HAT TIP: Quirk
Let’s End America’s Hopeless War for the Middle East
A hundred years ago, the armies of World War I fought to a bloody stalemate on the Western Front and desperately searched for ways to break it and gain an edge. They field-tested tanks and poison gas, rolling barrages and storm-trooper tactics. Today, the United States is stuck in an analogous stalemate in the Middle East and Islamic world in general. And we are field-testing all manner of novelties, much like the great armies of Europe mired in the trenches: the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs and counterinsurgency, precision-guided munitions and unmanned aerial vehicles, not to mention such passing fancies as “overwhelming force,” “shock and awe,” and “air occupation.”
Yet as was the case a century ago, the introduction of some new battlefield technique does not necessarily signify progress. On the contrary, it only deepens the stalemate.
To reflect on this longest of American wars—why it goes on and on, and at such a cost of blood and treasure—is to confront two questions. First, why has the world’s mightiest military achieved so little even while absorbing very considerable losses and inflicting even greater damage on the subjects of America’s supposed beneficence? Second, why in the face of such unsatisfactory outcomes has the United States refused to chart a different course? In short, why can’t we win? And since we haven’t won, why can’t we get out?
The answer to these questions starts with questioning the premise. The tendency to see the region and Islamic world primarily as a problem that will yield to an American military solution is, in fact, precisely the problem. To an unseemly and ultimately self-destructive degree, we have endorsed the misguided militarization of U.S. foreign policy. As a consequence, we have allowed our country to be pulled into the impossible task of trying to “shape” the region through martial means.
It’s long past time to stop trying (a conclusion that even President Obama appears to be edging his way toward, judging from his recent comments to The Atlantic).
The United States plunged militarily into the Middle East out of the mistaken belief that the privileged status that Americans take as their birthright was at risk. Way back in 1948, George Kennan, State Department director of policy planning, noted that the United States then possessed “about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population.” The challenge facing U.S. policymakers, he believed, was “to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.” The overarching aim of American statecraft, in other words, was to sustain the uniquely favorable situation to which the United States had ascended by the end of World War II.
A half century later, that strategy succeeded and the Soviet Union collapsed. But the passing of the Cold War period left our massive national security apparatus underemployed while rendering obsolete the policy underlying postwar U.S. military policy—energetically preparing for global war in order to prevent it. The armed services and their various clients came face to face with a crisis of the first order. With the likelihood of World War III subsiding to somewhere between remote and infinitesimal—with the overarching purpose for which the postwar U.S. military establishment had been created thereby fulfilled—what exactly did that establishment and all of its ancillary agencies, institutes, collaborators, and profit-making auxiliaries exist to do?
The Pentagon wasted no time in providing an answer to that question. Rather than keeping the peace, it declared, the new key to perpetuating Kennan’s position of disparity was to “shape” the global order. Shaping now became the military’s primary job. In 1992, the Defense Planning Guidance drafted under the aegis of Paul Wolfowitz spelled out this argument in detail. Pointing proudly to the “new international environment” that had already “been shaped by the victory” over Saddam Hussein the year before, that document provided a blueprint explaining how American power could “shape the future.”
The Greater Middle East was to serve—indeed, was even then already serving—as the chosen arena for honing military power into a utensil that would maintain America’s privileged position and, not so incidentally, provide a continuing rationale for the entire apparatus of national security. That region’s predominantly Muslim population thereby became the subjects of experiments ranging from the nominally benign—peacekeeping, peacemaking and humanitarian intervention—to the nakedly coercive. Beginning in 1980, U.S. forces ventured into the Greater Middle East to reassure, warn, intimidate, suppress, pacify, rescue, liberate, eliminate, transform and overawe. They bombed, raided, invaded, occupied and worked through proxies of various stripes. In 1992, Wolfowitz had expressed the earnest hope of American might addressing the “sources of regional instability in ways that promote international law, limit international violence, and encourage the spread of democratic government and open economic systems.” The results actually produced over the course of several decades of trying have never come even remotely close to satisfying such expectations.
The events that first drew the United States military into the Greater Middle East and that seemed so extraordinary at the time—the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—turned out to be mere harbingers. Subsequent upheavals have swept through the region in waves: revolutions and counterrevolutions, episodes of terror and counterterror, grotesque barbarism and vast suffering. Through it all, a succession of American leaders—Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal, calculating and naive—persisted in the belief that the determined exercise of U.S. military power will somehow put things right. None have seen their hopes fulfilled.
Why? One explanation stands out above all others. In stark contrast to the Cold War, American purposes and U.S. military policy in the Islamic world have never aligned. Rather than keeping threats to U.S. interests at bay, a penchant for military activism, initially circumspect but becoming increasingly uninhibited over time, has helped to foster new threats. Time and again, from the 1980s to the present, U.S. military power, unleashed rather than held in abeyance (as it was for most of the Cold War), has met outright failure, produced results other than those intended, or proved to be largely irrelevant.
The Greater Middle East remains defiantly resistant to shaping.
Not for want of American effort, of course. In World War I, the supreme importance assigned to the Western Front made the stalemate there visible to all. The geography of America’s War for the Greater Middle East has been more variable. Always there is the Persian Gulf, of course, but at intervals Central Asia, the Levant, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, and even the Balkans have vied for attention. More recently still, West Africa has emerged as an active theater. These periodic changes of venue do not mean that the United States is closing in on its goal, however. Opening up some new front (or reopening an old one) testifies to the reality that U.S. forces in 2016 find themselves caught in a predicament no less perplexing than the one that ensnared the armies of Germany, France, and Great Britain a century ago. Mission accomplishment is nowhere in sight. Put simply, we’re stuck.
Why in this instance doesn’t the ostensibly superior power of the United States confer choice? How can it be that even today, large segments of the policy elite entertain fantasies of salvaging victory if only a smart president will make the requisite smart moves?
To understand the persistence of such illusions requires appreciating several assumptions that promote in Washington a deeply pernicious collective naiveté. Seldom explicitly articulated, these assumptions pervade the U.S. national security establishment.
The first assumption is that those responsible for formulating U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East—not only elected and appointed officials but also the military officers assigned to senior posts—are able to discern the historical forces at work in the region. But they can’t. The worldview to which individuals rotating through the upper reaches of the national security apparatus subscribe derives from a shared historical narrative, recounting the story of the 20th century as Americans have chosen to remember it. It centers on an epic competition between rival versions of modernity—liberalism vs. fascism vs. communism—and ends in vindication for “our” side. Ultimately, the right side of history prevailed. Presidents and Cabinet secretaries, generals and admirals see no reason why that narrative should not apply to a different locale and extend into the distant future.
In other words, they are blind to the possibility that in the Greater Middle East substantially different historical forces just might be at work.
A second assumption takes it for granted that as the sole global superpower the United States possesses not only the wisdom but also the wherewithal to control or direct such forces. In the 20th century, “our” side won because American industry and ingenuity produced not only superior military might but also a superior way of life based on consumption and choice—so at least Americans have been thoroughly conditioned to believe. A third assumption asserts that U.S. military power offers the most expeditious means of ensuring that universal freedom prevails—that the armed might of the United States, made manifest in the presence of airplanes, warships and fighting troops, serves as an irreplaceable facilitator or catalyst in moving history toward its foreordained destination.
That the commitment of American armed might could actually backfire and make matters worse is a proposition that few authorities in Washington are willing to entertain.
A final assumption counts on the inevitability of America’s purposes ultimately winning acceptance, even in the Islamic world. The subjects of U.S. benefactions will then obligingly submit to Washington’s requirements and warmly embrace American norms. If not today, then surely tomorrow, the United States will receive the plaudits and be granted the honors that liberators rightly deserve. Near-term disappointments can be discounted given the certainty that better outcomes lie just ahead.
None of these assumptions has any empirical basis. Each drips with hubris. Taken together, they sustain the absence of self-awareness that has become an American signature. Worse, they constitute a nearly insurmountable barrier to serious critical analysis. Yet the prevalence of these assumptions goes far toward explaining this key failing in the U.S. military effort: the absence of a consistent understanding of what the United States is fighting for and whom it is fighting against.
To mask this loss of definition (and perhaps their own confusion), successive presidents framed the overarching problem in generic terms, referring to adversaries as militants, terrorists, warlords, rogue states, or, most recently, “violent extremist organizations.” Alternatively, they followed Ronald Reagan’s example in focusing their ire on specific bad actors. By implication, removing the likes of Qadhafi, Saddam Hussein, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, Slobodan Milošević, Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi held the key to putting things right.
Today, all but one of these unsavory figures have passed from the scene, their departure bringing the United States not one whit closer to a definitive outcome. And although American airstrikes or commandos may one day bag the sole remaining survivor—ISIS leader al-Baghdadi—no reason exists to expect his elimination to have a decisive effect.
Indeed, today the problems besetting the Greater Middle East are substantially greater than they were when large numbers of U.S. forces first began venturing into the region. We may argue over the underlying sources of those problems and about how to allocate culpability. Multiple factors are involved, among them pervasive underdevelopment, a dearth of enlightened local leadership, the poisonous legacy of European imperialism, complications stemming from the founding of Israel, deep historical divisions within Islam itself, and the challenge of reconciling faith with modernity in a region where religion pervades every aspect of daily life. But there is no arguing that U.S. efforts to alleviate the dysfunction so much in evidence have failed abysmally.
In circumstances such as this, there are two broad ways of employing military power. The first is to wait things out—insulating yourself from the problem’s worst effects while promoting a nonviolent solution from within. This requires patience and comes with no guarantee of ultimate success. With all the usual caveats attached, this is the approach the United States took during the Cold War. The second approach is more direct. It aims to eliminate the problem through sustained, relentless military action. This entails less patience but incurs greater near-term costs. After a certain amount of shilly-shallying, it was this head-on approach that the Union adopted during the Civil War.
In the War for the Greater Middle East, the United States chose neither to contain nor to crush, instead charting a course midway in between. In effect, it chose aggravation. With politicians and generals too quick to declare victory and with the American public too quick to throw their hands up when faced with adversity, U.S. forces rarely stayed long enough to finish the job. Instead of intimidating, U.S. military efforts have annoyed, incited and generally communicated a lack of both competence and determination.
In what ranks as the ultimate irony, the circumstances that had made the Persian Gulf worth fighting for in the first place have ceased to pertain. If today the American way of life still depends, for better or for worse, on having access to plentiful reserves of oil and natural gas, then the Western Hemisphere, not the Persian Gulf, deserves top billing in the Pentagon’s hierarchy of strategic priorities. Defending Canada and Venezuela should take precedence over defending Saudi Arabia and Iraq. To put it another way, the United States would be better served to secure its own neighborhood rather than vainly attempting to police the Greater Middle East—and it would likely enjoy greater success, to boot.
Even so, shorn of its initial rationale, the War for the Greater Middle East continues. That the ongoing enterprise may someday end—that U.S. troops will finally depart—appears so unlikely as to make the prospect unworthy of discussion. Like the war on drugs or the war on poverty, the War for the Greater Middle East has become a permanent fixture in American life and is accepted as such.
Partly this is because the ongoing war has long since acquired a perfidious seal of bipartisan approval, with both Republicans and Democrats alike implicated. Politicians aspiring to high office, especially those contemplating a bid for the presidency, find it more expedient to “support the troops” (and therefore the war) than to question the war’s efficacy or to propose alternative approaches to satisfying U.S. objectives in the Islamic world. A particular campaign that goes awry like Somalia or Iraq or Libya may attract passing attention, but never the context in which that campaign was undertaken. We can be certain that the election of 2016 will be no different. The War for the Greater Middle East awaits its Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern.
Perhaps most important, there is this: Thus far, at least, Americans themselves appear oblivious to what is occurring. Policymakers have successfully insulated the public from the war’s negative effects. Reliance on a professional military places the burden of service and sacrifice onto a very small percentage of citizens and lets everyone else off the hook. The resort to deficit spending to underwrite the war’s costs sloughs off onto future generations the onus of paying the bills.
It’s not that Americans today actively support the war in the same sense that their grandparents supported World War II. It’s that they see no particular reason to attend one way or another to the war’s progress or likely outcome. In a fundamental sense, the war is not their concern.
In the 21st century, the prerequisites of freedom, abundance and security are changing. Geopolitically, Asia is eclipsing in importance all other regions apart perhaps from North America itself. The emerging problem set—coping with the effects of climate change, for example—is global and will require a global response. Whether Americans are able to preserve the privileged position to which they are accustomed will depend on how well and how quickly the United States adapts the existing “pattern of relationships” to fit these fresh circumstances.
Amid such challenges, the afflictions besetting large portions of the Islamic world will undoubtedly persist. But their relative importance to the United States as determinants of American well-being will diminish, a process even today already well advanced even if U.S. national security priorities have yet to reflect this fact.
In this context, the War for the Greater Middle East becomes a diversion that Americans can ill afford.
Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/04/middle-east-foreign-policy-afghanistan-unwinnable-213778#ixzz45aOqBziP
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