When All You've Got Is an F-16…

Why is bombing the only option in Washington's policy toolkit?

Just two days after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured territory and military installations in Iraq, Washington foreign policy commentators and policymakers are considering options for responding. And unsurprisingly, the scope of the debate about what to do in Iraq has broken down into bombing, or not bombing. Sen. Lindsey Graham declared on the Senate floor, "I think American airpower is the only hope to change the battlefield equation in Iraq." President Barack Obama later said "I don't rule out anything," to which White House Press Secretary Jay Carney later explained, "We are not contemplating ground troops. The president was answering a question specifically about air strikes." The debate shrinks immediately around whether and how to use the tactic of force.

Though it is commonly referred to as Maslow's Hammer, the concept of privileging the tool at hand, irrespective of its appropriate fit to solving a problem, originated with the philosopher Abraham Kaplan. In his 1964 classic, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science, Kaplan discussed the issue of the abstract nature of techniques, particularly the scientific method, used by scientists, whether conducting surveys, doing statistical analysis, or deciphering foreign language inscriptions. He worried that, since "the pressures of fad and fashion are as great in science, for all its logic, as in other areas of culture," certain preferred techniques in which a scientist finds him or herself particularly skilled could predominate over all others. As Kaplan described this phenomenon:

"I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding. It comes as no particular surprise to discover that a scientist formulates problems in a way which requires for their solution just those techniques in which he himself is especially skilled."

Kaplan's fuller context for the hammer attributed to Abraham Maslow -- who just re-packaged the idea two years later -- was worth bearing in mind during President Barack Obama's speech last week, which was primarily a defense for the contexts in which he applies military force. As Obama noted, "Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail." Though Obama's speech provided no additional information about his thinking, it was useful because it reinforced the singular conception of what foreign policy entails for many in Washington: military force.

Somewhere along the line, in many influential schools of punditry and analysis, the totality of U.S. foreign policy has been reduced to whether presidents bomb some country or adversary, and the alleged impressions that this decision leaves on other countries. The binary construction employed by these pundits and analysts is that a president either demonstrates strength and engagement with air strikes, or fecklessness and detachment in their absence.

Today, the U.S. military has over 400,000 troops stationed or deployed in 182 countries around the world -- primarily conducting force protection, training, or security cooperation missions, but these troops do not factor into this equation. The binary choice is either bombs, or isolationism. Of course, the activities of the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Treasury Department, or any other government agency and entity working abroad are wholly disregarded or given short shrift at promoting and implementing foreign policy objectives.

This vast overestimation of what military force can plausibly achieve runs totally contrary to what the past dozen years have demonstrated, at tremendous cost and sacrifice. The interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya show that the use of force as the primary instrument did not sustainably secure U.S. interests in those countries over time, nor assure U.S. allies of its mutual defense obligations, and had no latent capacity to deter potential adversaries. Nobody on earth today is scared of America because it put 170,000 troops in Iraq, 100,000 in Afghanistan, and led a seven-month air campaign over Libya. If anything, the resulting instability or outright chaos led most to reach the opposite conclusion. Yet, somehow pundits continue to think and argue that sending troops or bombs into another country today will achieve this in the future. Op-ed militarism never dies, even as its underlying logic repeatedly does.

While "the pressures of fad and fashion" apparently compel pundits and analysts to demand the use of force to address unstable or threatening situations, it is rarely accompanied with a definable or measurable military or political objective that it is intended to achieve within the targeted country. You rarely hear such pundits state explicitly what exactly military force is supposed to accomplish. Rather, it is a mindless demand to apply some military tactic to elicit some feeling -- presumably fear and awe -- among third-party witnesses. The most remarkable characteristic of this school of thought is that those within it also claim to be transcontinental mind-readers capable of knowing what specific U.S. instrument of power will change the calculus of potential adversaries. Unsurprisingly, it is always military force.

Though never referred to by proponents of militarism, there is an actual joint planning process and universal task list that the military uses when planning and conducting operations. These documents provide the common reference points and actions that all affected service members are supposed to know. Nowhere in U.S. military planning documents can you find missions like "demonstrating resolve," "exhibiting strength," or "retaining superpower status." It is impossible to make other countries think of you what you would like. Their impressions are highly situationally dependent, and the result of the power and interests that surround a discrete country or issue. Their opinions of the United States are not merely based upon whether the president decided to bomb someone or not.

It is unfortunate that military force -- the most lethal, destructive, and consequential foreign action that the United States can undertake -- suffers from such a dismal and imprecise discourse. It contains meaningless and empty metaphors characterized by crude gardening references, all options forever "on the table," "setting the bar" higher, and Obama vowing to "take very tough actions." Military force is about blowing things up and killing people. Trying to ascribe virtues to its nature, or magical powers to its effects, is misleading and imprudent. Much of Washington does not see force as the solution to the world's problems because the U.S. military has the best hammer, but rather because of the influence and supremacy that it falsely ascribes to it.



Blame America

The United States tried to build a stable state in Iraq. We should've known better.

What is happening in Iraq right now is both a cautionary tale and an unfolding tragedy. The lesson is not about leaving Iraq too early, nor is it about having a Status of Force Agreement that would have kept us there. It's not about firing the current national security team and appointing another one. It's not about the effectiveness of air power in halting the advance of an insurgency.

The caution is about the blithe American assumption that the United States is omnipotent, that with enough money, good will, expertise, equipment, and training Americans can build foreign forces and bring security to troubled areas around the world. The tragedy is that what the U.S. does and has done leads down the road to failure. And more often than not, America bears the costs of its mistakes.

Iraqi security has always depended on the quality of Iraqi security forces and the capabilities of the government in Baghdad that commands them. Since 2003, the United States has spent more than $25 billion training and equipping the Iraqi military. Supporting the government that commands them cost the American taxpayer more than a trillion dollars, more than 50,000 dead and wounded Americans (not to speak of the trillion we will spend mopping up the mental and physical damage the war did to our own soldiers). Somewhere between 500,000 and a million Iraqis, so far, have paid for that temporary sense of security with their lives.

Now that the Iraqi military is folding like a cheap umbrella in a thunderstorm, reshaping the surrounding region, from Syria to Kurdistan and potentially far beyond, the Obama administration is left with a pitifully ugly set of options about what to do next.

The lesson is a telling one, and not one the administration or Congress (or much of the public) has learned: We cannot remake other countries, build their militaries, make them behave, and guarantee their security, either through occupation or by training and equipping their militaries.

The story of Iraq is a microcosm of American experience intruding in the security affairs of other countries and being humbled. It started more than 100 years ago, when we invaded the Philippines, spent years there, and left behind a country that remains insecure to this day. In the 1930s and beyond, we provided security and armed and trained a Nicaraguan military that became a dictatorship and remains troubled to this day. From early in the last century to the 1990s, U.S. forces imposed order in Haiti, which remains a basket case.

The biggest and most disastrous case, of course, may be Vietnam, where we supported a corrupt regime with little popular support. That war cost more than $750 billion (in constant dollars), took the lives of 58,000 U.S. military personnel, and left more than 150,000 wounded. And it ended in a loss with security guaranteed by the Viet Cong and the armies of North Vietnam.

Why do we repeatedly do so badly when trying to bring security to troubled countries? Because our military doesn't do it very well. Because we don't have the military or civilian capacity -- nor the wisdom -- to build other countries' forces. And that is because it is almost impossible to do. The very attempt to provide security and build stability in another country is tragic in the most pure, Greek sense: We head toward a doomed fate, doing what we believe to be right, only to have our efforts undone by the effort itself, since occupation always creates resistance and opposition.

Aside from that, easy to do.

The Iraq tale is important. First, the Bush administration invaded the country and threw out its existing government. Bad mistake. Good or evil, it was their government, and an ugly form of order prevailed. The Coalition Provisional Authority, Bush's steward for Iraq, compounded the error by disbanding the Iraqi military without a proper demobilization and cantonment of their arms. And then the CPA disbanded a substantial portion of the government, chasing the Baathists out of their bureaucratic posts. Then the insurgency and the Sunni-Shiite sectarian war -- two prospects no one in the administration seemed to have anticipated -- took over and gave the Americans a run for their money.

The Bush administration had not anticipated the need for an assistance program -- either for security, the economy, or the Iraqi government. So we didn't have one in place. We ran around for several years stitching one together. Initially, it had a lot of economic, infrastructure, or social development components, but as the insurgency grew, we re-jiggered the program to focus on security. And because we were "at war," we gave the lion's share of the assistance money and responsibility to the U.S. military.

The U.S. military worked the security issue hard. They spent those $25 billion, and doubtless more, training, exercising, and equipping an Iraqi military we had to rebuild virtually from scratch. That was clearly not a success: Despite their expensive training, four divisions disappeared from northern Iraq in the face of, at the most, a couple of thousand insurgents. Kind of like the South Vietnamese military we had heavily trained, exercised, and equipped. Now the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is ending up with the ammo, Humvees, trucks, front-end loaders, and guns that we so generously -- and expensively -- left behind.

What wasn't left behind was the kind of regime that could reverse this failure. This is the hard part. What really matters in security is not the strength of the troops, but political leadership and effective governance. A corrupt, inefficient, ineffective, divisive, unresponsive regime cannot credibly provide security, except by cruel dictatorship, as Saddam Hussein showed.

But we lack the wisdom and capacity to build a different kind of regime. And we certainly blew it in Iraq by leaving Nouri al-Maliki, a would-be sectarian strongman, in charge. We bought some quietus by paying off Sunnis in the "surge," but once Maliki was in charge, that subsidy stopped, as could have been predicted, opening up the door to renewed insurgency.

It is optimistic to say that building a government in someone else's country is hard work. It may be more realistic to say that it is impossible. Either way, it is a task at which the United States failed. The government in Baghdad that we handed power to lacks wisdom and good judgment, is plagued by corruption and has generally failed at providing security or stability. After buying off the Sunnis, U.S. officials handed power to sectarian Shiites intent on getting what they see as their due. A course was set for sectarian tensions. 

And here's the tragic piece. Oedipus thought he had escaped the curse, but he killed his father and married his mother, pursuing what he thought was the best road away from the curse. The American invasion of Iraq was a tragic mistake. For a nano-second, many Iraqis welcomed the U.S. military. But the insurgency started almost at once, and grew, as did resentment of the American occupation and the actions of the U.S. military, who were doing what they thought was best to restore order. The harder they tried, the greater the resentment. And the presence of the U.S. military in the heart of the Arab world stirred concern on a regional basis.

Today, putting U.S. forces on the ground in any number is not an option. The American public has no appetite for more boots on the ground in foreign lands. The regional players do not want them there. The only party that would welcome American troops in Iraq is ISIS, who know that further American intervention would only bolster their appeal.

Again and again, we imagine we can bring security to the rest of the world. President Obama announced in a speech at West Point last month that he wants to create a new $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund to "train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines." He was vague about this fund's details. In fact, as I wrote two weeks ago, the proposal had almost no content at all, which meant its contents could be nearly anything. Some of the $5 billion might be used to equip and train the Syrian rebels. Some might even be used to pay for air strikes against ISIS this coming week.

We have spent well north of $200 billion training and equipping the armies and security forces of more than 100 countries over the past couple of decades. These operations continue today in Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Yemen, and more than 80 other countries. We may hope we are doing good, but the reality may well be that we are only training the next corrupt set of militaries who will either support the next generation of dictators or inspire the next generation of insurgents.

Mustafa Kerim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images