Belmont Club

Ours to reason why

Thick smoke from an airstrike by the US-led coalition rises in Kobani, Syria AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

If there’s one good thing about the political crisis triggered by Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria it’s been to make people realize the U.S. is there.  As Seth Harp in The New Yorker noted, it has done everything possible to conceal that fact.

The largest American military base in Syria covers more than five hundred acres, but it can’t be seen from the road… But, past the checkpoint and up a hill, a vast encampment spread out before us. …  The runway was more than a mile long, and sunk below grade, so that planes would seem to disappear as they landed.

In the fall of 2015, when President Barack Obama deployed fifty commandos to advise the Syrian Kurds in their war with the Islamic State, his Administration denied that he was breaking his promise not to put “boots on the ground.”…

Congress has not authorized military action in Syria, nor is there a United Nations mandate permitting the use of force. Nevertheless, over the last three years, the mission has morphed into something more like a conventional ground war. The United States has built a dozen or more bases from Manbij to Al-Hasakah, including four airfields, and American-backed forces now control all of Syria east of the Euphrates, an area about the size of Croatia. Four U.S. service members have died in Syria. But, because Operation Inherent Resolve, as the Pentagon calls its mission here, falls under the authority of the Joint Special Operations Command, known as JSOC, basic facts are kept classified, including the cost of the mission, the units involved, where they are located, and the number of wounded, which is believed to be substantial.

Perhaps more people than were ever aware of the combat presence in Syria are outraged the U.S. is leaving and that is a good thing.  The lack of awareness was the result of the breakdown of the national security debate and the abdication by Congress of its role in war making.  The public is now like a man waking up in a strange city with a 3-week growth of beard with no memory of how he got there.

As the Los Angeles Times noted, the U.S. inherited a whole bunch of shadow wars from the past administrations. “Before he took office in 2008, Barack Obama vowed to end America’s grueling conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. During his second term, he pledged to take the country off what he called a permanent war footing. … U.S. military forces have been at war for all eight years of Obama’s tenure, the first two-term president with that distinction. He launched airstrikes or military raids in at least seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.”

But they all went into the back pages.  The wars vanished from public sight, perhaps for political reasons but also because the nature of war has changed.  The L.A. Times continues:

“The whole concept of war has changed under Obama,” said Jon Alterman, Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit think tank in Washington.

Obama “got the country out of ‘war,’ at least as we used to see it,” Alterman said. “We’re now wrapped up in all these different conflicts, at a low level and with no end in sight.”

War has become something very like a background process in our global world, something the public is dimly aware of and occasionally refers to as “hybrid war,””collusion,” or even “deals” but doesn’t quite understand. Nor are the professionals all in accord. A recent article in West Point’s Modern War Institute argues that conventional war (maneuver warfare) as we knew it is dead and has been replaced by a war-in-peace where the boundaries between diplomacy, economic competition, espionage, proxy conflicts and war itself are blurred.

The fact of positional nuclear primacy, more than any other, explains the historically unprecedented absence of major land invasions between great powers since 1945. … The rise of the nuclear-fires defense has empowered great powers to protect sovereign territory to an unprecedented degree in human history. This has created nearly inviolable sanctuaries, or fortified strategic positions, from which aggressive regimes can project political, economic, informational, and military influence to counter peer competitors and dominate weaker states.

The phenomenon has resulted in complex scenarios—which the West has yet to effectively deter—where regional powers are extending cross-border kinetic and informational fires, in addition to covert or false-flag ground forces, to reclaim historic spheres of influence in adjacent territories…. great powers have increasingly resorted to more indirect approaches to project influence. This has made proxy wars, where states counter each other through engagement in third-party countries …

Regimes in Russia, China, and Iran have made meaningful advances in weaponizing economic and informational agendas that exploit and enhance social dynamics …

More worrisome, the Army is virtually ignoring how its recent posturing and rhetoric have failed to deter fait accompli, cross-border, and proxy actions at the expense of the United States and its allies.

If you’re waiting for war to break out, it has.  Except that like victims being hunted by the Predator,, we cannot see it because it is radiating in a non-visible wavelength.  What we see are mysterious things floating about like tariff wars, sanctions, covert ops, collusion, corruption, etc., without understanding what they mean.  Meanwhile legacy diplomatic and military programs have led to strategic confusion and stagnation. In our confusion we continue to do things because we started on them.  Who knows the answers to these questions?

  • What is the end game in Afghanistan (where until recently America was giving billions of dollars in aid to the Taliban’s patron Pakistan)?
  • What should America do in Yemen, where the unsavory Saudis are locked in conflict with the unsavory Iranians?
  • What is the strategic goal in Syria besides keeping the weeds down?
  • Where does America stand vis a vis Iran? A France eager to see U.S. forces remain in Syria to keep refugees from flowing again is nevertheless committed to the preservation of the Iranian nuclear deal. Iran received billions from the U.S. even though Congress never ratified the nuclear deal any more than it approved military action in Syria.
  • And to return to the Modern War Institute’s unanswered question: should America prepare for a coming war with a near-peer competitor or just more small wars of the kind it has now?

With any luck the Syria controversy will jolt the public awake and restart a debate on these issues. We must learn to re-recognize our world.  One of the biggest dangers for a purposeless hegemon is getting tied down in outposts purely for legacy reasons.  The MENA region probably still remembers how Lawrence of Arabia beat the Ottoman Empire.  Lawrence’s amazing counsel to to Faisal to avoid capturing Medina is instructive even today:

We must not take Medina. The Turk was harmless there. In prison in Egypt he would cost us food and guards. We wanted him to stay at Medina, and every other distant place, in the largest numbers. Our ideal was to keep his railway just working, but only just, with the maximum of loss and discomfort…. [His] pride in his imperial heritage would keep him in his present absurd position — all flanks and no front.

The great danger is that someone  — there is an enemy right? — is playing the same game on Washington’s bureaucrats.  The conflicts accumulated over the War on Terror years may have become America’s Medinas.  Trump may be wrong about withdrawing from Syria, or he may be right.  The important thing to understand is why.

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Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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