New Military Mission

February 3rd, 2009

With a fresh breeze sweeping through the White House, now’s the time for a new look at U.S. military operations overseas. In electing Barak Obama president, a majority of voters chose the “peace candidate” who pressed for winding down the war in Iraq. On the other hand, Obama also supported sending more troops to Afghanistan. Many close observers of the war in Central Asia are raising alarms about escalating military actions in a region of ancient feuds that are now flaming through nuclear-armed Pakistan. 

“One lesson from Vietnam was that the United States should not go to war without broad public support. One lesson from Iraq might be that we should not go to war without a vigorous public debate in which an administration’s claims are carefully examined and challenged,” Ray Bonner, a veteran journalist in Asia, wrote in a recent New York Times review of two books about the Afghan war front. “Yet we are on the verge of significantly expanding the war in Afghanistan, which will inevitably affect Pakistan as well. Unfortunately, there has been little or no debate about President-elect Barack Obama‘s plan to send in more troops.”

Days after Obama was sworn into office, former Senator George McGovern set off a big flare in The Washington Post to illuminate a simmering debate that will likely heat up: “To send our troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan would be a near-perfect example of going from the frying pan into the fire. There is reason to believe some of our top military commanders privately share this view. And so does a broad and growing swath of your party and your supporters,” McGovern wrote. 

“I have believed for some time that military power is no solution to terrorism. The hatred of U.S. policies in the Middle East–our occupation of Iraq, our backing for repressive regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our support of Israel–that drives the terrorist impulse against us would better be resolved by ending our military presence throughout the arc of conflict,” McGovern continued. “This means a prudent, carefully directed withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere. We also need to close down the imposing U.S. military bases in this section of the globe, which do so little to expand our security and so much to stoke local resentment.” 

Some may dismiss McGovern as a failed presidential candidate trounced by Richard Nixon. However, Nixon subsequently resigned in disgrace for presiding over an administration that illegally attacked political opponents, and Congress heeded critics like McGovern and cut off funds for the widening war Nixon waged in Indochina. Given the history of the disastrous military campaign in Southeast Asia, a sober reexamination is taking place inside and outside military circles on how best to engage earth-scorching Islamic insurgencies. 

“There is no battlefield solution to terrorism,” The RAND Corporation, a top Pentagon contractor on national defense research, concluded last year in a study of military campaigns against insurgency groups around the world since 1968. “In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, the RAND study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase ‘war on terrorism,'” the report to the Pentagon stated. 

This reexamination was nudged by Washington Post reporter Dana Priest’s insightful critique,The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military, published in 2003, and kick-started by retired Marine General Anthony Zinni’s broadside challenge to Bush administration’s policies, The Battle for Peace, which came out in 2006.  

“Since the end of the Cold War, the imperatives of ‘global leadership’ have led the United States to assume ever-greater obligations around the world.  With little or no consideration of the implications, policymakers have sloughed off the burden of handling those obligations onto the armed services, which are cheerfully assumed to be able to do anything, anywhere, at any time,” states a synopsis of Priest’s book on the U.S. Air Force’s Air University Library Web site. “That assumption deserves to be reconsidered–as does the corollary, long cherished by conservatives, that other government agencies, such as the State Department, are incompetent beyond salvaging.” 

For instance, “There can be no military solution to the problem” that violently divides Israelis and Palestinians, General Zinni told Priest after serving as U.S. military commander in the Middle East and as a State Department special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. “You know, there is no military solution to terrorism, either.”  

In his book, Zinni wrote: “Think about it: We’ve declared war on a tactic–terrorism–not on an ideology, not on a nation-state…. This is no way to fight terrorism … Military responses by themselves will not do the job. … We need a new strategic vision for our country–a vision that will focus our government and all its elements of power on the task of bringing peace and stability to the world.” 

Based on his military career, which included enduring severe battle wounds as a young marine in Vietnam, Zinni concluded that “We have not been skillful in understanding how to effectively apply our power in ways that do not alienate or threaten other societies. We understand warmaking far better than we understand peacemaking.” 

The remedy, he wrote, is to treat diplomatic negotiations and other means of resolving conflicts seriously. “A set of countries around the world–primarily the Nordic countries, Canada, and Switzerland–have traditionally centered their foreign policy on peacemaking, mediation, and conflict resolution, and have funded and provided resources for these activities.” 

In his 2004 autobiography, Battle Ready, composed with military storyteller Tom Clancy, Zinni bluntly fired off a warning to the American public and to his former colleagues in the Pentagon: “The military traditionally goes out there and kills people and breaks things. … We have to ask ourselves how the military needs to change in order to actually deal with those political, economic, social, security, and information management challenges that we’ve already been facing for a long time. … Either the civilian officials must develop the capabilities demanded of them and learn how to partner with other agencies to get the job done, or the military finally needs to change into something else beyond the breaking and the killing.”   

For more information: 

War-Room Debate, The New York Times

Calling a Time Out, The Washington Post

U.S. Should Rethink “War On Terrorism” Strategy to Deal with Resurgent Al Qaida, The RAND Corporation

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)


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8 Responses to “New Military Mission”



  1. Tom |

    Jan, I don’t think we can afford to have no military presence in the Middle East. The Scandinavian countries and Switzerland may be able to work solely through diplomacy and negotiation with no credible military capability to back them up. The U.S. can’t do that. In fact, small countries that specialize in diplomacy and negotiation have the de facto backing of powerful countries with effective military forces. This is true with UN peacekeeping, too. When a serious UN effort is undertaken, it is led and mainly staffed by forces of the U.S. or another powerful, competent country.

    It’s true that there’s no lasting military solution to terrorism. Dealing with the causes of terrorism is essential. But the potential or actual use of military force is necessary to ensure that terrorists and states that support them have an incentive to work toward ending terrorism. General Zinni dismisses terrorism itself as a tactic, not an ideology. True in theory, perhaps, but terrorists screaming “Allahu akbar!” as they fly airliners into buildings or blow up civilians in a cafe make it rather difficult to separate tactics from ideology. If military force is the only way to reach out and eliminate those who employ such tactics and who usually aren’t amenable to genteel persuasion, then that’s what has to be done. Israel has been forced to prove the point many times over. They negotiate, attend conferences, support arrangements like Oslo and ideas like roadmaps, and when the terrorism doesn’t stop, they employ necessary military force. It doesn’t end the problem, but it saves the lives of at least some of their innocent citizens, and sometimes that’s the best that can be done.

    The U.S. has significant national interests at stake in the broader region. Those interests include support for Israel in its struggle for survival, which has to be unwavering and non-negotiable. Humanitarian interventions are also an important national interest, as are, at least to some, promotion of democracy (even though there’s not much success in primitive cultures). Aside from other interests, there’s the critical issue of oil. Unless and until we learn to survive on a lot less oil and manage to obtain it from other sources, we will have to maintain an effective presence in the Middle East to guarantee our supply.


  2. doris |

    Good article, Jan. I totally agree with you. I think we should be allowed to vote or at least have a say when this country goes to war for oil, or some stupid trumped up reason, not a true threat to our safety. We need to leave the middle east and mind our own business for once. This country’s safety has nothing to do with these wars, and only continues the hatred for us that these countries harbor. Tom, surely we do need to lessen our dependence on foreign oil, and we have dropped off, as gas prices show, but I’m still not convinced that we don’t have enough of our own. Having been in the oil refining business, I am positive we have huge, I mean huge reserves that the public does not know about, even during a supposed shortage. It’s all about the dollar, I assure you. I am not giving up my big truck, and we really don’t need to, yet. But, we have cut back on unnecessary trips, like everyone seems to have done. War will never end terrorism, nothing will, unfortunately.


  3. Brian |

    Like Tom, I’ve been to the Middle East. No Westerner can possibly comprehend the mindset of an Arab unless he has walked among them. Their societal structure, which bleeds over into their military organizations, precludes them ever being able to compete with any western power on the battlefield. Our commanders and grunts know this, and so do most of theirs. And that is why this “war” isn’t being fought on the battlefield.

    Ayn Rand wrote that there are only two ways to deal with humans: violence or persuasion – rational discourse or the barrel of a gun. In the West, we mostly understand this. In the ME, I think they understand it, too, but also recognize, at least subconsciously, that there is little that is rational about the way they exist. Consequently, too many of them take to the gun first, last, and always. There is no chance for discourse with them. None. Violence is all we have to deal with them. Even coercion will not work. They must be killed or captured and imprisoned. And given their commitment to their belief, capturing them alive is largely an unlikely prospect.

    Traditional police work as we understand it is unlikely to work, either. The police do not control people in this country. This country functions because about 98% of the people who live here believe that initiating force (assault and theft in all their forms) is simply wrong and therefore do not do it. That mindset does not exist over there.

    Like it or not, our lifestyle over here is completely dependent on petroleum, and not just to move our vehicles around. How many people on the Gulf Coast would be willing to do without air conditioning from May to October? How many in the Midwest and Northeast would be willing to give up their furnaces from September to May? Who wants to unplug their refrigerator and haul it to the dump? How many women will give up their cosmetics? Without petroleum-based insecticides and herbicides, not only could we not export foods to the rest of the world, we would starve to death ourselves in very short order. If we wanted to grow all of our food “organically,” we would have to put at least twice as much land to till as we presently have, and without tractors to do the bulk of the work, most of us would be back in agriculture.

    In the near term, our solution to this is to drill for oil in our own back yard EVERYWHERE we know that it is and draw down our dependence on foreign oil. Incidentally, we import more oil from Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela than from the rest of the world combined.


  4. doris |

    Well, maybe we would all be better off if we were in agriculture, couldn’t be much worse than the state we’re in now??? Most women would give up their cosmetics, if all women gave them up–no one would look quite so georgous. We all managed during the hurricane, didn’t love it, but we all need to remember what’s important, and it’s not material things, and it’s not having the biggest stick, either.


  5. Jan |

    Well, folks, the debate on this issue is heating up. “The military needs change,” says a hesdline in the Feb. 9 issue of Marine Corps Times. “Today we fight enemies that don’t even have armies, don’t control defined territories or have recognizable economies. They lack modern heavy weapons … and much else that we consider essential. Yet even after years of costly effort, we have failed to subdue or even weaken most of them,” writes retired Lt. Col. John Sayen. So what’s the big problem with this picture, Sayen continues: “Financial exhaustion triggered by a war in Afghanistan brought down the mighty Soviet Union just 20 years ago. Could this be our fate as well?”


  6. Kevin |

    “Yet even after years of costly effort, we have failed to subdue or even weaken most of them”

    Whether you’re a hawk or a dove I don’t think we can afford to ignore or wish away what Lt. Col. Sayen says there.


  7. Tom |

    I think Sayen is mostly right, too. Afghanistan is a tar baby for even the most modern military forces, unless they’re willing to employ all the power at their disposal. Since no one would do that, the best thing is get the hell out. That’s what we should have done once we disrupted Al Qaeda and reduced their ability to attack other countries in the future.

    We should stop trying to export democracy by force of arms. It simply isn’t going to work in primitive tribal societies like those of Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda was based, and much of Pakistan, to which they’ve now run.

    In the war on terror, we should abide by one simple strategy. When the U.S. or countries we support are attacked, we should find and eliminate those who conducted, supported, or planned the attack. That will almost always involve operations on the sovereign territory of countries that support or harbor terrorists. Fine; they should have known better.


  8. diehlberg |

    Respectfully I must say what a well presented piece of appeasement isolationistic propaganda. If we stick our heads in the sand we’ll get shot in the arse.


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