After Paris: will we think first, or just repeat what’s already failed?

Summary: The call goes out just as it did after 9/11: kill, kill, kill — more evidence that we’ve learned nothing from our expensive post-9/11 wars that have set the Middle East aflame. So we’ll double down on stupid, testing to see if our great power can overcome our blindness, arrogance, and ignorance.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

River of Blood

First we begin with the myth-making, just like after 9/11, as in this by Zalmay Khalilzad (senior official in Bush Jr’s administration) in the National Interest

Under President Obama, America maintained robust policies on homeland security and counterterrorism, but adopted a passive and reactive approach to transforming the region. The administration withdrew from Iraq, provided minimal support to the opposition in Syria, and allowed safe havens to emerge after toppling the Qaddafi regime in Libya.

Khalilzad relies on our amnesia about recent history (much like Republicans blaming Obama for the slow response to Katrina). Bush signed the SOFA that ejected us from Iraq; Obama expanded our wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria; there was no support in the US for the massive intervention necessary to stabilize Libya after Gaddafi; etc.

On this foundation of fiction hawks build their case for a more intense and wider war. Some are coy about the specifics, as in this typically vague bluster from Mitt Romney: “Obama must wage war on the Islamic State, not merely harass it” — not saying what actions America must take.

Other voices are explicit: “We can’t stop the Islamic State with a ‘Desert Drizzle’“, David A. Deptula (General, USAF, retired; dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies), op-ed in USA Today.

“We have it within our capacity to destroy the Islamic State leading to the elimination of their sanctuary for terror. However, to do so will require moving beyond the current anemic, pinprick air strikes, to a robust, comprehensive use of airpower — not simply in support of indigenous allied ground forces, but as the key force in taking down the Islamic State.”

Fake Churchill about success
Among the dumbest advice ever. Churchill didn’t say it.

Bombing’s almost perfect record of failure since WWII seldom bothers its advocates, who repeat their mantra like deranged monks (see Martin van Creveld’s It’s the age of failed airpower. Yet we try, try, try again). Meanwhile, outside the news media other voices speak for our dark side. Such as this proposal to nuke Mosul received from a smart, well-educated author of several articles on the FM website:

“The model city of the Caliphate will be obliterated in a single, carefully engineered blast, resulting in all the fire and brimstone that an air-delivered, deeply penetrating, buried, 5 megaton bomb can produce. Atmospheric fall out will be severe, but wind patterns heavily favor Caliphate distribution to the southwest not Turkey.

After well over a year of cleansing all victims are assumed legitimate – ISIS, or ISIS sympathizers or supporters. We did the same in Japan.”

This is one of my nightmares. The evil of strategic bombing (which was clearly understood by US and European leaders before WWII) has taken root in our minds, waiting for an opportunity to reemerge. Nukes always offer Presidents the ability to make a historic mistake. Tom Clancy, whose stories have foreshadowed so many events, wrote about this in The Sum of All Fears (1991); see the excerpt at the end of this post.

Think button

Rare voices of sanity above the frenzy

Western logic: French planes have flown 1,285+ missions against ISIS. President Hollande said the Paris attack was an act of war. Tit, tat.

Just as we did after 9/11, America seems likely to take stupid actions that end badly. But far more so than in 2001, we have been warned. But we prefer to listen to the voices of those who have been wrong for 15 years instead of those who have been proven correct.

(1) France bombs Islamic State bases in Raqqa. But will it make much difference?“, Fraser Nelson, The Spectator.

(2) A war the West cannot win“, Andrew J. Bacevich (Colonel, US Army, retired; Prof Emeritus of International Relations & History at Boston U), op-ed in the Boston Globe

“Time and again the actual employment of that ostensibly superior military might has produced results other than those intended or anticipated. … Rather than putting out the fires of radicalism, we end up feeding them. In proposing to pour yet more fuel on that fire, Hollande demonstrates a crippling absence of imagination, one that has characterized recent Western statesmanship more generally when it comes to the Islamic world. There, simply trying harder will not suffice as a basis of policy.

“It’s past time for the West, and above all for the United States as the West’s primary military power, to consider trying something different.

“Rather than assuming an offensive posture, the West should revert to a defensive one. Instead of attempting to impose its will on the Greater Middle East, it should erect barriers to protect itself from the violence emanating from that quarter. Such barriers will necessarily be imperfect, but they will produce greater security at a more affordable cost than is gained by engaging in futile, open-ended armed conflicts. Rather than vainly attempting to police or control, this revised strategy should seek to contain.

“Such an approach posits that, confronted with the responsibility to do so, the peoples of the Greater Middle East will prove better equipped to solve their problems than are policy makers back in Washington, London, or Paris. It rejects as presumptuous any claim that the West can untangle problems of vast historical and religious complexity to which Western folly contributed. It rests on this core principle: Do no (further) harm.

“Hollande views the tragedy that has befallen Paris as a summons to yet more war. The rest of us would do well to see it as a moment to reexamine the assumptions that have enmeshed the West in a war that it cannot win and should not perpetuate.”

(3) The Paris Attacks and the Demand for Action“, Paul Pillar (3 years as an officer in Vietnam, 28 years in the CIA), National Interest.

“Any escalation of military efforts in Iraq and Syria should be undertaken with our eyes open to two realities. One is that we may be sustaining the motive for ISIS to strike back in retaliation in the West …

“The other reality is that military success on a distant battlefield is not to be equated with elimination of a terrorist threat at home. Despite all the attention given to terrorist havens, possession of a sandy and distant piece of real estate is not one of the more important variables that determine who poses or doesn’t pose a terrorist threat to one’s homeland.”

(4)  About the war with ISIS: who or what is the enemy? The answers have great effect on our strategy. Analysis by Jeremy Harding. “The idea of waging a war without losses was an odd one. Even losses at home should have come as no surprise.”

(5)  ISIS struck Paris by the ancient right of self-defense. What is the legal basis for the West’s war on ISIS? Analysis by Glen Newey, professor of political philosophy at the University of Leiden.

(6)  A follow-up by Paul Pillar: “The Folly of an Expanded U.S. War in Syria” in the National Interest.

Other posts in this series

For More Information

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The Sum of All Fears
Available at Amazon.

A note from a possible future

Thirty years ago (when the first stories of Iran’s nukes appeared) the great science fiction writer David Gerrold wrote his series about the invasion of the Chtorr (still unfinished; the first 2 are excellent). In its back-story the US nuked another nation, sparking a global alliance against us as a dangerous rogue hegemon.

More realistic and chilling is this excerpt from Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears (1991), especially since his stories have foreshadowed so many events. After a terrorist attack on Denver, the President decides to nuke a city in Iran in reprisal. The hero gives the story a happy ending. We cannot count on heroes.

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“Yes, General, and I intend to get the man who did this, and get him in a way that will send a message that nobody will ever forget. The leader of Iran has committed an act of war against the United States of America. I intend to reply exactly in proportion to his act, I want a {nuclear] missile targeted on Qum. … The American people will demand that I act! I must reply to this — to make sure it never happens again!”

… “Mr. President, this is General Fremont {Commander in Chief of the Strategic Air Command).” Sir, we have re-targeted a Minuteman-III missile in North Dakota for the target specified. … The launch sequence will take about a minute from the time you give the order.”

“The order is given.”

… “Sir, I confirm your identification code. Next, Mr. President, the order must be confirmed. … The two-man rule applies. In the event of an overt attack, I can be the second man, but since that is not the case, someone on my list must confirm the order. …to be on the list you must be an elected official or one approved by Congress.”

“I’m on the list,” Jack {Ryan, Deputy Director of the CIA} said.

“Deputy Director Ryan, this is C IN C-SAC,” Fremont said in a voice that oddly mimicked the robotic one used to issue SAC orders. “Sir, I have received a nuclear-launch order. I need you to confirm that order…

“C IN C-SAC, this is John Patrick Ryan. I am DDCI. “Sir, I do not confirm this order. I repeat, General, this is not a valid launch order. Acknowledge at once!”

“Sir, I copy negative approval of the order.”

“That is correct,“ Jack said, his voice growing stronger. ”General, it is my duty to inform you that in my opinion the President is not, I repeat not in command of his faculties. I urge you to consider that if another launch order is attempted.”