Victor Davis Hanson

As we begin a new year, with a new Congress being sworn in Thursday, it’s a good time to take stock of the “global war on terror.” The enormous conventional military power of the United States probably ensures that we will not lose in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. Yet the considerable advantages of the jihadists suggest that we might not necessarily win, either.

So before we surge troops into Baghdad, as many Republicans wish, or yank everyone out of Iraq, as many Democrats are calling for, it is wise to review why America has had trouble turning wins over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein into long-term strategic successes.

Creating new political systems on the ground is far more difficult than simply blasting away terrorist concentrations. Such engagement demands that American soldiers leave the relative safety of ships, tanks and planes to fight subsequent messy battles in streets and neighborhoods. Once that happens, the United States loses its intrinsic military advantages

First, the Islamists have just enough Western arms — automatic small weapons and explosive devices — to achieve parity with individual Americans on the ground. Our billions spent on aircraft carriers, drones and stealthy jets were not intended to fight hundreds of terrorists hiding in houses.

Second, when losses mount, they are viewed differently by the two sides. Violent death and endemic poverty are commonplace in the Middle East, but not so in the West. We aim to avoid casualties in our war making; the Islamists want only to inflict them, whatever the cost to themselves.

Third, everything our soldiers do is subject to Western jurisprudence and ethical censure. Americans distinguish soldiers from civilians to avoid collateral damage. Jihadists deliberately hide among women and children to ensure that our restraint provides them sanctuary. Our utopian moral expectations can never be met; their very lack of such considerations means we are accustomed to rather than are outraged by their beheadings, kidnappings and suicide bombings.

Fourth, in the process of reconstruction, Americans are held responsible for keeping the electricity and water on to ensure that life for Afghans and Iraqis gets better. Jihadists win only by destroying such efforts. And it is always easier to tear down than to build.

So we are at an impasse. Now after five years of fighting, Americans have two stark choices in the war against terrorists.

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.