Power of the United States:
When you’re the most powerful country on the planet, you often want to show the world that rather than let others start getting ideas that your strength or will to fight is wasting away. You want to send would-be challengers the message that there is no wiggle room to usurp your authority. There is nothing inherently flawed in this approach if you’re the best military, provided you are fighting the right battles, not just every battle that comes your way. Sometimes, clouded by the strength of the military and the confidence of the generals, leaders will find themselves goaded into believing that each situation they look at is a direct threat that needs to be quashed.
The United States spends the most of any country on defense and many of the top competitors in terms of expenditure are American allies. NATO’s 2014 defense spending accounts for 56% of global expenditure – meaning that America and its allies are the best armed. From such a position of power, it can be tempting to utilize that power to solve world problems, even those that do not directly threaten United States interests or the interests of its allies.
An Example in Libya:
As an example, consider the case of Libya. NATO, of which the United States is a major part, through a United Nations mandate was tasked with “enforcing an arms embargo, maintaining a no-fly zone and protecting civilians and civilian populated areas.” This was a humanitarian operation meant to protect civilians, but it ended up becoming a full-fledged campaign to remove Colonel Qaddafi from power. President Obama stated as much recently by referencing American “participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya” in an interview with the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman. The campaign in Libya was one-sided – there was shoddy enforcement of the arms embargo and NATO read “protecting civilians” as “actively coordinate with rebel armies to launch offensive strikes on Colonel Qaddafi’s armies.” One such strike paved the way for Colonel Qaddafi’s capture by militias, where he was summarily executed extra-judicially.
Removing Colonel Qaddafi was likely taken because he was seen as a nuisance, even though he had complied with threats to abandon nuclear ambitions. He was not at all a real threat to any NATO members
One can hardly cite Libya as a success, despite the fact that NATO easily was able to overthrow Colonel Qaddafi. When one looks at Libya today, he sees a country plagued by a weak central government and with militias running rampant throughout the countryside. Guns from the former regime have been smuggled out and fueled fighting across the region. The lesson the United States has inferred from this campaign has been the wrong one: Mr. Obama believes that the failure is in the decision to not send in troops on the ground. Certainly, it would seem, they could maintain the security necessary to ensure that the resulting government would be stable.
That’s untrue. There is no real history of democracy in Libya, and the last way to implement one from scratch is by the sword. That’s why nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan has proved tricky, despite years of American involvement. Troops in Libya would have exacerbated the problem and probably drawn more extremists to the area. Don’t believe me? Look at Iraq. Prior to the 2003 invasion, there were few extremist networks. As rumors built up of an American attack, extremists flocked to the country, not to save the government but to sow mayhem in the aftermath. Libya, with extremists abound even before the NATO air campaign, would have been the same way with American troops on the ground – creating another area for the United States to get bogged down in. Some will argue that, without any involvement, the country would devolve into what Syria is now. Chances are, if there had been no involvement, Colonel Qaddafi would have proven victorious and returned the country to the status quo (stability).
Application in Iraq:
What I’m suggesting here is that military might seemed like a good idea, but turned out to be a bad one. I write this now because it is crucial to remember when examining the United States’ response to the Islamic State. The crisis in Iraq differs from the crisis that was in Libya, but they both bear the stamp of humanitarian action that can turn into all-out military action.
The United States has thus far launched air strikes against the Islamic State and toyed with scenarios to rescue trapped Yezidis on the mountains – possibly even with a ground maneuver that could involve American advisers. There are plenty who are watching this situation unfold that bring up the familiar talk: If the United States would only send in the cavalry, the crisis would be over.
Mission creep appears to already be setting in, but this is the wrong call to make. The Islamic State is dangerous yes, and given an opportunity would probably go after the United States. But going in boots on the ground would be a mistake. An invasion could not touch the Islamic State’s havens in Syria, but it would certainly give them a major boost in credibility (which is already high given their recent gains) and fuel their impressive propaganda. American troops cannot, and should not, seek to be the glue that holds together a failing Iraqi state. If that country is to dissolve, it is for Iraqis to decide.
Many look at the Islamic State’s territory as potentially as threatening to the United States as the al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan was pre-2001. Not so. Al-Qaida had few existential threats while plotting in Afghanistan for the 9/11 terror attacks. The Islamic State by contrast is at war with virtually every combatant in the area, providing for it very little breathing room to go after a country half a world away, no matter how much at odds it is with American policy and values.
When I’ve presented this argument, the very first critique I hear is “So you recommend we do nothing in the face of the Islamic State?” – this argument troubles me, for the discourse of American foreign policy is apparently at a point where not going all in on a military campaign constitutes doing nothing at all. Not the case. I recognize the wisdom in not letting the Islamic State fester (I have written posts saying explicitly that sitting idly is a terrible strategy) for it has proved that it has at least short-term sustainability and the ability to expand, but I believe there are other, more suitable options that the United States can employ that will defeat the Islamic State in the long run. Viable solutions are often borne of deft diplomacy and smart engagement, not blind force.
Disclaimer: The post above may not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Line of Steel.