The other day CNN’s Jim Acosta spoke for millions of Americans when he demanded of the President, “Why can’t we just take out those bastards?” On the face of it, this seems like a fair question. We have the world’s largest military, many times over, and allies who will back us. Why can’t we just … get rid of them?
It’s worth taking a minute to remember Afghanistan and Iraq. We went in there to get rid of the bastards, and there was no pussyfooting around, it was a full-on boots-and-bombs war, waged with the power of the mightiest military the world has ever seen. We toppled leadership, we took land, we occupied the hell out of those countries. For over a decade.
Now, nearly a decade and a half later, things in Iraq and Afghanistan are arguably worse than before. Worse for the civilians, particularly in their livelihood and personal security, and worse for our security interests. We toppled dictatorial regimes, but now we have Daesh (ISIS). Daesh is a direct result of the Iraq war. Would things have been different had we stayed longer? Many argue so. But how much longer? At some point it’s not a war, it’s colonialism. You take a country, you sit on it for generations, you run its institutions and you force its citizens to adapt to your culture. That takes at least a century. On a pragmatic level, it’s incredibly expensive. On an ethical level, colonialism is a practice we’ve explicitly rejected.
It is too easy for Acosta and other armchair quarterbacks to fantasize that a quick war would solve everything, that Daesh would cease to exist immediately if we’d just man up and get the job done. But we’ve gone down this path before, and not much good came in the wake of our wars. The enemy vanished, but nation-building eluded us despite the trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives. Advocates of massive military intervention in Syria, whether in the media or on the campaign trail, should learn from the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Obama retorted to Acosta that while not as sexy as a war, the current US strategy to contain and degrade Daesh will continued. Obama has been deliberately vague on the details of US strategy, but Acosta’s colleague at CNN, Peter Bergen, has enumerated several approaches: Enlist defectors from Daesh to tell their stories publicly. Amplify the voices of ex-jihadists who are working to de-radicalize young Muslims. Support Muslims clerics who have personally convinced potential Daesh recruits to step away from the organization.
Continue the military work already being done to shrink the size of Daesh’s territory. Provide “off-ramps” to Daesh’s new recruits, so if they waver upon seeing what Daesh really is, they don’t feel there’s no way out. I would add to this: Welcome refugees with open arms. Not only is this the ethical thing to do, it’s strategically sound. Daesh hates seeing non-Muslims being friendly to Muslims, it goes against their propaganda war.
None of these approaches is as dramatic as turning the desert over there into glass, but it’s important for those clamoring to see a little “shock and awe” to remember what happened last time. Understand that foolishly plunging into a ground war is like firing wildly into the dark when you hear a rustle: It may temporarily relieve a feeling of anxiety, but it’s overwhelmingly likely to do terrible, unintended damage.