The road to forever war

Pity Marie Harf. All the State Department deputy spokesperson did was to state the painfully obvious point that “we cannot kill our way out of this war” with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and a right-wing media campaign to discredit her swung into action.

We’ve tried for years to kill our way out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, only to face renewed, strengthened and metastasized opposition. Violent extremist movements are using our bombing campaigns to mobilize new recruits, increasingly successfully and right under our own noses.

What are we doing wrong?

{mosads}First, we are making it all about us. The wars now breaking out across the Middle East are fundamentally about sectarian rivalries, autocracy and corruption, and post-colonial power struggles. By injecting ourselves into the middle of it, we are not only increasing our own attractiveness as a target, but diverting attention from the underlying issues that require resolution.

Second, we are sacrificing our long-term national interests at the altar of short-term political gains. By allying with autocratic rulers and regimes that provide us with military bases or intelligence support, we earn ourselves contempt from the beaten-down, oppressed and excluded majorities who will one day overturn the political order. As Natan Sharansky and David Keyes explained in an op-ed in The Washington Post, “the world should bet on the dissidents, not the diplomats,” because “dictators are not our strategic allies and are certainly not guarantors of long-term stability.”

Finally, we are assuming that by physically eliminating the ideological leaders, military strategists, bomb-making technicians and training camps of ISIS and other terrorist groups, we are reducing the threat of attacks on U.S. territory and against American citizens.

While lopping off the head of the enemy’s organization may make sense when the war is played out on a traditional battlefield, it has created something of a do-it-yourself movement for alienated Muslim youth around the world. They no longer need to travel to Iraq or Syria to receive training to fight the holy war; a lone individual with a gun, a primitive bomb or a knife is enough to create panic and death in a Western city.

In effect, we’ve unleashed a whole new era of terror in which the fighters require no formal affiliation with a particular group, ideology or cause. Fortunately, this makes it a question of police action rather than military intervention, and we ought to examine whether the two are now working at cross-purposes.

The civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya won’t end quickly, regardless of the number of weapons and troops we send in. The human suffering is heartwrenching, and we do have a humanitarian obligation to protect those who are caught in the crossfire as well as to use all of our diplomatic and foreign policy might to bring an end to the violence.

But it’s time to stop measuring our strength by the size of our military operation. There is no way to authorize the use of military force against ISIS that will not end up becoming a full-throated endorsement of war without geographic, time or budgetary limitation.

Before heading down that fateful path, let’s have a real debate about the United States’ role in the world in the 21st century, and whether “American exceptionalism” can be defined as something other than the right and the responsibility to make war wherever and whenever we choose.

Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Project on Prosperity and Development and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm.

Tags Afghanistan Iraq ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria libya Syria Yemen
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