With a fresh breeze sweeping through the White House, now’s the time for a new look at U.S. military operations overseas. In electing Barak Obama president, a majority of voters chose the “peace candidate” who pressed for winding down the war in Iraq. On the other hand, Obama also supported sending more troops to Afghanistan. Many close observers of the war in Central Asia are raising alarms about escalating military actions in a region of ancient feuds that are now flaming through nuclear-armed Pakistan.
“One lesson from Vietnam was that the United States should not go to war without broad public support. One lesson from Iraq might be that we should not go to war without a vigorous public debate in which an administration’s claims are carefully examined and challenged,” Ray Bonner, a veteran journalist in Asia, wrote in a recent New York Times review of two books about the Afghan war front. “Yet we are on the verge of significantly expanding the war in Afghanistan, which will inevitably affect Pakistan as well. Unfortunately, there has been little or no debate about President-elect Barack Obama’s plan to send in more troops.”
Days after Obama was sworn into office, former Senator George McGovern set off a big flare in The Washington Post to illuminate a simmering debate that will likely heat up: “To send our troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan would be a near-perfect example of going from the frying pan into the fire. There is reason to believe some of our top military commanders privately share this view. And so does a broad and growing swath of your party and your supporters,” McGovern wrote.
“I have believed for some time that military power is no solution to terrorism. The hatred of U.S. policies in the Middle East -- our occupation of Iraq, our backing for repressive regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our support of Israel -- that drives the terrorist impulse against us would better be resolved by ending our military presence throughout the arc of conflict,” McGovern continued. “This means a prudent, carefully directed withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere. We also need to close down the imposing U.S. military bases in this section of the globe, which do so little to expand our security and so much to stoke local resentment.”
Some may dismiss McGovern as a failed presidential candidate trounced by Richard Nixon. However, Nixon subsequently resigned in disgrace for presiding over an administration that illegally attacked political opponents, and Congress heeded critics like McGovern and cut off funds for the widening war Nixon waged in Indochina. Given the history of the disastrous military campaign in Southeast Asia, a sober reexamination is taking place inside and outside military circles on how best to engage earth-scorching Islamic insurgencies.
“There is no battlefield solution to terrorism," The RAND Corporation, a top Pentagon contractor on national defense research, concluded last year in a study of military campaigns against insurgency groups around the world since 1968. “In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, the RAND study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase ‘war on terrorism,’” the report to the Pentagon stated.
This reexamination was nudged by Washington Post reporter Dana Priest’s insightful critique, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military, published in 2003, and kick-started by retired Marine General Anthony Zinni’s broadside challenge to Bush administration’s policies, The Battle for Peace, which came out in 2006.
“Since the end of the Cold War, the imperatives of ‘global leadership’ have led the United States to assume ever-greater obligations around the world. With little or no consideration of the implications, policymakers have sloughed off the burden of handling those obligations onto the armed services, which are cheerfully assumed to be able to do anything, anywhere, at any time,” states a synopsis of Priest’s book on the U.S. Air Force’s Air University Library Web site. “That assumption deserves to be reconsidered -- as does the corollary, long cherished by conservatives, that other government agencies, such as the State Department, are incompetent beyond salvaging.”
For instance, “There can be no military solution to the problem” that violently divides Israelis and Palestinians, General Zinni told Priest after serving as U.S. military commander in the Middle East and as a State Department special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. “You know, there is no military solution to terrorism, either.”
In his book, Zinni wrote: “Think about it: We’ve declared war on a tactic—terrorism—not on an ideology, not on a nation-state… This is no way to fight terrorism … Military responses by themselves will not do the job. ... We need a new strategic vision for our country—a vision that will focus our government and all its elements of power on the task of bringing peace and stability to the world.”
Based on his military career, which included enduring severe battle wounds as a young marine in Vietnam, Zinni concluded that “We have not been skillful in understanding how to effectively apply our power in ways that do not alienate or threaten other societies. We understand warmaking far better than we understand peacemaking.”
The remedy, he wrote, is to treat diplomatic negotiations and other means of resolving conflicts seriously. “A set of countries around the world—primarily the Nordic countries, Canada, and Switzerland—have traditionally centered their foreign policy on peacemaking, mediation, and conflict resolution, and have funded and provided resources for these activities.”
In his 2004 autobiography, Battle Ready, composed with military storyteller Tom Clancy, Zinni bluntly fired off a warning to the American public and to his former colleagues in the Pentagon: “The military traditionally goes out there and kills people and breaks things. … We have to ask ourselves how the military needs to change in order to actually deal with those political, economic, social, security, and information management challenges that we’ve already been facing for a long time. … Either the civilian officials must develop the capabilities demanded of them and learn how to partner with other agencies to get the job done, or the military finally needs to change into something else beyond the breaking and the killing.”
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(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)