Back a little over ten years ago I wrote an article for The American Conservative magazine called "The Jihadi War." I had only recently left the CIA and it was the first article I had ever written for any publication, so I was grateful for a little friendly editorial advice when I inevitably discovered that people who have been spending twenty years reading and writing government reports generally forget everything they learned in English Comp. Nevertheless, I was both proud of my ability to string together 1200 words and apprehensive about how it would be received.
I basically described how the United States was locked into fighting a centralized and organized al-Qaeda that had already ceased to exist. Attacking Afghanistan and then Iraq had let the genie out of the bottle, meaning that the US would be plagued with the new style of worldwide "jihad," locally supported and directed warfare, difficult to detect and counter. Franchising terrorism was a lesson learned from the mistake of locating the al-Qaeda movement in physical bases in Afghanistan, where it could be identified and destroyed piecemeal. But the US military and intelligence agencies, resistant to learning anything new, continued to fight the terrorists in conventional terms after capturing Kabul, placing themselves on the defensive everywhere while freeing up the insurgents to pick and choose when and where to strike. The Bush Administration’s doctrine of preemptive war also meant that increasingly the Muslim world would see itself on the receiving end of an implicit regime change strategy, a perception sure to alienate potential allies while simultaneously creating more new terrorists than could possibly be killed.
I suspect that readers found the piece interesting within the broader context of the magazine’s jeremiad against interventionism and it certainly attracted a response from CIA, which sternly informed me that I had failed to clear the piece with the Agency’s Publications Review Board.
If anything I understated the case about what might be coming, particularly as the wheel has now turned full circle with Baghdad teetering on the verge of a full scale civil war and militants linked with al-Qaeda present in force both in Iraq and across the border in Syria. Fallujah, recently in the hands of alleged terrorists, had been “pacified” by American Marines in 2004 in the deadliest fighting that took place during the US occupation. Artillery shells containing depleted uranium and white phosphorous were fired by the thousands into a city occupied mostly by civilians, some 800 of whom died in the assault together with more than 1200 alleged insurgents. There were also reported to be summary executions of prisoners by the Marines while one quarter of all homes in the city were destroyed. And then there is the epidemic of birth defects in the city since that time, an apparently enduring legacy of the uranium munitions.
Even if the US media persists in Bowdlerizing America’s wars as a conflict pitting good against evil, the rest of the world has a pretty good idea of what is going on with appalling scenes of US-sourced death and destruction part of the regular fare on nightly television. And it is fair to say that the American public has also become more nervous about the cost of overseas adventures. Alerted by the disastrous Iraq experience, those of us who believe that the United States should not be going to war just because it can have been trying to raise the bar for the use of military force. There have been numerous critiques of the nation building experiment in Afghanistan, most recently consisting of a classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) predicting eventual failure, but Washington persists in its plans to remain in country for years to come. There have been equally alarming warnings from knowledgeable observers that intervention in Somalia would spread the terror more extensively in Africa, that drone operations in Yemen and Pakistan would serve as a recruiting poster for al-Qaeda, that kicking the can down the road on giving justice to the Palestinians would perpetuate regional instability, and that intervening in Libya and Syria would create new calamities.
But every call for a more cautious and responsible foreign policy has been ignored by the White House, which relies on a cadre of Establishment figures to shape its narrative. Dismissing all the negative history as "defeatist," many of the same people who have been consistently wrong since 2001 continue to dominate in the media and are now itching for a go at Iran.
Last week’s Daily Star of Lebanon featured a 2013 retrospective by Washington Post associate editor David Ignatius which basically served as a call for business as usual, an appeal for the United States to continue to assert its leadership role. Ignatius cites perceptions of "the nation’s declining global power" before asserting that such "relentless pessimism is destructive and…inaccurate…America is generally at peace and…wildly prosperous." To make his case that perseverance pays he cites the Second World War, in which numerous disastrous mistakes killing many thousands of soldiers were redeemed by "sheer momentum and force of will." Ignatius concludes that "the only unforgivable mistake is to despair and give up."
It’s hard to know where to begin when confronted by grand delusion. Mistakes that killed thousands of soldiers unnecessarily being accepted because the "good guys" won in the end in a war that demonstrated national resolve even though it might possibly have been avoided might be a small price to pay in cosmic terms except for the families of those who died. And there is an enormous qualitative difference between the sacrifices made in the Second World War, when America was attacked by a powerful enemy, and the recent wars of choice where the US was not in any way threatened. Ignatius’s exhortation for Americans to "man up" is particularly hollow given his insider status and his history of persistent support for twelve years of foreign policy failure, a process that has killed more than 7,000 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of foreigners while costing some trillions of dollars. That America is "generally at peace" really depends on where you look and who is doing the looking.
And I am probably safe in guessing that Ignatius has no actual horse in the race since I would doubt that he has a family member in uniform who might be killed by continuing to do what we have been doing. Nor did he ever serve in the military himself, having gone straight from prep school to Harvard in an all too familiar pattern for the architects of America’s recent foreign policy disasters. Nor will Ignatius ever conceivably find himself out of work, lacking health insurance, or even paying more taxes to support his wars in the "wildly prosperous" America that he presumably sees outside his window in Washington’s Cleveland Park. Continuing policies that have flat out proven to be wrong is not a sign of strength, it is a sign of stupidity. Asserting leadership by sending in the Marines or launching cruise missiles is not leadership it is a failure of leadership.
To point out all of the above does not necessarily mean that we critics have been so smart and that the people who sit in the White House or the editorial rooms at major newspapers are so stupid, because it is not really as simple as all that. It should have been self-evident that when you tip over the dominoes in one place they wind up landing somewhere else, and that is the connection that both Ignatius and the White House fail to make because their short term objectives trump any possible long term strategy. They are engaged mostly in perception management and in parsing a situation for its impact on the next election, so policies tend to limp along with a pause every two years. Their hubris also prevents them from understanding that dramatically changing course does not necessarily signify defeat and can actually alter the dynamic in a positive way. Abandoning saber rattling against Iran, pressing seriously for a peace deal in Syria, and delivering justice for the Palestinians will largely drain the swamp that has fed the contemporary terrorism crisis. Barring that, the status quo will inevitably produce more and more jihadi warriors because young Muslims will see complete rejection of western values and the taking up of arms as the only course left to them that might conceivably bring about change.