Beyond Islamic State: The Folly of World War IV
Assume that the hawks get their way — that the United States does whatever it takes militarily to confront and destroy ISIS. Then what?
Answering that question requires taking seriously the outcomes of other recent U.S. interventions in the Greater Middle East. In 1991, when the first President Bush ejected Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, Americans rejoiced, believing that they had won a decisive victory. A decade later, the younger Bush seemingly outdid his father by toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and then making short work of Saddam himself — a liberation twofer achieved in less time than it takes Americans to choose a president. After the passage of another decade, Barack Obama got into the liberation act, overthrowing the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in what appeared to be a tidy air intervention with a clean outcome. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton memorably put it, “We came, we saw, he died.” End of story.
In fact, subsequent events in each case mocked early claims of success or outright victory. Unanticipated consequences and complications abounded. “Liberation” turned out to be a prelude to chronic violence and upheaval.
Indeed, the very existence of the Islamic State (ISIS) today renders a definitive verdict on the Iraq wars over which the Presidents Bush presided, each abetted by a Democratic successor. A de facto collaboration of four successive administrations succeeded in reducing Iraq to what it is today: a dysfunctional quasi-state unable to control its borders or territory while serving as a magnet and inspiration for terrorists.
The United States bears a profound moral responsibility for having made such a hash of things there. Were it not for the reckless American decision to invade and occupy a nation that, whatever its crimes, had nothing to do with 9/11, the Islamic State would not exist. Per the famous Pottery Barn Rule attributed to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, having smashed Iraq to bits a decade ago, we can now hardly deny owning ISIS.
That the United States possesses sufficient military power to make short work of that “caliphate” is also the case. True, in both Syria and Iraq the Islamic State has demonstrated a disturbing ability to capture and hold large stretches of desert, along with several population centers. It has, however, achieved these successes against poorly motivated local forces of, at best, indifferent quality.
In that regard, the glibly bellicose editor of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol, is surely correct in suggesting that a well-armed contingent of 50,000 U.S. troops, supported by ample quantities of air power, would make mincemeat of ISIS in a toe-to-toe contest. Liberation of the various ISIS strongholds like Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq and Palmyra and Raqqa, its “capital,” in Syria would undoubtedly follow in short order.
In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, the American mood is strongly trending in favor of this sort of escalation. Just about anyone who is anyone — the current occupant of the Oval Office partially excepted — favors intensifying the U.S. military campaign against ISIS. And why not? What could possibly go wrong? As Kristol puts it, “I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.”
It’s an alluring prospect. In the face of a sustained assault by the greatest military the world has ever seen, ISIS foolishly (and therefore improbably) chooses to make an Alamo-like stand. Whammo! We win. They lose. Mission accomplished.
Of course, that phrase recalls the euphoric early reactions to Operations Desert Storm in 1991, Enduring Freedom in 2001, Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and Odyssey Dawn, the Libyan intervention of 2011. Time and again the unanticipated side effects of U.S. military action turned out to be very bad indeed. In Kabul, Baghdad, or Tripoli, the Alamo fell, but the enemy dispersed or reinvented itself and the conflict continued. Assurances offered by Kristol that this time things will surely be different deserve to be taken with more than a grain of salt. Pass the whole shaker.
Embracing Generational War
Why this repeated disparity between perceived and actual outcomes? Why have apparent battlefield successes led so regularly to more violence and disorder? Before following Kristol’s counsel, Americans would do well to reflect on these questions.
Cue Professor Eliot A. Cohen. Shortly after 9/11, Cohen, one of this country’s preeminent military thinkers, characterized the conflict on which the United States was then embarking as “World War IV.” (In this formulation, the Cold War becomes World War III.) Other than in certain neoconservative quarters, the depiction did not catch on. Yet nearly a decade-and-a-half later, the Johns Hopkins professor and former State Department official is sticking to his guns. In an essay penned for the American Interest following the recent Paris attacks, he returns to his theme. “It was World War IV in 2001,” Cohen insists. “It is World War IV today.” And to our considerable benefit he spells out at least some of the implications of casting the conflict in such expansive and evocative terms.
Now I happen to think that equating our present predicament in the Islamic world with the immensely destructive conflicts of the prior century is dead wrong. Yet it’s a proposition that Americans at this juncture should contemplate with the utmost seriousness.
In the United States today, confusion about what war itself signifies is widespread. Through misuse, misapplication, and above all misremembering, we have distorted the term almost beyond recognition. As one consequence, talk of war comes too easily off the tongues of the unknowing.
Not so with Cohen. When it comes to war, he has no illusions. Addressing that subject, he illuminates it, enabling us to see what war entails. So in advocating World War IV, he performs a great service, even if perhaps not the one he intends.
What will distinguish the war that Cohen deems essential? “Begin with endurance,” he writes. “This war will probably go on for the rest of my life, and well into my children’s.” Although American political leaders seem reluctant “to explain just how high the stakes are,” Cohen lays them out in direct, unvarnished language. At issue, he insists, is the American way of life itself, not simply “in the sense of rock concerts and alcohol in restaurants, but the more fundamental rights of freedom of speech and religion, the equality of women, and, most essentially, the freedom from fear and freedom to think.”Wait, before you go…
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