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How to Not Lose to ISIS

“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 [1],” 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.” [2] 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.


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 [3].

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "How to Not Lose to ISIS"

#1 Comment By Loic On September 4, 2014 @ 12:18 am

ISIS is interestingly, and in contrast to many traditional insurgent and terrorist groups, symbolic of a recrudescence of capitalism and not a revolutionary break from of it. It neither practically nor ideologically rejects capitalism, indeed, through its combination of marauding brigandage, opportunistic and indiscriminate mercantilism (e.g. clandestine trafficking), and rational usurpation and utilization of preexisting resources and infrastructures it conspicuously embodies an extreme form of it. Such a form was predictively described by American foreign policy strategist Philip Bobbitt as a terroristic reflection of the emerging capitalist market state itself (which exists for the “maximization of opportunities” for economic expansion in contrast to nation states’ promise of improvements in mass material well-being): “Terrorism in the era of the market state will reflect the nature of the market state. It will be decentralised, disseminated via the internet, and threaten the use of WMD and germ warfare…It could come from a number of other sources…and when it does come the potential for disaster will be extreme.” Indeed, the aforesaid makes the claim that “the primary driver of terrorism is not Islam but the emergence of market states (like the U.S…)”. Perhaps the intentionality behind such “primary” drives is more direct and concerted than the author would care to admit.

#2 Comment By No Role On September 4, 2014 @ 1:43 am

“[…] 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.”

Is a drunk driver obliged to set up as surgeon to his victims? The suggestion is absurd, and frankly I find it tasteless of you to hold out the incentive of a cheap moral redemption after the living hell we helped inflict on that region.

In the grip of the modern equivalent of a medieval witch-craze ginned up by lying neocon and liberal interventionists, we executed and botched multiple large-scale interventions. We botched them because we didn’t know what we were doing. We still don’t know what we’re doing.

If we want to fulfill our moral obligations in this matter then we should fire and prosecute those responsible for a bloody, costly blunder.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 4, 2014 @ 7:40 am

With all due respect,

stop being so myopic on assessing Vietnam. We were not their in sufficient numbers to have lost. The scenario you describe occurred exactly because we were not there. Vietnam wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. It may have felt like a loss. A good deal of energy, money and psycho-social-political analysis has been spent reinforcing that we lost, but the data tells another story.

Further attempting to evaluate Vietnam out of its cold war context, whether wants to contend the strategy was worthwhile is another issue. Our own goals conjoined to defend the right of the South Vietnamese to remain a democratic society. I think Pres. Nixon would have ensured that commitment. Note, some 200,000 estimated South Vietnamese died fighting for self determination. I seriously doubt most were driving Cadillac’s or even had motor scooters. Those who did so were not operating as US puppets.

There was no such struggle going in Iraq.

Iraq is a complete different story. It was not a threat. There was no civil war. There was no established nation state under threat by another as was the case in Vietnam.

I would spend time dissecting the morass of false similarities, but I think this explains the problem.

“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.”

The above scenario does not bring us to ISIS. Not even close, The reason that Iraq is such a mess is not because ISIS came to town. The reason we have ISIS is because we came to town. In so doing overthrew a standing. wobbly, but relatively stable regime and proceeded to dismantle the entire system, especially its most crucial infrastructures required to run any society. That is totally on us. There was no call be the people of Iraq or their governing authority asking for our help. There was a band of Iraqis who had not been in Iraq for twenty years, manipulating our need for oil and promising a bed of roses on information they could not have known, of limited scope via small interested networks or deliberately manufactured – likely a combination of the above. What they cajoled us into doing on their behalf for us was does not even resemble Pres. Kennedy’s collusion in the murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem, while at least in that case, there seem to be widespread support (murky waters this).

We don’t get a South Vietnam by way of the US. You get a South Vietnam by way of the people in the south being more than reasonably scared to death of communist revolutions(literally as one looks at history). We did not unleash war in Vietnam. It is the direct result of South Vietnam violating the 1950 Geneva accords by constant invasion into South Vietnam.

This leap in logic,

“This brings us to ISIS . . .”

I find disturbing because the welcoming and fighting Kurds have a problem when it comes to being reliable, welcoming. I am not sure I trust a group that while under the protection from Turkish reprisals for acts of terror actually supports one’s opponents as is the case when the Kurds supported Iran while living graciously in Iraq. I don’t know about you but if Iowa rose up against the US today — I am sure the response would be swift and brutal. Since 9/11 we could barely stand each other. The people you are calling reliable are spread throughout Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Your brief history ignores the reasons they so dispersed. There is no mention of the numerous attempts that included property, structural and financial support to create a nation state of their own. There’s no mention that the largely Sunni Kurds are dispersed because of brutal and effective fighting with each other, thereby destroying the home of their own complaints. The Kurds were quite willing to push citizens over the bridge to get un into Iraq. Trustworthy in the same manner by which they are honoring their agreement that all oil contracts go through Iraq proper, no doubt. You certainly cannot be seriously bemoaning US behavior in Vietnam and supporting the behavior of the Kurds as to open honest dealings and claim — this is the cause for re0entering Iraq.

I categorically honor your service in Vietnam, both times. I think your service there was noble and despite our motives — wholly honorable. I am sad that it has been muddied with so much tom foolery liberal nonsense — which we still seem bent on justifying instead of being in some manner ashamed at how we have failed to embrace the veterans of that day — still. Appreciate you and your service.

But this is is not that. If anything based on your advance — this is a matter for the Iraqis to sort out. I could be wrong but I am highly doubtful that either the Sunnis or the Shia are going to welcome a Kurdish state carved out of Iraq proper. Speaking of strange strategic positioning in a sand of dreams. I could be wrong, Sunnis and Shia may welcome the idea of a foreign entity who actually supported their enemies as new independent oil stake holders, but I remain dubious.

I am always amazed when I here the long drawn moans about Vietnam by the pivot contention — we should go into Iraq because of ISIS a home grown problem — unlike Vietnam.

#4 Comment By Johann On September 4, 2014 @ 9:59 am

A good article, but I have to quibble somewhat with the causes given in the article for losing the Vietnam war. In reality, the root cause for losing the war was the prohibition against taking the ground war to North Vietnam. The ground war was pretty much restricted to South Vietnam, and for a time in Cambodia, with very limited excursions into Laos. The enemy could always retreat back to North Vietnam, build up their forces, and attack the south again and again. And contrary to propaganda, the Viet Cong were pretty much a non-factor after the Tet Offensive. After 1968, the enemy was pretty much all NVA. But the US politicians feared escalation to nuclear war with the Soviet Union or even China if North Vietnam were invaded, and probably rightly so. Bottom line, since invading North Vietnam was off the table, then winning the war was off the table from the very beginning.

I agree however that it was not our war and we shouldn’t have been there, and that we didn’t just help the South Vietnamese, but took total control of their side of the conflict and made it our war.

#5 Comment By David Naas On September 4, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

Unfortunately, the neocons have always sworn by that saying of a certain Nixon henchman, “If you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” The fact that has NEVER worked is irrelevant, chest-thumping thuggery will find a way.

Our current danger is those honorable gentlemen will stampede President Obama into DOING SOMETHING… Stupid.

#6 Comment By HeartRight On September 4, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

I hate to rain on a lot of parades, but I just saw a bunch of Peshmergas, on their way to battle, courtesy of the BBC.

I saw a bunch of middle-aged men, some with greying hair, some with bald heads, none of them younger than 35 as a guess, in the back of Toyota, no doubt with excellent morale, but living under the illusion that they were combat-capable infantry.

#7 Comment By Hassan On September 4, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

If Saudis, Turks and Qataris are persuaded or coerced to stop supporting factional wars in Syria and Iraq, 90% of problem is solved. Sunni tribes will learn to cleanse themselves of IS and radicals, if Al-Jazeera stop give them constant incentives.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 4, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

The artificial construct referenced as the government of “South Vietnam” was never a democracy, primarily, it was a kleptocracy, that expected (as Medaille outlines) America to do all the fighting, because the war was our idea. Their role was to engorge themselves on American money.

Medaille’s excellent analysis could also be applied to Afghanistan. That worked out so well because the boots on the ground, initially, were those of the Northern Alliance, with American air support, special ops, and materiel. We should have left it at that, and pulled out after six months. That would have been a win. ISIS will take longer.

#9 Comment By I’ll Take My Stand On September 4, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

“I saw a bunch of middle-aged men, some with greying hair, some with bald heads, none of them younger than 35 as a guess, in the back of Toyota, no doubt with excellent morale but living under the illusion that they were combat-capable infantry.”

“None younger than 35”?? Bah. My part of the South contributed a few Revolutionary War veterans to Confederate infantry units. Combat-capable is not entirely a function of age (Zulu infantry typically didn’t go into reserve units until age 40). Motivation is a big factor, but also training and habituation to rigorous living. Given equal numbers of foreign-born ISIS terror tourists and hard-living Peshmerga defending their own land there’s no doubt who I’d bet on.

#10 Comment By John Médaille On September 4, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

Loic, those are extremely shrewd observations.

Siarlys, exactly. We decided to stay and do some nation-building. Looks like we had a lot of unskilled labor.

#11 Comment By Ken Hoop On September 4, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

You people haven’t heard?
Rand Paul today says we should “reinforce Israel’s Iron Dome” among an array of other interventions, interspersed by several other favorable references to Israel, in his latest sellout of his father’s legacy.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 4, 2014 @ 8:56 pm

I feel like I am in a re-education camp.

“Unfortunately, the neocons have always sworn by that saying of a certain Nixon henchman, “If you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” The fact that has NEVER worked is irrelevant, chest-thumping thuggery will find a way.”

That is exactly what the Nixon administration did. Exactly. Hence the SV returns to the table and submits to a peace treaty, the same treaty offered ten years earlier. Bombing campaigned combined with vi8ctories on the ground by South Vietnamese repelling the North’s largest counter offensive settled the issues aside from the land snatching by both sides as the treaty was being finalized.

But the scenarios are so vastly different. The circumstance so completely making the comparison and then proceeding to contend we should reinvade — and let’s face it. We would have to reinvade occupy and pacify is a hard log to swallow.

many of you are encouraged to read the history of Vietnam. The idea that they were some puppet entity of the French or the US is the talk of one who thinks smaller countries are not as loaded with men and women who believe they are destined to political leadership on their own. The internal intrigue, power brokering, civil conflict and negotiation is not endemic to the US. The leaders in Vietnam came to power of their own accord. And if the Soviet Union or Communist China had not been supporting the south — your contention their war their struggle would be quite correct. But as that is not the case the duly recognized state of South Vietnam under the leadership of Pres. Diem, liked or not was not out of bounds in seeking US support. Further, even the arrest and assassination of Pres. Diem was instigated by the military leadership with general popular support.

Therein lies the real problem. The assumption that other countries have no will of their own. I would have thought that the loss on the battle field of some 200 thousand fighting Vietnamese would be sufficient evidence enough that South Vietnamese were wholly committed to their own defense. Mistaking our power for a lack of will on their part would be incorrect. As opposed to a ‘kleptocracy’. South Vietnamese leadership actually hindered our efforts by constantly exerting their will in the process.

The case for Iraq can only effectively be made, if the country intends to use the force of arms used by Pres. Nixon.

The unlearned lesson here is that once you have taken territory don’t give it up, until such time as one seals the objectives obtained.

#13 Comment By John On September 4, 2014 @ 9:14 pm

Some might say that we should just stay out and let the parties sort it out. Not only would this be a mistake

I don’t find moral arguments for intervention in the civil wars of others compelling, so any subsequent articles should probably focus on why staying out is actual mistake for the United States – because it’s not an uncontroversial point.

#14 Comment By Loic On September 4, 2014 @ 9:28 pm

It appears that the strategy being followed involves the creation of a Thirty Years’ War-type of destructive-constructive dialectic culminating in the fragmentation of the major independent, non-aligned (with the American lead market-state system) states and powers in the Middle East. In the place of large nationalist, powerfully rivalrous regional states would be created ethnic/sectarian client statelets a la the Gulf States, militarily independently impotent. These permanently manageable non-nationalist, non-ambitious (militarily), almost thoroughly subjacent entities would of course necessarily form part of larger military and economic discipline-imposing zones and organizations: a Middle Eastern “Nato”-type alliance lead by the U.S./Saudi Arabia/Israel and of course a European Union-type neoliberal (or “market state”) economic bloc. In such a way and through such horrendous “birthing pangs” a (religio-culturally) “post-medieval” and (politically) post cold war-nationalist Middle East would arise, one finally approximating Europe, East Asia, and North America in its religio-cultural post-modernity and market-determined political “consensus,” albeit with a stronger residual flavoring of religiously-derived social conformity, a la Japan’s. The risks for the strategists of this longue durée scenario: a thoroughly demoralized, anarchized, and criminalized neocolonial society reminiscent of Central America’s and of other parts of Latin America.

#15 Comment By David Smith On September 4, 2014 @ 10:02 pm

The last paragraph of this story is self-contradictory. On the one hand, we cannot walk away and leave it to the parties involved. On the other hand, if we invade with an army big enough to do the job, we will Americanize the war and ultimately lose it. So the solution is — what, exactly?

#16 Comment By Ramesh Raghuvanshi On September 4, 2014 @ 11:44 pm

Who had given birth to ISIS? Who supplies ARMS to ISIS? U.S.. is main culprit who sell arms to terrorist groups fight against regime of Syria.ISIS is special branch of AL;QUAD A.with help of U.S.ISIS merry making in middle east and killing citizens of U.S.Most laughable joke

#17 Comment By Tides On September 5, 2014 @ 12:02 am

The former employee at US National Security Agency (NSA), Edward Snowden, has revealed that the British and American intelligence and the Mossad worked together to create the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Snowden said intelligence services of three countries created a terrorist organisation that is able to attract all extremists of the world to one place, using a strategy called “the hornet’s nest”.

NSA documents refer to recent implementation of the hornet’s nest to protect the Zionist entity by creating religious and Islamic slogans.

According to documents released by Snowden, “The only solution for the protection of the Jewish state “is to create an enemy near its borders”.

Leaks revealed that ISIS leader and cleric Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi took intensive military training for a whole year in the hands of Mossad, besides courses in theology and the art of speech.

#18 Comment By dale sturdavant On September 5, 2014 @ 11:10 am

There are reasons the Korean “conflict” has become America’s “forgotten war,” and we have paid dearly with blood and treasure because of the lessons erased from our collective memory. We “tied” that war, rather than lost it outright. But General Mac Arthur, having witnessed the devastating onslaught of Chinese ground troops in Korea, first proposed “bombing China back to the Stone Age,” and later, after Truman’s public chastening and some sober reflection, warned us against ever again committing US troops to a land war in Asia. We forgot.

And LBJ, determined to prevent shrill right wingers from blaming him for “losing Vietnam,” as they had blamed Truman for “losing China,” foolishly committed more than 500,000 US combat personnel to a war we couldn’t have won with a million–to save his precious Great Society reforms.

When General Eisenhower succeeded Truman in 1953, he quickly silenced the wacko war hawks as no Democratic President could have done and promptly negotiated a truce with the communists in Korea and China. No one dared say he “lost North Korea.”

But today, as after China’s revolution, and again after the attacks of 9/11, jingoism and war lust dominate the Republican Party. And there’s no reputable statesman-like leader to reign them in–they’ve all been ostracized. So Republicans constantly pummel President Obama and his foreign policy, their strident and bellicose rantings proposing US-led military solutions for every problem, from Syria, to Ukraine, to Iraq, and beyond, including direct confrontation with Mr. Putin’s Russia.

The glaring absence of thoughtful reflection or bi-partisan statesmanship subordinates the national interest to shrill partisan politics. Republican leaders seem far more interested in engorging themselves on the free-flowing largess of super-wealthy donors (Koch Brothers foremost, along with Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Agriculture, etc.)than pursuing any notion of the public good. If their belligerent demagoguery plunges our nation into more wars, so be it–all the more profits for Halliburton, KBR, and other wealthy donors in the military-industrial complex, the nefarious forces a certain Republican president warned us about decades ago.

Like the lessons of Korea and Vietnam, the lessons of our foolish and costly adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are in danger of being intentionally stuffed down the memory hole. Except, unfortunately, the lesson that our own war profiteers made out very well at the expense of our soldiers and tax payers–and those latter day Daddy Warbucks can be very generous donors to those willing to do their bidding.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc On September 5, 2014 @ 11:16 am


I absolutely stand by my previous coments — popular though they are not.

And so amount of caterwalling or emotional hijinx would suffice as data.

#20 Comment By johnny On September 5, 2014 @ 11:51 am

Looks like Al Qaedi, ISIS, Russia etc…our proclaimed “geopolitical adversaries” are turning the tables on us, by baiting US all around the globe. Our foes understand our finances better that we do; hence the ultimate irony… Now they have the watches and we don’t have the time

#21 Comment By johnny On September 5, 2014 @ 11:52 am

And that is how we won the Cold War against the USSR, we bankrupted them…and they are bankrupting us.

#22 Comment By channelclemente On September 5, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

Excellent article.

#23 Comment By Stephen Highcock On September 5, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

Mr Medaille mentions neither Turkey nor Iran in his review of the “committed allies”. After all, an alliance with Assad is, in effect, an alliance with Syria’s principal patron. Why not go in with Hezbollah too? I can only assume that this omission is deliberate, and I’d like to know why.

Your assumption is incorrect—the draft had material on Iran and Turkey that was cut for space reasons and because those two states are deserving of more lengthy treatment later. –ed.

#24 Comment By Scott On September 5, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

Why does everyone ignore Iran as a possible partner in the shifting sands of Middle Eastern geopolitics? Arab clans (dynasties of the Hashemite and Saud families come to mind), Turks and Kurds have been rising and falling (and plotting and scheming) in the region for centuries … while the Persians come at the game from a wholly different perspective. We have to be wary of Iran, of course, but for which ally of ours has that not been the case?

#25 Comment By HeartRight On September 5, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

David Smith says:
September 4, 2014 at 10:02 pm

The last paragraph of this story is self-contradictory. On the one hand, we cannot walk away and leave it to the parties involved. On the other hand, if we invade with an army big enough to do the job, we will Americanize the war and ultimately lose it. So the solution is — what, exactly?

A carefully orchestrated response, in which America plays a carefully sized part without stealing the show, obviously.
To use the analogy of a rockband, with the United States playing percussion ( thus setting the rhythm ) but not providing the lead vocalist, who provides the narrative.

#26 Comment By Clint On September 5, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

Why Democrats Are The Reason We Lost The Vietnam War


#27 Comment By Charlieford On September 5, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

Excellent article from Professor Medaille.

I would only quibble about this:

“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.”

Vietnam is the most obvious case of a loss, but there are many confusions about the other wars that supposedly demonstrate our military invincibility.

The War of 1812 was hardly a win, given that we went back to the status quo ante regarding Britain’s naval policies–the ostensible cause of the war.

We were unable to prevail completely in the Philippines, and so cut down on our ambitions for how much territory we’d control, and pursued a military solution.

In Korea, we clearly failed to liberate the peninsula, not were we able to completely conclude the war in any way, either as a victory or as a settlement.

Even wars we have won were not always clean, American, military victories.

The Revolution concluded because, with French help, we were able to demoralize the Brits into quitting (as we would do in Vietnam). Obviously the Brits had a lot of fight left in them–as Napoleon learned.

In Mexico, we concluded the war by paying them $15 million dollars–not the behavior one expects from a “victor.”

Even in World War II, that was an Allied, not an American, victory. Had the Russians not absorbed the brunt of Hitler’s energies, and especially if they had stopped the war after they’d reclaimed their own border, we could not have won it.

And even in Japan, it was the Soviet declaration of war, invasion of Manchuria, and the prospect of Soviet occupation–in addition to the use of atomic weapons–that factored into the Japanese surrender (which was actually something less than “unconditional”).

Our truly successful wars–the Indian Wars, the Civil War, and WWII–all need rethinking. In the Indian Wars, we were aided by their demographic and cultural collapse as a result of epidemics (and which we exacerbated by pursuing clearly genocidal tactics in many instances). The Civil War and WWII were each massive, gargantuan efforts that required that we re-arrange America to achieve victory–something we’re obviously not going to do where the issue isn’t clearly existential.

In addition, as I think Andrew Bacevich has pointed out, we increasingly find ourselves fighting in places once colonized by western Christian white men. We never win in such places.

Which is why Professor Medaille is right about this fight: If we put our face on it, it’s lost.

#28 Comment By Albert On September 6, 2014 @ 8:02 pm

The reason that the West will lose, in the long term, against ISIS and others like them is the head-in-the-sand mentality of so-called experts, and the leaders who rely on their advice, who write phrases such as these: “This brings us to ISIS, and it would be difficult to imagine a more pathological expression of Islam.”

#29 Comment By Mike Alexander On September 8, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

Why not just help the Kurds defend their own territory and be done with it? I would also say we should assist the Jordanians if ISIS attacks them. But they haven’t yet, maybe they won’t. As for Iraq, this is where I would want ISIS to go. Then they can duke it out with Iran. Don’t you think Iran might be more willing to cut a deal on nukes if it would let them get their economy working again so they can contend with ISIS?

For me ISIS looks like a big potential win for the US, unless we insist on seizing defeat from the jaws of victory.

We probably will, it’s what we do.

#30 Comment By Thaddeus On September 8, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

ISIS is covertly supported financially, and militarily by (and is in an important respect a creation of) the U.S., according to the available evidence. Why do you suppose that is?