The Strategy Without End(s)

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Point of Decision’s anniversary contest challenged writers to evaluate the current state of western (particularly US) policies in the Greater Middle East. Identify what has been successful, what problems remain, and potential solutions.

In his 1995 piece On American Principles, George Kennan recounts a personal address given by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams at the U.S. Congress on the Fourth of July, 1823. At the time of the address, the age of empires was experiencing the beginning of its end, fracturing the world into ill-equipped infant states who were looking to the newly liberated American colonies — not yet fifty years an independent nation — to rally to their cause. Adams was sympathetic but did not believe these new states to be up to the task of statehood:

“America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assumed the colors and usurped the standards of freedom . . . . She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

Kennan references Adams directly in the wake of the fall of Soviet power and at the end of the wholesale decolonization of the world, noting the stark similarities in global posture and fledgling states seeking out that unique brand of sympathetic American assistance. But he isn’t advocating for an agnostic new American isolationism. Instead, he speaks of the crucial principles which Adams campaigned for in that address. Principles as rules of conduct, driven by a magnanimous self-interest that believed that just as the government was the agent of the people, the United States was the agent of global human liberty and that by the benignant sympathy of her example, her prosperous presence would promote an enduring and free global modern civilization.

The current administration has taken a seemingly similar philosophical approach to the Middle East. From limited involvement in the Arab Spring as a whole, to ending the large-scale clear-hold-build combat presence mission in Iraq, the Administration has executed a largely non-interventionist strategy. But is this non-interventionism a result of a neo-isolationist phobia of complexity or is it truly a principled approach, demonstrating strategic patience in the face of mounting struggle?

Principles as Hypotheses

A glance at the political landscape today reveals a highly energized dualistic partisan divide between constituencies. People lie vehemently opposed to each other on a wide berth of topics, and the hope of consensus on any topic seems to be replaced instead with the endless sway of the en vogue pendulum of majority opinion. This is nothing new. A snapshot of many timeframes in American foreign policy sees a swing from pseudo-imperialism to isolationism depending on the circumstances, with opposing sides accusing their others of ideological heresy. How then does political leadership forge singular, viable principles that account for a world that is variable on both sides of the policy equation, lacking any real constants?

Simplicity is not necessarily the answer to complexity, but a foundational constancy of cyclically informed decision and action very well may be. The very act of decision, or hypothesis, is the product of the central orientation engine developed by Boyd. This product and its associated action create crucial feedback mechanisms with which to begin to comprehend, affect, and influence outcomes of a situation. Principles can act as pre-decisions, scoping the decision cycles of the highest policy-makers to the lowest executors, creating a living entropy management machine.

But of course, there are the claims of today’s unique complexity. The Complexity Trap by Gallagher, Geltzer, and Gorka attempts to analyze the “cult of complexity” that claims today’s situations are exceedingly complex compared to those, of say, the Cold War. Ironically, during the Cold War, foreign policy experts made the same relative claims of the previous conflict. Globalized civilization, worldwide interconnectedness — these characteristics simply open the cover on the Rube-Goldberg mechanism of international relations and cast a revealing light on all the widgets and whimsy that have been there since always.

It is the responsibility of leadership to develop guiding rules of conduct as a matter of their office, and not directly as a matter of democratic consensus. The leader needs to take action on the foreign side of the equation, knowing full well that an equal, opposite, and likely significantly unpalatable domestic political reaction will result. So what clean, simple principles currently guide us in an approach to the Middle East, and specifically the conflict in Syria? I propose:

  • Influence, not presence— the idea that “boots on deck” can cause more problems than it can solve is a common conception, not universal in every situation. Currently in the Middle East, however, I would wholeheartedly agree that direct exposure exponentially affects outcomes in multiple, simultaneous, unconstrained manners — most of them for the worse. The antithesis — always the urgent claim that what is needed is to “do more.”
  • Leadership, not unilateralism — the tradeoff in partnering is accepting reduced effectiveness/efficiency to reduce particular (that is, uniquely American) risk. Antithesis — desire for American primacy and freedom of action, yet ignorance to the real costs (human, political, economic) of such an approach.
  • Bad, even terrible government is better than no government — I believe this is the essence of the new American non-interventionism. Struggle against the ruthless dictator and stay his hand, but simultaneously spare their people the unconstrained oppression of utter chaos. The antithesis — apparently allowing terrible humanitarian suffering, and not “doing anything to stop it.”
  • Pursue justice — within the embrace of our influence, and in the hearth of our nation, show the stretch of our even hand and great wealth of liberty. Forward an agenda of magnanimity. Persecute none. Ruthlessly prosecute the wicked. Antithesis — nostalgic isolationism.

Strategy — the Test

Today’s non-interventionism would likely have expressed itself as isolationism a century ago. Interconnectedness has highly eroded the distinctions and distances that traditionally buffered our continent from the rest of the globe. An ideological terrorist organization cannot simply be avoided, nor can a “wall” be built to keep them out (what wall ever has). The hypotheses need testing.

The current administration is very clear when it comes to principles, developing a well-articulated limited interventionist approach that is consistent and predictable. Strategy, however, is another matter.

The stated endstate of the current strategy is to, “…degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.” The first critique is that the strategy appears to be… to use a strategy. Dissected further, the endstate is identified as, “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL.” Barring linguistic difficulties, it is important to point out that to “destroy” an ideological organization is not merely x number of bombs over time added to those needed to “degrade” one. The arithmetical approach is theoretically possible if considering Daesh to be purely a linear, order-of-battle institution in a closed system, bringing the body count up to an acceptable number. Instead, Daesh is a living ideological organism with a robust and intractable free will that it could unlikely even itself control. Even the ideology itself has characteristics of life. So, it would seem, “destroy” is a massive undertaking. The strategy proposes four points to achieve this end: 1) A systematic campaign of airstrikes; 2) Increased support to forces fighting ISIL on the ground; 3) Drawing on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks, and; 4) Providing humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians displaced by ISIL.

As stated, this is a strategy without ends — therefore, a strategy for a conflict without end. Counterterrorism cannot and will not destroy Daesh. Simply limiting the scale of our involvement does not limit the scope of our responsibility for bad outcomes.

The actual, if unstated, strategic ends most closely in line with our principles could well be described as containment. Strengthening of partners on the ground, creating opportunistic disparity in capability, and subjugating ideological underpinnings. Containment of Daesh and the Syrian civil war, because the administration values a balance of overarching regional issues — nuclear containment of Iran at the top of the list.

But the gravity of the Syrian civil war grows, pulling most of the Middle East, and much of the West, towards its event horizon. This broadening influence requires clarity and unity of purpose, and a self-engendered end state to drive all efforts towards. How, for example, does a broad and vague endstate of containment of Daesh guide Kurdish Peshmerga forces on the ground who are liberating and inheriting governance of Sunni tribal territory in a country not their own? Do they cement their hold on these new lands in a bid for further autonomy and perhaps realizing a repressed goal of independent statehood? Does this act not then rid the area of Daesh, yet potentially sow the seeds of future sectarianism from a people now twice displaced? A certain measure of discipline is needed to not make things worse. In the example of the Kurdish Peshmerga, at first glance it may seem we have no influence in the matter. This is not true, however, according to Denise Natali of National Defense University. She states clearly that the United States should conditionalize aid to such forces, lest we find ourselves responsible for future conflict at the expense of today’s simplicity. Containment and degradation of Daesh at the hands of de facto agents executing our strategy on the ground requires a strict eye on the aftermath of the power vacuums in the ungoverned areas vacated by a contained Daesh. These lands should be maintained by their forebears, governed temporarily by charter by liberating partners and with coalition oversight, so that our lethal aid should not enable a liberating force to “redraw” borders to their own benefit. Justice, within our influence, need prevail as per our principles, but as Adams stated in his address, we begin to become involved beyond our powers of extrication.

It is impossible to tell how policy architects of the past would approach our present woes. We know, however, that we cannot know our world until we hypothesize and test. We also know that the responsibility lies at our feet whether we would claim it or not. And those things we immutably know, our essence and values, through our principles, must chiefly inform how we approach any test so that in all things we may provide the sympathy of our example yet still rule our own spirit.

Major Sisyphus is an active-duty Marine officer and aviator. He has participated in numerous operations and campaigns around the globe to include two combat deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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