As part of our special investigation “Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide,” we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. (You can access the archive here.) The following dispatch comes from military strategist Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and author of Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century.
Lessons from the Terror War, and Wrestling
America’s experience since 2001 teaches the strategic lesson that the use of modern military power, even against Arab and Afghan opponents with no armed forces to speak of, can have costly, unintended consequences. In Iraq and Afghanistan, US military action has produced serious problems for America’s overall security. It has helped Iran expand its power throughout the Middle East, alienated Turkey—the region’s most powerful Muslim military force—and eroded Pakistan’s fragile cohesion, all of which have dangerous implications for Central and Southwest Asia, and have created a global backlash and serious economic vulnerability at home.
What can we make of these developments? First, the Muslim world doesn’t want the United States to be its savior, nor does it want to be “Westernized” through US military occupation, regardless of any material benefits. For that matter, nobody in the world wants US troops to police and govern their country, even if those troops are more disciplined, less corrupt, and provide better capabilities than their own soldiers and police.
The Iraq occupation presented America’s enemies in the Muslim world with an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have had: the chance to directly attack US forces, damage the Pentagon’s prestige, and exhaust US economic and military resources while strengthening their own. The result is that the US burns through $12 billion a month in Iraq to maintain order on behalf of a Shiite-dominated government allied with Tehran. (That figure includes cash for peace money paid to former Sunni insurgents.)
The concept of “victory” as it equates to the establishment of Western-style government and free-market economies has no meaning. These are unattainable political and military objectives; damage control, not victory, is the most realistic US goal in the Middle East, and in most of Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
American national security interests determine military strategy only in theory. In practice, Washington does what it likes simply because it can. This explains why Operation Iraqi Freedom never had a coherent strategic design. That the US was capable of removing Saddam Hussein was enough to justify action in the minds of some US leaders, who assumed that, no matter whatever happened afterward, America’s superior military force would muddle through and prevail.
This mindset remains even now. It helps explain why discussions of Afghanistan’s deteriorating situation are dominated by those who want to bolster force levels and plunge American soldiers into Pakistan’s tribal areas. (A more sober analysis suggests the real problem with Afghanistan resides in Kabul, yet another corrupt, ineffective government unworthy of American military support.)
Such thinking, however, has resulted in a $700 billion defense budget that is a significant component of the larger borrow-and-spend engine that is destroying America’s economic health and eroding national security. (An in-depth look at the origins of this decades-long trend can be found in Andrew Bacevich’s new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.)
The largest strategic lesson of the war on terror is this: When national military strategy fails to answer the questions of purpose, method, and end state; when there is no strategic framework relating military strength to policy goals, military power becomes an engine of destruction—not just for its enemies, but for its supporting society and economy. Regardless of how great or how small the military commitment, if the price of success is potentially excessive, then the use of force should be avoided. After all, the object in conflict and crisis is the same as in wrestling: to throw your opponent by weakening his foothold and upsetting his balance—but without risking self-exhaustion.