On Wednesday night President Obama sketched a Middle East strategy predicated on the lavish use of air power. As he has in the past, the president vowed to keep the U.S. ground commitment small. “These American forces will not have a combat mission,” he insisted; “we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” Airmen will bear the brunt of the fighting.
A couple of snap thoughts about the speech, channeling the greats of strategic theory. One, there’s the potential for a chasm between ambitious strategic ends and meager military means—a strategy/policy mismatch, as we refer to it at the Naval War College. Eradicating an opponent—Obama likened ISIS to a cancer that must be degraded and ultimately cut out—is what the likes of Carl von Clausewitz, writing in On War, call an “unlimited” goal. That means throwing the enemy down and imposing any terms on him the victor likes. Setting unlimited goals implies Washington will summon up as many resources as necessary to crush the opponent, and will expend those resources for as long as it takes.
A heavy rate of expenditure of lives, treasure, and hardware for a long time: that adds up to a pricey, open-ended endeavor. But at the same time the president seemed to cap the means earmarked for the campaign. If indeed administration officials rule out a significant ground commitment for the duration of the campaign, that implies they will confine the effort to air power. Doing so limits the war by “contingent,” as Clausewitz and sea-power theorist Julian S. Corbett would put it. That means designating in advance how much you’re prepared to spend on an enterprise—presumably rather sparse means—and instructing commanders to make as much trouble as they can for the enemy using the contingent, or “disposal force,” allocated to them.
This inverts the normal strategy-making process. It means vowing to buy something, and fixing the amount you’re prepared to spend, before you know the price. Try announcing you’re prepared to spend $10,000 on a brand-new car and going to the salesman at your local BMW dealer. Good luck with that. Statesmen and commanders normally figure out what they want out of a campaign first, then determine how many means it will take to execute the campaign. Limiting the effort by contingent beforehand betokens half-heartedness. And half-heartedness represents a harbinger of trouble in any offensive meant to wipe out a foe.
This approach makes sense in peripheral theaters or operations. It made sense for, say, Great Britain to dispatch Lord Wellington to Spain with an expeditionary contingent to make life tough for Napoleon. That was Britain’s way of using a secondary theater to make a difference in the unlimited, continent-spanning, knock-down-drag-out war against Napoleonic France. But Wellington’s amphibious war-by-contingent wasn’t the entire show—as it appears Obama’s aerial war-by-contingent will be in Iraq and Syria. One hopes administration officials realize the danger in setting unlimited ends and allocating means that could prove inadequate. They must ask themselves what comes next if aerial bombardment doesn’t get it done—as it may not.
And two, winning wars means controlling events on land—as Corbett notes in his majestic Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Sea and air power constitute adjuncts to the land fight—critical adjuncts in many instances—but since mankind lives on land, that’s where wars are decided. This gets to Admiral J. C. Wylie’s point in Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control. In his critique of air power, Wylie opines that it’s a fallacy to think air forces can control what happens on land. Air-power proponents, naturally, are especially prone to this fallacy. They equate the capacity to destroy from aloft with the capacity to control what people do. The ability to make a desert and call it peace isn’t the same thing as imposing control.
In the final analysis, writes Wylie, the arbiter of control is the man on the scene with a gun. If the United States confines its efforts to air power, then, it’s saying sotto voce that the men on the scene with guns will be Iraqis and Syrians. These are precisely the men with guns whom ISIS has rolled up in combat over the past year. They are dubious allies on whom to pin our hopes. If Iraqis and Syrians can’t control what happens on the ground, what then?
In short, success in the Middle East may prove elusive. U.S. aviators can rain down destruction from on high, but they may do so without obtaining the control needed to bring about a durable peace. Administration officials must ask themselves—now, ahead of time—what comes next if the assumptions underlying the campaign prove faulty. Take it from Admiral Wylie: destruction without control equals stalemate.