by Daniel N. Nelson

Published on Friday, April 2, 2004 by
In post September 11 wars, the US 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 socioeconomic, 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 socioeconomic
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 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

 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 US 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. A
pre-emptive strategy is one adopted by nations, groups or individuals
for whom others harbor evil intentions, and whose presumed intentions
warrant immediate countermeasures. It is but a short distance between
such trepidation and an irrational paranoia.

 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 the normative war and
therefore become the victim of peace.

 To the degree that ignorance, arrogance, paranoia and greed are all
present, those who make decisions about war and peace will pursue a
capacity-driven strategy, conflate discourses of war and peace, and
incessantly strive for security through strength. Such decision-makers
will, thereby, create enemies from friends, replacing mutual trust with
endemic suspicion and fear.

 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., The Johns Hopkins University) 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. His most recent book,
'At War With Words' (Mouton de Gruyter, 2003) was co-edited with Mirjana