ISIS and the Folly of World War IV
Assume that the hawks get their way—that the United States does whatever it takes militarily to confront and destroy ISIS. Then what?
Answering that question requires taking seriously the outcomes of other recent U.S. interventions in the Greater Middle East. In 1991, when the first President Bush ejected Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, Americans rejoiced, believing that they had won a decisive victory. A decade later, the younger Bush seemingly outdid his father by toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and then making short work of Saddam himself—a liberation twofer achieved in less time than it takes Americans to choose a president. After the passage of another decade, Barack Obama got into the liberation act, overthrowing the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in what appeared to be a tidy air intervention with a clean outcome. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton memorably put it, “We came, we saw, he died.” End of story.
In fact, subsequent events in each case mocked early claims of success or outright victory. Unanticipated consequences and complications abounded. “Liberation” turned out to be a prelude to chronic violence and upheaval.
Indeed, the very existence of the Islamic State (ISIS) today renders a definitive verdict on the Iraq wars over which the Presidents Bush presided, each abetted by a Democratic successor. A de facto collaboration of four successive administrations succeeded in reducing Iraq to what it is today: a dysfunctional quasi-state unable to control its borders or territory while serving as a magnet and inspiration for terrorists.
The United States bears a profound moral responsibility for having made such a hash of things there. Were it not for the reckless American decision to invade and occupy a nation that, whatever its crimes, had nothing to do with 9/11, the Islamic State would not exist. Per the famous Pottery Barn Rule attributed to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, having smashed Iraq to bits a decade ago, we can now hardly deny owning ISIS.
That the United States possesses sufficient military power to make short work of that “caliphate” is also the case. True, in both Syria and Iraq the Islamic State has demonstrated a disturbing ability to capture and hold large stretches of desert, along with several population centers. It has, however, achieved these successes against poorly motivated local forces of, at best, indifferent quality.
In that regard, the glibly bellicose editor of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol, is surely correct in suggesting that a well-armed contingent of 50,000 U.S. troops, supported by ample quantities of air power, would make mincemeat of ISIS in a toe-to-toe contest. Liberation of the various ISIS strongholds like Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq and Palmyra and Raqqa, its “capital,” in Syria would undoubtedly follow in short order.
In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, the American mood is strongly trending in favor of this sort of escalation. Just about anyone who is anyone—the current occupant of the Oval Office partially excepted—favors intensifying the U.S. military campaign against ISIS. And why not? What could possibly go wrong? As Kristol puts it, “I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.”
It’s an alluring prospect. In the face of a sustained assault by the greatest military the world has ever seen, ISIS foolishly (and therefore improbably) chooses to make an Alamo-like stand. Whammo! We win. They lose. Mission accomplished.
Of course, that phrase recalls the euphoric early reactions to Operations Desert Storm in 1991, Enduring Freedom in 2001, Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and Odyssey Dawn, the Libyan intervention of 2011. Time and again the unanticipated side effects of U.S. military action turned out to be very bad indeed. In Kabul, Baghdad, or Tripoli, the Alamo fell, but the enemy dispersed or reinvented itself and the conflict continued. Assurances offered by Kristol that this time things will surely be different deserve to be taken with more than a grain of salt. Pass the whole shaker.
Embracing Generational War
Why this repeated disparity between perceived and actual outcomes? Why have apparent battlefield successes led so regularly to more violence and disorder? Before following Kristol’s counsel, Americans would do well to reflect on these questions.
Cue Professor Eliot A. Cohen. Shortly after 9/11, Cohen, one of this country’s preeminent military thinkers, characterized the conflict on which the United States was then embarking as “World War IV.” (In this formulation, the Cold War becomes World War III.) Other than in certain neoconservative quarters, the depiction did not catch on. Yet nearly a decade-and-a-half later, the Johns Hopkins professor and former State Department official is sticking to his guns. In an essay penned for the American Interest following the recent Paris attacks, he returns to his theme. “It was World War IV in 2001,” Cohen insists. “It is World War IV today.” And to our considerable benefit he spells out at least some of the implications of casting the conflict in such expansive and evocative terms.
Now I happen to think that equating our present predicament in the Islamic world with the immensely destructive conflicts of the prior century is dead wrong. Yet it’s a proposition that Americans at this juncture should contemplate with the utmost seriousness.
In the United States today, confusion about what war itself signifies is widespread. Through misuse, misapplication, and above all misremembering, we have distorted the term almost beyond recognition. As one consequence, talk of war comes too easily off the tongues of the unknowing.
Not so with Cohen. When it comes to war, he has no illusions. Addressing that subject, he illuminates it, enabling us to see what war entails. So in advocating World War IV, he performs a great service, even if perhaps not the one he intends.
What will distinguish the war that Cohen deems essential? “Begin with endurance,” he writes. “This war will probably go on for the rest of my life, and well into my children’s.” Although American political leaders seem reluctant “to explain just how high the stakes are,” Cohen lays them out in direct, unvarnished language. At issue, he insists, is the American way of life itself, not simply “in the sense of rock concerts and alcohol in restaurants, but the more fundamental rights of freedom of speech and religion, the equality of women, and, most essentially, the freedom from fear and freedom to think.”
With so much on the line, Cohen derides the Obama administration’s tendency to rely on “therapeutic bombing, which will temporarily relieve the itch, but leave the wounds suppurating.” The time for such half-measures has long since passed. Defeating the Islamic State and “kindred movements” will require the U.S. to “kill a great many people.” To that end Washington needs “a long-range plan not to ‘contain’ but to crush” the enemy. Even with such a plan, victory will be a long way off and will require “a long, bloody, and costly process.”
Cohen’s candor and specificity, as bracing as they are rare, should command our respect. If World War IV describes what we are in for, then eliminating ISIS might figure as a near-term imperative, but it can hardly define the endgame. Beyond ISIS loom all those continually evolving “kindred movements” to which the United States will have to attend before it can declare the war itself well and truly won.
To send just tens of thousands of U.S. troops to clean up Syria and Iraq, as William Kristol and others propose, offers at best a recipe for winning a single campaign. Winning the larger war would involve far more arduous exertions. This Cohen understands, accepts, and urges others to acknowledge.
And here we come to the heart of the matter. For at least the past 35 years—that is, since well before 9/11—the United States has been “at war” in various quarters of the Islamic world. At no point has it demonstrated the will or the ability to finish the job. Washington’s approach has been akin to treating cancer with a little bit of chemo one year and a one-shot course of radiation the next. Such gross malpractice aptly describes U.S. military policy throughout the Greater Middle East across several decades.
While there may be many reasons why the Iraq War of 2003 to 2011 and the still longer Afghanistan War yielded such disappointing results, Washington’s timidity in conducting those campaigns deserves pride of place. That most Americans might bridle at the term “timidity” reflects the extent to which they have deluded themselves regarding the reality of war.
In comparison to Vietnam, for example, Washington’s approach to waging its two principal post-9/11 campaigns was positively half-hearted. With the nation as a whole adhering to peacetime routines, Washington neither sent enough troops nor stayed anywhere near long enough to finish the job. Yes, we killed many tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, but if winning World War IV requires, as Cohen writes, that we “break the back” of the enemy, then we obviously didn’t kill nearly enough.
Nor were Americans sufficiently willing to die for the cause. In South Vietnam, 58,000 G.I.s died in a futile effort to enable that country to survive. In Iraq and Afghanistan, where the stakes were presumably much higher, we pulled the plug after fewer than 7,000 deaths.
Americans would be foolish to listen to those like William Kristol who, even today, peddle illusions about war being neat and easy. They would do well instead to heed Cohen, who knows that war is hard and ugly.
What Would World War IV Look Like?
Yet when specifying the practical implications of generational war, Cohen is less forthcoming. From his perspective, this fourth iteration of existential armed conflict in a single century is not going well. But apart from greater resolve and bloody-mindedness, what will it take to get things on the right track?
As a thought experiment, let’s answer that question by treating it with the urgency that Cohen believes it deserves. After 9/11, certain U.S. officials thundered about “taking the gloves off.” In practice, however, with the notable exception of policies permitting torture and imprisonment without due process, the gloves stayed on. Take Cohen’s conception of World War IV at face value and that will have to change.
For starters, the country would have to move to something like a war footing, enabling Washington to raise a lot more troops and spend a lot more money over a very long period of time. Although long since banished from the nation’s political lexicon, the M-word—mobilization—would make a comeback. Prosecuting a generational war, after all, is going to require the commitment of generations.
Furthermore, if winning World War IV means crushing the enemy, as Cohen emphasizes, then ensuring that the enemy, once crushed, cannot recover would be hardly less important. And that requirement would prohibit U.S. forces from simply walking away from a particular fight even—or especially—when it might appear won.
At the present moment, defeating the Islamic State ranks as Washington’s number one priority. With the Pentagon already claiming a body count of 20,000 ISIS fighters without notable effect, this campaign won’t end anytime soon. But even assuming an eventually positive outcome, the task of maintaining order and stability in areas that ISIS now controls will remain. Indeed, that task will persist until the conditions giving rise to entities like ISIS are eliminated. Don’t expect French President François Hollande or British Prime Minister David Cameron to sign up for that thankless job. U.S. forces will own it. Packing up and leaving the scene won’t be an option.
How long would those forces have to stay? Extrapolating from recent U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, something on the order of a quarter-century seems like a plausible approximation. So should our 45th president opt for a boots-on-the-ground solution to ISIS, as might well be the case, the privilege of welcoming the troops home could belong to the 48th or 49th occupant of the White House.
In the meantime, U.S. forces would have to deal with the various and sundry “kindred movements” that are already cropping up like crabgrass in country after country. Afghanistan–still? again?—would head the list of places requiring U.S. military attention. But other prospective locales would include such hotbeds of Islamist activity as Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Somalia, and Yemen, along with several West African countries increasingly beset with insurgencies. Unless Egyptian, Pakistani, and Saudi security forces demonstrate the ability (not to mention the will) to suppress the violent radicals in their midst, one or more of those countries could also become the scene of significant U.S. military action.
Effective prosecution of World War IV, in other words, would require the Pentagon to plan for each of these contingencies, while mustering the assets needed for implementation. Allies might kick in token assistance—tokenism is all they have to offer—but the United States will necessarily carry most of the load.
What Would World War IV Cost?
During World War III (aka the Cold War), the Pentagon maintained a force structure ostensibly adequate to the simultaneous prosecution of two and a half wars. This meant having the wherewithal to defend Europe and the Pacific from communist aggression while still leaving something for the unexpected. World War IV campaigns are unlikely to entail anything on the scale of the Warsaw Pact attacking Western Europe or North Korea invading the South. Still, the range of plausible scenarios will require that U.S. forces be able to take on militant organizations C and D even while guarding against the resurgence of organizations A and B in altogether different geographic locations.
Even though Washington may try whenever possible to avoid large-scale ground combat, relying on air power (including drones) and elite Special Operations forces to do the actual killing, post-conflict pacification promises to be a manpower intensive activity. Certainly, this ranks as one of the most obvious lessons to emerge from World War IV’s preliminary phases: when the initial fight ends, the real work begins.
U.S. forces committed to asserting control over Iraq after the invasion of 2003 topped out at roughly 180,000. In Afghanistan, during the Obama presidency, the presence peaked at 110,000. In a historical context, these are not especially large numbers. At the height of the Vietnam War, for example, U.S. troop strength in Southeast Asia exceeded 500,000.
In hindsight, the Army general who, before the invasion of 2003, publicly suggested that pacifying postwar Iraq would require “several hundred thousand troops” had it right. A similar estimate applies to Afghanistan. In other words, those two occupations together could easily have absorbed 600,000 to 800,000 troops on an ongoing basis. Given the Pentagon’s standard three-to-one rotation policy, which assumes that for every unit in-country, a second is just back, and a third is preparing to deploy, you’re talking about a minimum requirement of between 1.8 and 2.4 million troops to sustain just two medium-sized campaigns—a figure that wouldn’t include some number of additional troops kept in reserve for the unexpected.
In other words, waging World War IV would require at least a five-fold increase in the current size of the U.S. Army—and not as an emergency measure but a permanent one. Such numbers may appear large, but as Cohen would be the first to point out, they are actually modest when compared to previous world wars. In 1968, in the middle of World War III, the Army had more than 1.5 million active duty soldiers on its rolls—this at a time when the total American population was less than two-thirds what it is today and when gender discrimination largely excluded women from military service. If it chose to do so, the United States today could easily field an army of two million or more soldiers.
Whether it could also retain the current model of an all-volunteer force is another matter. Recruiters would certainly face considerable challenges, even if Congress enhanced the material inducements for service, which since 9/11 have already included a succession of generous increases in military pay. A loosening of immigration policy, granting a few hundred thousand foreigners citizenship in return for successfully completing a term of enlistment might help. In all likelihood, however, as with all three previous world wars, waging World War IV would oblige the United States to revive the draft, a prospect as likely to be well-received as a flood of brown and black immigrant enlistees. In short, going all out to create the forces needed to win World War IV would confront Americans with uncomfortable choices.
The budgetary implications of expanding U.S. forces while conducting a perpetual round of what the Pentagon calls “overseas contingency operations” would also loom large. Precisely how much money an essentially global conflict projected to extend well into the latter half of the century would require is difficult to gauge. As a starting point, given the increased number of active duty forces, tripling the present Defense Department budget of more than $600 billion might serve as a reasonable guess.
At first glance, $1.8 trillion annually is a stupefyingly large figure. To make it somewhat more palatable, a proponent of World War IV might put that number in historical perspective. During the first phases of World War III, for example, the United States routinely allocated 10% or more of total gross domestic product (GDP) for national security. With that GDP today exceeding $17 trillion, apportioning 10% to the Pentagon would give those charged with managing World War IV a nice sum to work with and no doubt to build upon.
Of course, that money would have to come from somewhere. For several years during the last decade, sustaining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan pushed the federal deficit above a trillion dollars. As one consequence, the total national debt now exceeds annual GDP, having tripled since 9/11. How much additional debt the United States can accrue without doing permanent damage to the economy is a question of more than academic interest.
To avoid having World War IV produce an endless string of unacceptably large deficits, ratcheting up military spending would undoubtedly require either substantial tax increases or significant cuts in non-military spending, including big-ticket programs like Medicare and social security—precisely those, that is, which members of the middle class hold most dear.
In other words, funding World War IV while maintaining a semblance of fiscal responsibility would entail the kind of trade-offs that political leaders are loathe to make. Today, neither party appears up to taking on such challenges. That the demands of waging protracted war will persuade them to rise above their partisan differences seems unlikely. It sure hasn’t so far.
The Folly of World War IV
In his essay, Cohen writes, “we need to stop the circumlocutions.” Of those who would bear the direct burden of his world war, he says, “we must start telling them the truth.” He’s right, even if he himself is largely silent about what the conduct of World War IV is likely to exact from the average citizen.
As the United States enters a presidential election year, plain talk about the prospects of our ongoing military engagement in the Islamic world should be the order of the day. The pretense that either dropping a few more bombs or invading one or two more countries will yield a conclusive outcome amounts to more than an evasion. It is an outright lie.
As Cohen knows, winning World War IV would require dropping many, many more bombs and invading, and then occupying for years to come, many more countries. After all, it’s not just ISIS that Washington will have to deal with, but also its affiliates, offshoots, wannabes, and the successors almost surely waiting in the wings. And don’t forget al-Qaeda.
Cohen believes that we have no alternative. Either we get serious about fighting World War IV the way it needs to be fought or darkness will envelop the land. He is undeterred by the evidence that the more deeply we insert our soldiers into the Greater Middle East the more concerted the resistance they face; that the more militants we kill the more we seem to create; that the inevitable, if unintended, killing of innocents only serves to strengthen the hand of the extremists. As he sees it, with everything we believe in riding on the outcome, we have no choice but to press on.
While listening carefully to Cohen’s call to arms, Americans should reflect on its implications. Wars change countries and people. Embracing his prescription for World War IV would change the United States in fundamental ways. It would radically expand the scope and reach of the national security state, which, of course, includes agencies beyond the military itself. It would divert vast quantities of wealth to nonproductive purposes. It would make the militarization of the American way of life, a legacy of prior world wars, irreversible. By sowing fear and fostering impossible expectations of perfect security, it would also compromise American freedom in the name of protecting it. The nation that decades from now might celebrate VT Day—victory over terrorism—will have become a different place, materially, politically, culturally, and morally.
In my view, Cohen’s World War IV is an invitation to collective suicide. Arguing that no alternative exists to open-ended war represents not hard-nosed realism, but the abdication of statecraft. Yet here’s the ultimate irony: even without the name, the United States has already embarked upon something akin to a world war, which now extends into the far reaches of the Islamic world and spreads further year by year.
Incrementally, bit by bit, this nameless war has already expanded the scope and reach of the national security apparatus. It is diverting vast quantities of wealth to nonproductive purposes even as it normalizes the continuing militarization of the American way of life. By sowing fear and fostering impossible expectations of perfect security, it is undermining American freedom in the name of protecting it, and doing so right before our eyes.
Cohen rightly decries the rudderless character of the policies that have guided the (mis)conduct of that war thus far. For that critique we owe him a considerable debt. But the real problem is the war itself and the conviction that only through war can America remain America.
For a rich and powerful nation to conclude that it has no choice but to engage in quasi-permanent armed conflict in the far reaches of the planet represents the height of folly. Power confers choice. As citizens, we must resist with all our might arguments that deny the existence of choice. Whether advanced forthrightly by Cohen or fecklessly by the militarily ignorant, such claims will only perpetuate the folly that has already lasted far too long.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, among other works. His new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East (Random House), is due out in April 2016.
Copyright 2015 Andrew J. Bacevich