Did we just surrender in the War on Terror?

Summary:  The United States cannot fight a war against radical Islamism and win.  That’s obvious, but we’re doing it anyway.  Here Chet Richards looks at our Grand Strategy as described by George Friedman of Stratfor.

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There are those who will tell you that if you can’t sit in on meetings of our national security apparatus, the best alternative is to read George Friedman. So his most recent column in Stratfor, “Avoiding Wars that Never End“, might be taken as a trial balloon for a less intrusive policy for dealing with the treat posed by radical Islam. Friedman proposes returning to the strategy that proved successful in the two great wars of the twentieth century:

The United States cannot fight a war against radical Islamism and win … But the United States has the option of following U.S. strategy in the two world wars. The United States was patient, accepted risks and shifted the burden to others, and when it acted, it acted out of necessity, with clearly defined goals matched by capabilities. Waiting until there is no choice but to go to war is not isolationism. Allowing others to carry the primary risk is not disengagement. Waging wars that are finite is not irresponsible.

Read the article. Although it seems like a welcome, if belated, exercise in 21st century realpolitik, if you read carefully, you find the same failed grand strategy that got us into our present condition: We will still be fighting an “ism,” primarily with military force.

As Friedman himself notes, this was not our original goal:

That goal was not to deny al Qaeda the ability to operate in Afghanistan, an objective that would achieve nothing. Rather, the goal was to engage al Qaeda and disrupt its command-and-control structure as a way to degrade the group’s ability to plan and execute additional attacks.

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Every month off to intervene in another nation!
Every month off to intervene in another nation!

Which we accomplished in short order. Friedman reiterates the entirely valid point that our “war on terror,” even the intrusion into civil liberties, was understandable as a short-term measure to ensure that the group did not reconstitute itself.

However, our continuing reliance on military force as our primary tool in this “war” has failed utterly. If you don’t accept this, then explain how, eleven years after 9/11, we are now fighting this same “ism” deep in the heart of north Africa, while failing to eradicate it in the Middle East and south Asia. Friedman, on the other hand,  is not proposing to abandon the reliance on force, just to change tactics a little.

Success, however, will require a new orientation. First, the threat is not “radical Islamism,” whatever that is, or any other brand of Islam, or any religion. All countries, though, do have the responsibility to prevent attacks by groups of whatever ideological stripe — or none at all as in the case of the infinitely more dangerous narcotrafficking groups. To accomplish this, we should employ coercive/military means within a broader matrix of efforts to attract potential adversaries and the uncommitted to our cause (paraphrasing Boyd in Patterns 139). Friedman proposes changes to the coercive element of our strategy, but ignores the attractive component. This will not work: You fight organized military forces with organized military forces, but you deflate “isms” with isms.

In this struggle, we have many advantages. Perhaps our greatest is that our open, free market, democratic system appeals to enormous numbers of people around the world, which accounts for the great effort we go to along our southern border to keep them out. Relatively fewer people are arrested trying to migrate to, for example, North Korea. For those around the world who do not find our system attractive, we have a simple solution: leave them alone. All we ask is that they don’t harbor those who would attack us. Otherwise the response will be swift, effective, and concluded with dispatch.

Boyd put it well in his summary of grand strategy (Strategic Game, p57):

With respect to others (i.e., the uncommitted or potential adversaries) we should:

Respect their culture and achievements, show them we bear them no harm and help them adjust to an unfolding world, as well as provide additional benefits and more favorable treatment for those who support our philosophy and way of doing things;

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Demonstrate that we neither tolerate nor support those ideas and interactions that undermine or work against our culture and our philosophy hence our interests and fitness to cope with a changing world.

I explore this approach in some detail in my exegesis of grand strategy, If We Can Keep It (~ 1 MB PDF)

Matt Taibbi echos Chet’s warning

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Is Osama bin Laden’s Last Victory Over America“, Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, 16 January 2013:

The only way we were ever going to win the War on Terror was to win a long, slow, political battle, in which we proved bin Laden wrong, where we allowed people in the Middle East to assess us as a nation and decide we didn’t deserve to be mass-murdered. To use another cliché, we needed to win hearts and minds. We had to make lunatics like bin Laden pariahs among their own people, which in turn would make genuine terrorists easier to catch with the aid of genuinely sympathetic local populations.

Instead, we turned people like bin Laden into heroes. Just like Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, there were a lot of people in the Middle East who were on the knife-edge about America after 9/11. Yes, we were hated for supporting Israel, but the number of people willing to suicide-bomb us was still a tiny minority.

The EIT {enhanced interrogation techniques} program changed that. We tortured and humiliated thousands of people across the world. We did it on camera, in pictures that everyone in the Middle East can watch over and over again on the Internet. We became notorious for a vast kidnapping program we called by the harmless-sounding term “rendition,” and more lately for an endless campaign of extralegal drone attacks, through which 800 innocent people have died in Afghanistan alone in the last four years (the Guardian claims we’ve killed 168 children in that country in the last seven years).

For More Information

About Grand Strategy:

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
  2. Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
  3. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
  4. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  5. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  6. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  7. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  8. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  9. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
  10. Realism and Realpolitik – Setting the Conditions for America’s Survival in the 21st Century, 23 February 2012

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