It took the American public and the rest of the world a few years to turn against the Vietnam War. Things may move faster this time around. Although war is often exciting in the beginning stages, it is important to keep its ultimate objective in mind and to constantly ask oneself if the price that is being asked is worth the final result.
President Bush says that America is proud of the servicemen who have died so far. These men and women are unquestionably heroic. But what will their deaths have accomplished? Will the situation in Iraq, once this is over, really be worth their sacrifice? Or will their commander-in-chief have discarded their lives for no measurable gain?
In the case of the Vietnam War, history demonstrated that Vietnam really did not matter in the long run strategic defense of the united States. The former Soviet Union occupied Camranh Bay—the largest naval harbor in the Pacific—for 20 years, and hardly anyone noticed.
The real damage came from what we did to ourselves—the ripping apart of American society, the loss of international prestige, the damaged relations with our allies. Our pride and our refusal to admit that we were wrong, forced us into a war that cost 50,000 American lives not to mention the millions of Vietnamese. It took the United States and the rest of the world awhile to see that. It may not take the world very long to ask the same questions about our troubled engagement in Iraq.
The world’s greatest, most technologically advanced, superpower takes on one of the world’s weakest and most dysfunctional dictatorships and threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people –all in its obsession to kill one man.
Of course the "weapons of mass destruction" that Saddam was supposed to have are an important issue. But much of the world is beginning to sense that the real damage is likely to come from elsewhere. The damage to critical American alliances that might actually stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and in fact damage to the alliances that make the global economy function, is reaching alarming proportions. North Korea, Pakistan and Iran will all have nuclear weapons soon, and the message being put out by the Bush administration is clear: strike first or be a victim. Preemption cuts both ways.
The real conflict as many Europeans see it is between the weak and the strong. In the heady days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Pentagon talked about "asymmetric" defense. How does the little guy, who has no practical way of projecting political power, get his message across? We learned the answer on September 11.
Terrorism and guerrilla warfare are the options of the weak who wish to defeat the strong. The terrorist can never defeat the stronger power in a military sense. He can only act as a catalyst to force the stronger power to act in a manner that will ultimately lead to its destruction.
The French and the Germans know a lot about terrorism. The Germans had to cope with the Red Army Faction, the Baader-Meinhoffs, and the French have had more than a dozen murderous groups to contend with, ranging from the Beirut-based Armenian Secret liberation Army to the Algiers-based Group Armee Islamique.
"By their nature, terrorist groups tend to be small," a French police inspector once told me. "They provide support to one another, and they join forces for certain operations, but there is no rigid structure that you can eliminate once and for all. There is a quick turnover. It is not the kind of profession that you stay in for a long time."
In fact, the best analogy for countering this assymetric threat is in the Greek myths. When Hercules cut off the head of the hydra, ten more grew back. When Hercules wrestled the Libyan giant, Antaeus, he failed to realize that Antaeus’s mother was the Earth. Everytime he threw Antaeus to the ground, Antaeus was infused with new energy. In the end, Hercules defeated Antaeus by holding him in the air and separating him from his source of power. In that light, Al Qaeda must be isolated from its source of power. That source is a gowing feeling of injustice, inequality and frustration in the Arab world—a feeling that no matter what one does, no matter what one says, no one in the West, and least of all anyone in Washington, will listen. It is a reservoir of resentment that both Osama bin laden and Saddam Hussein have tapped and tried to use to increase their own personal power. In that context, using technologically sophisticated "smart" weapons to kill by remote control does not really answer the question—especially when hundreds of thousands of already battered Arab civilians are traumatized into becoming collateral damage. Even if we were to win quickly in Iraq, the hydra will come back as a more formidable monster. That is what the rest of the world has been trying to tell us.