I wrote about this in one of my earliest blog posts. As a nation, we have no grand strategy. Loosely defined, grand strategy is a comprehensive, long-term plan of essential actions to achieve major objectives. For a nation-state, it should include factors beyond military means: diplomatic, informational, economic, and financial. To develop a proper grand-strategy, you have to understand the foundation of who you are and what you want to be in the world and to the world. This stabilizes your foothold in the global landscape, because the international system becomes accustomed to your responses and where/how you choose to interject. Inconsistency infuses only chaos and confusion. It makes us, the greatest nation on earth, look aimless and blundering.
The harshest criticism of the 2003 conflict in Iraq, once you get past the did-they or did-they-not have WMD argument, was that the defense establishment failed to foresee and plan for the ensuing chaos that erupted in the power vacuum. Which perfectly explains why we intervened in Libya, and removed a horrible dictator who voluntarily gave up his own WMD and ruled over a country that was inhospitable to terrorists. Libya, though, was a good war you see, because we built an international coalition before intervening. Now we are surprised that the UAE and Egypt chose to conduct airstrikes in Libya, with or without telling us, to neutralize armed militants that are destabilizing the country.
In 2013, President Obama set a red-line for Syrian meddling at the use of chemical weapons. The Assad regime used chemical weapons against rebels in Syria, and we did nothing. Vlad Putin stepped in and brokered a deal to have Russia oversee the removal of Assad’s chemical arsenal, right before forcefully taking the Crimean Peninsula. ISIL gains strength in northeastern Syria and starts rolling through northwestern Iraq. This finds us flying surveillance sorties over Syria, and contemplating airstrikes in Syria, only now the targets would not be the vile forces of Bashar-al-Assad, but would instead be ISIL militants. It is currently unclear if any of this surveillance or potential airstrikes would be coordinated with the Syrian government, not that anyone cares.
The red-line for the latest round of airstrikes in Iraq that began just a couple weeks back was that American lives were threatened. Ostensibly, this refers to the US Consulate in Erbil, situated in Northern Iraq. Can we stop that foolish rhetoric? If that’s the primary concern, evacuate. You strike groups like ISIL because they are a detestable group of world criminals who are an absolute stain on humanity. You need no other reason.
Kori Schake at Foreign Policy brilliantly described the current administration’s grand strategy thusly: Step Away, Do Nothing, Pat Self on Back.
Obama administration officials spent much of the spring and summer trying to position themselves as grand strategists. The president’s West Point speech was the test drive of their revised national security strategy. It cautioned that “our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences — without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.” The speech was panned by both the right and the left, precipitating a reconsideration of releasing the National Security Strategy on which it was based (thelast was delivered in 2010); it sounds even more laughably self-satisfied in light of the costly mistakes their “restraint” has occasioned in Libya, Syria, and Iraq.
We haven’t done ourselves any favors by using the pulpit to pound home a strong message. This is what the President had to say about ISIL in January of this year.
The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.
According to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby (former Blue Angel PAO!), it was all a big misunderstanding.
There’s no divergence. This is August. You’re talking about comments that were made in January. ISIL — and we’ve been watching this for months. They have grown in capability. I’ve said it from the podium as have others. They have grown in capability with speed, helped along by resourcing from some of their own criminal activity, as well as donations and ransoms and helped along by a sanctuary that they have in Syria. So, we’ve all been watching this. They have advanced in capability. And we — we saw the speed with which they gained ground and held ground in northern Iraq earlier this summer.
So, it’s a — the real answer to your question is, it’s a constantly changing, fluid situation, and their threat continues to grow. And that’s what led us to where we are today, which is that we believe it does pose an imminent threat, and it’s a threat that we need to take seriously.
Lucky for Admiral Kirby is that he has State Department Jen Psaki on his team. Remember her?
Listen to her explain how natural gas moves through Europe, and then explain to me how she still has a job.
This is how our enemies use strategic messaging. These are taken from the Al Qaeda magazine Inspire.
$4,200 was the total cost of a failed bomb plot on a US cargo jet. That’s the same cost as two hours of jet fuel in an FA-18. Message received?
This was enough to educate and motivate the Boston Marathon bombers. Message received?
There is little question in my mind that we must deal forcefully with ISIL, and the military should play a large role to that end, but we have to synchronize all other elements of power in order to so with any efficacy. For the time being, it feels more like being embarrassed than it does like winning.