In World War II, however indifferently the U.S. Army performed at the tactical and operational levels, America did strategy right. Before we entered the war, we agreed with Britain that Europe would be the main theater because Germany was a far stronger opponent than Japan. We stuck to that strategy despite Pearl Harbor and Japan’s string of victories in the first six months of the war. While General Eisenhower was at best an uninspired field commander, he grasped and held on to the decisive strategic fact of the war in Europe: unless the Allies’ coalition fractured, they were certain to win. Hitler expected such a fracture right up to the end, a “miracle save” like that which had rescued Frederick the Great in the Seven Years’ War. Thanks to Eisenhower’s good strategic leadership, it did not happen.
As we look at America’s current role in the Mideast’s Thirty Years’ War, the renewed war between Sunnis and Shiites, the most striking impression we get is of absence of strategy. In Iraq and Syria, we are simultaneously opposing both sides, the Sunnis because of ISIS and the Shiites because of Iran. Similarly, in Israel we oppose the Shiites of Hezbollah and the Sunnis of Hamas, despite the fact that our alliance with Israel is temporarily suspended after Mr. Netanyahu tore it up, spat on it and burned it during his election campaign. In Yemen, we are opposing both the Shiite Houthis and Sunni Al Qaeda. Presumably we will now back the Saudis in their intervention against the Houthis. The Saudis intervened against the Houthis once before. It did not go well.
The absence of strategy drives us down to the operational and tactical levels, where we wander randomly between this option and that, usually ending up with a dog’s breakfast of tactical measures, most of which have previously failed. This morning’s New York Times announced we are now conducting airstrikes on Tikrit, where a 30,000-man armed mob of Shiites (a typical Oriental army, as the Athenians would remind us) has been stopped by a small defending force we label ISIS but is almost certainly Baath. Baathists have reason to fight hard for Tikrit. The rationale for our use of the airpower hammer on yet another screw is operational: we want to displace the Iranians and their allied Shiite militias with official Iraqi Army and police forces we have trained, and trained to need our airpower, whether it is available or not and whether it is appropriate or not. Maybe this time it will work tactically, though I suspect not; any forces we have trained are Quislings, and Quislings seldom have much fight in them. But the tactical outcome matters little because the Iranians are far stronger in Iraq than we are, not only operationally but strategically, thanks to proximity and religious ties. A higher level of war trumps a lower. A front-page story in the March 23 New York Times on the withdrawal of our Special Forces advisers from Yemen–what does it say to the locals when U.S. troops leave as soon as the enemy gets close?–well describes the tactical hodgepodge we rely on in the absence of strategy:
Even after the withdrawal of American troops, the Central Intelligence Agency will still maintain some covert Yemeni agents in the country. Armed drones will carry out some airstrikes from bases in nearby Saudi Arabia or Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, as was done most recently on Feb. 20. Spy satellites will still lurk overhead and eavesdropping planes will try to suck up electronic communications.
One can almost hear the Times yawn as it recites the list. All have been tried before and failed, many times. Worse, all but local agents are overt, uniting the people against us.
We need a strategy. What should it be? The answer is obvious, low-risk, and cheap. Stay out and let Mohammedans fight their own damned Thirty Years’ War. With the exception of France, who came in late, none of the outside Powers who intervened in central Europe’s Thirty Years’ War benefited from doing so.
As I have written before, the demographics of the Middle East guarantee war, supply-side war. The region teems with young men with nothing to do and no prospects. So what are they going to do? Fight. Our safe and simple strategy should be to let–nay, encourage–them to fight each other instead of fighting us.
That strategy places one clear demand on us at the operational and tactical levels: keep the lowest of low profiles. Local agents are a good idea; we do want to know what is going on. If some locals are planning to attack us despite our non-involvement, our agents can also be used for direct action. If some locals succeed in hitting us, then, briefly, we would go overt, with an annihilating punitive raid. Other than in that case, we would always appear to be five thousand miles away, which, lest we forget, we are. Geography is the starting point of strategy, and our two oceans still give us welcome strategic distance.
Our non-presence is the best encouragement we can give Shiites and Sunnis both to fight each other. Beyond that, all we need do, or ought to do, is stand on our happy, distant shores, wave our handkerchiefs, Terrible Towels or Imperial Navy forage caps and shout into the wind, “Fight fiercely, fellows.” Oh, and make sure none of them come here as refugees, because they will bring their squabbles to our shores. We have enough of our own to occupy us.