The Right Approach to Terrorism

A replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels tourist attraction, is seen among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels metro and Brussels international airport of Zaventem, in Brussels
Replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels attraction, among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels. REUTERS/Yves Herman

W.J. Astore

I grew up during the Cold War when America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union posed a clear and present danger to our country’s very existence.  Since the collapse of the USSR, or in other words the last 25 years, the U.S. has not faced an existential threat.  Of course, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were shocking and devastating, as were recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.  But terrorism was and is nothing new.  We faced it in the 1970s and 1980s, and indeed we will probably always face it.  The question is how best to face it.

Stoking fear among the people is the wrong way to face it.  Restricting liberty is the wrong way.  An overly kinetic approach (i.e. lots of bombs and bullets) is the wrong way.  Invading the Middle East (yet again) is the wrong way.  Most of counter-terrorism, it seems to me, is an exercise in intelligence and policing (national and international).  Yet we seem always to turn to our military to solve problems.  The emphasis is relentlessly tactical/operational, stressing how many terrorists we kill in drone strikes and special ops raids (a version of the old “body count” from the Vietnam War era).

Military strikes and raids generate collateral damage and blowback, arguably creating more enemies than they kill.  We’re helping to sustain a perpetual killing machine, a feedback loop.  The more we “hit” various enemies while playing up the dangers of terrorism, especially in the media, the more they prosper in regards to attention (and recruits) they garner.

One of the first Rand primers I read as young Air Force lieutenant was “International Terrorism: The Other World War,” written by Brian M. Jenkins in 1985.  Jenkins made many excellent points: that terrorists seek to instill fear, that their acts are mainly “aimed at the people watching,” that terrorism can’t be defeated like traditional (uniformed) enemies, that terrorists commit crimes for a larger political purpose (“causing widespread disorder, demoralizing society, and breaking down existing social and political order”), that terrorism is a form of political theater.  As Jenkins notes:

“Terrorism attracts intense interest but produces little understanding.  News coverage focuses on action not words.  Terrorist incidents attract the media because they are genuine human dramas, different from ordinary murder and therefore newsworthy. “

Furthermore, “terrorists provide few lucrative targets for conventional military attack,” though this may be less true of state-sponsored terrorism.

What can we learn from Jenkins’s primer on terrorism?  Three big lessons:

  1. Deny the terrorists their victory by refusing to succumb to fear. In short, don’t panic.  And don’t exaggerate the threat.
  2. Don’t sensationalize the feats of terrorists in 24/7 media coverage of their attacks. That’s what the terrorists want.  They want extensive media coverage, not only to shift public opinion and to spread fear, but also to recruit new members.
  3. Finally, don’t change your way of life, your political system, your liberties, in response to terrorism. Abridging freedoms or marginalizing people (e.g. American Muslims) in the name of attacking terrorism is exactly what the terrorists want.  They want to turn people against one another.  To divide is to conquer.

The question is, when will Americans recognize the complexity of the terrorist threat while minimizing fear and over-reaction?

Terrorists need to be stopped, and that requires robust intelligence gathering, strong policing, and selective military action.  But threat inflation, media hysteria, and militarized over-reaction simply play into the terrorists’ hands.  Fear is the mind-killer, as Frank Herbert wrote.  Let us always remember this as we face the terrorist threat with firmness and resolve.

Defeating ISIS: Do We Even Have A Strategy?

AP_jihadi_john_cf_160119_12x5_1600
Image showing Jihadi John.  Apparently killed, then quickly replaced by a new “Jihadi John” — a visual metaphor of “progress” in the war on ISIS (AP photo)

W.J. Astore

An overarching strategy for defeating ISIS is simple enough to state:  A concerted effort by regional power brokers to tamp down Islamic extremism while reducing the violent and chaotic conditions in which it thrives.  Regional power brokers include the Israelis, the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Turks, joined by the United States and Russia.  They should work, more or less cooperatively, to eliminate ISIS.

Why?  Because you never know when a spark generated by extremists will ignite an inferno, especially in a tinderbox (a fair description of the Middle East).  We know this from history.  Consider the events of the summer of 1914.  A Serbian “Black Hand” extremist assassinates an archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Balkans (that era’s tinderbox of extremism).  Most of Europe yawned, at least initially.  A small brush fire between the Serbs and the Empire, easily containable, people said.  Yet within weeks European troops were marching in the millions to their deaths in what became World War I.

In today’s Middle East, we’ve been lucky (so far) to avoid the kind of provocation and miscalculation that led to World War I.  But consider the actions of a new president, say a Chris Christie.  During a presidential debate, Christie promised to declare a no-fly zone over Syria and to shoot down any Russian plane that violated it.  It’s the kind of ultimatum that very well could lead to another world war.

Provocations and ultimatums can rapidly spiral among nations that lack uniformity of purpose.  For many of the power brokers engaged in the Middle East, defeating ISIS is either not the goal, or it’s not the primary one. Put differently, there are too many forces involved, working to discordant ends.  Their actions, often at cross-purposes, ensure that entities like ISIS survive.

Let’s take the United States, for example.  Every American politician says he (or she) wants to destroy ISIS.  Yet in spite of this nation’s enormous military strength, we seem to be too weak, psychologically as well as culturally, to deal with Russia, Iran, et al. as diplomatic equals.  The “exceptional” country thinks it must “lead,” and that means with bombing, drone strikes, troops on the ground, and similar “kinetic” actions.  Rather than dousing the flames, such actions fuel the fire of Islamic extremism.

Consider America’s domestic political scene as well.  ISIS is incessantly touted as a bogeyman to fear, most notably by Republican presidential candidates seeking to draw a contrast between themselves and Barack Obama, the “feckless weakling” in the words of Chris Christie.  But the Republican “alternative” is simply more bombing and more U.S. troops.  Making the sand glow is no strategy, Ted Cruz.

Strategy is a synthesis of means, ends, and will.  Currently, the means is military force, with a choice of more (from Obama) or even more (from Republicans).  Our leaders have no idea of the ends at all, other than vague talk of “destroying” ISIS.  The will they exhibit is mostly bombast and fustian.

A nation lacking will, with no clear vision of means and ends, is a nation without a strategy.  And a nation without a strategy is one that’s fated to fail.

Why American Efforts to Create Foreign Armies Fail

Iraqi equipment provided by the U.S. and captured by ISIS
Iraqi equipment provided by the U.S. and captured by ISIS

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch, I examine why the Iraqi security forces that the U.S. trained and equipped at a cost of $25 billion performed so poorly when attacked by ISIS in June. Read on! And be sure to check out other articles at TomDispatch, a contrarian site edited by the inestimable (and indefatigable) Tom Engelhardt.

America’s Hollow Foreign Legions
By William J. Astore

In June, tens of thousands of Iraqi Security Forces in Nineveh province north of Baghdad collapsed in the face of attacks from the militants of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), abandoning four major cities to that extremist movement. The collapse drew much notice in our media, but not much in the way of sustained analysis of the American role in it. To put it bluntly, when confronting IS and its band of lightly armed irregulars, a reputedly professional military, American-trained and -armed, discarded its weapons and equipment, cast its uniforms aside, and melted back into the populace. What this behavior couldn’t have made clearer was that U.S. efforts to create a new Iraqi army, much-touted and funded to the tune of $25 billion over the 10 years of the American occupation ($60 billion if you include other reconstruction costs), had failed miserably.

Though reasonable analyses of the factors behind that collapse exist, an investigation of why U.S. efforts to create a viable Iraqi army (and, by extension, viable security forces in Afghanistan) cratered so badly are lacking.  To understand what really happened, a little history lesson is in order.  You’d need to start in May 2003 with the decision of L. Paul Bremer III, America’s proconsul in occupied Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), to disband the battle-hardened Iraqi military.  The Bush administration considered it far too tainted by Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party to be a trustworthy force.

Instead, Bremer and his team vowed to create a new Iraqi military from scratch.  According to Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks in his bestselling book Fiasco, that force was initially conceived as a small constabulary of 30,000-40,000 men (with no air force at all, or rather with the U.S. Air Force for backing in a country U.S. officials expected to garrison for decades).  Its main job would be to secure the country’s borders without posing a threat to Iraq’s neighbors or, it should be added, to U.S. interests.

Bremer’s decision essentially threw 400,000 Iraqis with military training, including a full officer corps, out onto the streets of its cities, jobless.  It was a formula for creating an insurgency.  Humiliated and embittered, some of those men would later join various resistance groups operating against the American military.  More than a few of them later found their way into the ranks of ISIS, including at the highest levels of leadership.  (The most notorious of these is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former general in Saddam’s army who was featured as the King of Clubs in the Bush administration’s deck of cards of Iraq’s most wanted figures.  Al-Douri is now reportedlyhelping to coordinate IS attacks.)

IS has fought with considerable effectiveness, quickly turning captured American and Syrian weaponry, including artillery pieces, Humvees, and even a helicopter, on their enemies.  Despite years of work by U.S. military advisers and all those billions of dollars invested in training and equipment, the Iraqi army has not fought well, or often at all.  Nor, it seems, will it be ready to do so in the immediate future. Retired Marine Corps General John R. Allen, who played a key role in organizing, arming, and paying off Sunni tribal groups in Iraq the last time around during the “Anbar Awakening,” and who has been charged by President Obama with “coordinating” the latest American-led coalition to save Iraq, has alreadygone on record on the subject.  By his calculations, even with extensive U.S. air support and fresh infusions of American advisers and equipment, it will take up to a year before that army is capable of launching a campaign to retake Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

What went wrong?  The U.S. Army believes in putting the “bottom line up front,” so much so that they have even turned the phrase into an acronym: BLUF.  The bottom line here is that, when it comes to military effectiveness, what ultimately matters is whether an army — any army — possesses spirit.  Call it fire in the belly, a willingness to take the fight to the enemy.  The Islamic State’s militants, at least for the moment, clearly have that will; Iraqi security forces, painstakingly trained and lavishly underwritten by the U.S. government, do not.

This represents a failure of the first order.  So here’s the $60 billion question: Why did such sustained U.S. efforts bear such bitter fruit?  The simple answer: for a foreign occupying force to create a unified and effective army from a disunified and disaffected populace was (and remains) a fool’s errand.  In reality, U.S. intervention, now as then, will serve only to aggravate that disunity, no matter what new Anbar Awakenings are attempted.

Read more at TomDispatch.com.

In the military, it’s called an “after action report” or a “hotwash” — a review, that is, of what went wrong and what can be learned, so the same mistakes are not repeated. When it comes to America’s Iraq training mission, four lessons should top any “hotwash” list:

1. Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause.  Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit.  ISIS has fought with conviction.  The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t.  The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common.  This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation.

2. Military training alone cannot produce loyalty to a dysfunctional and disunified government incapable of running the country effectively, which is a reasonable description of Iraq’s sectarian Shia government.  So it should be no surprise that, as Andrew Bacevich has noted, its security forces won’t obey orders.  Unlike Tennyson’s six hundred, the Iraqi army is unready to ride into any valley of death on orders from Baghdad. Of course, this problem might be solved through the formation of an Iraqi government that fairly represented all major parties in Iraqi society, not just the Shia majority. But that seems an unlikely possibility at this point.  In the meantime, one solution the situation doesn’t call for is more U.S. airpower, weapons, advisers, and training.  That’s already been tried — and it failed.

3. A corrupt and kleptocratic government produces a corrupt and kleptocratic army.  On Transparency International’s 2013 corruption perceptions index, Iraq came in 171 among the 177 countries surveyed. And that rot can’t be overcome by American “can-do” military training, then or now. In fact, Iraqi security forces mirror the kleptocracy they serve, often existing largely on paper.  For example, prior to the June ISIS offensive, as Patrick Cockburn has noted, the security forces in and around Mosul had a paper strength of 60,000, but only an estimated 20,000 of them were actually available for battle. As Cockburn writes, “A common source of additional income for officers is for soldiers to kickback half their salaries to their officers in return for staying at home or doing another job.”

When he asked a recently retired general why the country’s military pancaked in June, Cockburn got this answer:

“‘Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!’ [the general] replied: pervasive corruption had turned the [Iraqi] army into a racket and an investment opportunity in which every officer had to pay for his post. He said the opportunity to make big money in the Iraqi army goes back to the U.S. advisers who set it up ten years ago. The Americans insisted that food and other supplies should be outsourced to private businesses: this meant immense opportunities for graft. A battalion might have a nominal strength of six hundred men and its commanding officer would receive money from the budget to pay for their food, but in fact there were only two hundred men in the barracks so he could pocket the difference. In some cases there were ‘ghost battalions’ that didn’t exist at all but were being paid for just the same.”

Only in fantasies like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings do ghost battalions make a difference on the battlefield. Systemic graft and rampant corruption can be papered over in parliament, but not when bullets fly and blood flows, as events in June proved.

Such corruption is hardly new (or news). Back in 2005, in his article “Why Iraq Has No Army,” James Fallows noted that Iraqi weapons contracts valued at $1.3 billion shed $500 million for “payoffs, kickbacks, and fraud.” In the same year, Eliot Weinberger, writing in the London Review of Books, cited Sabah Hadum, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, as admitting, “We are paying about 135,000 [troop salaries], but that does not necessarily mean that 135,000 are actually working.” Already Weinberger saw evidence of up to 50,000 “ghost soldiers” or “invented names whose pay is collected by [Iraqi] officers or bureaucrats.”  U.S. government hype to the contrary, little changed between initial training efforts in 2005 and the present day, as Kelley Vlahos noted recently in her article “The Iraqi Army Never Was.”

4. American ignorance of Iraqi culture and a widespread contempt for Iraqis compromised training results.  Such ignorance was reflected in the commonplace use by U.S. troops of the term “hajji,” an honorific reserved for those who have made the journey (or hajj) to Mecca, for any Iraqi male; contempt in the use of terms such as “raghead,” in indiscriminate firing and overly aggressive behavior, and most notoriously in the events at Abu Ghraib prison.  As Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, noted in December 2004, American generals and politicians “did not think through the consequences of compelling American soldiers with no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture to implement intrusive measures inside an Islamic society.  We arrested people in front of their families, dragging them away in handcuffs with bags over their heads, and then provided no information to the families of those we incarcerated.  In the end, our soldiers killed, maimed, and incarcerated thousands of Arabs, 90 percent of whom were not the enemy.  But they are now.”

Sharing that contempt was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who chose a metaphor of parent and child, teacher and neophyte, to describe the “progress” of the occupation.  He spoke condescendingly of the need to take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike of state and let Iraqis pedal for themselves.  A decade later, General Allen exhibited a similarly paternalistic attitude in an article he wrote calling for the destruction of the Islamic State.  For him, the people of Iraq are “poor benighted” souls, who can nonetheless serve American power adequately as “boots on the ground.”  In translation that means they can soak up bullets and become casualties, while the U.S. provides advice and air support.  In the general’s vision — which had déjà vu all over again scrawled across it — U.S. advisers were to “orchestrate” future attacks on IS, while Iraq’s security forces learned how to obediently follow their American conductors.

The commonplace mixture of smugness and paternalism Allen revealedhardly bodes well for future operations against the Islamic State.

What Next?

The grim wisdom of Private Hudson in the movie Aliens comes to mind: “Let’s just bug out and call it ‘even,’ OK? What are we talking about this for?”

Unfortunately, no one in the Obama administration is entertaining such sentiments at the moment, despite the fact that ISIS does not actually represent a clear and present danger to the “homeland.” The bugging-out option has, in fact, been tested and proven in Vietnam.  After 1973, the U.S. finally walked away from its disastrous war there and, in 1975, South Vietnam fell to the enemy.  It was messy and represented a genuine defeat — but no less so than if the U.S. military had intervened yet again in 1975 to “save” its South Vietnamese allies with more weaponry, money, troops, and carpet bombing.  Since then, the Vietnamese have somehow managed to chart their own course without any of the above and almost 40 years later, the U.S. and Vietnam find themselves informally allied against China.

To many Americans, IS appears to be the latest Islamic version of the old communist threat — a bad crew who must be hunted down and destroyed.  This, of course, is something the U.S. tried in the region first against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and again in 2003, then against various Sunni and Shiite insurgencies, and now against the Islamic State.  Given the paradigm — a threat to our way of life — pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck.  To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts.  Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs?  With, of course, the usual results.

One thing is clear: the foreign armies that the U.S. invests so much money, time, and effort in training and equipping don’t act as if America’s enemies are their enemies.  Contrary to the behavior predicted by Donald Rumsfeld, when the U.S. removes those “training wheels” from its client militaries, they pedal furiously (when they pedal at all) in directions wholly unexpected by, and often undesirable to, their American paymasters. 

And if that’s not a clear sign of the failure of U.S. foreign policy, I don’t know what is.

A retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and history professor, William Astore is a TomDispatch regular. He edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.

Copyright 2014 William J. Astore

The Worst Cancer of All

Deploy them only when needed, and in wars only when approved by a formal Congressional declaration
Deploy them only when needed, and in wars only when approved by a formal Congressional declaration

W.J. Astore

Also at Huffington Post.

President Obama’s decision to deploy 3,000 troops to Liberia in Africa to assist in efforts to contain Ebola got me to thinking about the military as white blood cells. As a military officer, I took an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In a sense, I was vowing to defend the collective body politic just as white blood cells defend our individual bodies against “enemy” invaders.

But when was the last time the United States faced invaders who posed a virulent and direct threat to our existence? Invaders who directly attacked (or planned to attack) and utterly defeat our body politic? You’d have to go back to World War II and Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor; similarly, Nazi Germany did have plans (that were never implemented) to take its world war to U.S. shores once the Soviet Union and Britain were defeated. Fortunately, our body mobilized its “white blood cells” and defeated (with lots of help from our allies) these enemies before they could afflict our vitals here at home.

Jump ahead to 2001 and the al Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Yes, they were serious and shocking and traumatic. But compared to the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II (true cancers), al Qaeda was the equivalent to a 24-hour “bug,” violent in the extreme, but ultimately not a serious long-term threat to the health of America.

By calling 9/11 a “bug,” I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy of 9/11 for those who lost loved ones. It’s just that repeats of 9/11-like attacks were not possible: al Qaeda simply lacked the resources to sustain them. There was no “cancer” that could metastasize. So there was no need to deploy our white blood cells (our troops) in extended wars, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, the latter country of which had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11.

Now we have the President referring to the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) as a “cancer” that must be eradicated, even though that “cancer” has no means of attacking the body that is our country. Despite this fact, the U.S. is deploying its white blood cells yet again to quash a threat that for our nation simply doesn’t exist.

From medicine, we know that overactive white blood cells can be as dangerous as underactive ones. White blood cells are part of our immune systems; when these systems are overactive, they convert non-threats into threats. Sometimes that results in violent allergic reactions that can lead to death. Other times, one’s own immune system turns on healthy tissue within one’s body. The immune system itself becomes a cancer, eating away at the body in misdirected attempts to defend it.

Whenever the U.S. faces a “threat” nowadays, our leaders treat it aggressively as a “cancer” even when the threat poses no direct peril to us. American presidents, whether they’re named Bush or Obama, eagerly deploy America’s antibodies — the military — to search and destroy bad terrorist cells. But the USA is like a patient whose antibodies have run wild, a patient whose antibodies have turned on external threats even when they’re not threats, a patient whose antibodies are now attacking healthy tissue within the American body politic.

Consider the fact that U.S. presidents commit the troops — our nation’s antibodies — to wars against “cancers” without formal declarations of war by Congress. In the name of protecting America, they violate the Constitution that our troops are sworn to uphold. They fail to recognize it’s their actions that pose the true threat to the Constitution. It’s their actions that constitute the cancer.

The invasive “cure” of continuous military action without oversight exercised by the people is truly worse than the disease, for it’s a “cure” that violates our Constitution and weakens our body politic.

And that is indeed the worst cancer of all.

A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, William Astore edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.

War Again in Iraq and the American Desire Never to be Labeled a Loser

Fighters of the Islamic State (Associated Press)
Fighters of the Islamic State (AP/NYT)

W.J. Astore

In April 2009, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com recounting Mary McCarthy’s critique of the American experience in Vietnam, and how her lessons applied to President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan.  A central lesson cited by McCarthy was the American desire never to be labeled a loser.  That desire explains, at least in part, the persistence of folly within the Obama Administration today, as Peter Van Buren explains in his latest article for TomDispatch, “Apocalypse Now, Iraq Edition: Fighting in Iraq Until Hell Freezes Over.”

Here’s what McCarthy had to say in 1968 about the American moment and the Vietnam War:

The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.

Obama campaigned in 2008 as a “hope” and “change” candidate who as president would end the war in Iraq (so he could prosecute the “better” war in Afghanistan).  Yet the U.S. finds itself yet again bombing widely in Iraq (and now Syria) while deploying thousands of military “advisers” (combat troops in plain speak).  And after six weeks of airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS, with indecisive results, how long before those U.S. “advisers” start taking the fight directly to the enemy on the ground?

The questions I posed for President Obama back in 2009 were these:

Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?

Similar questions apply to our latest military operations in Iraq and Syria.  Is the U.S. surging militarily just to avoid the label of “loser”?  And even if the U.S. “wins” this latest round (whatever “win” means), won’t the price paid be indistinguishable from defeat?

In his article, Van Buren offers an excellent summary of the U.S. experience in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam in 2003.  In his words:

The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than 190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.

According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.

Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.

The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.

And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared?  They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.

And this is how Van Buren concludes his article:

We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.

As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.

That is indeed the question.  As Mary McCarthy noted about the Vietnam War, “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”

Back to 2014 and the present moment: The more troops committed against ISIS, the more bombing raids made, the more money spent, the more prestige put on the line, the fewer the options the United States has in the Middle East.  Indeed, the only option that remains is “to win,” since losing is unacceptable for the reason Mary McCarthy indicated.

But as Michael Murry, a Vietnam Veteran and regular contributor to this site, noted about Vietnam (citing Bernard Fall’s classic book, Street Without Joy), “You can’t do a wrong thing the right way,” and “We lose the day we start (these stupid imperial wars) and we win the day we stop.”  Put differently, just as with Vietnam, the Middle East is not an incredibly complex puzzle for us to solve; it’s simply an impossible situation.  Impossible for us.  Until we admit this, the U.S. can never “win”; it can only lose.

The U.S. finally “won” in Vietnam when we admitted defeat and left.  How long before we come to this realization in the Middle East?  Tragically, the persistence of American hubris, amplified by resistance to the very idea of being labeled a “loser,” suggests yet another long, bloody, learning curve.

Obama’s Speech on ISIS: More of the Same, As in Military Action (Updated)

Obama "consults" with Congress before ordering more bombing.  Note the irony of George Washington's portrait, the man who warned us to avoid foreign entanglements
Obama “consults” with Congress before ordering more bombing. Note the irony of George Washington’s portrait, the man who warned us to avoid foreign entanglements (Source: NYT)

W.J. Astore

President Obama’s speech tonight on the Islamic State (or ISIS) promises more military action.  More airstrikes, more boots on the ground (mainly Special Forces), more training for the Iraqi military (who have endured more than a decade’s worth of U.S. military training, with indifferent results), and more weapons sales (which often end up in the hands of ISIS, thereby necessitating more U.S. airstrikes to destroy them).

All of this is sadly predictable.  Call it the TINA militarized strategy, as in “There is no alternative” (TINA) but to call in the military.

There are three reasons for the TINA strategy.  One is domestic politics.  Facing elections in November, the Obama Administration and the Democrats must appear to be strong.  They must take military action, at least in their eyes, else risk being painted by Republicans as terrorist-appeasers.

The second reason is also obvious: The military option is the only one the U.S. is heavily invested in; the only option we’re prepared, mentally as well as physically, to embrace.  The U.S. is militarized; we see the military as offering quick results; indeed, the military promises such results; we’re impatient people; so we embrace the military.

Never mind the talk of another long war, perhaps of three years or longer.  When they bother to pay attention, what most Americans see on their TV and computer screens is quick results, like the video released by Central Command showing the U.S. military blowing up ISIS equipment (often, U.S. military equipment provided to Iraq but appropriated by ISIS).  And unlike those ISIS “medieval” beheadings, decapitation by laser-guided bomb is both unoffensive and justified.

And if we’re blowing things up with our 21st-century decapitation bombs, we must be winning — or, at least we’re doing something to avenge ISIS barbarism.  Better to do something than nothing.  Right?

The third reason is more subtle and it comes down to our embrace of “dominance” as our de facto military strategy.  Allow me to explain.  After World War II, the U.S. military embraced “containment” as the approach to the Soviet Union.  “Parity” was the buzzword, at least in the nuclear realm, and “deterrence” was the goal.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. did not become “a normal country in normal times,” nor did we cash in our peace dividends.  Instead, the U.S. military saw a chance for “global reach, global power,” global dominance in other words.  And that’s precisely the word the U.S. military uses: dominance (expanded sometimes to full spectrum dominance, as in land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, and who knows what else).

You can explain a lot of what’s happened since 9/11 with that single word: dominance.  The attacks of 9/11 put the lie to U.S. efforts to dominate global security, which drove the Bush/Cheney Administration to double down on the military option as the one and only way of showing the world who’s boss.  Clear failures of the military option in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere did not encourage soul-searching; rather, it simply drove Obama and his generals to promise that “this time, we’ll do it (bombing and raids and interventions) better and smarter” than the previous administration.

There’s simply no learning curve when your overall goal is to exercise dominance each and every time you’re challenged. Ask John McCain.

So as you listen to the president’s speech tonight, keep those three elements in mind: domestic politics, our enormous investment (cultural as well as financial) in the military and our preference for quick results at any price, and finally our desire to exercise dominance across the globe.  It may help you to parse the president’s words more effectively.  Perhaps it will also explain why our leaders never seem to learn.  It’s not because they’re stupid: it’s because their careers and commitments require them not to learn.

Bombs away.

Update: There’s another aspect of our dominance that is fascinating to consider.  The US sees its dominance as benevolent or benign, never as bellicose or baneful.  This is reflected brilliantly in the US Navy’s current motto, “A global force for good.”  Not to deny that the Navy does good work, but I’m not sure we’d applaud if F-18s were dropping laser-guided bombs on our troops.  The point is that as a society we have a willed blindness to how our “dominance” plays out in the rest of the world.  We only seem to care when that “dominance” comes to Main Street USA, as it did recently in Ferguson, Mo.  (The ongoing militarization of police forces, and their aggressiveness toward ordinary people, are surely signs of “dominance,” but who wants to argue this is benevolent or benign in intent?)

If another country sought global reach/global power through military dominance, that country would be instantly denounced by US leaders as inherently hostile and treated as a major threat to world peace.

Update 2 (9/12/14):  Dan Froomkin at The Intercept has a stimulating round-up of criticism about Obama’s latest plans for war (courtesy of Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com).  A summary:

Yesterday, Dan Froomkin of the Intercept offered a fairly devastating round-up of news reports from the mainstream (finally coming in, after much deferential and semi-hysterical reportage!) suggesting just what a fool’s errand the latest expansion of the U.S. intervention in Iraq/Syria could be. (And today’s NY Times has more of the same.) Here are just some selections from his post. Tom Engelhardt

“President Obama’s plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State counts on pretty much everything going right in a region of the world where pretty much anything the U.S. does always goes wrong. Our newspapers of record today finally remembered it’s their job to point stuff like that out.

“The New York Times, in particular, calls bullshit this morning — albeit without breaking from the classic detached Timesian tonelessness. Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt and Mark Landler (with contributions from Matt Apuzzo and James Risen) start by pointing out the essential but often overlooked fact that ‘American intelligence agencies have concluded that [the Islamic State] poses no immediate threat to the United States.’

“And then, with the cover of ‘some officials and terrorism experts,’ they share a devastating analysis of all the coverage that has come before: ‘Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East….’

“In the Washington Post this morning, Rajiv Chandrasekaran focuses on all the implausible things that have to go right beyond ‘U.S. bombs and missiles hitting their intended targets’: ‘In Iraq, dissolved elements of the army will have to regroup and fight with conviction. Political leaders will have to reach compromises on the allocation of power and money in ways that have eluded them for years. Disenfranchised Sunni tribesmen will have to muster the will to join the government’s battle. European and Arab allies will have to hang together, Washington will have to tolerate the resurgence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias it once fought, and U.S. commanders will have to orchestrate an air war without ground-level guidance from American combat forces…’

“The McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau , finally no longer alone in expressing skepticism about Obama’s plans, goes all Buzzfeed with a Hannah Allam story: ‘5 potential pitfalls in Obama’s plan to combat the Islamic State’. Allam notes that Yemen and Somalia are hardly examples of success; that the new Iraqi government is hardly “inclusive”; that training of Iraqi soldiers hasn’t worked in the past; that in Syria it’s unclear which “opposition” Obama intends to support; and that it may be too late to cut off the flow of fighters and funds.”

https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/09/11/news-organizations-finally-realize-obamas-war-plan-messed/

Update 3 (9/12/14): US Army Colonel (ret.) Andrew Bacevich has a sound critique of the bankruptcy of Obama’s strategy.  Here’s an excerpt:

Destroying what Obama calls the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant won’t create an effective and legitimate Iraqi state. It won’t restore the possibility of a democratic Egypt. It won’t dissuade Saudi Arabia from funding jihadists. It won’t pull Libya back from the brink of anarchy. It won’t end the Syrian civil war.  It won’t bring peace and harmony to Somalia and Yemen. It won’t persuade the Taliban to lay down their arms in Afghanistan. It won’t end the perpetual crisis of Pakistan. It certainly won’t resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All the military power in the world won’t solve those problems. Obama knows that. Yet he is allowing himself to be drawn back into the very war that he once correctly denounced as stupid and unnecessary — mostly because he and his advisers don’t know what else to do. Bombing has become his administration’s default option.

Rudderless and without a compass, the American ship of state continues to drift, guns blazing.

General Allen’s Revealing Article on Iraq

Is this the leader of a scourge and an abomination and a witch's brew?
Is this the leader of a “scourge” and an “abomination” and a “witch’s brew”?

W.J. Astore

General John Allen wants to “destroy the Islamic State now.”  So he says in an article for Defense One.  Allen, a retired Marine Corps general who led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, is currently a distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution.  But what is distinguishing him in this article is his crusader-speak, a remarkable blend of religious extremism and chauvinistic parochialism.

Let’s tackle the latter first.  For Allen, the good people of Iraq are “poor” and “benighted.”  But some of them can serve as our “boots on the ground” in the region, i.e. they can serve as bullet magnets while the U.S. provides air support with impunity.  It’s up to the U.S. to “orchestrate” their attacks against the Islamic State.  As long as they follow our conductor’s baton, all will end well, perhaps with a crescendo of U.S. bombs.  (As an aside, he describes the Taliban in Afghanistan as “cavemen” when compared to the new enemy in Iraq.  Some of those “cavemen” did fairly well against the former Soviet Union, did they not?)

My charge that the general’s language is that of “religious extremism” may itself appear extreme, but take a close look at his article.  The general refers to the Islamic State as a “scourge” and an “abomination.”  (I’ve read my Bible and recognize the religious resonances here.)  They are “beyond the pale of humanity” and must be “eradicated” because they are engaged in “total war” aided by a “witch’s brew” of foreign recruits.

In sum, General Allen has demonized the enemy while at the same time diminishing potential allies (those “poor benighted” people in need of an American conductor).  The answer is eradication, i.e. extermination of that enemy. Now!

Remind me again: Which side is engaged in religious war here?

As Richard Nixon used to say, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m not in any way defending the murderous extremism of the Islamic State.  What I’m saying is that the best solution is not to return the favor (unless you’re truly seeking a crusade).  I’m also suggesting that the general’s article is (unintentionally) indicative of a mindset that explains much about why American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed.