out of un armoured SUVs and strolled across some ruins . Not having sound , I guessed the message was that they had killed/driven out the Taliban from a stronghold.
    Seemed to me odd there were no artefacts – bits of plastic , dead goats , single shoes , broken cupboards -scattered about . I wondered if the ruins were from the 2005 earthquake rather than military action .
    In the earthquake , centred in Kashmir but also affecting the NW provinces – 85,000 were said to have died and 100, 000 injured . US gave ?? $1.5 billion aid and lent ( at interest ) ??$ more .
    If this money for aid and developement did not charm the Pakistani people , why would giving more money do so ?

  6. The saddest thing is the lost opportunity that the US blew, to its own and the rest of the World’s disadvantage.

    After the USSR collapsed and then especially with 9/11, with the Worldwide wave of support and sympathy for the US, to throw away that moral capital was criminal incompetence.

    ‘Blind Freddy’ could have forseen that the short but critical period of US economic and military dominance was going to end and more multi-polar World emerge.

    Now multi-polar is, in the longer run a good thing. But there are risks, especially as it first emerges. The risks of economic and social instability, driven by competition between the various actors as they jockey for position are large, with a small (but not insignificant) possibility of really disasterous outcomes (e.g. China/India).

    Therefore the US’s best stratgey would have been to use that period to cement the international organisations and institutions to ensure reasonable economic stabilisers and effective (and peaceful) conflict resolutions.

    Plus leading the way to strengthen signficant international legal agreements (e.g. against torture, landmines, ICC,etc) that would act as behaviour stabilisers and checks, plus nuclear and conventional weapon agreements to prevent breakouts of military escalations. And, of course, coordination on development aid and support (better to pay places like Afghanisatan to change than fight there ..duh).

    All of these would have been to the US’s advantage, creating a more stable World, reducing tensions and creating a more benign economic climate. Thus enabling US reductions in wasteful ‘defence’ spending and far more economic opportunities. It must be remembered that the costs to the US of its massive military establishment are far more than the direct (massive as they are) costs. The costs of misapplied investment and talent are incalcuable.

    Example: incredible amounts spent on fusion weapons means a drain of resources, especially criticially short scientific prowess, from far more important fusion power research. 30 years ago I would have laid money on that the first working fusion reactor would have been developed in the US. Now, not a chance.

    It would also set the seal on US’s ‘moral’ leadership, giving it far more influence in the future than its future relative economic and military size would justify. It might just be one element in a future multi-polar World, but it would be a huge one, actually leading forward, rather than (as it is now) dragging back.

    Translated: a Boyd type Grand Strategy, trading a past economic and military dominance into a dominance in moral leadership … which is by far the most powerful and important one.


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