The apparent beheading of American journalist James Foley adds a particularly gruesome and tragic twist to the sports event-like reporting of our attempts to thwart the advances of the Islamic State in Iraq. Foley’s execution will only ensure that the “what to do about ISIS” quandary confronting US policy makers in Washington will rise to the top of President Obama’s “to do” list.
Yesterday, we blew up some Islamic State armored personnel in northern Iraq. Tomorrow, who knows where our airplanes and missiles will strike? The public sits in rapt attention. Have we stopped the Islamic State today along Route 1 or somewhere else? Who will be the next unlucky hostage to forfeit his or her life in this awful real life drama?
America’s return to military action in Iraq — this time without ground troops — bespeaks yet another attempt to rescue the country and the region from the multiple and disastrous unintended consequences of invading Iraq in 2003.
What’s left of Iraq litters the landscape like shattered glass, its people scattered in surrounding countries, and posse-like militias taking the law in their own hands amid the wreckage of military and government institutions we tried to build from the ground up at the cost of billions of dollars and thousands of US lives.
We will be no more successful this time around than we were from 2003-10, when the US dumped a trillion dollars and tens of thousands of troops into what Winston Churchill described earlier in the 20th century as the “odium of the Mesopotamia entanglement.”
A strategic result today, no matter how many airstrikes we launch or how many Special Forces advisers we send in, is highly unlikely. The Islamic State cannot be “bombed” out of existence, no matter how outraged the public may be about its war crimes or Foley’s murder. Our Special Operations teams also cannot kill all the Islamic State leadership, no matter how well their skills have been honed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The ordering of airstrikes and the dispatch of more advisers to Iraq is emblematic of a central strategic problem that has faced many presidents in the post-World War II era: fighting limited wars for limited objectives in the nuclear era.
The US’ answer to the defeat of its conscript army in Vietnam was the creation of the volunteer, professional Army. For the United States, the creation of this force was in many ways the most significant strategic consequence of the country’s defeat in Vietnam.
The idea behind this army seemed sound: a smaller, better-trained force would prove more tactically proficient than its conscript-manned predecessor. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the hope was that turning over military campaigns to the professional army would divorce the public from the mostly negative experiences of using force, which would give military and political leaders a freer hand in using it around the world.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States deployed the best-trained and equipped army in the world against guerillas. As was the case in Vietnam, the Army and Marine Corps achieved no strategic effect before returning home — except in a negative sense with the breakup of Iraq. After 10 years in the field, the US Army and Marine Corps could not be any better at fighting irregular wars — yet their tactical proficiency could not alter the negative strategic and political circumstances of the wars they fought.
What’s the lesson here? President Obama looks at these interventions as having failed and, on the one hand, seems understandably reluctant to send the Army back to places like Iraq. That caution would lead you to believe that the United States is thinking more carefully about interventions that amount to policing actions in the developing world. Sadly, however, that is not the case.
Like the post-Vietnam period, the main unintended consequence of our failures in Iraq and the so-far hung jury in Afghanistan has gone largely unnoticed around the country.
While failing to impose our will on guerilla adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, we essentially doubled down by expanding the country’s reliance on Special Forces and their proficiency at irregular war.
Not only have we expanded the size of the special forces and effectively created a fifth-arm of military services, we have also empowered the now global Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to orchestrate our special forces and irregular war campaigns. SOCOM will wield the same bureaucratic, institutional, and budgetary command as the regional commander-in-chiefs.
That is a counterintuitive and strange reaction to 14 years of fighting in which we achieved tactical proficiency at irregular war but could not wield that proficiency to strategic effect. Even stranger, the expansion of US reliance on Special Forces and the creation of an associated larger bureaucratic empire have happened with little public or political debate.
Who decided to create this service with its own manpower and funding? What makes us think that being clever and tactically proficient in irregular war will be any more successful in the future than it has proven to be over the last 14 years?
Why should failure at irregular war lead to bigger budgets for SOCOM and larger numbers of Special Forces? Why can’t the Army and the Marine Corps do these missions — as they demonstrated during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? These important questions are absent from America’s broken national discourse.
As a result, we better get used to the special event-like reporting on the Islamic State, which draws on the Iraq and Afghanistan template for developing world interventions. Just don’t expect these interventions to achieve strategic effect.
The inability to think through the lessons of more than a decade of irregular war symbolizes the intellectual fog gripping the foreign and national security policy establishment that has confused and blurred the distinctions between tactics and strategy.
We will be no more successful in future developing world military interventions than we have been in the past unless we stop believing that clever tactics supported by well-trained troops will somehow achieve our objectives.
Launching airstrikes at Islamic State convoys and sending in more advisers to Iraq is just another example of the triumph of tactics over strategy and fails to grasp the political dimensions of the struggle for power in Mesopotamia. We cannot police the politics of these struggles by bombing antagonists. We should not send teams of Special Forces into these situations just because we can.
Sending in advisors and authorizing airstrikes over Middle Eastern conflict zones involves the US in the domestic politics of situations we don’t fully understand and that do not directly threaten our interests.
Until we grasp the central truths about the distinction between strategy and tactics and the limits of our military power, we will continue to thrash m around ineffectually in yet another attempt to address the problem of fighting limited wars for limited objectives.
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.