Review: Winning the Unwinnable War - The Objective Standard

Winning the Unwinnable War: America's Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism, edited by Elan Journo. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009. 253 pp. $27.95 (softcover).


In Winning the Unwinnable War, editor Elan Journo and fellow contributors Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein consider the ideas and events that led to 9/11 and analyze America’s response. Arguing that our nation has been made progressively less secure by policies based on “subordinating military victory to perverse, allegedly moral constraints” (p. ix), they offer an alternative: grounding American foreign policy on “the moral ideal of rational self-interest” (p. 188). This they accomplish in the space of seven chapters, divided into three sections: “Part One. The Enemy,” “Part Two. America’s Self-Crippled Response to 9/11,” and “Part Three. From Here, Where Do We Go?”

In Part One, in a chapter titled “What Motivates the Jihad on America,” Journo considers the nature of the enemy that attacked America on 9/11. With refreshing honesty, Journo dispenses with the whitewashing that often accompanies discussions of Islam and Jihad, pointing out that the meaning of “Islam” is “submission to Allah” and that its nature “demands the sacrifice of not only the mind, but also of self” (p. 33). Says Journo, the Jihadists seek to impose Allah’s will—Islamic Law—just as Islamic teaching would have it: by means of the sword. “Islamic totalitarians consciously try to model themselves on the religion’s founder and the figure who is held to exemplify its virtues, Muhammad. He waged wars to impose, and expand, the dominion of Islam” (p. 35).

In “The Road to 9/11,” Journo summarizes thirty years of unanswered Jihadist aggression, beginning with the Iranian takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. Throughout, Journo criticizes the idea that influenced the actions of America’s leaders during this time—“realism”—which he describes as eschewing “[m]oral ideals and other broad principles” in favor of achieving narrow, short-range goals by sheer expediency (p. 20). Because of the nature of their own ideas, says Journo, realists are incapable of understanding the Jihadists and thus incapable of understanding how to act with respect to them. “The operating assumption for realist policymakers is that (like them) no one would put an abstract, far off ideal ahead of collecting some concrete, immediate advantage (money, honor, influence). So for realists, an enemy that is dedicated to a long-term goal—and thus cannot be bought off with bribes—is an enemy that must remain incomprehensible” (p. 21). Journo indicates how realism was applied to the Islamist threat in the years leading up to 9/11:

Facing the Islamist onslaught, our policymakers aimed, at most, to manage crises with range-of-the-moment remedies—heedless of the genesis of a given crisis and the future consequences of today’s solution. Running through the varying policy responses of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton there is an unvarying motif. . . . Our leaders failed to recognize that war had been launched against us and that the enemy is Islamic totalitarianism. This cognitive failure rendered Washington impotent to defeat the enemy. Owing to myopic policy responses, our leaders managed only to appease and encourage the enemy’s aggression (p. 6).

After 9/11, President George W. Bush shied away from the realist policy of passively reacting to the ever-escalating Islamist threat—and instead adopted the foreign policy favored by neoconservatives. “In place of ‘realism,’ neoconservatives advocated a policy often called ‘interventionism,’ one component of which calls for America to work assertively to overthrow threatening regimes and to replace them with peaceful ‘democracies’” (p. 118). Two chapters of Winning the Unwinnable War are devoted to dissecting this policy, “The ‘Forward Strategy’ of Failure” by Brook and Journo (first published in TOS, Spring 2007) and “Neoconservative Foreign Policy: An Autopsy” by Brook and Epstein (first published in TOS, Summer 2007).

In the first of these chapters, Brook and Journo consider Bush’s interventionist plan, the “forward strategy of freedom.” On the premise that democracies do not wage wars of aggression, Bush launched two campaigns of democratic state building in the Middle East—in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003, Bush exclaimed, “Iraqi democracy will succeed—and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran—that freedom can be the future of every nation” (p. 54). But neither Iraqi freedom nor American security was achieved by Bush’s “forward strategy” of enabling Iraqis and Afghanis to vote. Because of democratic elections, Iraq “is [now] dominated by a Shiite alliance led by the Islamic Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)” (p. 54), and a “further effect of the elections in the region has been the invigoration of Islamists in Afghanistan” (p. 57).

Brook and Journo argue that the administration adopted this policy because it was incapable of fighting a war solely for American security, quoting Bush’s telling justification of the invasion of Iraq: “The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people themselves. . . . Their lives and freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein—but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us” (p. 68). The authors note that such justifications point to a decline in American moral confidence since World War II, when America waged an all-out war for total victory:

Observe what the dogged advocates of the [“forward strategy of freedom”] reject as illegitimate: a self-assertive war to defend America. It was unimaginable to them that America should fight a war against Islamic totalitarianism with the intensity and righteousness that we did in World War II; that the U.S. should seek to demoralize the enemy; that we should, as Winston Churchill put it, “create conditions intolerable to the mass of the [enemy] population”; that the U.S. should seek victory, for its own self defense (p. 69).

As the authors amply demonstrate, destroying the enemy’s ability and will to resist has nothing to do with the moral purpose of Bush’s neoconservative adventures.

In “Neoconservative Foreign Policy: An Autopsy,” Brook and Epstein provide an incisive analysis of the doctrine’s origins and content. In this chapter, they detail how neoconservative pundits such as William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and David Brooks criticized realism as shortsighted and incapable of defining, much less achieving, the national interest. Opposing realism as early as the 1980s, neoconservatives argued “that America’s ‘national interest’ in foreign policy is for America to establish and maintain a ‘democratic international order’ that promotes the long-term security and well-being of all the world’s peoples” (p. 126).

Brook and Epstein dig deeper into neoconservatism’s roots, quoting Max Boot’s definition of “neoconservatism” as “Hard Wilsonianism” (p. 128). Woodrow Wilson, a Progressive who favored an activist government in both domestic and foreign affairs, advocated that America “must not ‘isolate’ itself from the rest of the world’s troubles, but must instead ‘engage’ itself and work with others to create a world of peace and security” (p. 127). The neoconservatives, say Brook and Epstein, agree that America has a duty to undertake such interventionist missions overseas and believe that by doing so America will “further its ‘national greatness,’ achieving a coveted ‘place of honor among the world’s great powers’” (p. 126). Because it holds “that America has a duty to better the condition of the rest of the world,” Brook and Epstein dub this policy “altruistic nationalism”—and point out the miserable results of its Sisyphean crusade to remake the Middle East post-9/11 (p. 127).

In “‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense,” Brook and Epstein reveal the theory that further inculcates altruism into nearly every aspect of American foreign and military policy, from broad strategies to the individual actions of troops. Just War Theory, Brook and Epstein explain, is essentially the application of Christian morality to warfare, a combination of the admonishment to “turn the other cheek” and of one’s alleged duty to help one’s neighbor: “One can use force, not to protect oneself, but to protect one’s neighbor” (p. 90). They go on:

While in name Just War Theory claims to uphold a right to self-defense, in substance it denies this right. Self-defense, the theory holds, is a “just cause” for war. This means that if the people of a nation are suffering aggression, oppression, or genocide, and are themselves capable of stopping it, they are morally entitled to respond militarily. But—and this is the crucial part—only under strict conditions. Aggression from another nation is a “just cause,” according to Just War Theory, but only as a “last resort”—and only if the decision to go to war is motivated by “good intentions” (p. 92).

The Just War Theory idea of “proportionality,” the authors point out, is responsible for the ever more stringent rules of engagement that compel American troops to risk their lives in order to ensure the safety of enemy civilians and terrorists. Proportionality demands “that in fighting a war we cannot conduct ourselves in a way that hastens victory or minimizes our casualties” (p. 96). In fact, a work on Just War Theory—Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars—“serves as the major textbook in the ethics classes taught at West Point and dozens of other colleges and military schools” and explicitly argues that soldiers are objects of sacrifice: “If saving civilian lives means risking soldiers’ lives, the risk must be accepted” (p. 88).

Unfortunately, Brook and Epstein observe, this altruistic theory “is completely unopposed by any other theory of war today” (p. 104). The authors note that even alleged “realist” warriors such as General Colin Powell must adopt it by default:

Because “realism” rejects the need for moral evaluation, and because the need for moral evaluation cannot be escaped, its advocates necessarily take certain goals for granted as “obviously” practical. Which goals? Those widely seen as valid—that is, the goals of altruism. . . . While Powell and his ilk may say that they eschew moral analysis in matters of foreign policy and war, altruism nevertheless shapes what they think and seek to do (p. 104–5).

In the book’s penultimate chapter, “Eight Years After 9/11: An Appraisal,” Journo rejects the notion that the momentary success of the Iraq “surge” is a harbinger of victory. Instead, he argues that America’s overall course in fighting Jihad has been a failure, providing numerous examples of how we are less secure after eight years of campaigning in Iraq and Afghanistan. In regard to Pakistan, he observes that our “allies’” appeasement of Islamists has led them “to ‘Talibanize’ large patches of Pakistan—further entrenching their operational hub” (p. 170). Journo also highlights the fact that the Bush disasters have been blamed on a “self-assertive foreign policy” (p. 184) and notes that the resulting recent shift back to realism “reveals an intellectual-moral bankruptcy” in the realm of U.S. foreign policy (p. 185).

In the book’s final chapter, “The Road to Victory: A Radical Change in U.S. Mideast Policy,” Journo lays out the policy that he believes will lead to victory against Islamic totalitarianism. The prerequisite to such a policy, he argues, is dispensing with the false dichotomy of realism and neoconservatism, and instead grounding our foreign policy in rational self-interest. Such a foreign policy, “informed by the principle of egoism, in [Ayn] Rand’s words, would be ‘explicitly and proudly dedicated to the defense of America’s rights and national self-interests’” (p. 188).

Journo argues (as do the other authors throughout the book) that the primary target of a self-interested campaign to defeat Islamic totalitarianism should be Iran. He points out that, since 1979, Iran has been the leader and inspiration of Islamic totalitarianism: “By pulling out Iran’s fangs and utterly humiliating it, we would eliminate an existential threat to our security and deal a massive blow to the ideal of Islamic totalitarianism” (p. 197). Journo adds that defeating Iran would enable the United States to issue a credible ultimatum to Saudi Arabia, which he maintains is America’s second greatest enemy and the world’s biggest exporter of Jihadist ideology: “While the regime is not itself a considerable military threat, it is a formidable ideological and financial engine of jihad.

. . . the regime’s backing of the jihad must end” (p. 207). And Journo categorically rejects the notion that by vanquishing enemies we will somehow create more. Citing the demise of World War II-era Japan’s ideology of conquest, he says that “there is every reason to expect that America’s defeat of the self-assured Islamic Republic of Iran would similarly rob the Islamist movement of its glamour and potency” (p. 200).

Journo also considers the effects of a self-interested foreign policy on the stealth Jihad now occurring within the West. “Within Europe, Islamists are carrying out a multiform jihad to elevate sharia [Islamic religious law] as the supreme principle of society and government” (p. 176). To the extent that these stealth Jihadists succeed, says Journo, it is because they feed on the West’s moral doubt and multicultural dogma: “The institutionalized embrace of multiculturalism reflects a self-doubt about the worth of Western values and the principles of secular society. The same self-doubt, married with fear, underlies other forms of capitulation to Islamist demands” (p. 179). Journo contends that if the West overcame its moral self-doubt and adopted a principled policy of rational self-interest, then the global Jihad would begin to unravel: “By crushing the movement in the Middle East and demoralizing its followers, we will achieve the same effect on its followers everywhere” (p. 214). As for “die-hards bent on this cause”—those Muslims who recognize and embrace the fact that, as Journo points out earlier in the book, Jihad is an inherent part of their faith—“Such activists will find themselves up against Westerners who are resolutely unwilling to sacrifice their own freedom” (p. 214).

Winning the Unwinnable War deserves the widest possible dissemination. It provides an elucidating analysis of America’s recent and current foreign affairs and offers sound advice for repairing the damage caused by decades of altruistic policies. There is much in this book to raise the hackles of foreign policy leaders and intellectuals—which is precisely why they should read it. The overwhelming failure of their policies and theories is clear; it is time that they consider a foreign policy of American self-interest.

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