The Poverty of American Strategy

The Poverty of American Strategy
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Are you serious, Mr. Obama? In spite of the latest wave of ISIS attacks that spilled innocent blood on the streets of Paris, our president still considers it a “mistake” to send ground troops to defeat them, possibly preferring similar battles on American soil. Even his most reliable media defenders, speaking from the French capital, seemed baffled and uncomfortable, as if the chief executive had missed a cue or flubbed his usual glib phrases. But for once, popular opinion seems to have leaped to conclusions that make politicians tremble: That it CAN happen here.

Even after the attacks, Hillary Clinton and her fellow Democratic contenders still could not bring themselves to utter the dreaded phrase “Islamic extremism.” Nor have Republicans expelled the latest strain of isolationism from their own ranks, recoiling from the budgetary demands of rebuilding American military power. Apparently, a consensus of both parties believes the voters are not only cheap but stupid.

But what else can you expect when: (a) Only one percent of Americans serve in uniform and (b) The other 99% produce the top-most rungs of the political and media elites. Last weekend, for example, the airwaves were chock-a-block with talk of "messaging", "partnering" and "winning the war of ideas" in the “ecosphere.” Knowledgeable observers assured TV audiences the “allies should do their share” in what everyone agreed would be a “long war.”

The only cliché left unspoken was that wars and ground forces never really settle anything. Like most clichés, that one rings slightly hollow if you have ever visited Gettysburg or Appomattox. The most relevant perspective on bringing peace to the streets of Paris actually begins by recalling what happened closer to the action - on the Normandy Beaches. It was there that Dwight D. Eisenhower attacked to carry out an unambiguous mission-order given him by FDR: “You will enter the continent of Europe and…undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.” Meaning that Eisenhower’s troops were expected to kill Nazis, not Teutonic extremists, and to do that by combining Allied military power to expunge a brand of anti-Semitism even more virulent than that stalking Europe 70 years later.

As I argued here last week, a nation that now goes to war using borrowed money and Other People’s Kids, (NB: Mixed caps here underlines a term of art) has lost part of its soul but also its grip on reality. Recall the words of that eminent historian T. R. Fehrenbach. His classic account of the Korean War contains a timeless lesson:

"You may fly over a land forever, you may bomb it, you may pulverize it. But if you wish to go in and to possess it, then you must do as the Romans did and put your young men into the mud."

The Korean War was not supposed to happen at all, since atomic weapons made all wars unwinnable and therefore unthinkable. Except that war did break out and the basic choices quickly dwindled to: Do you prefer to win or lose?

Even though he is unschooled, unskilled and profoundly unsatisfactory in his constitutional role as commander-in-chief, Mr. Obama faces those same choices today. He also needs to answer:

1. Do you prefer to fight ISIS over there or over here? If you prefer keeping the American homeland safe, then are you prepared to change a strategy that even your usual media defenders (and even some prominent Democrats) concede isn’t working?

2. Although it may have arisen from a false reading of recent military history, you have embraced the persistent heresy that airpower alone can bring decisive results. Even if we have a narrow goal of defeating ISIS, can you possibly understand that American diplomatic and military leadership also means putting American boots on the ground? And that it doesn’t have to be a long war if you do it right?

3. Although classic military strategy relies on the synchronized combination of arms to achieve decisive victory, you often deploy military power in a tentative piecemeal fashion – like running Clausewitz in reverse. In contrast, a proper campaign to defeat ISIS would attack them from all directions, using air, land and sea power to destroy their forces as thoroughly as those of Nazi Germany. Can you even conceive of such an effort?

4. Finally, there is much discussion over which country should accept greater or lower percentages of Syrian war refugees. Why not make a counter-proposal? That the proper object of American military power, in concert with its allies, will be to prevail on the ground in Syria. Today’s refugees could thus return safely to their homeland, a humanitarian goal following decisive victory over the new barbarism. 

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