A growing number of Democrats have falsely accused Sen. John McCain of “promising” 100 years of war in Iraq. In fact, McCain’s point was that the presence of American forces promotes stability.
That’s been the case in Europe and Asia where Americans have been stationed for more than half a century. It’s been true in the Balkans since the 1990s when President Clinton sent troops there. America’s military plays a beneficial role when it eliminates America’s enemies; it does so also when it stays on to prevent those enemies from reemerging.
But there is a hard truth that McCain did not state: A hundred years from now Americans might still be fighting militant Islamists in Iraq and other places. What could be worse than that? A hundred years from now America and the West could have been defeated by militant Islamists.
Al-Qaeda, Iran’s ruling mullahs, Hezbollah and others militant jihadis have told us what they are fighting for. The well-known Islamist, Hassan al-Banna, described the movement’s goals succinctly: “to dominate … to impose its laws on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.” He said that in 1928.
Who would have believed then that his heirs would acquire the wealth, power and lethality they enjoy today? Who can say where they may be a hundred years from now? Who can say where the West will be? Survival is not an entitlement. It must be earned by every generation.
So the most important question not asked of General David Petreaus when he testified before Congress this week is how to maximize our chances of winning the long, global war in which we are engaged.
Retreating from key battlefields would not appear to be the most promising strategy. Yet opponents of the Iraq war continue to argue for a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. They were unmoved by the most pungent point Petraeus made regarding progress in Iraq.
“We are fighting al-Qaeda every day,” he said. “We have our teeth in their jugular and we need to keep it there.”
Senator Carl Levin, in remarks just prior to the questioning of Petraeus, had next to nothing to say about al-Qaeda or the Iranian-backed militias Americans and Iraqis also have been battling. Instead, he insisted that Iraq remains mired in a civil war, a talking point long past its sell-by date.
Other opponents of the Petraeus mission contended that pulling out of Iraq would free up American forces for Afghanistan. But Iraq is the heart of the Arab and Muslim world. Afghanistan, by contrast, is a strategic backwater.
What’s more, in Afghanistan we are mostly fighting al-Qaeda’s junior partner, the Taliban. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have been reconstituting al-Qaeda HQ across the border in the wilder reaches of Pakistan. No one arguing against the Petraeus mission has provided even the vaguest outline of an improved strategy to confront al-Qaeda forces there.
For nations as well as for individuals, both winning and losing can be habit-forming. How many people have you heard say that America lost in Vietnam — and so what? In 1979, the Iranian mullahs seized our embassy and took our diplomats hostage and we made them pay no price — and so what? In 1983, Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon and we did nothing much — and so what? Ten years later, we retreated from Somalia — and so what? The World Trade Towers were bombed for the first time that same year and we held no regimes or movements responsible — and so what?
But you know what? America was seen as a toothless tiger –“a society that cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle,” in the words of Saddam Hussein. He instructed “all militant believers” to “target (American) interests wherever they may be.” Bin Laden declared the United States “a weak horse.”
In 2006, al-Zawahiri predicted that the U.S. would go down to defeat in Iraq. It is, he said, “only a matter of time.” Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, added: “I advise all those who place their trust in the Americans to learn the lesson of Vietnam …and to know that when the Americans lose this war –and lose it they will, Allah willing — they will abandon them to their fate, just like they did to all those who placed their trust in them throughout history.”
Let’s suppose it will require a hundred years to defeat such people, the ideas they espouse and the movements they represent. Do we really have anything more important to do?
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org)