“Thirteen years ago this October, we started bombing Muslims in the Middle East. We’re still bombing them. Does any sane person think that 13 years from now, we’re not going to still be bombing them?” Democratic operative James Carville answered his own question. “Of course we will. And… maybe there is no alternative.”
If the Obama administration fails to articulate an achievable military and political end game there will not only be “no alternative,” but the odds are good that the war will drift into more places, engulfing more people, and engendering more casualties and resentments as it goes. The U.S. will stick with it only until public support dissipates, and then we will be gone. Again. The president may call the war “over,” as he did in Iraq, but those we leave behind will have a different view.
In 1971, at the height of polarized debate over the Vietnam War, Columbia University Press published a book titled Every War Must End, by defense analyst and later Reagan Administration official Fred C. Ikle. Ikle examined the painful and often unsatisfactory process by which 20th-century wars have come to a close. A 2005 edition addressed the early stages of the war in Iraq, in which Ikle posited that the allied emphasis on the punishment of Iraqi leaders, failure to seek a formal surrender under which the Iraqi army could have been rebuilt, and failure to provide security and order for the public caused the United States to remain in Iraq longer than necessary with fewer positive results.
Not quite a pessimist, Ikle told an audience:
The fact that from generation to generation, powerful people make the same horrendous mistakes allows us to get meaningful lessons by writing about the past. Indeed, when it comes to starting, fighting and ending wars we find that we, our ancestors, and those before them have continued that march of folly… from the Battle of Troy to Vietnam. Now happily folly is sometimes canceled by prudence and foresight, and sometimes by sheer good luck. The good luck, or you might call it providence, explains why we are still here.
Technological progress, which has been accelerating since the industrial revolution can, of course, easily exacerbate human folly by giving humans more powerful destructive tools.
For Ikle, who passed away in 2011, the essential lesson was that it is much easier to start a war than to successfully conclude one. Having achievable aims — both military and political — and stopping when they have been met is key to success. The alternative is to slog along with grinding casualties until the conflict peters out ignominiously when public opinion no longer supports the effort. The French, he pointed out, were the military victors in Algeria — as were the Americans in Vietnam — but in both cases, the Western power withdrew without a political victory, and public disillusionment hampered the government at home and abroad for years after.
Rather than taking that lesson to heart, the media, punditry and Congress (both parties) have focused on entirely different — not irrelevant, but different — issues as ISIS extends itself in the Middle East and the president prepares for war. To wit:
- The president, though commander in chief, lacks military experience and an affinity for military thinking. But with his lawyer-not-military background, he is choosing to personally approve air strikes against ISIS, as he personally vets names on the never-finished “kill list” and personally makes the decision to conduct individual drone strikes. The emphasis on tactics diverts attention from strategy.
In shades of America’s past, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence until 2010, indeed said the intense focus on discrete strikes came at the expense of long-term goals. “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town.’ [It] reminded me of body counts in Vietnam.”
- The military hierarchy, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey and Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, believes the “no boots on the ground” strategy will need revision. No one knows better than they that no plan survives contact with the enemy.
- Vice President Biden left the door wide open to ground troops last week, telling an audience in Iowa, “We’ll determine that based on how the effort goes,” expressing less than full confidence in the President’s plan.
- The “coalition” includes members that have proven ill equipped to fight independently — or fight at all; or who may have loyalties inimical to our own; or who are shape-shifters depending on their own requirements for survival.
These are serious concerns. The American people rightly want to know under what conditions and with what allies their sons and daughters will be sent to the Middle East again.
But through Ikle’s prism, all these are peripheral to the fact that the American-air-plus-undefined-allied-boots-on-the-ground war against ISIS has no markers for success; no metric for determining what victory would look like or when victory has been achieved. “Degradation” is not a metric, nor is “destruction.” If there is no way to know when the coalition has achieved its maximum political and military success, there is no way to know when — if ever — to stop fighting and consolidate gains.
Since Every War Must End, it behooves the Administration and its supporters to take seriously the caveat that it is easier to get into war than to get out, and formulate achievable goals with commensurate means before sliding farther down the slope.