Can We Hurt the Islamic State?
If a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, Washington is now a high-budget, low-talent production of “Marat/Sade.” After defeats by Fourth Generation, non-state opponents in Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we have begun another war with another Fourth Generation entity, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. We are relying on foreign armies we will train, which have collapsed from Vietnam onward. Those armies are to be supported by our supposed ace-in-the-hole—it appears to be a deep hole—air power, which has also failed against irregular forces from Vietnam onward.
Worse, we are moving toward doing what ISIS most wants us to do: namely, sending in ground forces against it. ISIS is already benefiting from our air attacks. In exchange for a few tanks, artillery pieces, and empty buildings—America’s air targeting is largely predictable—ISIS’s recruiting and fundraising have prospered. It can now wrap itself in the mantle of David confronting Goliath, a powerful advantage at the moral level of war. A ground assault by American troops will kick those benefits up several notches. More, it will solve the number one problem faced by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and all the rest of the Islamic puritan forces: how to get at the Americans. When we come to them, that problem disappears.
The proximate cause of our new war is the murder of two Americans. You read that right: two. It often happens that two people are murdered in a single night on Cleveland’s east side. Should Shaker Square be on the lookout for Predator drones? The only war with a lesser cause was the War of Jenkins’ Ear between England and Spain in the 18th century.
When President Obama, who had long manfully resisted the establishment’s demands for another war—if we forget about Libya—finally yielded, he did so in the worst possible way. His announced “strategy” combined maximalist objectives, defeating and destroying ISIS, with means so inadequate that within hours his plan was the butt of jokes within the military. Regrettably, the maximalist objectives create what the permanent war party most wants, grounds to argue that America’s “credibility” is now at stake. So it was also in 17th-century Spain, our closest historical parallel, where an overcommitted country could not prudently pull back because the reputación of the monarchy was at stake. The inevitable result was complete collapse, military, financial, and political.
Beyond the fact that the American military does not know how to fight and win Fourth Generation wars, the war against ISIS is doomed because the tide of history is against us—the tide of the decline of the state. In most parts of the world, the state is fading because it is no longer able to perform the function for which it arose, maintaining the safety of persons and property. That is true here as well, as the explosive growth of private security in recent decades testifies.
The decline of the state is happening even faster in the Middle East because many of its states were artificial creations to begin with. That is true of Libya, Syria, and Iraq, among others. Such states can function, as Saddam’s Iraq did. But they are brittle. Once shattered, no one can put them back together again. And America specializes in shattering states, gleefully, in the name of “liberal democracy.” The de facto Arabic translation of that phrase, re-translated into English, is “anarchy.”
So what should America do in the face of ISIS? The answer: isolate ourselves from the spreading stateless disorder and Fourth Generation war not only in the Middle East but wherever it appears. The real danger to us is not Fourth Generation war there, but its spread here. We need to act forcefully to prevent its importation by immigrants and refugees. We should be equally forceful in combating homegrown disorder, which is best done by again enabling the state to guarantee the safety of persons and property. While we carry on a war with ISIS, the American state cannot maintain order a thousand yards from the U.S. Capitol after nightfall. Once no one in this country needs to employ private security, then perhaps we can think of charging windmills in Castile.
When outrages against American citizens abroad require the U.S. government to “do something” for political reasons, history tells us what to do: launch a punitive raid. Punitive raids have no maximalist objectives. They do not seek to “defeat and destroy” an opponent. They seek only to punish, an attainable goal, and are “once and done,” at least until the next outrage. They were common tools in the kit of 18th- and 19th-century European states, often in the form of naval bombardments.
A good example is the Royal Navy’s bombardment of Algiers in 1816. David S.T. Blackmore’s Warfare on the Mediterranean in the Age of Sail tells the story well. The outrage was the massacre by Algerian and Turkish troops on May 23rd of that year of the hundreds of Christian sailors—not British subjects—who were ashore at Bona in North Africa to hear Mass on Ascension Day. The British Admiral Lord Exmouth was ordered to “give the Algerians a sound lesson.” Algiers’ defenses were so powerful as to be considered unassailable. But Pellew took only a small fleet of five ships of the line, two of which were three-deckers, the most powerful type. Joined by a Dutch squadron, he gave Algiers such a pounding that the Algerian navy was destroyed, the land defenses shattered, and the city left in flames. The Algerians suffered some 7,000 killed; British and Dutch casualties were fewer than 300.
Blackmore adds, “Five years later, Admiral Sir Harry Neal directed another offshore cannonade of reconstructed Algiers, but none of these punitive expeditions completely eradicated the corsair scourge.” London never expected they would.
A punitive raid on ISIS would be easy. Send every B-52 and B-1 that can fly, all loaded to the gills, over ISIS’s capital, the small city of Raqqa in Syria, and flatten the place. That would not “defeat and destroy” ISIS. But it would make the American public happy, and it would give ISIS a sufficient headache that it might leave Americans alone for a while. Best of all, America would not be “committed” to anything. History often offers an answer, if only someone bothers to ask it a question.
William S. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook and director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.