Here is the baffling absurdity of America’s position in the world right now: We are getting more deeply embroiled in two wars and flirting with starting another. Our top military officers say (and have long said) that none of these wars have a military solution but rather must be settled politically. Yet the Trump administration is pouring in more troops, and expanding their missions, while doing little or nothing to conceive, much less pursue, a political course of action.
The two current wars are in Afghanistan and Syria; the third may erupt in North Korea. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is one of the officers—in his case, a retired Marine four-star general—who has poured cold water on the notion that we can kill our way to victory. He has said repeatedly that he the reason he needs more military assets and a wider military presence is to give our diplomats the leverage to make peace. But as more troops head into battle, our diplomats are dormant: crucial appointments remain unfilled; veteran foreign service officers are fleeing in droves; and the one time that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opened a back-door negotiation with the North Koreans, President Trump slammed it shut. So we just dig ourselves deeper in conflicts that those in charge don’t know how to fight or win—that may be unwinnable.
Afghanistan is a classic, and tragic, case in point. The contradictions were clear long before Trump entered the White House. From nearly the beginning, the top brass—Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, who were commanders, and Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—said time after time that, ultimately, a political deal would have to be struck with the Taliban. But they also insisted that negotiations shouldn’t begin until U.S. forces and the Afghan army win more battles and wrest back more land, in order to acquire a stronger bargaining position.
The war is now in its 17th year, and this upper hand is as elusive as ever. Meanwhile, the ceaseless fighting is plunging the country more deeply into chaos, the government in Kabul remains mired in corruption (a problem that would preclude victory, Adm. Mullen once said, no matter how many troops we sent), and the Taliban—as well as the more radical ISIS—are gaining ground.
It is time to figure out just what we want as a minimally acceptable outcome of this war (something that no administration has systematically done) and to start talks aimed at achieving it (something that this administration has neither the personnel nor the inclination to do).
Syria, meanwhile, is a textbook case in mission creep. President Obama reluctantly sent troops there to defeat ISIS after realizing he couldn’t confine the fight to the group’s foothold in Iraq. Now that ISIS has been ousted from almost all the territory it once held, the country’s other conflicts—a multidimensional civil war involving the Syrian regime, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and several Kurdish militias—has reignited in full force. (These wars never lost fuel entirely.) And the Trump administration, which recently decided to keep troops in the country for the long haul to prevent ISIS from resurging, is now stuck in the middle of violent power struggles that it doesn’t understand and in which we have no discernible interest, except to stabilize the region—but the grinding, overlapping wars are exacerbating its instabilities.
From the beginning, it was clear that our two goals in the fight—to crush ISIS and, somehow, to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power—were contradictory: ousting Assad could create a power vacuum, which ISIS or forces like it could fill; but crushing ISIS, the most powerful anti-Assad militia, would make it easier for Assad to crush the other, weaker militias seeking to overthrow his regime. As predicted, as ISIS has waned, Assad has stepped up its campaign against those militias, often with the help of Russia and Iran, which have long had a presence in Syria and a stake in preserving his regime.
Meanwhile, the United States actively supports some of those militias—the Syrian Democratic Forces, which Assad and his allies have recently been attacking, and is partly made up of Kurdish groups, which are seen as existential threats by Turkey. And so our entanglement in several wider conflicts seems almost inevitable.
On Wednesday, U.S. troops pounded pro-Assad forces with air and artillery strikes, killing 100 of them, in response to an attack on anti-Assad rebels who had captured a gas refinery from ISIS, in the eastern part of the country, and stayed there along with their U.S. advisers, who also came under the Syrian attack.
The next day, Secretary Mattis told reporters that the United States was not “getting engaged in the Syrian civil war.” Rather, our strike on pro-regime forces was an act of “self-defense.” True, but it was our military presence in Syria and our alliance with anti-Assad forces—in other words (there is no getting around this fact), our acts of “getting engaged in the Syrian civil war”—that put us in a spot where we had to fire in self-defense, and almost certainly not for the last time.
The Russian defense ministry issued a counterstatement claiming that “the real aim” of America’s continuing military presence in Syria is not the fight against ISIS but rather “the seizure and retention of economic assets that only belong to the Syrian Arab Republic.” In other words, this fight is going to get fiercer, and the prospects for achieving the second goal of our original intervention—to negotiate a political settlement, with all the other interested players, to ease Assad out of power—have dimmed to the point of near-darkness.
It may not be possible to reopen the diplomatic forum that Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, had initiated; even then, before the wars intensified and U.S.–Russian relations soured, it produced scant results. Still, negotiations of some sort are the only path toward stopping the appalling carnage.
Finally, there is the nightmare of North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s fiery rhetoric and escalating nuclear weapons program—combined with Trump’s equally furious threats to launch an attack if the program continues—have raised the specter of war to levels unseen for decades.
Mattis and his Pentagon aides were reluctant even to draw up attack plans, until Trump insisted on it. They realized—as had officers under the last few presidents—that there are no good military solutions to the problem. Kim has dispersed and buried most of his nuclear missiles and materials, making them very hard to hit. If Kim brought the missiles out, to prepare them for either a test-launch or an attack, then they could be hit—but maybe not all of them, all at once. And besides, Kim also has hundreds of artillery rockets, many of them loaded with chemical weapons, poised on the border of South Korea, just 35 miles from its capital, Seoul, with a population of 10 million people.
The option that the Pentagon finally offered—popularly known as the “bloody nose” attack—envisions the following scenario: Kim brings out one of his missiles; we bomb the missile, the command-control facilities around the site, maybe a few other targets as well; and this stuns him into submission. Maybe it would, maybe not. Even those who are closely involved with the plan think there’s a high chance that Kim would retaliate in some way—and after that, it’s doubtful that “cooler heads will prevail,” not least because cooler heads don’t occupy the top posts of either government. The option is, at best, a very dicey gamble. It’s a better option than the others, which offer all-but-certain catastrophe, but that doesn’t make it a good option.
Everyone who has studied the problem knows that, if there is a solution, China must be a big part of it. Even China, North Korea’s main (almost sole) ally and trading partner, is clearly getting annoyed with Kim’s high jinks, even voting for U.N. sanctions that it once routinely vetoed. But China won’t take decisive measures, fearing that the collapse of Kim’s regime—the ultimate solution to the problem—would drive millions of North Koreans across the border, spawning a humanitarian crisis in China’s sparsely populated eastern territories. It would also likely spur either a bitter civil war or the unification of the two Koreas, under Seoul’s control, thus placing an American-armed ally butting up against China’s border—and freeing the U.S.
military to deploy more forces in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits, which China regards as areas of vital interest.
Meanwhile, the United States should continue to keep up the pressure on North Korea—tightening sanctions, penalizing those who violate the sanctions, mobilizing more ships and planes to the area, if just to reassure our Pacific allies of our commitment to their defense. At the same time, we should resume talks with North Korea and the other powers in the region (this is what Tillerson tried to do, until Trump publicly undercut his efforts); they might not lead anywhere, but then again they might. Finally, we should start talks with China, to see if we can work out some kind of deal in which we mollify their security concerns and they crack down harder on Kim’s regime.
Maybe such deals are the stuff of fantasy. Maybe diplomatic solutions to all these conflicts are a pipedream. Diplomacy is hard, doubly so when it involves solving problems that have long seemed intractable. This is why a nation, especially one that unfurls its muscles around the world, needs a serious diplomatic corps and a coherent strategic vision. Currently we lack both. And that being the case, it makes no sense to wade deeper into military quagmires.