- - Thursday, October 29, 2015


The one great lesson from the Vietnam War is that waging war by increment is a recipe for disaster. It never works because armies are not designed to wage war piecemeal. You do a puppy no kindness by cutting off his tail an inch at a time.

President Obama, the latest apostle of incrementalism, is said to have learned the lesson and is reversing his strategy of “limited engagement” in the half-hearted war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The very fact that the West can’t get the label straight says it all. The larger lesson for Mr. Obama is that a large conflict will inevitably attract a large power.

A vacuum created by American withdrawal inevitably encourages other forces to fill it, and this is what is happening all across the globe in places where, for more than a half century, the United States has been the dominant and stabilizing force. The Islamic State practices a new kind of barbarity, a veritable catechism of savagery, surpassing the evil that followed the Vietnam War in Cambodia. Beheadings, crucifixions, live burials and other horrors have not excluded even women and children. The barbarity if unchecked will grow, menacing not only the Middle East but the whole world.

The Islamic State’s claim that it is the Islamic caliphate long anticipated by Muslims, Islam’s promise to dominate the world politically as well as religiously is gaining adherence, nominal for now, in unexpected parts of the world.

Russia’s relatively large intervention in Syria, while announced as a benign effort to collaborate with the United States and its allies against the Islamic State, is actually meant to sustain the brutal regime in Damascus. On one of his rare visits to the Pentagon, the president asked his generals in July for additional options in the bombing campaign against the Islamic State.

Earlier this month, the president finally conceded that he can’t withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan before the end of his presidency, as he promised. With no public statement to confirm the fact, it nevertheless becomes clear that after more than a year of desultory bombing, he has not only not destroyed the Islamic State but the rogue barbarians have strengthened their hold on captured territory and are enlarging their grip. Bombers are returning to base with bombs not dropped, having taken the enormous risks of aerial combat for naught. The pilots did not have the intelligence, the guidance on where to drop their bombs, that is available only from men with boots on the ground and eyes to see up close and personal.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter is said to have provided the president with a set of options, backed by the military, and the generals support Mr. Carter in pushing for a more aggressive pursuit of success. But what must be feared most is that the president, whose strategy in all foreign policy decisions over his seven years in the White House is one of timidity and consistently reducing the American presence and commitment to the use of force, will choose only war by ineffective increments once again. The notion of applying necessary force only as needed ignores the lesson learned in Vietnam, that permitting a less powerful enemy to achieve by dedication the defeat of the half-hearted and incremental is not wise.

In war, the most inefficient of all human enterprise, unpredictability is the norm. A measured but untested approach often leads to disaster. The incremental route leads to unnecessary pain — you could ask the puppy — and to an irresolute ending.

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