It's Impossible To Win Wars When Your Enemy Is An Idea, Not A People

by John Haltiwanger

The Middle East is an absolute mess right now, even more so than usual.

Things are so chaotic at the moment, it's difficult to even begin explaining the current situation, let alone understand it.

The United States and its allies continue to battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) in both Iraq and Syria. Yet, in doing so, America is fighting in conjunction with Iran, one of its geopolitical foes.

Simultaneously, Yemen is descending into all-out chaos with the US supporting its regional allies (Saudi Arabia) in their efforts against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels.

All the while, the Obama administration is negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.

Simply put, the US is currently fighting a war alongside Iran, supporting a proxy war against it, all while attempting diplomacy on the sidelines.

On top of that, President Obama just decided to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the war there is technically over. And while the war in Iraq started 12 years ago, and is also technically over, the US military is active there once again.

Meanwhile, violence and extremism are infecting virtually every country across the region.

As David Rothkopf, CEO and editor of the FP Group, explains it:

The situation in the region is unprecedented. For the first time since the World Wars, virtually every country from Libya to Afghanistan is involved in a military conflict (Oman seems to be the exception). The degree of chaos, uncertainty and complexity among the twisted, and often contradictory, alliances and enmities is mind-boggling. The technical foreign-policy term for this is giant clusterf*ck.

All of this prompts several questions: Whose fault is it? Should we even care? And how do we fix it?

There are shades of grey in everything.

Everyone loves to play the blame game in politics, especially when it comes to foreign policy. This is particularly true in the US, where hyperpartisanship rules the arena.

Liberals tend to blame President George W. Bush for the current situation. After all, he invaded Iraq under the false pretense it had an active WMD program. He also claimed the government was somehow affiliated with those responsible for 9/11. Absolutely none of that turned out to be true.

Yet, the US still invaded and would end up fighting there until 2011. Thousands of American soldiers died, along with countless Iraqi civilians.

The region was completely destabilized in the process.

This is a very watered-down version of the events, but one can certainly say it created the perfect environment for ISIS to thrive in.

Conservatives would certainly see it differently. They'd blame the current state of the Middle East on Obama's reluctant, or dovish, approach to foreign policy.

Ostensibly, it's true that Obama has preferred diplomacy. He was largely elected under the promise he'd end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet, there's no question many of his responses to various developments and crises have been too little too late. It also might be fair to say he pulled out of Iraq too early, even if it's what much of the public desired.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has relied heavily on clandestine operations and drones to appease the public's desire for no boots on the ground. In the process, he's increased enmity towards the US throughout the Middle East.

Drones are a way of involving yourself in a problem without getting your hands dirty. They're debatably ineffective, immoral and illegal, and they've killed numerous civilians.

Truthfully, however, you can't place overwhelming blame on either president for the present state of the Middle East.

There are shades of grey, but this gets lost in the endless cacophony between liberals and conservatives.

The US can't save the world, but it can't ignore it either.

It would be incredibly narrow, self-centered and delusional for the US to blame all of the Middle East's problems on its activities there. America certainly hasn't helped the situation, but violence and discord have characterized the region for thousands of years. It's a complex place.

At the same time, it would be arrogant and misguided for the US to assume it can somehow fix the Middle East all by itself. No amount of economic and military power can change the convoluted history and culture of that part of the world.

One might be tempted to say the US should simply leave itself out of it then, but it can't afford to take that stance either. We have to care, or we'll suffer the consequences of ignorance and disengagement.

We live in an interconnected world in which developments abroad can quickly impact us at home. Everything from 9/11 to Ebola has taught us this vital lesson.

The US will never win wars if it can't agree on how to approach them. It will also not win wars if the public continues to be disconnected from foreign affairs. These two factors are intricately connected.

War has defined humanity.

There's often no clear enemy in today's violent conflicts.

Non-state actors, like al-Qaeda or Boko Haram, are borderless entities. The Islamic State offers a unique exception in this regard given the territory it controls, but it's also recruiting people from across the globe.

Much of the so-called War on Terror has also been fought in countries the US isn't even at war with. Drone strikes have occurred in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, and recent US airstrikes have occurred in Iraq and Syria.

This is because America has not been fighting any particular nation; it's been fighting an ideology. No military force in the world can win a fight of this nature alone. Killing an idea is far more difficult than killing people.

The US learned this lesson the hard way in Vietnam and has done so again in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Are we caught in a never-ending war?

The answer is unclear, but perhaps we are incorrect to view war as a series of specific conflicts. In other words, it's an unfortunate fact that war and violence have been consistent aspects of humanity since the rise of civilization. We have fought and killed over land, resources, religion, politics and even pride ever since we abandoned our nomadic lifestyles and established settled communities.

Ideally, humans would find a way to rise above these violent, competitive and selfish impulses. Yet, in all of history, war has been more common than peace. Thus, one might say it's impossible to win wars because peace is a fleeting illusion.

This doesn't mean we should give up altogether. Just because conflict is inevitable does not mean peace isn't worth striving for.

It's also true that war has decreased over time and kills fewer people than it did in the past.

With that said, if America desires to continue this trend, it has to conduct itself accordingly. This effort depends primarily on the public.

Americans cannot afford to ignore developments across the wider world or their government's activities abroad.

We can't sit idly by when our government invades countries preemptively, tortures people, kills civilians and partners with dictatorial regimes, all of which is done in our name.

When your country plays such a significant role in international affairs, you have a duty to remain engaged and informed. Accordingly, the public must demand transparency, while holding the government accountable for its shortcomings and failures.

Concurrently, liberals and conservatives must also learn to compromise on fundamental aspects of foreign policy.

A balance between hawkishness and dovishness can be achieved. Diplomacy should always be the preference and military action a last resort.

Eternal peace is not achievable, but relative and perhaps even prolonged stability is not a farfetched notion. It will require foresight, oversight and engagement from all facets of society.

Citations: Theres No Such Thing As Peacetime (Foreign Policy), Operation Charlie Foxtrot (Foreign Policy), US and Iran Both Attack ISIS but Try Not to Look Like Allies (New York Times), US Confirms It Is Supporting Saudi Military Operations In Yemen (NPR), Saudi Arabia Iran and the Great Game in Yemen (Al Jazeera), US Reconsiders Troop Withdraw Plan In Afghanistan (NPR), Poll Half of Republicans Still Believe WMDs Found in Iraq (Politico), Al Qaeda Hussein Link Dismissed (Washington Post), Iraq study estimates war related deaths at 461000 (BBC), To Win the War on Terror We Must Win the War of Ideas (Huffington Post), Get the data Drone Wars (The Bureau Of Investigative Journalism )