The invisible weapon that can win or lose a war

America's squandering of its moral authority has made a withdrawal from Iraq inevitable.

 Many factors decide whether a war will be won or lost. Having a more powerful armed force than an enemy is obviously important. But it is not sufficient, as the Americans found in Vietnam and are discovering in Iraq.

Belligerents also have to take account of what South African leader General Jan Smuts once described as ``those imponderable forces, which in the end win all great wars".

Among other things, he was referring to the moral authority that each side uses to fortify its own troops and civilians, to undermine the confidence of the enemy and to win over world opinion.

The Japanese claimed to have moral authority to launch the Pacific War in December 1941, which, they said, would free the people of Asia from the yoke of European imperialism. However, it is likely that not too many people were fooled by the Japanese concept of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, which was just another empire in all but name. Moreover, the Japanese actions in China and Korea belied their supposedly beneficent intentions, while their sneak attack against Pearl Harbour robbed them of any moral authority that they might otherwise have been able to claim in American eyes.

The attack on Pearl Harbour was ultimately disastrous for the Japanese. It had the unintended effect of handing the US the moral authority to retaliate unmercifully. It also gave the victorious Americans the authority to occupy Japan for years and impose their will on its unresisting people. Sixty years later, US bases are still there.

The Japanese had relied on the vast stretches of the Pacific being such a formidable barrier that the Americans would be deterred from launching a full-scale assault on Japan's newly won empire. Almost to the end, they expected the Americans would come to an accommodation with them. But Pearl Harbour ensured there would be no significant voices in the US wanting less than a complete victory.

As a liberal democracy based on notions of individual liberty, the US starts each war with a formidable store of moral authority on which its government can draw to pursue its geopolitical ambitions. These ambitions might have very little to do with liberty, as was seen in such places as Chile and Vietnam, where US support was crucial for installing military dictatorships. But they can proceed nonetheless, confident their store of moral authority will see them through. Sometimes, though, they run out of the moral authority and face a rising clamour from home and abroad to withdraw, suffering a humiliating defeat in the process.

It took 10 years for this to happen in Vietnam. Now, after little more than a year of war in Iraq, that is the prospect that faces the US. Despite John Howard's claim last week that the ``moral basis of coalition action in Iraq" remains intact, world opinion has become almost unanimously hostile to the American enterprise.

Even a majority of Americans have now renounced their former faith in the legitimacy of their Government's action. More importantly, with each outrage, the Iraqi view of the American troops has changed from ``liberators" to ``occupiers".

President Bush had already depleted some of the American authority when he failed to wait for the UN inspectors to complete their search for the so-called weapons of mass destruction and insisted on invading with few allies and little UN authorisation. From such an unpromising beginning, it only got worse. The killing of thousands of civilians, and the sight of tanks protecting the Oil Ministry while troops stood by watching hospitals and other civilian facilities being looted, saw more moral authority leak away from the invaders.

It was partially replenished when the graves of Saddam Hussein's many victims were uncovered, only to be reduced again when it was clear there were no WMD to be found and that the changing justification for war was constructed on lies.

A further loss of moral authority has occurred after each disclosure from within the Bush White House confirming an existing plan to invade Iraq before the events of September 11, and after each heavy-handed response of the US military to instances of Iraqi resistance.

I cannot recall jet fighters bombing Saigon, but it seems to be an almost daily occurrence in Baghdad, while American snipers on rooftops during the recent bloody assault on Fallujah were reported to have killed anything that moved. Now the events in Abu Ghraib prison and the bombing of a wedding party have revealed the depraved depths to which the US liberators have sunk. Despite it all, Donald Rumsfeld rushed to Baghdad to thank US troops ``for the fine job they were doing", confiding that he no longer reads the critical newspaper reports of their behaviour.

With newspapers across the world calling for the Americans to go, it is clear America's well of moral authority has been drained dry by Bush and his coterie of neo-conservative ideologues. The squandering of its moral authority makes it impossible for the US to achieve its strategic ambitions of controlling Iraq's oil and dominating the Middle East from Baghdad.

Not only is a US withdrawal inevitable, but the loss of its authority reduces America's ability to pick fights elsewhere in the world. That could be a blessing, particularly if it forces the US to pack away its six-gun and behave more like the good citizen it is capable of being.

The Age, 25 May 2004