Bombs Away! America’s Latest Misguided Strategic Fad

by James A. Russell

You know you’re in trouble when a group of State Department diplomats (of all people) join the hawkish consensus calling for an open-ended commitment to start blasting away at Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Somehow they think that yet more death and destruction will short-circuit a civil war that has already killed tens of thousands and displaced nearly half the country’s population.

As indicated by press reports, the group of 51 diplomats called for a “judicious use of stand-off and air weapons” as part of a more “hard nosed” US-led diplomatic process to convince Assad to stop killing more innocent people in violation of a non-existent ceasefire. The diplomats also reportedly pointed to the moral dimensions of the suffering of the Syrian people as a principal reason for the US to take the lead in ratcheting up the pressure on Assad via US air and missile strikes. So the argument goes, the more bombs we drop on Assad, the more likely he’ll be to give up his fight for regime survival.

Regrettably, the State Department diplomats are not alone. Their sentiments reflect a disturbing, mystifying, and frightening consensus in the foreign policy establishment in Washington DC and elsewhere that the United States needs to more aggressively intervene around the world to police the Western-oriented rules-based liberal international order.

The latest example of this consensus is embodied the Center for New American Security’s May 2016 report titled Extending American Power: Strategies to Expand US Engagement. The report’s authors consist of establishment republican and democratic luminaries ranging from Robert Kagan, Kurt Campbell, Eric Edelman, Stephen Hadley, Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Elliott Abrams, and prominent potential Clinton administration defense secretary candidate Michele Flournoy. One suspects that they would have happily included the internal State Department memo on Syria as an appendix.

These establishment experts have crafted and implemented America’s trigger-happy post-Cold War foreign policy. As noted by MIT Professor Barry Posen in his book Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy, the United States has grown steadily more aggressive in using force after the end of the Cold War—the opposite of what so many had hoped for and expected. In line with their preferred approach, most of the report’s authors strongly supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003—the greatest American strategic debacle of the modern era. This comes on the heels of the group’s other prominent failures: dual containment in Persian Gulf, the Middle East peace process, the reckless expansion of NATO, and the intervention in Libya that has created yet another failed state in the Middle East.

The disturbing part of the interventionist consensus is that it has shaped US strategy and foreign policy to disastrous affect, a fact seemingly lost on that same foreign policy establishment. The last 25 years of US foreign policy have seen a landscape littered with failures around the world resulting from ill-conceived military interventions that have helped destabilize the very international order that the foreign policy establishment supposedly seeks to preserve. The latest calls for more bombs away in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East represent a doubling down on failure.

The Obama administration has offered only the latest example of this approach by continuing a militarized foreign policy that blasts away at real and imagined enemies with robots and airplanes wherever and whenever we want with little regard for the long-term strategic consequences. All that seems to matter is the body count.

As an aside, during a recent exchange of views with colleagues from Turkey, the confused Turkish representatives asked me to explain US strategy in the Middle East. I replied that as far as I could determine, US strategy in the Middle East consisted of targeted assassinations of suspected Islamic terrorists from the air and selling and/or providing arms and training to anyone on the ground claiming to be on “our” side.

Strategy and Tactics in the Missile Age

So how did we get here? How did a country that generally exercised a kind of muscular restraint during the Cold War become so unabashedly trigger-happy?

All those many years ago, George Kennan sensibly pointed out a few assumptions that drove US strategy and foreign policy for a generation: we were inherently stronger than our enemies, time was on our side, and our principal adversary would inevitably collapse due to its own internal contradictions and weaknesses. These assumptions became operationalized in a variety of collective defense mechanisms and a general security posture that fell under the strategy of containment. Kennan argued that the actual use of force should occur only as a last resort. Why go to war when you can achieve your objectives without it? America got in trouble in places like Vietnam precisely because it abandoned containment’s sensible assumptions and overestimated its ability to impose its will on its enemies through the use of force.

Today, the foreign policy establishment’s consensus as embodied in the CNAS report has abandoned Kennan’s sensible approach and turned traditional ideas of Clausewitzian strategy upside down. Instead the new consensus venerates the pursuit of clever military tactics without sensible supporting strategic analysis.

America’s disastrous forays into Iraq and Afghanistan exemplified this approach. The George W. Bush administration believed that the clever application of military power—initially presented as “shock and awe” and then, when that failed, transposed to counterinsurgency—would somehow lead to a favorable strategic result. On the ground, America’s land forces indeed became adept at killing its enemies in these wars through creative targeted assassinations by adapting the methods perfected by the French in the Vietnamese and Algerian wars of independence. In the air, we unilaterally proclaimed the era of the unlimited global battlefield, raining down death and destruction on our suspected enemies using robots and airplanes wherever we wanted.

In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, however, we had to confront the inescapable reality that the clever tactics were for naught. Tactical proficiency proved to be meaningless in the absence of a sound strategic framework. In Afghanistan, the Taliban showed no inclination to lay down their arms. In Iraq, the country slowly dissolved into sectarian mayhem and violence. A general retreat of America’s land forces followed—though airpower and Special Forces have now replaced them in the fantastical belief that this approach will somehow succeed where the presence of thousands of troops on the ground had previously failed.

The lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya seem lost on the foreign policy commentariat and the State Department diplomats that want to go in with guns blazing into Syria. The theory is that America’s precision strikes, selectively applied, will inflict a steadily increasing level of pain on the adversary that will result in a change in behavior. Sound familiar?

Strategists such as Thomas Schelling, Herman Kahn, Albert Wohlstetter, and others initially explored such ideas in the late 1950s and 1960s at the dawn of the nuclear age. A main criticism of the theories of coercion, compellence, and deterrence was that the theories were divorced from any political context driving the strategic interaction between the adversaries.

Whether they realized it or not, Presidents Johnson and Nixon operationalized these ideas in the bombing campaigns against North Vietnam in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to convince Ho Chi Minh to lay down his arms and abandon his aims of national unification. Ho did not cooperate. He realized he could outlast us and was prepared to pay more than we were to secure victory.

In the 1990s, we tried the same ideas out on Saddam Hussein—repeatedly bombing Iraq in the belief that with each bomb we were making it more likely that Saddam would stop his objectionable behavior. Like Ho Chi Minh, Saddam did not cooperate. In fact he believed that the bombings strengthened his regime by convincing his internal and external enemies that he was still armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction. In the end, the joke was on us since Saddam had already destroyed these weapons or, in the case of a nuclear capability, never developed it in the first place. America’s misguided interactions with Iraq in the 1990s constituted one of the great intelligence deception operations of the late 20th century.

Such is life in the uncooperative and confusing international system. What makes those State Department diplomats so sure that Assad will cooperate once our bombs start raining down?

Dealing with the Consequences

And so we come full circle today with a foreign policy establishment calling for a more muscular interventionist foreign policy despite a quarter century of failures that they helped engineer. America busted Iraq and Libya apart and is now unable to deal with the dramatic unforeseen strategic consequences of these two failed states. A few Special Forces and daily airstrikes visited upon the beneficiaries of our mistakes aren’t likely to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat.

Also ignored by those calling for military intervention on moral grounds are the truly horrific human costs that have already have piled up most dramatically and tragically in the Middle East as a result of our misguided wars. A whole generation of families in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere has been driven from their homes or, alternatively, been caught in the deadly crossfire. Tens of thousands are already dead or maimed. The lucky ones are living in crowded, squalid refugee camps that they will not be leaving any time soon.

At home, our veterans and their families have borne the brunt of these disasters with thousands dead, maimed, or coping with long-term psychological damage that won’t be cured by letting them board our civilian airlines on a priority basis.

Last but not least is the economic cost of these military interventions at home with trillions of dollars wasted on misadventures that could have been spent to fix our crumbling infrastructure and our inadequate public transportation systems. Such investments would have genuinely strengthened the country. That money is gone forever: a massive opportunity cost of our wars.

Perhaps most seriously, the results of the interventionist consensus has driven the United States off whatever moral high ground it might have once held as a beacon of principle and moral authority around the world. This has been a needless frittering away of an instrumental element of our international power and authority.

We should all take note that that foreign policy establishment consensus promises to deliver more of the same death and destruction around the world. It’s a recipe for more disasters yet to come.

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. Great piece. How many trillions of dollars have been squandered on ill-advised US military adventures in the Middle East since the idiotic US invasion of Iraq in 2003?

  2. Doing something is better than doing nothing? Maybe not.

  3. A superb article. Ever since the extremely controlled, measured take-down of Saddam
    by Bush I, every intervention of ours in the Middle East has been one variety or another of disaster.

    To answer James Canning, Joseph Steiglitz, Nobel Laureate Economist, rated the third most influential economist in the world, and another economist from Harvard estimated, in March 2008, in a book-length study, that the Iraq War itself will cost $3 trillion, but events since then will probably push the total to $4 trillion, if we do not expand our current involvement, which is to be seen. Iraq and Afghanistan together will probably cost $6 trillion if we manage to shut down our involvement soon. A tiny piece of the picture will be my cousin Ben, who will get checks for the next 40 years for having been exploded in Iraq.

    I am troubled by a series of “accidental” bombings of the Iraqi Shi’ia militias fighting the Islamic State by the US coalition air forces, which might be an expression of frustration with the fact that the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias are about the only steady forces available to the Iraqi government, the national army forces trained by the US at a supposed cost of $25 billion having repeatedly evaporated when confronted by much smaller and more lightly armed Islamic State forces. We have to accept that Iran and Iranian proxies are our allies in this phase of the Iraqi mess.

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