Not Losing is a Loser’s Game

The Obama administration’s weak and failing Middle East policy—the struggle against ISIS and the ultimate fate of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria—revolves around a non-strategy of avoiding a major foreign-policy debacle in the 15 months remaining before a new president takes office. But it’s too late. Russia and Iran calling the shots in the Middle East is an American foreign-policy debacle.

While a good defense sometimes wins in football, the team that scores the most points always wins. Football is a game, war isn’t. Furthermore, when Russia and the United States are involved, both with nuclear forces capable of wiping out the world, rules matter. Terrorists and rogue regimes win by thwarting the rules.

Washington’s insipid Middle East strategy stands on weak legs: avoiding commitment to "boots on the ground" by employing military advisors coupled to a less than robust aerial campaign so hamstrung by rules of engagement that planes often return to base with unused ordnance and drone strikes that avoid risk to air crews but accomplish very little. Furthermore, effective diplomacy relies on a very big military stick. In this case Moscow brings a club to the table while Washington shows up with twigs. It will be interesting to watch Russia’s actions to the claim that ISIS was responsible for bringing down Russian Metrojet Flight 9268.

The deployment of 50 Special Forces advisors supposedly to train and assist anti-Assad and anti-ISIS forces puts Americans at risk of being killed or captured. Worse, since Russian/Iranian strategy focuses on propping up Assad, the preponderance of Russian airstrikes will target anti-Assad groups that Americans will be advising. So far only a few Russian sorties have targeted ISIS, most of them aimed at Chechen ISIS elements. Blowing up the airliner may change that.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration favors reliance on advisors, limited air strikes, and drone operations. Making war not to lose creates only an illusion of victory. A timid air campaign featuring pinprick aerial strikes by fighter bombers and unmanned aerial drones aimed at degrading rather than defeating ISIS cannot win. Meanwhile, the ISIS genocidal campaign against Shi’ites and Arab Christians continues fostering a refugee crisis in Europe not seen since World War II.

All wars are won or lost in the heads of leaders, whether bourgeois politicians, dictators, military leaders, or fanatically determined terrorists. To win decisively is the best way to destroy any enemy’s will to fight, and that takes much more force than 50 advisors and limited air attacks can deliver. The quicker that overwhelming force is applied, the more limited the casualties on each side, including collateral damage.

Pinprick strikes won’t defeat ISIS or compel regime change in Damascus. Moscow will continue to support Assad because that provides it access to the Mediterranean and makes Russia the major power broker at the world’s energy epicenter. America has no winning hand in negotiating Assad’s removal, and placing U.S. military advisors with forces likely to be attacked by Russians and Iranians risks a much wider war. If Moscow wants Assad in power, it will get it. If not him, then Russia will name his successor. Obama’s failed policies have ceded that option to Russia and Iran.

Washington’s only chance to retrieve a semblance of strategic leadership in the Middle East is to move decisively against ISIS. Degrading its capabilities only delays a disastrous defeat. The way to intimidate fanatical jihadists is to make it clear that winning is impossible and their defeat and demise are inevitable. Their only choices must be to give it up or die. Bringing them to that decision point involves breaking their collective will. If Washington leads boldly, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Kurds, and the United Arab Emirates follow. Otherwise, the future of the Middle East will be determined in Moscow and Teheran and a major war—a nuclear war involving Israel and likely to bring in the United States—becomes highly likely.

That is what not losing looks like. It’s a loser’s gambit with the highest possible stakes.

— Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University.

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