Yes more depressing news from the Middle East with the ISIS conquest of Ramadi in Iraq and of Palmyra in Syria. As Ramadi was falling, the US administration, with remarkable good timing, released the happy news that they had just killed a high-up ISIS financier during a night raid.
On the face of it this is a pretty naked, and pretty weak, PR bid – the fall of a major city is hardly made up for by dragging a senior administrator out of his bed and shooting him while still in his pyjamas. But when you look beneath the surface, it’s much, much worse than all that.
Here, briefly, are four possible reasons for why the Obama administration is fiddling while the Middle East burns. They get progressively more worrying.
1. Ideological shift
The Obama administration has inherited from its predecessor a preoccupation with special forces troops as a magic wand. As I argued previously, the magic was particularly potent for the Bush administration, which saw such troops as the ideological vanguard of a new, smaller military (and, ultimately, a new, smaller state). Obama has surely noticed too that this sort of derring-do plays well with a public that worships the military, and especially its elite units. Compare the aftermath of the Bin Laden killing, in which the feat of shooting an unarmed old man in the face was laughably talked up into a latter-day Iwo Jima.
2. Obama is a vacillator
Obama is a chronic vacillator (or unfailingly prudent, to be more generous), and will only commit to pinprick actions like this, fearing the consequences of confronting ISIS head-on.
3. The situation is intractable
There are simply no good moves to make. A previous administration largely created the mess in Iraq, but while this makes it America’s duty to put it right (‘you break it, you own it’), Obama still can’t do anything because yet another toxic Bush legacy has been to sully full-scale humanitarian intervention for the foreseeable future. Moreover, there are no good guys to fight alongside in Syria, and why should fighting in Iraq do any good this time around when it failed last time? In the absence of any proper solution, then, something morale-boosting and faintly useful like a daring night raid will have to do – it’s at least a strike against ISIS in a propaganda war that the bad guys are winning.
4. The situation might be solvable, but the US is incapable
By far the worst possibility is that the world’s leading democratic nation is incapable of confronting a rampant, malevolent power which threatens to ruin Middle Eastern civilization. Instead the US is limited to morale-boosting but peripheral actions like the killing of pyjama-wearing ISIS supremo Abu Sayyaf.
According to this terrifying interpretation, the modern US is structurally unable, or ill-suited, to winning wars.
Consider this: special operations like the one that so rudely awoke Mr Sayyaf were largely pioneered by the British during the Second World War. ‘Set Europe ablaze!’ Churchill so memorably commanded, but while actions like the St Nazaire raid continue to capture the imagination, and understandably so, we have largely lost sight of the fact that unconventional warfare was employed as a workaround, to compensate for the weakness at the time of Britain’s conventional capabilities. The commando raids on occupied Europe’s shores were an interim, morale-boosting means of attack until the Allies could get on with the real business of launching a conventional reinvasion.
Is a similar thing happening in the modern day? Has the US military, for a long time suspicious of unconventional warfare, embraced it now because of the crippling limitations of its conventional forces?
As I understand it, the US military historically scorned unconventional warfare on the basis that you play to your strengths – when you have more conventional firepower than any other nation, why faff around with other stuff? Hence the Powell doctrine of ‘overwhelming force’, and ‘shock and awe’ – America’s advantage over its enemies is its firepower, so it stands to reason that conflicts can be won by escalating them until that advantage proves decisive.
You only need to watch the war-porn footage from Afghanistan available on YouTube (a guilty pleasure, I admit) to see this. A Taliban gunman has a fighting chance engaging a NATO infantryman, but has no answer to the massive airpower that NATO will throw at him in response to his ill-advised pot-shots. Escalation, then, is a reasonable means of advancing any conflict to the point at which the enemy can no longer meaningfully retaliate.
However, as the US has found out during three costly and traumatic failures, there are enormous problems with this – problems which, I argue, render the US paralysed. First, escalation as a matter of principle inevitably leads to conflicts becoming big, high-intensity, expensive affairs, in which chaotic unforeseen consequences are likely and compromise with the enemy improbable.
Second, a strategy of open-ended escalation only works if it might at some point prove decisive – the Taliban gunman and the armoured divisions of Soviet Russia would ultimately have been blown away, but if your enemy is the Viet Cong, or the Taliban, or Al Qaida in Iraq / ISIS, then they won’t stick around the battlefield to receive the decisive blow. Instead, as indeed happened, US forces fruitlessly keep escalating, incurring all the attendant problems (high intensity, massive expense, chaos), without the reward of decisive victory.
True, ultimately the US could have gone completely bonkers and vapourized the Viet Cong, the Taliban etc. but it doesn’t matter. This entire way of war is far, far in excess of what the American public, i.e. the military’s paymasters, will tolerate. The US public dislikes open-ended engagements overseas, is partly still isolationist, and above all wants to bring their boys home – and yet the US military is wedded to tactics that will inevitably result in expensive, bloody, open-ended wars. Even though the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan conflicts demonstrate that at some point the President will have to bow to political pressure and pull the plug on them.
There’s no good in saying ‘we should have won, but victory was prevented by the politicians’, as was said after Vietnam and also after the First World War (except it was said in German). Armies must fight within their means, and those means are determined by politics and economics – generals might as well complain ‘we should have won, but victory was prevented by the lack of money and soldiers and equipment.’ War is, after all, the pursuit of politics by other means.
So there it is: the US is unable to carry out a conventional attack on ISIS because the military is so cut off from the political supply lines it relies on for funding and legitimacy, any attack would end in abandonment and failure. The basic American war-waging model is unworkable, and so Obama must settle for fruitless propaganda coups.
To be generous, the US military is a blameless victim of its size: big armies will fight big wars. To be less generous, one wonders if a lack of creativity and imaginativeness has led to the assumption that a big heavy military can only fight big heavy wars – what about small smart ones?
This is awfully depressing if true. The strong America of the Bush years was terrible, but it didn’t have to be, whereas a weak America could only be a much worse thing for the world. The criminal and unforgivable stupidity of invading Iraq caused this situation, and the US and UK must put it right. Ash Carter is right of course: Iraqi troops will not fight hard for a state that was artificially created, from the top down, by self-interested occupying forces. But it was obvious from the very start that the post-Saddam state would be artificial and lacking legitimacy.
Iraq has become something of a Frankenstein's monster – he was driven to misery and ultimately self-destruction by the tormenting knowledge that he didn't exist in his own right, but merely as the object of his creator's will. Nobody can bear living in the knowledge that they are a merely artificial thing, and the Iraqi people seemingly don't want give their lives to prolong the existence of an artificial state created for the benefit of foreign powers. America and Britain created this monster, now they have to do something about it.