war on the rocks

The Perils of Limiting Our Wars

October 16, 2014

President Obama has been vague about many aspects of this most recent American involvement in the Middle East, but he has been absolutely clear about one thing: only the military forces of the countries under siege by the Islamic State can defeat the Islamic State. Numerous supporters of the president’s strategy keep repeating this mantra.  When did we start believing that?

National Security Advisor Susan Rice underscored the point on Meet the Press:

It’s got to be the Iraqis. This is their fight. This is their territory…We’ll do what we can from the air. We will support the Iraqi security forces, the Kurds, and ultimately over time, the moderate opposition in Syria to be able to control territory and take the fight to ISIL.

Even former President (and potential First Gentleman) Bill Clinton agrees that “we can’t win a land war in Iraq, but they can and we can help them.”

Imagine if Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt broadcast that only the military forces of Belgium could defeat Nazi Germany.  Those of us remaining unconquered would contribute our “unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries’ futures” (as President Obama said last week at U.S. Central Command).  Would the Free French have mobilized on that basis?

This isn’t World War II, of course, but President Obama isn’t arguing that this is a war of marginal concern for America’s interests. He has cast the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in apocalyptic terms. He describes our enemy as a threat “unique in its brutality” and a “network of death” that menaces not only the countries currently in ISIL’s grasp, or in the Middle East, but the United States, as well. He insists that “this is a core principle of my presidency:  If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” But the gap between the importance he accords to the threat and the limitations on means to address it are a major drag on building a functional coalition. Moreover, they place a crushing burden on the allies already under siege by the Islamic State.

As far as I can tell, we plunged down this rabbit hole with the 2013 State of the Union address, in which Obama announced that the way we fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan played into the terrorists’ hands. Obama referred to these engagements as “large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.”  Ground wars actually help the enemy cause, according to America’s commander-in-chief.

Obama has returned American strategy to the Eisenhower administration’s delineation of “small wars,” civil wars or insurrections occurring outside the established U.S. and Soviet spheres of influence.  The 1954 Basic National Security Policy explicitly ruled out committing American ground forces: “ground forces for such wars will have to be supplied indigenously…support will come from us with our mobile reserve of naval and air forces and logistics.”  On this point, both the president and secretary of state were adamant that committing ground forces to these wars constituted “wasting our strength.”

The crucial distinction between Eisenhower’s strategy and Obama’s is that President Eisenhower considered such a strategy applicable to wars only outside the American sphere of influence.  By definition, they were wars we were not invested in winning.  But the case President Obama makes for war against the Islamic State is apocalyptic — the United States is absolutely invested in defeating ISIL, he claims.  Obama believes we will win through very limited means, not that we have very limited interest in the outcome, which was Eisenhower’s view.  It should also be remembered that both Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles eventually acknowledged these small wars were increasingly where U.S.-Soviet confrontation would play out, and that their strategy proved ineffective at containing the challenge.  President Obama believes our limited involvement will be adequate for the task.

This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of coalition warfare and perhaps even of human nature.  People do not surge to battle when you tell them it’s their fight alone — they stand up when you stand with them.  It is folly to expect (as Obama did in both Iraq and Afghanistan) that threatening allies with abandonment leads to brave choices. It is folly to expect (as the president is doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria) that telegraphing the limits of your interest in helping allies win their war will make their resistance more stalwart.  What piling so much risk onto allies leads to is accommodation by them with the forces that are winning their war, extended fighting that drags on for years with all the political fracture and human degradation and loss of potential, or outright loss.

President Obama is right that we need to work in partnership with countries where terrorists are seeking a foothold.  But that does not mean we should force those countries already overtaken by terrorists to assume all the risk of the ground campaign.  Roosevelt and Churchill let DeGaulle and his French forces lead the march into Paris, but they did not make the Free French lead the landing at Normandy and bear the burden of liberating France village by village and push back German forces.  If we had contributed only our “unique capabilities” in World War II, the Nazis would still be in control of continental Europe.

Shared risks are what make coalition warfare successful.  We ought not expect to off-load the greatest risk to the people already struggling under the greatest burden.  As President Obama himself said, “You see, American influence is always stronger when we lead by example.  We can’t exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else.”