Commentary / Japan

Ending a war isn't the same as winning it

by Kuni Miyake

Japan’s rugby dream finally ended on Sunday. The Brave Blossoms lost to South Africa in the quarterfinals of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. “I take my hat off to the team. We’re really proud of what we have achieved,” said Japan’s head coach Jamie Joseph, and so is everybody else in Japan.

Compared to baseball or soccer, rugby has never been a popular sport in Japan. For the past month since the World Cup opened on Sept. 20, however, millions of Japanese sports fans have converted to rugby. Although overpowered by South Africa, Japan performed well with its high-intensity running style of rugby.

Having said that, while watching this past Sunday’s historic match live on TV, I was contemplating something different. When a commentator said that Japan’s battle for the world cup was over, I thought no, the battle didn’t end. No matter how well the Japan team had fought, it lost the battle. Isn’t that the reality?

In a recent Washington Post column, U.S. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell said, “As neo-isolationism rears its head on both the left and the right, we can expect to hear more talk of ‘endless wars.’ But rhetoric cannot change the fact that wars do not just end; wars are won or lost.”

The Senate majority leader from Kentucky eloquently criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to pull out of Syria to “end the endless war.” I interpreted this as saying that “ending the war in Syria should not be an objective because you are losing, not winning, the war by trying to end it.” Isn’t that the reality as well?

A similar rhetoric is still dominant in Tokyo. On Aug. 15 every year, Japan — the government, people and media alike — commemorates the anniversary of the “end” of the Pacific War. We don’t say we lost the war. We behave as if our longest war in Asia and the Pacific had ended spontaneously in 1945.

Since then, the Japanese have forgotten what a war really means. Similarly, a growing number of Americans now indulge themselves in such an illusion. Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security laments this in his latest essay for Foreign Affairs: “The Nonintervention Delusion — What War Is Good For.”

Pacifists in Tokyo always say, “Peace loving nations do not go to war.” Yes, sometimes they do — especially when they must. War is merely a means to physically achieve a nation’s objective. If an illegal attack on other nations is taking place to change the status quo, a war of self-defense is justified under the United Nations Charter.

Now back to the war in Syria, which the U.S. is losing by ending it. In his column, McConnell presented “three principal lessons” about combating the complex threat. The lessons are “the threat is real and cannot be wished away,” “there is no substitute for American leadership” and “we are not in this fight alone.”

“Unfortunately,” the Republican senator wrote, “the administration’s recent steps in Syria do not reflect these crucial lessons.” He may be right, but he needs some connotations for his argument. Here are some additional thoughts to add to his important essay:

First, McConnell said, “the threat is real and cannot be wished away.” Yes, the threat is real, of course. But we should also keep in mind that threats are often consequences of the past. In the case of the Islamic State or other extremists, they are part of popular reactions to legitimate U.S. support for illegitimate and unpopular presidents or rulers in the region.

Second, McConnell stated, “there is no substitute for American leadership.” Yes, there is, whether Americans like it or not. There are people, unfortunately, who are willing to submit to dictatorial governance in the Middle East and elsewhere. Those who have no experience in democracy and freedom do not appreciate their true values.

Finally, he argued that “we are not in this fight alone.” Not at all. But the U.S. would have to be alone if the Trump administration behaved as if “America first” meant “America can do without its friends and allies.” You cannot take their commitment and support for granted if you ignore them.

This means that the U.S. must face the troubles in the Middle East that Washington has been partly responsible for. Authoritarian leaders can easily be a substitute for the U.S. leadership. And finally, Americans may have to fight alone if Washington continues to make light of its traditional allies and friends.

Having said that, McConnell is wise and brave in criticizing the incumbent Republican president. He said “We will see” those troubles “anew in Syria and Afghanistan if we abandon our partners and retreat from these conflicts before they are won. America’s wars will be ‘endless’ only if America refuses to win them.”

In order to avoid such “endless” wars, the U.S. must do two things. First, do something with the Trump administration. In his capacity as Senate majority leader, America’s friends and allies sincerely hope that McConnell will immediately multiply his efforts to make the Republican Party the Grand Old Party once again.

Second, in the medium to long term, as Andrew Krepinevich, a respected member of America’s strategic studies community puts it, the U.S. must be ready for “the new forms of warfare.” In his testimony last month before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, he listed the following three forms:

Algorithmic warfare by artificial intelligence systems, hyper war conducted at unprecedented speeds with advanced cyber or directed energy or hypersonic weaponry and “precision” biological warfare with advanced genetic engineering techniques.

Is the U.S. ready to do this? Krepinevich says no. If that’s the case, how can Tokyo fight and win a defensive war against the status quo challengers? The U.S. and its allies have no time to waste. If we can’t restore our alliance, we must work to refine it together — maybe with a new administration in Washington.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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