The empirical basis of the Green Lantern theory

The idea that winning wars is a matter of willpower (what Matt Yglesias calls the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics) has been getting more and more attention as the situation in Iraq deteriorates.

At one level, the triumph of will theory is immune to meaningful empirical refutation. Whenever a nation loses a war, it can be argued that, with more willpower it would have prevailed. The one exception is where the nation is utterly destroyed, in which case, there will be no one interested in observing the failure of will.

There is, however, a specifically American version, which can be given some kind of empirical support. Until Vietnam, the United States had, at least according to the official accounts, never lost a war. The willpower theory holds that this loss was due to domestic weakness rather than defeat on the battlefield, and that subsequent failures of US forces in Lebanon, Somalia and elsewhere represent “Vietnam syndrome”.

The Iraq war was supposed to spell the end of the Vietnam syndrome, and the Bush Administration still seems to be committed to this idea. It seems increasingly clear that, rather than begin a withdrawal, the Administration is planning for a short-lived ‘surge’ in troop numbers, achieved by accelerating deployments and delaying rotations out.

There doesn’t seem to be any clear idea what the troops are supposed to do: secure Baghdad by some accounts, crush Sadr’s Mahdi army by others, join the Shia to crush the Sunni insurgency by others. As an unnamed official says in this NYT story “There has not been a full articulation of what we would want the surge to accomplish”. The Big Push is being pushed for its own sake.

At this point, it seems clear that some alternative to the willpower theory is needed. The starting point the observation that war is a negative-sum game, so the fact that one side loses does not mean that the other wins. If losing a war means coming out of it worse than you went in, then Vietnam is not the first war the US has lost. The War of 1812 ended with the restoration of the status quo ante, but 25 000 Americans were dead, Washington had been burned, and huge economic damage had been done. The Philippine-American War cost the lives of thousands of Americans, and at least a quarter of a million Filipinos, but yielded the US no long-term benefit.

Finally, there’s the Korean War. By October 1950, a few months after the war began, the US-led UN force had pushed the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel. At that point, it would have been possible to impose peace terms at least as favorable as those eventually reached. Instead, Macarthur and Truman decided to push on to the Yalu river, China entered the war, and three years of bloody fighting ensued, with no net gain for anyone.

The common feature of all these events was that they were expansionist wars of choice, though in each case with a more or less plausible defensive casus belli (British impressment of US sailors, the explosion of the Maine, the North Korean attack on the South). The war party in 1812 wanted to conquer Canada, that of 1898 wanted the remnants of the Spanish empire. In 1950, having repelled the North Korean invasion, Macarthur wanted to roll back, rather than merely contain, Communism, retaking North Korea and putting pressure on Red China. Vietnam fits the pattern, beginning with support for the French attempt to regain their Asian empire after World War II, and using the bogus Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext for full-scale US entry into the war.

Iraq seems to embody all of the errors of the past. The bogus weapons of mass destruction correspond neatly to the claims of sabotage of the Maine and the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident. Seen as a continuation of Gulf War I, GWII seems like a repetition of the march to the Yalu River, rejecting Bush I’s willingness to settle for a comprehensive military victory and restoration of the territorial status quo ante. Seen in terms of an ideological struggle against Islamism, it looks like Vietnam all over again. As in 1898, the US has overthrown an oppressive regime, but has sought to substitute its own rule, or that of pliable clients like Chalabhi, while trying to marginalise those (like the Shia militias) who had actually fought against the regime. And, at the back of it all have been prophets of a new American Empire.

If Iraq has demonstrated once and for all that the Green Lantern theory does not stand up to empirical scrutiny, is there an alternative that still leaves a substantial role for the US in the world. The Iraq war showed, yet again, that in conventional military conflicts the US is unbeatable, and, for practical purposes unstoppable. On the other hand, the weakness of US military power when faced with an insurgency with significant popular support has been demonstrated yet again.

So, the US has a unique capacity to enforce the global law that makes wars of aggression a crime against humanity. In the context of civil conflicts like those in Bosnia and Kosovo, US intervention can nullify the advantage possessed by the side that has a conventional army at its disposal. But this military power is useful only if there exists a widely-accepted political solution waiting to be implemented.

On the one hand, the fact that the US is, as has often been observed, the indispensable nation in matters of this kind gives it a claim to special consideration more defensible than that arising simply from the fact that it is large and powerful. On the other hand, if the US is to be accepted in this role, it must be particularly careful not to use its power to pursue its own narrow self-interest. The idea that the US could act in this way, and ignore the rest of the world was perhaps the most important single claim of the warbloggers and neocons, and the consequences are now on display for all to see.

26 thoughts on “The empirical basis of the Green Lantern theory

  1. So, the US has a unique capacity to enforce the global law that makes wars of aggression a crime against humanity.

    I would suggest that those days are over. Permanently.

  2. The historical perspective of the warmongers is less Vietnam and more the second European War. For them every year is 1938, and every war is Operation Barbarossa and the Eastern Front. For them the battle of willpower refers more to the battles that the Germans and the Russians found themselves in between June 1941 to May 1945.

    The US has no constructive role in the ME (and elsewhere) so long as it is gripped by the histrionics of “every year is 1938.” People have to come to terms with the idea that the various conflicts in the ME are rarely existential and are far removed from the horrors and ideologies of the European War.

  3. Small point I know, but the US was never officially at war with Vietnam, they merely conducted military operations.

  4. “So, the US has a unique capacity to enforce the global law that makes wars of aggression a crime against humanity. … But this military power is useful only if there exists a widely-accepted political solution waiting to be implemented.”

    True as far as it goes.

    I would add one more stipulation:

    … waiting to be implemented. And the US administration has to desire to implement that consensual settlement.

    I believe that the evidence is stronger that the invasion of Iraq was motivated by dreams of empire (as inchoate as they may have been) than by liberal principles. As the original project suffered decay, equally inchoate liberal elements were inelegantly slid into the plan for Iraq.

    Cheney has been quoted as distancing himself from the entire Iraq fiasco. Rumsfeld has been shown the door.

    That leaves Bush. Bush is the chief proponent of the Green Lantern thesis. Indeed his bizarre take on “the lessons of Vietnam” is supportive evidence for this point. LBJ had the same notion in early 1968. But Clark Clifford disabused him of the notion. I doubt that Gates will be able to pull off the same trick as Clifford. Gates is not as smart as Clifford, and Bush is infinitely dumber than LBJ.

    I believe, therefore, that the Green Lantern theory will drive US policy in Iraq for some time to come.

    There are two circuit-breakers:

    1. A financial crisis casued by a run on the US dollar.

    2. Major civil disobedience in the US.

    I believe that the former is possible but unlikely. I believe that the latter is highly unlikely.

    Bush will seek to hang on in Iraq until his time runs out. In the meantime there will be much futile suffering.

  5. JQ, you haven’t connected all the dots about the British-American War. The USA gained absolutely none of its war aims as a result.

    This is most obvious in the 100% failure to gain any of Canada, but it is also clear on inspection that the gains the USA obtained in the peace treaty were not in consequence of its hostilities, but of diplomacy that – on the British side – acknowledged that the exigencies of the Napoleonic Wars no longer needed impressment and so on.

    Incidentally, all these things that the USA wanted were only withheld as a consequence of never implementing the previous treaty properly. The 1814 one, they did honour (at least technically).

    An aside: I won’t back it up here for reasons of space, but the apparently even handed embargo policy actually worked in support of Napoleon’s Continental Policy, to erode British naval strength. It was “objectively pro-French”.

  6. Observers of US policy tend to forget the extent to which post-WWII US foreign policy is actually driven by domestic political concerns. Korea and Vietnam can both be explained convincingly as essentially side-effects of Democrat vs. Republican struggles for power within the US itself. Think about the China Lobby, the McCarthy era, the military-industrial complex. A historical parallel might be found (one example among many possibles) in the War of Jenkins’ Ear, where a quite small incident was seized upon by an opposition party as a lever to end Walpole’s long supremacy in Parliament. That war, objectively, was a failure, but the real effects (as well as its causes) should be sought in UK domestic politics, not foreign relations.

    Prof. Quiggin says: “…the US is…the indispensable nation in matters of this kind…” If Prof. Quiggin means that the US is indispensable in preventing conventional armies of one State attacking another State, I’m not so sure. First, the US doesn’t always intervene (eg. it didn’t attempt to stop the Iran/Iraq war), second, there are other armies around which might be just as effective. I’m not convinced that EU forces couldn’t have intervened successfully in the Balkans if the EU Govts. had wanted to do so. It was cheaper to let the Americans do it – wars are hugely expensive. Third, the US itself is just as likely (perhaps on recent performance more likely) to be the aggressor, which immediately nullifies any role in preventing aggression. Fourth, to allow any single country to decide for itself whether armed intervention to prevent aggression is called for is to abandon the collective security arrangements which the UN was set up to provide. Such an attitude strikes at the heart of international law.

    To me, this fourth objection is the most serious of all. I have been reading P.Sands’ “Lawless World” (Penguin 2005, revised 2006 ed.), which makes this point eloquently.

  7. That was an excellent post.

    Pedantry: the Phillipines-American War, can, with the benefit of much hindsight, be argued to have benefited the US greatly, by ensuring that an invasion of Hawai’i was never considered by Japan in 1941. Asuccessful occupation of Hawai’i would have had major strategic consequences for the conduct of WW2 (though the final outcome was inevitable).

  8. “Triumph of the Will” has other historical echoes as well. The US is not the only country to delude itself. Maybe the republicans can do a remake of Leni R’s film?

  9. Of course, there is another possibility.

    That is that the entire anti-war, anti-Bush discourse is running on assumptions that apply within a certain set of social limits, but the conflict with Islamism is outside those limits and a different set of assumptions are needed to operate effectively.

  10. Assumption: that we are dealing with people like ourselves, and that they are rational agents.

    I believe this is mistaken; that in an ‘honor culture’ and a violent religious culture, values are so different that the values of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are distorted. We are not necessarily dealing with rational agents as we conceive them. Values that arise in a protected family environment are not adapted to military conflict with such different value systems.

    Assumption: That the defeat in Vietnam was a military defeat, and a just outcome for an unjust intervention.

    It is certainly open to challenge whether the people of Vietnam were better served by their new masters than their former government however corrupt. It is clear that the reports of atrocities were largely falsified by people including John Kerry, and it is also clear that the war was won by co-opting the minds of Americans to believe in defeat, via the western media and the western ‘moral sense’ appealed to by the Left.

    Assumption: that America is the central cause of the moral universe.

    This is to imply that if someone else does something to Americans it must be the result of something done by the Americans. (Or westerners in general…) But an autonomous and independent act of hate does not demand the victim be at fault – only that the actor choose his action.
    At least, that would be true if we were talking about the KKK hanging someone. In the Islamist war we are talking about a far worse moral outlook than the KKK, and worse crimes, yet for some reason it is the Americans that are wrong.

    Just for a start.

  11. Problems with ChrisPer’s observations:

    1. “Assumption: that we are dealing with people like ourselves, and that they are rational agents.”

    But this was the ostensible assumption of the Bush Clique when they trumpeted their intention of taking “democracy” to Iraq. Given that this was the initial cause of all the problems of the Bush Clique in Iraq, the Bush Clique has no one to blame fror its blindness about the nature of Iraqis but themselves.

    2. “Assumption: That the defeat in Vietnam was a military defeat, and a just outcome for an unjust intervention.

    “It is certainly open to challenge whether the people of Vietnam were better served by their new masters than their former government however corrupt.”

    Your discussion of this assumption doesn’t follow. Note that the assumption concerns itself with the causes of the defeat. However, the discussiion concerns itself with the consequences of the defeat.

    Every defeat that does not involve the utter annihilation of the loser is to some extent the result of the failure of will of the loser. However, actors with some grasp on reason recognise that the cost/benefit equation of continuing to fight becomes intolerable. The US reach that moment of intolerability in 1968. Did US administrations display a glass jaw by wimping out at that moment and by refusing to recommit? Perhaps. Maybe in the case of Iraq Bush will test just how much pain the people of the US are willing to endure. Only time will tell.

    3. “Assumption: that America is the central cause of the moral universe.”

    This mistakes an argument about capabilities (i.e., the ability of the Bush Clique to continue to prosecute a war) with a moral argument (i.e., whether and to what extent the Bush Clique is morally justified in prosecuting that war.) Only if one assumes that righteousness augments capacity is this a relevant point to make.

  12. All military action is about the battle of wills. Always has and always will be. Whether you are presenting a Guard of Honour for a visiting dignitary from ga potential enemy or conducting major conventional combat operations, everything is focussed on breakin the enemy’s will. The Korean War stopped and Vietnam was withdrawn from because the enemy’s will to succeed outlasted the will of the Western World. In both those cases the Western World was subject to highly effective politcal campaigns. We are now seeing the same happening in the war against Islamic Terrorism. The political left, eco-greens, pacifists, anti-globalists etc. etc. had lost a centrally unifying force on the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. Now they have decided to side with the Islamists and have regained strength and purpose – defeat of the Democratic Western World. This is going to a be a long, tough, bloody and expensive war that wil last generations. Anybody who expects shorter time frames and quick results is dreaming.

    There is one path to quick victory but so far the professional western militaries have been held back, metaphorically fighting (as in Korea and Vietnam) with one arm tide behind there backs. The war against the Islamists could be quicker if the option of Total War was taken. Politically this will not be tolerable until the Islamic Terrorsts achieve their dream of an attack that would make 11 September 2001 seem like a mere traffic accident. Only then will the democratic western nations be allowed to unleash the full weigth of their economic and military might to break the will of the Islamists as was done to the Nazis and the Japanese Imperial Forces.

    This Green Lantern theory is not something I have ever heard of in my professional studies as an Army Officer. Wasn’t ever mentioned at the same time as clausewitz or Liddel-Hart, that I can recall.

  13. “Politically this will not be tolerable until the Islamic Terrorsts achieve their dream of an attack that would make 11 September 2001 seem like a mere traffic accident. Only then will the democratic western nations be allowed to unleash the full weigth of their economic and military might to break the will of the Islamists as was done to the Nazis and the Japanese Imperial Forces.”

    So I guess one hypothesis worth considering is that those clever old jihadists know exactly how much pain to apply.

    Could it be that jihadists know how to infuriate the Right but to limit their actions to provoke a divided response from the states that have declared themselves to be belligerents in the GWOT?

    Now that’s something Hitler and Tojo never learned. Maybe the jihadists have learned their 1938 history better than the Coalition of the Willing!

    Then again, maybe using 1938 as a model to guide and to explain behaviour in a set of circumstances that are utterly different from those that pertained in 1938 is an admission of advanced mental fatigue and a harbinger of defeat.

  14. I’m interested to know exactly what “Total War” would entail against fourth generation asymetrical forces predominately based in large urban centres and/or fighting on home ground.

    Would it be like Vietnam where the US dropped more tonnage of bombs on Indochina than were dropped throughout WW2 while committing a half million troops at their peak armed with state of the art technology to use in “free fire” zones?

    Or would it be like WW2 where entire cities were razed and nuked?

    Or would it be like the Second Boer War with sorched earth policies and a big of chunk of the civilian population rounded up into concentration camps?

    I can’t really see any of those approaches working in Iraq or Afghanistan or for terrorist cells based in major cities in often neutral countries without some major major blowback that’d just incite and energise even more terrorists and insurgents.

    It almost sounds like some people are hoping for a 911 cubed so they cna get down to some serious killing.

  15. “The political left, eco-greens, pacifists, anti-globalists etc. etc. had lost a centrally unifying force on the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War.”

    Funny. I though it was the political right, military-industrial complex that was mainly left at a loss after their dearly beloved enemy collapsed like a house of cards. If islamomterrorism hadn’t come along, they’d be jabbing China in the chest now until their corporate pals pointed out it was bad for global business.

    And before you jump in with another smear of anyone opposed to the Mesopotamian clusterfuck Razor, I make this point as a pro-globalisation merry capitalist consumer who cheerfully derives some of his livelihood from Australia’s defence-RD-industrial base. I’m just anti-stupidity.

  16. Nabakov – Total War means exactly that – all elements of a society involved – military, political economic, cultural, religious – any and all.

    In the current environment it means things like killing people like Bashir and his disciples if the Indonesian legal system won’t detain and punish them. It means following the pipeline of Jihadists into Syria, Iran, Eygpt – where ever they are coming from and being supported and taking action against those sources. It means developing alternative energy sources from the Middle East in order to apply economic pressure to Iran and Saudi Arabia, cutting military aid to Eygpt etc etc. The democratic West has bearly responded yet.

    Katz said – “So I guess one hypothesis worth considering is that those clever old jihadists know exactly how much pain to apply.”

    The answer to that is a big YES! Why do you think they are slaughtering innocent Iraqis instead of only going after the “Occupiers”?? They know that the continual reporting of this tradgedy in the Western media will move the weaker willed in the voting West. And given that war is a continuation of politics by other means, the Jihadists supported by the reporting bias of mainstream media is winning the information war. The jihadists know two things now – the democratic west isn’t currently prepared to commit enough resources to win a drawn out asymetric warfare campaign, and the Western voting public are soft hearted and will be swayed by a constant stream of civilian casualties. The Jihadists don’t care about the ordinary Iraqi population. They will continue the slaughter for years if allowed to, unlike the Western Democratic military forces that operate within the law of war and prosecute their own when they commit war crimes.

  17. Well, gosh.

    And to think that George W. Bush had all that political capital post 9/11 and a 70% approval rating when he began his assault on Iraq.

    And then look what he does. He accepts the stupid advice of Rumsfeld and fails to send sufficient troops to do the job properly.

    Who’s to blame for all these mistakes? Looks like Chimpo shot himself in the foot.

    And he failed to put the US on a war footing. instead, he told the folks go go shopping!

    Now FDR never did anything like that back in 1941.

    Looks like RWDBs gambled all their hard-earned on a complete dud. Now all they can do is grind their teeth and regret what might have been. Meanwhile, the culture war is going down the toilet as well.

    So sad.

  18. Total War? Developing alternative energy sources? Stopping the sale of weapons to the Egyptian regime? That, Razor, is not the kind of Total War I thought you had in mind. In my totally unprofessional training as a civilian, I had it in mind that Total War was a whole lot more glam than a bunch of hum-drum policies stolen from the Australian Greens.

  19. If Nabakov wants to see what Razor’s total war looks like, he could glance at Gaza.

    And as one of the “…political left, eco-greens, pacifists, anti-globalists etc. etc.” dwelling (according to Observa) in Mordor, I can assure Razor that we have plenty of will to keep on learning and telling the truth.

  20. Razor is correct in pointing out that Iraq, like Afghanistan is not exactly total war on the West’s part. They were and are however, serious attempts to attend to the growing menace of a certain Religion of Peace. In that respect they can have multiple goals and strategies that require a degree of ‘willpower’ to achieve. But let’s be clear here. Goalposts can be moved when it’s clear that circumstances on the ground are not conducive to achieving the most desirable outcomes. That’s what is happening politically over Iraq now and although Afghanistan is on the backburner for now, will inevitably occur there too. That’s what we democracies do best. We don’t flog dead horses, unlike despots and dictators. That has its own downsides in terms of unified response and response times, but has proved superior to despotic control over the long haul. In fact it has proved to be our great strength.

    At present in Iraq we are deciding whether we are flogging a dead horse in terms of an Iraqi beacon of light project. Yes Rumsfeld and Co had to take the rock steady ‘stay the course’ line whilst there was the a reasonable chance of a civil, demacratic Iraq, (and for a while it looked optimistic)but we are probably concluding that’s not possible now. Rumsfeld(who no doubt understood that for some time now) has fallen on his sword as he knew his role would require if Plan A was not achieved. Let’s be clear here, the failure of Plan A is not ultimately ‘our’ loss but the loss of ordinary Iraqis (those 8 mill purple dyed fingers)who haven’t been able to pick up the baton and run with it. Default Plan B is of course not without some serious spinoffs for we infidels. A troublesome WMD aspiring despot gone and Sunni and Shia Islam beginning to face off with each other for the right to be called the true Islam and rule the rubble like Hamas and Fatah. It is only just beginning to dawn on the two faced Wahabbist Saudis, what this means. As well the freed Kurds can even give the Iranians some headaches with their Kurdish minority. It’s just a matter of us deciding if the horse is well and truly knackered, before we put it to bye byes, because it always was a bloody good nag. Willpower is fine, but Anglos in particular don’t push excrement up inclines forever.

  21. Obby!

    I hardly recognise you!

    Welcome to the reality-based community!!

    I see you’ve been reading the comments of your many interlocutors after all. (See, one and all, there is an educative role despite so many indications to the contrary.)

    Let’s see now.

    1. Obby’s “dead horse” of Iraqi democracy.

    We folks in the reality-based community didn’t necessarily think that the horse was dead from the very beginning. However, it was a frail little foal, and the cruel way in which the Bush clique did flog it hastened its demise. This is one of the most powerful arguments for the extraordinary incompetence ofthe Bush clique.

    But don’t forget, Obby, that the frail little foal of democracy was pressed into service relatively late in the story, when al Sistani insisted on a democratic process to decide upon how the constitution was to be framed. Bush put on that dog and pony show to cover up his earlier failed adventure in American imperialism.

    2. When the game was up.

    Some of we folks in the reality-based community took a close look at the close-set, uncomprehending eyes of the Chimp and listened to the macho-men who cosied up to him and we decided that none of them was capable of riding that horse to a winner. RWDBs of various hues leapt onto their keyboards calling us all sorts of names, including “traitor” for pointing this out. In general they emulated the tyrant who thought he could avoid bad news by shooting the messenger.

    All this would be hugely gloatworthy were it not for the fact that Bush and his co-dependents have created a terrible mess.

    Now all Bush’s clique has is the desperation of a man dangling from a rope: not physically strong enough to pull himself up, not courageous enough to let go.

    And now Obby knows it too.

    In a rational world, Bush would resign.

  22. If you’re talking about “total war” Razor that involves tackling islam terrorism at the source (root causes?) then I fully agree with you. In fact I reckon just about everyone in the western world would have no problem with drastically reforming two of the most repressive Islamic states that have provided major funding and shelter for Al Queda et al, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Just about everybody that is except the Bush Administration which goes on merrily supporting both.

    So I’d suggest that the lack of “willpower” needed to proscute such a multi-pronged approach stems not from the influence of some lurking lefty-greenie-anti-globist cabal but from the people actually in charge of the West’s military and economic machinery. Still at least we’re all uniting this Xmas to follow at least one strategic injunction from our leaders in the war on terra -go shopping.

    And my oh my, isn’t it fascinating to watch obby’s development as a geopolitic strategist. Only 18 months ago, the Beacon of Light was the way forward but resisted by leftists with a barely concealed “monkey country attitude”, now it’s a failed leftist vision doomed by those intractable and truculent natives. But fortunately a cunning Plan B to turn the region into bloody intercine warfare is working out rather well.

    “Willpower is fine, but Anglos in particular don’t push excrement up inclines forever.”

    Good thing our ancestors facing the ever-expanding Nazi and Japanese hordes in the dark days of 1941 and early 1942 didn’t feel the same way.

    You obby are truly a post-modern Kissinger for these times.

  23. Regarding ChrisPer’s “Assumption: that we are dealing with people like ourselves, and that they are rational agents.â€?

    I found John Keegan’s observation that war is not ‘politics’ by other means, but rather ‘culture’ by other means, very useful.

    The US’s ‘enemies’ in Iraq do not see the US as ‘the enemy’. Their enemies are, rather, the same ones they’ve been fighting for a millenium. Forget Iraqi nationalism. Thing religious and tribal divisions, and violent conflict as a statement of identity.

    The US’s enemies in Iraq are quite rational. It’s just that they aren’t fighting the US. They know the US will pull out. They want the facts on the ground to favor them when the Marines pull the last suit into a helicopter on the roof of a Green Zone bunker.

  24. And al Sistani has spoken for attribution for the third time since “Shock and Awe”,,-6300409,00.html

    “By shunning the [US] coalition plan, al-Sistani sought to unite the Shiite’s fractured 130-member United Iraqi Alliance. But his decision – which carries great weight with the country’s Shiite majority – significantly weakens American hopes for a national unity government and strengthens the hand of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.”

    Checkmate, Chimpo.

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