President Obama’s nationally televised speech announcing an increase in troop levels in Afghanistan was everything we have come to expect from one of his speeches: vapid, dishonest, puerile, and–most of all–confused.  Speaking grandly of an exit strategy he never defined, he did not once address the more serious question of an entrance strategy.  What possible reason did we ever have for going into that awful place, except to kill people we don’t like?  I’ll give Obama this: The man never disappoints; he always lives down to my lowest expectations.

So do the Republicans.  While the reaction to Obama’s speech by many peacenik Democrats was at best lukewarm, Lindsey Graham, John Mc­Cain, and even Karl Rove jumped on Obama’s war wagon, thumping their little tin drums for more blood.  Their only complaint is that it has taken so long to fall 10,000 soldiers short of General McChrystal’s request.  To a man, the GOP’s leadership appears to think that General Petraeus should be left to run the war–and the world, if necessary.

The problem with Obama and his administration is not that they are either pacifists or militarists but that they are as clueless as Robert McNamara or Jimmy Carter.  For my entire adult life, I have watched U.S. foreign-policy and defense gurus lead us into debacle after debacle.  Whether in Southeast Asia, Central America, or the Middle East, these people, time after time, rush headlong into a conflict without pausing to consider what their objectives are or what victory requires.  Inevitably, they think they can win on the cheap.  The result is always the same: massive slaughter, a rise in anti-Americanism, and failure.

I am not now nor have ever been an isolationist.  America is the greatest power in the world today, and any American government must play its cards, as a world power, in the interest of the American people—as opposed to the interest of arms manufacturers or the Israel Lobby.  Although the elaboration of any policy would require great knowledge and experience and considerable prudence, there are only two possible winning strategies: We can either mind our own business or build a great empire.

If, as it appears, our Yankee Puritan heritage prevents us from following the wise policy of benign neutrality advocated by George Washington, then let the megalomaniacs pursue their dreams of empire.  But if they do, let them freely acknowledge what they are doing, without taking refuge in such cowardly evasions as wars to end wars, spreading democracy, or building an “imperium.”  They want an empire because it feels good to make everyone else cower, and because there is so much money to be made.  For most American politicians, greed and libido dominandi are about the noblest motives of which they are capable.

If they are hell-bent on creating an empire, fine, let them do it (or at least try), but they shall need to raise taxes, reinstitute the draft, and be prepared for the terrible bloodshed that might slake their lust for blood.  Some people don’t actually want to be ruled by the United States, and some of them even understand that all this talk about peace and democracy and human rights is simply code for American imperialism.  And some of them even are crazy enough to fight back when they are attacked.  If someone else is the aggressor, we call the resisters “freedom fighters,” but when America is stomping on them, they are terrorists.

If we are going to pretend to be Romans, let us act like Romans—the Romans who were lenient in victory and offered the benefit of a better legal system and higher culture to most of their conquered peoples.  If a Gallic chieftain raised a little rebellion, however, Julius Caesar and his successors were absolutely merciless in slaughtering and enslaving the rebels.  It took several generations for the Gauls to calm down and give up their language and their bloodthirsty gods, but in the end they were probably better off–until the Germans invaded and Rome was too weak to repel the invaders.  Empires bring in rewards, but the costs are high.  If our own imperialists want to carve out an American province that stretches from Israel to Iraq to Afghanistan, let them do it, but not on the cheap.  Imperial conquest requires much money and many lives.

The question is, therefore, whether to fish or cut bait.  I have been saying this same thing for 40 years.  The insight flashed in my mind when I received a personal reply to a letter I’d sent my congressman, complaining about the extension of the Vietnam War to Cambodia.  L. Mendel Rivers was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the biggest warhawk in Congress.  His reply shocked me at the time.  He said, in essence, “I agree with you.  If we are not determined to win this war, then we should not be fighting it.”  I disagreed with Mendel’s militarism, but for all his weaknesses he was a real American statesman.  It was a dying breed then and an extinct species today.  That is only one of many reasons why we cannot entrust even a brushfire war—much less a grand imperial strategy—to the American political class today.  They will never learn how to fish, and they are too afraid of knives to cut bait.