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The Will to Win

The Will to Win

While most observers admit that the so-called war on terrorism will be a long war, few have discussed openly the possibility of defeat. On one hand, this is sensible; too much talk of defeat can undercut our conviction and corrode our will. On the other hand, we must anticipate the roads that lead to defeat in order to avoid them.       

Before I discuss these roads, I should state at the outset that I am addressing the long-term, strategic implications of the conflict here; for now, I have set aside the tactical and operational implications, which I admit are both manifold and daunting. Even so, I am confident that our tactics and operational skill will-over time-prove good enough to win. I am less confident in our nation's strategic vision and stamina, and without the requisite vision and stamina, even the most brilliant tactics and operations will fall short.       

I should also note that in this case (as in others), the character of our adversary defines the terms of our victory. As many have noted elsewhere, our adversary is motivated, determined, clever, and uncompromising. This means inter alia that he is not likely to negotiate or surrender. He will hit us again and again, harder and harder, until one of us can no longer stand. Although the post-modern mind tends to recoil from such brutal finality, we must confront it directly and confidently. To defeat this adversary we must be equally motivated, determined, clever, and uncompromising.

Here, then, are four possible roads to defeat. We can avoid each through strength of will. If we lose, it will be because we have defeated ourselves.


To follow the first road, we must permit ourselves to be divided. In this context, I define divided as lacking common goals and principles. This means much more than simply to disagree. Americans have always disagreed over points of policy; indeed, Madison's gift to the world was to recognize that a people could build a republic on disagreement, properly framed. Madison, Lincoln, and others also recognized that no republic can endure true division; at the most basic level, the people must share common goals and principles.       

From this perspective, the controversial 2000 presidential election was a warning. While it demonstrated the resilience of our republic and the genius of its institutions, it also exposed the widening ideological rift that hides just beneath the surface of public discourse. Symptoms of this rift include a reduced willingness to compromise, an increased willingness to employ extreme political tactics, and a general tendency to demonize the opposition. Despite this, we have so far been unified enough to pursue an aggressive agenda in the war on terrorism. It is not difficult, however, to foresee a range of plausible scenarios in which, divided, we can no longer fight effectively.       

One way to avoid division is to steer public discourse whenever possible toward shared goals and common principles. This is admittedly difficult in the domestic arena, where many issues are tied to social agendas and moral values, but it should be possible when addressing urgent national security concerns. Key here is the willingness of all participants to focus on strategy, engage in constructive discourse, and avoid partisan bickering.


To follow the second road to defeat, we must permit ourselves to be distracted. I define distracted here as allowing less immediate priorities to undermine a single-minded approach to the war on terrorism. Few, if any, priorities currently rank higher than preventing our terrorist adversaries from acquiring and employing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The consequences of failure are almost too ominous to consider, and the threat is not likely to recede soon.  

Distractions come in many forms, and sometimes we don't learn they are distractions until it is too late. For example, we now know that invading Iraq was probably a distraction, if only because the full lifecycle costs of the invasion have foreclosed a broad range of alternate investments. Iraq also showed us just how difficult it is to discern a distraction from a grave and immediate threat. Unfortunately, the most seductive distractions are frequently those that appear to be the most urgent.       

The best way to avoid distractions is to articulate and enforce a clear and consistent (but sufficiently flexible) strategy. With such a strategy in place, we can more easily and quickly decide why it is better to spend a dollar or sacrifice a life here than it is to spend a dollar or sacrifice a life there. Doing so, however, is easier said than done, in large part because most problems are intertwined in ways we can untangle only after we have acted. As a result, we must accept some risk and know that we will sometimes fail. We must also seek to learn from every success and failure and adjust our strategy accordingly.       

A useful parallel exists in the world of military command and control. Assuming a properly trained and motivated force, a good commander will hold his leash neither too loosely nor too tightly; instead, he will articulate a clear, consistent, and sufficiently flexible commander's intent, which will itself be based on a clear, consistent, and sufficiently flexible strategy. A good commander's intent helps the commander and his or her subordinates separate distractions from immediate problems in a way that should prove consistent with the overall strategy. Of course, our political system is based on consensus not command, but the essential link to strategy and the need to articulate it clearly is just as important, if not more so.


To follow the third road, we must permit ourselves to be unsure. I define unsure as lacking confidence in our principles and in our approach to securing them. When we are unsure, we cede our moral right to pursue and claim victory. To be unsure during World War II would have been to doubt our right to pursue unconditional victory over the Axis powers. To be unsure during the Cold War would have been to doubt our right to resist and contain Soviet aggression. In the latter case, some Americans did occasionally doubt, which not only encouraged our adversary but also divided our will and undermined our strategy.       

That said, to be unsure is not the same as to be cautious or circumspect. For instance, we should always be willing to revisit and modify our strategy. Is it working? Does it represent the best possible approach? Can we improve it? At times, we should even question our goals. Are we pursuing fair and just goals? Are we pursuing the proper goals in the proper sequence? We should, however, hold our core principles inviolate.       

The best way to avoid this road to defeat is to state our principles clearly and emphatically and then clarify the fact that we are willing to sacrifice everything to defend them. Many of these principles are universal, while some are unique to our nation. Regardless, we must not doubt that--relative to our adversary—our cause represents the superior path to liberty, integrity, justice, and the right of self-determination. We cannot doubt this and maintain the stamina required to win this war over the long haul.

Passive and Reactive

To follow the fourth road, we must not permit ourselves to be passive and reactive. Here I define passive and reactive as overly averse to risk and hesitant to seize the offensive. For much of the 1990s we were far too passive and reactive. During that time, our adversaries trained and planned while we—with few exceptions—waited to see what they would do. Given our adversary’s stated goals and the growing threat of WMD, we must not allow the passive approach to creep back into our thinking.

To avoid becoming passive and reactive, we must (1) be aware of our adversary and (2) be willing to take risks. Awareness rouses vigilance. It also informs risk. In fact, awareness and risk are cousins; the more we know, the better we can assess the risk associated with a given course of action.

Since the 11 Sept. 2001 attacks, the Bush administration has shown an admirable inclination to accept calculated risk and pursue an aggressive course. We should respect this attitude and appreciate the fact that, on the whole, it enhances our opportunities for success. We should also demand that the nation do what it can to improve its awareness. Poor awareness drove the administration to pursue its greatest risk to date—the invasion of Iraq—and it is not yet clear whether this risk will yield long-range opportunities or if it will simply distract us from more immediate dangers.


In practice, these four roads run in parallel. A divided, distracted, and unsure nation, for example, is much more likely to be passive and reactive, while a passive, reactive, distracted, and unsure nation is much more likely to be divided. Each road traces a different aspect of our resolve. Together, they map our vision, stamina, and will to win.       

At the same time, we should note that each road runs in both directions. Yes, a divided and unsure America risks defeat, but a divided and unsure adversary does as well. Each road, then, suggests a possible strategy that we can employ against our adversary. Indeed, to defeat an adversary such as the one we now face, we must ultimately attack and defeat his will.       

For better or worse, our adversary has forced us to ponder the mortality of our republic. We must always remember that no natural force guarantees us a free and functioning government, and victory in war is not an American entitlement. To preserve our privileges, we must believe above all else that we—and our founding principles—deserve to win.

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