A 3-pronged ISIS strategy
After World War II, the United States established itself as an undisputed superpower. However, Dominic Tierney’s recent publication, “The Right Way to Lose a War: America in the Age of Unwinnable Conflicts,” suggests the country’s war capacity is not so great. The 1991 Gulf War was the only victory among the five conflicts the United States was involved in since 1945. The Korean War and Afghanistan were draws, while the Vietnam and Iraq wars were losses.
For a sole superpower, a track record of one win, two draws and two losses is hardly impressive. More interestingly, the cost of war and the outcome represent a reverse correlation. The United States spent $1.6 trillion in Afghanistan and Iraq, $738 billion in Vietnam, $341 billion in the Korean War and $102 billion in the Gulf War. The least expensive Gulf War ended in a victory, while U.S. Forces lost in Iraq and Vietnam where the most money was spent.
In this book, Tierney argues that America’s odds of winning in the future would be even longer as wars are likely to be unconventional. And his proposal is quite interesting: The United States should avoid military intervention when possible and if intervention is necessary, the best exit strategy is “surge, talk and leave.”
The book came out just in time, as Washington is engaged in an intense debate over military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Hardliners, especially the Republican Party, claim the crises in Iraq and other areas of the Middle East caused by the rise of the Islamic State are a disaster caused by the Obama administration’s hasty military withdrawal. They want the United States to send more ground troops right away, defeat ISIS and rebuild trust in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. They say it would be in the national interest and the United States is capable.
But the opposing point of view also has considerable support. Liberals in America think military intervention through reinforcement of ground forces cannot be a solution. They don’t want young soldiers being maimed and killed when a victory is by no means guaranteed. Also, large-scale ground forces in the Middle East could be a negative factor that leads to a regional dispute involving the question of legitimacy. Supporters of the Obama administration’s current position believe the fighting should be left to the Iraqi forces, and the United States should remain in a supporting role.
Considering election campaign politics and domestic opinion, the war against ISIS is likely to be conducted with expanded military intervention that includes the deployment of additional ground forces. Then the United States is likely to repeat the past mistake of winning the battle, but losing the war. In order to avoid repeated failures, the United States needs to focus on three points.
First, the Middle Eastern problem fundamentally originates from a crisis of legitimacy. Who would support a politically repressive regime that is indifferent, or incompetent, in matters relating to the quality of life for ordinary people? The locals would not welcome the United States if it were protecting and supporting such a regime. Therefore, the United States needs to make extra efforts to reinstate democracy and implement sustainable economic development in the Middle East.
Secondly, the United States must not neglect the crisis of integration. The ISIS monster was born from the Sunni-Shiite divide. If the Shiite regime in Iraq had been tolerant of Sunnis, the rise of ISIS could have been prevented. It is the same in Syria. If the minority Alawites had embraced the Sunni majority in a national integration, things would have been very different. The roots of the civil wars in Libya and Yemen also originate from sectarianism and tribal disputes. If the United States pursues military intervention without properly responding to the crisis of national integration, war efforts will certainly fail.
Lastly, the United States should pay attention to failed governments. The Middle Eastern nations in crisis are all failed nations with dysfunctional governments. America’s efforts will be in vain if it sends troops for a government unable to make and implement policies, and a military that runs from combat against ISIS.
After all, military intervention is not an ideal solution, nor is the “surge, talk and leave” strategy. The United States can hope for a true victory only when it prepares solutions for the crisis of legitimacy and integration prevailing in the Middle East and plans for malfunctioning governments. Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 29, Page 31
*The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.
by Moon Chung-in