Last spring, the U.S. military proved two theories that had been far from certain: (1) Americans can muster the will to fight a war, a real war, deploying ground troops – not just high altitude bombers – a war in which Americans in uniform are put at substantial risk and casualties are sustained; (2) America's fighting forces, trained to utilize high-technology weaponry, are the most powerful -- and precise -- the world has ever seen.
That's the good news, or at least it's good for proponents of freedom. The bad news is that the enemies of freedom also went to school on America's quicksilver smashing of Saddam Hussein's military machine. They now know that if you challenge the United States to a conventional war, you lose.
So it may be a long time before Americans have another opportunity to fight such a war. Instead, America's enemies are likely to use unconventional warfare – A.K.A. terrorism – to achieve their goals. Indeed, that is precisely what is taking place in Iraq today. Saddamites joined by foreign jihadis are not attempting to take cities or even to hold neighborhoods. All they want is to do is kill people – preferably Americans but anyone will do, Red Cross workers, UN bureaucrats, Jordanian diplomats, even Iraqi cops and civil servants.
The goal is to break the will of the enemy – understanding that wars are a test of wills even more than of weapons. They have faith that the analysis of Americans offered by both Saddam and Osama bin Laden is correct. They are convinced that Americans can't endure a long or difficult fight. They believe that if you bloody Americans, sooner or later – probably sooner – they will turn tail and run.
Were that to happen, the terrorists who made it happen would take over Iraq, along with all its natural and human resources, and there'd be no way to dislodge them. Iraqis would know that freedom for them was an illusion, that slavery and oppression was their fate. Others in the Middle East would understand that cooperating with infidels, openly desiring your nation's inclusion in the Free World, is hazardous to your health. Better to side with the “strong horses,” such as bin Laden.
The terrorists are not operating only according to a theoretical model. They saw Americans flee Lebanon in 1983 after Hezbollah suicide-terrorists massacred a couple hundred marines in Beirut (more in one day than have been murdered in Iraq since the occupation began). They watched U.S. forces pull out of Somalia after American troops were murdered and their bodies were dragged through the streets.
Though those retreats were misguided, they were understandable at that time. In the ‘80s it was still possible to believe that if we exited from Lebanon, the terrorists would be satisfied with that concession. In the ‘90s, it was still possible to believe that if we fled Somalia, we'd leave terrorism behind us. The atrocities of 9/11 demonstrated clearly that the Let's-get-out-of-Dodge school of foreign policy does not succeed.
There is an additional precedent, an additional laboratory in which experiments of this nature have been conducted. In a series of wars that began in 1948 and ended in 1973, the Arab nations attempted to destroy Israel. But Arab armies proved to be no match for Israeli forces in conventional combat. So for the past 30 years, terrorism has been the preferred method of waging war against Israel. Had the slaughtering of Israeli children de-legitimized those responsible for it – had they been shunned as the monsters and barbarians they are -- terrorism today would be widely viewed as a failed tactic and those with grievances would dismiss any in their ranks who suggested it.
Instead, however, most nations of the world appeased, rewarded and even celebrated the terrorists. The more vicious the terrorism, the angrier people became – at Israel. It was based on this logic that the worst outbreak of terrorism in the Middle East's history followed not a harsh Israeli reprisal, but rather Israel's offer, at Camp David in 2000, of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Lessons learned are now being applied in Iraq. Among them: Terrorism succeeds like nothing else; terrorism strikes at fundamental civilized values, in particular the Judeo-Christian reluctance to do unto others as others have done unto us; terrorism is the key to winning the jihad against what the terrorists call the “Zionists and the Crusaders.”
Does anyone know how to defeat such an enemy? That's the question Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was really asking in his now famous leaked memo. To his credit, he understands that our victories last spring provide no clue as to whether we have what it takes to win a war that demands, above all, a will that is stronger than that of suicide-terrorists, which is to say a will of iron. And in a democratic society, it demands that a majority of the voters have such a will.
If we do have such a will, we can find a way to win. But if we don't, the war in Iraq will end in defeat. And it won't be the last defeat Americans will suffer.