In 1785, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson met in London with Abd Al-Rahman, the Ambassador of Tripoli, to discuss the province’s bad habit of abducting American merchants and travelers. The ambassador insisted that it was his people’s “right and duty” to fight and “make Slaves of” citizens from countries that do not recognize the authority of Islam — or at least to ransom them at exorbitant cost from the same.
The visit with Al-Rahman solidified wildly different views that the two future presidents already held. Adams, despairing, said that a fight with the Barbary provinces would be interminable and “too rugged to bear” for the fledgling republic; he paid steep tributes to the pirates throughout his presidency. Jefferson resolved to fight, having written in 1774 that “tribute or war is the usual alternative of these pirates. If we yeild [sic] the former, it will require sums which our people will feel … We cannot begin in a better cause nor against a weaker foe.” He was president during the First Barbary War at the turn of the next century.
The parallels between the Barbary Wars and the U.S.’s current affairs in the Middle East are too obvious to miss. Rapacious figures like Al-Rahman and the Tripolitan pasha exist under different titles. The sharp difference of opinion between Adams and Jefferson similarly endures.
Last week, the Adamses and Jeffersons of campus went after it for a bit. Chet Martin of the liberal Georgia Political Review responded to this piece by THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE’s Russell Dye about ISIS, the terrorist group that seeks to establish an Islamic terror state* in the Middle East. Dye argues in favor of sending U.S. troops to Iraq to “eliminate” ISIS. Martin argues for an air-only intervention, with a rather more modest goal — he even quotes in his defense John Quincy Adams, who inherited all of his father’s reservations about intervention.
Like CENTCOM Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, I favor a ground intervention that relies heavily on proxies and U.S. Special Forces for offensive missions in Syria, complemented by a modest contingent of U.S. infantry in Iraq for defensive, intelligence, and support purposes. That puts me somewhere in the middle of Dye and Martin — there is a lot of daylight between a “pinprick” air war and the charge of the light brigade. That said, I am responding to Martin’s piece because the position he espouses enjoys considerable popular support, and is not without its perils.
Martin pulls no punches in describing the challenge posed by ISIS. This is to his immense credit. He even calls them “evil,” although he winks at his audience by writing that the label (evil, that is) is “antiquated.” Funny that it doesn’t seem to have gone out of style.
Martin thinks that, as there is no agreed-upon definition for “eliminating” the evildoers, as Dye would prefer, we should instead seek to “deny [ISIS] total control” of the region, a goal that doesn’t lend itself to Bidenian verse nearly as well.
Such containment is a tempting prospect after a costly war in Iraq, but it is every bit as short-sighted as a scorched earth campaign, with few of its benefits.
From a strategic vantage point, the United States cannot accept a situation where an Islamic terror state is consolidated in northern Iraq and Syria. ISIS is already the wealthiest terror group in the world, and has proven itself the most brutal. It has beheaded two U.S. citizens, actions which constitute terrorist attacks against our country. Further attacks are limited only by ISIS’s imagination and resources, which will expand the longer we do not stop it with finality — the group is pumping crude oil and adding recruits to its 30,000-strong force even as you read the words.
As to what the policy of containment would look like, Martin writes that an air assault like the one proposed by President Obama will suffice:
[ISIS’s] greatest asset, the ability to act as a truly organized military power, makes them uniquely vulnerable to a disengaged attack by aerial and Special Forces. Unlike al Qaeda, ISIS holds land and has a capital (Rakka, Syria.) They are an enemy our incredibly effective air forces were designed to fight. We don’t have to send troops on the ground to root them out of caves, only destroy their palaces and administrative centers.
His optimism is misplaced. As Professor Tom Nichols of the Naval War College pointed out the night of the president’s speech, “air power is not magic,” even for the world’s dominant military.
While ISIS may be a more conventional force than, say, al-Shabaab, it has adapted to sustained Syrian air assaults since the civil war’s escalation in 2012. As a result, its bases are more likely to be found under bridges in high-density urban environments than in Ba’ath-style “palaces.” Any effective bombing campaign in this environment will unintentionally target large numbers of Sunni-majority civilians, who ultimately must reject ISIS if the region is to recover. Frederick Kagan writes that airstrikes alone “may be perceived as U.S. support to Iranian-backed Shi’a governments trying to oppress the Sunni Arabs,” which would be counterproductive to that end.
Additionally, a short history of air-only interventions casts doubt on the notion that a similar campaign will be sufficient in the present.
Consider the 2011 NATO intervention during the Libyan Civil War, in which the United States “led from behind,” and from above. Predominantly U.S. air power was sufficient to turn the tide in favor of the rebels, but utter chaos ensued after the regime collapsed because the rebels were not strong enough to pacify the country on their own. While NATO was unified around a desirable goal, it did not commit the resources necessary to see it through. A similar outcome is likely to occur in Iraq absent a U.S. ground force to maintain order. This is particularly true in a region where ethnic groups hold competing claims to land and harbor deep distrust of competitors.
The DoD press release accompanying the strikes is surreal in retrospect. It’s worth a read.
As in Libya, the U.S.’s 1998 intervention in Iraq failed to prevent further conflict. President Bill Clinton authorized Operation Desert Fox to “degrade” Saddam Hussein’s military through a four-day bombing campaign. After weathering 600 sorties, the Iraqi regime struck a defiant tone, with its ambassador reportedly telling U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, “If we had known that was all you would do, we would have ended [weapons] inspections long ago.” Unknown to the public today, Desert Fox was overshadowed by the much larger intervention five years later. Insofar as it — and for that matter its predecessor, Desert Storm — failed to end the militancy and brutality of the Hussein crime family, it failed utterly to prevent the next war. So too could a half-hearted effort now lead to later conflict against a stronger foe.
Christopher Hitchens — a man of the Left, but a reliable defender of the West — wrote in 2007 that the Barbary Wars were significant because “they gave Americans an inkling of the fact that they were, and always would be, bound up with global affairs.” The wars, and there were two of them, were not simple. They were multilateral efforts conducted under several administrations, to exorbitant cost. They entailed covert operations and a ground campaign aimed at regime change. The interventions were ultimately essential to the security of American travelers and sailors, however — the choice, as Jefferson correctly identified, was between “tribute or war,” where tribute involved much more than money.
The aftermath of the Barbary Wars also wrought considerable good: the slave-trading of Christians was ended (Christian-majority countries, notably the U.S., would not see the evil in their own ways for several years more); treaties were struck ending the long-standing practice of tribute payments for hostages; U.S. trade and travel in the region expanded enormously, contributing to the prosperity of East and West.
Today, the U.S. faces a challenge in Iraq and the Levant no less daunting than the one it faced in the Barbary provinces all those years ago. We should remind ourselves that wishing away a costly problem, as President John Adams did with each tribute payment, was not enough to solve the problem then. Any strategy that stops short of defeating ISIS will see the same disappointing results.
—M. Blake Seitz is Editor-At-Large of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE
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*Martin writes in a footnote that he will not use the “Islamic State” designation because he denies the group’s claim to statehood. In a strictly legal sense this is uncontroversial, but it only serves to muddy the policy debate for the simple reason that actions speak louder than words on the world stage. If the bombing-and-arming campaign currently in vogue is unsuccessful in rooting ISIS out of major population centers, it will have its state whether we choose to recognize it or not.