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Foreign Policy in Voice for Reason
Foreign PolicyMiddle East

America Is Not Winning the War

by Onkar Ghate | August 29, 2002

As we pause on September 11 to remember the stockbrokers, policemen, firefighters and many other fallen Americans, it is vital also to reflect on the progress of the war. For it was precisely to prevent future September 11ths that America responded with force. How goes the war?

Tragically, not well.

To wage a war in self-defense you must know who your enemy is. But our enemy remains unidentified and, therefore, untargeted. Ours is a war against “terrorism” — a form of violence, not an ideological opponent intent on killing us. Our enemies, however, are dedicated to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, which extols faith, mindless obedience, sacrifice to state and God, primitivism, theocracy. This is why they are at war with the “Great Satan,” America, the foremost embodiment of the opposite values: reason, individualism, the selfish pursuit of happiness, secularism, capitalism. Bin Laden understands this: “Hostility toward America,” he declares, “is a religious duty.” But our politicians, schooled in pragmatism and range-of-the-moment non-thinking, cannot conceive of an ideologically motivated conflict. An individual terrorist brandishing a bomb, like bin Laden, may still be real to them, but the movement for which he fights, Islamic fundamentalism, is not. Thus, we try to kill a few terrorists — but leave untouched the main militant Islamic states breeding the terrorists. We have no long-term plan to achieve victory in the war because we cannot identify the enemy that must be incapacitated. Ask yourself: Would America have been victorious in WWII if our goal had been to destroy “kamikaze-ism,” not Japanese totalitarianism?

Worse, to the extent that our policy makers glimpse the mystical ideology operative in the Middle East, they consider it a positive force. As pragmatists, they are intellectually blind to the historical evidence of centuries of religious wars and are led, instead, by their own religious feelings. They can grasp no connection between faith taken seriously as the ruling principle of every aspect of man’s life — and the attempt to physically force such dogma on nonbelievers. The terrorists, on this approach, are inexplicable aberrations, deluded interpreters of true faith, who, mysteriously, try to spread their mystical doctrines by appeal not to a rational argument but to a gun. We therefore treat as allies such enemies of reason as Saudi Arabia, which spawns Islamic fundamentalists and finances their suicide bombers, and Pakistan, which trained the Taliban and punishes blasphemy with death. Our government even courts Iran, the spearhead of militant Islamic fundamentalism, and works with Iranian officials to foster “religious values” at U.N. conferences.

Predictably, the administration’s actions, guided as they are not by reason but by emotion (including emotions of outrage), are chaotic and contradictory. No one knows what — if anything — America will do next in the war because we ourselves don’t know what we’ll do or why. Bush pays lip service to the correct idea that you are either for America’s ideals or against them, but undermines our strongest ally in the war, Israel. He even promises the Palestinians a provisional state, thereby teaching every would-be killer that to the terrorist go the spoils. In typically empty rhetoric Bush declares that there is an axis of evil in the world, but allows Syria to head the U.N. Security Council and pursues dialogue with axis-of-evil-members North Korea and Iran — all terrorist states according to his own government.

Without actual principles, where will such a mentality turn for moral guidance? The answer is: to others and their moral views. So Bush — programmed by feelings formed from millennia of assertions that it is evil to uphold one’s own interests, that the strong must sacrifice to the weak, that the meek shall inherit the earth — undercuts any genuine action taken in America’s self-defense. In Afghanistan, for instance, morally unsure of his right to safeguard American lives, Bush feared world disapproval over civilian casualties. He would neither commit the number of American ground troops required to capture the enemy nor authorize the kind of massive bombing necessary to kill the enemy before it fled. The result: hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda escaped to plot further American destruction. In the Middle East, uncertain of America’s right unilaterally to defend its interests, the administration obsesses with “coalition-building” (which includes shunning Israel and courting Saudi Arabia) and refuses to proclaim the superiority of America’s ideals over those of medieval barbarism.

Lacking the moral conviction to uphold its values abroad, America increasingly and self-destructively turns inward, shifting its focus to such relatively trivial questions as whether airline pilots should be armed or government bureaucracies reshuffled. Because of our inaction on foreign soil, we resign ourselves to more terrorist attacks like that of September 11.

How then goes the war? An objective answer must be: badly. But our cause is not yet lost. We lack not the wealth nor the skilled military necessary to defeat the enemy, only the ideas and the will. If we articulate and practice a rational foreign policy, one actually premised on America’s self-interest, we will prevail. Nothing more is needed to achieve victory than to replace the pragmatism and self-sacrifice now dictating America’s actions with the principles of reason and rational self-interest; nothing less will do.

About The Author

Onkar Ghate

Chief Philosophy Officer and Senior Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute