The 104th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.
As noted, we liked Trump’s foreign policy speech. Among the many things we found in it to like, perhaps the most important is Trump’s forthright (and correct) assertion that America still has dangerous enemies and will need to remain ready, willing and able to fight them.
One might respond that we are cheap dates, given that every Republican nominee in the last half-century at least has pledged the same. But America’s post-9/11 wars, especially Iraq, have scrambled all the usual formulas and expectations. Certainly, in the 2016 cycle, there was no shortage of Republican candidates pledging to Get Tough on America’s enemies. The problem was that nearly all of them were also neocon democracy crusaders.
This is now a highly unpopular position in the Republican Party, which explains in large measure the enthusiasm for Trump. Yet—at least at the intellectual level—those Trump supporters who see the folly of the democracy agenda tend toward their own brand of folly: the isolationist illusion that, whatever enemies we may have, hate us mostly in response to our own provocations and—like proverbial bees and bears—if we didn’t bother them, they wouldn’t bother us. Foreign policy on the “right” is thus a choice between two brands of naïve utopianism: either more pointless war or endlessly turning the other cheek.
That was the Republican choice until Trump. Or, at least until Trump and Cruz who—for all his other faults—at least presented a positive turn in Republican foreign policy (though not entirely in his choice of advisors, some of whom seem to think The Manchurian Candidate was a documentary).
The mandarins of course found something to mock in virtually every line of the speech. Not least was this, on ISIS:
And then there’s ISIS. I have a simple message for them. Their days are numbered. I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. We must as, a nation, be more unpredictable. But they’re going to be gone. And soon.
Now, we have some quibbles with that. First, Trump should have mentioned al-Qaida, which, despite the Obama administration’s transparently false assertions, is stronger than it’s ever been. (It controls more territory in more countries today than it did before 9/11.) And it’s probably more dangerous than ISIS. Second, to promise that ISIS is “going to be gone” is to overpromise, in that there is no sure to way to ensure that short of a massive invasion and long occupation of the kind that Trump rightly eschews. But we may dismiss that as campaign rhetoric.
However, that’s not what drew the guffaws. It was Trump’s promise of unpredictability that had themlaughing from the gallery. But on this Trump was exactly right. Some of the best and most profound strategies are captured by very few words. Trump’s eleven, properly interpreted, fit our current needs to a “T.” We shall attempt to explain how. Doing so will require a seemingly circuitous route through what appear to be side roads. However, for those who persevere, one may see the design of the author in the design of the post.
Did you hear the one about the truck driver who built a nuclear weapon? No, seriously. Now, it’s not a full-on Teller-Ullam two-stage thermonuclear metropolis-killer. It’s merely an exact—exact—copy of Little Boy, the HEU gun-assembly bomb that destroyed Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. The trucker’s bomb lacks only two things to make it go boom: the cordite priming charges to fire one part of the highly enriched uranium core into the other, and that uranium core itself. The first would be easy to get but dangerous to carry around. The second would be quite hard indeed to get.
Which is probably, at this point, the only reason why a home-made Little Boy or something very much like it has not been detonated at 42nd and Vanderbilt or 17th and G. Don’t kid yourself: they want to. We’re not going to repeat the case for how we know that, because we’re not specialists in it and others are far, far better equipped. If you’re an alt-righter or paleo-isolationist who thinks all we have to do is end the U.S.-Israel alliance, and the whole Muslim terror problem will go away, this Journal will be a consistent source of anger and disappointment to you. They’d still want to nuke us. And, given the material, they could. “The secret of the atomic bomb is how easy they are to make,” our trucker has observed.
The conventional wisdom of the foreign policy establishment, ably summarized in this paper, is that such an occurrence, while not impossible, is so unlikely that U.S. policy should focus its energies elsewhere. It’s unlikely, the authors argue, because of the high likelihood of establishing attribution, and thus a target against which to retaliate. Hence any state in possession of nuclear materials (and only states possess such materials in necessary quantities) would never dare use such weapons themselves or give nuclear materials to terrorists.
The paper is thorough and for the most part honestly weighs most of the arguments (which we will not summarize) for and against its conclusion. Yet we are not convinced by that conclusion, or that the facts the authors themselves present warrant it.
Their case for certainty (or near certainty) of attribution rests on two foundations: first, the ability of “nuclear forensics” to determine the origin of a bomb’s fissile material, and second, the very good track record (so far) of fixing attribution for conventional terror attacks.
Let’s examine these in reverse order. The authors show that just under half terrorist attacks committed since 1998 (the year al-Qaida bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania) have been definitively traced to their sources. The attribution rate rises with an attack’s fatality count—mass casualty (>500) attacks have an almost 100% attribution rate—and depending on the target. Attacks against the U.S. and our allies are much more likely to be attributed.
All well and good. But a near 100% attribution rate for attacks against the U.S. or allies that killed more than 20 people has hardly stopped terror.
More to the point: a nuclear terror attack would have to have at least two sources: the terrorist group itself and the state that provides the fissile material. The high attribution rate on which the authors hang so much refers only to the terrorist group and not the state. Not that they ignore the state; we’ll consider what they have to say about states shortly. The point is simply that knowing which terrorist group hit you is not the same as knowing which state was behind them. And, to say the least, terrorist groups are much less deterrable than states: their raison d’etre is to commit attacks. They are also much harder to retaliate against, especially without the cooperation of the states that harbor and support them.
The authors furthermore do not address several very important points. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by a terrorist group (al-Qaida) with the backing of a state (the Taliban regime in Afghanistan). Neither were deterred by the prospect of American attribution and retaliation. Either one or the other (or both) of them didn’t think the attribution would or could be made, didn’t believe the United States would follow through, thought they could withstand whatever retaliation might come, or simply didn’t care about retaliation and judged the attack itself to be much more important than any ensuing negative consequence to themselves. Similar thinking along any of these lines may similarly motivate some other terrorist-state combination to try again.
As an aside, we may ask: does anyone believe that had al-Qaida been able to access a nuclear weapon in the 1990s (which they tried and failed to do) and get it into the U.S. (not a difficult thing to do, alas) they would not have used it?
Even more important, while the authors put 9/11 unambiguously into the “attributed” category, the truth is not quite so neat. Certainly we know that al-Qaida was behind the attack, that al-Qaida was at that time headquartered in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban knew of and helped with the 9/11 plot. But the 9/11 Commission also found evidence of Iranian involvement, which it urged should be investigated further. It never has been. A Senate inquiry also found at least some evidence of Saudi involvement, but the pages of its report that detail those findings remain classified. So it’s at least possible that other states were involved, their involvement has never been proved, and they’ve consequently never faced any retaliation.
The authors of the paper assume binary alternatives: state-sponsorship is either “known” or “anonymous.” “Suspected but not proved” they do not analyze, even though there are several recent cases of such. If indeed some of those suspected are in fact guilty, the lesson that such states (and others) would draw is that muddying one’s involvement in a terrorist plot enough to escape retaliationis possible. A further lesson: the likelihood of escaping retaliation goes up if you’re but one of several countries in on the plot.
Even when attribution is known, the United States does not always retaliate. One big reason why, since 1979, Iran has remained, with very few exceptions, very aggressive toward U.S. interests—even to the point of killing American soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan—is because we so rarely ever hit them back. For example, we didn’t retaliate after either the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon or the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia. On the occasions when we DO retaliate—such as the 1987-88 actions that sunk half the Iranian navy—the regime’s behavior subsequently becomes much less aggressive and much more circumspect. For a while—until they realize that we have reverted to passive form, as we always do.
The principle reason why America behaves this way is not exactly calculated to make enemies fear us. In the three years between the degeneration of Iraq into anarchy and the beginning of the Surge, Iran operated several “rat lines” of men and materiel in to Iraq. Much of the munitions used to build IEDs that killed and maimed American soldiers originated in Iran. On a smaller scale, Iranian fighters sometimes fought with Iraqi Shia militias and killed American soldiers with their own hands. For years, American policy-makers knew of this, did nothing about it, and denied it was even happening. Why? The staff director of the 9/11 Commission, and principal author of its report, noted that once American officials acknowledged the truth, they would have been obligated to do something about it, which risked wider war with Iran, a risk few in the (allegedly war-hungry) Bush Administration were willing to take. Yet when the Surge began, one element of the strategy was to shut down those rat lines, which meant engaging Iranian fighters. Which we did, and the rat lines were shut down (for a while). With no wider war.
All of this is to say, even the certainty of attribution is not necessarily an effective deterrent—especially when you know your target has a track record of inconsistent retaliation.
While the authors address none of this, they do argue—plausibly—that the stakes involving nuclear weapons are so much higher, that states’ calculations will be quite different than with support for conventional terrorism. However, they stretch the point much too far and in so doing commit an important error of omission:
Nuclear weapons are the most powerful weapons a state can acquire, and handing that power to an actor over which the state has less than complete control would be an enormous, epochal decision—one unlikely to be taken by regimes that are typically obsessed with power and their own survival.
The authors don’t exactly deny—but don’t forthrightly disclose either—that this has already happened. About a quarter century after the fact, American intelligence pieced together that in 1982 or 1983,China gave a finished nuclear bomb to Pakistan. (This is to say nothing about the myriad other instances of state-to-state cooperation on nuclear matters; no state—not even the United States—has ever built the bomb on its own.) This is not the place to go into the “why” of that decision, even to the limited extent that we understand it or to which it can be understood. It is rather only to make the point that even one occurrence (the only one we know of, incidentally) of a “Black Swan” phenomenon is enough to prove that it’s possible, not unprecedented, and so could happen again.
Regarding the authors’ first reason for confidence that deterrence will work—nuclear forensics—the authors themselves admit that it is far from perfect. Its success depends in large part on the cooperation of regimes that may have reasons not to want to provide information about their own fissile material programs (either because such states are engaged in proliferation, are supporters of or sympathetic to terrorists, or are anti-“world order” in outlook, or some combination of these). Absent nearly universal cooperation from all states that have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear forensics must be considered imperfect.
Were nuclear forensics to result in only a “best guess” or high-probability estimate after a nuclear attack on American soil, our policy-makers would themselves be divided on the wisdom and justice of retaliation. Public opinion would surely be divided, with the “left” (or some loud and significant portion thereof) arguing that it would be immoral to retaliate a country without being sure. International opinion would hold the same view, only more insistently. And of course the target country itself, plus its allies and friends, and America’s major geostrategic adversaries (chiefly Russia and China) would insist on the absolute immorality of retaliation absent absolute certainty.
It’s at least possible, then, that some anti-American regime has thought this same issue through, come to the same conclusion, and therefore does not feel deterred by nuclear forensics.
Nor do these considerations exhaust the ways in which a culprit state might escape retaliation. One of the reasons that the United States was able to effectively (at least until Tora Bora) retaliate against the Taliban after 9/11 was because Afghanistan had no great-power patron. Pakistan and North Korea do: China. China can strike the West Coast (at least) of the United States with thermonuclear warheads. China has even threatened Los Angeles with nuclear attack in the past. Would China stand by and allow the United States to attack its client and ally? A client and ally China herself helped to arm with nuclear weapons? If Pakistani officials know or believe that China would stand by them, wouldn’t that make them less likely to be deterred? A similar consideration arises with respect to Russia and Iran.
The authors acknowledge, but do not explore, the possibility that incompetence, corruption or instability might result in nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists. The transfer of nuclear materials owing to one of these factors is obviously much less deterrable than deliberate state action. The most one could say on that score is that fearing retaliation for a transfer the regime did not intend will make regimes take nuclear security very seriously. And we hope they all do. However, given (for instance) the rampant corruption and massive stockpiles of nuclear material in Russia, and the strong ties that Pakistani military and intelligence officials maintain with jihadis, one cannot be too confident on this score.
Some have proposed a “negligence doctrine”: if your nuclear material ends up nuking me, no matter how it got here, you’re going to bear the brunt. But this poses a number of problems. The first is that, as noted, nuclear forensics is far from perfect. We will always know where a missile or bomber came from. There will be a “return address.” Our truck driver, by contrast, drove his Little Boy across the United States in a Penske rental. Terrorists could do the same and there would be no return address beyond the “signature” in the fissile material—which we might, or might not, be able to trace back to its source. This brings up the public opinion problem raised above.
Second, is the “negligence doctrine” credible against Russia? The nation with the largest stockpile of nuclear material and arguably most at risk of an inadvertent transfer? Russia has, to say the least, a lot of options—including about 1,800 operationally deployed nuclear warheads, and thousands more in the stockpile—for deterring American retaliation under a negligence doctrine. A doctrine that forces the United States either to risk the end of civilization or else back down once the bluff of its non-credible threat is called is worth very little in the real world.
If Russia is the country most likely to lose control of its nuclear material owing to incompetence (lax security) or corruption (sale for monetary gain), Pakistan is the country most likely to lose control through connivance or instability. That is, through the deliberate transfer of nuclear materials to an allied terrorist group by genuine regime officials, but without approval or even knowledge of the top of the government. Or else through a crisis that so weakens the authority of the Islamabad government that it’s not clear who’s in charge, and military/intelligence officials allied to or even difficult to distinguish from terrorists gain control of some part of the nuclear arsenal.
In all of these cases, assuming an attack on the U.S. were proved conclusively to have been perpetrated with a given country’s nuclear material, the regime would disclaim all knowledge and intent and appeal to Washington, and to American and world public opinion for forbearance. How could we punish an entire nation for the unsanctioned—indeed, heartily condemned!—action of a rogue few? Many—including many Americans—will be asking exactly that. Would you punish the man from whose home a gun was stolen for the murder committed with it? Perhaps with probation or a fine—the international-relations equivalent of which the negligent nation would be only too happy to incur. But would you kill him? It may not be such a simple matter to muster the will for retaliation. When one considers all the times that the U.S. has forgone retaliation when it had absolutely no doubt about both an attack’s authorship and deliberate intent, this question looms even larger.
Keep in mind what nuclear deterrence is: the threat to kill tens or hundreds of thousands of at least nominally innocent civilians. One might rejoin: the response to a nuclear terror attack need not be nuclear. Our conventional response to 9/11, after all, toppled a regime. True. But Pakistan and Iran are much larger and much better defended. North Korea is much more geographically formidable. All have powerful patrons and powerful abilities to harm our allies and interests. Just how credible, then, is a conventional threat? And how credible a nuclear threat?
One other consideration that may seem picayune, but we believe would be relevant in the circumstance. The simplest nuclear bomb to build is, as said, a copy (however inexact) of Little Boy. Without sophisticated ways of “boosting” the yield, its explosive power would be on the order of 15 kilotons. The Hiroshima bomb, for maximum effect, was detonated at an altitude of about 1,900 feet. No terrorist is going to be able to air drop a bomb over Manhattan or Washington. The attack will therefore be a “ground burst” and thus much less devastating, at the same yield, than the Hiroshima bomb. Much of the world has never forgiven us for that act. To them, it would be a delicious case of just desserts if we were hit by the same style of bomb however many decades later. The fact that the effect would be even less powerful would argue, in these people’s eyes, that we “got off easy” and that no retaliation could possibly be justified. For the last several decades—you might even say half-century, since Susan Sontag’s declaration that “the white race is the cancer of human history”—it has been fashionable to “visit the sins” of Western fathers (but only Western fathers) onto Western sons. The West is forever guilty. America is still guilty for Hiroshima and a nuclear attack on American soil will be understood by billions to be justified and welcome come-uppance. Given the state of American self-loathing today, it’s at least an open question how many Americans will agree. But one thing is sure: that vein of opinion will make retaliation yet more difficult.
Once again, as with nuclear forensics, if we’ve been able to think all this through, it’s at least possible that some anti-American regime has thought these same issues through, come to the same conclusion, and therefore does not feel deterred.
All of this is not to say that deterrence is impossible; only that it is not enough. It is not reliable enough to be counted on in insolation. Non-proliferation can help but is no panacea. To date, no nation that has sought the bomb has been stopped purely by non-proliferation efforts. The nations that have given up either the quest for nuclear weapons (Brazil, Libya) or the weapons themselves (South Africa) have either changed their minds or changed their regimes.
This is why conservative fulmination about the Iran deal is so oversold. Yes, it’s a bad deal and yes the Obama administration lied in selling it. But neither the best deal nor the absence of a deal was going to stop Iran from getting the bomb. A country as big, rich, and sophisticated as Iran—if it really wants nuclear weapons—it will get them sooner or later. Countries much smaller (Israel), poorer (North Korea) and dumber (Pakistan) have managed it. The only way to stop Iran, again, is either to change the regime’s mind or change the regime. The former would have required much tougher sanctions, plus the cooperation of all of all Europe and Russia. We were never going to get that. And even if we had, there’s no guarantee the Iranian regime would have changed its mind. North Korea never has, despite being sanctioned to the hilt for decades. Libya did only when it was caught red-handed importing nuclear materials from Pakistan—mere months after the U.S. armed forces toppled the Iraqi government. Iraq is a complicated story, but Saddam appears to have at least put his nuclear ambitions on indefinite hold after being caught (for the third time) in 1995 with an illicit program. Brazil is the only country we can think of that gave up its nuclear program owing only to sanctions and diplomacy.
If you can’t change the regime’s mind, that leaves changing the regime. We at JAG have been forthright in our opinion that the second Iraq War was a mistake. That doesn’t mean the concept of “regime change” is always a mistake. This is, once again, a matter of prudence, not dogma. Regime change was the absolutely necessary culmination of World War II. It would have been unwise following the otherwise prudent first Gulf War. When the neo-cons at the time excoriated the Bush Administration for “not finishing the job,” that should have woken more of us up to the fact that their judgment had become unsound.
There is little question that America would benefit from regime change in Iran. It’s hard—though not impossible—to image a regime worse for U.S. interests or more hostile to America in practice. So, while there’s always a chance that change might be for the worse, in Iran the status quo is so bad that this danger is low.
But how to achieve that change? There was a chance—however slim—to help achieve it peacefully in 2009, when the Iranian people took to the streets in protest. Some calibrated American support (well short of military action, we hasten to clarify) might have given the regime a push and helped the people liberate themselves. For all his faults, President George W. Bush would likely have given the regime such a push. But by then Obama was in office. And for all their faults, the conservatives are not wrong about everything. Obama really does seem to have a reflexive instinct to insult friends and coddle enemies. He not only declined to do anything to further the “Green Revolution”; he said and did things favorable to the Islamic Republic. His motive, we believe, was to preserve that regime so that a crowning achievement of his administration could be the vaunted “deal,” the dream of liberal internationalists since 1979—their very own NixonOpeningChina.
So the opportunity passed and none has arisen since. That leaves regime change by force. We need to be clear here that “bombing Iran” would not end its nuclear program and would probably make the whole situation much worse. Iran has a lot of buttons it can push to harm American, allied and Israeli—especially Israeli—interests. Bombing nuclear sites might retard the nuclear program, but at great cost. Would such a delay be worth that cost? What is our plan for what to do with that delay in the meantime? American officials of both parties, and Israeli officials too, have made these calculations and concluded: it’s not worth it. They’ll still get the bomb and we’ll pay a huge price—in Iranian retaliation and in world opinion—for our troubles.
That leaves invasion. Does that sound prudent to anyone? Perhaps as a last resort. But, as noted, we’re nowhere near the last resort. America has all sorts of options for retaliating against Iranian aggression that we decline to exercise. Granted, utilizing those options is much more politically difficult with the deal now in place. But not impossible. It would require growing a spine and being willing to respond to Iranian provocations, and using our brains to think through when, where and how. The more familiar one is with the pusillanimity of the American foreign policy establishment, the more one sympathizes with neocon frustration. But by the same token, the more familiar one is with indiscriminate neocon bellicosity, the more one appreciates paleo-isolationist exasperation.
If we may further shock conservative ears, there is a case to be made for the Iran deal. Not its terms or the mendacity with which it was made. But for the deal itself, the ostensible purpose of which is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The only thing short of war that can stop that, as noted, is a change in the Iranian mind. The one thing the Iranian regime wants more than nuclear weapons is full access to the global economy and First-World financial system. (Well, that and its frozen assets back.) The deal paves the way to realizing that dream. But not if they flagrantly flout it. If they do that, all the sanctions—and more—are likely to be re-imposed. Tehran won’t have the Obama spin machine to cover for them for much longer. And whatever you think of Western pusillanimity, betrayed losers tend to react angrily. Even arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain got mad when Hitler personally humiliated him by invading Poland. (Did you ever think you’d read a Munich reference notintended to urge more war? JAG delivers!)
The deal thus may not stop nuclear development, but it could push it underground, slow it down, make it less intense. To repeat: if Iran wants the bomb, Iran will get the bomb. The question is: does Iran want the bomb badly enough to lose all that it gained through the deal? Only time will tell. One thing we do know is that secret nukes are not that useful. The only “undeclared” nuclear power is Israel, which despite never formally acknowledging (or testing—unless they did) its arsenal has nonetheless managed to let the world “know” that it has nukes. Certainly, Iran could not celebrate the debutante ball of a nuclear power and still enjoy access the OECD economy.
What they could do, however, is keep quietly working on a bomb, get all the way to the finish line—and wait. Wait until the moment when they feel they “need” to go public, until their self-perceived “need” to be recognized as a nuclear power outweighs their assessment of the usefulness of access to the Western economy. Which could be years, or decades, or longer, or never—who knows? But we do know that, all the while, that extra cash they’d be accumulating via access to the global economy could be effectively financing their program.
We said it was a “case”—not a “slam dunk case.”
So what do we do? Here (finally!) we get to the strategy. By all means, keep on with all those non-proliferation efforts. By all means, continue with “target hardening” and counterterrorism efforts at home.
But we also have to take the fight to the enemy. We’ve observed before that the much-maligned Bush-era slogan—fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here—is dead right. Why it should be so controversial remains mysterious—beyond the obvious point that it’s been spot-welded to the neocon democracy project and thus unfairly discredited. In reality, the idea undergirding that slogan is no different than the ancient and eternal principle of the buffer state. All great powers have them. That’s one of the measures of being a great power. Can you force your borders outward, and so fight your battles somewhere other than in your own front yard—or living room?
Another Bush-era slogan was “we don’t want to play whack-a-mole with terrorists.” Condoleezza Rice used to say this in interviews all the time. She meant: no one-offs but instead a grand strategy to remake the region. It’s not enough to win military victories. If that’s all we do, we’ll be fighting jihadis forever because the supply is endless. The only long-term solution is to modernize, democratize and moderate the Greater Middle East. Then and only then can we stop this fighting. And, the people there will be better off and happier, so everybody wins.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out. So the Obama Administration abandoned the Greater Middle East project (we like you just the way you are, no need to change a thing!), went into strategic retreat everywhere, and vigorously embraced “whack-a-mole.” But in the most minimalist way. To them, all whack-a-mole means is drone strikes. Drones, drones, drones. Drones + flattering Islamist America-haters is the totality of the Obama counter-terrorism strategy.
There is a better way. Call it “Enhanced Whack-a-Mole.” Stop flattering hostile regimes. Aggressively attack our enemies in ISIS and al-Qaida. Do not try to control territory for the long term. Try to win “hearts and minds,” but with minimal effort and low expectations. Seek alliances from which we can gain basing arrangements to project power. (This is but one reason why the Obama Iraq bug-out was so unwise: we could have used our continued presence there as a base of operations. It’s also a reason why our Saudi “alliance” is not so useful: they want us to defend them, but they don’t want us to use their territory to do so.)
The idea is to keep al-Qaida, ISIS—and whoever else may crop up—forever on their back heel and forever being forced to “rebuild the mound.” This will never be a war like World War II, in which we defeat a regime and it’s over. We’re not fighting a regime (although some regimes, including Iran, support whom we’re fighting). We’re fighting a revolutionary political movement that aspires to be a regime. More than one, actually, but since their goals are the same and they both have us in their sights, there’s no reason for us to treat them any differently.
And, more precisely, what they aspire to be is a caliphate. In the attempt to revive this medieval concept, they’ve studied all the revolutionary movements of the past few centuries, with special emphasis on the Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese Communists. Their strategy is to apply those lessons to our times and their goals.
To the extent that they win territory, it is with the purpose of establishing a modern caliphate. As the Iraq and Afghanistan experience have taught us, we can control territory in the Middle East—but at great cost. However, recall that the initial campaigns to topple the Taliban and Saddam each lasted less than a month. ISIS and al-Qaida are both far weaker than Saddam’s Iraq and they control less territory than the Taliban’s Afghanistan. More to the point, the U.S. military has decisively—decisively—won every battle it’s fought since 9/11, with only three exceptions: Fallujah in 2004 and Kunar in 2007 and 2011. It can defeat ISIS and al-Qaida easily and endlessly now, so long as “defeat” is defined rationally. It means: beat them. Win decisive, “kinetic”—and very public—military victories. Deny them control of territory. Shatter their pretensions of a caliphate. Channeling Cromwell: You have no caliphate. I say you have no caliphate. I will put an end to your caliphate.
All their efforts will thus have to be focused on rebuilding, in perpetuity. Note: we are not saying that the right course is to endlessly bomb civilian targets so that the whole Middle East spends the next century rebuilding water mains and retaining walls. When we say “they” we mean the terrorists and the Islamists. And when we say “rebuild” we mean rebuild their political power and territorial control. Sophisticated international terror plots require the long-term control of territory and the levers of government power. The 9/11 attacks took five years to plan, during which al-Qaida was joined at the hip with the regime that controlled Afghanistan. A nuclear attack would be more difficult still and would presumably take longer and require more resources. So deny them those. Force them to start over every time and everywhere they begin to gain a foothold.
We present a short example, through which we must again upset our naïvecon friends but this time we make no apology. The most likely proxy or “cut-out” for an Iranian attack on America (still the “Great Satan,” even after the Obama deal) is Hezbollah. Hezbollah, for instance, blew up the Marine barracks in 1983. They are our enemy. They are also allied with Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. He is a bad man, and also our enemy, though not to the same determined degree. His regime is opposed by both al-Qaida (under different names) and ISIS. The “Syrian rebels” friendly or at least not hostile to the West are a naïvecon dream.
So what to do? There are no “good guys.” Supporting no one would not be a terrible option since we have no good options. But right now, it probably makes the most sense to support—Assad. He is less dangerous to us than the current, rising alternatives. An Assad allied with Hezbollah is less dangerous than a Syria controlled or partially controlled by al-Qaida or Isis. Hezbollah has never controlled even a part of Syria and an Assad victory would pose little danger of such, given that the family has extensive experience in keeping Hezbollah at arm’s length and Hezbollah’s power base is in (relatively) distant Southern Lebanon. If things got to the point that Hezbollah controlled enough territory to project power against U.S. interests and began to display an appetite to do so, then treat it like another mole and whack it. In the meantime, whack the other, currently more threatening moles. And ditch the illusions that we can find philosophically simpatico allies in that worse-than-medieval part of the world.
If this sounds like a recipe for endless war, it is not. It will require far less use of force than the Iraq-Afghan wars of the 2000s, which stretched on for a decade. We are essentially proposing to emulate the Romans, who made their wars “short and big.” “Six, ten or twenty days” ought to do it. But let us not dictate a timetable to prudence. The exigencies of the situation will determine the length. Saddam’s regime, with something like half a million men under arms, was defeated in three weeks. It is unlikely that we could not deliver similarly devastating blows to weaker political and military powers in shorter time frames.
But what then? John Bolton was once overheard to say that his plan for U.S. policy toward post-invasion Iraq was to “give ’em a copy of the Federalist Papers and say ‘good luck’.” That certainly would have been much better than what we actually did do—not more effective, but much less costly. The point is sound. Societies that wish our help in modernizing and democratizing—and that are receptive to such endeavors—we may fruitfully help. One or the other of these criteria is not enough. Both must be present for the effort to make any sense. For us or them.
But even these two, if present, may not be enough for the effort to make sense for us. The old saw that the United States cannot be the world’s policeman is half right. We can’t be, because we can’t afford to be, and because the world is not a state in which one government holds a monopoly of (just) force. We can—and should—be the policeman of our own interests. There will be many instances in which those interests coincide with the maintenance of international order. In fact, there will be more such instances of these than of the reverse.
But maintenance is not necessarily change, much less improvement. We are obligated not to make things unduly worse for others as we secure our own interests. We are not obligated to expend our own blood and treasure in trying to make things better for others when such efforts do not coincide with our interests. And if the Wars of the Aughts have taught us anything, it is that, first, our well-being does not require the transformation of the benighted precincts of the world into liberal democracies. Second, the attempt can actually undermine our well-being. Third, even if our well-being did depend on democratizing the world, we don’t know how.