The New Chickenhawks

The 2016 presidential campaign is full of bluster about a bigger, badder military for America. And it shows the candidates don't know much about winning the peace.


When the United States entered its war of choice in Iraq in 2003, its most vocal advocates were those who had, in their youth, figured out a way to avoid military service entirely or, in the case of President George W. Bush or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, get themselves assigned to duties that ensured they would never see combat — appropriately earning themselves the derisory nickname “chickenhawks.” Many, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, continue to beat down non-military solutions to increasingly non-military problems, unabashed and undeterred by the lessons of recent history.

But now, more than a dozen years later, it seems we have a new brood of chickenhawks. This election cycle, only two of the 16 Republican contenders — Texas Gov. Rick Perry and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham — have a service record, and both of them are so far down in the polls that Perry has decided to quit the race. The rest of the field’s lack of experience and knowledge, however, hasn’t stopped the all but obligatory stream of bluster.

At last month’s Republican presidential debate, Senator Ted Cruz seemed to think he knew more than outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey, who told him that the key means to beating the Islamic State were not primarily military. Cruz superciliously dismissed this as “nonsense” without offering an alternative game plan. He joined others in defiance of retiring Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno’s assertion that it could take another decade or two to get rid of the Islamic State. At the same event, Rand Paul posed that “one of the ways we stop them is by not funding them, and not arming them.” And Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, has spouted off about how much more “militaristic” he is than the others, as if it were a badge of honor, while claiming he finds his foremost military advice on Sunday morning talk shows. (His prescription for the problem, he said on Fox News, is to just “knock the hell out of them, take the oil.”)

Military service is not necessarily a prerequisite for being an effective wartime president, but it has been an asset in gaining the Republican nomination: Since 1952, every Republican presidential nominee except Mitt Romney had some military experience under his belt.

But all the tough-talk and bravado demonstrates how little this new group of commander-in-chief wannabes know about national strategy and modern warfare. Calling for more of the same thing in the same places, despite the obvious drawbacks of military-first methods of managing peace and security in the Middle East and Africa threatens to erode the competence of the United States to wield influence in the world. Scrapping the nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Iran in pursuit of a mythological “better deal” unicorn or a military option, is an ideological fantasy — despite former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s admission on Israeli Channel 2 Television that his country refrained from attacking Iranian nuclear sites, apparently due to the high risk of failure.

Rather than abandon habits and assumptions of what leadership means that simply no longer work, these political candidates need to understand what many in the military have learned the hard way – that Americans need to think very differently about peace, war, and especially the spaces in between — exactly where the United States happens to be. Now more than ever, the face of America’s engagement with the world must be through the application of soft power and the implication of hard power.

They also need to understand that the world has changed since the good old days when it seemed that all the United States needed to do to impose its will was send in the Marines.

Whoever takes over the White House in January 2017 needs to understand that foreign and security policy is more difficult in its execution than its conceptualization — you can’t just turn solutions to complex problems on like a light switch. As the mass migration of refugees into Europe illustrates, peace in one country is closely connected to broader security concerns, and it is important to understand conflicts both strategically and geographically. This is one of the many reasons why the United States needs to maintain a robust, seasoned, and well-connected operational diplomacy and development capacity, which can work in tandem with the peacebuilding community and other members of the private sector.

In the Middle East, the geopolitical landscape of the region is likely changing into a tri-fold power system, as Steven Metz of the Army Strategic Studies Institute wrote in July’s Word Politics Review. One is led by the Saudis to maintain the legacy of monarchies and national authoritarians. The other, led by Iran, is the Shiite counterpart to that. The third, led by the Islamic State, is the extremist, reactionary genie of instability the United States helped let out of the bottle, challenging both of the other visions of the region.

“Americans will not like this new Middle Eastern order because the United States will not control it,” Metz concluded. “Despite all the talk we are likely to hear during the upcoming presidential campaign about reasserting American ‘leadership’ in the region, the changes that have taken place are not simply a matter of presidential will,” he wrote, “but a reflection of deep and permanent structural factors.”

One reason why Odierno may have been right is that the Islamic State appears to be on a better learning curve than either U.S. presidential candidates or the current administration — discovering that whoever gets to the gaps in delivering essential public services and providing governance at the local level will be the true winners in the epic struggles of identity now taking place in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. It seems now, as an article last month in West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center’s journal cited, that the Islamic State has installed a “bureaucratic system [with] a level of complexity and professionalism that probably makes the Islamic State sustainable, even under containment.” But seeing how the center of gravity of modern peace and conflict has evolved also requires a little look at history.

World War I was the last major war in which most casualties were military. From World War II on, as many as four-fifths of them have been civilians. As irregular warfare gained precedence, the center of gravity of modern armed conflict has likewise decentralized. In a flatter, more interconnected world, the power is in the people. So what military professionals like Dempsey and Odierno have come to realize is that the solutions to the peace-wars of today are not primarily found in their profession. If the center of gravity of such conflicts is in the communities violent extremist groups are vying for control of, then the way to gain access to and influence these populations (and deny them to the enemy) is more through the promotion of local governance and civil society than at gunpoint. The latter only helps to seize the ground — the former helps to hold it.

If going after the drivers of conflict and instability rather than the threats emanating from them is really the game at hand, that requires a capability found less in the military and more resident in agencies like the State Department and the chronically under-resourced U.S. Agency for International Development and its NGO partners. In contemporary conflict management, military power is supporting and not supported. The way to defeat the likes of the Islamic State is not to wage war against their fighters as much as to wage peace against the sources of their power.

In fairness, it’s not just the Republicans who are struggling to grasp this. Even Hillary Clinton, as far back as her interview with The Atlantic, has sought to set herself apart from the Obama administration’s foreign policy approach and allowed herself to be described as more “hawkish” and “muscular” than her former boss. Even in her support for the nuclear deal with Iran, she emphasized she would not “hesitate to take military action” if Iran violated the agreement.

Earlier this summer, the Alliance for Peacebuilding (where I am a senior fellow) and nearly 40 other partners such as World Vision sent the White House a statement urging the administration to modify its Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) agenda put together in February and currently being discussed again. While the statement welcomed the shift in emphasis on community-led measures to subvert the sources of extremism, it admonished that the strategy “risks repeating the same mistakes as other post-9/11 stabilization initiatives.”

The subordination of development assistance to bad-guy bashing is clearly counterproductive. Military capabilities, the statement went on, “are ill-suited to address either the drivers or entrepreneurs of violence. Eighty-three percent of terrorist movements ended between 1968 and 2006 were done so through eventual political settlements or improvements in policing.”

Training local armed groups has also met with little success. In the CIA’s entire history, a presidentially mandated study last year concluded, there was only one example of success in fighting fire with fire: when the U.S. trained the mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets — which then of course resulted in the Taliban. Even the Pentagon’s half-billion dollar program to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State (rather than the Assad regime) has been scrapped in tacit admission of failure.

It’s the focus and context that have been the problem. “Instead of selling weapons to unpopular governments in an effort to win a monopoly of force, the U.S. should tackle corruption and human rights abuses in an effort to win a monopoly of legitimacy,” Dr. Lisa Schirch, Director of Human Security at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and contributor to the statement told me. Harnessing civilian capabilities to go after the primarily civilian causes of conflict is more than feel-good; it’s sound strategy.

Even if the Obama administration went for all the statement’s recommendations, however, American capabilities to end and prevent wars are, to put it mildly, underdeveloped compared to those to wage them — and the United States continues to get what it pays for. Diplomacy more than development, as recently retired ambassador Chas W. Freeman explained in a June missive in The American Conservative, is more politicized than professionalized.

To one degree or another, Freeman argues, as many as one-third of leading non-military national security functions are habitually staffed with “short-term political appointees selected to reward not their knowledge, experience, or skill but campaign contributions, political sycophancy, affiliation with domestic interest groups, academic achievements, success in fields unrelated to diplomacy, or social prominence.”

As the debates continue, the candidates from both parties should more seriously heed the tremendous responsibility any chief executive has to commit the nation’s blood and treasure as sparingly as possible. “The test of a great nation, with the most powerful military on earth,” Bernie Sanders reminded the Senate with respect to the agreement with Iran, “is not how many wars we can engage in but how we can use our strength and capabilities to resolve international conflicts in a peaceful way.”

During and after World War II, U.S. presidents led the nation against its isolationist tendencies because they knew that the fate of the country was inextricably linked to that of others. They also sought to exercise American power through inspiration more than intimidation. Once again, the United States is at a crossroads calling for leadership that can overcome similar inertia, that sees America abroad being about more than its military power, and that plays to the nation’s strengths rather than obsesses about its perceived weaknesses. Real leaders, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower observed, do not “glibly talk of another war.”

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

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.