The West should be thankful that it has in US President George W. Bush a warrior who shoots first and tells the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to ask questions later. Rarely in its long history has the West suffered by going to war too soon. On the contrary: among the wars of Western history, the bloodiest were those that started too late. Why should that be the case? The answer, I believe, is that keeping the peace requires prospective combatants to maintain the balance of power, for example between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BC, between Catholic and Protestant states in the 17th century AD, and between the Central Powers and the Allies at the turn of the 20th century. Once powers truly are balanced, however, neither side can win, except by a devastating war of attrition. Postponing war therefore creates equally matched opposing blocs who eventually will annihilate each other.
More than ever does this principle apply to the present race for nuclear weapons. It brings to mind the old joke about the housewife in Hertfordshire who telephones her husband and says, “Dear, be careful driving home. The news report says that there is a maniac driving in the wrong direction on the motorway.” He replies, “What do you mean, one maniac? Everyone is driving in the wrong direction!”
Whether or not Saddam Hussein actually intended or had the capacity to build nuclear weapons is of trifling weight in the strategic balance. Everyone is planning to build nuclear weapons. They involve 60-year-old technology no longer difficult to replicate. It hardly matters where one begins. “Kill the chicken, and let the monkey watch,” as the Chinese say. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, the theocrats of Iran, the North Koreans and soon many other incalculable reprobates have or will have such plans. It hardly matters which one you attack first, so long as you attack one of them.
But isn’t it cruel to cast the die for war before it is proven beyond doubt that war cannot be avoided? Given the frightful cost of war, should peace not be given every chance? Some wars of course should not be fought, such as the threatened hot war between the United States and the Soviet Union. In many cases, however, risk and reward are highly asymmetric; the cost of a short and nasty small war vanishes toward insignificance compared with the price of a grand war of attrition, particularly when nuclear weapons are concerned.
Many writers, to be sure, have offered apologies for war. Under the title “Give war a chance,” Edward Luttwak wrote in the Summer 1999 edition of Foreign Affairs, “Since the establishment of the United Nations, great powers have rarely let small wars burn themselves out. Bosnia and Kosovo are the latest examples of this meddling. Conflicts are interrupted by a steady stream of ceasefires and armistices that only postpone war-induced exhaustion and let belligerents rearm and regroup. Even worse are UN refugee-relief operations and NGOs [non-governmental organizations], which keep resentful populations festering in camps and sometimes supply both sides in armed conflicts. This well-intentioned interference only intensifies and prolongs struggles in the long run. The unpleasant truth is that war does have one useful function: it brings peace. Let it.”
I have no quibble with Luttwak, but propose to go further. He proposed to let small wars burn out; I propose to let major wars break out, the sooner the better.
Historians allow that the Allies should have attacked Germany in 1936 rather than 1939, but dismiss World War I as “a tragic and unnecessary conflict,” in the words of Sir John Keegan. Tragedy stems from necessity. From the Congress of Berlin in 1878, when Germany and Austria set limits to Russian expansion in the Balkans, Pan-Slavism set Europe on a course toward inevitable war. France allied with Russia, seeking help against Germany after its humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Already in demographic decline, France knew that it could not wait to attack Germany one more generation. Germany knew that if Russia completed its railroad network its bulk might make it undefeatable a generation hence.
If Kaiser Wilhelm II had had the nerve to declare war on France during the 1905 Morocco Crisis, Count Alfred von Schlieffen’s invasion plan would have crushed the French within weeks. Russia’s Romanov dynasty, humiliated by its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and beset by popular revolt, likely would have fallen under more benign circumstances than prevailed in 1917. England had not decided upon an alliance with the Franco-Russian coalition in 1905. The naval arms race between Germany and England, a major source of tension, was yet to emerge. War in 1905 would have left Wilhelmine Germany the sole hegemon in Europe, with no prospective challenger for some time to come. Germany’s indecision left the initiative in the hands of Russia, elements of whose secret service backed the Serbian terrorists who murdered the Austrian crown prince in 1914, forcing Germany into war under far less favorable circumstances.
Both World Wars of the 20th century, in my view, started too late, with catastrophic consequences for Western Europe. America’s Civil War, by contrast, was a war that began just in time, and I attribute the future flowering of the United States to Abraham Lincoln’s ruthlessness in pushing the country into war.
General Ulysses S. Grant, the Northern commander in chief and later president, wrote in his memoirs that the Civil War began with America’s 1846 invasion of Mexico, which seized territory to permit the expansion of slavery. Because cotton destroyed land within a decade, the slave-owning caste required perpetual expansion of the slave system into new territories. The Southern Confederacy planned to march southward and create a slave empire in Mexico and the Caribbean (Happy birthday, Abe – pass the blood, February 10).
Was it coincidence that France, England and Spain determined to invade Mexico after Benito Juarez suspended debt-service payment to Mexico’s European creditors in 1861, just as the American Civil War began? French, English and Spanish forces landed in Mexico in December 1861, after the South’s early victories in the Civil War convinced European governments that the slaveholders would prevail. By 1862, after Stonewall Jackson’s success in the Shenandoah Valley, England came close to recognizing the Confederacy. In October of that year, William Gladstone, then chancellor of the exchequer, stated, “We may anticipate with certainty the success of the Southern States so far as regards their separation from the North.” The Union half-victory at the Battle of Antietam in September came just in time to abort British recognition of the South.
Had the war broken out two years later, the European powers already would have been entrenched in Mexico, providing the South with a natural ally against the Lincoln government, and a base with which to expand the slave system southward. America would have split in two (at least), and the history of the world would have been radically different, and radically worse.
Before America’s invasion of Iraq, I wrote, “Iraq’s nuclear program is the 21st-century equivalent of Russia’s railroads in 1914. The United States must prevent Saddam Hussein from building nuclear weapons now, or the cost of stopping him (and others in the future) will be incalculable. The trouble is that today’s Arabs (and to a great extent other Islamic populations) are in the position of the Slavs of 1914. They are an endangered culture, and like many endangered cultures, the extremists among them will take desperate measures” (Do not click on this link, October 29, 2002).
That is why George W. Bush has my moral support in the upcoming US presidential election. He may not fathom what he is doing, and he may have made a dog’s breakfast of Iraq, but at least he is willing to go straight to war, no questions asked. That is precisely what the world needs.