War and Americas Compromisers in Chief

War is uncompromising. Despite modern attempts to predict it, understand it, quantify it, contain it, reduce it, and eliminate it, it remains the same as it ever was. Only the tools of war change—from rocks, arrows, and chariots to nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, and drones. Dig around in the earliest fossils of human bones and one will find men killed by other men. War has always been here and there is no reason to believe it will ever be eliminated. The best we can hope for is to avoid it when possible, reduce or contain it when plausible, and, failing that, win it by all means necessary. America has shown itself in its 238 years of existence to be adept at it.

But not so much recently. America has built the most competent and capable military force in human history, yet finds itself struggling in the post-9/11 era to win wars, even when it wins battles. This has to do with how America’s political leaders have chosen to apply force. America’s tools of war are the best anywhere; it is the operators that are failing. Why? Because war is uncompromising and politics is all about compromise.


The Art of Compromise

When asked what they look for in an elected leader, the willingness and ability to compromise is often listed by American voters among the most desirable attributes for a politician to have. President Obama throughout his time in office—despite being labelled as an extreme liberal by his conservative critics—has shown willingness to reach compromises with congressional Republicans, who have more-often-than-not rebuffed his offerings. He has also come under fire from liberals who believe he has not leaned left enough on many issues. Despite rhetoric from the extreme left and right, on most domestic issues, taken as a whole, President Obama has shown himself to be a moderate. Setting aside his campaign motto of ‘Change’ and ‘Yes We Can’, the President’s moderation and willingness to compromise had much to do with his electoral victories. Compromise is good in politics.

The members of congress who garner the most respect from their colleagues in their own party and across the aisle are those who have built relationships with those they do not always see eye-to-eye with in order to forge compromises. Senators John Kerry, Richard Lugar, John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, among others, are or were known for having, at various times, reached out to members of the other party for support on non- or bipartisan issues or to hammer out compromise legislation. During the 2009 negotiations regarding the Affordable Care Act, a ‘Gang of Six’ Senators—three Democrats and three Republicans—attempted to hammer out a compromise. Another bipartisan ‘Gang of Six’ attempted to reach compromise over the budget in 2011.

No matter what presidents decide on national security and foreign policy, they have an eye on domestic politics when making decisions on the use of forceDomestic politics, often about the art of compromise, has a strong influence on Presidents choices regarding war.

This is the way sausages are made in Washington, though there has not been much in the way of sausage production lately. Hate or love the result, with the midterms over perhaps Congress will finally get back to work and it seems likely that compromise will have to be on the GOP’s agenda. They do not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a Democrat still occupies the White House. Compromise is what is needed in Washington, at least as far as domestic politics is concerned.

Historically, those Senators or Governors who are successful in reaching compromises with the other party in Congress or in state legislatures are those who rise to national attention, sometimes culminating in a run at the White House. For example, Lyndon Johnson was known as a masterful marshal of congressional support before moving to the executive branch. However, once they sit in the oval office, this strength, which often helped them to get there and often continues to aid them in guiding domestic legislation, can lead them into trouble when it comes to the use of military force.


The Art of War

The unpopularity of America’s recent, controversial, and ongoing wars in the Middle East—stoked once again by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA’s interrogation program—have made the job of Commander in Chief and deciding when the country goes to war an even more difficult task than usual. America currently suffers from “Iraq Syndrome” which prevents it from taking a real, unbiased look at whether armed intervention is necessary. And, unfortunately, it is President Obama’s very moderation and willingness to compromise that has caused him great trouble of late when it comes to the fight against ISIS.

President Obama is not alone in that regard. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the George W. Bush administration opted for compromise. In Afghanistan, it adopted a “light footprint” using predominantly Special Operations Forces supported by local fighters. Then it chose to apply “dynamic maneuver warfare” and “thunder runs” in an attempt to “bypass” enemy resistance and decapitate Saddam’s regime in Baghdad. The Bush administration believed that it was not necessary to apply America’s significant preponderance of force as in the Gulf War and instead adopted a middling solution they believed would offer a quicker, cheaper victory. It did not. The campaign in Afghanistan fell off the table because of the invasion of Iraq, where not enough troops were deployed to provide the security necessary to support stabilization and support operations—something the administration had initially said it would not undertake, had not planned for, and yet, in the end, did anyway. Compromises in the use of military force caused not one, but two Middle East quagmires America is still dealing with today.

Enter Barack Obama, who promised to end both wars. That was and is popular with Americans. He withdrew combat troops from Iraq and timetabled full withdraw from Afghanistan. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings touched off regime change in the Middle East. At first the West embraced the wave in Tunisia and Egypt and took advantage of the opportunity to topple Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Knowing America had little appetite for another war in the Middle East, it found a “compromise” or middling route to go to war. In this the administration succeeded with an American air campaign dressed in British and French clothes.

Emboldened, the White House took up against Bashar al-Assad in Syria as well and even drew some “red lines” he would not be allowed to cross. However, Assad has stronger friends, such as Russia (and China to a lesser extent) and, following the Libya operation, many of America’s European allies (especially Germany) felt the wool had been pulled over their eyes. They refused to rally to the flag against Assad. The red lines were crossed and nothing happened. The chaos of the Syrian civil war, now almost 4 years in duration, created uncontrolled space which ISIS gladly filled, since spilling into the Sunni territory of Western Iraq.

The options for fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq are all bad and unpopular. One option would have been to leave Iraq to its fate. America invested ten years of training, equipment, and money into the Iraqi government and military and Iraq knew it would not last forever. Iran would likely have gobbled up Eastern Iraq and its Shia-majority population and holy sites. It has already deployed Republican Guard troops to protect sacred sites there and conducted some airstrikes of its own against ISIS in Iraq. This still would have left America considering what to do about Iraqi Kurdistan, steadfast Western allies who would likely—and are currently—suffer attacks from ISIS. But America successfully conducted just such an operation before in Iraq, Operation Provide Comfort, in 1991 to protect the Kurds from Saddam’s wrath. The likely end-state would be the 3-way partition of Iraq into 3 zones—an Iranian-dominated Shia eastern zone, a Sunni-dominated western zone, and a Kurdish northern zone. That is what could have been.

But President Obama has chosen to intervene in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. The American public does not want large-scale troop deployments in Iraq again and are already wary of the 3,000 military advisers deployed there. The White House, preferring its formula from the Libya campaign and not wanting to be responsible for sending troops to war in Iraq (plus Syria) again, has chosen the compromise or middling solution of fighting ISIS solely from the air. Even arming and equipping local rebel forces in Syria to fight ISIS was too large a risk for the White House, though America has spent the majority of the last decade pumping weaponry into neighboring Iraq (not to mention Afghanistan), large amounts of which have disappeared. Despite clear statements from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that deploying US ground troops should not be taken off the table, the Obama White House has insisted it is “staying the course”, albeit a very middling one. It seems that disagreements with those closest to President Obama on this policy may have played a role in the recent resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.


The Tyranny of Moderation

How did we get here? Our elected leaders, especially our last two presidents, have compromised when it comes to how America goes to war. They have chosen middling solutions because they were and are stuck between a rock and a hard place where all of the options are bad and they are looking for the least-worst option. In the case of President Bush, it was a war of choice; for President Obama, it is necessity. Both could have chosen not to go to war; both chose to. However, they also adopted middle-of-the road postures in how these wars would be prosecuted.

No matter what presidents decide on national security and foreign policy, they have an eye on domestic politics when making decisions on the use of force. This is why people like Karl Rove and Valerie Jarrett can be found sitting in on meetings, making calls, or having long conversations with presidents on war—an area far outside of their experience and remit. Domestic politics, often about the art of compromise, has a strong influence on presidents choices regarding war and national security.

War is not a compromise. When America goes to war, all options should remain on the table. If the country goes to war, it must go all the way until victory. Realistic goals and the end-state must be clear before—not developed during or after—the campaign in order to plan for it. This includes the planning for what happens afterward. If our Commander in Chief is not willing to commit fully all of his political capital to do what is or may be required for absolute victory, then America should not go to war. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. Do it or do not do it all. There is no compromise.


[Photo: Flickr CC: Beverly]

Chris Miller is a veteran of the U.S. Army and a Purple Heart recipient following two tours in Iraq. He has worked as a military contractor in the Middle East and his current work focuses on strategic studies. His interests are CBRNe, military and veterans issues, the Cold War, and international security affairs.


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