In Afghanistan, the Taliban holds more territory than it has in 15 years, and President Obama has relaunched a war he boasts of ending. Iraq is once again at risk of long-term oppression, stretching U.S. entanglement there into neighboring Syria. And American military intervention in Libya, having facilitated an ISIS-attracting power vacuum, could begin again any day.
In each country, the quick, cheap victories we were guaranteed never happened. The promised resultant stability never materialized. Long-term war has produced neither freedom for the people of the Middle East nor assured safety for Americans.
In short, our national security situation looks an awful lot like it did in 2001, 2003, and 2011, respectively, a similarity bought at the cost of thousands of American lives and trillions of American dollars.
We’re swimming in circles at a high price indeed. And what’s the point?
On the micro-level, of course, the goals are obvious: Bomb this Taliban leader. Halt that ISIS offensive. Prevent this terrorist attack. Discourage the growth of that group of extremists.
But on a grander scale, what’s the point? Which is to say: What are America’s strategic objectives in the Middle East? What are our plausible resolutions? What are the conditions under which our interventions might be deemed complete?
The early rationales for invading Afghanistan and Iraq were many and of varying merits—from reprisal for 9/11 to preemptive strikes against would-be terrorists, from regime change to military-led nation-building. Still, there was something at least resembling a goal.
Now, after a grinding decade and a half of war, it is evident that the overarching objective of reshaping the region into a haven of liberal democracy has failed—and nothing clearly connected to protecting America has replaced it.
On the contrary, Washington’s response to this growing futility has been to stubbornly double down on its non-plan, declaring the war in Afghanistan a “generational thing,” and using Orwellian language to dance around the inconvenient truth that the war in Iraq, ostensible ended back in 2011, is much the same.
We have ample analysis of “counterinsurgency doctrine, the best use of drone strikes, under what circumstances special forces should be deployed, and so on,” as Ryan Cooper argues at The Week, but “vanishingly little discussion of what all that force is supposed to achieve.” There is, in other words, plenty of war, but it has no point. We know we’re dropping bombs, but no one in D.C. can specify achievable circumstances under which we’d come on home.
There can be no victory in 2016 because we don’t know what the mission is or what it would look like accomplished.
In place of strategy, Cooper goes on, “there is only the bedrock post-9/11 view of the [foreign policy establishment]: That if there are Islamist militants anywhere (but especially in the Middle East), then the U.S. military should be trying to kill them somehow.”
That may be sufficient organizing principle for a kid playing with his army men, but it’s not enough for sending men and women to fight and die in real life.
To be sure, the development of a legitimate Mideast strategy would be no small project. Among the difficult questions we must ask, military historian Andrew Bacevich explains, are things like: “When will this broader fight end? What will it cost? Short of reducing large parts of the Middle East to rubble, is that fight winnable in any meaningful sense? Above all, does the world’s most powerful nation have no other choice but to persist in pursuing a manifestly futile endeavor?”
In short, does what we’re doing now serve vital U.S. interests, or are we merely injecting ourselves into sectarian violence with no end in sight?
These are not the sort of inquiries a stagnant federal bureaucracy (or a politicking presidential candidate) wants to ask, but they are necessary if American foreign policy is ever to become something other than an endless, aimless, and costly misadventure