More Troops, More Troubles?

Andrew Bacevich calls the bipartisan consensus that we need a large Army, which includes presidential candidates ranging from John McCain to John Edwards to Barack Obama, “pure twaddle.”

In fact, the great lesson of Iraq (further affirmed in Afghanistan) is that the umma — the Arabic name for the entire Muslim community — is all but impervious to change imposed from the outside. If anything, our ham-handed efforts to inculcate freedom and democracy, even if well-intentioned, have played into the hands of violent Islamic radicals. The Bush administration’s strategy has exacerbated the problem it was designed to solve, while squandering American lives, treasure, moral standing and political influence to little avail.

Given the mess in which we currently find ourselves, increasing the number of men and women under arms makes about as much sense as drinking bourbon to treat depression. In the short term, the antidote might make you feel better, but at a cost of masking the underlying problem and allowing it to fester.

The underlying problem is that the basic orientation of U.S. policy since 9/11 has been flat wrong. Bush’s conception of waging an open-ended global “war” to eliminate terrorism has failed, disastrously and irredeemably. Simply trying harder — no matter how many more soldiers we recruit and no matter how many more Muslim countries we invade and “liberate” — will not reverse that failure. More meddling will evoke more hatred.

THE CHALLENGE confronting those aspiring to the presidency, therefore, is to devise an alternative to Bush’s failed strategy. To pass muster, any such strategy will have to recognize the limits of American power, military and otherwise. It must acknowledge that because the United States cannot change Islam, we have no alternative but to coexist with it.

Yet coexistence should not imply appeasement or passivity. Any plausible strategy will prescribe concrete and sustainable policies designed to contain the virulent strain of radicalism currently flourishing in parts of the Islamic world. The alternative to transformation is not surrender but quarantine.

Bacevich is almost certainly right that, absent a ratcheting up of the war on terror to genocidal levels, we’re not likely to end the Islamist threat by force alone. Indeed, even the most enthusiastic neo-conservatives and staunchest supporters of President Bush (including, Bush himself) acknowledge this.

It’s far from clear, though, how we would impose a “quarantine” without “evok[ing] more hatred.” Indeed, the problem with the modern strain of global terrorism is that it’s so adaptable and seemingly immune to attack.

Yes, going into the Middle East with large concentrations of troops, killing people and breaking things, serves as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and their ilk. At the same time, though, retreating with our tails between our legs will be seen–rightly so–as a victory for terrorism and further establish that as the most effective tactic against the West. Similarly, doing nothing in response to attacks with be seen as weakness, not compassion. It’s a vicious Catch-22 and there are no easy answers.

Jules Crittenden is rather too harsh, though, in saying that Bacevich’s ideas are “deserving of contempt.” He specifically rejects appeasement; he’s merely frustrated that the current policy does not appear to be working and is making a rather helpless cry for a diplomatic solution.

This, too, is unfair: “Bacevich has returned to past policy of not mentioning his personal involvement in Iraq. It is deceptive on the part of the LA Times to allow this.” Presumably, Crittenden is referring to the fact that Bacevich’s son was recently killed while serving in Iraq.* That’s, quite understandably, a touchy subject and there’s no obvious reason why it must be highlighted every time Bacevich writes about the war. For one thing, his record of opposing the war is long and predates his son’s assignment there.** For another, mentioning that in every piece would lead to charges that he’s using the death of his son for political purposes or that he is speaking as a grieving father rather than as a genuine expert in his field.

*See “1LT Andrew Bacevich Killed in Iraq” (May 15).
**For example, in a November 2003 post I cited his observation, “I think it has to be unprecedented in U.S. military history to be engaged in a war of increasing intensity for this long a time and we really still don’t know who the enemy is.”

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, Middle East, Terrorism, The Presidency, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ken says:

    It’s a vicious Catch-22 and there are no easy answers.

    No. The answer is clear. Get out of the middle east and stop meddling in their internal affairs. Our only interest in the region is oil. We buy it. They sell it. If they don’t sell it, we don’t buy it.

    Everything else is to be handled diplomatically. We do not like human right abuses so we tell them we do not lie human right abuses, and we demonstrate within our own borders what respect for human rights really means. For example, we believe torture is a crime against both international and domestic law and we believe in the rule of law so we demonstrate what this means by bringing those responsible for Americas torture policy to justice. If this means putting Bush and his war criminal cronies in jail then that is what we do.

    That is how we deal with jihadist, whether they be foreign or domestic.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Unfortunately, ken, we purchase oil from national oil companies. As long as we keep buying we are, by definition, “supporting repressive regimes”, and we’ll be, from the point of view of those who believe we’re interfering in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern countries, legitimate targets.

    We aren’t “in” the Middle East for the fun of it or because we’re imperialists or because we’re bloodthirsty. We’re there because when we weren’t “in” the Middle East there was a rising level of chaos and destruction there.

    We haven’t been major supporters of the Israelis forever. Just since the 1967 war (previous to that the French were their main suppliers). Was the period between WWII and 1967 notably peaceful?

    We haven’t had military bases in the Middle East forever. While they are both a consequence and a cause of the disorder there I believe it’s more the former than the latter.

  3. Wayne says:

    Where to start? First an increase in the size of the U.S. military wouldn’t mean more troops in Iraq. It would ease some of rotation strain and give us flexibility in other areas. The key is and has been the right types of troops not the number of troops.

    The idea that the ME is unchangeable is a myth. Live in Qatar or Kuwait for a while and someone without blinders on will see that change is possible. I heard of other countries in area that has made progress as well. Are they ideal to U.S. standards? No. However the U.S. as any county doesn’t live up to other country standards. There are good people in ME but some radicals as well.

    Most successful counter-insurgency takes at least 10 years to go through the process. Iraq is greatly hamper with that process since the constant negative U.S. pro terrorist MSM coverage and outside country support of Iran feeds the terrorist efforts.

    Ideally the effort would use almost exclusively SF forces and would be below the MSM radar. Iraq is one situation where this isn’t plausible. One of the objectives that an SF team tries in an insurgency or counter-insurgency operation is to bond with the locals. You don’t give up your identity but attempt to show interest in the local culture. With the MSM coverage, SF teams can’t even do something as simple as growing one’s beard without MSM and politicians crawling up their backside. McCain may know about being a pilot and a POW but doesn’t know jack about SF.

    Yes we can’t solve the problem in the ME with force alone but we can’t do it by diplomatic means alone either. Force has been and will be needed to help solve the problem.

    The typical U.S. citizen is whiney with little determination or willpower. If it can’t be done in thirty minutes, it’s a total failure.

  4. Andy says:

    Has Jules Crittenden ever written anything that doesn’t involve killing more brown people?

  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    It would appear many here do not understand the aim of radical islam. Persons like Andy conceal their lack of knowledge on the subject by turning the topic to something racial. How enlightened. While there is no easy answer, if the news media starts with the premise that we cannot succeed it does make the fight a little more difficult. Somehow the lying voices of the left would have you believe everything the U.S. does is wrong and that we must return to the failed methods of the past, that you can negotiate with those who would destroy everything we hold dear. The left does not wish to fight for freedom because it does not believe in freedom.

  6. ken says:

    Dave Schuler, nice try but you are wrong. You are just making stuff up about how buying oil equates to interference in the “internal affairs of Middle Eastern countries”. It doesn’t. Even in the minds of real or imagined enemies it doesn’t.

    But overthrowing democratically elected regimes and installing a Shah, like in Iran, does constitute interference. So does supporting Iraq in its use of WMD in its war with Iran. So does driving Iraq out of Kuwait. So does ten years of strafing and bombing Iraq. And of course the current Bush policy of invading and waging war on Iraq is interference on a colossal scale.

    We had no trouble in the middle east until we started meddling in the middle east. History has proven that the people in that region have long memories and will not easily, if ever at all, give up their ambitions for themselves.

    Whether their ambitions are to embrace modernity or to reject modernity, whether their ambitions are wise or foolish, socialist, communist, libertarian or tyrannical, as long as they do not directly affect us, they are not our direct business.

    We do not have the ability to remake their culture or direct their development to our liking. And if we try we will change ourselves more to the bad than we change them to the good. This is proven out by everything that has happened in the middle east since we started our meddling there.

  7. Mike says:

    What about the problem of actually being ready to recruit enough QUALITY recruits to fill the new numbers – my understanding is that the Army has been making its quota but only b/c the quota was lowered – not to mention the issue of the NG and Reserves – i guess if they increase pay and what not, the market will get the new Soldiers in the door but it hasn’t worked so far.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    History has proven that the people in that region have long memories and will not easily, if ever at all, give up their ambitions for themselves.

    You’ve just contradicted yourself, ken. Long memories mean they won’t forget past grievances. Why then does what we do now matter? Whereever we go and whatever we do old scores will be raked up. The Islamists are complaining about the “tragedy of Andalusia”, for goodness sake. Where do we pull back to? The Pyrenees? The gates of Vienna?

  9. ken says:

    You’ve just contradicted yourself, ken. Long memories mean they won’t forget past grievances.

    Is that all that it means to you? You are pretty shallow if so.

    Having long memories means having a knowledge of history both the good as well as the bad, successes as well as failures, glories as well shames.

    You think it only means revenge? You do not understand human nature in general nor the people of the middle east in particular.

    In your need to have an enemy you are creating one. There are some people in the middle east just like that as well.

  10. M1EK says:

    As always, START with not listening any more to the crew who took us off the rails in the first place (the neocons who abandoned a worthy war in Afghanistan to pursue a nation-building project in Iraq). Until you’re willing to do that, you’re not worth listening to yourself.

  11. Kathy says:

    You spelled his name wrong, James. Twice, unless I missed any instances.

    Ooops. Fixed. – JHJ

  12. Kathy says:

    We’re there because when we weren’t “in” the Middle East there was a rising level of chaos and destruction there.

    When was that time that we were not in the Middle East, Dave?

  13. G.A. Phillips says:

    -You think it only means revenge? You do not understand human nature in general nor the people of the middle east in particular- Oh great Ken know-er of all please explain human nature to us, I have not had a good laugh in a while and have been missing your wit and wisdom.

  14. graywolf says:

    So Ken:

    How big a party do you throw every Sept. 11?