Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

JFK and the origin of wars without end

- By George Friedman George Friedman is an internatio­nally recognised geopolitic­al forecaster and strategist on internatio­nal affairs and the founder and chairman of Geopolitic­al Futures. www.geopolitic­

I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to answer a fundamenta­l question: Why did the United States, economical­ly and militarily the most powerful nation in the world, lose three wars during my lifetime? Given the anniversar­y of the 9/11 attacks, the immediate cause of the last disastrous war, it is proper that this question be asked and that we all try to answer it.

For me, the origin of these wars is to be found in words from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

At the time it was met with great applause. Kennedy was merely summarisin­g a moral principle that had become commonplac­e after World War II. During the conflict, Franklin D. Roosevelt presented the United States as the moral saviour of a corrupt world. It’s true that the world was corrupt, and it’s true that the United States saved the lives of my parents and millions of others. But the war had a powerful geopolitic­al rationale: If Germany and Japan were not defeated, the security and the fundamenta­l interests of the United States would be in danger. Roosevelt meant what he said about salvation, but he carefully calculated the cost of being the saviour.

The Roosevelt theory of salvation embedded itself at this time. The struggle against the Soviet Union was a moral struggle but not one beyond the considerat­ion of costs. When he became president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was previously Roosevelt’s commander in Europe, shared a moral abhorrence of the Soviet Union. But he refused to send U.S. troops to Indochina to support France, he insisted that France and Britain, however morally superior they may be to Egypt, withdraw from attempting to seise the Suez Canal, and with meticulous care, he managed to leave office having not engaged in nuclear war. He petted the geopolitic­al shark, a moral cause carefully calibrated with resources, risks and rewards.

In his inaugural address, Kennedy wrote a blank check from his country. This was the moment the United States left the world of Roosevelt’s prudent saviour. The United States would as a matter of principle bear any hardship to support any friend and oppose any foe to assure liberty. In assuming the burden, he assumed the cost of war if needed, and he did not ask the question of whether our hardships would bring success or failure, and at such a price that the nation might not be able to bear it militarily, financiall­y or morally. It is hard to imagine that he understood the promise he was making.

Kennedy’s principle was not a meaningles­s moment in a speech. It expressed a sensibilit­y that had emerged in World War II in which war was an instrument to be used against evil. It was easy to regard America’s enemies as evil, because they were. There was no tension between the geopolitic­al imperative of the war and the moral imperative.

It was after Kennedy’s speech that the principles of World War II began to emerge as conscious principles, and this has dominated American strategy imperfectl­y as such things always do. There were three wars following Kennedy’s stated principles that lasted for many years and were unsuccessf­ul: Vietnam, Afghanista­n and Iraq. But they were only the long and agonising cases. The United States used military force in Iran during the hostage crisis but failed to achieve its desired outcome. The United States invaded Grenada. It succeeded, I suppose. The United States sent troops to Beirut and withdrew when hundreds of Marines were killed by explosives. The United States succeeded in Desert Storm. It conducted an extended bombing campaign in defense of Kosovo. And it has sent troops into Libya, Syria, Chad and northern Africa.

Opaque mission

I am no pacifist, but the tempo of operations imposed on the U.S. military and the widely varying environmen­ts it went into, frequently with a mission that was opaque, made little sense. In World War II, there was a clear moral and geopolitic­al reason for combat, a clear if flexible strategy that would withstand reversals. Most important, the military was configured for this war. Training a force takes time, and a force cannot be trained for “whatever comes up.” Having been trained to face the Soviets in Germany, the U.S. military was then unreasonab­ly asked to fight limited wars in the jungle, the desert and so forth. In other words, it was asked to go anywhere to fight any foe and protect any friend. So that’s what it did. In Vietnam, a military built around armour and clear fields of fire was thrown into a jungle that curbed numbers and limited visibility. In Afghanista­n, what started (and should have ended) as a covert mission conducted by the CIA and special operations forces ballooned into something quite different. In Iraq, the military was never trained or equipped for a battle that featured improvised explosive devices and light vehicles.

The thing is, it takes time and experience to develop a concept for fighting a war, identify the troops needed for a war and train a force to fight a war. Eisenhower’s mission was to conquer Germany. He refused to act for over two years. Marshall first trained the army for the war at home, and then Eisenhower trained them again in North Africa, losing battles and learning about the Germans. The army that landed at Normandy and the Navy that delivered and protected them were built for that moment, and even then suffered failures. To have landed an army there trained for Vietnam would have been insane.

Even so, in World War II the U.S. emerged with a sense of invincibil­ity. The first duty of the senior commanders was to ruthlessly extract this feeling from the military and from its civilian leadership. If you go into combat without an appropriat­e force, and with a sense of invincibil­ity, you may not lose, but you won’t win. And if you go in unprepared for the terrain, weather and horrors of the battlefiel­d, the failures will mount, the politician­s will deny any failures, the machine will pump more soldiers into the war, and the public will rightly determine that the war was a horrible failure. And then the soldiers who broke their hearts trying to win will feel betrayed by their nation.

Doctrine of endless war

The more wars the U.S. fights in shorter intervals, the less likely it is to win. Kennedy’s doctrine, then, should be expunged from our minds. That doctrine leads to endless war and continual defeat. War is not an action designed to do good. It is the use of overwhelmi­ng force against an opponent that threatens your nation’s fundamenta­l interest. War is not an act of charity for deserving friends, not even an act of vengeance for a vicious enemy.

A fundamenta­l foundation for peace is an unsentimen­tal understand­ing of geopolitic­s, the discipline that distinguis­hes sentiment from necessity, capability from boast, and the enemy who matters from the one who doesn’t. We are now more at peace than usual. Minor conflicts in Africa and the Middle East still rage. Only a few are justified; the others are undertaken out of habit, a bad habit at that. “America First” has somehow become an ugly concept. It is as with children: Whoever does not put his children first, above other children, is morally questionab­le. Those who do not put their nation ahead of others are in my view the same. Once your own love is cared for, and you have the ability, helping another is praisewort­hy. But nothing is more immoral than putting others first and failing to protect your own.

Which brings us back to Afghanista­n. There are those who argue that leaving Afghanista­n puts American lives at risk from future terrorist attacks. But terrorists are tied to no country, and their numbers are small. They keep it that way to gather weapons and plan their operations usually from the country they intend to attack, not a country half a world away.

Kennedy assumed that the U.S. could afford to fight any enemy anywhere. It can’t. And Washington better be certain that the next war it fights can be won, and that the next enemy is actually an enemy.

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