The Magazine

America at War

Reprinted from The Weekly Standard on the anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole.

Oct 30, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 07 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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The first step is to recognize reality, and that includes recognizing who we are. The extent of American power and reach today is without historical precedent. The collapse of the Soviet empire ushered in a truly "unipolar moment." The general peace and prosperity of the post-Cold War world rest upon our preeminence. By any measure of influence--political, military, economic, cultural--America stands alone.

Our very greatness, and the appeal of our principles rooted in our belief that every individual has inalienable political rights, pose a challenge to potential adversaries, and leave them little means of striking back. A conventional war against the United States is a losing proposition, as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic discovered. The alternative--terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and so on--can be effective in the short term and can sometimes even bring victory, as the North Vietnamese demonstrated.

As long as the unipolar moment lasts, then, unconventional attacks like that on the Cole or on the Khobar Towers or the ambush of the Rangers in Mogadishu will continue to punctuate the headlines. The American response to these acts of war should be to use the instruments of war--intelligence gathering and military force--not only to avenge them and deter similar acts, but also to frustrate the political aims of our enemies.

We are more likely to succeed if we see that there are lessons to be learned from the unconventional wars fought by great powers in the past. The lessons may not be pleasant, from the vantage point of our politically correct time. But we could do worse than contemplate the wisdom, for example, of Sir Garnet Wolseley, who helped enforce Queen Victoria's Pax Britannica. "In planning a small war against an uncivilized nation," said Wolseley, "your first object should be the capture of whatever they prize most, the destruction or deprivation of which will probably bring the war most rapidly to a conclusion."

Wolseley, like his contemporaries, was a man with few illusions, least of all that the cruel and bitter conflicts that marked his career were anything other than wars, and wars to be won. Nor did he doubt that there would be casualties--indeed, the history of the British army in his day is largely a tale of massacres suffered and avenged. Yet Wolseley, and his political masters, did not shy from playing the hand history had dealt them. In the process, they preserved their empire and secured decades of (mostly) peace and progress.

Tom Donnelly is deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century.

October 30, 2000 - Volume 6, Number 7