I have an awkward history with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. 

When he was trounced by former President George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican Primary, he seemed interesting to me, like a gentile Ariel Sharon. When he blasted the Bush administration for torture, he seemed like a humanist. When he nominated former Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Ala., to be his vice president and asked me to vote for them over one of the greatest barrier-breaking presidential candidates in history? We broke up … but I saved some voice mails. 

Why John McCain? Well, my deeply conflicted feelings about the senator were brought to the fore again last week by the circus surrounding former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., President Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense. When questioning Hagel on his decision to oppose the Iraq surge, a bill authorizing the deployment of an additional 20,000 American soldiers to Baghdad and Iraq’s Anbar Province in early 2007, McCain got very pointed

“Were you right”? He asked Hagel about the surge. “Were you correct in your assessment”? 

“Well, I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out,” Hagel dodged. 

“This committee deserves your judgment,” McCain responded quickly. “I want to know if you were right or wrong. That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer.” 

Here’s the problem with “direct” answers to complex questions of political science concerning very recent events: They are usually wrong and often misleading. Hagel’s eventual response that the surge “assisted in the objective” may be true or false. But that’s a topic for another day. More interesting is what McCain’s line of inquiry says about his own answer to the question. Behind McCain’s line of questioning lies an ethic, a belief about the world and the place of America’s military inside of it. This ethic goes something like this: 

“American military power can accomplish practically any task. It’s important to preserve and enhance this power because there are real threats in the world that only America can confront. When asked to confront these challenges, failure is not an option because America is the last line of defense.” 

Although that ideology might seem attractive, even reasonable, it has a glaring flaw that American militarists are not willing to acknowledge: American military power can fail, inspire backlash and even reverse positive trends on significant human rights issues. 

The leading critic of this mindset, Rory Stewart, a Conservative politician in the British Parliament, witnessed its failure firsthand in Afghanistan. In 2006 he wrote a book, “The Places in Between,” a vivid account of Afghanistan’s tribalism, poverty and potential that captured his perspective on the nation he had hiked through in the winter of 2002. 

Stewart’s take on Afghanistan criticized large-scale military endeavors that come with big promises. Instead, he advocated for what he referred to as a “light, long-term footprint,” designed to help the West retain a presence without inciting Taliban fighters to action. “This idea that failure is not an option,” he argued, “it makes failure invisible, inconceivable and inevitable.” 

American refusal to acknowledge the fundamental failure of military action in Afghanistan doomed our efforts. The notion that we can’t fail, that as long as there is air in our lungs we will keep fighting, forecloses all other strategic possibilities and ignores the ways the West can make positive differences with minimal repercussions. It also, as he states, makes failure invisible, because the psychic need to appear strong and resolute requires there be no public reflection or discussion; inconceivable, because defining success before taking action makes any other outcome unthinkable; and inevitable, because ignoring alternatives makes our strategy static and easier to defeat. 

Debating the implications of the Iraq surge and hashing out the patterns of cause-and-effect with regard to counter-insurgency is a worthwhile task for legislators and defense secretaries alike. But it is far too early to pass judgment on the black and white question of success and failure concerning America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a dichotomy which many appear trapped in. 

Furthermore, it is both unwise and unsafe to have blind faith in the American military’s capacity to solve social and political issues in these places. America is in many ways exceptional, but it is not invincible. An understanding of the limits to our power is necessary to apply it effectively and judiciously.

Nathaniel Olson ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science, history and psychology.