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Strategy without Illusions

Andrew Bacevich, a graduate of West Point and a Vietnam Veteran who later earned a Ph.D. in history at Princeton and taught at Boston University, has already written two critiques of American defense policy and strategy that have  made the New York Times best seller list. This book seems likely to become a third. Its thesis is simple: the disparate theaters of American military engagement in the Greater Middle East, extending as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan in the East and toward Libya and beyond in the West, reveal a consistent pattern of strategic incoherence on the part of the United States.

Since the Carter administration, the United States has relied too much on the military instrument of power to address political problems it neither understands nor is likely to understand, but which are largely impervious to military solutions. Reflexive military interventions usually exacerbate these political problems, but neither US political nor US military leaders have recognized this fact, so they opt for more of the same again and again, thus pouring good money (and lives!) after bad to redeem irredeemable mistakes. The long-term risks of stubborn persistence in efforts to shape the Middle East by force are huge. New and potentially far more dangerous challenges are on the horizon, especially in Asia. “Washington finds itself playing yesterday’s game and playing it badly, when a more important game with different rules is already well underway.”

Bacevich’s subject is much more than a discussion of military history. Without saying so explicitly, he compels his readers to think about what is sometimes called “grand strategy”, the process by which political and military leaders relate their activities in multiple theaters over prolonged periods of time to obtain enduring national interests. Not infrequently, however, those who want to talk about grand strategy do so in the guise of discussing military history. So, for example, the most famous grand strategist in American history, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a professor at the US Naval War College at the turn of the 20th Century, in multiple books devoted to the question of the influence of sea power on history, chose to write as an historian of the American War for Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, and many other wars to present his bold thesis that the United States had to join the ranks of the great powers of the world.  The best way to do so was by becoming a formidable naval power, with coaling stations, fleets of battleships, the Panama Canal, and overseas territories, like Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, to enable it to compete with other great powers at sea, though at the risk that Americans might sell the soul of their republic to the trappings of empire.

In like manner, Bacevich does not so much write a history of America’s wars in the Middle East as explain what, in his view, led almost all of them to fail except one. His critique of what went wrong points towards his own view of what American grand strategy for this troubled region should be with this fundamental difference from Mahan. Whereas the Mahan challenged Americans to understand and accept the perceived necessities of military power for American security and prosperity, Bacevich warns that militarizing American policy in the Middle East has not succeeded at accomplishing American objectives, is unlikely to do so in the future, and usually makes a bad situation worse.

For Bacevich, America’s war for the Middle East, has gone through three overlapping phases: containment and stabilization, transformation and shaping, and half-hearted disengagement and diffusion. The first phase began in 1979 in the Carter administration during the revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and lasted through the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Until the Iranian Revolution, the United States had come to rely on Iran, increasingly, as a regional sheriff to police a bad neighborhood. The revolution left Iran incapable of sustaining that role and seemingly implacably at odds with the United States. In 1980, an election year, when he appeared weak in his efforts to negotiate the release or manage the escape of American hostages in Iran, President Carter, alarmed that the Soviets might move further south from Afghanistan into Iran and thence to dominate the Persian Gulf, announced what came to be called the Carter Doctrine.

The United States would regard any effort by a foreign power to control the Persian Gulf (and the free flow of oil) as a threat to the vital interests of the US, i.e., something it would go to war to prevent. So Carter established a Rapid Deployment Force, later renamed CENTCOM for Central Command, to deter and if necessary defeat such an aggression. In other words, Carter was applying a template of containment and deterrence from the Cold War to the Middle East, where diverse conflicts among and within states in that troubled neighborhood arose from and were shaped by historical forces that did not fit that template well. Since that template worked in post-WWII Europe and Asia, however, it was assumed it would work in the Middle East too. All that was necessary was an intelligent and imaginative use of American military power, whether in the failed attempt to rescue hostages in the US embassy in Iran in Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, or the covert support of jihadists in Afghanistan, or the development of a quick reaction force, with a major base in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, to deter the Soviets and project American power anywhere in theater.

The Reagan administration doubled down on the Carter Doctrine, especially in supporting jihadists in freedom fighter drag to bleed the Soviet Union and in the strategy of dual containment: using Iran to contain Iraq and Iraq to contain Iran during the Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988. The unintended consequences were huge, since many jihadists came to believe they were responsible for the demise of one superpower, the Soviets, and thus might challenge the United States too. And supporting Iraq against Iran set some of the conditions for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, with Iraq coveting the wealth of Kuwait to pay off its war debts. Significantly, Bacevich does not ask whether these unintended consequences, which occur in almost all wars, might have been worth the price.

If the more aggressive Reagan Doctrine helped bring the Soviets to their knees, then Islamist terrorism, a much smaller threat than global nuclear war, might be considered an acceptable evil in the pursuit of defeating a greater threat. That counterargument nonetheless points toward the most important conclusion from  Bacevich’s critique of American strategy in the Middle East today. The biggest killer in the 20th Century was war among great powers, with over 20 million dead in the First World War and at least 50 million in the Second World War. A sense of proportion ought to lead to a sense of priorities. Preventing great power war in Asia especially ought to be a fundamental priority of the United States, especially since it is now much less dependent on imported oil than previously, but it has been diverted to unwinnable conflicts in a secondary theater that drain its will and resources.

Even while the United States was focusing on containment and stabilization, must notably in the Gulf War of 1990-91, which pushed Iraq out of Kuwait, Bacevich notes that some began to think of more creative uses of American military power. With the end of the Cold War, it was unclear what role America’s unrivaled military might would play in the world, but defeating Iraq suggested to some that the United States might “shape” the region, something Bacevich compares to using a sledge hammer to do the work of a “sculptor’s chisel”. After all, Americans were at the beginning of a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).

The Gulf War seemed to prove that the United States might use its technological superiority, especially in the information revolution, to lift the fog of war and dominate battlefields with very few casualties on its side. The Gulf War created the illusion of cheap military victories. Tentative steps toward policies of regime change in the Reagan, the first Bush, and the subsequent Clinton administrations, and the surprisingly quick (and, at the time, low cost) overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, supplied almost irresistible momentum to the efforts of the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Cheney to transform the Middle East into something Americans could live with comfortably, most notably by invading Iraq in 2003.

When combined with fear of another 9/11, the temptation to shape rather than react to events in the Middle East gave birth to the Bush Doctrine of “preventive” war against “rogue” states presumed to be supporting terrorists. Unfortunately for the United States, the diverse actors in both Iraq and Afghanistan proved more than resilient to the RMA. It could enable the United States to defeat conventional forces rapidly, but it was largely useless to put Humpty-Dumpty nations back together again.  The problems in both states were political. Only political solutions could address them and only if they arose from the locals whose willingness to seek such solutions, rather than enlist the United States as a proxy to fight their rivals, was dubious from the start. Hubristic fantasies of transforming the Middle East in the American image had to give way to the reality of a quagmire of escalating occupation costs with no clear idea what purposes the military was meant to achieve, who the enemy was, or the nature of the conflicts in which Americans were engaged. How low the mighty had fallen!

By 2008, it was clearly time for a change, both military and political, for the United States. Such is the story of General Petreaus, aka King David, whose surge and emphasis on counter-insurgency (COIN) in Iraq did arrest an escalating religious civil war, but also proved to be no more than a Band-Aid. Americans were tired not merely of the war in Iraq, but of war as such. Even for the Bush administration the surge was never meant to be more than temporary, a way to buy time for Iraq’s fractious political leaders to make a grand bargain (that never happened). The goal was to have American forces out of Iraq no later than 2011. The Obama administration found itself compelled to embrace a mini-surge in Afghanistan, but again, it was meant to be temporary with first NATO and then the US handing the ball off to friendly locals as soon as possible, but once again, the enemy refused to cooperate and Afghan political leaders were no more capable of uniting to defeat the Taliban than Iraq’s political leaders had been to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq. And time was running out. Not only had the president campaigned on gradual disengagement from these wars, but also he made clear that he believed the United States was overextended in a peripheral theater that was draining assets that were needed elsewhere. It was time to pivot toward the Pacific.

To paraphrase Al Pacino in Godfather III, just when the United States thought it was out, or about to get out, it got pulled back in, with the civil war in Syria and rise of the Islamic State, so far only a marginal threat to the United States, whatever its atrocities, leading to reflexive calls for military action. By this time, one might think that Americans would have begun to question whether it was time to cut their losses and move on to more productive uses of their power, but Bacevich sees a remarkable consensus among liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican, political leaders that force remains a viable solution if only we focus on “smart power”. Bacevich demurs: there are two main ways in which to use military power, one, which was the American grand strategy of the Cold War, is to husband that power for when it might be most necessary and thus to contain and deter rather than fight wars. The other, which became the Union strategy in the American Civil War, is to mobilize all resources to achieve victory as quickly possible.

In the Obama administration, Americans chose a middle path, neither all in nor all out, which Bacevich sees as aggravating rather than weakening the political forces at play in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  And the Bush Doctrine of preventive war did not fade away; instead it was transformed as the United States sought regime change in Libya under the guise of humanitarian intervention and stood up AFRICOM (Africa Command) hoping that air power, drones, and “light footprint” special operations forces might enable local forces to defeat various Islamist groups across the continent. While the total number of American forces in the Middle East decreased, the US presence also became more diffuse with the great question being whether the conflict with terrorists has spread, despite all of America’s effort, of its own momentum, or rather, the Americans are spreading the conflict themselves by choosing to fight in regions where, despite their protestations, they are bound to be perceived as imperialists and crusaders. Not even Rome at its peak of power had as many far-flung military commands as the United States today: EUCOM (European Command), NORTHCOM (Northern Command, including Canada), SOUTHCOM (Southern Command for Latin America), CENTCOM, and PACOM (Pacific Command). The only region of the world where it does not have a military command is the Antarctic, but penguins beware! If the future resembles the past, Uncle Sam is coming.

There is much to object to in this book. For the time being, there may not be much alternative to using US air power, drones, and special forces to disrupt the Islamic State while local forces gradually take back territory in Iraq and Syria. Like the work of Mahan, Bacevich’s book is more for a popular than a scholarly audience, so he rarely wrestles with alternative interpretations of policies, strategies, and operations in the different theaters of the seemingly endless struggle. His work is not a polemic, but it is an indictment – and what prosecutor introduces evidence on behalf of the defense?

If we take Bacevich on his own terms, his book nonetheless deserves to be another best seller for two reasons. First, it is among the very first to look for a pattern to America’s wars in the greater Middle East over the past 40 years from Kabul to Baghdad to Kosovo to Tripoli and beyond. We might not always like the ways in which he connects the dots, but at least he is attempting to do so. Second, and more importantly, strategy is fundamentally about making intelligent choices. Among them is when, whether, and how to use military power. In contrast to Mahan, Bacevich stresses the limited utility of military force, the opportunity costs of using it, and its unintended consequences. This is strategic thinking without illusions, the first step toward getting over our massive hangover from America’s wars in the Middle East.

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