A few months back a columnist highlighted the roots of some of George W. Bush's strategic outlook on the world. The article highlighted Yale alumni who noted that GWB would spend a good deal of his time at Yale trolling his dormitory looking for people willing to play the board game Risk with him. Any one who has played this game knows that it's a lot of fun but that it's also fairly simplistic - one gains territory in the game by putting up one set or armies against another and rolling the dice to see who wins a battle. If the dice roll long enough in your favor your opponent's pieces are eliminated from a territory on the playing board and you get to move your pieces into that territory. Apparently Bush would play this game again and again, insisting on being able to keep playing until he had won.
In a lot of important ways the view of the world adopted by George W Bush and many of his neoconservative allies in dealing with Iraq, Iran and other key geopolitical areas of confrontation is not so different from the simplistic view of the Risk board game. Bush's view of the Iraq conflict seems to be that if one simply keeps on pouring in "pieces" into never-ending rolls of the dice that eventually he will win. I was once at a social event several years ago prior to the current Iraq war at which a neoconservative spoke about how the U.S. would now be able to "have the run of the table" in the Middle East, ticking off countries that the U.S. would be able to invade as if it were as simple as sinking balls into the pockets of a billiard table.
The current status of the war in Iraq has demonstrated two things clearly in relation to this game metaphor. First, in asymmetical warfare, in which an insurgency chooses to fight against a powerful and sophisticated enemy indefinitely, the number of pieces on the board isn't always so important a factor in being able to outlast the roll of the dice. What's missing from the Risk board are people - the actual inhabitants of a country or region. In the world of Risk, there are only armies and land. The idea of the inhabitants of a country having any real say in the outcome of this game is a foreign concept. With this in mind, the second difference between the simplistic neoconservative view of warfare and the actual war in Iraq is that wars actually have human consequences. In the game of Risk once you've conquered a territory or won the whole game there is no real aftermath to warfare. There are no bodies to bury, no politics, no consequences. There's just power exerted and territory.
O, if life could be as simple as that. But some would like it to be so - including supporters of Bush who recommend the use of nuclear arms in Iraq and the elimination of American democracy. Such extreme views may seem far from the mainstream of American politics, but it's important to remember that such extremism has always been close to the center of American post-WWII power. Some Cold War power brokers, including Air Force General Curtis LeMay, regretted that we did not use the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as an excuse to take on the Soviet Union in a pre-emptive nuclear strike. The alarming attitudes of these power brokers caused Kennedy to take on a different attitude towards some of his key military and security advisors.
Fortunately cooler heads prevailed in Washington and we were able to fight a forty-year Cold War with the Soviet Union with no major direct battles. There were, of course, many CIA-led conflicts and initiatives in which we took the Soviet Union on via proxy states and allies, but for the most part Americans were spared from the worst potential of the Cold War. Unlike the board-game world of neoconservatives the road to victory in the Cold War was paved not with the bodies of Americans who had to suffer the consequences of a roll of the nuclear dice but rather with a series of tempered actions that forced America to work through difficult issues with complex allies and adversaries. The results were morally ambiguous oftentimes and not always beneficial, but they were in the final analysis more humane than the careless loss of human lives based solely on a mistaken belief that might would always yield right.
In the 1983 movie classic "War Games" an errant computer system in charge of missile defenses is persuaded to give up its planned attack of the Soviet Union based on its analysis of the game of Tic-Tac-Toe. The computer compares this to the multiple scenarios for nuclear war at its disposal and came to the fortunate conclusion that the only way to win nuclear war is not to play. The same could be said of the many planned and desired conflicts concocted by neoconservatives intent on playing the game of war regardless of its consequences for the American people and the countries that they are targeting. Wars are powerful vehicles for unintended consequences. Wars are, for the most part, a policy of last resort when a government's policies have otherwise failed to produce needed results. There may come a time in the history of any nation when fighting a war is necessary, even if it's not what we could choose to do. But unnecessary wars of choice fought simply because policy makers failed to examine alternatives that would require more patient approaches are vehicles for folly and for the destruction of democratic societies.
No right-thinking democracy would sustain an endless war purely for the sake of global power. This outlook frustrates neoconservative thinkers who are intent on playing the game of global power alongside non-democratic nations, but it remains true nevertheless. The question before America today is whether it is willing to put aside the exhortations of neoconservatives that endless war is a necessity for the survival of the American nation and to consider the necessity of preserving our ability to determine freely the course of our nation through democratic institutions that may find more moderate and patient solutions to global issues. It is a pressing question, as both American democracy and other long-established democracies are directly threatened by a global security apparatus more interested in maintaining power for its own purposes than for the purposes of the nations financing their efforts. We can still choose to win by not playing - but only if we are willing to play hard against those who threaten democracy's very existence. It is a choice that has been delayed for many years in the shadow of the Cold War and one that must be considered soon before there are wars of choice that force us to make unthinkable choices about humankind's very survival - all for the sake of a game of Risk.