Commentary Magazine


Topic: war

How Do You Fight a Hundred Years’ War?

Most Americans are understandably reluctant to send troops back into Iraq let alone Syria. But, given the fact that, as Max Boot noted earlier today, bombing isn’t stopping the ISIS terrorists from making progress toward their initial goal of taking over either or both countries, more U.S. action is likely to follow. That has provoked the usual anti-war chorus on the left to proclaim that all American action is ultimately futile. But as worthless as many of those arguments may be, it is important to address the more substantive of these complaints head on and explain why it is that Americans are fated, like it or not, to be drawn into conflicts with radical Islamists now and in the years to come.

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Most Americans are understandably reluctant to send troops back into Iraq let alone Syria. But, given the fact that, as Max Boot noted earlier today, bombing isn’t stopping the ISIS terrorists from making progress toward their initial goal of taking over either or both countries, more U.S. action is likely to follow. That has provoked the usual anti-war chorus on the left to proclaim that all American action is ultimately futile. But as worthless as many of those arguments may be, it is important to address the more substantive of these complaints head on and explain why it is that Americans are fated, like it or not, to be drawn into conflicts with radical Islamists now and in the years to come.

In Saturday’s Washington Post, historian and former soldier Andrew Bacevich wrote to say that it didn’t matter whether the battle with ISIS was won or not. By his count, the U.S. had invaded, occupied, or bombed 14 Islamic countries in the last 35 years and that this latest chapter of a long-running war wasn’t likely to end any more satisfactorily than any of the others. To summarize Bacevich’s thesis, he thinks each successive U.S. intervention has only made things worse than its predecessors and that the end result is as futile as American military efforts in Vietnam, a telling analogy as it betrays his frame of reference about these conflicts.

What does Bacevich advise to do instead of attacking ISIS? On that point, he’s a bit hazy other than to imply that staying out will be less messy than going in. Moreover, he believes that since the U.S. is no longer as dependent on Middle Eastern oil, there’s no real need to fuss about the future of the region, a point that also betrays his cynical and somewhat dated echo of the original discredited arguments about the reason the U.S. went into Iraq in 2003.

Bacevich, who lost a son in Iraq, has a right to feel bitter about that conflict but though George Will praised his piece yesterday on Fox News Sunday, his plea for isolationism offers us little that is useful in untangling the current conflict or about the options the U.S. currently faces in Iraq and Syria.

Let’s start by noting that Bacevich’s list of 14 Islamic countries attacked by the U.S. is more than a bit misleading. Including Kosovo, a conflict in which NATO mercilessly bombed the Serbian Christian enemies of Kosovo Muslims, in this roster of invasions is absurd. The whole point of that effort was to defend Muslims and to ultimately aid their creation of another Muslim state at the expense of their neighbors who had themselves misbehaved. But he’s right that Americans have gotten little satisfaction out of any of our encounters in the other 13 nations.

Yet his idea that the U.S. is only making the problem worse is looking at the problem from the wrong perspective.

Radical Islamists do use American actions as a recruiting tool, but to claim that their atrocities or campaigns are primarily a reaction to the West rather than something that reflects the desperate state of their own political culture is fundamentally mistaken. Conflicts with Iran or Libya didn’t create the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Rather the growth of these radical movements is a reflection of the dire state of the Islamic world as it attempts to confront modernity and instead seeks a solution in the old formula of jihad and world domination.

It is comforting to think that the West can simply ignore the war being waged on it by a host of ever-changing Islamist groups whose names change but whose methods are consistently barbarous and whose goals are uncompromising. But every time we do, whether in the ’90s when al-Qaeda’s rise was considered insignificant or during an Obama administration that pretended it could take credit for “ending” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or staying out Syria, we end up paying a price.

Bacevich is right to note that the conflict against ISIS won’t be easy. Nor will we be able to conclude it with victory parades the way Americans prefer to end wars. Instead, it will require a long-term commitment that recognizes that our foes view this as a hundred years’ war and not a neat little battle that can be quickly won and then forgotten.

The Islamists aren’t looking to behead Westerners, take over Arab countries, and then extend their terror to Americans and our allies because we stumbled into Iraq or bombed Libya in the distant past. Nor is it about our supposed sins in Iran in the 1950s or any other oft-repeated tale of Islamic woe. Rather, it is a function of a basic conflict between Islamist belief and the West and those Muslims who prefer peace and coexistence to Sharia law and endless war.

The call to retreat from the Middle East is advice that President Obama and the American people would do well to ignore. Sooner or later, if we stay out of the conflict with ISIS, that group or those that ultimately replace it will bring their war to America. Contrary to Bacevich and Will, our choice is not whether or not to fight Islamists but where we will fight them. It is simply common sense to do so on their home turf and at a point when Western military superiority can be brought to bear on the group and their allies before they become even more dangerous. The outcome of each battle in this new hundred years’ war won’t be satisfying, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary to fight. The enemy will make sure to remind us that giving up isn’t an option.

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Why Americans Go to War

I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

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I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

But the broader failing of Krugman’s article–amazing for a man who, whatever you think of his politics, is highly intelligent and broadly educated–is that he entirely omits a major reason why countries fight wars: to defend their liberties. Krugman is presumably familiar with the theory of “just war,” but there is no sign of it in his article that assumes that all wars are initiated for one ignoble motive or another. This is perhaps an indication of how far liberalism has come from the fighting faith of its greatest champions–presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

They were familiar with war and yet did not dismiss it as nothing more than a crass, self-interested undertaking. Recall Kennedy’s famous inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Or FDR’s D-Day prayer in 1944: “Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war. For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.”

America’s brave troopers today fight for freedom in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, all the while yearning, as FDR said, “for the end of battle” when they can return home. They are not there to seize natural resources or to pump up a president’s approval ratings–nor, for all of my differences with President Obama, do I believe he has ordered troops into harm’s way for such nefarious purposes. War may be a brutal, ugly business, and one that should never be undertaken lightly; but it is also the essential safeguard of peace and freedom. Presumably Krugman understands that, but his failure to take note if it is nevertheless startling–and telling.

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What Diplomats Can Learn from Marines

A minor theme of my forthcoming history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the State Department undercuts the effectiveness of its diplomacy by always looking forward but seldom considering the past. Self-criticism and the study of past mistakes are the best ways to avoid repeating mistakes. The inability of Arab militaries to self-criticize for cultural and political reasons was a major factor in Col. Norvell B. De Atkine’s seminal article “Why Arabs Lose Wars.”

The State Department, however, has seldom if ever conducted a lessons-learned exercise about why some of its previous initiatives have failed. Enter Donald Bishop, a retired Foreign Service officer and public diplomacy specialist, who served as the policy advisor to General James Conway (U.S. Marine Corps) between 2006 and 2008. Writing recently for the Public Diplomacy Council, Bishop recalled his service in an article entitled, “Learning from the Marines: Schoolhouses, Debate, Public Affairs, and Recognition,” and provides a useful comparison between the culture of the Foreign Service and that of the U.S. Marine Corps and finds that diplomats might learn a great deal from Marines.

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A minor theme of my forthcoming history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the State Department undercuts the effectiveness of its diplomacy by always looking forward but seldom considering the past. Self-criticism and the study of past mistakes are the best ways to avoid repeating mistakes. The inability of Arab militaries to self-criticize for cultural and political reasons was a major factor in Col. Norvell B. De Atkine’s seminal article “Why Arabs Lose Wars.”

The State Department, however, has seldom if ever conducted a lessons-learned exercise about why some of its previous initiatives have failed. Enter Donald Bishop, a retired Foreign Service officer and public diplomacy specialist, who served as the policy advisor to General James Conway (U.S. Marine Corps) between 2006 and 2008. Writing recently for the Public Diplomacy Council, Bishop recalled his service in an article entitled, “Learning from the Marines: Schoolhouses, Debate, Public Affairs, and Recognition,” and provides a useful comparison between the culture of the Foreign Service and that of the U.S. Marine Corps and finds that diplomats might learn a great deal from Marines.

He observes, “Anyone who thinks the Marines are all brawn and no brain should visit The Basic School with its emphasis on decision making; the Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning, which trains Marines to understand how they will encounter people from different cultures; and the Marine Corps Command and Staff College for its emphasis on planning and integration of all the elements of national power.” While the Foreign Service provides supplementary training and has embraced specialized language institutes, it has no corollary to the Marines when it comes to expanding the academic self. 

He continues, “The Marine Corps cultivates professional debate and even dissent, using the Marine Corps Gazette as a vehicle for the expression of opinion and new ideas. It so values contention over ideas, responsibly stated, that contributors to that journal are honored even when junior opinions make senior eyes roll, or when opinions are strongly contrary.” Much depends on any particular unit’s command environment, but I have heard far more rigorous debate openly among military personnel, with and in the presence of their superiors, than I have in embassies. And woe to any diplomat who uses the established dissent channel, for that would be a career killer.

Bishop makes other apt comparisons as well, and his whole short article is worth reading. That the cultural divide between military and non-military spheres has widened ever since the end of the draft is undeniable. Few diplomats and even fewer in academe have much understanding of who the military is and how they operate. That such a divide remains might be inevitable. That bureaucratic cultures in practice do not learn from each other’s best practices, however, is unfortunate.

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Sequestration and Combat Readiness

Gen. Martin Dempsey, army chief of staff, and Gen. Jim Amos, Marine commandant, are warning that sequestration could result in overly deep cuts to the ground forces. But is anyone listening? Not so that you would notice.

As Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings noted yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, if sequestration continues unabated, the army could fall from 532,000 today to 380,000 active-duty soldiers–or even fewer. Figures of less than 300,000 have even been mentioned. That would cut the U.S. Army to a size not seen since the start of World War II.

The dangers of such an approach should be obvious. But few if any are paying attention to them in Washington today because the widespread assumption is that we will never have to fight another ground war again. Why this assumption has become prevalent is a mystery because it flies in the face of all known history–to wit, mankind has been fighting on the ground since his earliest days on this earth. Ground warfare continues notwithstanding the creation of air forces, computers, and precision, stand-off weapons such as drones and smart bombs. Just look at Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a whole lot of other places.

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Gen. Martin Dempsey, army chief of staff, and Gen. Jim Amos, Marine commandant, are warning that sequestration could result in overly deep cuts to the ground forces. But is anyone listening? Not so that you would notice.

As Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings noted yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, if sequestration continues unabated, the army could fall from 532,000 today to 380,000 active-duty soldiers–or even fewer. Figures of less than 300,000 have even been mentioned. That would cut the U.S. Army to a size not seen since the start of World War II.

The dangers of such an approach should be obvious. But few if any are paying attention to them in Washington today because the widespread assumption is that we will never have to fight another ground war again. Why this assumption has become prevalent is a mystery because it flies in the face of all known history–to wit, mankind has been fighting on the ground since his earliest days on this earth. Ground warfare continues notwithstanding the creation of air forces, computers, and precision, stand-off weapons such as drones and smart bombs. Just look at Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a whole lot of other places.

It is the height of hubris to imagine that the U.S. can stand aloof from such messes simply because we desire to do so. If history shows anything, it is that the U.S. has a tendency to get sucked into distant conflicts, and that includes the dispatch of ground forces. Just look at the 1990s–the last period of major defense downsizing when we got involved in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, among other places.

Today if we show an inability to field substantial ground forces we are practically inviting our enemies to challenge us in this arena of warfare, whether through the use of terrorist and guerrilla tactics or (more unlikely but not impossible) through conventional combat operations. Yet both Republicans and Democrats are so caught up in their political squabbles, with neither side being willing to address the fiscal danger of runaway entitlement spending, that they are oblivious to the impact their defense cuts are having on our military readiness in general and our ground-combat readiness in particular.

Dempsey and Amos might as well be talking to a brick wall for all the notice they are getting. We should be paying more attention because history shows that those in the past who have warned about the dangers of excessive defense drawdowns have inevitably been proven correct.

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Obama’s Two Dangerous Sentences

Bill Kristol considers the most dangerous sentence in President Obama’s second inaugural address to be the one endorsing the “lesson” that we are heirs to “those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends …” (emphasis added):

Surely President Obama should have said this: “we are also heirs to those who won the peace as well as the war…” But he didn’t say that. The formulation Obama chose—”and not just the war”—suggests that Obama believes that it’s no big deal to win a war, and the greater achievement is winning the peace. With respect to World War II, this view is ludicrous. With respect to today’s world, this view is dangerous.

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Bill Kristol considers the most dangerous sentence in President Obama’s second inaugural address to be the one endorsing the “lesson” that we are heirs to “those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends …” (emphasis added):

Surely President Obama should have said this: “we are also heirs to those who won the peace as well as the war…” But he didn’t say that. The formulation Obama chose—”and not just the war”—suggests that Obama believes that it’s no big deal to win a war, and the greater achievement is winning the peace. With respect to World War II, this view is ludicrous. With respect to today’s world, this view is dangerous.

We used to end wars responsibly by winning them, and we won the subsequent peace not so much by offering friendship as by occupying defeated foes and transforming their system of government. That is the way those in World War II, to whom we are heirs, did it. But these days we don’t win wars; we leave them behind and announce our pursuit of “peace in our time” by other means. A few sentences after the one cited by Kristol, Obama used what Mannie Sherberg at Boker tov, Boulder! calls “the most infamous, the most ignominious, the most shameful four-word phrase in all of modern history,” in the following paragraph in the inaugural address:

“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad … We will support democracy … And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice … because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.” [Emphasis added]. 

Sherberg also notes Obama’s “utter failure to mention the cardinal fact of our time: that America is at war with a worldwide totalitarian ideology … and that we must therefore, before anything else, make sure we win that war.” Perhaps that is too much to ask from an administration that officially removed the word “jihad” from its vocabulary and changed “terrorism” to “man-caused disasters,” but one wonders what Iran and Israel make of Obama’s use of the phrase “peace in our time” and his failure to state — in his paragraph covering America’s role in the world–that America is prepared to use force, if necessary, against “unacceptable” threats.

It reminds one of Obama’s unfortunate definition in 2009 of the phrase “never again,” which for him has only an aspirational rather than an operational significance–rendering it in his 2009 speech simply a kind of hope for an idyllic time in the future, like “peace in our time.” 

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