Seven lessons the GOP should have learned (but didn’t) from the War on Terror

John Guardiano Freelance Writer
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Conservatives, writes The New York Times’s Ross Douthat, “are increasingly divided over what lessons to draw from America’s post-9/11 interventions.”

I’ll say. When it comes to foreign policy, the party of Ronald Reagan increasingly sounds like the party of Pat Buchanan (and the aging, septuagenarian George Will). Why, this afternoon only eight Republicans voted to “authorize the limited use of the United States armed forces in support of the NATO mission in Libya”; 225 Republicans voted no.

It seems to me that the GOP is learning the wrong lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arab Spring. Here’s a primer for the Grand Old Party:

1. George Bush’s policy of military and intelligence preemption — of attacking them over there so that they can’t strike us here — has worked.

We have successfully averted another attack on our homeland. And, despite his rhetorical retreats, Obama, by and large, has kept this policy intact. (Gitmo, for instance, is still open, and tens of thousands of American troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

So, despite all our internal political bickering over the wars and U.S. foreign policy more generally, America’s “terrible swift sword” has kept our enemies at bay.

2. Twenty-first century wars — and counterinsurgencies especially — are not quick, clean-cut affairs. Instead, they are costly and time-consuming ventures that require national patience and long-term resolve.

So Americans looking for a World War II-style victory in three or four years are deluding themselves. That ain’t gonna happen. Deal with it: Be prepared for a messy and prolonged intervention that stretches out for a decade and beyond.

3. Twenty-first century wars require a political dimension or aspect that can and does complicate military planning. We cannot simply bomb our adversaries back to the Stone Age, because that would be politically self-defeating even if militarily therapeutic. So-called “nation-building” will be an inevitable part of any counterinsurgency. Again, deal with it.

4. On September 11, 2001, the U.S. military was not prepared to fight a prolonged counterinsurgency. Instead, they (we) were geared up for a more conventional fight. This resulted in missteps and problems that seriously delayed — by years — effective prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This isn’t any one person’s (or party’s) fault. Bureaucracies move slowly and haltingly. In truth, there is plenty of blame to go around. But the idea that we have been fighting the same war in Iraq and Afghanistan for eight and 10 years, respectively, simply isn’t true.

In reality, we have fought two different wars in both countries. Our initial efforts were quick and decisive battles to dislodge the Taliban and overthrow Saddam Hussein. These campaigns required more conventional combat ops for which the U.S. military has absolutely no equal.

Our subsequent efforts, however, floundered badly because we did not fully grasp the nature of the fight — and, when we did, we were unprepared to prosecute the wars effectively. This changed in both Iraq and Afghanistan when the U.S. military belatedly adopted a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy backed up by a requisite surge of new troops.

The result in Iraq has been victory; and the result in Afghanistan has been a dramatic turnaround.

5. The cost of these wars has been quite modest and manageable. The media and many politicians — even Republicans who should know better — say otherwise, but facts are stubborn things.

For example, during World War II, the United States spent more than one-third of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. Today, by contrast, the figure is around five percent. The cost of Afghanistan alone amounts to not even three percent of our $3.7 trillion federal budget; and Afghanistan accounts for less than one percent of the GDP.

Moreover, as Rep. Paul Ryan has observed, defense spending has shrunk from about 39 percent of the federal budget in 1970 to just under 16 percent today.

“The fact is,” reports Commentary’s Alana Goodman, “defense consumes a smaller share of the national economy today than it did throughout the Cold War.”

6. Libya is best understood as one battle in a larger-scale, long-term war (and I mean war in both its literal and metaphorical sense) to transform the Middle East and North Africa along more peaceable and democratic lines. It is a target of opportunity that emerged unexpectedly, and which a smart and wise America should seize upon.

Indeed, we have the chance now to rid the world of one of the most menacing anti-American dictators and terrorist sponsors, Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi.

And doing so is important: Getting rid of Gaddafi would have potentially far-reaching effects throughout the Middle East — in Egypt, Syria, Iran and elsewhere — where fledgling democratic forces are fighting against Islamist and secular tyranny.

7. Don’t let your understandable anger at Obama lead you down the primrose path to American military withdrawal and retreat.

Yes, Obama should have consulted with Congress about Libya before intervening there. But please don’t compound the president’s mistake by undermining a legitimate U.S. foreign policy goal that will help to safeguard our country, our people and our interests.

Getting rid of Gaddafi and strengthening the democratic wave in the Middle East and North Africa is the right thing to do, even if Obama went about it in the wrong way. America first, last and always, party and political considerations be damned.

John R. Guardiano is a writer and analyst in Arlington, Virginia. He writes and blogs for a variety of publications, including FrumForum, the American Spectator and The Daily Caller. Follow him at his personal blog, ResoluteCon.com, and on Twitter @JohnRGuardiano.