The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens takes a break from promoting war with Iran to argue that the U.S. must, for the sake of our reputation, stay in Afghanistan. Reprimanding his fellow conservatives who are growing frustrated with the effort there, Stephens warns “The U.S. cannot remain a superpower if the suspicion takes root that we are a feckless nation that can be stampeded into surrender by a domestic caucus of defeatists.”
Allies or would-be allies will make their own calculations and hedge their bets. Why should we be surprised that this is precisely what Pakistan has done vis-a-vis the Taliban? It’s not as if the U.S. hasn’t abandoned that corner of the world before to its furies.
How a feckless America is perceived by its friends is equally material to how we are perceived by our enemies. In his 1996 fatwa declaring war on the U.S., Osama bin Laden took note of American withdrawals from Beirut in 1983 and Mogadishu a decade later. “When tens of your soldiers were killed in minor battles and one American pilot was dragged through the streets… you withdrew, the extent of your impotence and weakness became very clear.” Is it the new conservative wisdom to prove bin Laden’s point (one that the hard men in Tehran undoubtedly share), only on a vastly greater scale?
I’ve always found it interesting how, for pro-war types like Stephens, these sorts of “reputation” arguments always only go one way: Toward more war. The only way we can show enemies and allies what we’re made of is to continue fighting, continue expending vast resources, even as the strategy is failing, even as our own economy is in crisis. It just never seems to occur to them that ensnaring the U.S. in hugely expensive, open-ended military interventions could also be a goal of our enemies, or that persisting in an intervention that has begun to prove counterproductive is itself a form of fecklessness.
It’s true that in his 1996 fatwa, Osama bin Laden mocked the U.S. for withdrawing from Somalia. But more recently, in November 2004, he also mocked the U.S. for how easy it was for Al Qaeda “to provoke and bait” the U.S. into military action:
BIN LADEN: All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qa’ida in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits to their private companies. [...]
So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. [...]
And even more dangerous and bitter for America is that the Mujahedin recently forced Bush to resort to emergency funds to continue the fight in Afghanistan and Iraq which is evidence of the success of the bleed-until-bankruptcy plan with Allah’s permission… And it all shows that the real loser is you. It’s the American people and their economy.
So which of bin Laden’s points should we not be trying to prove?