In the War on Terror, the West is afraid of her own shadow

Al Qaeda isn't dead, the Islamic State is a cancer, the Middle East is as dangerous as ever, and peace is only the temporary absence of war. Why are conflicts never resolved?

Insistence on tactical combat and "limited" war without resolution is at the heart of today's security dilemma. (U.S. Air Force file photo)

HONOLULU, January 12, 2015 — In the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, shouldn’t we have won the War on Terror already? Like the intractable, squishy, on again/off again relationship statuses of Millennials on Facebook, U.S. policymakers have no explanation for why we haven’t won except to say “it’s complicated.”

U.S. and NATO forces spent more than a decade ground pounding, drone bombing and provincial “reconstructing” in Afghanistan, but today we find the region more armed, unstable, dangerous and radical than before President Bush took office fourteen years ago. The U.S. military liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein and fought a brutal seven-year counterinsurgency campaign, but today Islamic State forces have marbled the Middle East with whole towns under their control, beheading Westerners and exporting terror across the world.

Nearly every Western citizen in the U.S. and Europe wants to defeat terrorism, and we’ve poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the effort, so why haven’t we won yet?

Blowback vs. Limited War and Globalization of Security Policy

A primary reason the West hasn’t won a final victory against the dual 21st century woes of insurgency and terror is that the West hasn’t fought a real “war” since August 1945. The end of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations as an international device in brokering security has effectively enshrined a policy of conflict cessation rather than conflict resolution in world affairs.

The purpose of warfare has traditionally served the function of conflict resolution. No global government exists to render absolute judgment between states, therefore at the international level, disputes that are not solved by diplomacy or left to stand indefinitely are resolved ultimately by warfare. By effecting the defeat of an enemy force, conflicts over access to resources, ownership of property, jurisdiction over populations and political disagreements are resolved by the imposition of policy by might.

The post-WWII United Nations system rejects war as a means for conflict resolution, but ironically still recognizes the need to reserve the right to use force as a vehicle for maintaining a collective good known as “security.” Security is defined in our political era as the absence of unauthorized conflict. This policy paradigm exposes a critical weakness of the current world order: Conflicts at the individual, national, state and interstate level are never truly resolved through defeat or exhaustion, only artificially suppressed or arrested.

Libertarians and paleoconservatives often ask why Congress does not follow the Constitutional requirement to declare war before committing military forces to combat. The answer is simple: The post-1945 United States, along with her Western allies, no longer fights wars; it arrests conflict as a member of the United Nations Security Council.

As Dr. Edward Luttwak wrote in Foreign Policy nearly two decades ago, “Since the establishment of the United Nations and the enshrinement of great-power politics in its Security Council … wars among lesser powers have rarely been allowed to run their natural course. Instead, they have typically been interrupted early on, before they could burn themselves out and establish the preconditions for a lasting settlement. Cease-fires and armistices have frequently been imposed under the aegis of the Security Council in order to halt fighting.”

This flawed belief that force is a means for arresting, not resolving conflict has given ideological rise to the concept of limited war and tactical military action as a viable political strategy in place of traditional war.  War, however, can never be truly “limited” so long as weapons of any kind exist, because military forces and means to resist or oppose what is perceived as an unprofitable world system endure if they are not destroyed, captured or rendered useless.

Consider the contrasts of Japan and the divided Koreas as a perfect case study in security policy. Today, the United States does not suffer from recurring insurgency in Japan, nor do policymakers fear a Japan that is arming against the West. Today’s Japan is a vital ally and a treasured friend to the United States. Why? Because WWII delivered an absolute, thorough defeat to the Imperial Japanese forces and dictated an unconditional surrender.

By contrast, North Korea is very much a source of ongoing tension for the U.S. and her Asia-Pacific partners because the Korean War was never resolved, only delayed.

Insistence on two-state solutions, cease fires, “tactical” or “surgical” strikes and political appeasement may temporarily arrest open hostilities, but this policy ultimately incubates future insurgency and international terrorism. “Blowback” as an armed response to Western policy actions occurs with greater frequency when enemy forces are not absolutely defeated.

The ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict as well as recurring ethnic, religious, economic and political strife in the Middle East is ultimately a product of the United Nations’ constant intervention. This amplifies perceived injustices in the region through armed enforcement of the status quo and handicaps all sides.

As the West’s authority continues to erode to the ongoing assault of terrorism and insurgency, a decision must be made whether or not her forces are at war or at peace. Thucydides warns in The History of the Peloponnesian War, “a faint heart will make all art powerless in the face of danger.” Nicolo Machiavelli instructs further, “a powerful and courageous prince will overcome all such difficulties by giving at one time hope to his subjects that the evil will not be for long”.

If the West is at war, she should fight to win — or stop fighting altogether. Anything less than victory today is defeat tomorrow.

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Danny de Gracia
Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs standing committees as well as a former minority caucus research analyst at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, he has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. He has two doctorates in theology and ministry, a postgraduate in strategic marketing, a master's in political science and a bachelor's in political science and public administration. Writing on comparative politics, modern culture, fashion and more, Danny is also the author of the new novel "American Kiss" available now from