- Historic Sites
“The Shah Always Falls”
A soldier-historian looks at how the world has changed in the past decade and finds that America is both hostage to history and likely to be saved by it
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
I was wrong, and I learned. The key experience was my peripheral—very peripheral—involvement in the first Balkan crisis, in 1992. Yugoslavia was initially a small cancer, but we let it metastasize. At the time, the American armed forces were shrinking. We had a very small military for our global responsibilities. The Europeans were bragging that they didn’t need the United States any more; the Soviet Union was gone, and they could do it themselves. And I thought, great, let the French and the Germans and the Brits do the Balkans. They certainly have the manpower and the money. I still think Europe had the power to do it, but I deluded myself about its will. With the benefit of hindsight, I see that the only hope for avoiding the bloodbath was early and decisive U.S. involvement. I will always be ashamed that I took the Europeans at their word and that I raised my minor voice against the intervention in Yugoslavia back in 1992.
After Vietnam, where the leadership left it hanging out to dry, our military has been extremely wary of intervention. But there are times when we are our brother’s keeper. We know when the human rights violations are intolerable, when genocide is going on. There are times when you must go, times when the price is right and you should go, and other times when it’s impossible, when you’re foolish to go. But you need a granular understanding, a tactile feel for foreign cultures, to be able to judge objectively and wisely. That’s why we need better intelligence. You can’t intervene everywhere. You have to choose the ones that are doable.
Somalia was a mistake, for instance. It was one of those cases where we needed to get food in and then leave. Mission creep is often used as an excuse for not doing something, but in Somalia, where we stayed too long and tried to do too much, mission creep was a valid complaint.
We got into the middle of clan fights that were all about food and power and tribal turf, and because we couldn’t stop them, we shouldn’t have tried to. We had a Mr. Micawber foreign policy, hoping something would turn up, hoping they’d see the light and there’d be a magic solution. There are never magic solutions in devastated, war-torn states. After the Battle of Mogadishu, which we won overwhelmingly, we made things worse by cutting and running. The failure of nerve of the Clinton administration encouraged our enemies to believe that whenever you kill a few Americans, they’ll run away. Osama bin Laden talked a lot about Somalia.
But you’ve argued that American military dominance in conventional warfare is about to become overwhelming, that nobody will fight us on our terms. So won’t the future mostly be Somalias?
Any dictator or regime happy to take on the U.S. military in conventional war is an idiot, but there are always idiots. Wiser enemies will take an asymmetrical tack. The operation on September 11, detestable though it was, was brilliantly executed: complex, well imagined, and amazingly well conducted. They did seriously underestimate our strength and our response, so the lesson all around is never to underestimate your opponents. This lesson is broadly applicable. Radical regimes or nonstate entities can take imaginative, incisive, asymmetrical approaches, but we also have to worry about opposing major powers. It’s not even constructive to name names.
You’ve pointed to nasty consequences of the comparative success of America, suggesting that this new century may be quite a dark one because of it.
Jealousy is a powerful human emotion. Hatred is a tremendous emotional release. Blame is cathartic. At this time in history, the United States is humane, free, rich, and powerful. The Arab Islamic world is just the opposite. Our success is infuriating to people who value their own culture, who love their traditions even though they no longer work, and who look at our enormous success with inchoate envy.
Ten years ago, when I tried to talk about the role of religious belief and the power of religion, it was not considered a serious strategic factor. People talked about economics and demographics, about political structures and development theory. Since September 11, people are perfectly happy to talk about religion. In the future we’ll get around to recognizing the neuroses, if not psychoses, that are far too prevalent within the Arabian heartland of the Islamic world. I believe that a primeval terror of female sexuality is a significant strategic factor, one we’ve failed to examine. Males in these traditional cultures see the pictures of Pamela Anderson or replay Sharon Stone movies, and they want a piece of the action. But they don’t want their daughters and wives to turn into Pamela Anderson, or Britney Spears, or, for that matter, Emmylou Harris. They’re mesmerized by the sexual component in our culture, which our media grossly exaggerate and which they misread.