Walking through the dining hall, I spot a lacrosse player in a tank top. It reads, “Two-Time World War Champs,” and sports a huge American flag. I sigh. In many ways, this pretty much sums up the American ethos on which our parent’s generation—and now our own—has been raised. We see ourselves as a global power player not just because of McDonald’s signs in Tokyo or our GDP, but because of the very thing that led us to be a superpower in the first place: our military. From our $640 billion military defense budget to our T-shirts, we are a country who has long valued military might over international cooperation.
Many arguments have been made against the United States’ role as an international aggressor. Most involve points about the importance of sovereignty or the dangerous arrogance of our citizens. It is probably also important to consider that Americans are ambivalent about holding that role at all. But in all of these arguments, when we weigh between intervening to save millions or protect our own interests at home by respecting international doctrine, we make a dangerous and ultimately false assumption. It’s scary, but true: in modern warfare, America can no longer win.
The American army, even with all of its gun power, probably cannot defeat an insurgency. From Vietnam to Korea to today’s Iraq, on-the-ground movements spurred on by non-traditional combat methods are nearly impossible to quash with tanks and drones. This is not to say that we have only employed these military methods; in Iraq, for instance, we have made efforts to work with the Iraqi military, employed our intelligence networks, and used diplomatic routes. But we certainly have relied on our own military might far more than any other Western liberal democracy would have done. We spent billions and sacrificed thousands of lives in a boots-on-the-ground-war that we did not win. We lost because we didn’t know the region as well as our opponents do—and we still don’t. We are inexpert in their combat methods, because they are young groups who constantly adapt. The arguments for why we fail go on and on, and they have all been made before. But the point we really need to get is that our guns aren’t working.
Our constant failure, though, is also due to more than just a failed military strategy. Two-thirds of young voting-age Americans cannot find Iraq on a map. In 2010, the Texas Board of Education actually eliminated curriculum about the Arab world from their textbooks. Americans in general know very little about the rest of the world, including regions we invade—or ultimately choose not to invade.
Obviously, there are a lot of problems with this lack of understanding, but perhaps one of the greatest problems is that it means that we are going to keep on losing. American policy makers are responsive to the will of the people—as they should be. Fatigue from our disastrous intervention in Somalia prevented us from stepping in to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide. We sanctioned the South African apartheid government because mass protests called for it. We don’t intervene in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite a death toll above five million, because the press underreports it, and subsequently we are underinformed.
All of this apathy might be fine—after all, we might not have a stake in a lot of these countries—except for one key problem: we act as if we are a guardian of the world. Thus, an ill-informed populace is influencing the key strategy decisions we make. Our war-fatigued public made sure we did not assassinate Assad and put boots on the ground in Syria a few weeks into the uprising, rather than waiting until ISIS grew and then spread to Iraq. Polls at the time demonstrated massive opposition to the war—along with a huge proportion of people who listed themselves as “unsure,” another demonstration of how uninformed we are about the Middle East. Even if such a large-scale and early intervention would not have worked, the bigger problem is that it never would have been put on the table. We cannot employ these strategies because the public refuses them. And we are going to continue to fail, because effective military strategy cannot be random and at the whim of people who know little about what is going on.
Now, this is not to say that democracies should not be responsive to their people. It is simply to suggest that we should consider halting our interventions given that our own interests and a misinformed public will prevent us from winning. If we cannot win, why would we begin at all, spending millions of dollars and failing every time? Today, we are fighting a losing battle. Held back by the American public, we continue to launch airstrikes, even though our best experts have publicly announced that President Obama’s policy cannot work to eliminate ISIS. Instead, we are engaged in a halfway war that will do little to stop the organization. Our men and women in uniform are one of the greatest assets of our country, and we must not waste their lives and energy in unwinnable conflicts.
We cannot win these wars, but that does not mean that we cannot win at all. Instead, in Iraq we need to better explore our other options. If we stop relying on our military, and start better supporting diplomacy, we might actually stand a chance at stopping extremist groups. Obviously, the geopolitics of other countries is extremely nuanced, but while we cannot control the reasons that might influence countries to help us, we certainly could be more persuasive if we were not viewed as such a tyrant. If our perception were altered, perhaps Turkey would have overcome their fears of Kurdish unity more quickly and been more willing to help us fight on the ground, using people who are from the region and could continue defending border areas once the United States is gone. Similarly, with better relations with more countries not angered by our global assertiveness, we might be able to do more to institute oil sanctions that would cut off ISIS. After all, if we can stop the supply of people and money, our guns become unnecessary. And if we can internationally isolate a group, and force them to a negotiating table, then we can might be able to do the real work of state-building, which best comes not from the force of our troops, but from the difficult and dirty work of making hard compromises. There is no neat win, but there might be another route to peace.