“All I can say is, if history has taught us anything, it’s that weakness is provocative,” former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld observed, at the outset of the Iraq War. “It entices people into doing things that they otherwise would not do.”
Rumsfeld was hardly the first to voice this idea. It’s the animating principle behind Teddy Roosevelt’s famous advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He should have added, for the benefit of future generations, that it’s necessary to speak clearly as well as softly.
Provocative weakness isn’t just a question of how many troops and weapons are ready to take the field, or the willingness of politicians to give them fateful orders, and stand by them throughout the execution of their mission. Weakness can be displayed intellectually as well. In a world of asymmetrical warfare, surging streams of information, and the easy movement of populations across national borders, a weakness of ideals might be more provocative than the military variety.
Conflict always boils down to a test of will, and it begins long before the first shot is fired. When hostile powers believe the supposedly sacred ideals of free people are negotiable, they are prone to open negotiations with violence. They sense an opportunity for conquest. They see a way to exert power far, far beyond what their squalid gangs of murderous thugs could hope to accomplish against the magnificent armed forces of the United States.
Weak ideals make military strength all but irrelevant. This is true in the tactical sense, as when the masters of ISIS very clearly heard President Obama underestimate them, and remove the obstacles for their invasion of Iraq. To this day, they can listen to the President talk and believe themselves all but invisible to his eyes, which is a tremendous advantage. Every military commander in history has daydreamed about what he could accomplish with invisible troops. ISIS knew it didn’t have to worry about getting past American troops, and it apparently had the measure of Iraqi forces far more accurately than anyone in the Obama White House. Provocative weakness was duly exploited, to terrifying effect.
Weak ideals are even more provocative in the grand strategic sense. Over the past few years, we have signaled to our enemies that even freedom of speech and religion – supposedly the pillars of our Bill of Rights, the very first of the great Amendments – are negotiable. The United States is clearly no longer committed to representative government or economic liberty. Everything is on the table, provided our ideological adversaries have enough bloody-minded willpower to drag up a chair… and they obviously do.
The skill and technological sophistication of our fighting men and women is less of a deterrent to aggression when the enemy concludes we are no longer interested in fighting for ideals, not even rhetorically. Strategy shifts to more prosaic concerns: how much pain is the American political class willing to endure for this patch of ground, or that often-ungrateful geopolitical ally?
American soldiers remain tough as nails, but the enemy knows our political class has a very low threshold of pain, and a strong desire to cut deals it can take credit for, with the help of friendly media. Our dominant political class is extremely sensitive to the “grievances” of others, and uncomfortable with taking their own nation’s side in a fight. The halls of our bureaucratic fortresses are staffed with a generation that has been mis-educated into seeing their own country as, at best, a theoretically noble experiment conducted with appalling methodology. The eagle’s talons remain as sharp as ever, but he is more reluctant to spread his wings.
This makes it difficult to inspire allies, or gain a foothold in the imagination of those beaten against the red-hot anvil of Islamist aggression. Only Western politicians and media celebrities doubt that Islamists mean what they say, and are willing to express confidence in their ideals by killing every skeptic they can get their hands on. Weak, narcissistic, deal-making Western elites are forever claiming the mullahs of Iran, Palestinian leaders, and even fire-breathing imams living in Europe and America don’t really mean all those blood-curdling things they tell their own people… just as those same elites were happy to dismiss ISIS as an irrelevant, trash-talking “junior varsity league” the day before yesterday.
The ongoing embarrassment and outrage of the very-much-unresolved Department of Veterans Affairs scandal sends a message to our adversaries as well. Our politicians talk a good game about supporting veterans, especially on Memorial Day, but they won’t actually do much to help them, especially if it means sacrificing funds from vote-buying programs, ideological luxuries, and subsidy sops to their favorite millionaires. It’s an absolute disgrace to consider what’s happening with the VA while running up the tab for waste and fraud in other programs our politicians won’t stop, boondoggles they keep throwing billions of our dollars into, and the very good time they absolutely refuse to shop showing themselves.
A career in national politics is one of the surest paths to becoming a millionaire in America today, to the point that the rare exception sticks out like a sore thumb. Big Government politicians, and the chattering classes that serve them, are actually willing to suggest that a politician’s inability to parlay his office into a Clinton-style fortune should be taken as a negative on his resume, perhaps even a disqualifying one.
But those same politicians parade around on Memorial Day and spout focus-grouped, consultant-manufactured patriotism while veterans are dying on hospital waiting lists. How about a few of you high-rolling elected officials try making do with a bit less luxury, and personally donate some of the obscene profits you’ve skimmed off hard-working taxpayers through endless decades of “service” to the VA? That would really be something to talk about next Memorial Day, wouldn’t it?
Here’s an idea for our grandstanding millionaire politicians: pass a bill that requires elected officials, up to and including the President, to get all of their health care from VA clinics, with no special privileges or jumping ahead in line. I’ll bet at least a few of those hospitals would get reformed real damn quick, and dead wood would be burned from the bureaucracy with forest-fire speed.
Our adversaries can see the gap between how the civilian elite talk about soldiers, and how they actually treat them. They see provocative weakness in a civilian culture that grows ever more distant from its military traditions. Too many civilians can’t think of principles worth fighting for – not just physically, but through peacetime word and deed – and they have a hard time understanding the people who are willing to engage in physical combat, from police forces to military units.
That’s both dangerous and sad, because the American military is cheerfully willing to bestow rich treasures of honor, discipline, and courage upon every civilian who takes the time to learn their stories. What our heroes did is amazing; why they did it is inspiring. Your flag-draped local cemetery is more than earth, stone, and cloth painted red, white, and blue. It is a place of communion and learning. It’s a library filled with stories waiting to be learned. It’s a testament to the past, but also a vision of the future.
Every cemetery will have more stones in the days to come, because we are mortal. It matters how we come back to the earth, where our travels take us before we arrive, and what we do along the way. It matters what we are ready to stand for – all of us, together, including those who will never take up arms. Politicians are accustomed to defrauding their constituents by saying one thing and doing another. News flash, ladies and gentlemen of the ballot: America’s enemies are not your constituents, and they care much less about your words than your deeds. They’re not impressed by your pet media’s insistence that putting more stock in your actions than your rhetoric is rude.
War lives in the cold space between what we revere, and what we are willing to surrender. From the first day of the American republic to its last, adversaries within and beyond our borders will measure that space with hard eyes, sharpen their weapons, and prepare to negotiate.