The unwillingness of the Obama administration to label the September occupation of American diplomatic facilities in Cairo and Benghazi, and the murder of an American diplomat “acts of war” make this an opportune moment to consider two lessons emanating from more than a decade of warfare in the Arab and Moslem world.
First, the United States has ceased to use military force as an instrument with which to enforce its will. Our military has become an element of American diplomacy designed to change minds and behavior. The civilian population – the sea in which non-conventional armies swim, to paraphrase Mao – has become the object of intense and expensive American courtship.
Second, our adversaries in this war are not defined by time or territory, although they have more of both than we do. No defeat is definitive.
In August, President Obama went to Ft. Bliss to celebrate the anniversary of the end of combat operations in Iraq. He included the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan as he told the troops, “Make no mistake, ending the wars responsibly makes us safer and our military even stronger, and ending these wars is letting us do something else; restoring American leadership.”
The soldiers sat mainly in silence, understanding perhaps better than he that the wars have not been ended – responsibly or otherwise. The American presence and influence in the region is waning, but “the war” against us goes on. It is fought by people who need the United States as an organizing principle, and who will not be dissuaded by our absence, our reluctance to cooperate with Israel, or the President’s flattery.
They were right. Only weeks later, the Arab and Moslem world exploded, partly in organized acts of war on U.S. soil in Cairo and Benghazi, and partly in a frenzy of manufactured outrage from Morocco to Afghanistan. On the other hand, the al Qaeda-supported al Shabab gave up the last city it held in Somalia — Kismayo — and ran for the hills. On the other other hand, al Qaeda-related Islamist forces moving from Libya into Mali have extended their reign of terror, and the UN is considering creating a force to respond. Jihadists of various stripes are active in Syria and Nigeria.
Conquerable Centers and Admitting Defeat
World War II, the last “good war,” is the story of the conquest of territory. When the Nazis overran Europe, they made the rules. General Eisenhower was told to take the territory back and ensure that the Allies made the rules. He did not care whether a German soldier or civilian was an ideological Nazi, did not ask him to be nice to Jews and did not look for defectors. When he was done, the Allies were in Berlin, and any stray Nazi sympathizers kept their heads down. It was gruesome, but ultimately American rules prevailed. Ditto the Pacific. Island by island, the Allies reversed Japan. The atomic bomb was the alternative to taking the last stretch to Tokyo mile by bloody combat mile.
VE Day and VJ Day were possible because Germany and Japan had conquerable geographical centers and governments to acknowledge defeat. When the Allies conquered the center, the war was over.
Korea and Vietnam, wars that were halted rather than ended, did not have conquerable centers. The wars were managed, funded and equipped from a place the United States was unwilling to go. We negotiated an armistice at the 38th Parallel for South Korea and left our troops under treaty as our bond. In Vietnam, we negotiated a peace treaty that removed our fighting presence; our political presence disappeared shortly thereafter.
The First Gulf War was a hybrid. The U.S.-led coalition captured the territory of Kuwait and threw the Iraqis out, but declined to continue on to capture the center – Baghdad. The unsustainable no war/no peace lasted 12 years. By the time we removed Saddam the rules had changed.
Ideological and Transnational Adversaries
America’s primary enemies in the Middle East take a different view of both territory and defeat than Nazi Germany or even Saddam. For al Qaeda, territory is valuable as a staging ground, training ground or hideout, but the war travels. Terrorism can be conducted anywhere — New York, Bali, London, Bulgaria or Jerusalem — and the aim is less territory-specific than ideological, religious and dictatorial. The Taliban in Afghanistan harbored Al Qaeda, but the CIA now estimates that fewer than 1,000 remain, the remainder having fanned out in Africa, Asia and elsewhere in the Middle East.