America’s War of Error
By Hugh White in The Monthly
“First, you overestimate the threat, then you overestimate your power to defeat it.”
The “War on Terror” seems now to be over, and a memorial is proposed for the 6000 Americans who have died in it — double the number who died during the September 11 attacks. The new memorial is planned for the National Mall in Washington, DC, where America’s stark and sombre Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands, its austere slabs of black stone sunk into the earth and inscribed with 58,318 names. When it was unveiled in 1982 those slabs were described by Stanley Karnow, one of the Vietnam War’s finest chroniclers, as symbols of “a faded hope — or perhaps the birth of a new awareness. They bear witness to the end of America’s absolute confidence in its moral exclusivity, in its military invincibility, its manifest destiny.”
The analogies between Vietnam and Afghanistan, between Saigon in 1975 and Kabul in 2021, are all too clear, and the lessons enshrined in the Vietnam memorial are being heeded once more. That was United States President Joe Biden’s message on August 31, when he explained his decision to withdraw US troops. “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
America bounced back from Vietnam and went on to win the Cold War — the Berlin Wall fell just 14 years after the fall of Saigon — and the conflict in Vietnam was much bigger than the War on Terror. To take just one measure, almost 10 times as many US soldiers were killed in Vietnam. But this is not 1975, and much has changed. The America that failed in Vietnam, for all its problems, still had by far the world’s largest economy. It still dominated global manufacturing. Its infrastructure, education and healthcare were the envy of the world, and it fulfilled the American Dream’s promise of security and opportunity to a vast and prosperous middle class. Its navy still dominated the world’s oceans. It still had a political system that worked. And its primary strategic rival, the Soviet Union, was past its peak.
Today a very different America confronts its failures in the War on Terror. It faces far greater challenges at home: stagnant incomes and economic inequality, crumbling infrastructure and poor social services, racial injustice and social disharmony, climate change and the pandemic, all refracted through a disastrously dysfunctional political system. At the same time, America’s global leadership is contested not just by a diminished Russia but also by China, whose economic weight makes it fundamentally a more formidable rival than the Soviet Union ever was. And China is getting stronger year by year.
Biden says he has withdrawn from Afghanistan and forsworn further interventions so that America can focus on all these challenges at home and abroad. His wants to radically reform and rebuild America, and at the same time confront and contain China. It is an extraordinarily ambitious agenda, and there is no guarantee he will succeed in either goal, let alone both.
Australia has a huge stake in the outcome, because we have bet our future on America’s ability to face China down and reassert its leadership in Asia.
Australia’s faith in its ally was badly shaken by its failure in Vietnam, and we began to take a more independent path on key issues such as relations with China. Now doubts about US power and resolve are resurfacing here after the scenes in Kabul in August. That is not surprising on one level, because the confusion at the airport and the muddle in Washington displayed America’s failure and humiliation so starkly. But America has been obviously failing in the War on Terror for at least 15 years now, and we should have seen that and started drawing conclusions a long time ago. What’s more, as Biden understands, the fall of Kabul and the failures of the War on Terror are not the real problem. Today, America is plunging headlong into a far more serious and dangerous contest, and Australia is plunging in with it. Before the planes hit the twin towers great-power rivalry and full-scale war seemed things of the past, because no major power would dare to challenge America. Now we face a new Cold War if we are lucky, and something much worse if we are not. That is why it is so important to understand what has gone wrong over the past 20 years, and try to learn from it.
There is a pattern to strategic failure. First, you overestimate the threat, then you overestimate your power to defeat it. We can see this pattern repeating throughout history — in Britain’s 19th century Afghan wars and the Suez crisis of 1956, for example, and in America’s war in Vietnam — and the War on Terror fits it perfectly. We radically overestimated the threats, and we radically overestimated our power.
Our exaggeration of the threat remains deeply puzzling. Before the dust settled in lower Manhattan it had become almost universally agreed that terrorism, and specifically Islamist terrorism, now posed an existential threat to America, to the West as a whole and to the entire global order. What was at stake, we were told, was our entire social order and way of life. This was simply not rational. There was an obvious danger of further attacks like September 11, and spectre of far worse if terrorists got hold of nuclear weapons. That threat had to be met decisively. But societies and ways of life are remarkably robust and resilient. They are not destroyed by the deaths of 2000 or even 200,000 people, as we can see from the way societies in Europe survived the civilian carnage of World War Two — or the way society in Afghanistan has survived the past four decades.
There was never any reason to think that terrorists, even if they got hold of a nuclear weapon, could wreak that kind of damage. It was not just the politicians who got this wrong. Senior US policymakers who in the Cold War had coolly contemplated the very real prospect of a full scale Soviet nuclear attack — which quite literally posed an existential threat — convinced themselves that this new threat was more serious than the Cold War. Future historians will be at a loss to understand how this exaggeration took hold, though the extraordinarily vivid and shocking images of the attacks that were seen around the world will no doubt be part of the answer. They are, perhaps, the most strategically potent and consequential images ever distributed, and the consequences are still with us.
The first consequence was the talk of war — a “War on Terror” — which likewise began before the dust had settled. War seemed the only possible reaction to such a grave threat, and the stirring connotations of the word met the psychological needs of traumatised people. But it was never the right way to think about how to respond, because the September 11 attacks were not an act of war but a huge and terrible crime. That meant the response should have aimed at justice, not victory, and as things have turned out there has been no victory in the War on Terror and very little justice. The talk of war mistook the means as well as the aim. Punishing the guilty and preventing more attacks called for intelligence and police work not military operations. The difference is fundamental. Military operations are aimed at targets that are easy to spot but hard to stop, such as an armoured division. Terrorists are hard to spot because they look like everyone else, but they are easy to stop once identified. So finding them is what matters, and that is why police and intelligence work have scored all the successes against terrorism since the September 11 attacks.
The second consequence of our exaggeration of the threat was the loss of perspective and proportion in how our policy and intelligence work was conducted. Since September 11, Western governments have done things that violated what before then had seemed fundamental legal and moral principles: torture, extraordinary rendition, indefinite arbitrary detention, drone-strike assassination, and the legislating of hitherto unthinkable powers to collect intelligence against a country’s own citizens and to detain and interrogate them. Little if any of this could be justified by the real threat posed by terrorism, but it was accepted on the basis that our whole “way of life” was at stake. The same exaggerations may well have contributed to the attitudes within Australia’s defence forces that led to alleged war crimes being committed.
The third consequence of all the war talk was to nudge us to war. Once governments had declared a War on Terror it became impossible not to launch large-scale military operations, if only to meet the expectations of their fearful and angry electorates. But there were other forces pushing us that way too, because, true to the pattern of strategic failure, those responsible did not just overestimate the threat. They overestimated their power.
In 2001, the United States seemed to own the new century. Serious people called it the “hyperpower” and compared it to Rome at its peak. It had the world’s biggest and most dynamic economy, the most innovative technology, the strongest military, the most appealing ideology and the most persuasive diplomacy. This fed a grand vision of a new, unipolar global order under US leadership. Its foundations would be liberal democracy, market economics and free trade, and it would ensure peace, prosperity and justice around the world. It all sounds rather fanciful now, but at the turn of the century a lot of people thought it was eminently achievable, and not just in America. Europeans were also signed up, and so was Australia. Indeed the American Century seemed close to being realised. Only a few recalcitrant regions, rogue states and marginal players held out against it, and America and its friends were sure that they could be brought around, or brought to heel.
This was America’s and the West’s big mission, and central to it were the formidable military forces that had been built during the Cold War. It seemed obvious to repurpose them to deal with these rogue-state and non-state threats to global order. After the triumph of Operation Desert Shield, which resulted in Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces being expelled from Kuwait in 1991, and despite occasional setbacks (remember Black Hawks down in Mogadishu?), confidence grew in the use of force. It became an article of faith that America’s military power was so overwhelming that it could defeat any enemy, anywhere, at acceptable levels of cost and risk. The lessons of Vietnam were forgotten.
The September 11 attacks seemed to confirm all this, and also posed a test. Nations around the world rallied to America — Le Monde’s headline was “We Are All Americans” — seeming to affirm the almost universal acceptance of US global leadership. But the attacks also showed how urgent and important it was to clear out the pockets of resistance that remained, and they required America to demonstrate that this could be done, not just to keep America safe but also to affirm the vision of the new American Century. If America could not crush this opposition, it could not rule the world. Fortunately, it seemed, this was just the kind of job that the US military was primed for in the post–Cold War era. What could possibly go wrong?
The pattern of strategic failure has played out twice during the War on Terror. The first was in Afghanistan. To most people, the war in that country has seemed a noble failure — or at least a less ignoble failure than the war in Iraq — in part because the original intervention seemed necessary and justified. They assume that America had no choice but to depose the Taliban. But that is not true. In fact removing the Taliban was a serious mistake. The Taliban government in Kabul had not attacked America and did not threaten it. They allowed Al Qaeda to operate from their territory, but they did not collude in or know of its plans. Their offence was to not obey Washington’s demands in the days immediately after September 11: to detain Osama bin Laden and his followers and hand them over to America. The campaign to depose the Taliban government was launched after they refused to do that.
That was unnecessary. Washington’s task was, or should have been, eliminating Al Qaeda. Deposing the Taliban was irrelevant to that. They should have left them in power, and sent US forces into Afghanistan to find and seize the Al Qaeda leadership from under their noses. Twenty years later that is exactly how Washington now plans to deal with the risk that Afghanistan will once again become a terrorist base, and it is exactly how it has gone after terrorists since September 11 in many other places without the permission of local governments, including Pakistan. In 2001 the Taliban lacked the military capability to stop them, and might not have tried. They were not willing to hand over Al Qaeda but were probably willing for America to come and take them.
But necessary or not, toppling the Taliban was understandably appealing in the weeks after September 11. It looked like a swift and decisive response to the outrage, against people who could easily be identified with Al Qaeda. It offered a heart-stirring display of American power and a gratifying sense that punishment was being inflicted. It did not seem to matter much that it was being inflicted on people unconnected to the attacks themselves, because their ideas had no place in the US-led global order anyway. And as it turned out, toppling the Taliban was easier than catching Osama bin Laden. The Taliban’s fall was a welcome distraction from the fact that bin Laden had gotten away. In fact, it probably contributed to that failure. It distracted US intelligence and military forces from the hunt for Al Qaeda in those critical first weeks after the attack, and bin Laden evaded capture and slipped into Pakistan in December 2001. It took another decade to find him.
That was one downside of this unnecessary campaign. The other, much bigger one was that Afghanistan’s future now became Washington’s responsibility, setting America and its allies on the long road that ended at Kabul’s airport in August. This was not a responsibility that president George W. Bush’s administration took seriously. They installed a new government and assumed that the foundations of a unified pro-American democratic Afghanistan had been laid, so they turned their attention elsewhere. When the new government floundered they had a serious problem. Having trumpeted the Taliban’s fall as the vital first victory in the War on Terror, they could not afford to see them return to power in Kabul, and so began the massive international effort to prop up the government in Kabul and keep the Taliban out.
Two illusions drove this failure. The first was that the Taliban had to be kept from power to keep America and its allies safe from terrorists. This was the primary rationale for the whole campaign, and it never made sense. Terrorists can operate from many other places, and if they did return to Afghanistan under the Taliban they could be tracked and targeted there just as they are elsewhere. Another, more altruistic rationale emerged as more countries joined the campaign. It was to improve the lives of Afghan people, especially women, by helping them build a more modern state and society. That was a noble aim, if it had been achievable.
That was the second illusion: the myth of liberal intervention. Over the 1990s, people became convinced again that Western military forces backed by aid and development agencies could support proxy governments against powerful local forces, and transform political institutions and social fabric to reflect Western values and serve Western interests. The whole idea, especially its military “counterinsurgency” dimension, has a potent allure, but it never works. Local governments that depend on foreign armies to deliver security, justice and prosperity can never establish their own authority or legitimacy. Foreign forces cannot impose security and defeat broadly based insurgencies without committing far more troops even than the 130,000 that were deployed by America and its allies at the height of the Afghanistan campaign — four times as many by one credible estimate.
The idea that this problem can be solved by training local forces to do the fighting instead is an illusion too. It never works because any army is always much more a product of the society from which it springs than of whichever foreigners have parachuted in to deliver a week’s instruction. We saw this confirmed yet again as the coalition-trained Afghan army melted before the Taliban in August. These were the lessons that Vietnam taught to a generation of political leaders, military officers and civilian strategists about the limits of military power. In the 1980s they seemed indelible, but they faded in the 1990s, and were erased for many people by the September 11 attacks. It has been left to Joe Biden to rewrite them again.
Then there was Iraq. There the supposed threat was not just exaggerated but entirely imagined, because the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons that were the ostensible reason to invade Iraq did not exist. This was beside the point, however, because those who launched the invasion saw Iraq less as a threat than as an opportunity. The Middle East was the region least amenable to US leadership, and the source of most of America’s post–Cold War strategic problems. Key figures in the Bush administration decided that it should be brought into the US-led global order by transforming its many hostile authoritarian regimes into pro-American democracies, and the place to start was Iraq. Deposing Saddam Hussein and replacing him with a Washington-leaning government would be the decisive first step. After Baghdad, they mused, on to Damascus, and then Tehran?
It is hard now to imagine how they convinced themselves that this could work. Invading Iraq and destroying its government was relatively easy, because this is what the US military had been designed to do. Building a new government that would work as they hoped was an entirely different matter. This had been understood in 1992 under president George W. Bush’s father, when Washington soundly rejected the idea of pushing on to Baghdad after Iraq had been thrown out of Kuwait. Bush Senior and his people remembered Vietnam and understood the limits to America’s capacity for nation-building. Now many of the same people advising his son had changed their minds. As in Afghanistan, the architects of the Iraq campaign planned a swift withdrawal. They assumed that, if left to themselves, the people of Iraq would swiftly construct an entirely new, secular, democratic, competent, broadly accepted and pro-American government. It is now impossible to understand how so many sensible people came to share this extraordinary view. They massively underestimated the task, and overestimated their capacity to meet it.
The consequences for the people of the region, especially in Iraq itself and in Syria, have been disastrous, including from the rise of the Islamic State, while America’s position in the Middle East is weaker today than at any time since World War Two. Not only has it failed to transform Iraq, it has failed to broker peace between Israel and Palestine. It has failed to foster democratic revolutions in the wider Middle East after the Arab Spring. It has failed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions or to blunt Tehran’s drive for regional influence. It has failed to quell Syria’s civil war and force the Assad regime from office. And it has allowed Russia to reclaim a major role in the region, while alienating America’s former key ally, Turkey.
The costs do not stop there. The quagmires of the War on Terror have profoundly affected America’s position around the world. They undermined US credibility and distracted its attention from Europe. There it faced the vital task of reconciling Russia to its diminished post-Soviet status and encouraging Moscow to accept a place in the European Union–led order under America’s strategic umbrella. Instead Russia has emerged as a relentless opponent of America, a threat to NATO’s eastern flank and an inspiration for authoritarians everywhere — even, until recently, in the White House. Inevitably these failures in Europe, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan, have undermined America’s standing as the central pillar of NATO.
And then there is Asia. Future historians -looking back on the past 20 years may well judge that the most important long-term consequence of the September 11 attacks has been the way they diverted America from China’s rise over the critical years when there was still time to respond to it effectively. When the planes hit the towers, China’s economy was only one tenth the size of America’s. Its share of world trade was just a fraction of what it is today. It could only dream of challenging America’s domination of key new technologies. And its air and naval forces posed no threat at all to America’s military supremacy in the Western Pacific. All that has now changed. Today America confronts the most formidable rival it has ever faced, in a contest over which of them will be the dominant power in the world’s most dynamic region. It now faces a fateful choice between conceding East Asia to China or escalating the contest and risking a conflict that it cannot win and that may well lead to nuclear war. These risks are far more real and far more grave than could ever have been posed by terrorists.
This was not inevitable. Had US political leaders and policymakers understood what China’s rise meant and where it was heading, had they recognised the challenge it posed to America’s position in Asia, and had they understood the need to respond to that challenge with a combination of cautious accommodation and robust resistance, then America and China might today be peaceful competitors not bitter and dangerous rivals. Today’s perils could have been avoided if Washington had begun to engage Beijing on the shape of their future relationship 20 years ago, when the US still held the upper hand. But, at the critical time, America paid no attention. Convinced that terrorism was the defining strategic challenge of the 21st century, it underestimated China’s power and ambition, and did nothing effective to respond to it. Now, when it has at last learnt to take China seriously, it does so as a power weakened by its recent failures, and diminished by China’s growing strength. The key question is: has it learnt the lessons of its recent strategic failures, or is the old pattern repeating itself? After overlooking China for so long, is America now overestimating the threat it poses, and at the same time overestimating its capacity to confront it?
This brings us back to Australia. We have fully shared the strategic failures of the past 20 years, and the pattern of mistakes that led to them. That was not because terrorism touched Australia directly in Bali on October 12, 2002. Nor was it because prime minister John Howard was in Washington on September 11, and saw the smoke rise from the Pentagon after the third plane struck. It was because, after we withdrew from the Vietnam War, supporting America in the Middle East became the foundation of our status as a US ally. We were always among the first to offer forces to US-led operations in and around the Gulf. The contingents we sent were small and the risks were low, but the speed of our responses gave them diplomatic and political punch far beyond their military weight, and cheaply won us a reputation as one of Washington’s favourite allies. We went along with America to Afghanistan and Iraq without much thought because that is what Australia had done for many years, and it had proved a cost-effective alliance management system.
It was also good politics on both sides of the aisle. Along with the East Timor crisis in 1999 and the Tampa affair of August 2001, September 11 shoved national security to the centre of the political stage. Australians expected their politicians to act like war leaders, and Howard and his successors were happy to oblige. The post-Vietnam taboo on military deployments had been well and truly lifted, and voters now positively liked to see their government send diggers off to war.
Howard nonetheless remained reluctant to risk casualties, and took great care to design and manage Australia’s contributions to avoid them. On his watch just four Australian soldiers were killed in action — three of them in his last six weeks in office. Labor, having opposed invading Iraq on legalistic grounds, was all the keener to prove its national security credentials in Afghanistan. It expanded the commitment by 50 per cent, and extended its role to include much riskier tasks. Casualties rose sharply: 35 soldiers were killed in action between 2008 and 2012. Even so, the Australian public seemed strangely unmoved by its defence forces’ most significant battle casualties in 40 years.
Like our political leaders, the Australian public went along with the War on Terror without asking the key questions that should have been asked of any military commitment, especially when soldiers were losing their lives. What are we trying to achieve? Why is it so important? What are the chances of success? What will it cost, and do the objectives justify the costs? We passed these questions by with a shrug, accepting Washington’s overestimation of the threats we faced and the chances of success, without bothering to explore them ourselves.
And we are doing that still, even as the failure of the campaigns we have been committed to for so long have become so inescapably clear. No one has more nonchalantly shrugged off these responsibilities than Prime Minister Scott Morrison. As the chaos was engulfing Kabul, he was asked whether the failure of the mission meant that our soldiers had died in vain. His answer was remarkable: “I don’t believe any Australian who falls in that service dies in vain, because what we always seek to fight for, which is freedom, is always important in whatever cause, regardless of the outcome.”
Regardless of the outcome? What a telling phrase. It suggests that Morrison thinks war is like a game. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, as long as you play. But war is not a game. It is a practical business of means and ends, in which lethal violence, suffered and inflicted, is the means to achieve policy goals. When those goals are not achieved, then the lives lost are wasted. It is as simple and brutal as that, which is what makes decisions for war so weighty. As for Morrison’s “fighting for freedom” — that is not a policy objective but an empty phrase to cover the lack of one. It is a way to duck the responsibility to think for ourselves about why we go to war, and to avoid admitting when we’ve got it wrong by just going along with Washington.
That would be deeply worrying at any time, but especially now, because Morrison and his colleagues confront far more serious strategic choices than any their predecessors have faced in the War on Terror. They may not realise it yet themselves, but Morrison and his people are not exaggerating when they say that America’s strategic contest with China could easily lead to a major war. It could, and even to a nuclear war. Yet so far Morrison has been content to do again what we did in the War on Terror. We are just going along with America. And so far Washington is following the same pattern of strategic failure as it did after September 11. As it did with terrorism, it is overestimating China’s threat, and overestimating America’s capacity to respond.
US policymakers have convinced themselves that China poses the same kind of threat as the Soviet Union did in its heyday. That is a very serious exaggeration, though. Certainly China is challenging America’s leadership in East Asia and its vision of global primacy. But unlike the Soviets in the Cold War it has no chance of dominating Eurasia, threatening America or ruling the world, because it faces a lot more rivals in a world where power is spread a lot more evenly than it was during the Cold War. That means America is wrong to think that it cannot live with a stronger, more influential China. And Australia is wrong to go along with them, as we are doing.
US policymakers are also wrong to think that they can easily defeat China’s challenge. Despite the failures of the War on Terror, many in Washington still cling to that post–Cold War vision of America as unassailably predominant in every dimension of power, especially military power. That leads them yet again to over-estimate their ability to respond to threats with force. They are convinced that China can be deterred from its challenge, or can be defeated in a war.
There is no basis for that confidence, any more than there was any basis for the assumption that America could turn Iraq and Afghanistan into pro-Western democracies at the point of a gun. China’s air and naval forces can deny America victory in a conventional conflict, and its nuclear forces ensure that America cannot win if conflict reaches that level. If war comes, America will face a failure as complete as its failures in the War on Terror, but far, far more devastating. And yet Australia is going along with America in its military confrontation with China. The decision to build nuclear-powered submarines is yet another, and very substantial, step in aligning us with Washington’s strategic and military posture against Beijing. The only reason for America to take the big step of sharing nuclear propulsion technology with Australia is to enhance our capability to fight alongside the US Navy against China in the East and South China seas. The only reason for us to acquire nuclear powered subs is to allow us to do that. Once again we are completely and unquestioningly aligning ourselves with Washington, without pausing to ask whether the policy and decision makers who have got so much wrong since September 11 are not wrong again about China now.
Meanwhile in Canberra, as in Washington, they are planning to commemorate those who served and died in the War on Terror. That is the primary focus of a massive but controversial half-billion-dollar transformation of the Australian War Memorial now under way. This does seem excessive and inappropriate. It would be better for our leaders to recognise and honour the wasted sacrifice of those who served and fell by taking just a few hours to reflect on what went wrong in the War on Terror, and how they could avoid making the same mistakes again.
Hugh White is an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.
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Originally published in the October issue of The Monthly.