Neither Strategic Nor Patient

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It remains a difficult mission.  As I’ve indicated from the start, this is not something that is going to be solved overnight.

Would you rather get one bullet in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?

This month marks the thirteen year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in retaliation for the September 11 terrorist attacks. Only one month ago, President Barack Obama laid out his plan to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. In the words of Department of Defense spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, everybody will have to exercise “strategic patience” as the new air strike campaign against the Islamic State proceeds. Nevertheless, this month also marked the thirteen year “long war” against Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Iraq (and around the world) and the American people can be excused for demanding more immediate results. Implicitly, Obama's decision to strike now is a decision to "act early" before the Islamic State becomes really entrenched. However, acting early is the exact opposite of strategic patience.

When President George W. Bush increased the force committed to Iraq in 2007, more than a number of observers noted the war in Iraq was exceeding the number of years it took for the Allied Powers to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. The comparison should have induced caution back then and it remains just as potent today as it illuminates what strategic patience would entail if genuinely practiced.

One argument in favor of striking the Islamic State now recognizes that the United States and allies possess an overwhelming military advantage against the Islamic State’s current configuration as a small irregular force. Moreover, strikes would be justified in light of the group’s barbarous acts.

The argument is an echo of lessons learned in the wake of World War II; if Great Britain, France, and the United States had only actively opposed, rather than appeased, Nazi Germany from the outset, then the calamity of the Second World War -- and the Holocaust -- would have been avoided.

Corresponding thought experiments include examining how Nazi Germany’s various gambles, such as the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 or the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, would have been foiled if the Western powers had rallied militarily.

The argument is persuasive because, in retrospect, delay only resulted in a greater, bloodier conflict.  More pointedly, if presented with such evils, then those possessing the capacity to respond should act.

Revisiting the state of British, French, and American power between 1936 and 1938 underscores how important the above latter point is.

In 1936, Nazi Germany had generally recovered from the Great Depression and had begun its rearmament. In contrast, Great Britain, France, and the United States were still coping with diminished trade, low industrial production, and high unemployment. Moreover, Nazi (and Fascist and Soviet) dictatorship was deemed the future, while Western democracy was judged passé and decadent; the difference in morale was considerable.

The Western powers might have thwarted Nazi Germany in 1936 -- Adolf Hitler admitted as much later -- but, by 1938, even if inclined, the outcome would still have been uncertain, just as it was through 1943. Moreover, the Western powers would have been deemed the aggressors; the abstraction of treaty violations or adjusting the borders of a newly created state did not register as casus belli with the British or French public or the wider “international community”.

Even the invasion of Poland in September 1939 was followed by the eight months of the sitzkreig, during which the Western powers undertook no major operations against Nazi Germany. Only after Nazi Germany invaded Norway did the Western powers commit substantial ground forces.

After failing to defend Norway, and later France, the incumbent British government resigned whereupon the king invited Winston Churchill to take over. Churchill, in concert with American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, would eventually lead the Allied Powers in the ultimately successful war against Nazi Germany.

Acting earlier does not necessarily mean a war would have still ended in the Western powers’ favor or after six years as it did in reality.

The argument is controversial because the subsequent “Munich Syndrome” led to the aggressive containment strategy practiced by the United States vis-a-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The results were mixed however. In Western Europe, the armed vigil kept Soviet aggression at bay; in Southeast Asia, armed intervention sapped American blood, treasure, and credibility (and nearly tore the country apart at home).

If the merits of exercising patience cannot be gleaned from the experience leading up to World War II, in which the principal agents were other powers, then perhaps the example of the American Civil War might help.

In the case of the War Between The States, again the premise of acting earlier is that the "original sin" of slavery would have been extinguished sooner.

Unlike Nazi Germany, slave-holding states were not militaristically aggressive. (Acknowledged, they were keenly interested in expanding slavery into new territories to ensure its survival and were prepared to support slaveholders in contested states like Kansas.) Furthermore, the evidence of slavery’s barbarity was well known prior to the outbreak of the conflict.

Similarly, some counterfactuals examine what would have happened if the South had won, not necessarily whether the North acted earlier, implying that, tragically, emancipation would not have occurred and, equally consequential, the American Republic’s future would have been permanently undermined.

Unlike the Western powers in the World War II example, the North possessed the capacity to overturn slavery in the South by force. The North had an ample population and an industrial base; the South was demographically smaller and economically backward.

Unlike World War II, acting earlier would have (probably) still ended with a Northern victory as well the eradication of slavery. Whether victory would have been achieved in four years is an open question, but the outcome would have probably still favored the North.

Nevertheless, the Civil War did not occur earlier. In 1850, the northern and southern sections almost came to blows over the fate of the territories acquired from Mexico. Only an intricate legislative compromise secured the peace. When the Supreme Court invalidated the compromise in 1857, as part of the Dred Scott decision, northern agitation again swelled, but still war did not erupt.

War, of course, did not erupt until the April 1861 exchange at Fort Sumter in South Carolina one month after Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated and four months after the first southern state seceded.

Tellingly, the conditions in April 1861 mirror those of May 1940.

That hostilities erupted in April 1861 and not December 1860, January 1861, or Inauguration Day 1861 (much less 1850 or 1857) was not the result of purposeful maneuvering on the part of Northern or Southern leadership but of the extant military circumstances that focused the incumbent leadership on the existential nature of the stakes.

Without a casus belli and a resolute leader at the helm of a unified country, Northern incursions in 1860 (or Western offensives in 1938) would have been simple aggression.

Neither ingredient is in place today however.

Broadcasted beheadings are tragic and proof of the Islamic State’s nihilism and affronts to humanity, but they should not be the pretext for waging war. The Islamic State would welcome a war with the United States and performed those executions specifically to provoke a military response. A renewed American war against Islam only serves the Islamic State leadership’s ends, especially if led by a president who promised to extract the country from the region.

If Obama commits ground forces, then one can readily expect the Islamic State’s propaganda arm to gleefully recruit jihadists by depicting the country as fundamentally militaristic and anti-Islamic, regardless of who the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president is.

Not that Obama has inspired confidence. Each year since his second inauguration has competed for annus horribilis. In the wake of Libya, Syria, the Ukraine, and now ISIS, the president’s credibility is simply non-existent.

Acting earlier will not, whether it is 1936 or 1850, ensure the desired outcome because the corresponding confluence of individuals and events have simply not occurred, and nor will the extant circumstances, no matter how similar.

The more immediate history of the war on terror is just as instructive. In August 1998, President William Clinton could have retaliated with ground forces against Al Qaeda for its attack on two American embassies in Africa, but as the Kosovo campaign later revealed, the administration had not reconfigured the armed forces for rapid deployment or longer than expected contingencies, or ensured substantial public support for the undertaking.

When America finally did retaliate, President Bush blessed the unusual Special Forces-led campaign and possessed the entire country's support.  Within three weeks, Al Qaeda would be dislodged and their host, the Taliban, would be ousted.

If the Islamic State is committed to conquering Iraq and Syria and taking it back to the seventh century, then America should simply bide its time until this latter day Taliban exposes itself again.

Furthermore, waging a war of ideas would be futile as well. Consider the above examples again. How successful were moral counter-arguments against the slaveholding South or Nazi Germany before the war that decisively defeated their ideologies?

All wars are tragic and lamentable, reinforcing why they should always be the last resort. Their scope, magnitude, and stakes can prompt judgments about their relative value. Revisiting the consequences of the Munich Syndrome illuminates the value of strategic patience. America experienced far less dead and wounded in the Vietnam War than World War II, but how many Americans, elected decision-makers and citizens alike, would prefer to relive the Vietnam experience?

Rushing back to Mesopotamia is not strategic patience; true strategic patience would conserve American power until a genuine casus belli has passed and the American people are united behind action.

10/11/2014 6:18PM BST

According to Telegraph reporting, Iraqi officials have issued a desperate plea for America to bring US ground troops back to the embattled country, as heavily armed Islamic State militants came within striking distance of Baghdad. Amid reports that Isil forces have advanced as far as Abu Ghraib, a town that is effectively a suburb of Baghdad, a senior governor claimed up to 10,000 fighters from the movement were now poised to assault the capital.

As one veteran of the conflict commented, “i can only imagine there will now be no shortage of experts and hawkish members of congress screaming for the President to do the most insane thing possible, and that is to send in troops "to stabilize" the situation.  and we'll again be heading back into the hornet's nest…”

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