We've Run Out of Enemies; At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, then Chairman of the Joint Chief's of Staff Colin Powell noted, before a national TV audience, that America now had no military enemies, and that we would have to find some new ones. The comment was noted as both an accurate assessment of the new world situation, and an unsettling observation by America's senior military officer. Powell was speaking in the afterglow of a stunning American victory over Iraq, and the recent disintegration of the Soviet empire (later that year the Soviet Union would also disappear, but the Soviets were already history as a military threat to the United States). Powell knew well that enemies served a purpose in the Pentagon. Enemies scared Congress into giving the military hundreds of billions of dollars a year for defense. Enemies gave politicians something to rail about when they didn't want to deal with more explosive issues closer to home. Enemies kept contractors, publicists and lobbyists busy living large off all that defense money. Running out of enemies meant many changes in the way business was done in Washington.
So what happened?
We found new enemies. Or, rather, we shifted our gaze from the shambles of the fallen communist empire to all those little squabbles that were always there, but never rated much attention before. Unfortunately, these were enemies Colin Powell, and his fellow generals, wanted nothing to do with. Little wars appear to be like any other wars, with participants who are scared, agitated, determined and doing ugly things. But there's one more complication. When the big guys have a war, there's little chance that someone else will step in and take sides or shut down the war (or try to.) If a little war is seen as a public nuisance, big countries will sometimes intervene.
During the Cold War, such interventions were avoided, lest you become more vulnerable if war should break out with the other superpower. With the Cold War over, interfering in little wars has become fashionable. As with most fashions, there is more style than substance involved. Little wars as just as vicious as the big ones, and often more so. Big wars are fought by large, well organized nations. Things get out of hand only by official policy, as with Hitler's program of mass murder of civilians. Little wars often incorporate a lot of banditry, free lancing and no sanctions against truly beastly behavior. Nations getting into peace keeping are discovering that they are often in the middle of some horrific situations. Massacres, mutilation of live, and dead, opponents, genocide, mass expulsions (now called ethnic cleansing) and open war against unarmed civilians are all more characteristic of little wars than big ones. But there is yet another unpleasant, and unexpected angle to little wars. The little guys don't appreciate the larger nations butting in. This often results in the peacekeepers getting shot at by everyone. This is made worse by the fact that the mass media, as well as the politicians, cannot help taking sides. This is bad enough, for everyone in these little wars has much blood on their hands, but it gets worse when even the side you are trying to help accuses you of really favoring the other side.
The new enemies are worse than the old ones not just because of the greater mayhem and ingratitude, but because of the open ended nature of these little wars. Big nations have hordes of diplomats to eventually work out an end to the war.. Little wars are not known for statesmanlike behavior. Most little wars are the result of ancient feuds and animosities. There is no end, other than the obliteration of one side or the other, or, more likely, an extended intermission to let the grudges simmer a bit more until they boil over once more.
General Powell was thinking of new enemies like China, North Korea, Iran or another round with Iraq. China is the only potential enemy that qualifies on the same scale as the Soviet Union. The other countries are regional antagonists, and none of them have nuclear weapons, yet. And no one wants to return to the days when your principal enemy had thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at you. While general Powell did not come right out and say it, he was most perturbed by the fact that the army he loved so much, and served for so long, had worked itself out of a job. This is the fate of any victorious army, but never before in modern history has a huge armed forces been maintained for a conflict that lasted over half a century. World War II went straight from hot war against fascism to cold war against communism. Concentrating on something for half a century tends to produce habits that are hard to break. Finding new enemies that don't operate like the ones you've known and prepared for so long can be a trifle embarrassing. So it is with all these little wars. Nasty in the best of circumstances, sending a cold war army into these unfamiliar conflicts has been an unpleasant experience. It will get worse. It's not enough to find new enemies, you have to find ones you can handle.