It is a trope of military analysis to say that generals are always fighting the last war, but there is another counterpoised analytical misapprehension that ‘generals’ can be drawn into, namely, not paying enough attention to the reality of warfare in their own generation. It’s perplexing hearing generals talk about their plans for next generation cyberwarfare or star wars programs when their armies on the ground have such a dismal record with conventional warfare.
Let’s be clear. The past twenty years for the United States’ military and security establishment have been pretty ignominious.
Leaving Afghanistan after nineteen years of conflict with their enemy, the Taliban, strengthened has more the colour of a defeat than a victory.
In Iraq, testy relations with the local Government have left the United States largely restricted to a few major bases.
In Syria, the defeat of ISIS has done nothing to extend US influence because of the lack of a proxy in the conflict that the US has felt able to back consistently. There is no independent Kurdistan, something that the United States has fought for – without believing in – in both Syria and Iran.
The security situation across the Sahel has worsened markedly, with terror attacks doubling every year between 2015 and 2018. In December 2019, when Congress met to discuss the US response, it struggled to get the attention of more than a handful of representatives, despite the fact that American blood had recently been spilt in Niger.
While it talks of democracy and equality, across the Middle East the effect of US actions has been to bolster the absolutist monarchies, while undermining or overthrowing the secular autocrats, such as those in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
In Yemen, the result of the US’s strategy of pounding a ragtag Houthi army with some of the most advanced munitions known to man has simply been to give American adversaries in Yemen and Iran a leg-up in understanding how to fight against advanced 21st century military hardware. Likewise, Hezbollah and Hamas are only growing stronger in response to ongoing, inconclusive military encounters, and Hezbollah in particular has developed a considerable amount of organisational learning capacity through its multi-decades-long conflict with Israel.
In the ‘war on drugs’, we have seen the increasing weaponisation of drug addiction by US adversaries, both state and non-state.
Audiet pugnas vitio parentum rara iuventus
A significant issue for the United States has been the poor quality of executive leadership from George W. Bush (2001-09) and Barack Obama (2009-17).
On 11 September 2001, I had just finished reading The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk, and America’s Last Call: On the Brink of a Financial Holocaust by David Wilkerson. Even as a fresh-faced international relations student, it was immediately clear to me that a general war against Afghanistan without an effective proxy was a futile exercise. Why was it not clear to the US top brass?
This is not to say that the United States should have done nothing. Bush Junior absolutely would have been justified in crushing every Al Qaeda training camp known to US intelligence. Regime change may well have been justified in the case of the actual regimes that had supported the 9/11 attacks.
If you are familiar at all with Saddam Hussein and his record of brutalising and torturing his countrymen, you will have shed no tears at his overthrow; but for all his bloody sins, it was not Hussein that had facilitated the attack on US soil, and 2002 was not the moment to pick a fight with Iraq. While eighteen years of intervention in the country has increased US influence somewhat, Iraq is still not a reliable US ally. Ba’athism may be crushed, but the Shia militias are stronger than ever.
In the case of Barack Obama, it is hard to think of many bilateral relationships that he left in a stronger state than he found them. His Cairo University speech gave the cue to a series of bloody revolutions that would see him directing the bombing of eight Muslim countries by the time his term was done.
Obama’s relations with European allies were strained by revelations of spying and by the slow grind of misplaced US interventions against autocratic Middle Eastern and North African leaders.
When, on the other hand, swift action was called for, as in the case of Boko Haram’s capture of north Nigerian women and girls, the Obamas backed a toothless PR campaign, rather than rolling up the terrorists at their inception.
A noted anglophobe, Obama’s contempt for the UK was palpable, and his decision to enemise Russia following its passing of the Traditional Family Values Act in 2013 was ideologically-driven folly.1
In Asia, Obama stood back while China gained in strength, and he failed to inspire regional allies’ confidence in the United States to the extent that even the Philippines, under Duterte, drifted towards a pro-Russian foreign policy orientation.
Neither was US influence strengthened in Subsaharan Africa or Latin America.
For all that his political and ideological opponents in the United States maligned him as some evil genius, the truth is more mundane: Obama was a deeply ineffective leader prone to prevarication, indecision and equivocation.
Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae
In truth, this is a recurrent theme in American warfighting: a failure to press home advantage, such that the fighting is often won but the battle or war is not. Look at Lee at Antietam successfully repulsing all Federal attacks, before abandoning the position in the night to give the Feds the de facto victory. Or, Gettysburg where Meade lacked the self-confidence to drive home his victory against the Confederates. Or, Operation Desert Storm, where the American military crushed Saddam Hussein in the field, yet inexplicably allowed him to remain in power.
The confusion in Dick Cheney’s understanding of what going to war entails is palpable:
And the question in my mind is, how many additional American casualties is Saddam [Hussein] worth? And the answer is, not that damned many. So, I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the President made the decision that we’d achieved our objectives and we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.
You smash the Iraqi Army, but leave the Torturer-in-Chief in place. What sort of a victory is this?
And we’ll say nothing of Vietnam…
So what are the lessons to be learned?
Despite the collapse of the US’s principal rival of the post-war era, the Soviet Union, the past fifty years have seen a considerable weakening of the economic power of the United States best exemplified by the devaluation of the dollar against real assets (gold), the offshoring of American production, and the accelerating rise in American foreign debts.
Most American foreign military interventions have been inconclusive and have delivered little real benefit to the United States. In particular, the past twenty years have been marked by geopolitical, strategic and doctrinal failures, and on the military side, poor choice of intervention and an inability to realise victory.
The China that has risen in the American stead has an absolute focus on remaining the industrial powerhouse without whose manufactures no nation can do, a position that Britain held during the Revolutionary Wars in Europe.
The ineptitude, inefficiency and wastefulness of the deployment of US hard power – and the poverty of its political leadership which appears to find common cause only in fiscal profligacy – is gradually degrading the US’s standing in the world.
All of this can be reversed, but it will require that the American right stops believing its own hype, that its left stops undermining social and national institutions, and that a series of urgent, profound and painful political, economic and social reforms be undertaken.
If it fails in this task, there will be foreign troops on US soil within a generation.