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Military Options Are Not the Same as Solutions

Recently, Obama Administration officials met to consider U.S. military options in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Should the U.S. conduct airstrikes against Syrian military targets? Or up the ante by arming anti-Assad rebels with more sophisticated weapons? Do we keep the USS Mason stationed off the coast of Yemen and continue missile strikes against targets in areas controlled by Houthi forces aligned with Iran—taking sides in a civil war and openly participating in the Saudi-led war in Yemen? And will more U.S. military support be needed to help Iraqi forces liberate Mosul from ISIS?

But none of these options are real solutions to the larger problems, which are political, economic, and social.

Conventional thinking is that military defeat will result in political acquiescence—as in the surrender of Germany and Japan in World War II. But we already know that doesn’t necessarily happen in the cauldron of the Middle East. The U.S. military fairly easily defeated Saddam Hussein’s military, but that did not result in a secure and stable country with the Iraqi people setting aside religious and cultural divisions to pursue a liberal democracy. Instead, Iraq continues to be a power struggle between the formerly oppressed majority Shiites and the minority Sunnis (and to a lesser degree, independence-minded Kurds). Our invasion also created a power vacuum that was filled first by al-Qaeda and now by ISIS. Soon we will see the next evolution of radical Islam.

So, for example, what if we are successful driving ISIS out of Mosul? Already we are concerned that the volatile mix of Kurdish peshmerga forces and Sunni and Shiite militias in a post-ISIS Mosul could trigger religious and ethnic conflict in the city. As often happens, we are likely to solve one problem only to face another, perhaps more difficult one.


The same is true in Syria. That the Obama Administration believes the result of regime change in Syria won’t look a whole lot like what happened in Iraq is, quite frankly, unbelievable.

You are supposed to learn from history and your own mistakes, not repeat them. Yet we are supposed to believe that if Bashar al-Assad is deposed, rebel groups will want to work together to build a peaceful, stable, democratic Syria based on a vision crafted in Washington; that they won’t, instead, engage in a power struggle; and that ISIS or some other terrorist group won’t fill the vacuum created by regime change.

In Yemen we find the reverse of the situation in Syria, with the U.S. wanting to keep the Hadi government in control and get the Houthi rebels to lay down their arms. But the only real military solution to insurgency is boots on the ground. The rule of thumb for successful counterinsurgency (largely practiced by the British) is 20 troops per 1,000 civilians. The population of Yemen is 24 million people, which means 480,000 troops—clearly a bridge too far.

Moreover, successful counterinsurgency requires the ruthless and relatively indiscriminate application of force to suppress violence and quell the opposition. Indeed, the British had to use such methods to crush the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. Yet that is exactly the last thing the U.S. should do in another Muslim country, as it would simply lend more credence to the radical Islamic narrative that the U.S. is waging a wider war against Muslims.


So U.S. naval missile strikes are not likely to have great strategic effect, and keeping the USS Mason stationed in the Red Sea within range of Houthi missiles only creates an inviting target.

But the larger issue for the U.S. in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen is that, however tragic the violence may be in these countries, it poses no direct threat to U.S. national security, which should be the guiding principle when Congress considers employing military force. And it should be Congress—not the president on his or her own—making these decisions.

Bashar al-Assad is a thug and threat to his own people, but the regime in Damascus does not pose a threat to American security. And our actions have succeeded only in prolonging that civil war and arming less-than-savory characters on various sides of this complicated tragedy.

ISIS is a threat within both Iraq and Syria, but not an existential threat to America—something President Obama and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) agree on. It is up to our strategic partners in the region—such as Turkey—to lead the fight. After all, they have more at stake and the most to lose by letting ISIS gain a stronghold. And in Yemen is a civil war that has no bearing on U.S. national security.

So rather than pondering military options in the White House, we should be asking what exactly we hope to achieve, how we plan to achieve it, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and how likely we are to succeed—and we should be asking those questions down Pennsylvania Avenue, in Congress.

Most importantly, however, we must understand that the use of U.S. military force is not the solution. The problems in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen will be solved only when those countries and their neighbors work together to craft a viable political solution.

Certainly, that won’t be easy. Nor will it likely happen quickly. But it cannot be imposed from the outside by U.S. military force. And whatever the solution, we must be willing to accept it, as long as it is not a direct threat to U.S. national security.

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He is the former director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism [1].

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Military Options Are Not the Same as Solutions"

#1 Comment By john On November 2, 2016 @ 3:07 am

Compared to the other options, can you even call him a threat to his people?

#2 Comment By Kurt Gayle On November 2, 2016 @ 7:58 am

The photo at the top of this excellent Charles Peña article is of “an apparent US-led coalition airstrike on Kobane, Syria” on Oct. 17, 2014 (a month after the US bombing campaign in this area of Syria began).

ISIL tried (unsuccessfully) for months to take the ethnic-Kurdish Syrian city of Kobane – a city that sits directly astride the Syrian-Turkish border. Given that the ground forces fighting ISIL were mainly Kurdish Peshmerga and that the 300,000 refugees that crossed into Turkey were nearly all ethnic Kurds, neither the Turkish government nor the Syria government were overly concerned about the fate of Kobane, its Kurdish inhabitants, or the Kurdish refugees. The town had no strategic value. The fighting was largely symbolic.

Some of the Kurdish forces at Kobane were directly linked to Kurdish groups fighting the Turkish government inside Turkey. Therefore, arguably, the Turkish government would not have been unhappy to see ISIL overrun the Kurdish forces at Kobane. For the same reasons the Turkish government was not unhappy to see Syrian Kurdish refugees in Turkey exported on to Europe.

Ever on the fool’s errand, what did the Obama administration think that the “US-led coalition airstrikes on Kobane” were accomplishing?

#3 Comment By Chris Chuba On November 2, 2016 @ 4:31 pm

Yes because it puts the evildoers on notice that they better beware because team USA is back in town. If the rebels in Syria don’t work together to put together a govt that is to our liking after Assad is gone then we will launch missile strikes against them.

I am just being facetious. In every single place that we have touched, we have left a trail of blood but the Neocons get to spin a different tale because of a compliant regime media.

#4 Comment By Michael Powe On November 2, 2016 @ 10:02 pm

The summary of the argument seems to be that we, as a nation, do not care what happens to people outside our borders. Unless there is a profit to be made, I guess.

Left out of the calculation here is the effect of millions of refugees who fled these horrors of war. From the real politik argument presented, it would seem clear enough that these refugees are going to economic and social burdens on western countries for decades.
Of course, America has thus far made it clear we’re not going to help them and not going to take them in. That’s of a piece with the argument, so should be included.

America turning its back on the victims of war makes me ashamed of my country. Worst of all, we snuff out the image of America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Clearly, we’re nothing of the sort.

#5 Comment By PAXNOW On November 3, 2016 @ 9:32 am

Does anyone long for Gerald Ford? His first Christmas (Oops! “holiday” or “verily vacation”) in the White House not one American service-person was in harm’s way. Why are we so involved now? Is there a plan? Who benefits from this current chaos in our discretionary (whose discretion?) foreign policy? America does not; especially, in the continual loss of human and non-human treasure and our well earned reputation. Shame on these erratic warmongers. Where do they come from and how do they come up with these implosive ideas?

#6 Comment By Chris Chuba On November 3, 2016 @ 2:25 pm

So Michael Powe, do you want us to bomb Syria in order to save it? The flood of Syrian and other refugees is a result of our invasion of Iraq and our support of rebels to overthrow the govt of Syria. If we would withdraw our support for the Al Qaeda aligned rebels in Syria today and lift sanctions against that country, the civil war in Syria would grind to a halt.

After our invasion of Iraq, over 1M refugees fled into Syria and they were seeded by Al Qaeda in Iraq. This formed the back bone for ISIS and the Al Qaeda rebels currently around Aleppo. Al Qaeda fighters are streaming into Syria because of outside support and the prospect of taking over that country.

Home of the brave but only when we are picking on weak 3rd world countries that we want to change.

#7 Comment By Thanks … On November 7, 2016 @ 11:02 am

Thanks for this article. It’s a terrible shame that more of those in government aren’t as sensible as Mr. Pena. Many of our biggest problems either wouldn’t exist in the first place or would be more manageable.