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
In the conflicts currently at play in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere in the Middle East, America practices a policy of “military first.” But this constant use of force will not bring the conflicts to an end or stability to the region. Nor will these policies safeguard American interests. As has has been the case for virtually the past 16 years, the almost-certain outcome is that U.S. national security interests will continue to be eroded. A new direction in American foreign policy, however, can reverse these negative trends.
By keeping our conventional military focused so sharply on fighting insurgent-based enemies that have no modern armies, no navies, no air forces, or any air defense weapons, we continue the degradation of our armed forces’ ability to fight wars against capable foes.
Retired Air Force General Rob Givens, a former fighter pilot, explained that whereas today’s aviators have considerable numbers of “combat” flying hours, they are of limited use. “Many of our pilots today have considerable amount of combat experience—but most of it is flying around countless hours over the desert, waiting to drop ordinance on targets that can’t shoot back,” Givens explains.
The decision to fly these simple missions comes at the expense of conducting rigorous, challenging training against a simulated enemy that has powerful air defense capabilities. If for any reason in the future American pilots must engage in aerial combat against Russia or China, the experience gained over two decades of flying against defenseless ground forces or antiquated fighters will be worth very little.
We must begin the process of disengaging from inconsequential military operations and start to rebuild the ability of our armed forces, allowing them to focus on and prepare for possible existential fights of the future.
Foreign policy must begin withdrawing militarily from missions that can never be accomplished. Even if belatedly, it must be painfully admitted that decades of military operations in the Middle East have not had a positive impact on any of the fires burning there. Ceasing our combat operations will likewise have no impact on the outcome of events.
We should militarily disengage from the Syrian civil war, take action to prevent the violence from spreading further, and significantly increase our diplomatic efforts to assist in regionally-authored peace initiatives.
One of the first policy shifts we should diplomatically support is an arms embargo on all parties of the Iraq and Syrian conflicts. Using all means available, the U.S. should stop providing arms and ammunition to all parties, and diplomatically pressure Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others to likewise stop providing arms and support for their favored sides.
It must be admitted that such a policy will not result in a sudden drive to peace, and while we can bring pressure to bear on Russia, Iran, and others, we cannot force them to stop arming their respective allies. That may result in their beneficiaries gaining a tactical advantage in the civil war. We have to be willing to accept that outcome–because we can’t impose a solution with so many opposing hands in the war, but also because our security won’t be affected regardless of how it turns out.
One of the first charges against this idea is that it might strengthen anti-American forces in the Middle East, potentially increasing the threats to our country. The first might be true, but the second would not. Let me explain why.
It is in America’s unequivocal, vital national interest to ensure the security of its citizens and interests, both at home and abroad. The U.S. should continue to maintain a robust global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability that is able to identify, track, and if necessary, destroy threats.
Moreover, if in the future any foreign government should harbor or support terror entities that threaten the U.S. homeland or citizens, our conventional military will continue to be poised to conduct punitive strikes to eliminate the threat. Not only is it not necessary to physically hold ground abroad to ensure American security, but trying to do so is antithetical to that end.
Since 9/11, U.S. foreign policy has wedded itself to the belief that we must “fight them over there” to keep us safe over here. The evidence, however, is overwhelming and compelling that despite the considerable national treasure and blood we have expended over the past 16 years, there has been no diminution of violence abroad nor a reduction in the terror threat to our nation. Meanwhile, as noted above, our ability to prevail against future conventional threats has decayed.
We must take rational action now, based on a sober and realistic analysis of the conditions facing us, before the U.S. suffers consequences it may not be able to afford. We would benefit by recognizing past and current failures, and transform our foreign policy into one that protects our nation and interests.
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
Last week President Trump delegated to Secretary of Defense James Mattis the authority to determine how many more troops to deploy into Afghanistan. Mattis has reportedly settled on 4,000. He claims that this will help end the stalemate in that war. He is wrong. This deployment will have no impact on the outcome of the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, but more importantly, continues a troubling trend in U.S. foreign policy: The military move has no ties to a strategic outcome.
Astonishingly, the day before the increase in troop strength was announced by the White House, Mattis admitted in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States was in a “strategy-free time and we’re scrambling to put it together.” As should be clear by now, the problem isn’t the number of troops, but in the fact the military is being used, without a strategy, to solve a political problem. Until Washington comes to grips with this fundamental error, it is a virtual certainty that the use of force abroad will continue to fail in its attempt to accomplish strategic objectives. Let me explain why.
Throughout my military career, I fought in high-end tank warfare, served in counterinsurgency operations, and performed duty as a foreign-military trainer. I also served on the staffs at the division level, corps level, and in the Pentagon. Since retirement, I have traveled multiple times to the Middle East as a civilian. In short, I have observed or participated in a broad spectrum of combat operations and observed the formation of policy from the lowest to highest levels.
I can say with a high degree of confidence that Washington’s reliance on the military instrument to solve international problems has served to degrade national security.
Everything Americans see or read reinforces that U.S. troops are the most capable, lethal, and powerful in the world; they succeed everywhere they are sent. The unstated assumption, however, is that tactical success equals strategic success. If our troops accomplish their mission, the thinking goes, then the purpose of their mission must also be a success. But that is an incorrect assumption.
The insurgent enemy we engaged in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom would often succeed in killing American troops with the ubiquitous roadside bombs (IEDs), but in recorded engagement between U.S. troops and insurgent fighters, American and NATO troops won 100 percent of the time. Every training team that was deployed to train Afghan and Iraqi troops or policemen succeeded in improving the ability of those they trained in all cases. Yet tactical success cannot achieve strategic success because the problems which plague these countries are political and diplomatic, not military.
If we are to solve these problems with military force, every mission—whether a small raid of an enemy outpost or a major deployment of multiple combat brigades—has to specify what the operation is expected to achieve, how the commander plans to accomplish the mission, and what the senior commander or policymaker desires as an end state. In other words, what conditions does he or she want to exist on the ground after force has been used? Without this information, how will either the policymaker or the American people know whether the mission was a success?
For example, the closest Obama came to articulating a stated mission for the military was when he authorized our armed forces to engage ISIS in Syria. In February of 2015, then-President Obama said, “I have directed a comprehensive strategy to degrade and defeat ISIS. As part of this strategy, U.S. military forces are conducting a systematic campaign of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”
The statement did not explain what the “systematic campaign” of airstrikes was intended to accomplish. How did the president define “degrade”? What metric would be used to assess when ISIS was “destroyed”? No criteria were ever presented to the American people. As a result, it was impossible to ever know if the strategic mission was a success or an abject failure.
The vast majority of the resulting airstrikes indeed hit their targets. But to what end?
If even the commander-in-chief does not know what the force is expected to accomplish, the ground commanders’ efforts are literally shots in the dark. They may kill a great many enemy fighters but achieve nothing of strategic value. That is in fact what did happen. Sadly, such obscure outcomes have become the norm.
The Iraq surge succeeded brilliantly on the tactical level, but had no effect on the political dynamics in Iraq. Internal and toxic political actions in Baghdad laid the groundwork for the weakening of the Iraqi Security Forces and the rise of ISIS.
The Afghan surge likewise succeeded in temporarily reducing the level of violence, drove the Taliban out of Helmand and Kandahar provinces, but had no effect on the corrupt level of governance in Kabul, nor the support to insurgents provided across the border by Pakistan—and the Taliban has since recaptured entire swaths of both provinces.
U.S. airpower devastated the regime in Libya in 2011 but could not influence the political strife that followed. All three countries are currently embroiled in vicious civil conflicts with little hope of near-term resolution.
Today’s active military missions against ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa are virtually guaranteed to suffer the same fate. We have the ability to employ military power to affect the removal of ISIS from both cities. The successful accomplishment of those tactical missions, however, will have no effect on what happens politically in the aftermath.
Washington will have little to no influence on who rules in Raqqa after ISIS is eventually driven out. The U.S. will not be able to direct power-sharing agreements among the various militias participating in the fight—or prevent Turkey, Iran, the Syrian regime, al-Nusra, or any of a dozen other radical Islamic groups from battling for control of Raqqa. It is very possible that after the successful accomplishment of our tactical objectives of routing ISIS from those cities, a new round of violence will engulf both.
Changes are clearly required in American foreign policy. The first opportunity to begin correcting past deficiencies is cancelling the increase in troops the administration is considering sending to Afghanistan. The White House must do more than announce what tactical missions the troops are expected to execute. They must articulate what strategic outcome these troops are expected to attain. There is little doubt every combat mission will succeed, but the president must explain what end-state he desires in Afghanistan. Before asking more U.S. soldiers to put their lives on the line, the president must explain what success will look like.
If no one can articulate to the American people and our service men and women what military force is expected to achieve, the sword must remain sheathed. We must end the bad habit of using lethal military power that routinely fails to improve American national security.
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
Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White released a statement earlier this month announcing that President Trump had authorized the Defense Department to “equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS” in Raqqa. This week the group began to take delivery of arms shipments from U.S. forces in the region. Neither White nor the president has addressed how this action fits into U.S. grand strategy, how the White House plans to navigate the acute sensitivities of U.S. relations with NATO ally Turkey—which considers the SDF a terror group—or what the administration seeks as an end state once ISIS is driven out. This lack of concern over such major elements of a campaign plan continues a troubling lack of strategic understanding at the national level.
The announcements give the impression—intentionally, no doubt—that the desire to arm the Kurds is a relatively simple matter of supporting the most effective fighting force in Syria that can drive ISIS from their self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. The unstated assumption is that militarily defeating ISIS in Raqqa may spell the end of the Islamic State, and U.S. national security would therefore be safeguarded. In all probability, the outcome of that battle, while satisfying, will not substantially improve U.S. national security. The fight itself, however counterintuitive it seems, may degrade U.S. security.
The push to destroy ISIS in Raqqa is understandable. President Trump made the defeat of ISIS a major campaign pledge, and he is intent on keeping that promise. But the higher level strategic objective needs to be safeguarding the American homeland using the most effective means possible. On the surface, going after ISIS wherever they are would seem a good thing. But the approach chosen to battle ISIS is critical, as not every tactic leads to a positive strategic outcome. Supporting the Kurds in Syria has serious second- and third-order effects, some of which could have a negative impact on U.S. security.
There is little doubt the Kurdish fighters in the SDF, called the People’s Protection Units (or YPG in their Kurdish rendering), are the most effective of virtually every fighting group in Syria. They are the best trained, most disciplined, and have attained the most battlefield success. Whether they can drive an entrenched ISIS out of a major urban area without even greater U.S. assistance remains to be seen. What is already known, however, is that this support is angering our only NATO ally in the region, Turkey.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was livid about the U.S. decision to increase support to the SDF. Erdogan said of the reports, “I hope very much that this mistake will be reversed immediately… We want to believe that our allies would prefer be side by side with ourselves rather than with the terror groups.” Turkey’s presidential advisor, Ilnur Cevik, was far less restrained in his response.
“If [the U.S. pushes] further, our troops may not care about Americans anymore,” he said on May 4. “Suddenly, by accident, a few rockets may well hit them.” In other words, our NATO ally is threatening to bomb American soldiers. This implied threat must be taken seriously—U.S. soldiers in combat vehicles have been patrolling between Turkish forces and SDF in the vicinity of Raqqa to prevent clashes.
A few important strategic questions need to be answered: Are American strategic interests served by supporting the SDF to drive ISIS out of Raqqa, if doing so ruptures our relations with Turkey? Another question is equally important: Can the United States afford to give into Turkish pressure and abandon the Kurds who are possibly the most effective militia in the region, and a group of people who have a long, positive history with America?
Already Kurdish leaders are nervous, wondering what will happen to them after ISIS is driven out of Raqqa. Will Turkey feel free to attack the YPG again as they did earlier this year? Once the Kurds have accomplished America’s tactical objectives in Raqqa, will we continue to protect them from Turkey? And possibly more important, will the threat to U.S. security by ISIS be diminished by their downfall in Raqqa? The answer may surprise you: Senior American officials have warned that after the loss of its territorial holdings, ISIS might represent a greater threat to the country than is currently the case.
In March, then-FBI Director James Comey spoke at a national security conference in Austin, Texas. In his remarks, he said that once ISIS has been “crushed” and their territories liberated, hundreds or thousands of former ISIS fighters would flee Iraq and Syria. “Where are they going?” he asked. “They’re going to Western Europe, they’re going to Southeast Asia, they’re going to North Africa. Then what are they going to do there? These are the most radical of the radical who are not just radical in orientation but have been equipped with military battlefield experience and tactics.”
No longer burdened with trying to hold territory, it is possible ISIS may exert more effort into planning attacks against the U.S. Many American leaders and pundits have claimed we used military force abroad so that we could fight terrorists “over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” As we’ve learned over the last 16 years, that simply isn’t true.
In the Daily Beast earlier this month, former FBI officer Ali Soufan noted that on 9/11 there were likely no more than a few hundred al-Qaeda members. But after invading and beginning what turned out to be a 16-and-counting counterinsurgency fight, al-Qaeda membership has exploded worldwide. “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is thought to have more than 4,000 fighters under its command,” Soufan wrote. In Somalia, al-Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab “has more than 7,000. In Syria, al Nusra boasts more than 20,000.”
It could well be that Washington risks a rupture with Turkey and loses American blood, yet eventually drives ISIS out of Raqqa—only to see the global threat of ISIS expand in the process.
It’s equally possible that the U.S. suffers a rupture in our relations with a NATO ally, irrespective of whether ISIS is defeated or not. Before the president and his closest advisors increase American military engagement in Syria, they should step back and conduct a sober assessment of the strategic environment. Otherwise, we may see yet another terror group escape to rise in larger numbers another day.
Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis (Ret.) is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former officer in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.
The Trump administration recently announced that additional troops will be sent to Afghanistan. The move is a mistake and fails to recognize that the foundational problem of the ongoing conflict is political and diplomatic—and will not be solved by the military.
Trump has yet to recognize this reality and is already falling into the same pattern that afflicted previous administrations. In April, the president ordered the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal to be dropped on a target in Afghanistan. The “mother of all bombs,” is a 30-foot-long, GPS-guided munition that weighs 21,600 pounds.
As impressive as the impact appeared on photographic images, and even though successful on the tactical level, the massive bomb strike will have no strategic effect on the outcome of the war. The last two presidents, covering 16 years of operations, also tried—and failed—to end the war by using progressively more combat power.
Shortly after his inauguration, President Obama expanded the number of troops in Afghanistan by nearly 20,000, and he ordered an additional 30,000 just months later. By the summer of 2011, there were more than 100,000 U.S. combat troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Despite repeated optimistic statements from U.S. military commanders, however, the Taliban and other insurgent groups were not defeated. This outcome was predictable and shouldn’t have taken administration officials by surprise—though many call for the same policies today.
There are three dynamics at play that, if not resolved, make the application of any number of combat troops irrelevant to the equation. First is the problem of sanctuary for Taliban leaders in Pakistan. As has been the case for more than a decade, elements in Pakistan covertly support the Afghan Taliban, resupplying them with replacement fighters, food, clothing, ammunition, and arms.
In his March 2017 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Central Command’s Gen. Joseph L. Votel reported that “Twenty U.S.-designated terrorist organizations operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan sub-region,” while emphasizing that “Seven of the 20 organizations are in Pakistan.” Votel concluded that as “long as these groups maintain safe haven inside of Pakistan they will threaten long-term stability in Afghanistan.” Adding more troops to the Afghan side of the equation does absolutely nothing to address this decade-long diplomatic problem.
Second, even if somehow the Pakistan problem could be addressed, there is the challenge of the near-dysfunctional Afghan government. It has remained, in virtually every year since the United States emplaced the interim government in December 2001, one of the most corrupt governments out of 176 ranked. There has been no upward movement in this regard in more than a decade. Sending thousands of additional combat troops will not improve this political corruption.
There is a third problem, however, that might explain why the war continues without resolution after 16 years of futility. When U.S. Forces Afghanistan commander Gen. John Nicholson’s testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, most of the press at the time focused on an exchange between the general and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), which questioned whether 50,000 or 30,000 troops might be needed in Afghanistan. There was an even more important exchange between the two, however, one that suggests how long the conflict may go on:
Sen. Lindsey Graham (to Gen. Nicholson): Can we win?
Gen. John Nicholson: Yes sir.
Graham: Briefly describe what winning would look like.
Nicholson: Number one, the presence of our enduring [counterterrorism] platform protects our homeland—
Graham: So winning for America is to have a footprint in Afghanistan to protect the homeland in the region.
Nicholson: Sir, it would involve the destruction of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the destruction of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, helping the government of Afghanistan to expand its control over the population.
Graham: What does losing look like?
Nicholson: Sir, losing would be an attack emanating from this region against our homeland or our allies.
Graham: Is that possible if we leave…is it likely?
Nicholson: Just a matter of time. I think so, sir.
Graham: …The Objective is to win.
Nicholson: That is right.
Graham: The objective is to stop terrorism from growing over there to attack us here at home. The objective is to have the Afghanistan on a trajectory for rule-of-law, democratic nation. Is that correct?
Nicholson: Yes sir.
The senator asked and the general confirmed that in order to win, the U.S. had to “destroy” al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and have the Afghan government be “on a trajectory” toward a system of rule of law. Even if we do destroy al-Qaeda, ISIS, and any other terrorist groups that arise in the region, the Afghan government is not headed toward effective governance. In other words, this exchange lays the groundwork for the U.S. military to, literally, be made the Armed Forces of the Afghan state forever.
Unless the president convinces the American people that it is a good idea to permanently station troops in Afghanistan to defend the regime in Kabul, and Congress debates the issue and agrees to authorize and fund the mission, Gen. Nicholson’s request for more troops must be denied.
It is time for the administration to develop a new strategy that identifies attainable objectives that safeguard the U.S. homeland. This strategy must neither place an unnecessary burden on the budget nor strain further the Armed Forces. What the president must not do, however, is repeat the mistakes of the past two administrations—by trying to apply yet more combat power to a fundamentally political and diplomatic problem. If President Trump increases the lethal power applied to solve systemic political problems, we’ll see once and for all that there is no path to “victory” in Afghanistan.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former officer in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.
Earlier this month, two foreign-policy experts warned the president that he must transform his strategy for defeating the Islamic State or risk empowering Iran. “We’ve tried the hands-off, no-boots-on-the-ground approach for six years,” they wrote, “and it has brought us to this unacceptable dilemma.” If the president adopted this advice, however, he would not only fail to solve the dilemma, but also continue the deterioration of America’s conventional military power and place our national security at greater risk.
The aforementioned essay—“America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” published via the Institute for the Study of War—proposes a strategy in which the U.S., along with “willing and acceptable partners, seizes and secures a base of operations in southeastern Syria to expand American freedom of action in the region and build a new Syrian Sunni Arab partner by, with, and through which to conduct a population-centric counterinsurgency to destroy ISIS and al Qaeda, set conditions to prevent their reconstitution, and eventually resettle refugees.”
Such an aggressive expansion of military power would heft enormous strategic risk on America’s back with virtually no chance of improving our security.
First, setting up a military base on the soil of a sovereign state—even one controlled by a regime as hated as Assad’s—is an overt act of war, which would be a violation of international law. Equally troubling, such a move would substantially increase the possibility of a direct military clash with Russia, Iran, and Syria. No interest on the ground in Syria is worth such risks.
The proposed strategy wrongly assumes that the United States has the obligation to police the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and selected parts of Africa. Adherents to this way of thinking believe they are justified in enforcing the outcomes of their choosing using armed drones, airstrikes, special-operations missions, military assistance to preferred customers, or in some cases the full might of the U.S. military.
Not only are these views antithetical to traditional American values, but this policy would fail to accomplish its direct objectives—and more important, it would deplete our national treasure, pointlessly sacrifice the blood of our citizens abroad, and endanger all U.S. citizens by creating enemies where they might otherwise not exist.
The United States is currently struggling under the weight of an unprecedented and growing national debt of $20 trillion. It is clear that the debt must be reduced or the weight of it may one day come crashing down on a U.S. economy that cannot sustain it.
Yet for all the cuts recommended by the White House, the size of the federal budget didn’t decrease, because of offsetting increases in Pentagon and “hard power” spending.
One of the main reasons military leaders say they need a bigger defense budget is that the pace and “optempo” of missions abroad are stretching the forces to the breaking point. It is time for a new discussion—one that examines our foreign-policy strategy with fresh eyes.
During my 21 years in the U.S. Army, I served in Germany, Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and I saw combat ranging from high-intensity armored fighting to a military trainer, and finally in traditional counterinsurgency battles. I can tell you without equivocation that America’s current foreign policy of intervening around the globe in places that aren’t vital to our national-security interests is doing far more harm to America’s national security than any other single factor.
Russia, China, and even North Korea are modernizing their conventional forces and making them more lethal, strengthening their anti-air defenses, and expanding their reach into space. The United States, on the other hand, continues to see its military edge decline. Without immediate and substantive changes, we will further erode our advantage.
The administration and Congress should make a long-overdue change in foreign policy that not only eschews “nation building” and “regime change” in the main, but also recognizes the losing strategy of using the U.S. military to try and solve internal political conflicts around the world.
Relieved of the burden of fighting perpetual battles to tilt the scales in civil wars in foreign lands, the U.S. Armed Forces could spend far less in operations, refocus their training and attention on preparing for genuinely existential threats, and once again restore the powerful deterrent that ensures the security of the nation.
The mentality of persistently employing lethal military power abroad has proven to be a bankrupt way of thinking. If not altered, it will soon cripple us financially, perhaps fatally weakening our national defense in the process. The time has come to jettison these failed policies and adopt a new way of thinking that restores military strength and protects our financial solvency. American citizens can only enjoy a strong national defense if we maintain a vibrant and prosperous economy.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.
Last weekend, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster chided Russia for its “sponsorship” of Bashar al-Assad’s “murderous regime,” which he said ordered the recent chemical-weapons strike in Syria. “This is a great opportunity for the Russian leadership to reevaluate what they’re doing,” McMaster offered.
If the United States’ intent is to influence Russia to support more Washington-friendly policies, our policymakers must recognize and understand Moscow’s core interests—as Russians see them. Lecturing Moscow as a parent scolds a disobedient child is not likely to succeed.
Russia is not supporting the Syrian regime with considerable military power because they like Assad or his despicable policies.
Their objective is to enhance their ability to exert influence in the region, stabilize areas near their own borders that contain large Muslim populations, and ensure continued access to their Mediterranean port at Tartus.
Appealing to the moral high ground has no chance of influencing Putin.
According to the administration, the priority among American security objectives in the Middle East is the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), which still has major holdings in the Iraqi and Syrian cities of Mosul and Raqqa. Washington doesn’t do itself any favors by mocking and deriding the world’s second-most-powerful military power, which, if engaged properly, has the ability to help with this primary security goal.
The U.S. response to the barbaric chemical strike has been, to date, marked by errors in judgment and evidence of inexperience operating in the international arena. In the 24 hours following the strike, President Trump was already claiming the Syrian regime was directly responsible and began laying the groundwork for an attack. In an emergency UN Security Council meeting, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley blasted her UN colleagues, claiming that if the world body was unable to take action, “There are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”
Meanwhile, Deputy UN Ambassador for Russia Petr Illichev cautioned patience, calling for a delay in any talk of a retaliatory strike until an investigation had identified the guilty party. According to Al Jazeera, a draft UN resolution called for “Syria to provide flight plans, flight logs, and other information on its military operations on the day of the assault … [as well as] the names of all commanders of helicopter squadrons to UN investigators and allow them to meet with generals and other high-ranking officials.”
Yet the Trump administration would not wait long enough to allow the UN time to weigh in on the matter, and likewise chose not to seek congressional authorization. Within 48 hours of the chemical attack, U.S. warships launched a cruise-missile strike against a Syrian airfield. In so doing, the U.S. virtually gave the Russians the upper hand.
Following the U.S.-led attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to accuse the U.S. of a “violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext.” On Tuesday, Putin said he still supports a UN-sponsored investigation into the allegations that the Assad regime ordered the attack. The Russian deputy ambassador and president both scored public-relations points by making statements that sound rational and proper. They did not defend Assad or deny he had ordered the attack, but rather urged the U.S. not to act too quickly and supported a full investigation to determine who was to blame.
Wednesday in Moscow, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met directly with Putin and reportedly advised the Russian president that he should recalculate the costs of remaining an ally of Syria. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was dismissive of Tillerson’s advice: “I believe everyone realized a long time ago that there is no use in giving us ultimatums. This is simply counterproductive,” she said.
The secretary of state and national-security advisor are both missing a key point: Russia is acting in ways consistent with how it sees its national-security interests in the region. Until senior U.S. leaders recognize this fact and order our own behavior accordingly, we can count on a continual worsening of relations with Russia and other competing powers.
In 1971 the USSR signed an agreement with then-dictator Hafaz al-Assad for access to the Syrian naval base at Tartus, which is still in effect today. It is Russia’s only naval access to the Mediterranean, and they are not going to give it up. There is no rational basis upon which to expect Russia to renounce its support for Syria.
This is not to say that Assad should not be held accountable, but if the U.S. wants to check Assad’s behavior and convince Moscow to help, the U.S. must stop misunderstanding or ignoring the motivations that drive Russian policy in Syria.
Russia has an interest in seeing the civil war come to an end as much as we do. The Kremlin would like nothing better than to see the conflict resolved so their costly military support can be substantially reduced or eliminated. Their own threat from Islamic terrorism would be reduced if the civil war ended. It can be assumed, however, that Putin will not support any outcome that results in a Syrian government that is not friendly with Moscow.
The bottom line is that the United States must genuinely get out of the regime-change business— which never ends well—and focus instead on policies that have a realistic chance of attaining U.S. strategic objectives.
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.
Recently Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva accused Russia of violating a nuclear agreement. Russia had made operational a new intermediate-range nuclear-capable cruise missile, he said, and this was prohibited by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
The news spawned anger and outrage on Capitol Hill, and many demanded a firm and robust response. Last Friday, Defense Secretary James Mattis signaled that the administration would decide on a course of action “very soon.”
Russian officials, of course, see things differently. Following General Selva’s comments, a spokesman for Vladimir Putin said the Kremlin “disagree[s] with and reject[s] any such accusations” and claimed that “Russia has adhered to and will adhere to all its international obligations, including those under the INF Treaty.”
But whatever the truth is about the missile, the Russians have indeed taken a number of provocative actions in recent months. A few of the more troubling:
- “In 2016, allied aircraft scrambled around 800 times in response to Russian aircraft,” a NATO official wrote in a statement to CNN earlier this year.
- In one instance, American and Russian planes nearly collided over Syria.
- Russia accidentally bombed American allies in Syria while U.S. troops were just three miles away.
- A Russian spy ship was spotted near a Navy submarine base.
What should the United States do in response to these provocations, not to mention the alleged violation of the INF Treaty?
Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation calling for the U.S. to, among a host of actions, establish “a program of record for a dual-capable road-mobile ground-launched cruise missile system with a maximum range of 5,500 kilometers.” In other words, build a new treaty-violating missile of our own. The bill also says the U.S. should aggressively seek “additional missile defense assets in the European theater to protect United States and NATO forces.”
Both sides claim they are only responding to the provocative actions of the other, and they are taking progressively stronger steps with each move. There are many defense hawks in both the White House and the Kremlin who believe only strength will show the other side the error of their ways. It doesn’t take much thinking, however, to realize how unrealistic such beliefs are.
The idea that Vladimir Putin is going to be cowed into submission by shows of U.S. military strength or abandon defending what he believes are Russian security interests is naïve. Likewise, if anyone in Moscow thinks President Trump is going to back down because of militarily provocative “messages,” they are dangerously ill-informed about our new commander-in-chief.
Unfortunately, the prevailing attitudes of both countries, even among diplomatic officials, are such that any “giving in” to the other side would be viewed as weakness to be exploited. Such attitudes have often helped spawn wars.
Where interests intersect, we should cooperate. Where there are genuine areas of dispute, we should hold firm on defending our national-security interests. To buttress these ideals, it is necessary to maintain a strong national defense that leaves no doubt in any potential adversary’s mind that if the American sword must come unsheathed, it will be devastating in its application.
But as the most secure, dominant nation in the world, only Washington can lower tensions with Moscow. Diplomatic give-and-take is not a sign of weakness. It is evidence of power and wisdom. Both Washington and Moscow must dial back the harsh rhetoric aimed at one another, lower military tensions, and discover a new willingness to cooperate for the common good. If such attitudes are put into effect, the people of America, Europe, and Russia will all reap the benefits of increased trade and a stable security environment.
Maintain the current course, and in the worst-case scenario, a major war could erupt. In that event, all parties would suffer egregiously and the citizens of all nations would lose.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.
There was a time when American foreign and defense policies had at least a semblance of an effective, coherent unifying strategy. Perhaps times of coherent strategies will come back under the Trump Administration, especially as a new national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, puts his stamp on the nation’s foreign policy. That’s a hope about the future, however, because at present—as has been the case since the George W. Bush Administration—there is no discernible grand strategy.
Perhaps the last time Washington held a unified strategic vision came in the aftermath of World War II. During the Truman administration, American grand strategy was designed to assist in the rebuilding of post-war Europe, support democratic governance worldwide, and contain the threat of the Soviet Union. The twin pillars upon which this strategy was built included the Marshall Plan (also known as the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948) and the formation of NATO.
The policy of the United States via the Marshall Plan was designed “to sustain and strengthen principles of individual liberty, free institutions, and genuine independence in Europe through assistance to those countries of Europe which participate in a joint recovery program.”
President Truman said that by signing the NATO treaty, “we are not only seeking to establish freedom from aggression and from the use of force in the North Atlantic community, but we are also actively striving to promote and preserve peace throughout the world.” Virtually every aspect of U.S. foreign policy and defense strategy for the next 50 years were based on these pillars.
The actions the government took in support of this foundation weren’t always the best, however. For example, “the Red scare” and fear of falling dominos spurred Washington to support the disastrous war in Vietnam and to make dreadful foreign policy decisions like approving the illegal coup of the legally elected government in Iran in 1953—and we’re still paying for the consequences for that miscarriage. For the most part, though, U.S. foreign policy remained coherently focused on defending democratic governments in Europe and maintaining a military capable of deterring the Soviet Union. That coherence came to an end with the dissolution of the USSR on Christmas Day in 1991. Shorn of the raison d’être for a coordinated foreign and defense policy, the drift began.
Freed from the need to consider how the Soviet Army might react to any policy choice and no longer needing to fund, equip, and train the U.S. military to deter the Warsaw Pact nations, the State Department and Pentagon began charting independent courses. 9/11 provided a unifying spark and for a brief moment foreign and military policies were again in sync. That moment, regrettably, dissolved quickly.
The threat of terrorism, however barbaric, didn’t represent an existential threat—as the USSR did—and policymakers throughout the government returned to making policies that reflected their vision, independent of what any other department might think. The absence of a powerful threat had an unexpected and adverse effect on decision-makers.
Prior to 1991, the U.S. had to weigh carefully how Moscow would view any deployment of lethal military force abroad before making decisions. Shorn of that concern, U.S. leaders began ordering troops overseas with increasing ease. Decisions were made in isolation. Diplomatic moves in one part of the world weren’t coordinated with actions in others. Military deployments often appeared divorced from any observable link to larger U.S. strategies. Instead, an impossible-to-accomplish school of thought drifted into existence and remains in effect as of this writing: liberal hegemony.
It doesn’t rise to the level of “strategy,” mainly because it is not a coherent, logical, and comprehensive set of beliefs that informs actions. Generally, however, liberal hegemony carries the idea that the United States “needs to” spread democracy around the world wherever possible, by military force if necessary. Such efforts have uniformly failed throughout the post-World War II era. That has not stopped both Republicans and Democrats from clinging to its never-realized ideal, however.
There are at least two overriding flaws in liberal hegemony. First, it virtually cannot succeed because it seeks to impose American values, culture, and history onto societies that usually don’t want it—and in most cases didn’t ask for it. Secondly, it elevates the perceived needs of other peoples and nations above the needs of the U.S. At its heart, liberal hegemony has supplanted global interests above what used to be the key driver of foreign policy: America’s vital national interests. Based on recent public announcements, global interests are still ascendant.
In recent months the Pentagon or White House have announced the deployment of U.S. warfighters (or the expansion of troops) to Poland, Somalia, Norway, Germany, Romania, and Iraq. Just in the last few weeks, troops were sent to Central Africa as the Secretary of Defense was recommending thousands more troops should be deployed to Syria and Afghanistan.
Answers to key questions are almost uniformly missing from the announcements of each of these missions. What is their purpose? What are they supposed to accomplish? What national objectives are the military missions designed to attain?
Military strategist Douglas Macgregor explained in an April 2009 Armed Forces Journal article the danger that accrues to nations that fail to answer these basic questions before actions are ordered. He wrote that “when national military strategy fails to answer the questions of purpose, method and end-state, military power becomes an engine of destruction not just for its intended enemies, but for its supporting society and economy, too.” His words have proven prophetic in the eight years since.
Where the U.S. has used lethal military power in the past 20 years—without a powerful national security interest or strategic outcome in mind—conditions have not improved. Whether it was Special Forces, secret drone strikes, overt airstrikes, the deployment of combat advisors, or direct ground combat troops, the net effect has been either neutral or negative:
- Libya remains locked in a civil war with competing governments each claiming legitimacy.
- Somalia and Africa more broadly are as racked by violence as they were in the 1990s when President Clinton first sent troops there.
- The war in Yemen is as violent and insoluble as ever.
- Now, senior American generals say they need thousands more troops to return to Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—where we’ve been fighting without result, in part, since 2001.
President Trump hasn’t even unpacked all his belongings in the White House, but his administration must give the highest priority to rolling back the incoherent military and international actions of past presidents. “Liberal hegemony” defines the status quo, and a look at the current situation shows what a fantastical, failed notion it truly is. U.S. national security has suffered from the policy chaos. Hopefully the new leaders the president has installed at the State Department, the intelligence agencies, and the Pentagon will devise a new, logical, and coordinated grand strategy. We can’t afford any more drift.
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.
An internal Pentagon study found $125 billion that could be saved over a five-year period by eliminating waste and inefficiency, the Washington Post reported last week. But as is now standard operating procedure at the Pentagon, senior leaders dismissed the claims, disparaged those doing the study, and continued pursuing business as usual.
This should not be ignored, because the status quo of wasteful business practices demonstrably weakens our national defense.
For years, service chiefs have sat before Congress and testified that sequestration and reduced defense budgets have compromised their ability to defend the nation. They have claimed that combat forces are at a low state of readiness due to smaller service budgets.
At a speech two years ago at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work said he was “working on our financial auditing statement, so we can prove to Congress and the American people that we know how we’re spending every one of their hard-earned dollars.” He was referring to the document at the center of the Post’s story. But as the Post explains, when the final report revealed massive waste, the Pentagon imposed secrecy restrictions on the data. Furthermore, a “77-page summary report that had been made public was removed from a Pentagon website.”
“There is this meme that we’re some bloated, giant organization,” Work told the Post. “Although there is a little bit of truth in that,” he admitted, “I think it vastly overstates what’s really going on.” Indeed, Work has often claimed that DoD needs more funding.
This behavior has become standard practice in DoD over many years: resist any substantive efforts aimed at reform while demanding the end of sequestration, allowing for larger budgets. Yet as the suppressed report demonstrates, piling billions of dollars on top of an unaccountable, bloated infrastructure will only make it less responsive, not more productive. The Pentagon can’t even account for some of the money it has.
The result of this twin focus has been to weaken America’s ability to conduct combat operations. In a few key categories, this institutional arrogance and disregard for financial responsibility have physically tilted the tactical scales in the favor of our potential enemies.
The U.S. Army has failed for more than two decades to produce a new class of American armored vehicles to replace the 1970s- and ’80s-era Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. The defense secretary canceled the Future Combat Systems in 2009, by which point they had already cost more than $20 billion. Numerous programs since have failed to produce a single operational prototype.
The rest of the armed forces have had equally disastrous acquisition failures, as scores more billions have been squandered on canceled programs.
The Russians, however, have not been nearly so ineffective. Moscow now has a whole new family of interconnected armored vehicles, the Armata, in production, featuring the new T-14 tank, which experts claim is competitive with the U.S. Abrams tank. The U.S. Air Force has pushed ahead relentlessly on the development of the F-35 despite that fact it has not completed operational testing and has experienced major shortfalls that may never be resolved. The Chinese, however, have fielded new generations of fighter jets that may pose a serious threat to U.S. aircraft in a future fight.
Instead of maintaining what has been an unchallenged U.S. superiority in the field and in the skies since World War II, we are sinking closer and closer to parity. If trends aren’t checked, we may soon discover that our potential enemies have overtaken us in key battlefield capabilities. As important, our senior military leaders and popular theorists have the unshaken belief that no opponent of the U.S. will ever discover a new class of super-weapon on par with the emergence of the machine gun, the submarine, or the jet fighter. Such attitudes gamble with America’s national security.
There are highly educated and creative minds in Russia, in China, and elsewhere. We deceive ourselves if we continue to believe that no adversary will ever discover the next disruptive technology at our expense. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that such a discovery could leave us staggering on a future battlefield, desperately struggling to absorb a blow we don’t know how to parry.
Tinkering around the edges won’t accomplish reform within the DoD. Playing musical chairs among officials vested in the system won’t result in positive change. Substantial reform will require the elevation of new leaders.
This group must be empowered and supported by the president. It should be led by key visionary leaders, young women and men who are not tied to the old ways and whose minds are alert and open to discovering new methods and capabilities. It should also include some experienced DoD civilian and uniformed leaders, as well as business leaders who know how to manage the development of technology and handle large bureaucratic organizations.
Keeping the DoD machine of the past 20 years in place will virtually ensure that the current dismal state of affairs will continue into the foreseeable future. Without reform, our qualitative edge in the world will continue to crumble, and one day the nation’s military may not be able to safeguard our citizens when a crisis arises.
Daniel L. Davis served multiple tours in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army and works as a fellow and military analyst for Defense Priorities.
In September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously waved a sheet of paper at his wildly cheering public upon his return from Munich, where he’d negotiated a settlement with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler to guarantee “peace for our time.” Eleven months later, Hitler unleashed the most destructive war man has ever known.
For the past 70 years, “Munich” has been used in the West as a warning to any leader who compromises in international relations. But what if we’re drawing the wrong lessons from this experience? Might the United States be failing to use the strategies that could most effectively ensure American interests?
The answer is, regrettably, an unqualified yes.
By the time Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact in 1938, the German army under Hitler had already rebuilt the forces that had been neutralized by the Treaty of Versailles. It had a powerful air force, a potent navy, and an armored force that was strong as much for how it was employed as for the quality of its tanks. Great Britain, by contrast, had only just begun rearmament and could not have competed with the Luftwaffe or Wehrmacht.
In fact, the British chiefs of staff had produced a study earlier that year warning that if Britain went to war with Germany over Czechoslovakia, the U.K. would lose. Britain’s then-minister of defense, Thomas Inskip, suggested that delaying war with Germany “would give the Royal Air Force time to acquire airplanes that could counter the Luftwaffe.”
Had Chamberlain declared war on Hitler when the latter took Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Luftwaffe might have overpowered the British air force, won the Battle of Britain, and knocked England out of the war in 1940 (as was done to France). Without the contributions eventually provided by the Royal Air Force and British army, the outcome of the Second World War might have been very different.
Consider the implications of those truths: had Chamberlain “stood firm” and gone to war with Hitler to defend Czechoslovakia in 1938, as many of today’s pundits argue he should have, it is possible that the Czechs would have fallen to Germany anyway—and the UK along with them. The British prime minister’s diplomacy had at least a chance of avoiding war—a conflict that eventually took 60 million lives—and it did buy the time necessary to ensure the survival, and eventual victory, of his country. Those who today ridicule Chamberlain’s diplomacy would be well advised to remember this important fact.
In part resulting from a near-rejection of the art of give-and-take diplomacy, war in the United States is today a permanent condition. Because of the 2001 terror attacks, many Americans reflexively believe the influential pundits and opinion-makers who perpetually claim that military actions abroad are required in order to keep the country safe. If we fail to do so, these experts routinely warn, we invite “another 9/11.”
American interests abroad have been harmed by this perpetual state of war, and our security continues to decay. Before military overreach costs the United States more than it can afford to lose, immediate changes—based an accurate understanding of the events leading up to World War II and an unemotional assessment of contemporary global circumstances—are necessary.
These five adjustments in America’s foreign-policy thought would be a good start:
First, Washington must relearn the art of the negotiated settlement. The U.S. will have to give in on some issues during such negotiations, but it will win on others in return, and the resulting stability will be more valuable than the losses we suffer in a perpetual state of war. For example, in the infamous “October Missile Crisis,” President Kennedy profoundly lowered the nuclear threat from the USSR by giving in to the Soviet leader’s requirement for the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
Second, Washington’s foreign-policy elite must recognize, however belatedly, that the instrument of war is not the sole (and should rarely be the primary) tool of effective statecraft. Our reliance on the military to solve the very complex problems facing the U.S. today has succeeded, in virtually every instance, only in making bad situations worse, sometimes profoundly so. For example, in February 2003 Iraq was ruled by a totalitarian regime that was militarily anemic, was home to no terrorists, and posed no threat to any American interests. Since the regime’s overthrow in March 2003, the country has been global ground zero for the creation and expansion of numerous and powerful terror groups.
Third, we must cleanse ourselves of the destructive belief that global relations must be a zero-sum game. There is great room for win-win solutions, and such outcomes should be sought whenever reasonable. For example, President Eisenhower negotiated an end to the Korean War with Beijing in 1953.
Fourth, we must accept that not everyone in the world sees things through the same lens Washington does. In fact, Washington might find it is able to induce greater international cooperation, negotiate better trade deals, and better enhance global stability if we don’t demand submission as a precondition to any successful outcome. For example, in 1905 President Roosevelt negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War, helping each to gain some of what they wanted and forcing U.S. preferences on neither.
Fifth, sometimes it is to our advantage to “lose” tactical points in order to win strategically. For example, Nixon’s going to China in 1972 reversed the demonization of Beijing and gave the Chinese international recognition, and as a result both the Chinese and American economies benefited.
Demonstrating a willingness to compromise with even an adversary, and to knowingly give in on some tactical points, does not signal weakness. It is entirely possible, and often necessary, to communicate that the United States is a friendly nation that seeks win-win solutions wherever possible and has an ability to give in when necessary to obtain a positive outcome. Compromise with an international partner doesn’t have to mean “Munich.” Done well, it can mean “marvelous.”
Of course, our willingness to give on some points is predicated on the understanding that our negotiating partner must be willing to give on some matters, too. Additionally, if our core interests are threatened in matters of war and peace, our opponent must expect a powerful, unambiguous, and decisive response. Wisdom will compromise on tactical points to gain a strategic victory—but she will do so with a quiver full of potent, modern, and ready weapons at her side.
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities.
As a retired lieutenant colonel for the U.S. Army, I want to be positive. Even when I’ve identified major conceptual and practical failures in the conduct of American foreign and military policy, I’ve suggested alternatives that could improve the situation. But when looking at the state of our foreign policy in this moment, and given how entrenched the foreign-policy elite in Washington has become, a rational optimism is getting more and more difficult to find.
In practice, the current administration tries to keep a lid on problems by applying limited military power—at least regarding troop levels—over large sections of the globe. These military operations are tactical in nature, designed to achieve small-scale results, without the consideration of how or even whether they support some larger strategic objective.
The clear result from Afghanistan to Iraq, to Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and other locations in Africa, has been to inflame already burning civil and sectarian wars. The military power we have applied does not even work toward solving the conflicts in these locations.
Continuous drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen have failed to move the needle toward minimizing the violence, much less toward ending the wars. Overt and covert air and ground attacks over 15 years in Afghanistan, in which I spent two active tours, have not prevented that nation from being a hive of terrorist activity; the Afghan government is possibly the most corrupt in the world, and its military is dying in larger and unsustainable numbers.
Airstrikes in Libya and Syria have succeeded only in adding to the misery of the local populations. In Iraq there has been some tactical movement with U.S. support to the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga, but that tactical advance may perversely be setting the stage for a strategic failure on the political level. Fissures are already emerging between the post-war expectations of the coalition of forces currently working together in preparing to fight the Islamic State in Mosul.
And it might be hard to believe, but things could actually get worse in 2017.
Many of the most vocal and influential voices in foreign policy, both on the Hill and in the media, have been around for decades. They are the first to advocate for the perpetuation of the status quo—or to more aggressively reinforce it—and the last to consider new measures. Foreign policy expert William Ruger aptly captured the spirit of foreign policy in Washington today when he said the only debate between leaders, or would-be leaders, is “between the 48 yard lines.” For the health of the Republic, we must expand the scope of the conversation.
Unfortunately, along with the narrow band of foreign-policy choices has come the distortion of the term “leadership.” In the lexicon of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, leadership has come to mean “applying lethal military power as a policy option of first choice to solve complicated international challenges.” John Maxwell, number one on Inc. magazine’s “Top 50 Leadership and Management Experts” list, provides a more accurate definition of leadership: “Real leadership is being the person others will gladly and confidently follow.”
The interests of the United States can best be protected and advanced when we are implementing the Maxwell definition of leadership rather than the current Washington version, which has led to strategic failures for more than two decades.
Advocates of a militant foreign policy attempt to compensate for their lack of leadership ability—or to avoid the hard work of providing world-class leadership—by resorting to coercion, oftentimes at the barrel of a gun. For the moment, let’s forget about morality and focus instead on the effectiveness of this approach.
The greatest leaders in the world have been able to entice others to follow willingly, sometimes even enthusiastically, without resorting to threats, bullying, or the actual application of force. They seek win-win solutions to problems. They recognize and accept that effective leadership sometimes means giving in to the preferences or needs of one’s partners.
The United States could be far more effective at leading the world into peace and prosperity by being far more restrained in its use of military power and more generous in dispensing the kind of leadership that people would “gladly and confidently follow.” Friends would be more aggressive in supporting policies beneficial to America if we took the time to find shared values and include them as valued partners. Some competitors would feel less threatened and would therefore be less active in working against U.S. interests.
Because strong Washington leadership includes supporting and resourcing a world-class military, enemies of America would think twice before acting against U.S. interests. They would realize that their choices mattered: if they posed no threat to our nation, we would not meddle in their internal affairs or orchestrate dangerous regime-change campaigns; but if they were to attack U.S. interests or citizens, the response would be powerful, vicious, and effective.
Being restrained and judicious in the use of military power does not show weakness, and it does not invite more aggression from would-be adversaries. It does foster more energetic support for American interests among our friends and allies. Regardless of who becomes the next commander in chief, let us hope he or she will acknowledge the superiority of this advanced way of thinking over today’s bankrupt definition of “leadership.”
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a fellow with Defense Priorities.
One has to wonder just how much longer the American people will silently permit the categorical failure of American foreign policy, both in theory and in practice. The evidence confirming the totality of our failure is breathtaking in scope and severity. Changes are needed to preserve U.S. national security and economic prosperity.
Recent headlines have captured the character of this failure. Fifteen years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released findings that “corruption substantially undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan from the very beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. … We conclude that failure to effectively address the problem means U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will continue to be subverted by systemic corruption and, at worst, will fail.”
Earlier this month, a British Parliament study found that the result of Western military intervention in Libya “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.”
Airstrikes and drone attacks are accidentally killing thousands of civilians, aid workers, wedding parties, and now even the troops of a nation against whom we are not at war. Each of these mistakes, repeated hundreds of times over the past 15 years, creates more antagonism and hatred of the United States than any other single event. Whatever tactical benefit some of the strikes do accomplish, they are consumed in the still-worsening strategic failure the misfires cause.
Bottom line: The use of military power since 2001 has:
- Turned a previously whole and regionally impotent Iraq that balanced Iran into a factory of terrorism and a client of Tehran;
- Turned Afghanistan from a country with a two-sided civil war—contained within its own borders—into a dysfunctional state that serves as a magnet for terrorists.
- Turned a Libya that suffered internal unrest, but didn’t threaten its neighbors or harbor terrorists, into an “unmitigated failure” featuring a raging civil war, serving as an African beachhead for ISIS and a terrorist breeding ground;
- Contributed to the expansion of al-Qaeda into a “franchise” group, spawned a new strain when ISIS was born out of the vacuum created by our Iraq invasion, and seen major terrorist threats explode worldwide;
- Joined other nations in battles in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other areas within Africa whose only result has been the expansion of the threat and the deepening of the suffering of the civil populations.
These continued and deepening failures kill unknown numbers of innocent civilians each year, intensify and spread the hatred many have of America, and incrementally weaken our national security. But these military failures have another, less obvious but more troubling cost.
Perpetual fighting dissipates the fighting strength of the armed forces. The non-stop employment of the U.S. Air Force in flying sorties, bombing runs, and strategic airlift has been orders of magnitude higher than what it was in the 15 years prior to 9/11, dramatically cutting short the lifespan of each aircraft, increasing the maintenance requirements, and depleting stocks of bombs and missiles.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have put thousands of miles of grueling use on their tanks and other armored vehicles and worn out countless weapons. The refurbishing and replacement costs for these vehicles has been enormous, and—like the Air Force—the Army has severely shortened the lifespan of its armored fleet. But not only have these permanent military operations degraded the vehicles, the damage has come at the expense of conventional military training.
This might be the most alarming cost. The Army has recognized this problem and has belatedly begun to reorient some of the training time to high-end conventional battle. But it will take many years of focused training to rebuild the strength the military had prior to Desert Storm or even the opening operations of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
Entire generations of leaders and troops at every level have grown up training almost exclusively on small-scale counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare.
As one who has fought in both high-end armored warfare and small-scale COIN, I can tell you that creating effective battle units for conventional war is far, far more difficult and time consuming.
Likewise, the Air Force has not fought against a modern adversary with fleets of effective fighter jets, bombers, and potent air-defense capabilities. Such operations are orders of magnitude more difficult than attacking insurgents on the ground who pose no threat to aircraft.
It is critical to understand that no insurgency or terror group represents an existential threat to viability of the United States. Failure in a conventional battle to a major power, however, can cripple the nation.
It is discouraging to see the administration, Congress, and the Department of Defense fully tethered to the perpetual application of military power against small-scale threats. Terrorism definitely represents a threat to U.S. interests, and we must defend against it. But the obsession with using major military assets on these relatively small-scale threats has not only failed to stem the threat, it has in part been responsible for expanding it. Meanwhile, the unhealthy focus on the small-scale has weakened—and continues to weaken—our ability to respond to the truly existential threats.
If the incoming administration does not recognize this deterioration of our military power and take steps to reverse it, our weakness may one day be exposed in the form of losing a major military engagement that we should have won easily. The stakes couldn’t be higher. A change in foreign policy is critically needed. We will either change by choice or we will change in the smoldering aftermath of catastrophic military failure. I pray it is the former.
Daniel L. Davis is a foreign-policy fellow and military expert at Defense Priorities. He retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel after 21 years of active service. He was deployed into combat zones four times in his career, beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and also to Iraq in 2009 and Afghanistan twice (2005, 2011).
In late October MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow asked retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl to give viewers a deeper understanding of the fight between the Islamic State (ISIS) and Kurdish fighters around Kobane. Widely credited with “writing the book” on successful counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, Mr. Nagl said, “we’ve got 1,500 guys on the ground, but they’re not as far forward as they need to be to make a real, immediate impact on the battlefield.” He and a number of COIN experts argue that along with 15,000 U.S. ground troops, Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian rebel soldiers can defeat ISIS. Before making any decisions, American leaders should first consider this: despite what is often claimed by a host of advocates, the COIN theories upon which these recommendations are based were in fact demonstrable failures in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We must not sacrifice any more American lives and harm American interests any further by acting on theories that are likely to fail again.
It has been taken as an “obvious truth” by many Americans and major media outlets that the counterinsurgency strategy brought to Iraq by former general David Petraeus in 2007 turned a near-certain defeat into an historic victory. There were two key fundamentals from which many believe victory sprang. The first was that American troops needed to leave U.S. bases and “live in the neighborhoods” with Iraqi citizens, the second that a surge of troops would give Baghdad “breathing space” to form an inclusive government. Instead of leading to success, however, these twin pillars may have contributed to the failure.
In a study published earlier this year by the National Defense University, authors Sterling Jensen and former Iraqi general Najim al-Jabouri wrote this of the Americans’ effectiveness in Anbar province cities: “[t]he surge did not have a role in the Anbar Awakening. Surge troops that came to Anbar in 2007 were not seen as useful… In fact, U.S. troops in general were not seen as useful even before the surge…”
But the authors’ possibly most pointed finding was that the causal factor behind the eventual drop in violence had little to do with either the increase in U.S. troops or the new strategy: “If not for al Qaeda’s murder and intimidation campaign on Sunnis, and its tactic of creating a sectarian war, the Anbar Awakening—a fundamental factor in the success of the 2007 surge—most probably would not have occurred, and it would have been difficult for the United States in 2006 to convince Sunnis to partner with them in a fight against al Qaeda…”
The Sunni-initiated Anbar Awakening, followed by the Petraeus-led “Sons of Iraq” program, resulted in a dramatic drop in violence. The breathing space purchased with considerable American blood was intended to facilitate the development of Iraqi democracy. Kelley Vlahos, contributing editor for The American Conservative, recently wrote, “in hindsight, the only meaningful space created was for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki” to use America to rid him of political enemies, not the least of which were many Iraqi Sunni leaders and groups.
Maliki’s oppressive rule, which alienated much of the Sunni population in the Western part of the country, was a key factor in the rise of ISIS; his penchant to dismiss Sunni officers and pack the senior ranks of the Iraqi Security Force (ISF) with inexperienced political patrons played a major role in the disintegration of the ISF when the Islamic State began its offensive.
I served in Iraq as a military trainer in 2009, and have twice deployed to Afghanistan (2005, 2010-11). Between my 2009 Iraq deployment and the last Afghanistan deployment—at the height of that surge—I traveled over 14,000 miles throughout both countries, going on mounted and dismounted patrols, with U.S., allied, Iraqi, and Afghan troops, and led a team to train an Iraqi border battalion. I can conclusively state that outside the wire, the counterinsurgency theories were an unqualified failure at the strategic level. The populations were never protected in either country. The insurgent forces were never fully defeated in either country—and are stronger now than they have been at any time since 9/11. The Afghan and Iraqi governments remain the third and seventh most corrupt governments in the world, and do not have the support of their people. The armed forces for both countries, despite the decade-long effort and tens of billions of dollars that the U.S. spent training them, are virtually incapable of conducting even basic security.
It is incomprehensible that with such an extensive, publicly available record of failure—which cost the United States $2 trillion in direct outlays, 6,842 U.S. troops killed and 52,281 wounded in action—that the designers of this failed concept are given any credibility. The conclusive evidence of the failure is on graphic display right now, in both countries: after six full years and tens of billions spent, the U.S.-trained Iraqi army melted away before a few thousand irregular fighters; after the U.S. pulled out of Helmand province in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Security Forces were incapable of preventing an immediate return of the Taliban.
As the president’s national security team continues to develop a new strategy to deal with ISIS—and now also searches for a new secretary of defense—it is more important than ever to make a no-holds-barred analysis of the past decade of combat experience before settling on a new strategy. No matter how many U.S. boots might be placed on the ground in Iraq or Syria in this current environment, they would not be able to accomplish the president’s previously stated objectives. All the additional causalities we would suffer would be in vain.
We must not send any more Americans into the morass of Iraq and Syria with as little concern as one might show shoveling coal into a furnace. They deserve better than to be asked to risk their lives to conduct a no-win tactical mission.
The opinion expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or U.S. Army.
Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. He has been deployed into combat zones four times, winning the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm.
The United States has become addicted to the application of lethal military power. A great many in our country have become convinced that dispatching the U.S. Armed Forces—or the threat thereof—to solve almost every international problem has kept us safe over the decades, and is the only thing that will ensure our security into the future. Yet evidence is piling up that the continuous and expanding use of American killing power is having a deteriorating effect on our national security and a destabilizing effect globally. Far from making us more secure and the world safer, our perpetual use of the military frequently fosters instability. The current situation in Iraq demonstrates this dangerous proclivity.
In recent weeks the government of Iraq has been losing first battles, then entire cities to a rising militant Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Many in the United States are calling on President Barack Obama to immediately order airstrikes. A certain segment of those demanding immediate action pin the blame for the deteriorating situation on the White House for withdrawing American forces from Iraq in 2011, and they want to rectify the situation by reapplying military force now. Yet there appears to be no consideration among the various advocates of lethal strikes for what comes next. The failure to examine the “what next?” question has become an increasingly common feature of U.S. strategic thought.
The George W. Bush administration was roundly criticized for invading Iraq in March 2003 without an adequate plan for managing the country after the regime fell. The Obama administration has likewise been accused by many of having no plan for what came next following the 2011 airstrikes in Libya. The current hysteria in Washington over ISIS gains seem to have ignored these acknowledged errors of the past. While there is an eagerness to once again unsheathe the American sword, there has been virtually no discussion of the tactical and strategic utility of such actions, nor consideration of the potential consequences.
For eight years, the U.S. and NATO fought an insurgent war in which almost 4,500 Americans lost their lives, and over 32,000 were wounded. Conservative estimates suggest that approximately 133,000 Iraqi citizens were killed from 2003-2011, and at least 3.5 million human beings were displaced from their homes. As unpleasant as life was for the average Iraqi citizen before our invasion, it cannot compare to the misery under which they’ve suffered since. A similar dynamic continues to play out in Afghanistan. Libya has suffered in a state of near anarchy since our 2011 air campaign. Pakistan, Yemen, and now a growing part of Africa have all seen a continual deterioration in their security corresponding to a rise in the application of U.S. military force and firepower.
Before adding yet another combat mission to the American logs in Iraq, we must ask a number of critical questions. Tactically, will airstrikes against the ISIS prove decisive militarily, or will they exacerbate the violence? Since ISIS personnel have the ability to blend in and out of the civil population, how will our jets or drones identify the “bad” civilians from the “good” civilians? Who will act as ground controllers to ensure bombers strike only valid military targets? What will be the American culpability if U.S. bombs kill civilians, or if air planners are given false intelligence that results in political opponents of the regime being killed? Will the attacks cause the population to reject the rebels—or to support them even more strongly?
Politically, will a new round of promises of political inclusion from the Iraqi Prime Minister hold if American planes and drones succeed in killing enough of his opponents? What if it is discovered that the current government of Iraq was culpable in bringing about the conditions that spawned this uprising? Might then American military power have been used, free of charge, by a corrupt government to eradicate its enemies, allowing it to continue in abusive power? These are critical questions that have to be answered before launching any military operation. Yet almost none of these questions appear to have been considered—much less answered—by those people most enthusiastically advocating strikes.
At some point we must be willing to recognize the stark truth that this excessive use of lethal military power has worsened our national security.
I am a strong advocate of having a powerful military that can crush opponents when our life, liberty, or vital interests are at risk. But we must abandon the “bomb first, think later” mindset and instead invest in solutions that seek to first understand, then address the underlying causes of violence and instability. This type of international engagement is harder and takes longer than ordering up airstrikes. Yet it offers the potential to reduce the danger to America, diminish the conditions in which rebellions and violence often breed, and help citizens of other countries achieve stability. It is in this way that our vital interests can best be safeguarded. Fail to learn these lessons, however, and our own national security will continue to deteriorate.
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.
Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. He has been deployed into combat zones four times, winning the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm.
A recent article by Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations serves to illustrate how some elite thinkers in the United States have come to view the application of deadly force as a cure-all for a wide range of foreign policy challenges. In the February 10 edition of the Financial Times, he wrote that it was the U.S. failure to “arm and train the Free Syrian Army” that allowed the Syrian regime to stay in power. To counter perceived American inaction, he recommended solutions ranging from “doing more to arm the moderate opposition, to declaring a no-fly zone. Drones could strike al-Qaeda operatives in Syria; air power could create humanitarian zones near the Turkish and Jordanian borders.” While Mr. Boot castigates the White House for “inaction,” he does not bother to address the most critical question: what happens after these steps are taken?
For example, he argued we should train and arm “the Free Syrian Army.” Yet as has been widely reported, this so-called ‘army’ is a fractious, incongruous alignment of disparate groups, many of whose goals are antithetical to American interests and who often fight among themselves as often as against regime forces. Moreover, he does not address how these individual actions fit into a comprehensive strategy. How does he imagine the U.S. will identify al-Qaeda operatives within Syria for drone strikes? What end would these drone strikes seek to achieve? Kill “some” of the leaders? 10 percent? 50 percent? What would be the strategic utility of such a course of action? Given that nearly unfettered drone strikes have proven inconsequential in Pakistan and Yemen, how will sporadic strikes in Syria change the tactical balance?
Perhaps most importantly, advocates of military action frequently fail to consider this possibility: what sort of Syria would exist if their suggested military actions succeeded and the current Syrian regime did fall? What would be the likelihood that the grudging cooperation currently at play between radical and moderate Islamic groups on the rebel side would erupt into open warfare in the struggle for control of a post-Assad Syria? What would the United States do if an al-Qaeda affiliated coalition gained control of the Syrian state? These are hardly hypothetical possibilities.
Yet the default position by opinion leaders like Mr. Boot is to use military power first, and worry about the consequences later; the effects suffered by the men and women who live in the target country seem to get little consideration. Read More…