I have just returned from an FPRI lecture in which Dominic Tierney introduced his new book How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War. Americans, he argues, like the first but disdain the second. He would rather they changed their mind and learned to love the morally ambiguous counter insurgency and nation building “quagmires” such as Southern reconstruction, Philippines and Vietnam and disdain regime changing morally unambiguous wars such such as the Civil War or World War II which he claims were inherently vengeful.Only vengeful Americans could demand that the South end slavery, that Germany denazify or that Iraq get rid of Saddam Hussein. He even goes so far as to equate the crusades with the “vengeful” Old Testament and nation building with the “good news” of the New Testament. I pointed out that the Old Testament is the story of a small people who were constantly overrun by great powers and who invented peace as an ideal. And the crusades were undertaken by Christians (as a response to Islamic Jihads on their Byzantine coreligionists). Moreover, unlike Christians and Muslims, Old Testament Jews have never looked forward to a day when the whole world would become Jewish. Believe it or not, Oxford/Harvard educated Tierney justified himself by insisted that when talking about the people of the Old Testament, he was not talking about Jews!
Tierney’s efforts to remake American history into a shape suitable for his thesis leads him to ignore the Cold War and the War on Islamism. He does not view the democratization of Germany and Japan no the Korean and the Vietnam wars as part of the larger Cold War which the US ultimately won but merely as stand alone efforts. Nor does he see the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the ongoing War on radical Islam.
Had he done so, he would have understood that part of the reason Americans did not oppose nation building and troops stationing in Germany but opposed it in Vietnam was because they understood the importance of Germany to the struggle with the Soviet Union but came to doubt the importance of Vietnam to the victory in the Cold War particularly following the fall of Sukarno and the intensification of the conflict between Communist U.S.S.R. and Communist China. Similarly, many who criticize George W. Bush for the Iraq War challenge the assumption that the best way to fight Islamism is to use a democratic Iraq as a lever to democratize the Middle East.
This criticism does not mean that Tierney’s observation lack all merit. It merely means that it needs much greater refining. It seems to me that the more primitive a state system, the more costly and the more unlikely to succeed is the attempt to democratize it.
Germany and Japan were relatively easy to remake in great part because they had strong and effective bureaucracies. Afghanistan does not. Iraq was chosen as a good platform to demorcratize the Muslim Middle East not only because it was believed to have weapons of mass destruction but also because it was expected to have an efficient state bureaucracy. It ended up having neither.
Finally, Tierney suggest that current American presidents follow the foreign policy recommendations of the non crusading founding fathers. He is not the only one making this absurd suggestion. The founding fathers headed a small country hoping to survive on the periphery of a world engaged in a bloody world war between Britain and France.
Today, the United States is a superpower striving to fend of challenges by Islamist Barbarians and a resurgent autocratic China. Fighting the first may mandate the use of counterinsurgency but managing the second still necessitates the ability to project force thousand of miles away from the American shores. Doing both during times of great economic duress is the challenge facing the American people and they know it.