By Charles V. Peña
Recently Obama administration officials met to consider U.S. military options in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Should the U.S. conduct airstrikes against Syrian military targets? Or up the ante with arming anti-Assad rebels with more sophisticated weapons? Do we keep the USS Mason stationed off the coast of Yemen and continue missile strikes against targets in areas controlled by Houthi forces aligned with Iran – taking sides in a civil war and openly participating in the Saudi-led war in Yemen? And will more U.S. military support be needed to help Iraqi forces liberate Mosul from ISIS? But none of the options being considered are real solutions to the larger problems, which are political, economic, and social.
To begin, it’s important to recognize that militaries are designed to defeat other military forces. So the only problems military options can solve are military problems.
Conventional thinking is that military defeat will result in political acquiescence – such as the surrender of Germany and Japan in World War II. But we already know that isn’t necessarily the case in the cauldron of the Middle East. The U.S. military fairly easily defeated Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi military, but that did not result in a secure and stable country with the Iraqi people setting aside religious and cultural divisions to pursue a more liberal democracy. Instead, Iraq continues to be a power struggle between the formerly oppressed majority Shiites and the now minority Sunnis (and to a lesser degree, independence-minded Kurds). And one unintended result of deciding to exercise a military option in Iraq is that a vacuum was created and filled first by al Qaeda and now ISIS. Exactly who or what will emerge as the latest evolution of radical Islam post-ISIS is unfolding before our eyes.
So while we focus on the military as a solution to the problem of ISIS controlling Mosul, what happens if we are successful? Already we are concerned that the volatile mix Kurdish peshmerga forces and Sunni and Shiite militias in a post-ISIS Mosul could trigger religious and ethnic conflict in the city. Just as we have seen since deposing Saddam Hussein, we are likely to simply solve one problem only to face another, perhaps more difficult, one.
The same is true in Syria. That the Obama administration believes the result of regime change in Syria won’t look a whole lot like what happened in Iraq is, quite frankly, unbelievable.
You are supposed to learn from history (and mistakes), not repeat them. Yet we are supposed to believe if Bashar al-Assad is deposed, rebel groups will want to work together to build a peaceful and stable democratic Syria based on a vision crafted in Washington. That they won’t, instead, engage in a power struggle. Or that ISIS or some other terrorist group won’t fill the vacuum created by regime change.
Yemen is a reverse situation of Syria with the U.S. more interested in keeping the Hadi government in control and getting the Houthi rebels to lay down their arms. But the only real military solution to insurgency is boots on the ground. The rule of thumb for successful counterinsurgency (largely practiced by the British) is 20 troops per 1,000 civilians. The population of Yemen is 24 million people, which means 480,000 troops – clearly a bridge too far. Moreover, successful counterinsurgency requires the ruthless and relatively indiscriminate application of force to suppress violence and quell the opposition to impose security and order. Indeed, the British had to use such methods to crush the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s.
Yet that is exactly the last thing the U.S. should do in another Muslim country, as it would simply lend more credence to the radical Islamic narrative that the U.S. is waging a wider war against Muslims.
So U.S. naval missile strikes are not likely to have great strategic effect and keeping the USS Mason stationed in the Red Sea within range of Houthi missiles only creates an inviting target.
But the larger issue of weighing military options in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen is that in all three cases – however tragic the violence – none represent a direct threat to U.S. national security, which should be the guiding principle when Congress – not the President on his or her own – considers employing military force.
Bashar al-Assad is a thug and threat to his own people, but the regime in Damascus does not pose a threat to American security. And our actions have succeeded only in prolonging that civil war and arming less than savory characters on various sides of this complicated tragedy.
ISIS is a threat within both Iraq and Syria, but not an existential threat to America – something both President Obama and Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) agree on. It is up to our strategic partners in the region – such as Turkey – to lead the fight. After all, they have more at stake and the most to lose by letting ISIS gain a stronghold. And Yemen is a civil war that has no bearing on U.S. national security.
So rather than pondering military options in the White House, we should really be questioning U.S. policy on what exactly we hope to achieve; how we plan to achieve it; approximately how much it will cost, how long it will take, and a sober assessment of the realistic likelihood of success; and debating any military action down Pennsylvania Avenue in Congress.
Most importantly, however, we must understand that the use of U.S. military force is not the solution. The problems in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen will only be solved when their respective populations and their neighbors work together to craft a viable political solution. Certainly, that won’t be easy. Nor will it likely happen quickly. But it cannot be imposed from the outside by U.S. military force. And whatever the solution (as long as it is not a direct threat to U.S. national security) we must be willing to accept and learn to live with it – it’s the best, viable solution.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.
This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on November 2, 2016. Read more HERE.