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Foreign Policy in Voice for Reason
Foreign PolicySelf Defense & Free Trade

An Unwinnable War?

by Elan Journo | Fall 2009 | Winning the Unwinnable War

Author’s note: The following is the introduction to Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism.

“I don’t think you can win it. . . . I don’t have any . . . definite end [for the war]”
— President George W. Bush 1

The warriors came in search of an elusive Taliban leader. Operating in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the team of Navy SEALs was on difficult terrain in an area rife with Islamist fighters. The four men set off after their quarry. But sometime around noon that day, the men were boxed into an impossible situation. Three Afghan men, along with about one hundred goats, happened upon the team’s position. What should the SEALs do?

Their mission potentially compromised, they interrogated the Afghan herders. But they got nothing. Nothing they could count on. “How could we know,” recalls one of the SEALs, “if they were affiliated with a Taliban militia group or sworn by some tribal blood pact to inform the Taliban leaders of anything suspicious-looking they found in the mountains?” It was impossible to know for sure. This was war, and the “strictly correct military decision would still be to kill them without further discussion, because we could not know their intentions.” Working behind enemy lines, the team was sent there “by our senior commanders. We have a right to do everything we can to save our own lives. The military decision is obvious. To turn them loose would be wrong.”

But the men of SEAL Team 10 knew one more thing. They knew that doing the right thing for their mission — and their own lives — could very well mean spending the rest of their days behind bars at Leavenworth. The men were subject to military rules of engagement that placed a mandate on all warriors to avoid civilian casualties at all costs. They were expected to bend over backward to protect Afghans, even if that meant forfeiting an opportunity to kill Islamist fighters and their commanders, and even if that meant imperiling their own lives.

The SEALs were in a bind. Should they do what Washington and the military establishment deemed moral — release the herders and assume a higher risk of death — or protect themselves and carry out their mission — but suffer for it back home? The men — Lt. Michael Murphy; Sonar Technician 2nd Class Matthew Axelson; Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Danny Dietz; and Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell — took a vote.

They let the herders go.

Later that afternoon, a contingent of about 100–140 Taliban fighters swarmed upon the team. The four Americans were hugely outnumbered. The battle was fierce. Dietz fought on after taking five bullets, but succumbed to a sixth, in the head. Murphy and Axelson were killed not long after. When the air support that the SEALs had called for finally arrived, all sixteen members of the rescuing team were killed by the Islamists. Luttrell was the lone survivor, and only just. 2

The scene of carnage on that mountainside in Afghanistan captures something essential about American policy. What made the deadly ambush all the more tragic is that in reaching their decision, those brave SEALs complied with the policies handed down to them from higher-ups in the military and endorsed by the nation’s commander-in-chief. Their decision to place the moral injunction to selflessness ahead of their mission and their very lives encapsulates the defining theme of Washington’s policy response to 9/11.

Across all fronts U.S. soldiers are made to fight under the same, if not even more stringent, battlefield rules. Prior to the start of the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War, for instance, the military’s legal advisors combed through the Pentagon’s list of potential targets, and expansive “no-strike” lists were drawn up. 3 Included on the no-strike lists were cultural sites, electrical plants, broadcast facilities — a host of legitimate strategic targets ruled untouchable, for fear of affronting or harming civilians. To tighten the ropes binding the hands of the military, some artillery batteries “were programmed with a list of sites that could not be fired on without a manual override,” which would require an OK from the top brass. 4 From top to bottom, the Bush administration consciously put the moral imperative of shielding civilians and bringing them elections above the goal of eliminating real threats to our security.

This book shows how our own policy ideas led to 9/11 and then crippled our response in the Middle East, and makes the case for an unsettling conclusion: By subordinating military victory to perverse, allegedly moral constraints, Washington’s policy has undermined our national security. Only by radically rethinking our foreign policy in the Middle East can we achieve victory over the enemy that attacked us on 9/11.

But from the outset the Bush administration had insisted that we’re in a new kind of war — an unwinnable war. To scale back people’s expectations, it told us not to wait for a defeated enemy to surrender, in the way that Japan did aboard the USS Missouri in 1945.

This much is true: the “war on terror” is essentially different from our actions in World War II. Back then, we brought Japan to its knees within four years of Pearl Harbor — yet eight years after 9/11, against a far weaker enemy, we find ourselves enmeshed in two unresolved conflicts (Iraq and Afghanistan) while further mass-casualty attacks and new flashpoints (such as Pakistan) loom. Why?

It is not for lack of military strength and prowess; in that regard America is the most powerful nation on earth. It is not for a lack of troops, or planning, or any sort of bungled execution. Our soldiers have amply demonstrated their skill and courage — when they were allowed to fight. But such occasions were deliberately few; for as a matter of policy Washington sent them, like the SEALs in Afghanistan, into combat but prohibited them from fighting to win. This underscores how Bush’s war indeed differs from the triumphant, all-out military campaign against Japan — and how it is far from a new kind of war. It is in fact an eerie replay of Vietnam.

The philosopher Ayn Rand observed, at the time, that in the Vietnam War “American forces were not permitted to act, but only to react; they were to ‘contain’ the enemy, but not to beat him.” Nevertheless Vietnam — like the fiascos of today — was seen as discrediting military action, even though (as Rand observed) U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were thrust into “a war they had never been allowed to fight. They were defeated, it is claimed — two years after their withdrawal from Vietnam. The ignominious collapse of the South Vietnamese, when left on their own, is being acclaimed as an American military failure.” 5

For good reason Vietnam was called a “no-win” war. Rand properly laid the blame for the disaster at the feet of American politicians and their intellectual advisors. The entire “war on terror” is likewise a no-win war. His words redolent of the Vietnam era, President Bush told an interviewer on NBC’s “Today” show that “I don’t think you can win [the war],” and that he blithely envisioned no definite end for it (see the epigraph). His words have been self-fulfilling. In the current conflict — as in Vietnam — the disaster is due not to a military failure. We are in an unwinnable war, but only because of the ideas setting the direction of our foreign policy.

Irrational ideas have shaped the Mideast policy not just of George W. Bush, but also of earlier administrations that had to confront the Islamist movement — from Jimmy Carter on. And although President Obama glided into office as the candidate of “change,” his administration brings us full circle to the appeasing policies that characterized the run-up to 9/11 (see chapter 1). The irrationality of American policy all but guarantees that the Islamist movement will continue to menace the American public and that this conflict will figure prominently in foreign-policy thinking for years to come.

But the overarching message of this book — that certain dominant ideas about morality subvert American policy — should not be taken as a rejection of the need for morality, per se, in foreign policy. Far from it. Trying to implement a foreign policy unguided by the right moral principles is like trying to cross an eight-lane freeway blindfolded and with your ears plugged. Seat-of-the-pants amoral temporizing does not a policy make, and practically it is inimical to achieving U.S. security. What we demonstrate in the following pages is that the United States needs to challenge the specific morality that currently dominates our policy — and instead adopt better, more American, ideas.

To that end, we offer a new vision and specific policy recommendations for how to address ongoing problems and threats deriving from the Middle East. Those suggestions — and, broadly, all the critiques offered in this book — originate neither from a liberal, nor a conservative, nor a libertarian, nor a neoconservative outlook. Their frame of reference, instead, is the secular, individualist moral system defined by Ayn Rand. Taking U.S. policy in this new direction would enable us properly to conceptualize and achieve America’s long-range self-interest: the safeguarding of our lives from foreign aggressors.

No one can predict with certainty what will unfold in the interval between the writing of this book and your reading of these words. But given the entrenched policy trends described in these pages, the lessons of the last eight years will likely go unlearned — much to the detriment of our security. My hope is that this book will counteract those trends by awakening Americans to the actual nature of the war we are in, and that in fact, if we’re guided by the right ideas, the war against Islamic totalitarianism is winnable.

* * *

The book’s central argument is developed across seven essays. Although each essay is self-contained, I encourage you to read them all in sequence because they are parts of a thematic whole. To aid the reader in integrating the steps of the argument, I offer the following outline of the topics covered and their logical progression.

Part 1 considers the nature of the Islamist threat, its origin, and the role of U.S. policy in empowering that menace. Chapter 1 demonstrates how unprincipled U.S. policy — from Carter through Clinton — worked to galvanize the enemy to bring its holy war to our shores on 9/11. Chapter 2 explores the widely evaded nature and goals of the enemy, and indicates how that should figure in America’s military response.

Part 2 focuses on the change in policies that were the impetus for Washington’s military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chapter 3 exposes the nature of Bush’s crusade for “democracy” — sometimes called the Forward Strategy for Freedom — and the destructive moral ideas that informed it. Chapter 4 identifies the ruinous impact on U.S. self-defense of “Just War Theory” — the widely accepted doctrine of morality in war. Chapter 5 brings out the profound opposition between neoconservative thought (a major ideological influence on Bush’s war policy) and America’s true national interest in foreign policy.

Taken together, what these three chapters argue is that America effectively renounced the fully achievable goal of defeating the enemy — for the sake of a welfare mission to serve the poor and oppressed of the Middle East. With the goal of victory abandoned, war certainly becomes unwinnable.

Part 3 looks at what Bush’s policies have wrought in the Middle East — and what the Obama administration should do. Chapter 6 surveys Afghanistan, post-surge Iraq, and the broader Islamist threat emanating from Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere. Bush’s policy, it is argued, has actually left the enemy stronger than before 9/11. The enduring threats we face and the depressingly inadequate policy options being considered underline the pressing need for a real alternative to the conventional mold in foreign policy. Although the enemy grows stronger, chapter 7 argues that victory remains achievable. The way forward requires that we adopt a radically different approach to our foreign policy in the Middle East — one founded on a different moral framework.

* * *

A word on the genesis of the essays in this collection. All but three of the essays originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in The Objective Standard between 2006 and 2007. The exceptions are chapters 1, 6, and 7. These were written in winter 2008–09, and are published here for the first time.

Elan Journo
The Ayn Rand Institute
May 2009

About The Author

Elan Journo

Senior Fellow and Vice President of Content Products, Ayn Rand Institute


1 George W. Bush, interview by Matt Lauer, Today, MSNBC, 30 Aug. 2004, (accessed 25 Aug. 2008).

2 “Excerpt from Lone Survivor,”, 18 June 2007, (accessed 16 Oct. 2008); John Springer, “He knew his vote would sign their death warrant,”, 12 June 2007, (accessed 16 Oct. 2008).

3 Colin H. Kahl, “How We Fight,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2006), (accessed 16 Oct. 2008).

4 Kahl, “How We Fight.”

5 Ayn Rand, “The Lessons of Vietnam,” in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (New York: Plume, 1990), 140, 143. Emphasis in the original.