There has been a lot of solid analysis on the military need for boots on the ground. The political need is even greater.
Without Western boots on the ground, a military victory can come in one of two bad forms:
1. Smash the enemy’s power structure without putting anything in its place.
2. Rely entirely on local forces on the ground. In the Mideast this means sectarian and tribal militias, pursuing their own mutually contradictory agendas alongside the agenda they sometimes share with us.
Already, our reliance on Kurdish and Shi’a militias against the Islamic State has led to a cycle of talking about arming them and then drawing back when we learn where the weapons might end up and how they would exacerbate mutual fears on the ground. We are left in a Catch-22, thanks to our own stand-off policy. A core force of Western boots on the ground is what is needed to unite the local forces around our agenda and ensure an overall gain from our aid to them.
Western forces on the ground lend political coherence to the disparate local forces on the ground. They provide a shared goal, keep the local forces focused on that goal, and minimize their fighting against each other and for other goals. They are essential for constructing a replacement state authority on a nonsectarian basis, and for avoiding the risk of a failed state, as in Libya.
“If you break it, you own it.” So said Colin Powell, in what would go down as words of wisdom.
Too often American policy has been the opposite: “Break it and disown it.”
America is a sentimentally anti-imperialist country. We easily convince ourselves that it is a virtue to leave a country once we have driven its bad guys out of government. We have rarely in recent decades accepted much of our responsibility for the consequences of smashing a government.
To be sure, this has not always been the operational American tradition. After 1945 America did an excellent job of occupying countries and rebuilding them as allies within a confederal pan-Western union. In the 1800s it occupied lands in the western part of our own continent and turned them into states of the federal union. But in the post-Vietnam era, when the cutting-edge social game involved using America’s ideological formulas at America’s expense, the anti-imperialist ideology took a heavy toll on our foreign policy.
There was much of that ideology, too much, in the Bush–Rumsfeld war in Afghanistan. After an excellent initial success, Rumsfeld, in keeping with the doctrine of a “light footprint,” looked elsewhere, leaving the Taliban and al-Qaeda only half-defeated, and leaving Afghanistan mostly to sort itself out — which it did not succeed in doing.
There was again too much of that in the Bush–Rumsfeld war in Iraq. It was half-corrected, at a high cost, with the post-Rumsfeld surge.
There was even more of this doctrine in the Obama–Clinton–plus allies war in Libya. There the watchword was to leave the Libyans with full “ownership” of the overthrow of Qaddafi. This translated as: no boots on the ground, and helping the rebellion to defend its turf more than to win and resolve the matter. The result was to prolong the war considerably and foster the growth of extremist militias, and then hastily abandon the country in chaos the moment Qaddafi was killed — refusing it the help it requested in restoring order.
And there has been even more of this accursed ideology in Syria. There Obama has fanned the rebellion just to the point where we have seen unending bloodletting for three years. Kerry explicitly tried to avoid pushing the rebellion over the top to victory with Western military help. Again it has fostered the growth of extremist forces — the very ones we find ourselves having to fight now.
The doctrinal curse is already visible yet again in the Obama–Kerry war on the Islamic State. It is to be Their war, but we are not having an easy time figuring out who our “They” is. Which is to be expected, when we take ourselves out of the core of our own side.
Secretary Rumsfeld enunciated the accursed doctrine as a true believer in the American Revolutionary doctrine of anti-imperialism, albeit in its post-1960s form. We would not flood Afghanistan or Iraq with American troops. We would simply smash the dictatorships that were oppressing the Afghan and Iraqi peoples, and then they would produce a decent government of their own, as people naturally do anywhere once freed from oppression — the way we Americans did after we drove out the British imperialist oppressors. Never mind that there was something like a liberal tradition in America, inherited from the British “oppressors” we threw out; some of Rumsfeld’s supporters called it “racist” to bring up such differences. We Americans don’t do empire, Rumsfeld added, proudly.
The media criticized this doctrine massively, and rightly, when it was coming from the Bush administration. They also ruthlessly criticized that administration’s related enthusiasm for simple electoral democracy in the Mideast — the same Rumsfeldian trust in the natural forces on the ground to resolve everything nicely, once the oppressive restraints on them have been removed — as expressed in the administration’s efforts to get full and free electoral participation for the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious parties in Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq. Thanks to their hatred of Bush, the media helped get the administration to finally correct itself, pulling back from its promotion of Islamist participation in elections in Egypt, regretting Hamas’s victory in Palestine, and ordering the surge in Iraq to restore public order after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and subsequent elections had brought it to the brink of civil war.
Shamefully, the media have fallen silent when the same doctrine has been applied by the Obama administration, in both of its aspects: its simple anti-imperialist aspect (Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria) and its simple Islamic-democracy aspect (Egypt). There has been some criticism, to be sure, by the media, but it has not been a genuine criticism, as in the Bush years when they attacked the administration for its ignorant unrealism and harmful fantasy. Rather it has been a pseudo-criticism — that Obama has not carried his ideological doctrine far enough. Obama has, not surprisingly in this circumstance, applied the doctrine in even more extreme form than Bush, with even more disastrous consequences. And with no correction.
Iraq and Syria have each already been massively victimized by this doctrine in the last decade. Are they on the verge of being victimized by it again?
— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility.