Rushing to War in the Wrong Places

Official Washington’s “group think” is that President Obama is “weak” because he doesn’t rush into wars with the abandon that talk-show favorite John McCain would like. But Obama may actually be “weak” because he gets pushed into conflicts that ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar says only make matters worse.

By Paul R. Pillar

Andrew Bacevich has done a tally of the number of countries in the Islamic world that, since 1980, the United States has invaded, bombed or occupied, and in which members of the American military have either killed or been killed. Syria has become the 14th such country. Several of the countries have been the scene of U.S. military operations more than once.

Most of the countries are in the Middle East, although the list also includes Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the Balkans, and Somalia in Africa. Probably most Americans, however much they may be aware of the latest U.S. military foray, have little appreciation for how extensive this list has become.

President Barack Obama meets with his National Security Staff to discuss the situation in Syria, in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013. From left at the table: National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; Attorney General Eric Holder; Secretary of State John Kerry; and Vice President Joe Biden. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama meets with his National Security Staff to discuss the situation in Syria, in the Situation Room of the White House, Aug. 30, 2013. From left at the table: National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; Attorney General Eric Holder; Secretary of State John Kerry; and Vice President Joe Biden. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Bacevich also notes the sorry record of accomplishment from all this lethal activity, and gives one partial explanation: “American policymakers have repeatedly given in to the temptation to unleash a bit of near-term chaos, betting that longer-term order will emerge on the other end.”

This sort of bet often is placed in response to a desire, and political pressure, to do something about a perceived problem, with military force being the most visible and demonstrable way to “do something.” That is clearly a major part of the Obama administration’s response to the perceived problem of ISIS.

The biggest instance of unleashing chaos in the hope that long-term order will somehow emerge, however, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the operation that gave birth to ISIS under a different name, was not a response to such pressures but instead entirely a war of choice. It was the leading example of the Jerry Rubin school of political-military affairs: of destroying things and then grooving on the rubble.

Several other reasons also account for the miserable U.S. record of military force in that part of the world, of so often making things worse rather than better. One is that although U.S. military force can help to accomplish some really important and beneficial things, such as, say, winning World War II, or in the Middle East, reversing blatant aggression as in Kuwait in 1991, it cannot accomplish many other things, given the nature of those things.

The U.S. military is a wonderful hammer, but many of the thorniest problems in the part of the world we are talking about are not nails. Political and social order cannot be injected through the barrel of a gun. Creating a lasting order is about construction; guns are about destruction. Political culture and political will, especially the will to accommodate conflicting interests, are essential to creating order, and they cannot be created with military force.

Much of what needs to be accomplished to create new order needs to be accomplished by those who will be part of that order. Sometimes outsiders can help, but no matter how powerful and well-intentioned an outsider may be, unless a solution is owned by the locals it will not last. That’s what happened with the “surge” in Iraq, which bought a temporary respite from the worst of the violence but failed to accomplish its more fundamental objective of providing the space to enable Iraqi political factions to reach an accommodation.

The current attempt to use force to counter ISIS illustrates in particularly acute form another sort of hazard, which comes from taking sides in someone else’s civil war that is defined in mostly sectarian or ethnic terms. The United States has no national interest in taking sides in such conflicts. It is a prescription for making enemies on one side and getting little better than a “what have you done for me lately” response from the other side.

Not least important, the use of U.S. military force in internal turmoil in the Islamic world has repeatedly fostered resentment and hatred and the sort of anti-American extremism that thrives amid such resentment. This results partly from the collateral casualties and damage that are an almost unavoidable consequence of the application of military force in such situations. It is also partly from the mere fact of the superpower exercising its power in this way. Not putting boots on the ground helps to lessen this response, but dropping bombs on the ground isn’t really better.

Several political and military dynamics, including the desire to double down on a bet that hasn’t yet paid off, may drive escalation of the latest U.S. military effort in the region. Taking a larger perspective, something similar has been happening regarding the whole multi-decade U.S. military encounter with the Middle East.

There is a strong inclination to believe that whatever is the current chapter in that encounter will bring the sort of payoff that previous chapters did not. Don’t bet on it.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Rushing to War in the Wrong Places

  1. jer
    October 7, 2014 at 17:27

    Today’s typical Amerikan war hawk is the great epitome of human evil .. the evil of the ‘civilised’ western man or white man. In the past, the civilised white man viewed other natives (such as American natives, Filipino natives, etc..etc) as his playthings as well as his legitimate cannon fodder. Yet today, despite all the enormous awakenings and great awareness about human suffrage, he has not changed at all. Today, he continues to view natives in foreign soils that are not pro-western as still his playthings and legitimate cannon fodder. This evil which is so inherent in all of today’s Amerikan war hawks will surely force the world onto the path leading to the very long-awaited Armageddon.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 8, 2014 at 10:14

      Great example!

  2. F. G. Sanford
    October 7, 2014 at 14:42

    Under the Bush administration, U.S. Special Forces were involved in 60 countries, and the drone program had been used to conduct fifty strikes. Under the current administration, U.S. Special Forces are involved in 123 countries and more that 330 drone strikes have been conducted. The tenure of our “reluctant warrior” is only three quarters finished, so there will be plenty of opportunity to “improve” that performance. But by any measure, he’s definitely RUSHING!

    Heres the reality, which ALL military strategists, including the Joint Chiefs, know only too well. There actually is a place called “The War College”, and they actually do go there to study this stuff. (I like to think of it as McDonald’s “Hamburger University” for warfare. If that were a failed strategy, McDonalds wouldn’t be the slumlord of the American workforce it is today.) The “reality” is that, with “shock and awe”, a kinetic war can be “won” with a small force very quickly. Hitler called it “Bitzkrieg”. The problem is the occupation, which as General Eric Shinseki pointed out, would take between three and four hundred thousand troops. They knew he was right, so they fired him. The point was not to “win” the war, a secret Shinseki might have revealed in his enthusiasm to tell the truth. The variables: logistics, troop strength, weapons capabilities, supply routes, weather, terrain, etc., have been analyzed for every battle ever fought since Thermopylae.

    I have to laugh when I hear things like, “such as, say, winning World War II, or in the Middle East, reversing blatant aggression as in Kuwait in 1991 —”. Competent military analysts of the day KNEW Hitler had lost the war by December, 1941. “Operation Barbarossa” was utter failure. The rest was a sadistic effort to delay the inevitable. The plan was to let Stalin and Hitler bleed each other, get in there at the “right” time, wreak as much damage as possible to insure post-war economic opportunity, guarantee the permanent demise of the British Empire, and retain control of Middle East Oil. We have all heard about April Glaspie giving Saddam the “green light” to invade Kuwait – he was “our guy” until he decided to nationalize his country’s oil. Then, he was suddenly a “brutal dictator”, and he “had to go”. Come on, Professor Pillar, we know that the CIA engineered his takeover of Iraq in the first place. We’ve seen the pictures of Rumsfeld shaking his hand.

    Now that ISIS has taken control of parts of Iraq and Syria, occupation would take AT LEAST five hundred thousand troops, perhaps a million. The rival tribal factions will NEVER reach political accommodation. The U.S. will NEVER intimidate Saudi Arabia or Israel to stop “stirring the pot”. It’s the “perfect storm”, and the plan is to keep it going for YEARS.

    Somebody wrote a recent article about our military’s stupidity of using a $1.4 million dollar cruise missile to destroy a $6,000 antenna. Raytheon, McDonnell Douglas and Boeing get the “Happy Meal”, and the “99%” picks up the tab. That’s not stupid at all if you’re a member of the “1%”. In fact, it’s sheer genius.

    • Casper
      October 8, 2014 at 07:33

      Absolutely right. The notion that the 1991 Gulf War invasion of Iraq was an example of a ‘good’ American war is hilarious not to mention stupid. It was a setup from start to finish, Saddam being sucked in right down the toilet. This now apparently forgotten war set the stage for the endless war of blowback terror ever since. What was it about? Probably the Pentagon thought it was a good idea to install military assets and bases into the region but needed a handy pretext for cover. If the locals object, well never mind, chaos is always good for business anyway.

  3. Joe Tedesky
    October 7, 2014 at 14:30

    For each bomb we drop how many terrorist does that bomb create? Over the last 13 years since 9/11 how much more is America loved? Better yet, does America even appear to want to be loved? How exceptional is America? Would not the same technology which produces military weapons be used to manufacturer construction and farming equipment? Instead of bullets could not we supply medical needs?

    The vast Military Industrial Complex along with its Homeland Security cousin should be diverted to making money more on positive projects. This will never happen since my suggestion would only be laughed at by our current leaders. They always point out how they are protecting us, but they turn a blind eye to how much more they aid in producing new terrorist doing things their way. Keeping our populace in a state of fear does pay off for those who are invested heavily in our defense.

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