There is a haunting yet hopeful moment in the film Patton, when George C. Scott’s General Patton utters a warning that carries timeless weight—a warning we would do well to heed.
In the scene, British and American generals are discussing the grim situation in the strategic town of Bastogne, where the US 101st Airborne is surrounded by German forces. A British general reports that there’s nothing General Montgomery can do to help. Other Allied generals simply avert their gaze from the map and the problem. But then General Patton volunteers to do the unthinkable: attack with three divisions in just 48 hours. The assembled brass are incredulous and tell him to be “realistic.” One general counsels Patton to “fall back and regroup.” Noting that it’s the dead of winter, another dismisses Patton’s plan as impossible. Patton interrupts them with a sobering declaration. “We can still lose this war,” he growls, adding with paradoxical optimism, “We’re in business” to do the impossible.
Patton and his Third Army would do just that.
What was true that final winter of World War II is true today: When given the opportunity and the public backing, the U.S. military can still do the impossible. Yet we can still lose this war, because we—the American people and our elected officials—are losing the will to wage it.
The signs are everywhere: a new Congress promising to withdraw or redeploy; a new commission advocating overtures to the region’s thugs and hinting at an old solution—a return to realism and the end of an audacious democracy project in the Middle East.
But it’s not only Iraq—and it’s not only politicians and policymakers—that expose our foundering will. A recent CNN poll found that 48 percent of the country opposes the war in Afghanistan, the very place that spawned al Qaeda’s mass-murderers. More than half the American people—56 percent—are resigned to the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. Less than 10 percent of the country supports military action to prevent that increasingly likely and bleak outcome. Plus, a dwindling percentage identifies the war in Iraq as part of the wider War on Terror.
Yet as Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute has found in a massive survey of post-9/11 polling data, 77 percent of the country reasoned (rightly) in early 2003 that Iraq was part of the War on Terror. Bowman has also unearthed a CNN poll that asked Americans just days after 9/11 if they would support military action even if it meant 5,000 troops would be killed. In a sign of our grim, if ephemeral, determination, 76 percent said yes.
Iraq has always—or at least since 1991—been just one of many fronts in a global war. Today, it is a strategic toehold surrounded and infiltrated by enemy forces. Indeed, if we Americans lose this war on terror, a major factor will be our failure to see it in global terms; to connect the dots from Manhattan to Madrid to Bali to Beslan to Iraq to Israel to Waziristan to Washington to London to Lebanon; to understand that summits and sanctions and compromise won’t sate this enemy.
Consider that Iran and Syria—two regimes the well-meaning Realists say we need to work with and talk to—have fomented a war in Israel and lower Lebanon, pumped jihadists into Iraq to kill Americans and bludgeon Iraq’s nascent democracy, and used their proxies to light the fuse of another civil war in Lebanon. Iran’s leaders openly talk about crippling the U.S., destroying democratic Israel and building a nuclear arsenal. Syria, for its part, has played a role in at least two assassinations of moderate leaders committed to democracy.
All of this has taken place in the past four years, most of it in the last two.
Any real war against jihadism and its terrorist offspring has to recognize that regimes like this—regimes which support the likes of al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Mahdi Army, and Hezbollah—are enemies.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. should launch military strikes against Iran or Syria—there are many ways to wage war, as the Iranians and Syrians remind us every day—but it should put to rest the notion that these terrorist states can help heal Iraq. It’s one thing to make common cause with the enemy of my enemy. It’s quite another to partner with the friend of my enemy. Indeed, reaching out to the blood-smeared hands of Ahmadinejad and Assad would push realpolitik to a new low, if that’s possible.
For his part, President George W. Bush is trying to resist those who counsel that it’s time to make a deal with the devils in Damascus and Tehran. “Iran knows how to get to the table with us,” he recently said in response to the Realist caucus.
He’s also resisting the push toward the easy way out of Iraq—the path that leads to defeat. “We’ll make the changes necessary to succeed,” he said while in Europe. “But there’s one thing I’m not going to do. I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.” He has even used the language of the Realists to defend his lonely position. “This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever,” he argued during the Amman summit.
Bush can change tactics and troop levels; he can reshuffle cabinet secretaries; he can even revamp policy and strategy. But one wonders if he can change the can’t-do attitude of the now-ascendant Realists, who would rather fall back and regroup—and who fail to recognize we can still lose this war on terrorism or win it. It all comes down to will.
As General Dwight Eisenhower put it during that desperate winter of 1944, “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster.”
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