by James A. Russell
All wars, no matter how long or short they may be, draw on historical and political context that is germane to the application of force in pursuit of strategic objectives. The ongoing American-led bombing campaign to influence the outcome of the internal struggles for political power inside Syria and Iraq is no exception.
The United States once again finds itself drawn into an expeditionary imperial policing mission in the Middle East—a mission rife with political and strategic contradictions that are not easily reconciled. The contradictions are multifarious.
First, President Obama has clearly been pressured into acting due in part to the public outcry over the publicized beheadings of two American journalists. Yet we are also going to war partly to protect a regime in Riyadh that routinely beheads people as an instrument of its Sharia-based system of justice that is justifiably condemned by human rights groups around the world. According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudis beheaded 46 people in 2014. They have also reportedly beheaded convicted criminals who were afforded little or no due process. Is this a country we should be defending? Shouldn’t we be as outraged by Saudi behavior as we are by the behavior of a group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS)?
Second, we are going back to war to protect regimes that helped create ISIS—regimes that dumped responsibility for “doing something” about ISIS into our laps (aided and abetted by neoconservative right-wing commentators in the US) all the while decrying the lack of American leadership.
Some reports have suggested that the al-Thanis in Qatar are a principle supporter of ISIS, funneling arms and money to the radical extremists. Yet the United States is protecting Qatar via the combined air operations center at al-Udied air base as well as through the heavy brigade-prepositioning site located nearby. Why should the US protect a regime that is working at cross-purposes with American and regional interests? The same calculus holds for the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia—all of whom have reportedly directly or indirectly aided Islamic extremist groups seeking to topple the Assad regime in Syria.
Third, all the Gulf States are directly and indirectly protected by the United States and have bought countless billions of dollars of the most advanced American military equipment in the world. All these militaries take part in a robust series of joint military exercises with the US. Why shouldn’t these states (in cooperation with Iraq) assume principal responsibility for taking military action against ISIS?
Fourth, the United States is again embracing its preferred policy instruments of airstrikes and inserting special forces to build indigenous forces despite a regional landscape littered with wreckage that speaks to the failure of this approach. The Iraqi army, built through the tireless efforts of thousands of American military personnel and paid for by US taxpayers—collapsed in short order when ISIS fighters appeared near Mosul.
In Afghanistan, the legacy of the airpower-special forces model led to an inconclusive 10-year commitment of thousands of military personnel that eventually embarked upon the (failed) most ambitious and expensive social and political engineering project ever attempted in the modern era. Why would we expect this model to be any more successful today after trying it out over the last 10 years without decisively favorable results?
Fifth, the decision to re-engage in Iraq is a product of the disintegration of strategy and strategic thought in the United States. This has lead to a series of haphazard and ill-advised missions dropped into the laps of our armed forces by political leaders. Military leaders have also aided and abetted these ill-informed decisions with bad advice and misplaced confidence in new technologies and clever tactics that sought to apply engineering concepts on the battlefield called “effects based operations.” No amount of clever tactics could rescue this country from its faulty strategic decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, and it’s not clear why they will be any more successful today in strikes against ISIS. The self-declared Islamic State is not principally a military problem—it’s a political problem created by the Syrian civil war and the disintegration of the inept American-installed Iraqi government in Baghdad.
An initial step in building any national strategy is to identify threats to the nation’s security and then decide which of these threats warrant attention and, in the worst cases, direct military action. Intelligence officials have admitted that ISIS poses no direct threat to the United States. So why are we attacking this group, which will almost certainly lead to violent reactions and attacks against the US?
Recent history is regrettably littered with America’s demonstrated eagerness to wildly inflate threats beyond any reasonable assessment during an era in which, by historical standards, the country has never been safer. The sensationalist and hysterical press reporting on ISIS might have been appropriate had General Heinz Guderian returned from the grave to lead a renewed panzer assault on humanity, but is hardly appropriate for a few thousand irregular militia brandishing RPG’s careening around the deserts of Iraq in their Toyota pickup trucks 8,000 miles and two continents away from America’s borders.
Past as Prologue
The historical and political context of America’s latest bombing campaign in the region contains many intertwined strands that stretch back to the 20th century history that resulted in American backing of the autocratic Sunni regimes of the Middle East.
The most recent US bombing mission in the Middle East recalls unsuccessful attempts by Britain and France in the post-World War I period to control regional politics by bombing restive locals—tactics embraced because they, like us, could not or would not commit ground troops as an instrument to maintain order. Britain turned over the administration of its post-WWI domains to the Royal Air Force (RAF), which routinely machine-gunned and bombed protesting locals from above during the interwar period. In a series of celebrated (and back to the future) engagements in the 1920s, the RAF repeatedly drove back Saudi Ikwhan raiders seeking loot and booty in southern Iraq in the 1920s. France employed similar tactics in Syria during its occupation there after WWI.
These familial and security-sector corporate elites in the Middle East and Persian Gulf comfortably folded themselves under the protective umbrella of American power in the second half of the 20th century, which gave them free reign to focus on building up their police-state security apparatuses to control their populations and political opponents at home. Whether we realized it or, the US was intervening in the domestic politics of these states, and ISIS is in no small measure one result of the battle for political power that is unfolding across the region and which may take several generations to conclude.
Another important historic strand in this story is the American strategy initially enunciated as the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957 and subsequently endorsed by various succeeding Presidents that sought to build local security sector institutions through arms and training so as to minimize the need for the presence of large numbers of military personnel to protect and further American interests. The approach presented in the Eisenhower doctrine was repackaged in the regional approaches that occurred under the Nixon Doctrine. The latest iteration of these doctrines is the Obama administration’s focus on building up host-nation counter-terrorism capabilities—in places where the states are already focused on quashing internal political dissent.
The American approach to the fostering of these regional elites drew upon the French and British models of exercising imperial control based on the principle of divide and rule. Under this model, the imperial powers empowered elites based on sectarian, religious, and or tribal affiliation by integrating them into the security sector and public administration. These institutions, in turn, became instruments of the patronage networks established by the elites as well as powerful tools for the elites to maintain coercive power over their populations.
All of these strands helped deliver the United States to a regional approach emphasizing its regional alliances with the Sunni elites—elites that may at one time have shared our interests in keeping the region free from the godless communists. Today it is more difficult to see the glue that binds us together in these security partnerships.
The legacy of America’s strategic obtuseness can be traced back to the post-World War II era when the advent of nuclear weapons made the prospect of total war unthinkable. While a rich strategic theoretical literature developed nuclear strategy and deterrence, there was little corresponding attention devoted the problem of fighting limited wars for limited objectives short of all-out war.
The result was a series of haphazard decisions to fight in countries like Korea and Vietnam in which the objectives of using force became less and less clear to political and military leaders alike. The promulgation of the Weinberger and Powell doctrines in the 1980s, arguing that America should only fight wars where the stakes justified the commitment of overwhelming force, did little to clarify whether and when to engage in limited wars.
The creation of the volunteer force after Vietnam represented a partial answer to the conundrum that sought to divorce the armed services from society, improve its professionalism and performance in the field, and avoid the “stab in the back” to the military as the public soured on these wars. But the tactically proficient force did not solve the basic strategic conundrum of helping political and military leaders decide when and under what circumstances to fight limited wars.
Shoehorned into this dilemma came the end of the Cold War and then the 9/11 attacks, which paved the way for the substitution of slogans for anything remotely resembling sound strategic thinking. Terrorists were quickly substituted for the nuclear-armed red menace and became identified as a central threat to the republic. Strategy and strategic terms quickly devolved into language like “wars of necessity,” “wars of choice,” the “long war,” “coalitions of the willing,” and the “war on terror.” All of these terms simply obfuscated and further muddied the conceptual muddle that already surrounded strategy, which in turn fed the overreaction to the 9/11 attacks and the disastrous US invasion of Iraq.
The decision to bomb ISIS with a coalition of the willing represents only the latest in a string of decisions that reflect America’s inability to come to grips with the role that force should, and should not play as an instrument of national strategy. That strategic obtuseness has become combined with an outdated and increasingly contradictory strategic posture throughout the Middle East that has delivered the United States to yet another expeditionary imperial policing operation of questionable strategic relevance with ill-defined objectives.