One can almost hear the guffaws and back-slapping laughter out of China and Russia rattling around the ether of the international system, as they watch the United States again blunder mindlessly around in the blind alleys of the Middle East, fruitlessly wasting time, money, and political capital to no useful end. Indeed, it must make for good theater in the dictatorial halls of power in Beijing and Moscow.
The January 2020 tit-for-tat assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani emphasizes yet again America’s confounding inability clearly to think through the role of military force as an instrument of strategy. It is yet another example of the difficulty we have in linking operational and tactical ends, ways, and means to achieve clearly articulated and achievable political and strategic objectives that promote security and peace versus an endless war.
Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis accurately characterized the phenomenon as “strategic atrophy” in the 2018 National Defense Strategy report.
The Blinding Fog
Setting aside the troubling moral issues of the drone attack, Soleimani’s assassination is emblematic of the blinding strategic fog has shrouded the way we think about the world in the post-9/11 era, as we have recklessly blasted away at our enemies to no strategic effect in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere across the globe. What has the United States achieved to the coherent ends of statecraft over the last quarter century, through its far reaching and protracted counter terror campaigns?
One could argue that the second order effects of these actions have proven to be much more significant. With incalculable harm in decades to come, we have helped break apart fragile societies encompassing five states in the Middle East and South Asia. In the process, our irregular wars have created refugee flows and displaced populations that have helped destabilize surrounding states and the wider international system. All of these outcomes are blowing back on western societies, as colonial warfare has done in tragic episodes in the past.
When and how did the United States become maladroit in its use of military power in conflict to achieve peace and security? How did the pre-eminent global superpower that outlasted the Soviet Union in the Cold War, building the world’s strongest and most dynamic economy along the way, end up in such a place? How is that we needlessly and continuously frittered away our global position to the advantage of our real rivals in Moscow and Beijing over the last quarter century?
Today, these authoritarian states seem better able to use military force to their Eurasian, totalitarian, high tech great power condominium to shove Western democracies into a corner of a newly oriented multi polar globe — to the detriment of Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo.
The Abandonment of Strategic Patience
There are four easily identifiable contributors to our strategic ineptitude. The first is our abandonment of the strategic patience called for in George Kennan’s memo of 1946. Kennan’s central idea was that we would get stronger over time, while our adversaries and their flawed political and economic systems would not. Kennan, Paul Nitze, and many others made this idea a central feature of U.S. Cold War strategy.
To be sure, Kennan and Nitze, as well as others of the Cold War era, were hardly perfect. The Cold War embodied failures and numerous crises. The United States mistakenly dove into the Vietnam War to great, tragic cost. But we miraculously survived Vietnam because of our inherent economic and political strengths, and we managed to finally leave when success eluded us. By contrast, the Soviet Union lacked this strength when it stumbled into Afghanistan in the 1980s, which was one contributing factor in its demise.
America’s strategic patience mysteriously vanished after the 9/11 attacks. The demise of this hallowed strategic principle can be traced to the second debilitating assault on American strategic thought: the metastasizing cancer of threat inflation. Like all these issues, there is a relevant history that bears summarizing. There had always been a persistent argument in the Cold War about the size and character of the Soviet threat — particularly with McCarthyites in the 1950s who expected a Soviet first strike. After the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975, neoconservatives persistently (and mistakenly) argued against Jimmy Carter that the United States was underestimating dastardly Soviet political intentions and their military forces in the thermonuclear age.
When Ronald Reagan gained power in 1980, neoconservatives seized the opportunity to operationalize their alarmist ant-Soviet views into defense budget priorities and follow-on plans, policies, and programs. Two of the most famous results were Daniel O’Graham’s fantastical Star Wars anti-missile programs and John Lehman’s 600-ship navy to carry the naval fight to the very deepest recesses of Soviet maritime power. Both projects certainly scared the daylights out of the Soviets and, like the war in Afghanistan, forced the Soviet Union to spend money it did not have, which sped its demise. Lost in the storyline of America’s Cold War triumph in 1980s was that conservative threat inflating hysteria was just flat wrong.
The same neoconservatives, in the school of Albert Wohlstetter, returned to power once more in George W. Bush’s, administration in 2001, again convinced that threats to the United States were being underestimated and that the new century was ripe for more assertive American leadership. The 9/11 attacks gave them the chance to once more paint the world as a dark and dangerous place that required a more muscular and militarized American strategy.
Condoleezza Rice’s infamous 2003 appearance on TV, warning of impending nuclear mushroom clouds to illustrate the terrors of the day, was emblematic of the era. The American public, understandably traumatized by the attacks, raised little objections to the war on terror and the resulting counter terror guerrilla campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan that could never be brought to a sensible termination.
Deliberate, even hysterical, threat inflation was central to the argument that cast Sunni Islamic extremists in apocalyptic terms. The inflated threat provided the pretext for the neoconservatives to undertake their cherished dreams of remaking the Middle East at the point of a gun, an enterprise that collapsed almost as soon as it had begun. Like the 1980s, lost in the shuffle was the reality that Americans had more of a chance of getting hurt slipping in the shower than they did through terrorist violence emanating from Sunni Islamic extremists.
Once out of the barrel, however, the boogeyman of Sunni extremist terrorism has proven to have remarkable staying power. Its latest iteration is the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), which grew out of the embers of the Shia-Sunni civil war in Iraq. ISIS certainly represents a political problem for regional regimes, but it has never been clear what threat these murderers represent to the national survival of the United States of America or of its European and Asian allies. Yet commentators today still seize upon the threat from ISIS as a reason for the U.S. to remain involved in policing the Middle East.
Inverted Levels of War
The third feature of America’s post-Cold War strategic fog is an inversion of the levels of war, in that the connection between high level strategic objectives and the means of achieving them has been lost. Instead of focusing the role that force can play to achieve broader political objectives, we’ve been increasingly drawn to clever tactics employed by well trained and equipped troops, superior firepower in all domains, and digital-age speed sensors that could identify and hunt down our enemies at the flip of a switch, to be memorialized in gun camera theater on TV. These clever tactics have indeed killed America’s enemies and produced impressive body counts, but have they achieved our broader political aims?
We packaged these things up and called the product “full spectrum dominance” — the history of which is wonderfully covered by Maria Ryan’s book “Full Spectrum Dominance: Irregular Warfare and the War on Terror” (Palo Alto, Stanford University Press, 2019). War grew to be seen as an engineering problem divorced from politics and the surrounding strategic circumstances, in which political and military leaders repeatedly seized tactical solutions to strategic problems. The most dangerous part of the full spectrum dominance metaphor, as embodied in such things as the “Third Offset,” was that we started believing our own press releases about how great it all was.
Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘shock and awe” campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002-2003 became the showcase for America’s military prowess in the unipolar moment — indeed, they vanquished our enemies in the opening stages of these wars. But as we all now know, our enemies simply melted away to fight another day, into places that could not be targeted by our all-seeing precision strike complexes.
No More Adaptation
The last troubling feature of America’s strategic fog is a lack of adaptability on the strategic and operational levels. We have shown ourselves incapable of abandoning strategies that are clearly outdated and which net no positive result. The poster board for this phenomenon is the dogged insistence that America needs to continue policing the Middle East through force.
The Carter Doctrine and its Cold War preceding framework made sense at the time. America’s initial Cold War approach in the Middle East sought to prevent Soviet expansion into the region. It was followed by an enunciated requirement of the United States to “defend” the Gulf following the Arab oil embargo to secure our energy supplies.
Neither of these frameworks are relevant, setting aside the normative questions of being in league with such questionable allies as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey. The strategic reality is that the Middle East is no longer as important to the United States as it once was, and we need a strategy that reflects this circumstance.
In the first days of the unfortunate year 2020, America’s strategic fog and/or atrophy lies thick around us. It will continue to do until we re-discover strategic patience, address our persistent threat inflation, re-order our inverted levels of war in terms of preparing for and waging military conflict (as regrettable as that may be), and realize we must adapt to circumstance as warranted. Unless we lift the fog, we run the risk of a strategic defeat as few can imagine possible in our tale of American exceptionalism.