Afghanistan, air power, air strikes, border security, Bosnia, collateral damage, David Deptula, energy security, foreign policy establishment, Iraq, ISIS, Kosovo, LIbya, Middle East, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, strategy, Syria, Taliban, terrorism
Here’s a classic good news/bad news story to start off the weekend. The good news: Someone associated with the U.S. national security establishment is showing signs of cognition. The bad news: He’s no longer on active duty.
Retired Air Force general David A. Deptula’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post isn’t a perfect blueprint for eliminating the threats to American national security emanating from the terminally dysfunctional Middle East. But it’s by far the best published article I’ve read yet on dealing with ISIS and the broader challenge of terrorism.
Deptula contributes two key insights to the raging but so far largely brain-dead national debate about fighting ISIS. First, he convincingly argues that Washington should stop wasting so much time and effort in bolstering the Iraqi state – or what’s left of it. The author doesn’t completely dismiss the hope that it might ultimately survive in something like the form it’s taken since its current official borders were first drawn. But he rightly points out that destroying ISIS is a higher and separate priority.
Second, he makes the vital point that ISIS is no longer simply the terrorist movement or insurgency assumed by current U.S. approach. It’s a “self-declared sovereign state” and thus Washington “must stop trying to fight the last war [i.e., its latest Afghanistan effort and current Iraq approach] and develop a new strategy.”
Deptula makes a strong case that the key to victory is “a comprehensive and robust air campaign designed to: (1) terminate its expansion; (2) paralyze and isolate its command-and-control capability; (3) undermine its ability to control the territory it occupies; and (4) eliminate its ability to export terror.” This air power, he specifies, must be applied “like a thunderstorm, not a drizzle.” He goes on to document how timid the air war being waged by the Obama administration and U.S. allies has been versus previous campaigns in the first and second Iraq wars, in Kosovo in 1999, in Bosnia earlier in the 1990s, in the ouster of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001, and in Libya in 2011.
And if you’re worried about killing too many innocent civilians in the process, Deptula has a morally compelling answer: “The current gradualist approach is worsening the suffering and increasing the loss of innocent life. While unintended casualties of war are regrettable, those associated with airstrikes pale in comparison with the savage acts being carried out by the Islamic State. What is the logic of a policy that restricts the use of air power to avoid the possibility of collateral damage while allowing the certainty of the Islamic State’s crimes against humanity?”
To be sure, the author’s mentions of the Balkans, the second Iraq war, and Libya made me cringe a little. Some of my disquiet stems from my strong opposition to any U.S. military involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo to begin with – which isn’t the issue Deptula is addressing. I thought Libya was a closer call, but even so the U.S.-backed campaign to oust the dictatorship of Muammar el-Qaddafi wound up creating a power vacuum that’s being at least partly filled by Islamic extremists.
Again, you can quarrel with the original decision to act militarily in Libya, but that position raises the question of whether standing on the sidelines would simply have postponed the inevitable – the fall of a dictator and the inability of any moderate opposition to gain control. Incidentally, that’s my strongest reason for supporting the forced removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I don’t believe it was destined to last, and its demise was going to create a dangerous mess in Iraq anyway. But that still leaves us – and Deptula – with the problem that not even a massive air war alone is a long term solution for America’s Middle East problems, whether it had been waged in Libya four years ago, or in Iraq and Syria now.
Deptula and his strongest supporters could respond that his approach would buy valuable time, and that that’s often a major and worthwhile achievement in foreign policy-making. I emphatically agree – but most of all if the time is being bought in order to take measures that can bring more enduring benefits.
That’s why my own strategy for the Middle East adds to the mix crucial domestic policy measures – mainly genuinely securing the border, to keep terrorists out of the homeland, and maximizing the nation’s dramatically improving energy security, to minimize the economic fall-out for America and the rest of a still oil-dependent world of a Middle East collapse that seems all too inevitable.
This shortcoming, however, shouldn’t minimize the contribution made by Deptula’s article. Let’s hope at least a few influential Obama administration officials read their Washington Post this morning.