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This is What Defeat Smells Like

Daniel N. Nelson May 13, 2004

In post-September 11 wars, the U.S. secured rapid battlefield dominance in Afghanistan and Iraq. Do these triumphs mean victory? Or, could America be defeated?

Defeat is not the number of dead and wounded, unless political will evaporates as casualties accumulate. Failure to consummate battlefield success with the capture or death of enemy leaders has little to do with long-term prognoses if resistance is based on broad and deep antagonisms. Neither is defeat implicit when destruction of enemy forces or infrastructure is incomplete; other purposes may dictate avoiding annihilation even if that aim were in reach.

Defeat is not an event pinpointed in time, and cannot be reduced to a singular military disaster. A Dien Bien Phu or Mogadishu are painful moments in an otherwise continuous process of defeat that builds momentum towards calamitous occurrences. Defeats don’t happen; they develop.

What, then, is defeat? At its most prosaic, defeat is being compelled to alter behavior to one’s own detriment. Rather than imposed by others’ strength, defeat can occur without war or an opponent. Defeat ultimately is self-failure – the symptoms of which are an irreparable imbalance between perceived or real threats and socio-economic, political and military capacities. In that regard, defeat is the utter breakdown of individual, community, or national security.

Four traits fatally obstruct a balance between threats and capacities and make defeat possible and even likely. First, ignorance is a precursor of gross policy errors that enlarge threats and squander capacities. Not knowing other cultures, histories, or socio-economic environments is a guarantee of commitments that extend well beyond realistic expectations. From here to the horizon is scattered human debris from interventions in places we knew not at all. Vietnam’s long battle against the French was unknown to many in the U.S. in the early 1960s. Somalia was but an image of state collapse absent detailed on-the-ground knowledge. Iraq’s Ba’athist regime was part of an “axis of evil.” Attempts to alter local and regional political directions and traditions, however, are not the bailiwick of those without detailed
preparations.

Moreover, defeat comes through arrogance. Capacity-driven behaviors are preceded by an assumption that power is deserved, and that deserved power embodies one with a mission to use such capacities for a greater goal. Such a missionary vocation is irrevocably intertwined with hubris – the conceit of power. Yet such arrogance conceals fundamental weakness. Every utterance of arrogant power generates fear, alienation and, ultimately, the development of countervailing and often asymmetric force. With each deception or evidently cosmetic spin, the power of trust and the legitimacy of just force wither. America the indispensable power, the salvation of democracies and the righteously vengeful nation after 9/11 has, in Iraq, found that creating post-war peace and reconstruction depends on far more than U.S. Army occupation.

Distrust of friends, and dread of presumed enemy plots, join to produce the self-flagellation of paranoia. Everything is apprehension, and fright lies slightly beneath the surface. “Report suspicious behavior” flashes the sign above the Beltway – and George Orwell nods. Where one can trust no one, isolated strongholds are one plausible approach to world affairs. The alternative path taken by the Bush Administration is a foreign policy of global unilateralism, pre-empting through raw force whenever narrow national interests seem threatened, surrounding oneself with coalitions of the willing
in lieu of genuine alliances.

Greed is also a quick route to self-defeat. Believing in nothing but today’s material interests is another way of believing in nothing. War to end a regime of one leader or party, to capture resources, or to shift a strategic balance, while ignoring justice and other paramount values is a harbinger of defeat. Lie about motives, deceitfully spin information, conceal data or events – do all of these while wars and their aftermath generate huge unaccountable profits for corporate allies of decision-makers and one is sure to lose.

This is George W. Bush’s America. With each pre-emptive step towards global unilateralism, enemies multiply, friendships wane, and the imbalance between threats and capacities approaches critical. The smell of defeat hangs in the air.

Daniel N. Nelson, Ph.D., is Dean, College of Arts & Sciences, University of New Haven. He has served in the State and Defense departments (1998-2002) and was Richard Gephardt’s foreign policy advisor when he was House Majority Leader.