“There are two ways to fight the United States militarily: asymmetrically and stupid.”
Few would quarrel with this observation by retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, formerly President Trump’s national security adviser, currently chairman of the board of advisers to Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)’s Center on Military and Political Power.
But that raises a question: Why have we failed to develop a strategy to defeat enemies fighting us asymmetrically? In other words, why is there still a smart way to kill Americans?
In this space last week, I offered one reason: Many members of the commentariat on both the left and the right think in outdated, binary terms. In their minds, either we’re at peace or we’re at war. They naturally prefer the former and fret that forcefully responding to assaults by our enemies puts us “on the brink” of the latter. But any time our enemies hit us and get away with it, they win and are encouraged to keep going.
The seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, the bombing of the American embassies in Beirut and Kuwait in 1983, the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 — we responded to these acts of war as though they were one-offs, committed by common criminals. Other attacks followed, for example in 1996, 1998, 2000 and, of course, 2001.
Another reason we responded fecklessly: The prospect of fighting long-term, low-intensity conflicts — also known as gray-zone wars — is unpleasant. It’s more comforting to forecast, as President Obama did, that “the tide of war is receding” or to paste a bumper sticker on your Prius demanding that “endless wars” be ended.
Think about it: If you’re in a boxing match, and you put your arms down, does the fight end? And if it does, who’s most likely to be sprawled across the canvas?
We’re not just talking theory here. Experiments have been conducted. Mr. Obama said he didn’t “support the idea of endless war.” So in 2011, he pulled our troops out of Iraq. Three years later, the Islamic State had risen from the ashes of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Mr. Obama sent troops back in an effort to protect vital national security interests.
Mr. Trump also has vowed to bring troops home from “endless wars.” Over the past year, however, U.S. troop strength in the Middle East has increased. That has frustrated the ambitions of both the Islamic State and its main competitor, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
We’d like to believe that peace is the natural state of mankind. It’s not. In “On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace,” published 25 years, ago, Donald Kagan wrote that “war has been a persistent part of human experience since before the birth of civilization. In 1968 Will and Ariel Durant calculated that there had been only 268 years free of war in the previous 3,421.”
Wars are produced by an ineluctable “competition for power.” Those waging war against us want us to submit. Or they want to kill us. What part of “Death to America!” is hard to understand? The notion that we can make ourselves inoffensive to our enemies is risible.
What might not be a bad idea: A blue-ribbon commission, including retired generals and special operators, former legislators, historians and legal scholars, to study gray-zone wars, and recommend the best ways Americans can fight them.
I’m confident they’ll conclude that having allies and proxies is an essential component. In Syria, for example, a small contingent of highly skilled American troops is empowering a much larger non-American force which has kept common enemies at bay.
Israelis are experienced gray-zone warriors. The more effectively they manage their long-term, low-intensity conflicts, the longer the hiatus between major conflagrations. Their situation and ours differ, but there may be lessons to learn.
Among the complicating factors for the United States: Both the executive and legislative branches have war-making powers under the U.S. Constitution. Since World War II, however, not one of the conflicts in which the United States has been involved has been initiated by a congressional declaration of war.
In 1973, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and in the middle of Watergate, Congress passed the War Powers Act over President Nixon’s veto. No occupant of the White House of either party has accepted its validity. All have argued that it infringes the commander in chief’s constitutional prerogatives.
Following the elimination of Qassem Soleimani, House Democrats joined by a few Republicans introduced a non-binding resolution to curtail the president’s war powers. Sen. Tom Cotton made this point to me in an email: “Tying the president’s hands at this extremely dangerous moment would send a disastrous signal to Iran, giving it a green light to attack our troops and facilities, and to kill with impunity.”
Congressional resolutions authorizing the use of military force can serve as workarounds, but the last ones were passed in 2001, a week after the 9/11 attacks and in 2002 as the United States prepared to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Republicans and Democrats are unlikely to agree on a new AUMF at this fraught moment.
Americans are smart enough to figure out how to make fighting the United States militarily — conventionally, asymmetrically or in other ways — stupid.
But accomplishing that mission needs to be a priority. Top of the to-do list: Discarding the delusion that “endless” wars can be ended by waiting for tides to turn, relying on diplomatic palavers alone, withdrawing prematurely from battlefields, or waving magic wands and sprinkling fairy dust.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.