Opinion

How America stopped thinking strategically about the Middle East

We've been at war there for 15 straight years. And for what?

For nearly 15 years now, America has been in continuous war in the Middle East, and for about the last 10 of those years, the U.S. foreign policy establishment (a.k.a. "the Blob") has been consumed with narrow tactical questions. Both the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq had strategic objectives — defeat al Qaeda and install a docile imperial client state, respectively. The U.S. failed at both, of course, and the latter was monstrous in the extreme, but they were both at least comprehensible.

But since then, the focus of American foreign policy thinking has shrunk to a pencil's width. Endless analysis has focused on counterinsurgency doctrine, the best use of drone strikes, under what circumstances special forces should be deployed, and so on. Just a few days ago disgraced former CIA chief and general David Petraeus teamed up with his second-most-worshipful biographer Michael O'Hanlon to advocate for more aggressive use of air power in Afghanistan in The Wall Street Journal.

By contrast, there is vanishingly little discussion of what all that force is supposed to achieve. Instead, there is only the bedrock post-9/11 view of the Blob: That if there are Islamist militants anywhere (but especially in the Middle East), then the U.S. military should be trying to kill them somehow. I suggest that if the U.S. ever wants to stop squandering hundreds of billions of dollars in an endless military campaign that causes more problems than it solves, a return to strategic thinking will be a necessary first step.

American strategic incoherence has been a longstanding focus of Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University (who just released a new book on the past 35 years of war in the Middle East). In response to Petraeus and O'Hanlon, he writes:

Granted, [they] are on solid ground in noting that as the number of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan has decreased, so, too, has the number of air strikes targeting the Taliban. Back when more allied boots were on the ground, more allied planes were, of course, overhead. And yet the 100,000 close-air-support sorties flown between 2011 and 2015 — that's more than one sortie per Taliban fighter — did not, alas, yield "some version of victory." In short, we've already tried the Petraeus-O'Hanlon take-the-gloves-off approach to defeating the Taliban. It didn't work. [Naked Capitalism]

This is nothing new, incidentally. Over-reliance on marginally effective air power has long been a habit of Western democracies, wary of the brutality and heavy casualties necessary to bludgeon a recalcitrant population into submission with ground forces. Especially in the internet age, going Full Genghis Khan on Iraqi or Afghan civilians would be politically suicidal.

So if ubiquitous cell phone cameras (and, you know, basic human decency) rules out a replay of the 1220 siege of Samarkand, how is military force supposed to impose the peaceful, stable (pro-Western) governments that we apparently want? The U.S. tried a less depraved approach in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, and it failed catastrophically in every instance.

But the foreign policy establishment can't admit to itself that the U.S. military is not invincible and omnipotent, much less that it is really quite horrible at some tasks (like nation-building). As a result, as Bacevich writes, "the United States chose neither to contain nor to crush, instead charting a course midway in between... Instead of intimidating, U.S. military efforts have annoyed, incited, and generally communicated a lack of both competence and determination."

The absolutely simplest strategic objective might run something like this: Protect American interests. By such a standard, the last 15 years of war have been a massive failure. Imposing a new political order at bayonet-point has failed, squandering trillions of dollars and thousands of lives — while spawning even more violent successors to al Qaeda.

But on the other hand, working diplomatic channels to make marginal gains and reduce tensions paid off handsomely with the recent nuclear deal with Iran, the re-opening of relations with Cuba, and the Paris climate accords.

"Protecting U.S. interests" is morally backward at best, and also raises the contestable question of what one means by "interests." Yet, given the grotesque self-harm done by the last 15 years of war, a return to this strategic goal would be a sizable improvement from reality. And given the manifest idiocy of imperialist wars of aggression, containment coupled to strong diplomatic outreach are an obvious start when it comes to anti-terror tactics.

Quite frankly I doubt the Blob is even capable of this sort of examination of its assumptions, at least at the present moment. I would bet quite a lot of money that President Hillary Clinton would continue the same old dirty wars in dozens of countries across the globe. Let's hope the next generation of politicos and analysts are thinking more clearly.

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