Now that the Islamic State (ISIS) has been driven from Mosul, a number of senior U.S. officials are calling for a long-term military presence in the region. The president should resist such calls without hesitation.
I returned last month from my third trip to the environs around Mosul since ISIS first captured the city. Again, I talked to a number of refugees and survivors of the fighting. One thing remains clear: the fundamentals of the conflict that existed in the years prior to the ISIS 2014 takeover have not gone anywhere. There are still Sunni grievances and outright hatred between and among many Sunnis and Shia in the city, and even mistrust between the Kurds and the Arabs. I saw no evidence of a change in leadership from Baghdad that would make me believe the age-old antipathies that spawned the fights in the first place will be healed in the foreseeable future.
Make no mistake: If Trump were to submit to the calls for continued presence in Iraq, the net effect would be to establish the United States military as the permanent security force for Baghdad, with no benefit to American national security.
It is time to see the president’s “America First” mentality apply to foreign policy before our national security is actually harmed.
With increasing frequency, many say the U.S. needs to maintain, if not expand, its military footprint in the Middle East to keep our citizens safe here. They often cite the precedent of America’s multi-decade security presence in Germany and Japan following World War II. But there are radical differences between the two analogies that, when analyzed, actually serve to argue against a permanent American combat presence.
In the aftermath of the WWII, the world was not prepared to see either the German or Japanese empires rebuild again, and so the Western powers chose to occupy them during rebuilding. The onset of the Cold War just a few years later turned those operations into permanent conditions. Washington saw, with some justification, that without having major combat power stationed on the land in Europe and naval power in the Pacific, an increasingly strong Soviet Union could threaten America’s vital national interests.
The occupation and rebuilding of Japan and Germany, moreover, was successful owing in large measure to the fact both countries had a long history of a having a highly educated population, of producing world-class economies, and were culturally compatible with America. Critically important also, at the time both nations were near homogenous, had no insurgencies that U.S. troops had to battle, and posed little threat of being torn apart from within. There are several paramount ramifications of these facts for American interests.
First, neither Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, nor the scores of militia and radical Islamic groups operating in those lands pose the level of threat that Japan and Germany might have following WWII. As states, both Syria and Iraq are fatally weakened and pose no external threat to any country. Second, neither has a history of creating stable and prosperous economies and culturally they are as different as night and day from America. Third, each nation is hopelessly ridden with internal contradictions and violently opposing political, ideological, and religious factions.
No foreign power could ever hope to change thousands of years of history, nor the culture and identity of a people. Any such attempt is doomed to failure—as we have conclusively proven with the results of our foreign policy actions spanning 16 years and three Administrations so far.
Lastly, as hotbeds of internal instability, both countries do indeed serve as fertile fields for the creation and sustainment of radical militant groups. The questions, however, are to what extent those individual and cumulative threats menace American interests and —more importantly—to what degree can U.S. military power quell them?
There are many groups around the world that might have the desire to attack the American homeland, but very few have the capacity to do so. We should therefore not expend zero-sum resources on those that may hate us but can do nothing about it. What is very much an American vital national interest, however, is to defend against those who pose threats to the U.S. Trying to reduce the threat by occupying multiple lands that are culturally incongruous with America and hoping to transform their governments that are sympathetic to our interests is a fool’s errand and will fail.
Recognition of this fact requires a change in how Washington conducts its affairs internationally.
First is a belated acknowledgment that military power does not solve political problems. The U.S. Armed Forces are masters at accomplishing tactical tasks and can destroy virtually any target. The successful accomplishing of tactical tasks, however, often has little or no effect on the underlying political causes of instability. ISIS, for example, wasn’t the problem, but an outgrowth of it. Before ISIS there was al-Qaeda in Iraq and a broad Sunni insurgency, and as my latest trip to Iraq reinforced, there is almost certain to be a new radical Islamic group rise from ISIS’ ashes.
Second is the understanding that neither America’s military nor diplomatic efforts can ever successfully force a state or people to change their culture and become something they are not.
What the U.S. military can do, however, is remain vigilant on identifying legitimate threats to America and perpetually seek to minimize or intercept them before they act. By focusing on intelligence, surveillance, and global diplomatic leadership the whole of the US government can keep our citizens safe. Continue seeking to keep our nation safe by trying to kill every potential terror group and we will fail.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1