Clausewitz was right: war is simply an extension of politics by other means. Accordingly, one can find numerous examples of apparently victorious military operations that ended in strategic defeat. If control, colonization, or economic dominance (i.e. strategic policy) is the objective of military action, then military action must be judged by that strategic outcome, not the relative military success that may precede the strategic outcome.
In recent decades the United States has racked up an impressive tally of victorious defeats (military victories followed by strategic failure). Remember our “Peace with Honor” in Viet Nam? Now it looks like the United States is about add yet another victorious defeat to its list, this time in Iraq. Even if ISIS fails to establish a Caliphate or Islamic state, the odds are Iraq will fall apart or die trying not to in the next few years. This was not the strategic objective when Bush and Cheney put “boots” on the ground back in 2003.
The Iraq War may be the most phenomenal victorious defeat in US history. Never before has a presidential team failed so spectacularly in so many ways for such a long time as the Bush Jr. team. Viet Nam at least had a Cold War as an ostensible backdrop, but Iraq was product of unbridled hubris with no defensible rationale.
As spectacular at the Iraq failure has been, it’s critical that Americans remember this isn’t the first time US military power has failed to produce the sought after reality “on the ground.” It’s important to take note of the increasing frequency with which US military adventures are failing in the last few decades. Recognition of such failures should be a cautionary lesson for Americans, but fear seems to trump caution all too often in the home of the brave. Now the same people who brought us the stupidest war in American history are panicking in the face of ISIS and demanding yet more military action. We should ignore them.
We’ve seen this before. We fought a vicious and costly war in Viet Nam that got millions of people killed because we were told that dominos would fall and Communism would rise. And anyways we always fight for freedom. So we “won” our military victory, got our peace with honor, and then the government we spent a decade and billions of dollars propping up lasted all of two weeks when attacked in 1975. Horror of horrors right? Not really.
We never ended up living in McNamara’s nightmare world of rampant communism and crushing dominos. Instead the Vietnamese ended up making our tennis shoes and T-shirts.
Likewise the US spent decades using direct and proxy military force all over Central and South America. Few Americans know that it was actually the United States that invented the formation of “Banana Republics” on behalf of the United Fruit Company. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler penned a speech about our military adventures back in the 1930s: “War is a Racket.”
By the time Árbenz in Guatemala was overthrown by the CIA in 1954 the Cold War had become the backdrop for military and proxy military action in Latin America. The US spent decades supporting brutal dictatorships in order to stave off communism or its little sister socialism. Ronald Reagan warned us that Nicaragua was hours driving time away and would become a Soviet base should the Sandinistas prevail. Reagan’s team broke several US laws, international laws, and committed multiple crimes against humanity (The Contras were a terrorist proxy army that routinely murdered and terrorized Nicaraguan civilians). All to keep the Sandinistas out of power. So what ended up happening in Latin America? Did a totalitarian socialist end up occupying the region and organizing a march on Texas and New Mexico?
Here’s what happened. The United States was eventually forced to abandon it proxy wars on “Leftists” throughout the region. Covert (and not so covert) military intervention gave way to elections and things actually got better for most people on Latin America. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua lost elections for a while but the descendants of Somoza turned out to still be corrupt and incompetent. Now the same guy the Contras fought to overthrow (Daniel Ortega) has been elected president for the last 8 years or so.
In fact, throughout Latin America with a few exceptions, countries are being run by governments that would have been considered “Leftist” back in the 80s. Here’s the thing…. Did you even know that? You may have heard some rumbles about Chavez in Venezuela but beyond that the fall of “free market” dictatorships has unleashed economic resurgence in Latin America, not catastrophe. The guys we kept overthrowing ended up in power anyways and it’s OK.
Having learned absolutely nothing from these previous fiascos in 2003 we invaded Iraq based on fear-mongered hysterical visions of mushroom clouds and state sponsored terrorism. We all know how that went. Once again we declared military victory and then came home. Now the whole region is descending into chaos or turning towards military rule to avoid chaos and the fear mongers are back at it. Again, ignore them.
Listen, the problem is that folks like Condoleezza Rice, and McNamara before her, didn’t listen to anyone who actually knew anything. Rice and McNamara weren’t the best and the brightest. Meanwhile Bush Jr. was apparently allergic to reliable information and knowledge while Cheney was just an asshole who saw potential dollar signs and rolled the dice… oh well, you win some, you lose some.
Way back in the beginning, even before the beginning of the Iraq War, guys like Jeremy Scahill, Tariq Ali, and Noam Chomsky told us what would happen if we demolished Saddam Hussein’s government. They warned us that this war would unleash sectarian violence in Iraq that would spread in a variety of ways throughout the region. There was no shortage of historians willing to point out that Iraq itself was an illusion of a nation screwed together by the Brits in order to extract the oil. Even Saddam’s brutal and psychopathic repression couldn’t keep a tight lid on the sectarian conflicts.
There are also a lot of very knowledgeable people around who would tell you that even if you did manage to promote “democracy” in the region, being a region heavily populated by Muslims, those democracies would likely take the shape of a Caliphate. Given a choice, Muslims would set up something that looks more like Iran than Canada… in other words, an Islamic State. To promote “democracy” in this region, is to promote Islamic States. Who knew?
So here we are again. We declared victory and thought we left behind a parliamentary democracy only to find a sectarian civil war that has now spread to Syria. One way or another an Islamic state will probably emerge out of this and according to the guys who started the Iraq war; an Islamic state is even more dangerous to America than Saddam’s regime was. Ironic?
A wise man once said: “Don’t get fooled again.” A communist state emerged from the Viet Nam fiasco and the biggest problem we ended up having was finding a place for the Hmong to live. Leftists took over Latin America and you probably didn’t even know it. Even if another Islamic state emerges in the Middle East they will likely not become a threat to the United States.
It’s actually not as easy to start up a country as some people seem to think. Given the sectarian nature of the Middle East, any Sunni Islamic state will spend its infancy under attack in a variety of ways. This is not a place in the world where people forgive and forget. ISIS will have their hands full just setting up a country for several years. Simply establishing a border could take decades. Beyond that, the collection of militants that are currently supporting ISIS are all extremists and extremist are not big on cooperation or compromise. The most likely scenario is that once they establish a nation they’ll start fighting each other to decide who controls it.
What should the US government do in the meantime? I’m not sure attempts to prop up the Maliki government will be any more successful than previous attempts to prop up our governments of choice. Nor is adding another military action to the list a good idea.
There is actually a well-known response for threats to national security if and when they emerge. It’s called: “Security.” Maybe we should just focus on monitoring the threat, park a few satellites above the region, find some human beings who will keep us informed about what’s going on, and get our act together regarding effective threat and recognition assessment. I know some spooky rhetoric is coming out of ISIS but we’re a big powerful country, and rhetoric is just that. We need to be a country that leads with our heads, not a country that gets fear mongered into military action every time some psychopaths put a speech up on the internet.