The United States Is Not at War With the Islamic State.
Steven Metz |Friday, June 12, 2015
Editor’s note: World Politics Review partnered with the Global Dispatches podcast and its host, Mark Leon Goldberg, to present an interview with WPR columnist Steven Metz on the evolving U.S. strategy against the so-called Islamic State.
|Iraqi army soldiers deploy in front of a court run by |
the Islamic State group after a military operation to regain
control of the town of Sadiyah in Diyala province, north of Baghdad
Those wielding the criticism would benefit from revisiting the recent history of U.S. security policy. As the early opponents of containment pointed out when it took shape in the late 1940s, it is inherently antithetical to the American public’s desire for the speedy resolution of security problems; for clear, decisive outcomes; and for vanquishing evil. Yet in the struggle with global communism, U.S. political leaders were able to quell these instincts and craft a strategy based on the belief that if communism was not allowed to spread, it would eventually decay and collapse.
Containment of the Soviet Union made sense because the costs of defeating it militarily would have been immense, probably outweighing the strategic benefits. It also made sense because Americans were confident that, in the long run, their political and economic system would prove superior to the Soviet one. These factors also characterize today’s struggle with IS and other elements of the transnational jihadi movement. Yet many American political leaders and opinion-shapers, as well as much of the public, believe that a victorious war, rather than containment, is the appropriate response—and that such a victory is possible with strong presidential leadership.
This argument is both dangerous and misguided. The United States is most certainly deeply involved in a violent conflict with transnational jihadism. But all violent conflict is not war, and treating each conflict as if it is a war will only lead to ineffectiveness, anger, frustration and growing calls for global disengagement.
There was a time when Americans clearly understood what war is. It involved an identifiable enemy, whether another nation or some group that acted like a nation or wanted to become one. The objective was to impose America’s will on the enemy. If the stakes were high and the adversary determined, this might require destroying the enemy’s armed forces or at least making them ineffective. Wars had a discernible beginning and end. According to the U.S. Constitution, they began when Congress said so through a formal declaration of war. They ended with a peace settlement. During a war, the U.S. used political, diplomatic and economic power as well as military force, but the military dimension dominated. Strategic success would be expressed in political terms, but military success was a necessary prerequisite to it. And if the war was a major one, Americans made sacrifices by joining the armed forces and tolerating higher taxes and other economic hardships. These hardships ended when the war was over.
Conflicts that were not war, even those that involved the use of military force and violence, were different. It was often hard to tell exactly when they began or ended. Military power was often secondary, with success determined more by political and economic efforts than by battlefield victory. U.S. military power was often used indirectly, to strengthen the security forces of partners, or in “small footprint” packages of special operations forces eroding the capabilities of adversaries by means other than simply defeating their forces on the battlefield. In the U.S., there was little mobilization or sacrifice; for the vast majority of the population, armed conflict meant business as usual. Most importantly, in conflicts of this sort, the adversary was not a discrete, identifiable organization like an enemy military that could be destroyed to attain victory, but a socio-political phenomenon that coalesced around widespread and deeply rooted grievances, greed or ambition. Take, for instance, the misnamed “war on drugs.” The U.S. has destroyed drug-trafficking organizations one after another, yet the phenomenon survives.
America’s current conflict with IS and other components of transnational jihadism is another example of this kind of conflict. The U.S. could, if it wanted, destroy IS’ existing organization in western Iraq. To take it a step further, America could even destroy IS’ existing organization in eastern Syria. But that would not automatically entail “victory.” The phenomenon of which IS is simply one manifestation would still exist. It would simply shift to other places and become manifest in other organizations modeled on the current Islamic State. The U.S. is not “at war” with IS—it is involved in a multidimensional conflict with the broader phenomenon of transnational jihadism. This conflict had no clear beginning and will have no clear end. And most importantly, defeating the enemy’s forces on the battlefield, while it may be important and necessary, will not assure strategic success.
But why does it matter whether the word “war” is used accurately or euphemistically? Because by using it euphemistically, the concept of war becomes so stretched and distorted that it no longer serves its key political role of distinguishing extremely serious threats from just serious ones. Cramming the response to every serious threat into a discrete box called “war” is myopic and dangerous. It confuses the public and muddies political discourse by conflating different conditions. Sustaining public support for steadfast action in the face of complex security threats is hard enough as it is. Using the word “war” inaccurately for its emotional impact makes this even more challenging. The concept of war is not obsolete, but it is badly misused.
The solution is to return to what worked in the past, relying on a more precise understanding of the meaning of war—and a more precise use of the word. All uses of military force are not war. The conflict with IS and the phenomenon of transnational jihadism is deadly important. But it is not war.
Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.