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A Tale Of Two Tragedies

  • Steven Metz
  • Apr, 2019
  • 1071
  • American wars


Great nations do not fight endless wars, President Donald Trump said in his recent State of the Union address - one of the few lines that may have appealed to both ends of the political spectrum. Debate is raging in America over how quickly to disengage from Syria and Afghanistan, as frustration with these seemingly interminable conflicts has grown on the political right and left. Mr. Trump grasps this frustration and seems inclined to pull American forces out of both places.

But every time Mr. Trump mentions military withdrawal, security experts, political leaders and military commanders push back. Mr. Trump’s statement about not fighting ‘endless wars’ was, as Kori Schake, the Deputy-Director General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, put it, ‘A clear signal that his administration has scaled back its objectives for Afghanistan and is headed for the exit.’ A ‘precipitous’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, a report from the RAND Corporation warned, ‘would mean choosing to lose’.

Pulling out American troops, the experts contend, would pave the way for an eventual victory by the Islamic State in Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which could unleash another round of terrorist attacks on America. They may make their case in different ways, but the ultimate message is clear: ‘victory’ is attainable if America persists for some unspecified additional period of time.

How did this happen? Why has America reached a point where it is stuck in quagmires with no better ideas than tweaking the existing approach and hanging on? The route to here was not simply a series of bad decisions by political or military leaders or a lack of creativity, but a deeper problem in America’s strategic culture.

A strategic culture reflects the way that a nation sees and identifies itself, particularly how it defines its interests, priorities and most pressing threats, and how it prefers to use its elements of national power - whether ‘soft’ power like diplomacy and economic influence or ‘hard’ military power. A strategic culture almost always reflects a broader national culture. It is, in a sense, a nation’s personality when dealing with the external world. So it can be both a roadmap and a prison, simultaneously clarifying and limiting the options available to political and military leaders.


Why has America reached a point where it is stuck in quagmires with no better ideas than tweaking the existing approach and hanging on?

America’s strategic culture inextricably led to quagmires in Afghanistan and Syria, in part by prodding America towards a simple, military-centric goal. Critics often attribute this military-centrism to a ‘military-industrial complex’ or the national security ‘blob’, with a vested professional or financial interest in the application of armed force. This may be accurate, but it’s not the whole story. Americans prefer military solutions to complex problems because the military realm is one where America is clearly superior to any adversary, and because armed force seems to offer the potential for clear-cut outcomes. Americans treat complex challenges as ‘war’ not because that is the best approach, but because they are good at war. Thus military-centrism has become an integral part of the American strategic culture.

But as Afghanistan and Syria show, complex conflicts are almost never resolvable by limited applications of armed force and, in fact, may not be resolvable at all under current conditions. Rather than admitting or accepting that, Americans tend to believe that if Washington implements a military-centric strategy long enough, eventually it will work. The idea that the America only loses when it gives up too early is etched deep in the collective American psyche.

The American strategic culture is also imbued with a broad dose of maximalism. Americans always prefer the best and the biggest, from the houses they live in, to the meals they eat, to the vehicles they drive. In security strategy, this manifests as a quest for clear, decisive outcomes-for big efforts and big wins.

Maximalism often causes America’s strategic objectives to expand over the course of a protracted conflict. The original goal in Afghanistan, for instance, was to topple the Taliban government that had provided a base for al-Qaeda, and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for transnational terrorists again. The strategic objective then became control of the entire country by an American-backed, democratic government, and that remains the goal today. In Syria, the original objective was to prevent the Islamic State from creating its self-proclaimed ‘caliphate’, which might be used as a base for transnational terrorism. Now the goal...

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