“I am a United States Army general, and I lost the ‘global war on terror.’ It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous; step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.”
Lt. General Daniel Bolger
As we contemplate involvement in not one but two more wars, we would do well to consider the thoughts of General Bolger, which appear in an article entitled “Why We Lost in Iraq and Afghanistan ,” in Harper’s. The key word is “lost.”
When I was a teenager, the idea of America “losing” was unthinkable. We had never lost a war. We had disposed of the greatest powers in the world and held in check new powers with unimaginably powerful weapons. We were not only the arsenal of democracy; we were its champion and defender, its bright beacon throughout the world, confronting, practically alone, a dark and godless power.
Then I enlisted to fight in Vietnam. Twice. I came home to watch on TV the humiliating spectacle of the last helicopter leaving the American embassy with its meagre cargo of pitiful refugees while thousands stood outside the gate, awaiting their fate. A studied forgetfulness has covered up the memory of that war; it is just not something we bring up in polite conversation. Occasionally, one hears talk of “learning the lessons of Vietnam,” but it seems to me that its greatest lesson is always forgotten: that you can pit the most powerful military force in the world against a pitiful power and still lose. You can commit endless amounts of time, treasure, and blood, and still come up with nothing, and less than nothing. Indeed, when you are dealing with a civil war, with brothers killing each other, defeat is more likely than victory, especially if you have decided to replace one of the brothers in the war and do the job yourself.
Of course, there are many who continue to believe that these wars could have been won with just a little more time, a little more money, a little more blood, and some fiddling around with the strategy and tactics. That is the theory behind the Army’s “Counterinsurgency Manual” (FM3-24) written largely by Gen. David Petraeus. And the major “fiddle” with tactics is the recognition that the problem in such insurgencies is largely political—we need to bring “good government” as a component of the war: basic public services, physical reconstruction, the hope of economic development and social amelioration. It treats the battlefield as an extension of the city council by other means.
Edward Luttwak offered a devastating critique of this manual in another Harper’s article, “Dead End.”  He points out that this tactic has failed at least as far back as 1808:
The very word ‘guerrilla,’ which now refers only to a tactic, was first used to describe the ferocious insurgency of the illiterate Spanish poor against their would-be liberators, under the leadership of their traditional oppressors. On July 6, 1808, King Joseph of Spain presented a draft constitution that for the first time in Spain’s history offered an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, and the abolition of the remaining feudal privileges of the aristocracy and of the Church. … Despite the fact that the new constitution would have liberated them and let them keep their harvests for themselves, the Spanish peasantry failed to rise up in its support. Instead, they obeyed the priests, who summoned them to fight against the ungodly innovations of the foreign invader. For Joseph was the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, placed on the Spanish throne by French troops. That was all that mattered to most Spaniards—not what was proposed but by whom it was proposed.change_me
We find it astounding, as Napoleon found it astounding, that people may not share our ideas of what constitutes “good government.” We cannot understand why the rule of elders is preferred to the rule of the elected, even when the elected provide better garbage pickup. Nor can we comprehend it when Muslim men are offended at seeing women parliamentarians—placed there by American fiat—allowed to criticize men.
It would be a mistake to think that these nations are somehow naturally backward and opposed to all Western ideas. They would prefer to get there by themselves—as we did—and not have it imposed by a Bush or a Bonaparte. The real problem is not military conquest, however. Nations adjust to new rulers fairly easily. But military imperialism quickly elides into cultural imperialism: “We conquered you; we must be better than you.” Conquest can be borne; humiliation cannot. It is when you try to tear a people’s values away from them that they cling to them more tightly, and cling even to the pathological aspects, which every culture has.
Our invasion of Iraq upset cultural arrangements that evolved over 1,400 years. There have always been Christian communities in this area. Indeed, Baghdad was once the second most Christian city in the Middle East, behind Beirut. Relations between Christians and Muslims may not always have always been cordial, but they did reach a modus vivendi that allowed the Christians to survive and even thrive. A dozen years after the U.S. invasion, however, those communities have nearly disappeared, as many Muslims viewed them (incorrectly) as allies of the “Christian” invaders.
This brings us to ISIS, and it would be difficult to imagine a more pathological expression of Islam. With all this in mind—with the prospect that neither military force nor enlightened government will ride to the rescue—does that mean we should never intervene in such internecine wars? Are we helpless in the face of ISIS? Not necessarily, but allow me to offer one hard and fast rule: to Americanize a civil war is to lose it.
Not immediately, alas. In the short term, you get “mission accomplished”; in the long term, you get defeat. As soon as America takes over, America loses. The Vietnam War was going to be won or lost by the Vietnamese. The only question was which faction would triumph. When one faction entrusted their responsibilities to the Americans, they felt less need to defend themselves. Their defense became an American responsibility. When you outsource your defense, you become defenseless.
What a nation like the United States needs in Mesopotamia is not just a nominal ally on the ground, but an actual one, an ally capable of defending itself and willing to fight. If you put boots on the ground, you had better be sure that the boots on your flank won’t run away. If such an ally exists, there is much we can do; if not, there is nothing we can do, although it may take us a long time and a lot of blood to discover that tragic fact; over time, “mission accomplished” becomes “mission impossible.”
With an actual ally, we may provide weapons, training, intelligence, logistics, air power, even “boots on the ground” for special operations, engineers, and the like. But when it comes to the sticking-place, they must do that themselves; we can hand them the bayonet, but they must wield it. We can change the balance of forces for one side, but we cannot replace them.
The candidates for reliable allies against ISIS presenting themselves in the Middle East are the Kurds, the Syrians, and the Iraqis. The Iraqis have been a dubious ally. Even with ISIS at the gates of Baghdad, they could not lay aside their political differences to appoint a prime minister. It is likely that giving arms to the Iraqis is just a roundabout way of giving them to ISIS, as already happened when the Iraqi army in the north melted away and abandoned its weapons at Mosul. Had this been an effective fighting force, ISIS would not be here today. But since ISIS has conquered so much of Iraq, it is difficult to see how they can be eliminated unless Baghdad gets its act together. This will take some time.
ISIS has bases and a center of power in Syria, whose army is too weak to defeat the insurgents and too strong to be defeated by them. There is a reluctance to give support to Bashar al-Assad, but one wonders why. Even if he is every bit as bad as our State Department says he is, Assad is still better than ISIS. And he is not likely to abandon the fight. Many are reluctant to make the U.S. the “Syrian Air Force,” but the plain truth of the matter is that without attacking the ISIS bases there, ISIS cannot be eliminated. To fight an “Iraq-only” war would amount to a policy of containment rather than elimination. And that might be worse. It would certainly make the problem in Syria worse if ISIS were defeated in Iraq and fled back to their other bases. To eliminate this threat, we must not only attack from the air, but we must do so in coordination with the Syrian Army, distasteful as some might find that prospect.
That brings us finally to the Kurds, and specifically to the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga is a military force that traces back to the end of the First World War and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Over the decades, it has proven to be an effective fighting force, and even Saddam had to negotiate with them. It is good to keep in mind that it was not the Americans who freed Kurdistan, but the Kurds themselves with American air cover. We have never had any significant forces in that part of Iraq; the freedom the Kurds have is the freedom they won for themselves. Moreover, the Kurds have shown themselves to be relatively tolerant and welcoming to other persecuted minorities. This is the ideal candidate for American support. Helped by only limited airstrikes, they have managed to stabilize the situation and recover some ground.
Even here there are some problems, however. The Peshmerga exists to defend Kurdistan, not to free Iraq. It seems unlikely that they would go on the offensive beyond their borders, even if Baghdad would welcome such a move, which likely it would not. Their arms are largely Soviet-era equipment looted from Iraqi stores during the collapse of Saddam’s armies, and are old and need lots of maintenance. They haven’t taken the field in 10 years. And they have internal political divisions of their own.
Hence, any strategy to defeat ISIS will be complex and will not take shape overnight. Barack Obama will not be able to stand on a carrier deck under a “Mission Accomplished” banner. But ISIS can be defeated, with patience and planning. The bases in Syria can be harassed from the air by the Americans and eventually destroyed on the ground by the Syrians. They can be stopped in Kurdistan, while being required to keep large forces idle on that front to prevent attacks from the Peshmerga. And Iraq in time may build up its own military sufficiently to go on the offensive. After all, a nation under such a threat as Iraq is has only two courses of study open to it: learn how to defend themselves or learn how to be slaves. In the meantime, trade routes have to be cut off, while sources of ISIS funds have to be found and stopped. Ironically, the ISIS army in Iraq may face the same problems that confronted the American Army, an alien force occupying an increasingly disaffected subject population.
Some might say that we should just stay out and let the parties sort it out. Not only would this be a mistake, it would be a denial of our own responsibilities: our interventions largely created this situation and it would be highly immoral to simply walk away and pretend it never happened. But the one thing we cannot do is invade—or rather re-invade—Iraq. If the parties themselves cannot solve this problem, with or without our help, the problem cannot be solved. To Americanize that war would be to invite another round of defeat, humiliation, and turmoil.
John Médaille is the author of Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More .