By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Does might make right? It did in World War II, but since then U.S. military interventions have more often been wrong than right. Military legitimacy is about might being right, and when public support is needed for U.S. political objectives in the area of operations, military force must be restrained to be considered legitimate.
America was able to extricate\itself from an illegitimate intervention in Iraq but remains mired in Afghanistan. It is America’s longest war, and one we cannot win. After helping the Kurds defeat ISIS, America is now aiding them and other rebels in opposing Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. Russia and Iran support Assad, and Turkey is fighting the Kurds. Military legitimacy is elusive in such a complex conflict with its shifting alliances.
President Trump vowed to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria before chemical weapons killed scores of children last week. In 2013 Trump had warned Obama not to use military force against Assad, but after Assad used chemical weapons last year Trump criticized Obama for not using force in 2013. Trump often contradicts himself and blames others when he’s wrong; and he believes that winning is everything and the use of overwhelming military force is the way to win.
President Trump doesn’t understand the lessons of legitimacy learned in Vietnam and Iraq. While overwhelming military force is needed to defeat an existential threat in unlimited war, it is counterproductive to U.S. strategic political objectives in limited warfare where public support in the area of operations is required to achieve those political objectives.
There is a real danger that President Trump as commander in chief could be provoked to deploy a sizeable U.S. combat forces in Syria. Secretary of Defense Mattis understands the dangers of such a deployment, but he is subordinate to Trump in the National Command Authority and cannot prevent it.
There are alternatives to another U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. The most common is providing advice and assistance to local military forces. Other alternatives to combat are providing humanitarian aid and assistance to war victims and reporting and collecting evidence of war crimes, and then apprehending the perpetrators. All may be needed in Syria.
In limited wars military advisors are required to bridge the formidable gap between the limits of diplomacy and military operations. The diplomat-warriors of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) have the background and specialized skills to advise and assist indigenous military counterparts in hostile cultural environments without compromising their legitimacy.
In the Middle East and Africa SOF military advisors have assisted local forces defend against Islamist terrorists. In Islamic cultures U.S. military forces are considered infidels, so it takes culturally oriented diplomat warriors with language capabilities to maintain the trust of their indigenous counterparts. Maintaining their legitimacy is a prerequisite for mission success.
Religions are a primary source of conflicting concepts of legitimacy, and the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors—including our neighbors of other races and religions—as we love ourselves is a common word of faith and legitimacy for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. It is also the moral foundation for fundamental human rights.
The U.S. cannot “win” wars in the Middle East and Africa; it can only advise and assist local forces who must fight their own civil wars. Military and political legitimacy depend on public support. While overwhelming military force can defeat an enemy, without the legitimacy of public support a military victory can become a disastrous political defeat.
Since the U.S. cannot use overwhelming military force to win limited wars in the Middle East and Africa, it must use other military means to achieve its political objectives in those unforgiving but strategically important regions. The diplomat warriors of SOF can make a critical difference in protecting U.S. national security interests by meeting the requirements of military legitimacy in hostile cultural environments around the world.
Disclaimer: The author is a retired Army officer who served with Army SOF.
Greg Jaffe has explored how for Trump and his generals “victory” has different meanings. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/for-trump-and-his-generals-victory-has-different-meanings/2018/04/05/8d74ea.
Katrina vanden Heuval has criticized Trump’s ambivalence on U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Syria, first criticizing it and then promoting it. She noted that “Americans prefer peaceful pursuits. They are slow to anger and not eager for military engagement [and] when called to fight, they want to go in big, win quickly and get out.” She concludes that Trump’s policy to continue those conflicts “makes no sense.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/will-our-endless-wars-fuel-the-next-populist-revolt/2018/01/16/29120638-fa3e-11e7-8f66-2df0b94bb98a_story.html?utm_term=.36327e9a35c1&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
Ishaan Tharoor has described Trump’s real Syrian policy as hypocrisy based on Trump urging Obama to avoid air strikes in Syria after Assad’s chemical weapons attack in 2013 and then conducting air strikes in Syria himself in 2017. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/04/09/trumps-real-syria-policy-is-hypocrisy/?utm_term=.2eaaff302c50&wpi.
After promising air strikes against Assad for chemical attacks earlier this week, Trump now signals a more deliberate approach on Syria and is reviewing options for a possible attack. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-now-says-syria-attack-could-be-very-soon-or-not-so-soon-at-all/2018/04/12/aeb46a66.
On Richard Cohen’s advice that The United States should get out of Afghanistan. Now. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-united-states-should-get-out-of-afghanistan-now/2018/02/26/2194e644-1b29-11e8-9de1-147dd2df3829_story.html?utm_term=.897b02957240&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
In The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. (2018) Max Boot describes Edward Lansdale as a classic diplomat-warrior who understood the importance of public support to military legitimascy and political objectives in hostile cultural environs. See http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/01/10/meet-the-mild-mannered-spy-who-made-himself-the-american-james-bond/. Also, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2018/01/10/was-vietnam-winnable-a-new-book-suggests-yes-and-offers-advice-for-the-war-in-afghanistan/?utm_term=.09ca5a4bcbc3&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1.
Max Boot has acknowledged that in Syria “it’s important to maintain an international norm against weapons of mass destruction” and advocated that “the best policy for the U.S., now that the moderate opposition has been defeated, is to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab militia that hold roughly one third of Syria’s territory. But that would require the kind of sustained commitment in the Middle East that Trump is congenitally allergic to.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/04/08/the-latest-chemical-attack-in-syria-reveals-the-bankruptcy-of-tru
Edward Lansdale was never a combat leader, but he had the confidence and respect of those he advised. He helped Ramon Magsaysay counter the Huk insurgency in the Philippines in the 1950s with a commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Lansdale was a diplomat warrior equally at home in a military or civilian environment and was not hesitant to criticize narrow-minded military leaders. On the diplomat warrior and Lansdale, see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium (Frank Cass, 1996), chapter 5, posted in Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/.
On human rights, military legitimacy, and the diplomat warrior, see Back to the Future: Human Rights and Legitimacy in the Training and Advisory Mission, Special Warfare (January-March 2013), posted in the Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/.
Related commentary:(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy
(11/15/15): American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?
(8/27/16): A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy
(9/3/16): The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace
(8/26/17): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Politics and War(9/2/17): The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-legitimacy-of-engagement-and.html.