Continue the Decline or Challenge the Status Quo

By Daniel L. Davis

Apple and Google, two of the country’s biggest employers, don’t mess around with failure. Leaders either produce or they’re gone. Major League Baseball and National Football League teams have one standard for their leaders: get us into the playoffs or you’re fired. The government’s foreign policy elites, however, don’t have to succeed to keep their jobs. Unlike the rest of America, when U.S. leaders in foreign policy fail, they are rewarded or promoted, while the 330 million Americans living outside the Washington beltway foot the bill. 

For a business, it’s easy to quantify success or failure by looking at the company’s financials. NFL and NBA teams either make the playoffs or they don’t. It is more difficult to assess success or failure in the foreign policy arena because results are often hidden from public view – but sometimes the failure is so spectacular that it’s impossible to hide. That’s presently the case with United States foreign policy.   

In the aftermath of 9/11 Americans understandably feared for their safety from hostile groups worldwide and demanded that the government take action to protect them.  Success in that mission wouldn’t be hard to define: a reduction in the terrorist threat.  No one expects perfection from the government. Americans expect their leaders to provide effective security. Instead, Washington has implemented policies that have arguable made us less safe. Consider the following:

On September 10, 2001, al-Qaeda represented a marginal but real terrorist threat to the U.S. The country was at war with no nation and the threat of conventional war was limited to distant possibilities such as North Korea or Iran. The chances of war against either Russia or China were less than negligible. What is the strategic environment America faces today?

  • al-Qaeda has rebuilt most of its strength and might be stronger today than prior to 9/11.  The Daily Beast reported that U.S. intelligence and defense officials “are worried that the intense focus on defeating ISIS has blinded the U.S. to the resurgence of al Qaeda, whose growing potency has become more apparent.”
  • As the Islamic State has suffered significant territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, they have decentralized, expanded into new locations around the globe, and have perpetrated major terrorist strikes in over 20 countries killing thousands.  Their leadership is already preparing for the next phase of the fight.
  • While the U.S. has been focused on ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has risen and might now be the most potent of all rebel groups on the ground there, representing a serious and growing terrorist threat to U.S. interests. 
  • In Afghanistan, the Taliban is stronger and holds more territory than at any time since 2001 and continues to increase in strength at the expense of the Afghan troops.  Additionally, not only has al-Qaeda rebuilt much of its strength there, a number of new terrorist organizations now operate there.

It is difficult to overstate the staggering degree to which the strategy of attacking ISIS on the ground throughout the Middle East has failed. The only result of the strategy’s implementation has thus far been to expand the number and effectiveness of terrorist organizations around the world, increasing the terror threat to the American homeland.  If this spiraling dynamic isn’t checked, the threat will continue to rise. Recent events, however, make it appear likely the spiral will continue.

At the NATO Summit last month, all treaty nations vowed in the summit’s communique to increase the alliance’s support and involvement in the anti-ISIS fight. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last Wednesday hosted the defense ministers of 30 nations in a confab designed to refine the military action plan against ISIS. The next day, Secretary of State John Kerry hosted dozens of foreign ministers to discuss increasing diplomatic cooperation among allied nations. The effect of all this diplomatic and military activity is to essentially do everything we’ve been doing, but attempting to do it harder, stronger, and better. 

The anti-terror strategy the U.S. has implemented over the past 15 years has unequivocally failed to accomplish national objectives. Applying it more energetically will most likely deepen the failure.  What Washington ought to do is first step back and conduct an honest, sober, and thorough analysis of the outcomes its strategy has produced. The key is to identify which major components of the strategy have backfired and worsened security. Those tactics must then be immediately jettisoned in favor of new ideas that have a chance to increase the security of the nation.

Fighting against global terrorist groups that seek to kill Americans and harm U.S. interests is an extremely complex and challenging task. There are no simple solutions.  But that task is made infinitely more difficult when we fail to acknowledge when good-faith efforts have failed. Even the best businesses and sports teams experience failure.  What separates the champions from the also-rans is champions are willing to admit when strategies have failed, and are willing to find new leaders who will implement fresh, inventive plans.  We can only hope that the next Administration is willing to demonstrate championship-caliber leadership.

Daniel L. Davis retired from the US Army as a Lt. Col. after 21 years of active service and serves as a foreign policy fellow and military expert at Defense Priorities. 

This piece was originally published by Business Insider on July 29, 2016. Read more HERE