- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2003

War against terrorism, war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, war in… ? The Bush administration has told us repeatedly since September 11, 2001, that we are in the war against terrorism for the long haul, that Americans understand that, and that “Americans are patient.”

The public assurances about our “patience” have never been stronger than in the recent public rhetoric of senior administration officials as the death toll among American soldiers mounts steadily and as critics question the progress and costs of reconstruction and democratization in Iraq. Why? Is it because our foreign policy leadership senses growing American impatience?

If so, well they should. Anyone who has studied the history of American foreign policy should understand that we Americans have very strong characteristics in our approach to national security in general and toward “war” (whatever that means nowadays) in particular. Although there are historical exceptions, in general Americans traditionally have focused most of our energy on the pursuit of private interests and domestic affairs and, consequently, have viewed international and national security as secondary, if we thought of it at all.

On the other hand, once conscious of a threat, American attitudes have tended to shift quickly and dramatically to support a war — as long as we were told what victory would look like and could see meaningful, rapid measures of progress toward objectives. Once surrender documents were signed in World War I and World War II or an armistice agreement in the Korean War, we Americans wanted to “Bring the boys home” and get back to business as usual.

World War I began in Europe in 1914, but America avoided involvement until 1917 — despite the 1915 German U-boat sinking of the Lusitania that killed 128 Americans — when repeated violations of American neutral rights and revelations of German plots in Mexico ended a great debate about U.S. involvement in a European war.

Then, feeling we had been stabbed in the back, America came on with a vengeance to fight “A War to End All Wars” under the popular slogan “Remember the Lusitania.” Americans were given a definition of victory — surrender by Germany — and could visualize progress toward victory as the horrible trench warfare moved across Europe toward Berlin.

World War II began in Europe in 1939, but the U.S. again avoided involvement until Japan, part of “the Axis,” stabbed us in the back at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Under the slogan “Remember Pearl Harbor,” we Americans entered another crusade to rid the world of evil. Again, victory was defined as surrender by Japan and Germany, and progress could be measured by Gen. George Patton’s dash across Europe after the Normandy landing and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s island hopping in the Pacific toward Japan.

Unlike previous wars abroad, we slid slowly and grudgingly into the war in Vietnam in the early 1960s, ostensibly to prevent countries in Southeast Asia from becoming dominoes falling under the yoke of communism.

President Johnson tried to demonstrate in 1964 that America had been stabbed in the back by the fabricated attack of Vietnamese gunboats against the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Americans were not persuaded and they were not in a crusading spirit. We did not have a clear definition of victory in counterinsurgency war and were given surrogate measures of progress such as Viet Cong “body count” to offset TV images of the escalating flow of American “body bags” coming home. After more than a decade of war in Vietnam with no end in sight, Americans just plain “called it quits” via congressional denial of further financial assistance to South Vietnam in early 1975.

Americans did not need much persuasion that we were stabbed in the back by terrorists on September 11, 2001. President Bush made a powerful public case and we were ready to go to war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to support all kinds of homeland security initiatives, domestic and foreign, then to go to war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

But now we Americans predictably are becoming impatient with the war against terrorism. There is no clear definition of “victory” in either Afghanistan or Iraq or in the war against terrorism writ large. American soldiers are being killed and wounded daily in the name of bringing democracy to the Middle East.

Here, at home, democracy is at work in the electoral process moving toward 2004. Democratic Party contenders are focusing on how badly the Bush administration is handling the postwar situation in Iraq.

Americans clamor to get back to “business as usual.” Analogies to Vietnam and “quagmires” increasingly appear in the press.

We are “the Impatient American” at war all over again — and no one can predict the outcome. But the Bush administration appears to have sensed the American mood and is trying feverishly to demonstrate progress toward establishment of democracy in the Middle East, starting with Iraq. Our president is right to call on Almighty God; we will need all the help we can get.

William Taylor is a distinguished alumnus of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.


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