The empirical basis of the Green Lantern theory

by John Quiggin on December 21, 2006

The idea that winning wars is a matter of willpower (what Matt Yglesias calls the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics) has been getting more and more attention as the situation in Iraq deteriorates.

At one level, the triumph of will theory is immune to meaningful empirical refutation. Whenever a nation loses a war, it can be argued that, with more willpower it would have prevailed. The one exception is where the nation is utterly destroyed, in which case, there will be no one interested in observing the failure of will.

There is, however, a specifically American version, which can be given some kind of empirical support. Until Vietnam, the United States had, at least according to the official accounts, never lost a war. The willpower theory holds that this loss was due to domestic weakness rather than defeat on the battlefield, and that subsequent failures of US forces in Lebanon, Somalia and elsewhere represent “Vietnam syndrome”.

The Iraq war was supposed to spell the end of the Vietnam syndrome, and the Bush Administration still seems to be committed to this idea. It seems increasingly clear that, rather than begin a withdrawal, the Administration is planning for a short-lived ‘surge’ in troop numbers, achieved by accelerating deployments and delaying rotations out.

There doesn’t seem to be any clear idea what the troops are supposed to do: secure Baghdad by some accounts, crush Sadr’s Mahdi army by others, join the Shia to crush the Sunni insurgency by others. As an unnamed official says in this NYT story “There has not been a full articulation of what we would want the surge to accomplish”. The Big Push is being pushed for its own sake.

At this point, it seems clear a closer look at the empirical basis of the Green Lantern theory is needed. The starting point the observation that war is a negative-sum game, so the fact that one side loses does not mean that the other wins. If losing a war means coming out of it worse than you went in, then Vietnam is not the first war the US has lost. The War of 1812 ended with the restoration of the status quo ante, but 25 000 Americans were dead, Washington had been burned, and huge economic damage had been done. The Philippine-American War cost the lives of thousands of Americans, and at least a quarter of a million Filipinos, but yielded the US no long-term benefit.

Finally, there’s the Korean War. By October 1950, a few months after the war began, the US-led UN force had pushed the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel. At that point, it would have been possible to impose peace terms at least as favorable as those eventually reached. Instead, Macarthur and Truman decided to push on to the Yalu river, China entered the war, and three years of bloody fighting ensued, with no net gain for anyone.

The common feature of all these events was that they were expansionist wars of choice, though in each case with a more or less plausible defensive casus belli (British impressment of US sailors, the explosion of the Maine, the North Korean attack on the South). The war party in 1812 wanted to conquer Canada, that of 1898 wanted the remnants of the Spanish empire. In 1950, having repelled the North Korean invasion, Macarthur wanted to roll back, rather than merely contain, Communism, retaking North Korea and putting pressure on Red China. Vietnam fits the pattern, beginning with support for the French attempt to regain their Asian empire after World War II, and using the bogus Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext for full-scale US entry into the war.

Iraq seems to embody all of the errors of the past. The bogus weapons of mass destruction correspond neatly to the claims of sabotage of the Maine and the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident. Seen as a continuation of Gulf War I, GWII seems like a repetition of the march to the Yalu River, rejecting Bush I’s willingness to settle for a comprehensive military victory and restoration of the territorial status quo ante. Seen in terms of an ideological struggle against Islamism, it looks like Vietnam all over again. As in 1898, the US has overthrown an oppressive regime, but has sought to substitute its own rule, or that of pliable clients like Chalabhi, while trying to marginalise those (like the Shia militias) who had actually fought against the regime. And, at the back of it all have been prophets of a new American Empire.

If Iraq has demonstrated once and for all that the Green Lantern theory does not stand up to empirical scrutiny, is there an alternative that still leaves a substantial role for the US in the world. The Iraq war showed, yet again, that in conventional military conflicts the US is unbeatable, and, for practical purposes unstoppable. On the other hand, the weakness of US military power when faced with an insurgency with significant popular support has been demonstrated yet again.

So, the US has a unique capacity to enforce the global law that makes wars of aggression a crime against humanity. In the context of civil conflicts like those in Bosnia and Kosovo, US intervention can nullify the advantage possessed by the side that has a conventional army at its disposal. But this military power is useful only if there exists a widely-accepted political solution waiting to be implemented.

On the one hand, the fact that the US is, as has often been observed, the indispensable nation in matters of this kind gives it a claim to special consideration more defensible than that arising simply from the fact that it is large and powerful. On the other hand, if the US is to be accepted in this role, it must be particularly careful not to use its power to pursue its own narrow self-interest or impose its own views on the world as a whole. The idea that the US could act in this way, and ignore the rest of the world was perhaps the most important single claim of the warbloggers and neocons, and the consequences are now on display for all to see.



Steve LaBonne 12.21.06 at 8:14 pm

So, the US has a unique capacity to enforce the global law that makes wars of aggression a crime against humanity.

Don’t you think it will be at least a generation before the rest of the world is again willing to accept the good faith of the US in such matters? I think we need to shrink our military quite substantially (our parlous Federal government finances will sooner or later necessitate this anyway) and just sit down and shut up for a good long while.


Rob 12.21.06 at 10:09 pm

I’d disagree with the idea that the Spanish-American War gave the US no long term benefit. The Phillippines were need as naval stop and the US basically controlled Cuba until Castro and still has a naval base there. If not for the Spanish American war, where could the US send prisoners it wants to hold indefinitely?


aidan 12.21.06 at 10:45 pm

“So, the US has a unique capacity to enforce the global law that makes wars of aggression a crime against humanity.”

That’s one hell of a paradox. How does a nation “enforce global law” when it spends a good part of its time opposing international law? Recently Chertoff said out loud so we would all get it – that international law was being used as “a rhetorical weapon against the US”. You can’t get more specific than that.

Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland, who served as the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights and who brought great legal expertise and personal integrity to her office, was basically shafted because she criticized US unilateralism and rejection of international law.

The willpower thesis is interesting as it relates to the Iraq war and I would like offer a slightly different perspective on it.

Deploying high tech weaponry doesn’t require willpower so much as expertise, testosterone and the opportunity to sock it to targets that are basically sitting ducks. It’s the hubris of the hunter with the big guns and the vaunted superiority.

Willpower is somewhat different, and the meaning of the word derives from a force that is most of all personal in expression.

When you take an Iraqi youth who has experienced a hard bitten life of zero expectation and combine that with an Islamic faith that is not only observed but lived in the blood with a fanaticism that is unquestioned and you give him an enemy, a cause and terrorist tools-of-the-trade … you have an adversary who personifies willpower.

By contrast the average American GI comes from small town USA where life was easy by comparison – TV, fast food, fun times – a soft existence that for some led to moral ambiguity and narcissism, a sense most of all of entitlement. Putting a youth like this in uniform and through a training regimen, does not erase the early conditioning.

This is why young American fighters, when up against Vietcong or in this case Islamist insurgents – offer evidence of a critical failure of willpower over the long haul. When people who have been conditioned to believe they are number one and can’t lose, stare failure in the face and are engaging an implacable enemy who won’t back off, even in the face of a massive power differential, bad things happen by way of compensation … Abhu Ghraib, civilian atrocities, suicide.

So at the root of American military excursions there is the danger of a fundamental error of judgment. Unilateral action however marked by shock and awe leads precisely nowhere when used reactively in order to pursue a national agenda related to issues of power.

The intelligent use of the American military that you so eloquently describe John, is indeed quite different and in my view should be the role the USA offers as the strongest international partner. We need the USA to fill this role, and contrary to many I don’t believe the US has forfeited its reputation as a result of Bush administration lies and incompetence. Most observers understand the distinction between America and the cabal who have lately been using its flag.

The majority of the American people are not power mongers, and this administration has badly misled those of us who believed in an entirely different mission – most critically it has misrepresented and abused the tremendous power for good that lies at the heart of the American experience.


roger 12.21.06 at 10:51 pm

I agree with Steve. The Vietnam syndrome was the best syndrome this country ever caught. We avoided war in Nicaragua because of it; we trimmed military budgets because of it; and it restrained American power in a dozen places. The problem was that it didn’t restrain American power in more places. If Carter and then Reagan had been stopped in Afghanistan, there would have been no jihadi network, the ISI wouldn’t have bankrolled the Taliban, Osama bin Laden would have had no base and no followers, and 9/11 wouldn’t have happened. The point is to create the Iraq syndrome, a weak-kneed, liberal foreign policy that appeases first, actually does diplomacy and so on. We need the American government to face insurmountable popular barriers to ever again committing troops for an aggressive or pre-emptive war. And to redeploy the resources nuttily committed to the military – not to reign in the deficit, which, as the last couple of years have proven, can be quite considerable without having any negative effect, but to face the very expensive restructuring that is going to be imposed by global warming, and to make a much fairer healthcare system. The U.S. should never ever be the sole component in any ‘intervention.’ This isn’t because the U.S is uniquely wicked, but because it is a nation with national interests – and those will simply always conflict, at some level, with the interests of the intervened upon.


bi 12.21.06 at 10:59 pm

To add on: for there to be an empirical basis to the willpower theory, you’ll need to compare something that’s measurable against something else that’s also measurable. The key to the theory’s unfalsifiability at the general level is that this “willpower” stuff can’t be measured. To have an empirical basis, you’ll need to compare the chances of winning or losing against other things, such as the defence budget, number of troops deployed, degree of support in Congress for the President, …


airth10 12.21.06 at 11:50 pm

It is ridiculous to think that the will to win a war is sufficient enough to win it. First of all one has to be right about the need for war. America was not right on the need for war with Iraq.


Number2 12.22.06 at 12:49 am

The will to win does not lead to winning but to win you must have the will. The North Vietnamese won because they had the will to win even though by all accounts they were losing. They even lost during the TEt offensive but the US media sold the loss to the American people who lost the will to win.

You also don’t need to be “right” to win a war. All the empire were built not by being right, but by having the will and the power to take the war to it’s conclusion. Look at the British, french, Roman, Alexander. Were they right?

Additionally, it was stated that the wars “LOST” were wars of expansion. Iraq is not.

Though the author thinks the WMD reasonning was bogus, that also was not. There may have been no WMDs, but at the time this was not known therefore the reasoning stands. The authors reasoning here is “bogus”.


abb1 12.22.06 at 2:21 am

Whoa, what a leap there in the end of this post.

Before becoming a selfless guarantor of the peace on earth, how about the easy little things like, say, getting out of Iraq and ending support for Israeli atrocities?


Daniel 12.22.06 at 2:23 am

This is why young American fighters, when up against Vietcong or in this case Islamist insurgents – offer evidence of a critical failure of willpower over the long haul.

Unnecessarily hard on the martial virtues of American troops, who are in general extremely good at fighting against bad odds in terrible conditions (in general the complaint of troops serving alongside them is that they’re a bit mindless rather than anything else). There is a simple game-theoretic reason why the Vietnamese and Iraqi youths have more “will” than the Americans, which is that one side has the option of going home, but the other side is already in their home. Both Iraq and Vietnam have tried to hold territory outside their borders in the last thirty years and their willpower failed at just about the same time as anyone else’s would.


bad Jim 12.22.06 at 4:23 am

I’ll hazard the suggestion that the U.S. constitution was specifically crafted to impede the sort of expression of executive will that led to centuries of continual warfare in Europe. Only Congress can declare war and funds must be approved by the House of Representatives. The war is off the moment the people turn against it.

This is not a bug. This is an explicit feature of the original design.

Clearly, it has not worked quite as intended. The last U.S. declaration of war was in 1941 and there has been a military deployment or two in the meantime. The armed forces were likewise kept busy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries despite an absence of declared hostilities. Nevertheless, the U.S. hasn’t been heaping slices on its plate carved from neighboring territories since the Mexican War (neglecting exotic island desserts and the odd cash purchase).

As with Vietnam, so with Iraq, with any luck, we’ll fail the Tinkerbell test, stop clapping, and resume the process of growing up.


aidan 12.22.06 at 5:57 am

“Unnecessarily hard on the martial virtues of American troops, who are in general extremely good at fighting against bad odds in terrible conditions..”

I don’t question the martial virtues or the valor of American or allied troops.

But when you’re put into a no-win situation, with an enemy that can blend with the population and strike at will, it creates enormous psychological pressure. These aren’t normal battlefield conditions. It’s not a reflection on their valor, it’s a statement about how much you can reasonably expect on a psychological and emotional level from young service men and women in conditions like this.


abb1 12.22.06 at 6:39 am

What is a normal battlefield condition – watching monitors and sending GPS coordinates for an air-strike or missile, like in a videogame?

Yeah, having an enemy who can strike at will sure sucks. It’s unfair and unacceptable.


JamesP 12.22.06 at 6:44 am

I’d question the assumption that the average American soldier has led a life that can be considered either easy or pampered, given the number who come from fairly deprived backgrounds. Sure, life in America is easy by international standards, but that doesn’t make growing up poor any less tough.


aidan 12.22.06 at 6:53 am

Another point too is that some of these service people have been redeployed again and again, some without having fully recuperated from mental/emotional trauma they have gone through as a result of extreme situations in the field.

Drugs such as amphetamines used over time can add to paranoia, psychotic episodes and contribute to the types of breakdowns of discipline that have been covered in media reports.

When you combine these factors with the drop in support for the war at home, the mishandling of the campaign and the lies that initiated it – in addition to a mission that seems to be going nowhere while taking a heavy toll on military lives – it is no wonder this type of fall-out occurs.

Someone has a lot to answer for – and it sure as hell isn’t the American military.


stostosto 12.22.06 at 8:11 am

I think the willpower theory is one of the biggest problems in the world today at all. From bin Laden’s “strong horse” conundrum to Kim Jong-Il’s brinkmanship and Ahmadinejad’s apocalypticisms, to Israel, Hamas and Hizbollah, to just about any conflict that involves appeals to constituencies beyond the mere lure of spoils-of-war for thugs with arms, the perceived need to demonstrate willpower is one of the ingredients that keeps propelling belligerency.

Willpower as a rallying cry for violent collective action is related to such other group phenomena as mistrust, fear and paranoia. It’s impossible to disprove them, and once they have taken hold, its near-impossible to dispel them.

Honour is another dangerous concept of this kind. The fact is, civilised life is a life without honour, a life involving compromise, tiresome arguments, backing-downs, sell-outs, bargaining, moral trade-offs. You appease your neighbour, wife, children, employees every once in a while. You get a fairly comfortable, peaceful, orderly, undramatic and occasionally very nice life. But you don’t get honour. Deal with it.

Btw, I am against naming this willpower theory after some obscure sci-fi comic strip, however apt it might be on its own terms. If it must be named after something, please find a common reference, like the Bible or Shakespeare or a Schwarzenegger movie.


Barry 12.22.06 at 9:01 am

Number2 : “The will to win does not lead to winning but to win you must have the will.”

Counter-example – Gulf War I. The US won that quite easily. The major reason, of course, is that Bush I had the wit to define the war to the extent necessary, and avoided going too far.

“The North Vietnamese won because they had the will to win even though by all accounts they were losing. They even lost during the TEt offensive but the US media sold the loss to the American people who lost the will to win.”

‘Will to win’ here, means taking beaucoup casualties, which the American people – including the right wing – were simply not willing to take. During the Tet offensive, they demonstrated the ability to wreak havoc all through the South, despite three years of American efforts. Perhaps most importantly, this occurred after three years of the US government telling the American people that things were going well. When the government gets caught lying to the American people, the American people demonstrate this odd habit of not trusting the government. Odd, that – maybe the American people are weak-wlled traitors.


sglover 12.22.06 at 9:37 am

Aidan, I think your post #3 is one of the best summaries of the schizoid split between means and ends that I’ve seen in some time.

These will-to-win sofa strategists really have things upside-down. I don’t believe that nations ordinarily launch projects willy-nilly and then work up enthusiasm, “will”, to see them through. I think that societies cohere around goals that are generally recognized as desirable — expelling a foreign power, smashing a feared rival, and so on. “Willpower” is the natural consequence of the original consensus. It follows that if you really want to cultivate “will” for your grand design, the very worst thing you can do is lie about it, lowball its costs and inflate its benefits.


RKKA 12.22.06 at 10:42 am

Since war is not a senseless act of passion, but is controlled by the political object, the value of the object determines the sacrifices to be made for it, both in magnitude and also in duration. When the sacrifice exceeds the value of the political object, the political object must be renounced and peace must follow.

At least, this is what a dead German named Clausewitz thought. And it explains Vietnam and Iraq pretty well. Vietnamese lived in Vietnam, and really cared about stuff there. Americans didn’t, and didn’t.

Ditto Iraqis.


kid bitzer 12.22.06 at 10:54 am

quiggin, this post seems to confuse a couple of highly separable matters.

at the *least*, it seems to me that your final topic, about the inadvisability of expansionist wars of imperial aggrandizement, is a very different topic from the one you start with, about whether the “green lantern theory” is empirically verifiable.

If there is anything to the green lantern theory (and I agree it should be renamed; I prefer the Ghost Shirt theory after an actual, historical outbreak of magical thinking)–if there is anything to the theory, and any point in exploring it, then it should be explored in the contexts of every sort of war–aggressive, defensive, civil war, imperialistic, non-imperialistic, etc.

It’s just different issues altogether, see?

Also this is confused:
“Whenever a nation loses a war, it can be argued that, with more willpower it would have prevailed. The one exception is where the nation is utterly destroyed, in which case, there will be no one interested in observing the failure of will.”

why is it an exception to a rule when people don’t care enough to observe it anymore? If I claim that the gutters will freeze at any temperature below 32 farenheit, do you really want to say “but there’s an exception below -50, because who will go outside to look?”


kid bitzer 12.22.06 at 11:00 am

sorry, my “observe it” is sloppy.
I meant “observe the data” not “observe the rule”.


Bruce Baugh 12.22.06 at 11:01 am

The emphasis on will is easily understood by Rumseld’s principle of pragmatism. Some people understand planning, calculation of odds, preparation for contingency, quick response to changing circumstances, communication with others unlike oneself, and so on. Other people understand wanting something a lot, and nothing else. You go to war with the psychosis you have, not the psychology you wish you had.


Jim S. 12.22.06 at 11:03 am

Ah, (4), military budgets were not trimmed after Vietnam, they actually doubled between 1969 and 1980. Indeed, one of the reasons why the American public apathetically allowed the 1980’s military buildup to take place was that they felt that nothing that they could do would work-i.e., they had made a great effort in the 1960’s and 1970’s and the military still went up. That does not mean that anti-militarism cannot work-there were huge reductions in military spending in the early 20th century-but it has to be well thought out-something the leaders of the various 60’s mass movements (with the exception of Dr. King) were extremely poor at.
Some other observations:
America could have in Vietnam. It had the population and resources to do so. The fact was the American people never liked the war from the very beginning, which hamstrung the government’s strategy from the first. The same goes for the present wars-they have never been popular from the first (despite what everybody has said) which the difficulties resulting from low troop levels-if they were really popular, then hordes of Americans, British, Australians, would have volunteered and the troop level problem would have been solved.
This person has always hated Reagan, has hated the neocons from their first incarnation (in the late 70’s, when they, with Reagan as their tool, needlessly started a new Cold War) and have always supported detente with the then Soviet Union. Still, what would some people have done about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Anything?
The thrust to the Yalu was the worst mistake that the Truman Adminstration ever made. Still, the adminstration itself quickly repudiated it, and fired MacArthur. Why, then, did the war last another 2 years? And, if the national interests of China were satisfied by pushing America out of North Korea, why did the Communist side launch a renewed invasion of South Korea on the last day of 1950, and repeated attempts afterwards?


Dan Simon (Troll) 12.22.06 at 12:35 pm

I don’t have anything useful to say, and I know I’ve been barred, but I have nothing better to with my time than offer lame quibbles.

Since deletion and disemvowelling haven’t worked with Dan Simon, who has been repeatedly requested not to disrupt my threads, I’m going to leave his comments in place, but replace them with my own “shorter” version, or any other text that takes my fancy. In future I will do this without notice. JQ


bi 12.22.06 at 1:08 pm

(Actually, I’d say the notion that the world consists only of bad, aggressive nations, weak, aggressed-upon nations and heroic, popularly supported insurgencies is more characteristic of, say, the early 1970’s than even the immediate pre-9/11 era.)”

In contrast to the notion that the world consists only of good, aggressive nations and namby-pamby “anti-democratic international institutions” who are simply getting in their way? Come up with something saner before you engage in snark.


y 12.22.06 at 1:42 pm

Certainly there is a sense in which the will to power is an essential component of empire–to become an empire, a country must be willing to do whatever it takes to gain power. The United States lacks that will, and by God, sometimes it seems like our only saving grace. The Romans lined the roads with crucifixes for their empire. The British bound men to the mouths of cannon for theirs. Until the US sinks to such a depth that such things become a matter of course, it will be foolhardy to speak of American empire, or to engage in imperial adventures like Iraq. The current administration seems to be trying to take us there, but it has not succeeded.


abb1 12.22.06 at 1:49 pm

Even though the American government on the international arena is, of course, much more nauseatingly corrupt and anti-democratic than any international institution, he’s right that militant nationalism is a more coherent ideology than militant liberalism. Militant liberalism just doesn’t make sense.


Dan Simon (Troll) 12.22.06 at 1:49 pm

Go ahead and delete–this is a pointless discussion, anyway.

Done, and more. JQ


yave begnet 12.22.06 at 2:10 pm

JQ said: “if the US is to be accepted in this role, it must be particularly careful not to use its power to pursue its own narrow self-interest or impose its own views on the world as a whole. The idea that the US could act in this way, and ignore the rest of the world was perhaps the most important single claim of the warbloggers and neocons”

I don’t think many neocons or warbloggers would agree with your characterization of their views. Of course we were acting for the benefit of the Iraqis—they might say—that’s why we liberated them. Of course we weren’t acting in our narrow self-interest—they might say—we were acting in the interest of bringing democracy to the entire region and ridding the world of a dangerous tyrant. In this view, almost anything the U.S. does is in the interest of everyone else (aside from tyrants and terrorists), whether they agree it is in their own interest or not. This is a difficult argument to engage since it impervious to empirical evidence—it is more a matter of faith in the national goodness of the U.S. Efforts to disprove this argument are seen as attacks on the faith and met with redoubled resistance.

I think #4 has it exactly right: “The U.S. should never ever be the sole component in any ‘intervention.’ This isn’t because the U.S is uniquely wicked, but because it is a nation with national interests – and those will simply always conflict, at some level, with the interests of the intervened upon.”

We are a nation, not a religion, and we have national interests just like everyone else.


Doctor Slack 12.22.06 at 3:05 pm

this is a pointless discussion, anyway.

Shame, what with the great attitude you brought to it and all.


mijnheer 12.22.06 at 9:55 pm

Here in Canada we like to think of the War of 1812 as a great victory for the forces of good over U.S. imperialism. And our secret weapon? A determined woman with a cow.


Giles 12.23.06 at 10:07 am

“On the other hand, the weakness of US military power when faced with an insurgency with ignificant popular support has been demonstrated yet again.”

The difficulty the US currently faces is not that it cant defeat an insurgency – the difficulty is that the insurgency is not against its forces but rather a war between two groups the sunni and the shia, neither of whom the US supports.

It would be possible for the US to win or loose against this insurgency – but only if it choose to support one of the sides. They want democracy to win but neither of the other two are playing for this objective.

So we ‘re in a situation where the US is playing football and the Iraqi’s soccer. Not a situation where game theory has much insight to offer.


mike 12.23.06 at 10:35 am

Stupid and racist comment deleted – JQ


C-dude 12.23.06 at 12:44 pm


I dunno Mike, democracy is working in Texas and the IQ there is quite low.

Attitudes like that are going to cost us big. Yes, the Middle East is a vastly different culture, that obviously does not make a lot of sense to small-minded Americans, especially Texans. Later on, we will acknowledge the truth: we effectively lost the war a month after we captured Baghdad, after we failed to initiate diplomacy with the other Arab neighbors of Iraq.

What really sucks is trying to defend over 3 years of failed policy, and lives wasted. Our credibility, never great, is at an all time low now.

Oh, and while you weren’t watching, Mike (and not just you, but all the Texans), North Korea has nuclear weapons, China is cleaning up the Pacifica Rim, and the world is now much more inhospitable to our needs.


bi 12.23.06 at 2:35 pm

mike: Yeah right, the IQ of the “average Arab” is much lower than our average IQ, but they’re smart enough to break our conventional model of warfare. Or maybe they managed to break our conventional model because they’re dumb. Which means, to defeat them, we should make ourselves even dumber.


George W 12.23.06 at 3:21 pm

Without mounting a full response, I did just want to disagree with your definition of losing a war. A country has lost a war not when it comes out worse than when it went it, but when it comes out worse than it would have been had it not gone in. Unfortunately a far more speculative measure, but there it is.


mike 12.23.06 at 4:35 pm

Deleted as above – JQ


mike 12.23.06 at 4:41 pm

Stupid and racist comment deleted – JQ


John Quiggin 12.24.06 at 2:22 am

I’ve deleted some self-refuting racism from Mike (why is that the idea of racial differences in IQ seems to appeal most to people who are obvious counterexamples?) and also a number of replies, since the thread was being derailed.

In response to George W. I agree with your point, which I’ve seen from Bobbitt, but the critical thing about wars of choice is that the status quo ante is an available option. The US could have negotiated with Britain in 1812, left the Phillipines alone and imposed a favorable peace in 1950.

Of course, the world is dynamic and things change over time, but mostly the status quo ante is the best basis for estimating the likely consequences of inaction.

Of course that’s exactly why the advocates of aggressive wars almost invariably produce pretexts that seem to demand immediate action.


alphie 12.24.06 at 5:52 am

At least half of the world’s non-US population now live in nuclear powers.

America’s “unique capacity to enforce the global law” is limited to non-nuclear half of the world.

Maybe less, actually. I can’t imagine America could intervene in a meaningful way in non-nuclear countries with large populations like Brazil, Nigeria and Indonesia, eiher.

So, in reality, America’s power to enforce “global law” only extends to non-nuclear, small population countries like…Iraq and Afghanistan.


David Wright 12.24.06 at 6:50 am

Roger @ 4 said: “The Vietnam syndrome was the best syndrome this country ever caught.”

Statements like that are what make conservatives believe that “willpower” is the problem. It drives them batty that there are people like Roger who actually hope the U.S. will fail so that they can feel confirmed in their pacifism, and win over others to their cause. And on this point, I share the conservatives’ sentiment.

The fact is, this war was lost by incompetent execution, pure and simple. And that’s not a godsend; it’s a tragdey. It’s a tragedy for all the vast majority of Iraqis who were thrilled to see the end of Sadam’s dictatorship and who desperately wished to live in a democratic, federal, and peaceful Iraq.

Roger may consider his anti-colonial non-interventionism a morally superior policy, but really it just shows that people like him care more about feeling morally superior than about really doing something for the oppressed peoples of the Earth.


bi 12.24.06 at 10:08 am

Doesn’t David Wright realize that the impulse to be “really doing something” is what leads to “incompetent execution”? Post-war plan? Who needs any post war plan? We dun need no steenkin’ post-war plan! All we need is Will Will Will, and if anything goes wrong let’s blame it on those victory-hating librulz!


mike (Troll) 12.24.06 at 12:09 pm

I’m not only a stupid racist troll, I can’t take a hint.

As noted above, I’m dealing with persistent trolls by replacing their text with my shorter interpretation – this will be done without notice for you, Mike


bi 12.24.06 at 1:27 pm

mike: Does your very intelligent self know that you’re not posting on-topic? The title of this thread is “The empirical basis of the Green Lantern Theory”. Go jerk off to your IQ theories elsewhere.


serial catowner 12.24.06 at 2:13 pm

Well, me for the Green Lantern Theory. Somehow I got on a mail list with some of these “conservatives” and some of the things they say make you think they learned history from their Marx playsets.

I don’t buy at all the concept of the US as the one global power that can rally the forces of law and order. The only reason we have this much military power is because we are insane bellicose warmongers. Kinda like deciding that the bouncer at the biker’s tavern would be a good choice to run for sheriff. Seems pretty plain to me that the world would be better off if we would just ‘butt out’ for a while.


mike (Troll) 12.24.06 at 6:22 pm

I’m determined to prove that i’m the stupidest and stubbornest troll ever to post on the subject of IQ and race.


Carlyle Moulton 12.25.06 at 7:59 am

It is a mistake to expect nations to behave honourably or morally. When a nation engages in a war of choice it will try to justify it with appeals to moral authority but these will be totally phoney. The real reasons will be hidden and will relate to the percieved and unenlightened self interest of the rich power elites that own the sovreignty of that nation. None of these reasons if explicitly stated would appeal to poor people that serve as cannon fodder in the nation’s military nor to the citizens of the enemy country who will serve as target fodder.

Weapons of mass destruction ….blah, blah, human rights abuses by Saddam …..blah blah these are the phoney justifications given by George W Bush for the war on Iraq.

The real reasons will have included such things as enriching corporations that have access to the massive cash flows from no-tender contracts for rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure paid for by Iraqi funds and which can in turn direct some of this cash to The Republican party to cement its control of US politics.

Iraqis may have been grateful for the removal of Saddam Hussein but by now they will have no illusions that American goals in Iraq are in any way consistent with their own perceived interests and they will eventually turn against the US occupation if they have not already done so.

The failure of the US in Iraq has nothing to do with US will to win, but with the inevetible recognition by Iraqis that US goals conflict with their own interests. If the US exhibits a failure of will it is because the cannon fodder and their families are recognizing that the goals of the US elites whom the George W Bush presidency represents have nothing in it for them.


roger 12.26.06 at 1:11 am

“Roger may consider his anti-colonial non-interventionism a morally superior policy,but really it just shows that people like him care more about feeling morally superior than about really doing something for the oppressed peoples of the Earth.”

No, it shows that people like me think that it is better for the oppressed people of the earth, as well as the oppressed people of the U.S.A, to promote an anti-colonial anti-interventionist policy. The Vietnam syndrome is otherwise known as self-doubt – and self doubt, in persons and nations, is the first intimation of a more reflexive, and even mature, position in life. If the U.S. hadn’t interfered by throwing a monkey wrench into the elections that were slated after the Geneva accords that ended the first Vietnam war, Ho Chi Minh would undoubtedly have been elected the leader of a united Vietnam. If the U.S. had then accepted him as such and negotiated a relationship with Vietnam, maybe 2 million Vietnamese would not have died, and surely 60 some thousand Americans and thousand more wounded would have benefited.

Luckily, it looks like conservatives are going to have to be driven crazy again, as the fallout from Iraq is likely to put the keebosh on, say, bombing Iran, and other things unlikely to help the oppressed of the earth, and likely to sustain the inordinately massive military sector in the U.S. Keep that up and the U.S. will have to negotiate instead of unilaterally demand, have to cooperate internationally instead of take the lead, and in other ways become a normal nation, rather than the ‘indispensable’ nation that, in truth, it has never been. I hope that the U.S. succeeds at this. I hope the U.S. fails at being a hyperpower. I can’t imagine any advantage the vast majority of Americans would ever accrue from the successful completion of vanity projects dreamt up by the bungalow militarists in D.C.


Rich 12.27.06 at 2:25 am

I’m not sure “will” is the issue, at least in terms of the troops on the ground.

The great advantage of insurgent forces is that they are able to choose the time and place at which they engage their enemy. This has the effect of neutralising superior force (it also makes it very hard for the insurgents to achieve absolute victory, as once they start controlling territory they lose some of that advantage).

For a military power to destroy an insurgency it typically needs to use overwhelming force *plus* the acceptance of unconscionable acts against the enemy population (e.g. Britain’s use of concentration camps in the Boer war). That’s what the US (fortunately) doesn’t have the “will” for – conscription and mass exterminations.

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