War is politics by other means, Clausewitz said. Its violence and death are reserved for times when traditional political and diplomatic means have failed to protect the nation.
Our military establishment should be ready to do two things: 1) destroy terrorist networks, such as ISIS, and 2) win high-intensity combat operations against Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
Our capacity and ability to prosecute the second of these two tasks has been eroded by sequestration and the focus on counterterrorism operations. People are concerned.
The reason for our angst is that we got the basics wrong. We worry about the military’s ability to wage war not because politics and diplomacy have failed, but because they haven’t been used.
War is about whose idea wins, but instead of focusing our intellectual energy on dividing our enemies, we have focused it on dividing ourselves. For years, we’ve ignored the ideological fight against our adversaries, refusing to leverage our enormous advantages in managing political information to discredit our enemies’ beliefs. As a result, terrorist ideology is spreading and bad actors are rearranging the international order.
We say we’re winning against ISIS and point to occasional drone kills and the mess we call Syria. Perhaps so, but ISIS ideology has expanded into 31 countries since “the dirty rats” declared a caliphate in June 2014. We allow it to grow by remaining silent or denying the existence of Islam’s importance to its brutal ideology.
Even worse, we suggest that only Muslims should talk about it, an intellectual idiocy akin to calling for dialogue about whether we should die and declining to participate in the conversation.
A recent poll shows that well above 90 percent of Muslims abhor terrorist violence. That is reassuring. Islam is indeed a religion of peace.
But it’s also irrelevant because a small but significant percentage of Muslims support ISIS and accept the killing. Unfortunately, a small percentage of 1.6 billion Muslims is still a very big number. It’s about 38 million in the 11 countries surveyed, out of 50 majority-Muslim countries worldwide.
There is much work to be done by people of all faiths to decrease these numbers by arguing that any religious belief accepting of violence and death is morally wrong.
On the bad actor front, Russian President Vladimir Putin has outthought us, outmaneuvered us, and outflanked us to re-establish Russia’s influence over the Caucasus and Central Asia, intimidate and annex parts of Eastern Europe, re-emerge as a key player in the Middle East, and position himself with Turkey to break apart the NATO Alliance.
It is a remarkable performance — expanding Russian influence by calibrating bad behavior to be just short of triggering a U.S. military response. He exploits disaffected populations, using media to inflame their grievances and agents of coercion to ignite partisan violence. Then he swoops in to grab territory under the guise of restoring peace, or leaves the instability to fester and adjusts it like a rheostat to suit his needs.
It’s a new form of warfare, one that hides aggression in ambiguity. Mr. Putin is winning because we have no response except military operations to stop his aggression, and he has calculated correctly that we will not risk all-out war with Russia where the threat is ambiguous.
There are things we can do, short of sending in the Marines.
Mr. Putin succeeds only if minority populations become so disaffected that civil violence becomes possible. It is a struggle involving good governance and good public relations to convince people their voices will be heard, and much of it is fought in the information dimension of war — a place where we hold clear advantages if we but use them. We can deter Mr. Putin by driving up his costs, exposing his evil, uniting people against him and creating a real risk of defeat.
We should remember that the Soviet empire collapsed not because of conventional military power, but because we made Soviet aggression too expensive to pursue, and we demonstrated that freedom and free markets offered more opportunity to more people than communism.
We have the infrastructure, the knowledge and the political skills to launch unmatchable ideological and information campaigns against our adversaries, but we aren’t ready to do so. It’s not a matter of capacity or ability, it’s a matter of will.
The U.S. military isn’t ready to create this new American response to aggression — but, then again, it wasn’t ready to build nuclear weapons, but it built them. It’s time for an information Manhattan Project to protect our nation.
• Retired Army Maj. Gen. Bruce M. Lawlor is a former member of the Homeland Security Council and chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security. He is the author of the upcoming book, “When Deadly Force is Involved: A Look at the Legal Side of Stand Your Ground, Duty to Retreat, and Other Questions of Self-Defense” (Rowman & Littlefield, March 2017).