By pulling our forces out of Iraq in 2011, Mr. Obama claimed, he “ended the war.” Three years later, the winner of that war is a barbarous Islamist army that has seized the northern half of Iraq, threatening both Kurdistan and Baghdad. An alarmed Iraqi parliament has just elected a new prime minister, opening the door for American assistance.
So what should we do? The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, has suggested that we “initially contain, eventually disrupt, and finally defeat [the Islamists] over time.” Notice that the general used the word “defeat.”
What is necessary to put flesh on Dempsey’s objectives? First, both parties in Congress must agree that this Islamist army is a mortal threat to America’s core values and must be destroyed. General James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has testified that ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, poses a potential threat to the homeland. The phrase “potential threat” is fraught with ambiguity. Until catastrophe occurs, many will argue that ISIL is a murderous religious cult confined within regional geographic boundaries. That was how Mr. Clinton viewed Osama bin Laden before 9/11. If the commander-in-chief does not perceive a mortal threat and if the press grossly underreports the persecution of Christians and other minorities, then the public will see no reason for our military to become heavily involved.
With the Obama administration, nothing is ever what it was or may be in the future. There is no constancy. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has described the threat in terms of “some of the most brutal, barbaric forces we’ve ever seen in the world today, and a force, ISIL, and others that is an ideology that’s connected to an army, and it’s a force and a dimension that the world has never seen before like we have seen it now.” The Visigoths, Attila, and Tamerlane have a new rival. Obviously this new scourge upon mankind must be destroyed.
But wait: Then Mr. Hagel delivered the punch line. “I recommended to the president, and the president has authorized me, to go ahead and send about 130 new assessment-team members.” Mr. Hagel is holding the rest of our force in reserve in case the Martians attack. One hundred thirty assessors are sufficient to deal with “the most barbaric forces we’ve ever seen.”
We have to get serious about this: Does the U.S. view the Islamist army as a threat that must be destroyed by American force of arms, or not?
Second, to contain, disrupt, and defeat ISIL, our policymakers and generals must view themselves as virtual warriors. War is the act of killing until the enemy is defeated. During his seven-month tour in Afghanistan, a Marine grunt takes one million steps on patrol, never knowing when he will be blown up. His goal is to kill the enemy and to finish every firefight standing on the enemy’s position. That image of implacable violence should be seared in the policymaker’s mind. It is the gritty foundation of policy. The Marine goes forward to kill or die. If the policymaker is not as deadly serious, then don’t send the grunt.
Four years ago, the White House changed the goal from “defeat” to “degrade” the Taliban. That rightly drove a gap between our troops and the high command. Our resolute warriors were dying for an objective that irresolute generals and policymakers couldn’t define. In his memoir, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote that “the president’s heart wasn’t in the mission.” In place of a goal, Mr. Obama pledged a date; before he left office in 2016, the last American soldier would leave Afghanistan. Whatever happened to defeating the enemy?
As war author Karl Marlantes has written, don’t treat a human life as a bargaining chip, unless you are willing to be that chip. Too many policymakers and generals think of violence, if they think of it at all, as a negotiating tool.
“The enemy gets a vote,” said a senior defense official. “If they stop, we stop. If they attack we bring down the hammer.”
Bombing should not be the opening gambit in a game of bridge or whist. The president has already imposed boundaries on himself. This is exactly the wrong strategy. By linking air strikes to one humanitarian gesture, the president has made it more difficult, if not impossible, for him later to say, “An Islamist fundamentalist state must be defeated, and America will bomb and otherwise aid beleaguered states until that happens.”
The public’s sense of war-wariness is not due to financial or personal sacrifice. It is due to the correct feeling that our leadership does not want to be involved in war. “If they stop, we stop.” The deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan seemed like Groundhog Day, with the fighting accomplishing no goal. Similarly, America is drifting toward a decade of war-jaw with an Islamic state in the center of the Middle East.
The public will be supportive if — and only if — our political and military leadership display the warrior resolve to destroy the Islamist army. If you go to war, kill the opponent. Crush his body and spirit until he is destroyed or submits to your goals.
Several practical steps follow from such resolve:
Publicly declare the goals of contain, disrupt, and defeat. No backing away. Defeat is the operative word.
Launch air strikes continuously and implacably. As a combat grunt with experience in three wars, I never imagined that our air power would develop to its current level of detail and accuracy. One enemy with a rifle outdoors, day or night, is a clear target, as is any armed vehicle. No army can move its logistics and munitions if our air is ready to pounce. Air is America’s weapon — distant, invulnerable, and deadly.
Establish one airbase and supply depot in Kurdistan and another outside Baghdad — 7,000 American military at each base, to include close air-controllers and advisers. There will be occasional American casualties. Assign disruption tactics to the CIA and special forces; both have deep ties to the Sunni tribes.