Over on Facebook, some esteemed friends have questioned my call for a robust military response to ISIL.
A very gifted former student wrote:
I feel like that kind of response to terrorism is like punching a puddle, only the puddle is made of gasoline and your knuckles are on fire.
I admire the vivid simile, and I understand that feeling. However, I am not suggesting a repeat of the limited engagements that failed in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. The history of those operations confirms that botched and halfhearted foreign interventions tend to create more problems than they solve.
As I suggested here, here, here and here, I am suggesting the kind of total commitment that guarantees total victory. Only people old enough to remember World War II — or fortunate enough to have studied the conflict and its aftermath in some depth — know what that looks like. (The student missed the second semester of my AP US History course.)
Domestically, this would mean declaring war, raising taxes and selling bonds to help fund the effort, reviving conscription, reorganizing the economy and curtailing civil liberties — all to the limited extent needed to support the war and prevent terrorism. As a death match against two major world powers, World War II required much more extensive sacrifices than we would need to defeat the current terrorist threat. In fact, the relative ease with which a concentrated multilateral effort would wipe ISIL off the map makes our continued failure to make that commitment shameful, foolish and cowardly.
Building that international coalition would require vigorous diplomacy to recruit allies to provide forces and funding both for the military operations and the extensive occupation to follow. Start by invoking the NATO alliance, the seek authorization from the UN Security Council and enlist as many non-NATO countries in the coalition as possible. Given that terrorist fanatics threaten at least five of the six inhabited continents, there should be no shortage of countries coming forward to shoulder their share of the burden — once the US steps up and starts leading. If necessary, we could — as Bush the Elder did — leverage our considerable economic, cultural and political influence to pry reluctant countries off the bench.
But first we need to get over own our reluctance.
But what happens when we go to fight ISIS, wreck the country we wage war in, cause fatalities much more numerous than what was experienced in Paris, etc… Wouldn’t that piss people off and cause more hatred towards the United States, much like what occurred earlier this century, quite possibly leading to the growth of ISIS in the first place?
If there were a way to eliminate ISIL short of war, then we would have done it already.
Wreckage is relative. The pseudo-caliphate has already wrecked the territory under its control. ISIL continues to kill, rape, torture, rob and otherwise exploit the unfortunate victims unable to flee its domain.
Unfortunately, freeing those people from ISIL will require additional wreckage.
Differing attitudes toward civilian casualties highlight how this is a clear battle between good and evil.
Western countries avoid killing civilians whenever possible. Over the last four decades, the US and its allies have worked hard to wage war while minimizing civilian casualties, and we have consistently improved. Tragic errors still occur, and when they do, we do the right thing: we apologize and make restitution for our mistakes.
ISIL, by contrast, kills civilians. On purpose. They slaughter people in their domain for not being Muslim, for not being the right kind of Muslim, or for violating their concept of Islamic law. They also target innocents in terror attacks outside of their territory.
Moreover, ISIL cynically maximizes civilian casualties caused by its opponents by using innocents as human shields in and around their military installations. This is both cowardly and unconscionable. They know that if they kept combatants and noncombatants separated, then we would never intentionally attack civilians.
Our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq comprehensively demonstrated the foolishness of effecting regime change and then abandoning a country prematurely.
We should remind ourselves why that happened.
I. Our leaders lied to us
The regime of Bush the Younger told us…
- After 9/11, there was no need to raise taxes, reinstate the draft or make major sacrifices to support the War on Terror;
- Individual citizens could contribute to victory in Afghanistan by shopping, “by mentoring a child; by going into a shut-in’s house and say I love you,” and by traveling: “Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
- Afghanistan was under control by 2003;
- Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat requiring preemptive war in March 2003;
- The Iraqi people would welcome us as liberators;
- That we had accomplished our mission as early as May 2003;
- Etc. (You get the idea.)
Of course, we now know that all of those assertions were false. Some of us recognized some of those assertions as false at the time (I saw through #1, 2, 5 & 6, but I confess falling for #3–4, because I underestimated the audacity, malice and mendacity of the Bush Administration.)
II. We Failed to Learn from History
Our mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq also stemmed from ignorance of history.
The US has a history of winning wars, but not really finishing them.
After winning the Civil War, the North’s failure to finish Reconstruction allowed white supremacy to rise again in the South and extend the essence if not the form of slavery. Eight decades later, the Civil Rights Movement smashed Jim Crow’s legal foundations and fostered great progress, but blacks remain politically, economically and educationally unequal.
By the late 19th Century, the US had changed its goal in the Indian Wars from extermination to sequestration, but the federal government has never made a serious effort to foster the economic development needed on reservations to remedy the severe poverty of most tribes.
World War I provides a particularly compelling example of ending wars without finishing them. Woodrow Wilson led the US into the Great War because Germany posed a real threat, but also to “make the world safe for democracy” and wage “a war to end all wars.” A professional scholar, he correctly diagnosed many of the problems that caused the conflict and drafted the 14 Points to address them, including a League of Nations to prevent future wars.
Unfortunately, the US Senate declined to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or to join the League. Their goal was to avoid entanglement in future conflicts, but their decision merely squandered the sacrifices of 100,000 American soldiers while ensuring our country’s entanglement in the next world war, where 400,000 GIs died fighting Germany again, plus Japan.
With or without the League of Nations, a sustained and deliberate occupation of Germany to rebuild the country and reshape its culture after the Great War might have prevented the rise of Hitler.
During World War II, the Allies learned from both mistakes. They occupied Japan and Germany for decades to ensure that neither society would threaten them again. They also set up the United Nations, a weaker version of the League of Nations, but still serviceable when we have leaders like Truman and Bush the Elder wise enough to use it.
Every American should know these lessons, but most don’t, because there is a real crisis of history education in this country. Our K-12 schools never stopped scheduling social science courses, but the subject is seldom taught well, tested rigorously or valued.
So, we end up with an ill-informed populace that lacks basic reasoning skills, that knows all about the Kardashians and the NFL, but next to nothing about history or the current events that actually determine their prospects for life, liberty and happiness.
Fifteen years ago, we let one of those ignoramuses ascend to the highest office in the land and become the most powerful man in the world. A man who…
- Thought Africa was “a nation”;
- Asked if there were black people in Brazil;
- Said — after 9/11 — that catching bin Laden “was not our priority”;
- Described himself as “not very analytical”;
- Controlled the nuclear football, but claimed that “Free nations don’t develop weapons of mass destruction”;
- Reported not reading the news, but glancing “at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what’s moving…. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who probably read the news themselves.”
III. We Overreacted
Angry about being lied to, but still ignorant of history, we elected a leader who promised to end the overseas wars that were going badly and bring our boys home.
As in Vietnam, we cared more about ending the wars than finishing them. In all three cases, we decided that the candle wasn’t worth the game, so we quit playing. Before exiting, in every case we declared some semblance of victory and strategically placed a translucent fig leaf to make it seem as if that were true, if only for a minute.
And then, shortly after we left, all three places fell apart.
In Vietnam, the cost of quitting proved remarkably low, at least for the US. We may have realized a net gain, since selling out South Vietnam promoted détente with the Soviet Union — at least for a few years — and with China, more enduringly. Ultimately, only two other dominoes fell (Laos and Cambodia), because American policy had effectively fortified the rest of Southeast Asia against Communism.
On the other hand, the people of Vietnam and Cambodia suffered terribly after the US departure. At the time, Americans didn’t care. There was overwhelming opposition to accepting Vietnamese refugees, but President Ford and Congress, to their credit, recognized our responsibility in the matter. In the end, the US granted asylum to more than 400,000 Boat People — none of whom were terrorists or Communist infiltrators, oddly.
Obviously, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has already paid a high price for quitting prematurely. The rise of ISIL poses the most immediate threat, but if the Taliban were to regain control of Afghanistan, then they would almost certainly revive their sponsorship of terrorism against American and our allies.
President Obama kept his promise to bring our boys home from the Middle East. We should thank him for keeping his word, but now release him from his promise, and instead urge him to mobilize an international force to crush ISIL posthaste.
We can all see how effective the War on Terror was, by the fact that there are no more terrorists. That was sarcasm. I think terrorism is just as strong if not more proliferated than it was at the beginning of the war on terror.
Bush the Younger was wrong about a lot of things, but like the proverbial broken clock that is right twice a day, W. was onto something when he defined our struggle as a War on Terror.
Like that broken clock, Bush was only right for a second. He blew it almost immediately with an irrelevant war on Saddam Hussein, and by botching the job in Iraq and Afghanistan so badly that we ended up with more terrorism, not less.
Properly defined, the War on Terror pits the civilized world against people who kill in the name of religion. The short list is: ISIL, the Taliban, al-Qaida, Boko Haram and al-Shabazz.
Our message is simple: You can believe whatever you want, but if you act out a murderous ideology, then the world will gang up on you, kill your side until you surrender, occupy your country for the rest of your natural life (at minimum) and reprogram you and your children to ensure that you never threaten world peace again.
In our earlier discussion, you made a valid point… Gandhi was [wrong] when he stated that [the Jews and the British] should respond to Hitler with nonviolence. In such a situation, the temporary solution of violence was an adequate solution to the temporary problem presented in Nazi Germany, ignoring the more permanent forces present in that situation, which were the human qualities of racism and hatred that people such as Hitler take advantage of to create death and destruction.
The Allies did not ignore the long-term causes of the Nazi phenomenon. They treated them with a long-term occupation that built Germany into one of the most consistently decent and peaceful countries in the world.
However, in the situation of “terrorism”, whether it’s Al-Qaeda or ISIS, I think that the situation is far different. I think it’s definitely something to be considered, the question of “Why do people hate us so much, that they are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to destroy us?” I remember reading a while ago that after 9/11 happened, people were fleeing the middle east in terror, knowing the United States was preparing to invade. That’s something to consider, the fact that we, the United States, terrify people.
I don’t see the situations as that different. ISIL is like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan: a sick society perverted by an evil ideology with deep historical roots. Led by the US, the world got together, defeated and cured Germany and Japan — both major world powers at the time. Certainly we can manage the same feat against relative chumps like ISIL.
Why does ISIL hate us? Mostly because they subscribe to a literally medieval concept that Allah wants them to conquer the world and force the conversion of all humanity to Islam, and they view us — quite correctly, by the way — as obstacles to that goal. They are unhappy about our historic role in the Middle East, like our support for Israel, our habit of attacking Iraq, etc. We should discuss that with them sometime after they stop trying to kill us.
People are wise to flee from war zones and from areas slated to become war zones. As stated above, even if invaders conscientiously work to avoid civilian casualties, mistakes will be made.
However, the trickle of people leaving Afghanistan after 9/11 was nothing compared to the flood of refugees that has been fleeing ISIL for years now, which already ranks among the largest mass movements of humans in world history. Those people are fleeing partly because they live in a war zone, and partly because life in the un-Islamic State is miserable. In fact, more people would leave if they could, but the pseudo-caliphate keeps emigration down by threatening to kill people who try to leave.
The United States terrifies people, and I think that a terrified response by those people is reasonable, due to how military intervention, such as drone strikes, affects people in the countries that we invade, murdering innocents and crumbling their countries’ infrastructure.
I agree. That’s why I think the rest of the world needs to accept refugees while the conflict continues.
However, this comes back to the moral difference between our side and theirs:
We target hostile combatants, plus supporting matériel, economic assets and infrastructure. When civilians die, that’s either an accident or a consequence of keeping bad company. If ISIL soldiers do not want to die, then they can surrender, and we will arrest but not kill them. Moreover, during the occupation, we’ll help you rebuild your infrastructure.
On the other hand, ISIL targets innocents as a matter of policy. If you surrender, they kill you, anyway. They rape and enslave women. They shoot toddlers in cold blood and post photos of it online. They kill the unsuspecting in Beirut, Paris and San Bernardino.
If terrorism is a result of people hating us, then forcing our way into foreign countries and using force and violence to further our cause, is NOT the way to get people to stop hating us.
If we attack, but don’t finish the job, then you’re absolutely right.
However, if we follow through as we did in Germany and Japan after 1945, then it will work.
You definitely have far more knowledge of government and society than I do, and so I’ll admit that I may be unqualified to make the points I’m trying to make, and I deeply appreciate and consider the opinions and ideas that you offer in respect to this issue.
Nobody has all the answers, so a spirit of humility in these matters serves all of us well. I appreciate that you care enough about these issues to comment and ask questions. I wish more people of all ages were as engaged, because that kind of investment leads to informed conclusions. Part of the reason I stuck with teaching as long as I did is because young people with open minds often ask the best questions and offer the most insightful comments.
Older people make good points, too. A friend my age wrote:
I think that what is happening in the world today is the result of the slow death of Pax Americana. Our influence around the world is diminishing. We will see in our lifetime…what the world will be like without the U.S. being the dominant power.
I do not fear the shift to a multilateral world. The US had become the world’s most productive economy by 1900, but we did not assert comparable military power until the 1940s. We became the world’s sole hyperpower almost by default, as the only major winner of World War II that did not lose millions of people and get our country and economy bombed back to the Stone Age.
To our credit, we proceeded modestly.
We shared more power than we needed to in the United Nations. On the Security Council, we gave permanent membership to a fading Britain, a broken France, a potentially hostile USSR and — to get a non-Western power in the mix—a basket case China riven by civil war. We dealt in the rest of the world with the other ten seats on the council.
Then, we helped rebuild the world, starting (naturally) with our closest allies.
I think claims of American decline are vastly overblown. The US is still very powerful militarily, economically, culturally and politically. If we accept our responsibility in the matter, then we should and will have a lot of influence over the shape of the coming multilateral world.
When other countries join us in freedom and prosperity, I do not experience that as decline, but as a welcome enlargement of the winning team. I want the whole world to grow productive economies and free societies so we can live together in peace and enrich one another through trade. A Pax Multilateralus should be stronger and more enduring than Pax Americana.
Of course, I do worry about unfree rising powers that pose potential threats to our liberties and our welfare. However, in most cases, constructive engagement is the way to mitigate those threats.
ISIL is the rare exception that calls for armed intervention.