An­cient laws, mod­ern wars

Hu­man na­ture dic­tates that ap­pease­ment in­vites ag­gres­sion

The Washington Times Daily - - OPIN­ION - By Vic­tor Davis Hanson Vic­tor Davis Hanson is a clas­si­cist and his­to­rian with the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity.

The most dan­ger­ous mo­ments in for­eign af­fairs of­ten come af­ter a ma­jor power seeks to re­assert its lost de­ter­rence. The United States may be en­ter­ing just such a per­ilous tran­si­tional pe­riod. Rightly or wrongly, China, Iran, North Korea, Rus­sia and Mid­dle East-based ter­ror­ists con­cluded af­ter 2009 that the United States saw it­self in de­cline and pre­ferred a re­ces­sion from world af­fairs.

In that void, ri­val states were em­bold­ened, as­sum­ing that Amer­ica thought it could not — or should not — any longer ex­er­cise the sort of po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary lead­er­ship it had demon­strated in the past.

En­e­mies thought the United States was more fo­cused on cli­mate change, United Na­tions ini­tia­tives, re­sets, good­will ges­tures to en­e­mies such as Iran and Cuba, and soft-power race, class and gen­der agen­das than on pro­tect­ing and up­hold­ing long­time U.S. al­liances and global rules.

In re­ac­tion, North Korea in­creased its mis­sile launches and loudly promised nu­clear de­struc­tion of the West and its al­lies.

Rus­sia vi­o­lated its obli­ga­tions un­der the In­ter­me­di­ate-Range Nu­clear Forces Treaty and ab­sorbed bor­der­lands of for­mer Soviet re­publics.

Iran ha­rassed Amer­i­can ships in the Per­sian Gulf and is­sued se­rial threats against the United States.

China built ar­ti­fi­cial island bases in the South China Sea to send a mes­sage about its im­mi­nent man­age­ment of Asian com­merce.

In Syria and Iraq, the Is­lamic State killed thou­sands in me­dieval fash­ion and spon­sored ter­ror­ist at­tacks in­side West­ern coun­tries.

Amid such grow­ing chaos, a re­turn to for­mer (and nor­mal) U.S. de­ter­rence would in­flame such ag­gres­sors and be con­sid­ered provoca­tive by provo­ca­teurs.

Ac­cord­ingly, we should re­mem­ber a few old rules for these scary new crises on the hori­zon:

1. Avoid mak­ing ver­bal threats that are not se­ri­ous and backed up by force. Af­ter eight years of pseudo-red lines, step-over lines, dead­lines and “game chang­ers,” Amer­i­can ul­ti­ma­tums with­out con­se­quences have no cur­rency and will only in­vite fur­ther ag­gres­sion.

2. The un­likely is not im­pos­si­ble. Weaker pow­ers can and do start wars. Ja­pan in De­cem­ber 1941 at­tacked the world’s two largest navies based on the false im­pres­sion that great pow­ers which sought to avoid war did so be­cause they were weak.

That cur­rent Amer­i­can mil­i­tary power is over­whelm­ing does not mean delu­sional na­tions will al­ways agree that it is so — or that it will be used.

3. Big wars can start from small be­gin­nings. No one thought an ob­scure Aus­trian arch­duke’s as­sas­si­na­tion in 1914 would lead to some 18 mil­lion dead by 1918. Con­sider any pos­si­ble mil­i­tary en­gage­ment a pre­cur­sor to far more. Have a backup plan — and an­other backup plan for the backup plan.

4. Do not con­fuse tac­tics with strat­egy. Suc­cess­fully shoot­ing down a rogue air­plane, blow­ing up an in­com­ing speed­boat or tak­ing an ISIS-held Syr­ian city is not the same as find­ing a way to win and end a war. Strate­gic vic­tory is time-con­sum­ing and usu­ally in­volves draw­ing on eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural su­pe­ri­or­ity as well as mil­i­tary suc­cess to en­sure that a de­feated op­po­nent stays de­feated — and agrees that fur­ther ag­gres­sion is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.

5. Hu­man na­ture is un­chang­ing — and not al­ways ad­mirable. Like it or not, neu­trals more of­ten flock to crude strength than to el­e­gant and humane weak­ness.

6. Ma­jes­tic pro­nounce­ments and utopian speechi­fy­ing im­press global elites and the in­ter­na­tional me­dia, but they mean noth­ing to rogue na­tions. Such states in­stead count up fleets, di­vi­sions and squadrons — and re­mem­ber whether a power helps its friends and pun­ishes its en­e­mies. Stand­ing by a flawed ally is al­ways prefer­able to aban­don­ing one be­cause it can some­times be both­er­some.

7. Pub­lic sup­port for mil­i­tary ac­tion hinges mostly on per­ceived suc­cess. Trag­i­cally, peo­ple will sup­port a du­bi­ous but suc­cess­ful in­ter­ven­tion more than a no­ble but bogged-down one. The most fer­vent pre­war sup­port­ers of war are of­ten the most likely to bail dur­ing the first set­back. Never cal­i­brate the wis­dom of re­tal­i­at­ing or in­ter­ven­ing based on ini­tial loud pub­lic en­thu­si­asm for it.

8. War is a harsh dis­tillery of tal­ent. Good lead­ers and gen­er­als in peace are not nec­es­sar­ily skilled in con­flict. They can per­form as badly in war as good wartime gen­er­als do in peace. As­sume that the com­man­ders who start a war won’t be there to fin­ish it.

9. War is rarely started by ac­ci­dent and far more of­ten by mis­taken cal­i­bra­tions of rel­a­tive power. Flawed pre­war as­sess­ments of com­par­a­tive weak­ness and strength are trag­i­cally cor­rected by war — the fi­nal, ugly ar­biter of who re­ally was strong and who was weak. Vis­i­ble ex­pres­sions of mil­i­tary po­ten­tial, se­ri­ous and steady lead­er­ship, na­tional co­he­sion and eco­nomic ro­bust­ness re­mind ri­vals of the fu­til­ity of war. Loud talk of dis­ar­ma­ment and a pref­er­ence for in­ter­na­tional polic­ing can en­cour­age fool­ish risk-tak­ers to mis­cal­cu­late that war is a good gam­ble.

10. De­ter­rence that pre­vents war is usu­ally smeared as war-mon­ger­ing. Ap­pease­ment, iso­la­tion­ism and col­lab­o­ra­tion that avoid im­me­di­ate crises but guar­an­tee even­tual con­flict are usu­ally praised as civ­i­lized outreach and humane en­gage­ment.

Fi­nally, it is al­ways bet­ter to be safe and ridiculed than vul­ner­a­ble and praised.

War is rarely started by ac­ci­dent and far more of­ten by mis­taken cal­i­bra­tions of rel­a­tive power. Flawed pre­war as­sess­ments of com­par­a­tive weak­ness and strength are trag­i­cally cor­rected by war — the fi­nal, ugly ar­biter of who re­ally was strong and who was weak.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY HUNTER

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