A Premise Confused
David French is one of my least favorite people on Twitter. Former Major in the US Army, Iraq War vet and columnist for National Review, French spends his days online hand wringing about the need for “realism” in foreign policy, ergo an enormous military, all to keep American’s safe at home. Sound familiar?
In his most recent article, French develops the “frustrating” nature of occupying sovereign nations in perpetuity, drone bombing poorly established targets under the auspices of precision, and hemorrhaging trillions of dollars because of an abundantly obvious existential threat to red, white and blue Americanism: radical jihadists.
The idea that radical jihadists are a threat to the American way of life, or the general safety of individual American’s, is simply preposterous. Remember, at the height of ISIS’s “reign” we were warned of sleeper cells and hidden training camps dotting the contiguous United States. All of that turned out to be the fever dreams of corporate hawks, much like the cold warrior warnings of ‘missile gap’ or Ruskie’s in your Cheerio’s. As the Council on Foreign Relations reported, America is an empirically safe place. How many neighbors, coworkers, fellow church goers or friends have you heard stories from about people they know who have been killed by their falling television? None? The probability is equal to that of being killed by a terrorist since 9/11 in the US.
US spearheading combat operations in “far flung” places throughout the world, as Dave puts it, does not elucidate the growth and evolution of our forces through 20 years of a global war on terror, but rather vastly increases the likelihood of domestic terror attacks. This, unlike the following points to be discussed, is abundantly obvious. If you and your family were tortured regularly by the sound of buzzing drones, with the threat of ordinance dropped any moment constantly looming, you’d harbor ill will towards the perpetrators regardless of their justifications. If that ordinance blew up your kid brothers bus, killed your sister and her new husband on their wedding day, or caved in your family room while you were away, it would be no wonder that that person might seek revenge. This concept of “blowback” isn’t a new one, and the seeds of resentment have been sewn in dramatic fashion. Conservative, verifiable estimates place civilian casualties around 500,000, and that’s only in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
French’s First Point
French first asserts that a sect of radical Muslim’s exists for the express purpose of killing American’s and destabilizing the nation “for the emergence of a new jihadist power”. Contrary to unfurling of the “JV team” or “nihilist” banner on their behalf like former President Obama, French does something more insidious rhetorically regarding ISIS. After a cacophony of demands to recognize them as ‘Islamic extremists’, self-aggrandizing “conservative” foreign policy academics reject the existence of the fundamentalist eschatology advanced by Salafist’s like bin Laden and Baghdadi; that the “armies of Rome” will be met in the fields of Dabiq and defeated, ushering in the apocalypse. ISIS has no desire in establishing a ‘jihadist power’, nor the resources. Their greatest windfalls have been directly from US taxpayers through weapon and vehicle cache’s as well as money funneled to them from the “moderates” we sponsor in Syria anyways. They want to draw Western armies (sometimes specifically the Vatican) into battle in Syria, not have us leave.
Al Qaeda recognized the war of attrition they had to fight in occupied regions to expel the Western armies by making the wars expensive and politically untenable, but in a true display of American exceptionalism, we soldiered on. But ISIS wants us to stand and fight, they don’t care about American domestic stability.
French may concede his prognosticating on a “jihadist power” may be deluded, but jihadists have, in fact, killed swathes of American’s. That’s true. It’s also true that they told us why. Osama bin Laden himself spelled out various, tangible grievances with the US, namely, the stationing of troops in their holy Saudi Arabia. He also goaded a western military response to 9/11 thinking it would help his recruitment efforts, something French himself concedes in the piece is one of the many ‘challenges’ to our war making efforts, and left bin Laden looking nearly prophetic.
This ‘chicken or the egg’ question about who started the conflict between al Qaeda and the US is a Sisyphean affair. On September 11, 2001 AQ was something like 200 members relegated to the Afghan/ Pakistan border. Today, there are tens of thousands worldwide. Regardless, then, of who began the fight, the Salafist’s are winning it ideologically through a much better tailored hearts and minds campaign. A basic objective measure for the safety of Americans would be the number of enemies we have, and that number has increased 100-fold in direct response to a US foreign policy trying to combat them.
French warns about lumping the policies of the last three presidencies together. But Bush, Obama and Trump’s administrations have all directly supported Sunni-based insurgencies comprised of jihadists in their fights against various states. The mujahideen in Afghanistan was another such well-known example from the 1980’s. This financial and military support of radical islamist’s for proxy wars and geopolitics is directly bolstering the enemies we are fighting now, and yet David French brains of the world warn of the secular dictatorships of Shiite and Alawite nations that combat Sunni radicals on the ground day in and day out. Obviously, those policies collectively are doing far more to help the perceived existential threat of jihadists than leaving the region entirely ever could.
In anticipation of these points he posits that it was not because of sterile US policy drafted by our brightest minds that drives the jihadist of today; rather “an ancient, potent systematic ideology”. He leaves out that a massive caliphate existed for 600 years that didn’t wither and die until the end of World War I, and yet “Muslim extremism” is somehow a phenomenon of the last century. Of course, violence was perpetrated by Muslim states, sometimes with expressly religious ends, but that was not unique to jihadists or Muslim nations. Osama bin Laden had a bit to say about western meddling in the Middle East and the move towards insurgencies and terror after the fall of Ottoman Empire and subsequent drafting of the Sykes-Picot lines. This remaking of the Levant and the wider spread Arab nations was viewed as an oppression of potentially theocratic Muslim states by European powers, a far more relatable axe to grind, however.
The safe haven myth and the dangers associated with it is a seemingly evergreen fear tactic. Firstly, the idea that sovereign nations quartering, abetting or simply having within their borders people we consider enemies justifies their occupation in perpetuity is outrageous. In Pakistan we have the tenuous permission to conduct various operations there against supposedly established threats, however, we do not have such permissions in Syria. We invaded a sovereign country hoping to depose their seated government without Congressional approval or the knowledge of the electorate using a small contingent of air power and special operators all while that secular dictator fought against the jihadists French is now warning us about. It’s a fragile sweater he’s wearing, so pull on that thread carefully.
Our policies in Iraq and Syria created the power void and resentment for the rise of ISIS. While collecting our military cache’s left across the Iraqi desert like it was Fortnite, the Islamic State’s war in Syria raged on. DIA documents show the US explicitly backed the rise of an Islamic State against the Assad regime while supplying weapons to Sunni-based insurgencies. Despite that, today ISIS is nearly defeated and the vestiges remaining will be crushed by the victorious Assad coalition.
Meanwhile countries like Afghanistan have endured an 18 year US military occupation and somehow the Taliban controls 55% of territory and rising per the IG. But that is granting too much. “Safe havens” could range from a basement to a 60 acre-beet farm in Scranton, PA and we’d be none the wiser. It’s not as if every terrorist organization raises a black flag and starts streaming work out videos with Kalashnikov’s to liveleaks. The concept of a safe haven is simply a base of operations for a small group looking to do harm. That could be functionally achieved literally anywhere, and much to the chagrin of French, we cannot bring all peoples under our dominion for the sake of national security.
Even if we were to sate the jihadi bloodlust of French and his NatRev compatriots, that wouldn’t change the disposition of the ideology. Former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who drafted an early report warning of Osama bin Laden in 1998, says ISIS won’t die, they’ll just shape shift. Sending legions of men to their deaths tends to sew discord, so driving the survivors underground to lick wounds and console their tragedy-struck neighbors won’t serve American interests particularly well either.
It’s also well documented by former CIA officer Robert Grenier who was the oversight for the Pakistan-based drone program that US actions, particularly drone strikes, are working against our long term stated goals of national security because they, “kill too many civilians, provoke anti-American hatred, and could inadvertently create terrorist safe havens.” Again showing our policies work completely contradictory to our stated goals.
French goes on to tout “lessons learned” over the last 17 years as having culminated to our lean operation in Syria and Afghanistan today. Certainly US casualties are low and costs are less than the invasions and surges, but civilian casualties are on the rise per the IG report in Afghanistan. Besides, the costs of the invasions can’t simply be strewn aside as being in the distant past and therefore unrelated. It wouldn’t be “throwing it away” to leave these countries today any more than it would be a “waste of all those good years” to leave an abuse relationship. The fact remains that the campaigns are unproductive in maintaining security long-term, cost millions even in their current state and kill a lot of innocent people. That level of collateral damage for a Frankenstein monster we largely built is simply unacceptable.
The most telling aspect of this piece is the conclusion. Framed as an argument from first principles we never hear, French believes we must remain militarily in several sovereign nations until the Salafist’s stop believing, take their ball, and go home. Or forever. He says, “No functioning government that abdicates its duty to protect its citizens from hostile attack can remain legitimate. Preferably self-defense is maintained by deterrence. But when deterrence fails, a failure to engage the enemy doesn’t bring peace, it enables the enemy to kill your people.”
So if we could develop a well thought-out plan to drastically reduce the threat of Islamic extremism occurring at home, it would be in our best interests, no, it would be our duty to oblige?
Then it’s time to bring the troops home and end the wars in the Middle East David.