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Our Strategy’s Cost-Benefit Conundrum

December 3, 2014

News reports indicate that President Obama’s replacement for outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will be Ashton Carter, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Defense under Leon Panetta. Carter is a personable and extremely able man, with considerable overseas experience and an understanding of how the department works. Hagel’s departure, however, could offer a cautionary tale for the incoming secretary.

Hagel, the White House explained, fulfilled his role admirably but the nation needs a secretary better suited to devise a strategy and preside over the challenge posed by the growing threat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But the day after Hagel announced his intention to leave, an unnamed senior defense official told the Washington Post, “We don’t foresee any major changes to the strategy against ISIL [ISIS] as a result of the secretary’s resignation. He helped craft it.” Though, it was conceded that some minor adjustments might be necessary.

Others are convinced that Hagel’s ouster was not due to possessing the wrong skill set, but the result of tension between the Pentagon and the White House over how to manage U.S. national security. In the same piece, a former defense official gave credence to this theory: “Whoever the new secretary of defense is, [he or she is] probably going to want to discuss with the leadership of the National Security Council the scope of freedom for decision-making at the Pentagon.”

Administration officials are clearly divided on the U.S. strategy for meeting this threat, and the White House has apparently dominated the agenda. Many experts acknowledge, however, that the President’s determination to use “limited force” makes it unlikely that it can, by definition, be successful. A strategy that relies primarily on a bombing campaign comes with problems. Such aerial attacks are satisfying politically, but may not be enough to get the job done. If, however, airstrikes are ramped up, the risk of collateral damage and loss of civilian life increases.

One major difference between the current aerial campaign against ISIS and previous military engagements in the Middle East is the number and pace of U.S. airstrikes. For instance, during the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1991, coalition aircraft flew nearly 50,000 sorties over the period of 43 days. By contrast, the New York Times reported last month that the current campaign against ISIS averages “5 hits a day” – a drastically lower frequency of bombardment. Although the former campaign engaged a more conventional enemy, one stark difference is that the 1991 coalition was supported by a “massive coalition force on the ground” that helped identify and pinpoint targets of interest. With President Obama’s continued insistence that there will be no American “boots on the ground” besides military advisors, it is hard to see how the current campaign against ISIS will increase its efficacy. And ultimately, if larger and larger numbers of ground troops are eventually deployed to improve the badly needed local intelligence for targets, the U.S. and its allies are likely to get increasingly bogged down – again – in the very region it just left.

Mark Gunzinger and John Stillion, both senior fellows at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, offered another interpretation with respect to Obama’s decision to use limited force. It may “reflect lingering doubts by some policy makers over how serious and far-reaching the threat of an Islamic State caliphate really is to our nation’s vital interests.”

At the same time it might also reflect the views of other experts that our overall strategy in the Middle East has been either inadequate or counterproductive. Only a week before Hagel’s resignation, the Institute for Economics and Peace released its latest Global Terrorism Index. In their report, which was covered by the Washington Post, they wrote: “The number of terrorist incidents increased from less than 1,500 in 2000 to nearly 10,000 in 2013.”

Furthermore, the report pointed out that during that thirteen year period 60% of the attacks occurred in places where U.S. troops were engaged, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (where the U.S. has conducted an extensive drone campaign), and Syria (where the U.S. has imposed airstrikes). Among the countries with large increases in terrorist activity, only Nigeria has avoided engagement with the U.S. military.

The report suggests that the increase in terrorism has been created by “large power vacuums” that have “[allowed] different factions to surface and become violent.”

The price tag to American taxpayers for this outcome? “$4-6 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with anti-terrorism efforts elsewhere—according to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government,” which was cited in the same article.

Debates will continue within the more opaque sectors of our government over our strategy to defeat ISIS (as well as other extremist groups in the Middle East). However, it is vitally important that our policymakers acknowledge that despite the international turmoil, Americans are war weary and unlikely to sit still for another ten years of open ended conflict—especially with such a staggering cost-benefit ratio.

I asked one of the Middle Eastern ambassadors to the United States what he thought of our policy toward ISIS. In a nutshell he said: Extremist groups come and go. “First there was al Qaeda and now there is ISIS, next it will be some other group. What we need,” he said with conviction, “is a comprehensive strategy for the region,” – not just narrow plans formulated on a country-by-country basis.

This must be preceded, I would add, by a clearer notion of what we are trying to accomplish over the long term, along with a realistic assessment of whether that goal is sustainable. It would not be too far-fetched to say that if the administration does not spearhead a fresh, clear-eyed, and practical review of our strategy, the new secretary of defense might find himself similarly hobbled by a White House that is—again—unhappy with the results of the current military campaign.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tony DuPuis permalink
    December 3, 2014 1:42 pm

    Spot on Susan… Conundrum indeed !!! Great synopsis here.
    To further sum it all up… Once again, “Ike was RIGHT !!!”
    Thanks as always, Brilliant post!

  2. Bob Hanfling permalink
    December 3, 2014 2:05 pm

    Once again, a clearly and simply stated, “get your act together for a REAL LONG TERM policy” and get the right TEAM to implement it.
    Unfortunately the people who need this message the most, either don’t get these cogent messages, or will not follow them.

  3. Peter permalink
    December 3, 2014 4:36 pm

    Susan, you present with clarity a perplexing and frustrating scenario to a serious threat that seems to be solvable with a united will. Sadly this situation is a model for our approach to all our other serious threats that undermines our house.It is now time to employ what gave us our Constitution…imagination and courage.

  4. John F. Morton permalink
    April 1, 2015 3:55 pm

    The FT’s Edward Luce wrote a great commentary last weekend that relates to the dearth of original or strategic thought in Washington today: And it has to do with a disconnect with what is the real power in the US today: Big Data, as he called it. I call it the sinews of our post-industrial America, analogous to steel, the railroads and telegraph of the Gilded Age. From that time came the dinosaur think tanks around the Progressive Era and the Great War: Carnegie, Rockefeller, CFR and Brookings, all reflecting the industrial and Wall Street nexus that came out of that period with folks like Baruch, Forrestal, Eberstadt, Nitze, Harriman and the Wise Men, etc. that directed this country into the post-WW II world with its UN, Bretton Woods, GATT, IMF and World Bank and then took us through the Cold War. Wounded by Nixon and Connally following LBJ’s guns and butter hubris, restored in the 1990s without the national security emphasis by Greenspan and Rubin (an entirely new establishment) it fell apart again in 2008. What may be coming is the equivalent of the Panic of 1907 and the need for a far-reaching reform. It might even sweep away the vestiges of a dying Progressive governance of the high-industrial era no longer relevant to the post-industrial network economy that is non-hierarchical in the Information Age. Do we have any idea who are the TRs, Woodrow Wilsons, Herbert Crolys and Walter Lippmanns of today? Well, President Eisenhower would have known and would have called them together as he did with C.D. Jackson and others involved with the Solarium Exercise and later the Killian and Gaither Commissions to work out how to pursue national interest via his Great Equation. We need this kind of approach in the Executive Branch, whether Republican or Democrat, one that is mindful that America is at her “East of Suez” moment and needs to triage her national interests.

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