President Obama’s admission that he lacks a strategy for dealing with the Islamic State was a foolish thing for a President to admit out loud. But it is not surprising. That is because for most of our nation’s history, America has lacked an explicit foreign policy and a supporting strategy.
When we have approximated a guiding principle, we usually have done so only as far as to define what we were against: against European intervention in the Western Hemisphere under the Monroe Doctrine, against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, and against Soviet expansion during the Cold War.
The eight years of the second Bush presidency at least had the virtue of America and the world clearly understanding what the United States stood against. We stood against the use of terrorism, be it deployed in Baghdad or Britain. Of course, fabricating a strategy from opposition to a tactic is a form of reverse-engineering that was bound to be a less than successful exercise.
The last six years haven’t even possessed that murky level of clarity: withdrawal at any cost in Iraq, withdrawal on a fixed timeline from Afghanistan, intervention without aims in Libya, and a stutter-step approach to a Syrian civil war that now has America on the precipice of being on the de facto side of Bashar Al Assad, about whom the President said, “must go”. What exactly is the point?
The jumbled mess that seems to be American Middle Eastern foreign policy was pithily encapsulated by one online commenter:
“We’re supporting Shia in Iraq near Baghdad, mostly Sunni Kurds in the North, and never Kurdish independence anywhere. We support vetted moderate Sunnis in Syria who only sometimes give that support to their more radical Sunni Salafist brothers in the IS to kill the Alawite Shia Assad government they both oppose, and of course destroy the Shia we support in Iraq. We support the ultra-Sunni Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, but not their tribal affiliated Al Khalifa Sunni brothers in Bahrain. There we seem to support democracy which would lead to Shia government. We don’t support the Shia aytollahs in Iran, nor their more secular opposition which protested and was crushed a few years ago.”
Again, what exactly is the point?
In addition to lacking a strategy, President Obama’s confused rhetoric demonstrates that there also is no tactical point to our military endeavors in the region. White House correspondent Alexis Simeldinger’s recent report may look like a semantic exercise. However, “destroy” and “degrade” are very different military objectives. From such terms necessarily flow military plans to support the attainment of the President’s specified objectives. When the President himself postulates that the goal is to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, he has contradicted himself in the space of three words.
This is not the first time. American intentions in Libya were doomed from the start because those intentions themselves were never clear to military leaders in US Africa Command (AFRICOM) who quite literally didn’t know what the President wanted them to accomplish. You cannot have a coherent strategy if you don’t have a clear objective.
After the fact, the Bush Administration recognized this glaring deficiency when it attempted to construct a goal for the war in Iraq. Defeat Saddam Hussein, which was the original 2003 goal, is not an objective. It is a means to an objective. What Iraq was supposed to look and act like should have been the objective.
To his credit, Bush developed the objective of a self-sustaining, stable, and responsible Iraq was marginally achieved, at least by 2010. To his detriment, for at least the first three years of the war, Bush and the country muddled through the Iraq War because the Administration couldn’t even define what victory should look like so that America would know when to send its troops home. To Obama’s credit, he continued in Iraq and made great strides toward Bush’s goal during the first two years of his presidency. To his detriment, he, like his predecessor, failed to understand that after the conflict portion of war is over, peace is more of a rheostat than a switch. You can’t flip it off suddenly and expect that stability would remain.
There seems to be one cause more than any other that makes America stumble into its foreign policy mistakes. That cause is the feeling that “We need to do something”. Whether we need to do something because we feel that people around the world are being wronged or because we feel that someone has wronged us, the urge to “do something” is a natural human emotion. It arises out of sympathy for a victim or anger at an affront. But sympathy and anger are emotions. They are not logical reasons for entering a conflict.
Unfortunately, most of America’s “bad” wars seem to have begun this way. Two-hundred years ago, the fledgling nation tired of diminutive treatment from Great Britain, and so feeling that it had to do something to show Britain that it could not be pushed around, America launched a war against its former occupier at a time when it was itself then occupied by the much greater task of defeating Napoleon. The war ended exactly as it began: confusedly, and earning no concessions for America from the British. In fact, the Treaty of Ghent is one of the few treaties in history that explicitly enshrines the status quo ante bellum. Well, except for the 15,000 Americans who died as a result of the War of 1812.
A century later the president, against the wishes of the country, provided quasi-support to Allied Powers engaged in a far-off war, and then cried foul when the Central Powers attacked that support. “We have to do something” became his rallying cry and so America entered a regrettable war in which it never had any business being. When mercifully World War I came to a close, voters so abhorred President Wilson for the pointless conflict that less than a week from victory, they jettisoned 25 members of his party from the House and turned over control of the Senate to the opposition.
Wars in Vietnam, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, have likewise left America in no better position than before the commencement of hostilities. And all of these conflicts began over an American feeling that it had to do something. By acting on the basis of emotion instead of thought, America invited the probability that the unintended consequences of “something” would be worse than if it had done nothing. Like medieval doctors treating ailments with leeches and bloodletting, the “cure” always leaves the patient no better off than before the treatment, and often is worse than the disease itself.
Today you have everyone from National Review’s Rich Lowry to progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren saying that destroying the Islamic State should be the nation’s “Number one priority”. Left-leaning columnist Jonathan Alter says that “There’s not much disagreement on how to handle ISIS. U.S. warplanes have already flown more than 100 sorties to degrade ISIS ground forces, and many more bombs are on the way.”
Alter is probably right about what will be done, but never addressed is why America would do it. What does it expect to accomplish? How, as a result of aerial strikes, does America expect that the situation will be better?
Unfortunately, the entire debate is backwards. Instead of asking what military action we should take, we need first ask ourselves what do we want the post-military situation to look like? Then and only then can the Department of Defense propose a military plan to achieve that end result. And sometimes that plan, means no plan, because sometimes, any military solution only makes the situation worse. In other words, the first question is not “What?” but “Why?” Taking any action without a goal and the thoughtful analysis of whether or not the goal is attainable, is foolish, costly, and dangerous.
I submit that while destroying IS may end up being the right course of action, before we decide to do that, our number one foreign policy priority ought to be figuring out as our objective what we want the world to look like, and then formulating a feasible strategy to get us there.
Otherwise, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, is just going to join a long list of Middle Eastern public-enemy-number-ones over the last quarter-century including: Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Saddam Hussein (again), Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Muqtada al Sadr, Muammar Khadafy, and Bashar al Assad. Without first understanding the objective of American intervention, the only certainty is that after the Islamic State, we simply will find ourselves confronted by yet another “great” threat with a hard-to-pronounce name.
Further complicating the question of what to do about the Islamic State is the fact that the Middle East really is a tertiary problem for the United States. What we choose to do there puts in peril American prestige and power in theaters more important and potentially more dangerous. Both Europe, with an economically injured but still militarily dangerous Russia, and Asia, with an emerging China and a declining Japan, are much bigger concerns than a terrorist organization whose reach is limited and whose only direct attack on America has been a couple murders.
Perhaps that’s a little too crassly stated. After all, televised beheadings are incomparably gruesome. However, let us attempt to maintain some proportionality: do we really think that the best answer is to launch thousands of forces and spend hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to end a murder rate that falls short of a Chicago weekend?
Finally, let us attempt to maintain some perspective as well. The development of IS was a wholly predictable event. The destabilization of Bashar al Assad guaranteed the emergence of IS or someone else like it. In that region of the world, the only surety was that any resultant opposition wasn’t going to be moderate and democratic. So if non-intervention in the Syrian Civil War was the right choice—and it probably was—then we should have known that this was going to happen. If the decision to leave Iraq was the right choice—and it probably was (although it certainly could have been a more measured withdrawal)—then the rise of a brutal opposition was a predictable consequence. But if this was a foreseeable outcome, what was a better alternative? It’s very likely that there wasn’t one, and that there still isn’t one.
Perhaps this indicates that the most important principle to keep in mind when it comes to deciding a strategy is best encapsulated in Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer for serenity. God grant me the courage to change the things I can change, the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.
In other words, having no strategy, might not be the worst thing. (But still, you don’t say that.)
In Part II: How to create an American strategy