For the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about war. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about some situations going on in the world that might draw us into war. I was thinking… and thinking… and so wrote the first version of this post… and promptly sat on it for a week. Today, while perusing news.google.com over lunch, it highlighted an article from Fox News titled “An open letter to Barack Obama: World War III is here“, by that noted political historian, Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers (i.e., a country singer). However, as his attitude appears to be echoing something I’m hearing from some on the Conservative side of the spectrum, and because it fits within this post, I’d like to explore it in this post:
Ukraine. This, perhaps, is the most “traditional” potential World War. We have one government (Russia) annexing or taking territory belonging to another country (Ukraine), ostensibly to protect the interests of their people in the area. To those familiar with Europe, this looks a lot like the early days of WWII, where Germany was having a lot of territorial ambitions against neighboring countries. At that time, the US stood mostly aloof. Not quite neutral (we were on the side of the Western countries — UK, France), but we weren’t putting troops on the ground. In fact, we didn’t do a massive troops-on-the-ground effort until our territory (Hawaii) was attacked and war was declared against us.
So what should the US do here? This is an old-fashioned war — government armies against government armies over specific territories. But it is also a war that really doesn’t involve US interests, and history might say we should stay uninvolved unless attacked. NATO is a complicating matter — if Ukraine is a NATO-signatory, then we are obligated to defend her. So how does a desire to avoid war balance against a design to prevent history from repeating itself?
It is important to note that as this is government against government, sending in bombers could be viewed as an act of war against a particular government, making the conflict worse.
Syria/Iraq. Here we have a very different war, but also a war with World War echoes. Here we have a fundamentalist religious group, terrorist in nature, not associated with a specific recognized sovereign state government attempting to take territory and establish a new sovereign state (caliphate). Along the way, they are conducting religious and ethnic cleansing of anyone not of their fundamentalist persuasion. They haven’t (yet) attacked American soil, but they have attacked and killed American citizens. In fact, these latter atrocities have incited many conservatives to call for full-out war against the group (ISIS/ISIL).
A major problem here is the nature of the warring parties. Whereas one can control a government and get them to retreat, one cannot wipe out a terrorist group. We can reduce their effectiveness, but there will always be pockets that will come back (look at the Taliban as a good example). It is like trying to wipe-out gangs in a city–as long as there is one member left, it can come back. There is also no clear victory condition, as the governments that remain in the area are often no better and certainly no stronger. That, in fact, was the problem with the previous Iraq/Al Quaida war: there was no clear victory condition — in fact, one can argue that we never “won” as Al Quaida still exists.
Troops-on-the-ground and a World War is not the answer here — we’ve already seen how ineffective that is in the area. This is not a traditional war where grunt soldiers are effective. In fact, normally we wouldn’t care about this conflict except (a) we don’t ever want to permit ethnic cleansing to occur again; (b) being a terrorist group, they will continue to attack America; and (c) there are interests in the area to protect. [Yes, two journalists were killed. Journalism — especially front line journalism — is a risky job, and people get killed in risky jobs] Perhaps the approach here is what we are doing — surgical airstrikes, drone attacks, and perhaps specifically-targeted special forces. We might offer various groups safe-haven, but given current attitudes towards immigration… This may be a case where the answer is to evacuate those at risk who want out, then lock the doors and let the fighting take place in the arena.