…or, “why America can’t use military force effectively anymore.” I was recently asked my take on the resumption of airstrikes in Iraq, this time on ISIS forces. I wish to put my thoughts–such as they are–in a broader context of how we decide to fight.
“The President is right to provide humanitarian relief to the Iraqi civilians stranded on Mount Sinjar and to authorize military strikes against ISIS forces that are threatening them, our Kurdish allies, and our own personnel in northern Iraq. However, these actions are far from sufficient to meet the growing threat that ISIS poses. We need a strategic approach, not just a humanitarian one,” [Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham] said in a statement. ““We need to get beyond a policy of half measures. The President needs to devise a comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS.”
The article quoted above (the entirety of which I recommend for your consideration) points out that even before World War II, presidents committed American forces to a series of “small wars” in many nations. That doesn’t mean they were right (or had the right) to do so. Those same ‘small wars’ were the backdrop that drove Marine Major General Smedley Butler, a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, to conclude in 1935 that “war is a racket.” I would argue that our tendency for overseas meddling has only grown since 1945, as has a highly unconstitutional–and dangerous–deference to the President’s role as “Commander in Chief.” That role is an executive one, not a legislative one. No one person should be able to commit the nation to a war of choice. It is one thing to repel an invasion (something else we seem to be having trouble with these days). It’s quite another to launch one. Consider the fact that President Obama is the fourth president in a row to commence a new round of military actions in Iraq!
As currently conducted by the United States, I have to conclude Smedley Butler has a key point about war. And as much as I highly disdain the tendency of McCain and Graham to cheerlead overseas adventurism they, too, make a point: that America does not pursue long-term strategy. Instead, we as a nation tend to knee-jerk our way through the violent side of foreign policy, from “firing a $2 million missile at a $10 tent” to “hit a camel in the butt,” to targeted “regime change actions” (Libya, 2011), to full-scale invasions of other countries (Afghanistan, 2001; Iraq, 2003). In these cases, Congress either stood by or unconstitutionally deferred its powers to the President to commit the nation to force without a solid understanding, much less discussion or public acknowledgement of what is required of the full range of national power in order to achieve sustained results worth the cost in lives, material and national reputation.
In short, we’re really good at “release the hounds.” We have lost the ability, however, to tie that choice of violence and death to long-term gains in national security. America has lost much of its moral standing in the world because of this. The makers of those $2 million missiles, or the enormously expensive platforms used to deliver them, are the real winners in this chaos. They need not worry about whether the use of their product results in a more just peace. Quite the opposite — they benefit most when things are kept at a slow boil, requiring a relatively stable demand of such gadgets. What’s not to like about the business model? The public gets to cheer at the 6 o’clock news that “America is doing something;” military and civilian leaders get to look “strong;” the defense contractors earn more money, and life goes on.
Except for those who have to live with the realities our policies create.
I’m not an America-hater or a pacifist–in fact, I’m as far from them as one can be. What I am is extremely distressed by our casual approach to war, as though it were some sort of professional spectator sport that happens to be covered by Fox and CNN instead of ESPN. Because of that, what I’m about to say next will take a moment to digest. Stay with me. It’s simply this:
Commit or quit.
What do I mean by that? I mean our nation needs to have a serious, broad discussion about what we see as our role in the world and what we’re willing to do to perform it. And we need to pay attention to the issues for a longer period than that required by NFL Sunday Ticket. Stop looking only at the individual instances of marketplaces being shelled (Yugoslavia, 1990s), the constant eruptions of ethnic and religious groups abusing and killing each other, or other emotionally heartbreaking headlines. These evil events are endemic to the fallen human nature–they have raged since the beginning of time, and will do so until the end of it. That means any nation has to pick and choose its battles. What is the desired result of getting involved in a particular issue? Are we committed to pay the price to see things through to that conclusion? For instance, did the American people decide for themselves that defending Taiwan against mainland China is worth the potential loss of American cities? If so, by what process was that decision reached? Before you say “Congress,” ask yourself: if push comes to shove, will the American people back the defense guarantees “Congress” has handed out like candy to countries around the world? Many potential adversaries are starting to ask that very question.
This isn’t a game, people. We spent eight years in Iraq. Are they better off? Are we? It seems we had just enough national will to make both countries miserable, but not enough commitment to see something productive result from that mess. If we go all “Rolling Thunder” on ISIS now, what will be the impact after the news has turned its attention to whatever Miley Cyrus or the Kardashians are doing these days? Given our short attention span it’s not unlikely that, after dropping bombs for a couple weeks (and more importantly, ordering replacements), we’ll declare success, go home, and ignore a more slow-motion slaughter of the same people we originally said we’d intervened to protect. On top of that, what is the long-term outlook for that small percentage of Americans called upon to do the fighting and dying in these situations, for policies that are increasingly incoherent?
Until and unless we as a people decide what is worth killing and dying for, and our leaders devise full visions (including defined end states) for how to pursue those agreed-upon objectives, we need to reign in our trigger-happy fingers. Given the effects of decades of massive immigration from all over the world, multiculturalism and a dumbing down of the citizenry’s understanding of the world and its history, I’m not sure we can even have that conversation, much less reach a consensus.
Regardless, we definitely need–right now–to constrain the ability of any one person, regardless of their party affiliation, to ‘send in the troops’ first and consult Congress later.
That’s the mark of an Empire, not a Republic. Sadly, it’s not the only mark evident these days. And remember, it was the bumbling, colliding ambitions of several Empires–British, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman–that brought on the insanity of the First World War. Do we really think, only a century later, that we’re so much smarter?