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October 15, 2019

Middle East ‘Insanity’

We will continue to muddle along in this gray area between peace and war until…

“Insanity!” That’s the way one Special Forces soldier who helped train and advise Syrian-based Kurds described President Donald Trump’s policy change in the region. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results — that’s an apt summary of the situation.

George W. Bush was rightly criticized for his premature “Mission Accomplished” banner, and Barack Obama was rightly criticized, to this day, for his politically motivated withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq, giving rise to the Islamic State and creating a massive humanitarian crisis. Now, President Donald Trump is being criticized for his assertion that “we 100% defeated the ISIS caliphate” and withdrawing U.S. advisers from northeastern Syria — in effect, green-lighting a Turkish invasion. We can hope for a better outcome this time around, but, as military planners are fond of saying, “hope is not a viable strategy.”

The absence of a viable strategy has plagued U.S. military employment in the “Endless Wars” for some time. In fact, the wars are seemingly endless precisely because of the lack of an overarching strategic vision. With no clearly defined goal, we muddle along, occasionally stipulating what we won’t do — maintain troop levels past a predetermined date or conduct “combat” operations — rather than what we intend to accomplish. Stream-of-consciousness tweets don’t constitute a strategy, and our unilateral withdrawal from Syria is more likely to exacerbate than solve the problems President Trump cites. For example, we’ve already seen our soldiers threatened by Turkish shelling. Increased involvement from Russia and Turkey, along with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad — none of whom share our interests — threatens to expand both the scope and intensity of the fighting. Detention centers have been left unguarded, allowing hundreds of ISIS leaders and fighters to escape and replenish the terrorists’ ranks, already undermining the “100% defeated” claim.

Our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq started with clear objectives that earned broad bipartisan support in the form of Congressional Authorization(s) on the Use of Military Force (AUMF). Critically, both were also presented to the public in a way that rallied support (at least temporarily) for the policies. While there has been some healthy discussion in military and foreign-policy circles, and a few politicians have attempted to generate interest in a review of the AUMF, our military and political leaders have failed to define and communicate what we should do with these national security challenges and why we should do it. In the absence of a compelling narrative outlining our national interest, cries of “not another American life” and “make the other guys pay their share” resonate, even if it will mean more American lives and dollars in the long run.

This is not the forum to outline a coherent military or national security strategy. The mechanisms are already in place to debate and document those ideas, but they are meaningless if the public is unaware of and our politicians ignore their contents. Congress largely abdicated its role in the process after passing the AUMF. President Bush made the case for the “surge” in Iraq in 2007 at great political risk, but domestic politics have consumed presidential agendas since then. Given the current environment in Washington, that’s unlikely to change in the near term. We will continue to muddle along in this gray area between peace and war until American citizens’ interest and involvement in national security expands beyond thanking service members for their service.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “An informed citizenry is the true repository of the public will.”

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