Column: Unintended Consequences

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Mr. Carpenter is a doctoral candidate in American history.

It is the morning after the president's"war" speech and the liberal media can't say enough good things about it. But I gotta admit, I'm scared. Scared, because softly underneath the speech one could hear the tune:"The Old Cold Warriors Are Back in the Saddle Again."

11For several days political bookies were giving odds that Bush would side with the more pugilistic of his advisors, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, rather than the cautious, more diplomatically inclined Secretary of State, Colin Powell. The odds were expected to play out, hence there was no surprise when Bush warned Americans of"a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. We will … drive [terrorists] from place to place until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism."

Pursue? I'm a bit foggy on his usage, and it would have been most helpful had the president narrowed it down. My thesaurus lists 125 meanings and connotations, from"apply oneself" to"gun for." The definitional chasm that lies between is enormous, but probably meaningless in this case. Cold Warriors incline to only one definition, and it's not the one that attaches to serenading fair maidens. 1940s-1980s Warriors were wonders at proposing"pursuit" of the enemy, but were strictly D+ students when it came to convincingly explaining pursuit's ramifications, such as opening or enhancing other fronts of counteroffensives or the possibilities of endless war. It is likely true, as W. said, that the"Al Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime." But he should remember that his Old Warriors could be to peace what fornication is to virginity. And it is peace, ultimately, that we all want.

Furthermore, the administration has pirouetted from almost paranoid isolationism to global extremism with frightening speed. I'm no Metternich, but surely this sort of whiplash requires at least a few weeks of analysis, planning, consultation, diplomatic schmoozing, and a wholesale reassessment of military readiness. Bush did it in just 9 days - and with a group of military gurus pleading just days before that their ticket to the poorhouse had been punched, and needed rebuilding would be a long, long process.

11Such is the policy and politics of rage, not reason. Bush's writers - under the watchful eyes of intrepid Pattonesque advisors with pearl-handled rocket throwers -- confessed as much when they wrote"our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution." They omitted an indispensable step in prudent policy making: from grief to anger there is never any doubt, but before resolve there must come mental calm.

Whether the calm-gap was an intentional call for Romantic emotionalism über alles as a proper preface to war, or a subconscious slip of congenitally aggressive minds, I can't say. But it was scary, at least to those who prefer - with mounds of empirical evidence substantiating their preference - the slow and steady approach. Viz., when we locate and identify terrorist bands with certainty, by all means deliver them and them alone unto Allah with due haste. Should we merely suspect a Muslim community of harboring fundamentalist psychotics, however, by no means should we carpet bomb what little of a microcosmic civilization barely and miserably exists.

11Bush correctly said that"this is not … just America's fight. This is the world's fight. We ask every nation to join us. We will ask and we will need the help of police forces. intelligence service and banking systems around the world." Would it not be wiser to engage these forces, services, and systems prior to promised"dramatic strikes"? To the Pentagon and National Security Council Rambos, could we ask a few questions first, since we're going to all this trouble of establishing an international alliance against terrorism? Then if the answers fall into place, be our guests and start blasting.

11Yet the most troubling of Bush's words were those grounded in an ethereal, metaphysical"knowing" that perforce escapes most humans."The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain." A president's cheerleading, show of steely resolve, and assurance of divine prejudice on our side are of course par for the course when tough times await. But these weren't, it seemed to me as I watched, merely rosy words gently offered a nation feeling down and vengeful as perhaps never before. General Bush and his aides-de-camp honestly appeared convinced of a certain outcome - and that reveals a sorry lack of historical understanding and a far more dangerous vulnerability to the paper logic of 2 and 2 always make 4. A successful president and his advisors must be Grandmasters of the geo-political game of unintended consequences. In that game A doesn't lead to B, nor B to C. It never does. Military strategy and administrative cloak-and-dagger plotting are always at the whim of uncertainty. It cannot be controlled, it cannot be anticipated, it cannot be avoided. It hits you in the head when you least expect it, because it is … unintended.

Vietnam remains the United States' principal lesson in the game, though any analogies to the current situation can be made only on the most sweeping basis. After the French got their derrieres kicked but good at Dien Bien Phu, America moseyed into South Vietnam, reasonably confident or at least hopeful that its advisory know-how would be sufficient. We would teach the South the counterinsurgency trade, load them up with sparkling military technology, and let them have a go at it. That didn't work, to frame matters charitably. So in 1965 we added our own troops; dedicated American troops who proudly had never lost a war. We then added more, and more, and more troops, with the top brass assuring the president each time that just one more go-around would do the job.

As for the air war against North Vietnam, in 3 years (1965-67) the number of sorties went from 25,000 to 79,000 to 108,000. And still no headway. Indeed, the harder we fought, the situation grew disproportionately worse. That was not the expected consequence of iron resolve, as we again expect today. As a leading historian of the Vietnam era wrote,"Leaders of the most powerful nation in the history of the world, U.S. officials simply could not conceive that a small, backward country could stand up against them." But it did, and it was we -- as foreign demons in the native population's mind -- who fueled the fervor that won them the war.

For every action there is a reaction, with the latter often more powerful in recoil. For the United States, the recoil from asserting its military authority in Vietnam before considering every possible option was not merely military defeat, but Americans tuning out from the world around them (which has further led to present circumstances) and 200-years of national self-respect going down the drink.

To posit a favorable outcome as certain may be appropriate spirit lifting in this, the greatest hour of uncertainty. Yet Americans may want to heed the limits of determined power and the unswerving law of unintended consequences -- things the Old Cold Warriors never could face up to.

P. M. Carpenter is a writer, student of history, and professional artist. His website is:

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John - 10/24/2001