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The U.S. Will Keep Losing Wars Until It Decides What It Stands For
Mad Dog Mattis is at it again. The truth-teller to Marines, now secretary of defense, was asked: where is the long-promised revised strategy for Afghanistan? In response, he said it was slow in appearing because “strategy is hard.” Congress, too, is searching for strategic clarity as it just empaneled yet another bipartisan group to propose a framework for a new grand strategy. And nearly every pundit vying for your time agrees. We need a clear strategy and good measures for its achievement, so that we know what weapons to buy and where to pick fights, they often say.
Despite the promises, the panels and the pronouncements, a grand strategy for the United States, on par with the Cold War’s containment and Germany’s unconditional surrender during World War II, remains elusive. It is elusive because such a strategy requires a clear enemy—a nation or an alliance that threatens our survival. And there is no agreement on who is our enemy or if we really have one. Is radical Islam an existential threat to the United States? Do we really need to worry that much about a resurgent Russia? Is a China that grows richer a danger? Do we care that much about North Korea?
Absent a rival on the scale and power of the now dead Soviet Union, the United States is a very secure country. We are the richest country in the world, protected by two big oceans and a military that is second to none. Our population is big (we are the third most populous nation) and resourceful, claiming the leadership in nearly every line of science and technology. And we spend a fortune on our defense, and have done so for decades.
So mostly we meddle, taking on the unelected task of managing global security. We worry about Baltic security, Black Sea security, Persian Gulf security, Red Sea security, South China Sea security and Sea of Japan security. We worry about what the little green men are doing, about gangs in Libya, and about the Islamic State’s control of territory in Syria and Iraq. We worry about Russian aircraft buzzing U.S. aircraft and ships conducting surveillance work near Russia’s borders. We worry about China building and arming artificial islands in shipping lanes that we patrol, Iran’s small boats harassing traffic in the Gulf that we guard, and pirates off the coast of Africa who harass ships of allies that are plying international waters. And in the hunt for terrorists, currently we are bombing in seven countries, some occasionally and some daily.
Our wars, though constant, are without victory. Even if the Islamic State loses Raqqa, the battle is not over. That’s what we are told. After nearly two decades of fighting, the Taliban still controls parts of Afghanistan and enjoys sanctuary in Pakistan. Libya, Sudan and Somalia are among our persistent problems. And how many times have we helped retake Fallujah and Mosul? There are no wins because we really don’t care that much. Our security isn’t at risk. Win, lose or draw, we are safe. The other people live where we fight.
One president gets us involved in some distant conflict because he fears being shamed for not leading a global posse to right the wrong. The next president tries to get us out because our allies in the fight are shirkers and/or totally corrupt and the costs of buttressing them are too high. Mostly we are half in and half out of every crisis. Nothing requires a fight to the finish like the Second World War or forty years of our focused attention like the Cold War, so we are drawn to—and easily distracted from—every fight.
Try making a strategy out of what is left. As Mattis says, it is hard. Beyond cliches like “Be Flexible” or “Shape the Security Environment” there is nothing that offers guidance as to the level of effort needed or the actions that should be taken. We can’t afford to do everything global stability demands. But picking and choosing fights requires preset priorities that we don’t have.
Harvey M. Sapolsky is Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former Director of the MIT Security Studies Program.
More articles from The National Interest:
- A Dead Russian Submarine Is Sitting on the Bottom of the Ocean (Armed with Nuclear Weapons)
- Why America’s A-10 Warthogs Need More Laser-Guided Rockets
- Why Russia’s New ICBM Might be the Real Nuclear Missile America Should Fear
‘I made promises to the people that I lost’— How the Iraq war forged a Navy SEAL’s path to Harvard Medical School and NASA
Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.
However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:
You can almost smell the gunpowder in the scene captured by a Marine photographer over the weekend, showing a Marine grunt firing a shotgun during non-lethal weapons training.
A Marine grunt stationed in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina is being considered for an award after he saved the lives of three people earlier this month from a fiery car crash.
Cpl. Scott McDonell, an infantry assaultman with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, was driving down Market Street in Wilmington in the early morning hours of Jan. 11 when he saw a car on fire after it had crashed into a tree. Inside were three victims aged 17, 20, and 20.
"It was a pretty mangled wreck," McDonell told ABC 15. "The passenger was hanging out of the window."
New Vietnam War movie 'The Last Full Measure' takes some well-deserved shots at the military’s award process
Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.
With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.
"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.