War Without Strategy

Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Poster Collection, IR 99, Hoover Institution Archives.
Poster Collection, IR 99, Hoover Institution Archives.

Forty-three percent of voters ranked the economy as the top issue in the 2014 midterm election, versus 15% who cited foreign policy.1 Yet 62% said they were very concerned about terrorism, the largest percentage polled since 2007, before the war turned around in Iraq.2 So why is the public both concerned and yet not concerned?

The answer is that America’s leaders are providing no direction. Our soldiers and pilots have been in combat every day since 9/11—13 years and counting, with no end in sight. But the current rate of casualties is tiny and the dollar costs are hidden. It is as though the public has been placed on a sturdy raft without a rudder, so far safely floating down a river without knowing if a waterfall lies ahead.

We lost our sense of war-fighting purpose long ago. A decade has passed since President George W. Bush declared the goal was to build two stable democratic nations. “Write this down,” he said, “Afghanistan and Iraq will lead that part of the world to democracy. They are going to be the catalyst to change the Middle East and the world.”3

Mr. Bush failed in both attempts. When President Barack Obama took office, he pledged, “You [sc. the Taliban in Afghanistan] cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”4 He subsequently changed his mind, withdrawing most U.S. forces in 2014 and promised that the small remainder would be out in 2016, before he left office.

Mr. Obama also pulled all our forces out of Iraq, partially causing its violent collapse. But several weeks ago, two American journalists were beheaded by Islamist terrorists from the group identified as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). “ISIL is not Islamic,” Mr. Obama declared. “We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL… American forces will not have a combat mission [on the ground].”

Secretary of State John Kerry declared that America was at war with ISIL, whose soldiers numbered in the thousands and controlled a third of Syria and Iraq. In place of ground forces, Mr. Obama ordered a bombing campaign, thus fighting a war while expecting no American casualties.

There are recent historical precedents for waging immunity war. During Desert Storm in 1991, it became obvious that our aircraft were basically invulnerable. With the exceptions of Russia and China, no country could threaten our air power. In 1995, President Clinton employed bombing successfully to intimidate the Bosnian Serbs. In a dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, very few U.S. aircraft were lost, while unmanned drones emerged as our assassination instrument in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. In 2011, Mr. Obama authorized bombing to shatter Qaddafi's forces.

But in all those cases, the objective of bombing was limited to retaliation, assassination, or intimidation. In the case of ISIL, the objective is their destruction, a quite unlimited objective from the point of view of the terrorists. The Islamists are fighting with all the means at their disposal and with no moral compunctions. They will use civilians as shields. Bombing will not drive them from the ground they have seized. Mr. Obama cannot achieve his goal—destroy ISIL—with the military conditions he has imposed.

Not only is the military strategy inadequate, but also the political goals are retro. In the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France in 1916, Mesopotamia was hastily divided into what emerged as the current state boundaries. Mr. Obama wants the Sunni tribes and the Kurds to regain territory and revert to the control of the Shiite government in Baghdad that oppressed them, causing the growth of ISIL in the first place. Iran, now in Baghdad dispensing military and political advice, would be delighted with that most unlikely outcome. So we have a double fantasy: an inadequate military strategy pursuing a political end state not in America’s interests.

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 a war. The public has seen both Presidents Bush and Obama fail in their objectives over the past decade—without any serious repercussions. As commander-in-chief, Mr. Obama has made no effort to gain public support by explaining why the Islamists are a threat. Indeed, he refuses to use the word Islamist. There is no substantive movement inside the foreign policy establishment, the press or the two political parties to demand stronger military measures and clearer policy objectives.

It is too facile to make comparisons with the political and public apathy of England and Europe in the 1930s. The Islamists do not have the power that Germany possessed. Instead, America is drifting toward another decade of war-jaw with in the center of the Middle East. Eventually, our ground forces will again be engaged in combat. The next time it will not be a restrained counterinsurgency campaign to win by persuasion the support of the people.

A fiercer war lies ahead. The public will be supportive if—and only if—our political and military leadership explain the stakes and display the warrior-resolve to destroy the Islamist army. When you go to war, kill the opponent. Crush his body and spirit until he is destroyed.


1. Fox News Poll, October 28, 2014, p. 33.

2. Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli, “Some Senate candidates seize on terrorism as campaign issue,” LA Times October 10, 2014.

3. Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (Doubleday, 2013), pp. 219-220.

4. President Barack H. Obama, “Inaugural Address,” January 20, 2009.