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Mattis on Our Way of War

With the neocons discredited, no other strategy has replaced theirs except to “win” and come home.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in January of 2014. We are republishing it in light of Mattis’s being tapped to head the Department of Defense.

Jamestown Foundation is an old-line think tank founded during the Cold War to encourage and help Soviet defectors. Today it is a large, respected think tank with continuing hard-line views on Central Asia and former Soviet lands. It focuses on Eurasia and global terrorism. Publications include Terrorism Monitor, Eurasia Daily Monitor, China Brief, North Caucuses Monitor, and Militant Leadership Monitor. Wikipedia reports “it has been alleged that Jamestown is neoconservative agenda driven… with ties to the CIA & U.S. Government.” Its directors include former top intelligence and military personnel. This writer, a long time anti-communist, participated in a Jamestown team of journalists and experts on Soviet Russia who served as observers for President Putin’s first election in 2000.

When the keynote speaker at Jamestown’s annual conference, a four-star Marine Corps general, analyzes America’s way of war from a realist perspective, his criticisms are well worth knowing. His views must be widespread in the military, although not in Washington’s civilian establishment. Gen. James N. Mattis (retired) followed General Petraeus as commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) from 2010-to-2013, responsible for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and 18 other nations. Earlier he commanded the First Marine Division during the initial invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. He also served as NATO supreme allied commander from 2007-2009.  He served for 42 years, and the Marine Corps Times has called him the “most revered Marine in a generation.”

Some of General Mattis’s statements and reasoning follow; my comments are in italics.

–America doesn’t lose wars, it loses interest.

–We have no overall strategy about how to defeat our enemy. (Just killing them is not working because, as I wrote years ago, the proper analogy comes from Greek mythology, Hercules’ adventure where, for every enemy soldier he killed, ten more sprung up in each one’s place.)

–We don’t understand our enemy. (This refers to Sun Tzu’s classic dictum for war, “Know Thyself and Know Thy Enemy.” Americans have scarce interest in understanding the Muslim world’s history, wants, and fears.)

–Violent Jihad is gaining, not losing ground.  (House and Senate intelligence panel chairs say terrorists are gaining. Half of Americans believe us less safe today than prior to 9/11.)  

–We need a strategy which does not drive young Muslims to al-Qaeda.

–We must develop a persuasive counter narrative to that of our enemies. (With communism America held the moral high ground; today our Middle East wars have taken it away.)

–Al-Qaeda’s narrative is vulnerable, its strategy has its own poison pills.  The IRA is an example of how a group’s own extremists can cause disaffection among the public. They eventually caused the Irish public to abandon them as they competed to prove who could be the most violent and brutal using indiscriminate terror. A franchise operation is not controlled, factions will do things wrong—think of al-Qaeda in Iraq murdering so many Sunni civilians for not conforming to Sharia law and subsequently being defeated.  (Remember also that every free election where most Arabs could show their beliefs, only a small minority supported al-Qaeda’s religious fundamentalism.  Most want safety, prosperity, and security. The calumny that most want to establish Sharia law in America is a propaganda of Washington’s war party.)

–Irregular warfare must become a core competency of our military; also our new weaponry must be focused on this new kind of war.  (Most military training and procurement still concerns the strategy of World War II.)

–We must be more attentive to our allies’ sentiments and needs. We ignore them and then wonder why they won’t later do what we want.

–We must do a better job explaining and talking to the American people about our objectives.

–Palestinian peace process—two-state solution –Washington must address and promote this issue. (The conflict weakens and discredits America in the whole Muslim world. Mattis follows previous CENTCOM commanders, Admiral Fallon and General Petraeus, in stating the same judgment.)

–First think how we are going to end the fight before getting involved in wars.  Democracies don’t know how to end wars.  How much longer will there be public support for the war?  American are not war weary, but rather are confused.

General Mattis reportedly spoke of his concerns during discussions over attacking Iran and thus fell afoul of the Washington establishment, so President Obama hastened his retirement. Foreign Policy‘s Thomas Ricks reported:

Why the hurry? Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way—not because he went all “mad dog,” which is his public image, and the view at the White House, but rather because he pushed the civilians so hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran. Some of those questions apparently were uncomfortable. Like, what do you do with Iran once the nuclear issue is resolved and it remains a foe? What do you do if Iran then develops conventional capabilities that could make it hazardous for U.S. Navy ships to operate in the Persian Gulf? He kept saying, “And then what?”

Washington did have a “strategy” when it attacked Iraq, the neoconservative one.  This was to intimidate the Muslim world with massive bombing, “Shock and Awe” we called it, so all Muslims would be afraid of us and then do what we ordered. Then we planted giant, billion-dollar American air bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. These would, they thought, give us hegemony over Central Asia, intimidate Russia and Iran, while Iraq would turn into a friendly, modern democracy dependent upon Washington. Other Muslim nations would then follow with democratic regimes which would co-operate and obey Washington’s plans.

With the neocons discredited, no other strategy has replaced theirs except to “win” and come home. This is not unusual in our history. In past wars American “strategy” has usually been to return to the status quo ante, the prewar situation. Washington violates nearly all of Sun Tzu’s dictums for success. Endless wars for little purpose and with no end strategy are thus likely to continue. They are, however, profitable or beneficial for many Washington interests.

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.



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