With a clairvoyance not unlike that of Mr. Jimmy Carter in November 1979 (memo to the recent history challenged: revolution in Iran, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, lousy U.S. economy), President Obama woke up one morning a few days ago and noticed that the war he had declared over in Iraq was raging.
Future biographers of the 44th president of the United States may find that he asked his top national security advisers, who happen to be women named Susan Rice and Samantha Powers, why he had been led to believe there was a problem of personnel and political inclusiveness (contemporary term for bipartisanship, including sharing pork and spoils) in Baghdad, but not tens of thousands of displaced persons, ravaged towns, women pressed into sex slavery, mass murder, extermination or subjugation of Christians, and, strategically most ominous, the arrival of the Islamic horde on the marshes of Kurdistan, threatening the one verifiable success of ten years of American sacrifice in Mesopotamia.
How they answered, if he asked, is unimportant. Someone, probably a military aide, suggested air power during the round of meetings that we can guess took place between presidential rounds of golf. This was definitely an improvement over Dr. Carter’s Lotion, excuse me, aspirin, to stop the pain inflicted by the swiftest advance of Muslim arms since the 8th century.
It is regrettable that General Curtis LeMay was not present to explain what sort of air power could be applied, but it does appear that bombing missions flown by Navy pilots over the weekend have bought the Kurds time to improve their defenses, while airlift aces dropped provisions to sustain them and others threatened by the caliphate’s rampaging killers. Will the president press the advantage our arms give him?
It is too soon to tell, and moreover our air strikes and resupply missions are sure to provoke the forces of the Islamic State to make tactical adjustments. The Soviets as well, correction: the Russians. The latter are flying missions of their own over Alaska. These incursions represent casus belli. If General LeMay were in charge, Moscow would be obliterated by now.
This is not meant to be facetious, but to underscore the starkness of the moment. General LeMay’s advice in the crises he lived through — he had been a top bomber commander in World War II and headed the Air Force in the post-WW II years — was rebuffed, and he of course respected civilian authority. Observe, however, that the military writer Bing West (a retired Marine officer) recommended the use of air power at the outset of the caliphate’s breakout from its lairs in southeastern Syria, noting, among other factors, that it was throwing teenagers into battle, not likely to stand their ground against strikes from the air.
It is in the American war-making tradition to be late to find the right force and strategy, but then to use it effectively. For example, with all due respect to General William Westmorland, the consensus among Vietnam War historians is that his successor, Creighton Abrams, devised and carried out the winning strategy between 1969-1972.
Air power, combined with a well-trained and supplied South Vietnamese Army following through on the sacrifices of American ground troops over nearly a decade, stopped the communist Northern armies who invaded the South in 1972. At this point the Vietnam War was won, ensuring the security of all Southeast Asia all the way to India, with the tremendous era of peace and prosperity foreseeable for the whole region.
The victory was thrown away two years later when a re-supplied North Vietnamese military machine again invaded the South. We did not resupply its army, which held out with unflagging courage until its last munitions were spent, its last defenders massacred.
Irving Kristol described the response to urban crime of his liberal contemporaries as “ mugged by reality.” He meant it literally, since New York City, in the 1970s, had become a dangerous place after dark (and in daytime) even in its prosperous neighborhoods. But he and his friends — who were called neoconservatives, a political current that no longer exists — applied the term metaphorically to the liberals’ belated responses to Hobbesian phenomena generally, notably in international affairs. These responses were, as Irving Kristol well knew, few. Most liberals can be mugged forever and they will still deny someone wants them dead.
Mr. Carter was a case in point, remains one in his dotage. True, he began with reluctance the military buildup that his successor, Ronald Reagan, hugely accelerated. Other than that, his responses to the reverses of 1979 were petulant and feeble.
Mr. Obama’s lucidity appears to be of a different temper, though, again, it is much too early to say what will ensue from the current battles in northern Iraq, the violations of our airspace by hostile aircraft, the crisis on our southern border. The president expressed the prudent view over the weekend that we are in it for a haul of indefinite duration. This is an improvement over the view from the White House during most of the caliphate’s advance over the past weeks and months, that the crisis was an internal Iraqi problem, for the Iraqis to solve.
Of course this is so, just as it was true, as John Kennedy said in 1962 or 3, that the Vietnamese had to win their war against the north, we could not win it for them. However, regardless of what you think of the massive American interventions in Vietnam and Iraq, the strategic situations before and after these interventions changed. Kennedy would not have expressed that view in 1973 or 4, and fortunately Mr. Obama seems to have reassessed his own initial reaction to the caliphate’s neo-jihad.
The Kurds, like the Vietnamese, were abandoned by America in the 1970s. Possibly Mr. Obama is aware and ashamed of this history, possibly he understands the strategic importance of the battle against the caliphate in northern Iraq. A grasp of the transnational nature of the conflict with (and within) Islam might be the reason, as well, why the president, at the end of a meeting with African leaders last week, indicated there would be increased funding for security programs, initiated during the Bush years, in African countries under terrorist threat.
Were General LeMay in command, the rubble in the caliphate would be bouncing right now, and Russian pilots would be bailing out of the flaming planes to be rescued in the Bering Straits by the Navy. The southern banks of the Rio Grande would be carpet bombed and — but never mind. This is not the time for political fiction. What matters now is to encourage the president to stay the course he has been mugged into adopting. Unlike Mr. Carter back then, he is not going into an election year. The reality — that word again — is that it is not a matter of months before the strategic thinking at the top changes. Politics stops at the water’s edge.
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