Competition for the Generations: A Father and Daughter Reflect on U.S. Fights from Beirut to Baghdad
Service is a tradition in our family. At least one member of our family has been serving in some capacity since the Civil War. As we reflect on the past 40 years of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, our individual experiences recounted below offer insights that call for a strategic reformulation of that policy, one focused on prudent, resilient presence.
It was November 1983 and the U.S. Army unit I commanded rode out of Beirut on two Navy helicopters in the aftermath of the Marine barracks bombing. Our mission, secret until the national media broke the story earlier in the year, was to provide targeting support to the Marines at the Beirut Airport. The unit had survived mortar, rocket, and small-arms fire until the terrorist attack on the barracks finally reduced our numbers and equipment to an unsustainable level. Little did we know that we had witnessed and participated in the first battle of America’s long war in the Middle East.
Twenty years later, my oldest daughter participated in new battles in this protracted military campaign — first in Anbar Province in western Iraq, and later during a second tour in Baghdad and Tal Afar (these are the same deployments documented in H.R. McMaster’s book). Her unit fought gallantly, employing new counter-insurgency tactics that would secure a wide swath of northern Iraq. My youngest daughter deployed to Afghanistan soon thereafter, leading a support platoon for a year in Kandahar. Sandwiched between my experience in Beirut and my daughters’ deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are battles and bombings, large and small, typically inconclusive, and cumulatively debilitating to American political and military institutions. What lessons have we learned during the course of this long war, and what should be done?
Beirut, along with the ignominious exit from Saigon in 1975 and the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, was an indicator of a late 20th-century trend in U.S. political-military affairs. The trend was defined by several common components: intelligence failure, an aversion to casualties, little understanding of the nature of civil and religious war, and an inability to sustain the national will to engage in protracted combat. By 1995, Somalia and the Black Hawk Down tragedy, followed by the U.N. experience in Rwanda, and the slow response to genocide in Bosnia, signaled a reluctance on the part of Western powers to engage in combat inside fractured states.
Conversely, speedy conflicts, fought against established states or renegade regimes and characterized by airborne assaults and armored thrusts, proved to be the signature of late-century American military power and expertise. The invasion of Panama in 1989, the first Gulf War, and the destruction of the Taliban in Afghanistan served as proof positive of the superiority of American military training and doctrine when faced with conventional threats. Moreover, the size of U.S. forces was viewed as sufficient, if not robust. As the 21st century dawned, there was little argument to increase the size of America’s ground forces.
America’s enemies in the Middle East viewed U.S. military successes as instructive. Perhaps more important, revealing, and insightful to U.S. adversaries were the failed missions in Vietnam, Beirut, and Somalia. A case can be made that the U.S. failure to respond to Saddam’s brutal suppression of the Shiite uprising in the aftermath of the Gulf War provided more grist for the irresolution mill. It should have been no surprise that Osama bin Laden, emboldened by the timid responses to al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. facilities abroad, and perhaps reflecting on Beirut and Somalia, brought the long war to U.S. soil on 9/11.
This atrocity served as an inflection point for the country and my family as I watched my daughters step into the next two decades of conflict in the Middle East.
The planes crashed into the twin towers during my junior year of college and suddenly my Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship took on a whole different meaning. I had always been interested in the Middle East, probably because of my father, but never quite pictured myself there. The U.S. response to the al-Qaeda attack was predictable, overwhelming, and successful. The invasion of Afghanistan quickly routed the Taliban and dispersed the terrorist network. Success in Afghanistan bolstered the confidence of George W. Bush administration strategists and helped contribute to the subsequent decision to invade Iraq. The initial outcome in Iraq was easily scripted. Massive U.S. and coalition firepower and combined arms maneuvers quickly routed the conventional forces of Saddam Hussein. But, slowly and insidiously, the ghosts of Beirut and Somalia came back to haunt U.S. forces in the urban mazes of central and northern Iraq. Insurgents coalesced around new leaders who understood the broad implications of continued and sustained resistance. The constant drumbeat of U.S. casualties combined with a seemingly imbalanced return on investment of blood and treasure wore at American national will.
Over the last 30 years, Americans have been underserved by U.S. policymaking and strategic intelligence efforts in the Middle East. As a nation, America should acknowledge that my father’s experience of the Beirut syndrome (characterized by an unclear mission, no end state, and the early withdrawal of U.S. forces) continues to have an enormous effect on our relationships and diplomacy in the Middle East. We now add to Beirut the battles for Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. If America withdraws precipitously, as is the current mood, we add to the ledger of failure and retreat. Instead, the United States should send a clear signal of our resolve through a more imaginative and resilient strategy in the region, careful not to overcorrect during our shift to great-power competition as the core tenet of the National Defense Strategy.
The National Defense Strategy outlines five principal threats to United States national security: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and violent extremist organizations. While traditional war with one of the great powers may be the most dangerous and costly course of action, it is competition short of conflict that is most likely in the near future. As great-power competition plays out around the world, it is perhaps most prevalent and congested in the Middle East, where Russian military interference, Chinese economic predation, and deliberate influence campaigns by both further expose the waning U.S. presence. This competition also exists outside of traditionally contested environments like Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan, and now bleeds into relationships with almost every regional partner. Egypt, formerly a staunch ally, has become a playground for great-power competition, with Russia committing mercenaries to the fight over Libya on Egypt’s behalf while selling them billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment. On the economic side, China is now Egypt’s main trading partner, investing in a new economic zone in the Suez Canal corridor and a planned African manufacturing hub for a developing Chinese COVID-19 vaccine.
This great-power competition, coupled with the increasing challenges of climate change, water scarcity, and a bulging youth population, makes for a hotbed of interconnecting vulnerabilities. Moreover, the nearly 20-year American focus on counter-terrorism operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan left room for Russia and China to begin investing in many of our long-term partnerships outside of the war zones — Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, to name a few. America’s strategic relationships and interoperability, built on decades of foreign military sales, training, and assistance are being slowly degraded with each Russian and Chinese equipment transfer, training exercise, and military agreement. This growing influence risks the slow atrophy of our military relationships, with potential to disintegrate into the loss of access to a strategic base or the inability to communicate with a critical partner — both things America relies on in times of crisis.
America’s recent history in the region, as well as evolving threats, developing vulnerabilities, and increased competition all require a strategic reformulation in the Middle East. This strategy should address the prospects of political, economic, and military objectives that meld components of both hard and soft power in a resilient, efficient manner. Our most recent successes through partnered operations, humanitarian relief efforts, intelligence sharing, and financial incentives and sanctions are instructive, and may prove decisive in the new competitive landscape. For now, American military presence across the region serves as a weighty deterrent, denying Russia and China the imbalance in global influence and Iran the regional hegemony they greatly desire. Within the military sphere, we continue to compete for influence through traditional security cooperation and assistance initiatives, including education, training, foreign military sales, and exercises. On the irregular side, we compete more aggressively through information operations, military deception, cyber operations, and physical pressure.
As operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan transition from campaigns to smaller, focused efforts, many of the anchor points for relationships, access, and presence may shrink or diminish completely. America is always the most vulnerable during transitions — when it removes its eyes and ears from the ground and begin to rely on technology or partners to provide the same indicators, warnings, and patterns that the United States gains from consistent touchpoints. Moreover, enduring relationships, trust, and confidence with partners often come only through presence. The United States should stay relevant and engaged.
Learning Generational Lessons
We believe that competing below the threshold of armed conflict takes as much work as competing above it, albeit with less combat power. In turn, the United Sates should mitigate the peaks and troughs of resource and intellectual horsepower that characterize the American experience in the Middle East. Slow and steady always wins the race — just look at our adversaries. The United States does not need to triumph. Not losing is also winning in the competitive space. To abandon the field now is to continue the process of psychological surrender to forces inimical to liberal democratic values.
Dr. Jim Breckenridge currently serves as the provost of the U.S. Army War College and is the former founding dean at Ridge College of Intelligence Studies and Applied Sciences, Mercyhurst University.
Lt. Col. Katie Breckenridge Crombe is a U.S. Army strategist currently serving as the director of strategy and plans at U.S. Special Operations Command Central.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.