The US Congress has authorized arming Syrian rebels in the fight against the Islamic State, and the US has started its bombing campaign. It’s about time. I mean, it’s about time for an election so of course Congress had to look like it was doing something. And they had to do something because there were two American journalists who suffered gruesome, horrible deaths. Americans by and large supported this doing of something, because after three years of the Syrian Civil War, they finally discovered what much of the world already knew: there was a civil war in Syria.
Americans paid attention to the execution of the journalists more than any other story of the past five years. That’s to be expected: James Foley and Steven Sotloff died horribly, whereas the 191,000 Syrians who met their demise before them presumably did so in a wacky, lighthearted, and utterly charming way. Chemical weapons and cluster munitions are well known as the Laverne & Shirley of ways to die. Strategy suggestion to the ten million Syrian refugees: have you thought about dumping buckets of ice water on your heads? Also, being Arab isn’t helping.
The same survey that revealed Americans now know that Syria isn’t the thing you pour milk on for breakfast also showed we feel less safe. This makes sense: the Islamic State is a whole lot more frightening than Count Chocula, though possibly less anti-Semitic than that particular cereal. Speaking of Muslims, President Obama now has an approval rating lower than his forehead at Friday prayer (zing!). Thus we find ourselves with a weak President, a Republican party with its eyes on taking the Senate, ghastly deaths, and a sort of non-specific fear. Sounds like as good a time as any to get into a non-specific war in the Middle East.
We’ve been here before. Charging into a troubled region to restore order when no one else has the will or the means. The only problem is this: the American military sucks at Middle East wars. Really, really sucks. You may remember something called the Global War on Terror, the official term for the various American overseas adventures of the 21st century. The GWOT cost $5 trillion in the first 10 years, or $16,000 for every American. That’s a staggering amount of money. We could have bought every American a new car, though if that car was a GM they might actually have felt safer fighting in Iraq. To be clear, President Obama changed the name of GWOT in 2009 and declared it over last year. Though he declared he’d close Gitmo at the same time. The guy makes a lot of declarations. It doesn’t change the fact that we suck at Middle East wars.
To be clear, I’m not criticizing our troops, or the men and women I prefer to call Future Neglected Veterans. I’m criticizing our military leadership, commonly called “the brass” because of their tendency to be tarnished by insubordination, poking their biographers, and covering up widespread sexual abuse. And I’m not just some weak-kneed liberal sitting on his couch banging out a stupid blog while watching America’s Test Kitchen. I’m some weak-kneed liberal banging out a stupid blog while watching America’s Test Kitchen who can turn the Joint Chiefs of Staff words against them.
This is thanks to a document published eight years ago, “National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism.” This is the real deal. You can tell – it has a giant picture of an eagle on it. As the cover letter from General Peter Pace notes, the document was produced as the US was entering its 5th year of fighting the GWOT. The five year mark must have seemed like as good a time as any to finally come up with a strategy for the war (though we continued to fart around in Iraq until the “Surge” of the following year.) Here are the objectives for the GWOT, as described in the document:
1. “Deny Terrorists What They Need to Operate and Survive”
2. “Enable Partner Nations to Counter Terrorism”
3. “Deny WMD/E Proliferation, Recover and Eliminate Uncontrolled Materials…”
4. “Defeat Terrorists and Their Organizations/Counter State and Non-State Support for Terrorism…”
5. “Contribute to the Establishment of Conditions That Counter Ideological Support for Terrorism”
You know how members of Congress get themselves all hot and bothered about accountability and measurable results in public education? Wouldn’t it be great if they could find themselves in a comparable froth about accountability from the military when it sets clear objectives and then clearly fails to meet any of them them? Look at that list. I don’t think that in the summer of 2014, ISIS felt particularly denied of their operational or survival needs. Iraq is a partner nation of ours, and countered ISIS by cleverly losing part of their country to them. North Korea still has nukes. Iran still has nukes. Syria has used at least two kinds of chemical weapons. States and non-states have supported terrorist groups without much hesitation. Why are we going into another war with the military and the military strategy that screwed up the last one?
No, really. Where we really, truly, and horribly Bill Bucknered the War on Terror is on #5. Because here’s the kicker: remember how we made sure there were no Ba’athists left in the Iraqi military in 2003? And then remember how after that al Qaeda was able to establish a foothold in Iraq because it took us four years to realize we weren’t being welcomed as liberators? Remember how how no one in America – not the president, not the military, and definitely not the public – wanted to get involved to stop the slaughter in Syria? It’s a historic joke: disgruntled ex-military men and radical Islamists walk into a rapidly destabilizing country. The punchline: The Ba’athist and ISIS from an alliance to take over part of Iraq. Ha! Get it? The other funny part is that after the US decided not to take military action against the Syrian government, we now are giving the Syrian government — the one that is responsible for the deaths of almost 200,000 people – advanced warning that we will be bombing their country.
But the Syrian government shouldn’t worry, because we’ll be bombing the other party responsible for gruesome deaths and the suffering of thousands.
This will likely be over soon. In his address to the nation on ISIS, President Obama promised a limited effort. The President also claimed that “this is American leadership at its best: we stand with people who fight for their own freedom.” The President is right. We stood with the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets, until we lost interest in 1989. We stood with the Shi’a and Kurdish rebellion against Saddam in Iraq, and then we didn’t. The United States stood with Sunni Arabs during the “Awakening” in 2007 until we pulled out of Iraq completely in 2011. We promised Syrian civilians the Assad government would face consequences for using chemical weapons, and they didn’t.
All of our previous efforts in the greater Middle East seem to lead to one conclusion: no matter how badly this war goes, the next one will probably be worse. Which is great, because we suck at wars in the Middle East.