A common thread connects U.S. military operations of the last 20 or more years: We've persistently tried to fight them on the cheap. In gauging the requirements of a prospective campaign, “What do we need to win?” has repeatedly taken a back seat to “What's the minimum we can get by with?”
The ongoing air campaign against Islamic State illustrates the point. Having declared that this new threat must be destroyed, the Obama administration refuses to provide the forces needed to do just that. Hence, Washington's unseemly scramble to recruit proxies willing and able to do what the United States won't do: put “boots on the ground.” The Pentagon calls the result Operation Inherent Resolve. A more accurate name would be Operation Halfhearted Effort.
When marketing a new product or running for political office, cheapness seldom offers a recipe for success. In war, that truism applies in spades. There, the urge to economize invites greater long-term costs without anything remotely resembling victory at the far end.
From 2002 to 2003, American generals thought invading Iraq would require half a million troops or so. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld knew — or claimed to know — better and allocated only 148,000. Sufficient to get to Baghdad, that number proved woefully inadequate to control the country. The George W. Bush administration had expected Operation Iraqi Freedom to yield a quick, tidy win. Instead, the Iraq war became the second-longest and just about the most expensive in U.S. history.
The longest is the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, never adequately resourced by Bush or his successor. U.S. troops provided to pacify a country slightly larger than Texas and with a present-day population of 30 million reached a peak just above 100,000. Sure, North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies pitched in, but never in sufficient numbers to make a difference. So 13 years after arriving in Afghanistan, U.S. troops are now withdrawing, not victoriously, but with fingers crossed that the place won't fall apart. We've seen what a similar hope in Iraq produced.
These campaigns, and others, are part of a broader enterprise that from the outset suffered from this problem of under-resourcing. Over the course of several decades, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, bombed and raided places throughout the greater Middle East. We have killed considerable numbers of people. We have overthrown governments and installed others in their place. We have put the hurt on some very nasty militant groups (only to see others almost immediately appear).
What larger goal these actions are meant to achieve is not entirely clear. Proffered explanations have ranged from securing the world's oil supply to eliminating terrorism to spreading the blessings of freedom and democracy.
Regardless of actual purpose, the overall undertaking qualifies as hugely ambitious. Through its military exertions in the Islamic world, the United States is clearly trying to achieve something very big. And whatever that something might be, it seems plain that the job is nowhere near to being finished. If nothing else, the rise of Islamic State affirms that “Mission Accomplished” is still nowhere in sight.
Yet from the outset, Americans have refused to acknowledge what employing military means to do big things entails. On this point, the lessons of history are quite clear. Business as usual won't do. Put simply, doing big things militarily necessitates reconfiguring national priorities, with peacetime pursuits taking a back seat to wartime imperatives.
The old-fashioned word for this is mobilization, which implies changing just about everything: tax rates, patterns of consumption, social relationships, educational priorities, the prerogatives exercised by the state and, of course, the size of the armed forces. In simplest terms, mobilization implies collective effort that involves collective sacrifice, without which wars fought to achieve big things are doomed to fail.
Vaguely inclined to “support the troops” as long as they themselves remain personally unaffected and uninvolved, Americans willfully ignore this essential truth: If you will the end, you must will the means. Meanwhile, in Washington, where dereliction of duty is a way of life, no one in a position of influence has mustered the gumption to state the obvious: For the United States to achieve “victory” in the greater Middle East will require exertions that exceed those made thus far by orders of magnitude.
Is victory, however defined, worth a vastly greater expenditure of lives and treasure? If the answer is yes, then it's time to let out the stops. If the answer is no, then continuing on our present course is foolish, immoral and constitutes a betrayal of those sent to fight a war that we have no hope of actually winning. If we're not willing to go all in, then we should go home.
Andrew Bacevich, a fellow at Columbia University, is writing a military history of America's war for the greater Middle East.