One of the difficulties in describing a situation is that there is a temptation to describe it in simple terms which is bad because it misses some important complexity. I’ve talked about how the US government is understating the magnitude of the task of that is before us in the Long War. At the same time, the US government is *overstating* the magnitude of the task.
There is this silly idea that the challenge that Al-Qaeda poses is some new and unique threat in the history of the world, and that all of the old rules don’t apply. This is nonsense. There are some unique elements in the challenge that Al-Qaeda poses, but it isn’t novel enough to throw out thousands of years of experience as to what works and what does not. In particular, the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions are products of hundreds if not thousands of years of practical experience. They’ve been tested through civil war, guerilla wars, revolutions, and dangers that were much more serious than anything that Al-Qaeda poses. The idea that we need to fight Al-Qaeda on the basis of principle is not a new idea, and if you look at the history of the world, it becomes pretty obvious.
One characteristic of the United States is that it is a new country. This is a great strength and a great weakness. It’s a strength because Americans are an impatient people and are driven to do things faster, better, and cheaper, and there is a very healthy disrespect for tradition and for what other people think. This is a strength, but it also is a weakness when dealing with an enemy that is willing to fight for tens, hundreds, even thousands of years. Fortunately, in the Long War, the United States has allies that do have historical depth, and one thing that the United States can and should do is to enlist allies such as China, India, and Islamic states to do think in terms of thousand year fights. The historical depth will do the United States some good, and the impatience of the United States will also do these countries some good.
But to do that the fight *cannot* be about the security of the United States. The stupid notion that the purpose of the fight is to fight in Baghdad and so that people don’t have to fight in New York City is not something that will attract the essential allies in Baghdad, and without allies, the United States will lose. Not only does the United States not have the historical depth, it does not have the population. The United States is not a very large country and if by 2050, we have a situation in which most Muslims sympathize with Al-Qaeda and most of the rest of the world does not care, then the United States is doomed. 300 million people cannot win a century long fight against nearly a billion people.
And this is why the war cannot be about military strength. The United States has a preponderance of military strength in the world, but the population of the United States is small enough so that this advantage will not last through the 21st century. The power of the United States must be in the strength of its ideas and ideals. These ideals include rule of law and dedication to due process, and a belief that all people (not just Americans) are created equal. The most powerful weapons that the United States has in the Long War is not its armies or its military, it is in its sacred documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The principles upon which the United States is founded on, must be at the core of the strategy of the Long War, and not merely some public relations effort.
I don’t have any doubt at all that in a fight between the ideals that the United States is built on that the United States and its allies can defeat the ideals of Al-Qaeda, in large part because I believe that the ideals of the United States are closer to the ideals of Islam than those of Al-Qaeda.