How likely a real change in grand strategy?
On Thursday Thanksgiving Day, tragically the first American soldier died in Syria since we began putting (presumably non-booted) feet on the ground in October of last year. The odds are that he won't be the last especially if, as recent news reports suggest might be in the works, the administration enlarges the U.S. ground combat commitment in Syria.
Responding to his death, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter declared, "I am deeply saddened by the news on this Thanksgiving Day that one of our brave service members has been killed in Syria while protecting us from the evil of ISIL."
The "us" in that statement urges reflection, inasmuch as, however evil it may be, ISIL or ISIS, or IS, or Daesh, take your choice has to date limited the evil inflicted against the United States proper to three U.S. journalists who unwisely visited IS-infested territory unchaperoned.
In return, to paraphrase President-elect Donald Trump, we've "bombed the s**t out of them" and continue to do so. Since 2014, the U.S. and its coalition partners have conducted more than 16,000 airstrikes on the Islamic State. At very least, one would have to acknowledge that to be a seriously asymmetrical response.
In a recent national security simulation at Ohio State University in which I was privileged to participate, the player representing the president declared his intention to use whatever force was required to destroy ISIS root-and-branch. That promise of course echoed both our current president and his soon-to-be successor.
It also recalled Mr. Obama's predecessor, who 15 years ago similarly promised to "destroy" Al Qaeda. Both organizations, it might be noted, remain alive, if not necessarily well, and neither shows any intention of succumbing any time soon.
The reality is that neither real nor make-believe presidents have been able to define what "destroying" inchoate extremist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS actually means, or how we would know when we'd destroyed them. Instead, for more than 15 years, we've played what has amounted to a military version of Pac-Man, at the cost of roughly $14 million/ hour, never mind the much more devastating price in lives.
Nor have prolonged occupations of the nations spawning those groups bought us anything that could be mistaken for success. On the contrary, in every such country in which we've committed troops, whether as combatants or advisers, control and safety extend no further than the reach of our own weapons.
For anyone with a sense of history, that should be no surprise. To cite just one precursor, in 55 BC, the Roman army the best in the world invaded Celtic Britain, and for the next 450 years, imposed Roman order and stability on what until then had been a violent cockpit of warring tribes.
To achieve that, the Romans applied a military ruthlessness that led one enemy leader, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, to accuse them of "making a desert and calling it peace." Nevertheless, when the legions left in 410 AD, so also did the peace they had imposed.
Begged by Britons rightly fearful of the violence likely to follow to return troops to the island, Rome's Emperor Honorious refused, famously writing back, "Look to your own defences."
Would that our own leaders were as sensible. At some point, fruitless military efforts to impose order on people who would much rather kill each other has to stop. They injure the nation's increasingly tattered reputation for strategic prudence, consume resources including military resources better used elsewhere, and worst of all, on the evidence of the past 15 years, have accomplished nearly nothing.
Mr. Trump's election offers an opportunity to learn from that unhappy experience and reverse an interventionist foreign policy that has produced both human and financial pain without visible strategic gain. The question now is whether our new president will seize that opportunity, or instead double down on the policy of his predecessors, however differently he may justify it.
Writing in Foreign Policy on-line, Harvard's Stephen F. Walt worries that, while President Trump might pursue "a more sensible grand strategy" than his neo-con and "responsibility-to-protect" predecessors, he might either do so incompetently or "eventually get co-opted by the foreign-policy establishment and repeat the Blob's most familiar mistakes."
As for the first, if competent equates to successful, it's hard to imagine what a less competent strategy would look like than the one we've pursued Lo! these 15 years.
The second fear probably is the more worrisome. Notes Washington Post contributor Daniel W. Drezner, "Beginning on Jan. 20, we will have a president who is so all over the map that it will be difficult to parse his remarks the way the world has, up to now, combed over what his predecessors have said."
We can only hope that, in foreign policy at least, Mr. Trump's instincts prove more reliable than his rhetoric.