We have a moral obligation to educate ourselves about our world. President Eisenhower noted in Waging Peace that “few of us, because of our sketchy information about others, can think globally.” War, injustice, and poverty are not forces of nature; they are the product of human activities and decisions. When those activities are guided by ignorance they are more likely to generate suffering, death, and destruction. Lifting the veil of ignorance, to borrow from philosopher John Rawls, is a difficult task.
Knowledge and principles are more effective than policies. It is unwise and even dangerous to give a media platform, diplomatic recognition, or foreign aid to just any gang of criminals or group of armed thugs who suddenly decide to call themselves a government. When we do so, as Ahmed Rashid observed, “we make friends with those who ruin our reputation.” When we give aid to a corrupt foreign government, the people of that country see only that we are aiding criminals and thugs, who then use that money to oppress its people. It then becomes very easy for such a population to develop a negative opinion of our policies. Pakistan is a prime example. Afghanistan and Yemen are others. When we are puzzled by popular reactions abroad, our ignorance makes our enemies smile. Our enemies have become well versed at exploiting our poorly chosen friendships. The implications for our future military and diplomatic corps are enormous.
It has been the assumption of American military planners and foreign policy thinkers for the past decade, and arguably long before, that U.S. policy is the ultimate factor in any situation. For example, in 2006 when the wheels were coming off in Iraq (I was there I saw it) the solution in our eyes required only that we bring in a surge of additional American manpower. What the surge really accomplished was to reduce the short term chaos just long enough for us to credibly claim we had the situation under control. The surge did nothing to address the underlying conditions in Iraq which generated chaos in the first place; those conditions are still present today ten years after the Iraq invasion.
Success or failure to defeat an enemy, to resolve a crisis, or to mitigate a natural disaster is treated by our leaders and large portions of the public as the success or failure of our own national policies. Partly this is a function of politics, and it is healthy to hold elected officials accountable for policies they championed. But we rarely apply medical standards to international relations; sometimes the best doctors and the best treatments money can buy are not enough to save the life of a terminally ill patient. It is time we recognized there are terminally ill countries in our world; North Korea is the most prominent example, Syria is another.
There is a critical lesson to be learned from our combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Firepower is like medication; after a certain level an increase in dosage no longer translates into an increase in effect. The ability to shape the battlefield and the conditions under which armed conflict will take place has been the difference maker in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our enemies have been skilled at it; we have been less so because it has taken us a long time to realize firepower alone doesn’t shape battlefields—attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs do.
When we place our military forces onto a battlefield shaped by our enemies, we give our enemies a huge advantage. Al Qaeda used it for a time in Iraq until they were undone by their own incompetence, and the Taliban is still using it in Afghanistan. When diplomatic and economic policies become disconnected from the application of military force different arms of our own government work against each other as they have in Afghanistan and Iraq. Policies can be self-contradictory; principles never can. Where USAID and our conventional forces work to build up trust with local Afghans, clandestine night raids by other agencies destroy that trust. Where our military worked to gain local trust in Iraq, contractor corruption eroded that trust with Iraqis. Consequently we had no unity of effort, no operational momentum, and inevitably we were forced to come up with creative explanations for our lack of success or new sources ofblame.
The questions for our future military commanders are daunting: how do we build a military which not only delivers firepower where needed but can also shape the battlefield, and by extension the battle space in which it fights? How do we, should we, combine all elements of national power to achieve what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called a true “whole of government” approach? Most importantly, will we have the integrity to face terminal countries and admit no amount of resources can alter their outcome? Simply rubber stamping the annual increase in defense spending while waving a flag will not answer these questions; indeed it gives the public a false sense that our defense establishment already has the answers. It doesn’t. Neither does Congress, or the White House.
General Ray Odierno, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff has had the courage to begin asking these kinds of questions. But finding credible answers will require a new comprehensive effort among the defense establishment, the intelligence community, academia, Congress, and our Executive Branch. We have an enormous pool of veterans with combat, diplomatic, and foreign aid experience; we need to find a way to organize all that experience and direct it towards finding the answers our nation needs. An ideal candidate to lead such an effort would be David Petraeus, who sits at the center of each of these
overlapping spheres; with his academic credentials (he holds a PhD from Princeton), combat experience, and policy knowledge he would be well suited to the task. But we as citizens have a larger task, to determine the principles we wish to guide our military and diplomatic corps abroad.
It is no easy task. When should we get involved in humanitarian crises? When should we supply arms or aid to rebellions or uprisings against dictatorships? What kind of future force will be consistent with our values but still provide the defense we need? The time to start finding answers is now.
Posted by Jason Belcher