The View From Olympus: Another Strategic Failure

On Wednesday, President Obama outlined his strategy for dealing with ISIS. It is a strategy set up for failure, because the means are insufficient to the desired ends.

President Obama has set the goal as destroying ISIS. The phrase he used in his speech to the nation was “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry had already announced this objective. According to the September 8 New York Times, Kerry said, “We have the ability to destroy ISIL (ISIS). It may take a year, it may take two years, it may take three years. But we’re determined it has to happen.” The same day’s Times reported on its front page,

The Obama administration is preparing to carry out a phased campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that may take three years to eventually destroy the terrorist army . . .

“What I want people to understand,“ Mr. Obama said in an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum” of the militants, “we are going to systematically degrade their capabilities; we’re going to shrink the territory that they control; and, ultimately, we’re going to defeat them,” he added.

Those are maximalist objectives. But the means President Obama announced are not sufficient to attain them, absent a great deal of good fortune. This is not because the president is “weak.” It is because the U.S. military is a one-trick pony. That one trick is to bomb. As President Johnson said in frustration during the Vietnam War, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, that’s all my generals know how to do.“

To see how inadequate the means are for the announced strategic ends, it is helpful to evaluate the President’s plans on John Boyd’s three levels of war: the physical, the mental, and the moral.

Physically, the president’s strategy relies on air power. The reasons air power alone will fail, as it always has, are many. The enemy quickly finds ways to conceal and protect himself from air attack. It’s harder in desert country, but by no means impossible. Irregular light cavalry forces such as ISIS are difficult to distinguish from civilians from the air, and they will quickly intermingle their columns with traveling civilians so the air strikes kill women and kids. They will lose any specialized military equipment, but they don’t depend on that.

For an air campaign to be effective, it must act in cooperation with competent ground forces. In Kurdistan, those exist. They do not exist elsewhere in Iraq, as the disintegration of the Iraqi army demonstrated. Shiite militias will fight, but are usually poorly trained and bring moral baggage, as noted below. There could be an effective ground force working with our air power in Syria, in the form of the Syrian Arny of President Bashar al Assad and its highly competent ally, Hezbollah, but President Obama has ruled that out for ideological reasons. The “moderate Syrian opposition” he wants to rely on consists of twelve men living outside Syria in luxury hotels. It is a chimera.

If our military were competent, it could offer the president the option of a small–2500 to 25,000-man–“Afrika Korps” that could employ maneuver warfare on the ground, cooperating with American air power, to serve as the chi force to the Iraqi Army’s and militias’ cheng force, much as Rommel did for the Italians in North Africa. But the Pentagon can’t do that. The generals would quickly tell the President they would need at least 250,000 men to go in on the ground. Otherwise, the only option is bombing. So we’ll bomb.

We will supposedly create effective allies on the ground through American training. Has anyone else noticed that all the armies we train lose, starting with South Vietnam? We train them in obsolete Second Generation war, war dependent on vast firepower and logistics they do not and cannot have. We trained the Iraqi Army that just broke and ran. So the prescription is more of the same? Again, it is all the U.S. military knows how to do.

On Boyd’s mental level, a continuous air war above ISIS, similar to that which Israel has waged in Gaza, even during times of relative peace, will be wearing to ISIS and the civilians in areas it controls. ISIS will suffer attrition. But because it is just one problem that requires adaptation, not a cascade of ever-greater problems, it will not pull ISIS apart. Once you’ve seen the one-trick pony’s one trick, you don’t care much about seeing it a second time, or a five hundredth.

It is on the moral level, Boyd’s most powerful level of war, that President Obama’s strategy is the weakest. The September 11 New York Times quoted one American “security official” saying, “We cannot be seen as the Shiite air force,” but in Iraq that is what we will be. On the ground, we will be acting in support of an overwhelmingly Shiite Iraqi Army (what’s left of it) and Shiite militia. That will drive Iraqi Sunnis toward ISIS.

By attacking ISIS, a force with few air defenses, from the air, we will fall once again into the doomed role of Goliath endlessly stomping David. That will strengthen ISIS‘s moral appeal and serve as a highly effective recruiting tool for them.

In the region where it operates, ISIS’s moral strength is already great and growing. Contrary to what President Obama said Wednesday night, ISIS represents true Islam, pure Islam, Islam as it poured out of the Arabian deserts to overwhelm Christian North Africa and the Christian Levant in the 7th century. That gives it tremendous moral appeal to Arab Muslims, especially if they are young men with nothing to do, which is the one product Arab societies overproduce. As air attack has its usual effect of pushing those under bombardment closer together while giving them a burning desire for revenge against enemies they cannot reach, ISIS’s power at the moral level of war will grow by leaps and bounds. Again, that is power at the most decisive level of war–against which all we can pose is some attrition.

So failure is as guaranteed as anything in war can be. When President Obama’s strategy fails, the war party in Washington will howl that America’s “credibility” is at stake. President Obama or his successor will be subjected to great pressure, not to acknowledge failure and get out, but to escalate. That will mean, once again, sending hundreds of thousands of American troops to fight another war in the Middle East–and suffer another defeat, because we do not know how to fight Fourth Generation war. favicon