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Winning the Right War

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Thursday, Aug 23, 2007

Was Vietnam like this? Every month, it seems, heavier and heavier tomes about the Iraq War are deposited on the nation’s bookshelves. Although they all have different wrinkles and unique takes on the subject, they can mostly be boiled down to a number of boldface observations, worthy of much discussion on the talk shows and blogs which have to pass for the common square these days:


1) How We Screwed Up
2) Who Screwed Up
3) We Need To Stop Screwing Up


By the time this is all over—a helpful piece of prognostication which has yet to show up in any of these tomes—the Iraq War could well end up being the most documented foreign-policy disaster in American history; and all of it being done while the fiasco was still going on.


Winning the Right Warby Philip H. GordonTimes BooksSeptember 2007, 224 pages, $24

Winning the Right War
by Philip H. Gordon
Times Books
September 2007, 224 pages, $24


Which brings me to yet another one of these books on the disaster, Philip H. Gordon’s Winning the Right War, which is worthy of your attention for a couple of reasons. First, Gordon doesn’t feel he needs to waste a lot of time on screwup nos. 1 and 2, rightly figuring that this is well-plowed territory at this stage. Second, he’s interested in finding a solution, not just pointing out how far we currently are from one. Gordon’s not much of an ideologue, being a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institute who once served on the National Security Council and now teaches graduate classes in international studies at Johns Hopkins and pens learned prose on the world situation in his spare time. In short, he’s a wonk, but strangely for his species one who also seems interested in communicating with people who don’t live and die by the latest policy papers or declassified intelligence documents. His book is a briskly-written, short (160-odd pages, not including notes), pocket-sized manual for a foreign policy based not on bluster or ideology but in rationality and smart self-interest.


As is clear from the title, the main thrust of Winning the Right War is identifying where we went wrong and how to steer us back onto the right course. Or, as Gordon simply puts it, “The war on terror has not gone as planned because President Bush launched the wrong war.” The wrong war (meaning, for the most part, our interminable military adventure in Iraq) was launched, Gordon writes, because the threat was misunderstood at a fundamental level. When the president mischaracterizes the reasons behind the terrorist acts that launched the war in such a basic way by thinking it happened because “they hate our freedom,” it’s difficult to see how anything could proceed correctly afterward.


Gordon persuasively argues that that misunderstanding by both Bush and his neo-con enablers helps feed into their (incorrect, he thinks) belief that the struggle against terrorism is an epochal one with no greys to be seen. He quotes arch neo-con Richard Perle and former Bush speechwriter David Frum from their book An End to All Evil—whose absurd title really says it all—saying that in the fight against terrorism there is not only “no middle ground” but only two choices for an end result: “victory or holocaust.” A better way of going about things just might be understanding that such juvenile oversimplifications will give us nothing but unending fear and disappointment. In strong, simple strokes, Gordon lays out the case for a long-term, Cold War-styled campaign against terrorism which utilizes every power at our disposal—economic, cultural, and diplomatic—to showcase America as a country to be admired instead of just feared, instead of our current approach of monolithic militarism. He also suggests, in not so many words, that some people need to just grow up: “Like violent crime, deadly disease, and other scourges, [terrorism] can be reduced and it can be contained, but it is unlikely ever to be totally eliminated.”


Gordon’s book is quite likely to be ignored by both sides in the debate, too gloomy for the pro-war folks (though, as we’ve recently heard, they don’t like to read anyway), and not nearly angry enough for the Get Out Now crowd. But that’s the problem with enourmous bloody clusterfucks like Vietnam and Iraq—people tend to get emotional.


Read the introduction to Winning the Right War here.

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