Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Getting Past the Way of the Gun

Dropping bombs isn't the only way to advance American interests abroad.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/GettyImages
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/GettyImages
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/GettyImages

This past week, the U.S.-backed Iraqi Army retook the center of the northern industrial town of Beiji, home to Iraq's largest oil refinery -- a hard-fought, tactical victory in a long campaign against the Islamic State. Before that, President Barack Obama announced he is doubling the U.S. commitment of forces in Iraq. Certainly, the Islamic State poses an enormous threat to regional stability. But is the focus on military efforts the right one?

The fact is that wielding the big stick rather than walking softly remains the default for American engagement abroad -- but it hasn't been working very well.

For one, when Americans think of "power," the image that most immediately comes to mind is martial. "As early as World War II, the U.S. began squandering its diplomatic tools -- and the net effect has been a collective amnesia: the only effective option we seem to remember is the military option," New York University professor Patricia DeGennaro wrote as the United States considered expanding the fight against violent extremist networks into Syria in September. What has been forgotten, she argues, is "how to shape policy through negotiation, alignment of interests, and knowledge of history, cultures and peoples. Instead of helping to craft long-term solutions for our national security, the U.S. continues to rely on short-term military fixes." The American way of peace, which resides mostly in civilian power and is more strategic in nature, has been all but left out to rust.

This past week, the U.S.-backed Iraqi Army retook the center of the northern industrial town of Beiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery — a hard-fought, tactical victory in a long campaign against the Islamic State. Before that, President Barack Obama announced he is doubling the U.S. commitment of forces in Iraq. Certainly, the Islamic State poses an enormous threat to regional stability. But is the focus on military efforts the right one?

The fact is that wielding the big stick rather than walking softly remains the default for American engagement abroad — but it hasn’t been working very well.

For one, when Americans think of "power," the image that most immediately comes to mind is martial. "As early as World War II, the U.S. began squandering its diplomatic tools — and the net effect has been a collective amnesia: the only effective option we seem to remember is the military option," New York University professor Patricia DeGennaro wrote as the United States considered expanding the fight against violent extremist networks into Syria in September. What has been forgotten, she argues, is "how to shape policy through negotiation, alignment of interests, and knowledge of history, cultures and peoples. Instead of helping to craft long-term solutions for our national security, the U.S. continues to rely on short-term military fixes." The American way of peace, which resides mostly in civilian power and is more strategic in nature, has been all but left out to rust.

Part of the problem is that national security thinking is trapped in a tactical mindset, and tactical mindsets struggle with nuance. It’s shoot or don’t shoot, good guys versus bad guys. "Fire and forget," as the saying goes, becomes the way to deal with increasingly complex issues most Americans, both in and outside the Beltway, would rather not wrap their heads around. The effect is that the all-volunteer military, as retired Admiral Mike Mullen recently worried, is sent to "go off and fight our dirty little wars and let us get on with our lives." The military needs "to be connected to the American people," Mullen added, and decisions to use it require "a fulsome, raging debate."

Instead, the debate ends up being mostly about whether bombs or boots should be used to take action — as if the choice were between Coke and Pepsi.

The American way of war, reliant on technology and firepower, alongside a fixation with "winning," drives military escalation well beyond political imperatives, in Guns of August fashion. The president’s stated policy objective to "degrade, and ultimately destroy, [the Islamic State] through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy" reads more like the mission statement of an operations plan than a strategy. October’s Congressional Research Service report on "The ‘Islamic State’ Crisis and U.S. Policy," similarly, couldn’t get past consideration of anything but a military approach.

Besides effectively taking all the non-military tools out of the foreign policy toolbox, conflating more immediate threats with longer-fused drivers of conflict perverts the U.S. understanding of the problem, leading often to the wrong solution. "ISIS got so big because of the failure of governance in Syria and Iraq to deliver the most basic services," Francis Fukuyama explained to the New York Times in October. "ISIS is not strong. Everything around it was just so weak." It also sets the United States up to get played.

Terrorism especially bedevils Americans because they are suckers for its theater of provocation and media play. Whether driving airplanes into buildings or beheading journalists, the intent is to incite fear and overreaction, and the United States seemingly can’t help but take the bait, responding to violence with more violence. This succeeds, however, mainly in alienating the very people the United States says it’s trying to help — it often legitimizes an anti-American narrative, helping to recruit more fighters, and perhaps even worse, making the fight against extremists more America’s than that of the local population. As such, the American power paradigm is counterproductive.

Indeed, the current U.S. perspective reflects a pretty thin understanding of peace: namely, what it takes to achieve it. American strategies fall short because they fail to fathom that the real source of peace and security lies, as I’ve written, in "finding and leveraging the power in the people." The way to beat the likes of the Islamic State is to offer affected populations a more workable, homegrown alternative for security and governance as they define those terms.

More than a compilation of countermeasures, as Jim Sisco recently explained, the United States needs a long-term, population-centric strategy that looks mostly to empower local communities by supporting existing governance and judicial structures, such as civil administrative councils, and their ability to delivering basic goods and services to the people. Support to Syrian, Iraqi, and Kurdish forces should be contingent upon their support and protection, in turn, of the civil societies where they operate. More broadly, as retired Ambassador Chas W. Freeman Jr. has pointed out, "[O]ur response must be measured, limited, and calculated to avoid relieving regional players of the primary responsibility for protecting themselves from the menace."

The White House has given only an honorable mention to civilian-led humanitarian aid and peacebuilding, or what it has called "helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, and tolerance, and a more hopeful future." And it isn’t willing to devote the brains or bucks necessary to actually doing this. Talk is cheap: There is no paradigm shift until it is in programs, budgets, and operations — not just in speeches and policy papers.

***

There needs to be a major change in focus. If regional stability is the overarching U.S. interest in the Middle East, then what about the "massive demographic shift" caused by the outpouring of refugees from Syria that is driving destabilization more than any caliphate crashers that exploit it? The United Nations estimates over half the population of Syria needs humanitarian assistance, and Syrian refugees comprise over one-quarter of the populations of Lebanon and Jordan. Despite the years-long pledges of donors, including the United States and many partners in the latest "coalition of the willing," programs to relieve human suffering remain two-thirds unfunded.

"Whatever happens, it is increasingly unlikely that the populations of the Middle East at the end of this crisis will return to the status quo we knew at the beginning of this century," David Weiss, president of Global Communities, a non-profit that works in the region, wrote in August in the Huffington Post. On a geopolitical scale, University of Oklahoma Center for Middle East Studies Director Joshua Landis said on Fareed Zakaria GPS on Nov. 9 that it’s time to accept these realities and re-draw the map of Syria to create governable spaces "that everybody could get behind and pour money into for development disarm the militias and set up a government that was a good government." If external powers like the United States understand and accept these long-term tendencies, Weiss argues, "we can begin to approach the changes as opportunities instead of just ‘problems.’ We can work to empower new communities and the existing ones, to reshape their own lives and livelihoods from the local level up, instead of the state-level down."

But little to none of this is evident in any U.S. strategy to defeat the Islamic State. To make matters worse — but unsurprisingly — it also is not evident in strategies to deal with other international crises. Consider Ebola: In response to a non-military crisis, the United States is sending over 3,000 military personnel to Africa to "take charge of responding" to the outbreak. Yet the epidemic was spawned by years of underdevelopment, weak governance, and penny-pinching on health-sector development in West Africa. Simultaneously, in Liberia, the U.S. government spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars over 10 years to "train-and-equip" a military force of less than 2,000 soldiers, despite the country having no real external enemies and whose internal threats, as in any country, are best met with police forces.

America abroad is about more than its military power. The key lesson of the successful air campaign to whittle away Islamic State fighters in Kobani and encourage greater resistance on the ground is that the kinetic operations from above are not the real "decisive action," but a "shaping operation" to bring about will ultimately win the day — popular pushback driven by more positive than negative forces. Or, as former Defense Policy Board member Nadia Schadlow noted, "[P]owerful U.S. military capabilities can shape events and provide options that may, by their mere existence, deter others from taking actions that require a U.S. military response. They help to establish the conditions to allow U.S. diplomats and policymakers to engage in that space between peace and war."

War being an extension of policy by other means, the use of military power must clearly support political stratagems that lead to civil outcomes and that are as fully thought-out, organized, and resourced as Pentagon-planned operations. That requires a national capacity Americans have largely ignored and neglected.

***

"Most crises in what will be a very dangerous century will require first and foremost soft power tools and political solutions," Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy Professor Julian Lindley-French and the school’s dean, retired Admiral James Stavridis, wrote as the West’s standoff with Russia over Ukraine began to peak. It was soft power, after all, that ultimately brought down the Berlin Wall a quarter-century ago. If the world since has been witnessing the democratization of violence and war, then the necessary antidote is the democratization of governance and peace.

That takes time, patience, and a long, broad view in action.

Moreover, it takes looking beyond a power paradigm trapped within the negatives of threats toward an approach to the world more broadly based on the positive strength of a national identity predicated on the right of American values and not just the might of the American military. U.S. foreign policy should reflect more of what the country is about than what it’s afraid of.

Christopher Holshek, a retired U.S. Army civil affairs colonel, is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and author of Travels with Harley: Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity.

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