Unquiet Frontier: How Everything Became War
Having recently read Jakub J. Grygiel & A. Wess Mitchell’s book on America’s national security strategy, The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power, as well as Rosa Brooks’ How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon, I can safely say that the U.S. government has no idea how to implement viable defense strategies anymore. My own experience in the policy community tells me that this is not exclusive to either the Executive Branch of the U.S. government or to the Democratic Party (I am formerly a Republican Capitol Hill staffer).
Unfortunately, this is endemic of the entire national security structure in the U.S. today. While these two books tell different stories, the one theme that unifies them is how the lack of strategic vision (and leadership) has allowed for America’s foreign policy to become warped and feckless. We have militarized our home front to fight a Long War. Yet, we refuse to fully engage in that war.
We choose instead to gain tactical advantages at the expense of strategic victories. Indeed, we believe that we can at once be a global Superpower that is almost entirely detached from the world. I call this phenomenon “Strategic Dissonance.” It’s like cognitive dissonance, only on a national strategic level, and it is even more destructive.
Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological conflict resulting from simultaneously held incongruous beliefs and attitudes. In much the same vein, I posit that Strategic Dissonance is a psychological conflict at the national policy level resulting from simultaneously held incongruous beliefs and attitudes on the part of our leaders. A great example of strategic dissonance is the general notion that the United States is a global Superpower that can be mostly disengaged from the political conflicts afflicting the rest of the world, yet still exercise decisive military capabilities to create a stable political environment in other parts of the world.
This is why, despite the dazzling success of the opening phases of both the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, America cannot seem to extricate itself from these conflicts. It is why, despite the tactical brilliance of the Usama Bin Laden Raid in 2011, the U.S. is more threatened by Wahhābīsts today than we were on 9/11.
We have an incredible military capability that is generally on display every day around the world. But why are we displaying this power? What is our purpose here? I challenge anyone who says that they know why. We engage in high-tech drone strikes across the world to ostensibly fight the Global War on Terror. Has it resolved anything? After toppling the Taliban and evicting al Qaeda from Afghanistan in 2002, we stayed and dumped upwards a trillion dollars into rebuilding that country. Dittos for Iraq. Have they been made safer? Can we seriously contemplate removing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and not be ostensibly ceding that hard-won territory back to the Taliban and al Qaeda?
We can have all of the tactical success in the world, but without a viable strategic goal–that “vision thing” that former President George H.W. Bush said he lacked–then we are essentially running on an endless hamster wheel.
Libya: An Exercise in Self-Delusion
Ever since the United States created its All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, America’s military is limited in its manpower. With less than one percent of the American population having any sort of relationship with the U.S. military today, American policymakers have had to rely more heavily on technological advantages.
We fused that small, but highly capable, military force with the high technology that the Information Revolution conferred upon America. America always preferred maneuver warfare, as such, we have been in a ceaseless quest to merge man and machine to create a rapidly mobile, highly effective military that punches well above its weight (in terms of manpower). We may not have a few million troops to throw into a combat zone, as China does.
However, we’ve got air superiority. Thanks to our satellites in space, we have a nearly seamless connection between our ground, sea, and air forces. Thanks to the highly technological nature of the U.S. military, we can topple entire regimes without ever having to commit U.S. troops into combat.
The 2011 Air War against Libya is an example of that.
The Obama Administration sought to execute a foreign policy masterstroke: they wanted to topple the Gaddafi Regime in Libya much like the preceding Bush Administration had done in Iraq, but they wanted to avoid the excesses, loss of American life, and political costs that were associated with nation-building. Thus, the U.S. military used overwhelming airpower in conjunction with local forces on the ground to accomplish this goal. It was a resounding success. Until, like the weeks and months following the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, it wasn’t a success.
You see, this new sterile, highly technical way of war was good at toppling dictators, but not so helpful when we needed to finish (read, win) the war. Toppling Gaddafi was a tactical success. Winning the war would need to be a political victory. Unfortunately, America was not invested in a political victory in Libya.
Even if we were, I seriously doubt that we’d even know what a political victory to the Libyan War would look like. But, we didn’t even take the field on that one. There is no drone. No smart bomb. No satellite that can deliver a political victory in an ethno-religious tribal conflict.
When the fighting settled and the tyrant was dead, America’s warplanes returned to their bases. The new government took an excruciating amount of time to form and, even when it did come into fruition, it had little control over the vast country.
So to whom did this victory belong to in Libya, if not the successful American and allied pilots? It belonged to the groups that were committed on the ground. It belonged to the Jihadists. This is why we had the Benghazi Consulate Attacks in 2012. It’s also why the Islamic State is building yet another province in its quasi-Caliphate on the shores of Tripoli.
In The Unquiet Frontier, the authors make the chillingly accurate case that, “this approach leads to an either-or American strategy: either Washington uses military means or it is disengaged and absent.” However, “the ‘space between’ remains empty, leaving American allies alone in the regional competitive environment.”
This is particularly true of the Drone issue. Right now, there is a fleet of Drones roaming the skies over the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. These Drones have but one mission: to locate and destroy America’s terrorist enemies, no matter where they are. This is an admirable goal. But, we have a tendency to alienate friends and empower our adversaries in the long-run.
We have tactical successes in killing terrorists. But in so doing, we might be turning otherwise friendly populations and countries against us. These tactical gains, then, are infringing on strategic success.
We are so concerned with dealing an immediate blow to terrorist groups that we do not think of the longer term strategic implications of these actions, as Rosa Brooks outlines in her book. While not condoning the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques that dominated the Bush Administration’s handling of the Global War on Terror, Brooks makes the point that the Obama Administration was trying to end the interrogation practices of his predecessor whilst fighting the War on Terror.
As such, Drones were the Obama Administration’s solution. But, the War on Terror is largely a covert intelligence war. The Jihadists have information on pending attacks that our counterterrorism forces need. So, when we use Drones the way that we do today, we run the risk that “dead enemies are often literal dead ends from an intelligence-gathering perspective.” But, hey, at least we’re staying removed from the conflict. Surgical warfare, then, becomes synonymous with strategic dereliction.
Any weapon that alienates allies, weakens our position, and empowers adversaries is not a weapon worth using.
A Purposeless Military Tool With Limited Political Influence
If Carl von Clausewitz’s old dictum that, “war is an extension of politics through other means” is true, then America’s leaders are guilty of not only dereliction of duty, but also, strategic dissonance. For it is this dissonance that explains the patterns that The Unquiet Frontier and How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything detail. American leaders want to have it all: they want to ensure that America remains the unquestionable Superpower, but they do not want to make the requisite investments into ensuring that.
We want to be the Big Dog in the neighborhood but on a Poodle’s diet. This is why we have no problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on overrated flops like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters or boondoggles like the Navy’s LCS warship. Yet, we will not make a modest investment in ensuring we have not only enough ground forces, but also the capabilities to support those ground forces.
It’s why we are so jazzed about blowing our budgets on the aforementioned F-35, at the expense of cutting the tried-and-true A-10 Warthog which is far more valuable in fighting insurgencies than the F-35 will be. It’s also why we will decry George W. Bush’s “war of choice” in Iraq, but allow for endless bombing runs of countries that we are not even at war with!
As Rosa Brooks asks her readers, “As the boundaries around war and the military grow ever more blurry, will we all pay a price?” I believe that the answer is resoundingly “yes.” I also believe that we didn’t need to find ourselves in this position. After 9/11, the U.S. underwent a rapid militarization of all areas of its society. We have been in an endless war.
Part of this is because our Politically Correct leaders refuse to identify the enemy, as Dr. Sebastian Gorka has highlighted in his book. Another reason is because, while we are more than happy to use our overt military strength, we refuse to craft policies that will create political solutions to these problems. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria are all poignant examples of how the United States has abandoned the political realm of warfare–the space between peace and kinetic military operations–in favor of either disengagement or kinetic warfare.
Due to this, U.S. military action has yielded no definitive result, particularly when our problems today are more political than military. Our enemies have become emboldened because they no longer believe that America is invested in defeating them strategically. Most regions in the world have become even more destabilized. For all of our technological superiority, for all of the amazing tactical successes, America refuses to develop methods and means capable of decisive political warfare.
So, instead, we splurge on fancy new weapons systems. We continue to erode our constitutional rights here at home. Americans are increasingly exasperated as they watch the world grow more unsafe, despite over a decade of ceaseless American intervention. Everything from the internet to airports has become increasingly militarized. Yet, our enemies are increasingly emboldened. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, China, Russia, et al. are all more powerful today than they were fifteen years ago.
Our leaders are suffering from a very pernicious case of Strategic Dissonance. We no longer have the tools or understanding of how to fight and win wars today. And, We, The People, are paying the price for it. An increased militarization of American society has not made the world safer, indeed, it has helped to usher in an increasingly unquiet frontier.
The reason is simple: no matter how many fancy new toys you have at your disposal, warfare is still a political affair. Without a capability for effecting political changes on the ground, without a proper strategic understanding of this reality, America will continue to play Whack-a-Mole with its enemies. And, like all games of Whack-a-Mole eventually, the player’s arms will tire.