The unwillingness of the Obama administration to label the September occupation of American diplomatic facilities in Cairo and Benghazi, and the murder of an American diplomat "acts of war" make this an opportune moment to consider two lessons emanating from more than a decade of warfare in the Arab and Moslem world.
- The United States has ceased to use military force as an instrument with which to enforce its will. Our military has become an element of American diplomacy designed to change minds and behavior. The civilian population – the sea in which non-conventional armies swim, to paraphrase Mao – has become the object of intense and expensive American courtship.
- Our adversaries in this war are not defined by time or territory, although they have more of both than we do. No defeat is definitive.
In August, President Obama went to Ft. Bliss to celebrate the anniversary of the end of combat operations in Iraq. He included the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan as he told the troops, "Make no mistake, ending the wars responsibly makes us safer and our military even stronger, and ending these wars is letting us do something else; restoring American leadership."
The soldiers sat mainly in silence, understanding perhaps better than he that the wars have not been ended – responsibly or otherwise. The American presence and influence in the region is waning, but "the war" against us goes on. It is fought by people who need the United States as an organizing principle, and who will not be dissuaded by our absence, our reluctance to cooperate with Israel, or the President's flattery.
They were right. Only weeks later, the Arab and Moslem world exploded, partly in organized acts of war on U.S. soil in Cairo and Benghazi, and partly in a frenzy of manufactured outrage from Morocco to Afghanistan. On the other hand, the al Qaeda-supported al Shabab gave up the last city it held in Somalia -- Kismayo -- and ran for the hills. On the other other hand, al Qaeda-related Islamist forces moving from Libya into Mali have extended their reign of terror, and the UN is considering creating a force to respond. Jihadists of various stripes are active in Syria and Nigeria.
Conquerable Centers and Admitting Defeat
World War II, the last "good war," is the story of the conquest of territory. When the Nazis overran Europe, they made the rules. General Eisenhower was told to take the territory back and ensure that the Allies made the rules. He did not care whether a German soldier or civilian was an ideological Nazi, did not ask him to be nice to Jews and did not look for defectors. When he was done, the Allies were in Berlin, and any stray Nazi sympathizers kept their heads down. It was gruesome, but ultimately American rules prevailed. Ditto the Pacific. Island by island, the Allies reversed Japan. The atomic bomb was the alternative to taking the last stretch to Tokyo mile by bloody combat mile.
VE Day and VJ Day were possible because Germany and Japan had conquerable geographical centers and governments to acknowledge defeat. When the Allies conquered the center, the war was over.
Korea and Vietnam, wars that were halted rather than ended, did not have conquerable centers. The wars were managed, funded and equipped from a place the United States was unwilling to go. We negotiated an armistice at the 38th Parallel for South Korea and left our troops under treaty as our bond. In Vietnam, we negotiated a peace treaty that removed our fighting presence; our political presence disappeared shortly thereafter.
The First Gulf War was a hybrid. The U.S.-led coalition captured the territory of Kuwait and threw the Iraqis out, but declined to continue on to capture the center – Baghdad. The unsustainable no war/no peace lasted 12 years. By the time we removed Saddam the rules had changed.
Ideological and Transnational Adversaries
America's primary enemies in the Middle East take a different view of both territory and defeat than Nazi Germany or even Saddam. For al Qaeda, territory is valuable as a staging ground, training ground or hideout, but the war travels. Terrorism can be conducted anywhere -- New York, Bali, London, Bulgaria or Jerusalem -- and the aim is less territory-specific than ideological, religious and dictatorial. The Taliban in Afghanistan harbored Al Qaeda, but the CIA now estimates that fewer than 1,000 remain, the remainder having fanned out in Africa, Asia and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The war in Libya facilitated the movement of al Qaeda into Mali, and the Syrian war may be doing the same. Although Iraqi nationalists in the Awakening Councils prevented the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iraq in Anbar, the al Qaeda in Iraq did not acknowledge defeat; it simply melted away from that particular battlefield. It remains a presence and continues to raise its head when it finds an opportune moment.
Al Qaeda presents its adversaries with a sort of "whack a mole" problem – hit it here, it goes underground and pops up somewhere else. Killing its leadership, which has become an American pastime, does reduce its effectiveness, but leadership can regenerate if it has space and time. There is no one to acknowledge defeat and no one to surrender.
Conflicts over Time as well as Space
Al Qaeda's interests are played out across a region that also has religious, tribal and ethnic conflicts that do, indeed, have a territorial base, and are also conflicts over time. The U.S. generally operates on the principle that when a war is over, it is over. WWI was supposed to be "the war to end all wars," and Americans were mightily irritated to find out they had to go back again; Europeans much less so. Churchill wanted to punish Germany but considered Roosevelt's demand for "unconditional surrender" unreasonable. Roosevelt won the argument -- and the war -- but war returned to Europe before the close of the 20th century, albeit on a smaller scale.
The devolution of Syria in fact resembles the breakup of Yugoslavia, which was founded as a kingdom in 1918 and died in 1992 amid horrific wars. Yugoslavia itself is an example of the maxim that losing is only a temporary setback. Serbs arrived in Kosovo in the 6th Century, pushing the native Albanians to the east. By the 12th Century, Kosovo was the center of the Serbian state. The Serbs lost it to the Ottomans in 1389 – a date that still rankles – and Albanians moved back in greater numbers under Ottoman Turkish rule. The Turks declared sovereignty there in 1489. The Serbs got it back in 1912. The last round of fighting resulted in 140,000 deaths and borders that are still not fully accepted; NATO remains in Kosovo.
Looked at that way, Arab losses to Israel since 1948 happened yesterday, and reversing the establishment of Israel remains a realistic option for them – if not for the Israelis. Kurds constitute large minorities in Turkey (established in 1922), Iraq (independent in 1932) and Syria (independent in 1946). There is an active Kurdish independence movement (terrorist and non-terrorist in different places) that believes the borders should, can and will be changed to accommodate an independent Kurdish State. The American war in Afghanistan is only the latest war in that space, and America's war in Iraq was only a blip in the larger patchwork of wars and occupations over the centuries.
Iraq and Afghanistan
In 2008, then-Senator Obama called Iraq a drag. "This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize… By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe." Again, as president, he called it a "distraction" from Afghanistan and pledged, "Our overarching goal remains… to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future." [This and quotes below are from the President's West Point address.]
The war was not an effort to "conquer" Afghanistan; the U.S. was sitting in the capital, but declined to "occupy" it. The President left the door open to the Taliban and, speaking of a "civilian surge," to a broad relationship with the Afghan people; and he placed the burden of Western-style governance on the Afghans:
We will support Afghan Ministries, Governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable. And we will also focus our assistance in areas - such as agriculture - that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.
I want the Afghan people to understand - America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens. And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect - to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.
President Obama linked a "responsible end" to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to America's economic woes and a desire to turn to domestic policies:
In the wake of an economic crisis… So we simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power… because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.
In a few short paragraphs, he defined the American battle to change Afghanistan from what it was to what he wished it to be. For a President who accused his predecessor of hubris in foreign policy, President Obama made similarly arrogant assumptions:
- Demanding American-style anti-corruption measures and a strong Western-style government in a country with no history of either.
- Assuming some Afghans would choose Americans over other Afghans.
- Assuming any choice was permanent
- Announcing our future departure and assuming any order the U.S. and its allies created would outlast our presence.
- Telling those Afghans inclined to work with us that our presence was temporary and linked to domestic concerns.
- Telling our enemies the same thing.
- Assuming at least some Taliban would assimilate Western-style "human rights" in order to reap Western-style benefits.
American troops and influence are gone from Iraq, which snuggles ever closer to almost-nuclear Iran. The allied "surge" in Afghanistan is over, leaving in its wake an increasing number of attacks by Afghan soldiers on American soldiers, and a decision by Washington to interrupt the joint operations that were to have ensured American influence on the capabilities and attitudes of Afghan soldiers. Our troops hunker down, waiting for the convoy out, while nuclear Pakistan slips ever closer to chaos.
September's outburst of violence is the next phase of a transnational war based on religious ideology, and it includes wars waged not only by organizations, but also by Iran. There are those who call outright for violence against the U.S. (al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Salafists). But those who are presently more circumspect in the expectation of political and financial gain (the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah) seek our destruction no less than the others. There are Sunni elements and Shiite elements; separately they despise one another, but together they despise us more.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington.
 The current American aid figures for countries from which the U.S. demands Western political standards are: Afghanistan ($2.3 billion this down from its peak of $4 billion in 2010) Pakistan ($3 billion) and Egypt ($1.55 billion) and Libya (a measly $1.5 million), Iraq ($1.1 billion, formerly the top recipient) and the Palestinian Authority ($684 million).