Foreign Policy

Chuck Hagel Says We Haven't Had Enough War Yet

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Chuck Hagel
U.S. Government

The headlines today are that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wrote a "memo to the White House criticizing Syria strategy." The nature of that criticism is a bit on the vague side, though, given that it's a confidential document and all that seems to have leaked is an unattributed comment to the effect that he thinks "we need to have a sharper view of what to do about the Assad regime."

Whoah. Scathing.

But if the memo reflects what Hagel said the other day at the Washington Ideas Forum, his real criticism may be that U.S. foreign policy hasn't, of late, had enough war in it.

At The Atlantic, David Graham notes the Defense Secretary's remarks that "What we're seeing in the Middle East with ISIL is going to require a steady, long-term effort. It's going to require coalitions of common interest."

Beyond the world's sandbox, he sees lots of fun stuff to keep U.S. diplomats and Marines engaged. "Tyranny, terrorism, the challenges and threats to our country … is going to be with us. It's a reality. I see these things continuing to stay out of there."

Strictly speaking, Hagel's comments don't seem like Teddy Roosevelt-style saber rattling—there's no specific country he wants to overwhelm with American firepower in some perceived opportunity for glory and medal ceremonies. Instead, it sounds like the foreign policy equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. Without a specific opponent or goal, there's no endgame—there's just a series of brushfires alternating with crises intermingled with confrontations.

Fairly, I think, Graham sums up Hagel's comments as "Get used to endless war."

So, if Hagel is criticizing the Obama administration's Syria strategy, it's probably a matter of emphasis rather than substance. Because he sees an unending future of more of the same.

NEXT: Christopher Preble on the Politicians Who Scare You

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  1. Since we only get peace when our enemies decide to give it to us, Hagel isn’t necessarily wrong here. To assume he is is to assume that Isis will give us peace and leave us alone if we do the same. Maybe that is true. I does, however, not have to be true. Yet, Reason acts under the absolute faith that it is true. Such faith in fact, Reason doesn’t even consider the possibility it might not be true or examine the evidence to see if it is.

    1. Give Reason a break dude. She’s like three years old.

      1. Has it been that long already?

        *thinks*

        I keep thinking she’s, like, a year. But it’s gotta be a couple now anyway.

        WHERE’S SLOOPY AND BANJOS FOR AN UPDATE?!

    2. I believe that if we actually secured the border and enforced immigration law that ISIS would be no threat to us. It’s possible that they could be a threat in the future, but with no navy or air force I don’t see a credible current threat.

      1. I believe that if we actually secured the border and enforced immigration law that ISIS would be no threat to us.

        Perhaps. Of course Reason would never support doing that either.

    3. Straw men are made of straw, Red Tony.

    4. John, it looks like you have a tendency to inflate minor threats like ISIS. They aren’t Nazi Germany even though you did attempt to draw parallels to 1940 yesterday.

      1. Does everything have to be Nazi Germany in order to be a threat to us?

        By the by, Nazi Germany never invaded us nor did they attack the continental US before we declared war on them. They didn’t even kill US citizens outside the bounds of international law. The only thing they did was declare war on us (as ISIS has). Was it then appropriate to go to war with them?

        Additionally, Imperial Japan’s attacks on the mainland were insignificant. Their only attacks on the US were on outlying territories which weren’t even states; Hawaii was annexed less than 50 years prior to the Pearl Harbor bombing (that is to say, less time than the Panama Canal Zone when Noriega declared war on us), was not a US state, and was annexed without the support of a majority of its population.

        Is libertarian support of our wars during the WWII period based on a consistent application of their non-interventionist principles, or is it simply to shield themselves from legitimate attacks using a real-life example which they may have been on the wrong/unpopular side of?

        1. That is exactly it Trouser. There may be really good reasons not to do anything about ISIS. The fact that they are not the Nazis is however not one of them.

          It is not that Reason and many of its readers are against intervention. It is that they are mindlessly against intervention. They oppose intervention because that is what they do not because they have thought about the situation and come to a reasoned conclusion. And since they don’t think, they end up saying stupid shit like what the Millenial just said.

          1. John, I was responding to the parallel you drew yesterday. You likened inaction against ISIS to the hypothetical failure to aid Britain in 1940. Far different circumstances.

        2. How is ISIS a threat to Americans?

          Seriously.

          How?

          1. Well, obviously ISIS is a threat to Americans travelling to, trading in, and interacting with the Levant and Mesopotamia in any serious way. It is a threat to any of our trade which passes through the area. To the degree to which ISIS-controlled areas are a locus for terrorist training and support it is a threat to us as far as any of these groups which have international aspirations. I take its declaration of war to mean that it will attempt hinder any treaties we have with neighboring states in the area, including treaties of amity, free trade, and residence in these countries — this is a danger to our relations with the countries in the region to the degree that ISIS can control large swathes of territory and pull other countries into its sphere of influence. Any embassies and diplomatic missions in the Middle East are going to be at significant risk, if they happen near ISIS or in a place where ISIS has any influence. Lastly, since ISIS itself has international aspirations it is likely that they will themselves attempt to attack the US in like manner to the Al-Qaeda organization from which they split off.

            All of this sounds plenty bad to me, even if a born-and-raised Iowan is unlikely to be directly affected (the same was true in the case of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan’s aspirations).

            This is not to say that *any* action is justified against ISIS, but that the set of actions which are justifiable is not equivalent to the empty set.

            1. All of that is very manageable, though, from a US national security perspective. It’s the other countries in the region that have the most to worry about. As such, they should take the lead against ISIS.

              IMO, the Middle East simply isn’t that important to our broader interests, so I’m not that concerned if some of our embassies in the region have to be evacuated. After all, we just did so in Libya and I have yet to see how we are less safe because of it. I’m willing to listen if you make a case that this is some kind of disaster though.

              1. I just don’t see how this differs from our situation in WWII. The Japanese leadership would have been ecstatic if we had signed an early peace treaty ceding Hawaii’s independence and guaranteeing Japan a free hand in the Pacific; it is harder to tell in the case of Nazi Germany (especially since their declaration of war was more baffling than in the case of Japan), but we could have tried reaching an accommodation with them in exchange for ceasing our military and economic support of the UK.

                If these actions sound familiar, it is because they are the sort of action which we will be forced to take with nations in the ME if we are truly interested in peace with ISIS — because at the moment, they are not very interested in peace with us. Given our response to 9/11, I don’t consider another 9/11-level attack (and the subsequent curtailment of our freedoms that would result) ‘manageable’, especially if it can be credibly linked to a non-interventionist stance wrt ISIS.

                1. Again, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were far more powerful economically and militarily. They were also traditional nation states. Furthermore, Britain and other countries under threat of Nazi invasion had been close allies and/or significant trading partners. If the Nazis had been successful they would have had a great chance at becoming the preeminent global superpower. I can certainly see how that would not be in the US’ interests. This isn’t even taking into account the role Imperial Japan would take on in such a world.

                  In comparison, ISIS is an extremely weak entity. No navy, no air force, and a poor economy. From what I can gather, containing such an enemy isn’t a monumental task.

                  1. Containment only works for a traditional state with traditional goals. While ISIS is a state, it is not a traditional one and maintains goals and tactics which cannot be circumvented through diplomatic isolation. For example, one such goal is a complete withdrawal of the US presence in the Middle East — and as great as that sounds to libertarians, to ISIS this would include commerce, travel, etc. They believe this can be accomplished by attacking the US through the use of terrorism such that our population will relent.

                    In any case, there’s plenty of evidence in our dealing with Iran that containment and a coordinated strategy with the regional partners + great powers is pretty much impossible; there will always be someone willing to trade with the rogue state and this someone will be sufficiently connected to the world economy to make ISIS’ situation bearable for the time being.

                    I do agree with you that it is a different category of threat, which is why I would not favor the same level of total war as was implemented to defeat Nazi Germany. Thankfully, as you yourself point out ISIS is not at that level and would not require anything close to that level of resources to knock off its perch. I’m not yet convinced that this is a good idea, but it is also not something that should just be blown off or assumed a priori to be a bad idea, either.

                2. I just don’t see how this differs from our situation in WWII.

                  Because the Germans and Japanese actually had the capability to take and hold large portions of American soil or inflict large scale casualties on American citizens.

                  ISIS, does not.

                  1. Because the Germans and Japanese actually had the capability to take and hold large portions of American soil or inflict large scale casualties on American citizens

                    I’ll grant you the second one (to a degree), but the first is simply ludicrous. Japan had no ability to project force across the Pacific to that degree at any point in time; Germany was busy proving that it couldn’t invade across the English Channel (much less across the Atlantic against a foe with a much larger army and navy).

                    As far as casualties, 3000 sounds like a lot of casualties to me. ISIS seems to be in a better position to plan and fund that level of attack than Al-Qaeda to me; all that is lacking is perhaps motivation. I assert that its declaration of war and actions to that effect in its own territory establish motive and thus threat — threat of a different sort than Nazi Germany, but threat nonetheless.

                    I didn’t support Gulf War I or the OIF, precisely because Iraq was a traditional (if brutal) state to which all of your criticisms apply. So far, this does not appear to be the case with ISIS.

                    1. As far as casualties, 3000 sounds like a lot of casualties to me.

                      You should go wage war on auto accidents then, cause they kill 11x more people annually.

                    2. As far as casualties, 3000 sounds like a lot of casualties to me.

                      ISIS has killed 3000 Americans? Shit, I need to pay more attention to the news.

                      Dude, they haven’t done anything to us. This is not our fight. When they do, THEN you get to go kill them wholesale. NOT UNTIL!

                3. I just don’t see how this differs from our situation in WWII.

                  For one, equating these bumbling dipshits to Nazi Germany is laughable at best.

                  Sorry, I forgot the rest of my point, I was too busy laughing.

                  1. Ditto to anon.

        3. They didn’t even kill US citizens outside the bounds of international law.

          Passenger ships sunk by U boats? I thought alleged* passenger ships were off limits?

          * I know, I know…some sunk by the Germans were alleged to be carrying troops or munitions…maybe. Still…

        4. The only thing they did was declare war on us (as ISIS has). Was it then appropriate to go to war with them?

          Is ISIS really that much different than the Duchy of Grand Fenwick? I think the threat behind the German declaration of war had just a bit more substance. Just a bit.

          1. Is ISIS really that much different than the Duchy of Grand Fenwick?

            Yes. The territory controlled by ISIS is much wealthier and more populous than Afghanistan ever was, they have significant cash reserves, and have toppled a US-trained and equipped force on the one hand, and a Russian-equipped force on the other so far with a good deal of success. If they became a state right now, they would be the most powerful terrorist state which has ever existed.

            In a conventional war against the US they would be crushed, but this doesn’t mean that their reach is non-existent (esp. wrt the type of attacks favored by terrorist organizations). There has never been a terrorist group with as much access to men and material as ISIS — this is not something to merely blow off.

            It is possible that the best course of action is inaction, but this is being asserted by the people here rather than argued.

            1. Trouser, I also think we should keep in mind that haphazard US intervention in the region helped create the conditions conducive to ISIS’ rise. That is another reason why I believe an abundance of caution is necessary. Unintended consequences are a b*tch.

              1. There is a difference in between unintended consequences and the precautionary principle. In this case, I would suggest that there is a readily-available goal: not the extermination of ISIS as an organization (which I believe would be unrealistic), but an eviction of the organization from exercising sovereign power in the Levant and Mesopotamia. ISIS is a much lesser threat if it is not in control of territory, and as far as we are concerned it is not likely that a government less favorable to our interests will gain power. Worst case scenario: Iran gains more influence in Iraq, which is far more manageable than ISIS controlling that same territory.

                What consequences in the region can you imagine being worse than a radical offshoot of Al-Qaeda becoming a regional power-broker?

                1. It is quite unrealistic, but that hasn’t stopped numerous officials and pundits from saying we must eradicate/destroy ISIS. We haven’t even been able to do that to the Taliban or Al Qaeda after years of fighting and trillions spent.

                  It remains to be seen how stable ISIS is. A country like Iran isn’t just going to sit there and I imagine Assad will brutally go after ISIS if/when his regime is a bit more secure. I don’t know how realistic that is, but it certainly doesn’t look like he is going to be swept from power anytime soon either.

                  My main fear relates a protracted US intervention (including the possibility of ground troops) and/or the outbreak of a larger regional war. The latter may not impact us all that much at home, but it would likely be very bad for tens of millions in the region. In addition to this, I imagine there are possibilities I’m not considering. Perhaps, the US will become even more despised than it already is the region. Who really knows.

                  1. My main fear relates a protracted US intervention (including the possibility of ground troops) and/or the outbreak of a larger regional war.

                    The former is a very reasonable fear, and the main reason I have for being reticent in supporting military action. I think the latter will likely happen regardless of what we do, assuming that ISIS maintains its current trajectory.

        5. No, but ISIS is a far different threat than Nazi Germany. I was simply trying to point this out to John.

          Nazi Germany presided over the third largest economy in the world at the time, possessed advanced military capabilities, and had already proven itself to have ambitions beyond its borders. It had also invaded and bombed allies. Clearly, very different circumstances from the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Bad actors or groups in these states lack the ability to severely damage our national security and/or core economic interests.

          Also, I would say if a nation-state as powerful and aggressive as Nazi Germany declares war on you then responding in kind is an appropriate response. This isn’t to say the US was entirely blameless in creating some of the conditions necessary to facilitate the rise of the Nazis or Japan’s militaristic posture, but that is a different discussion.

          In addition, I do believe there are still some libertarians/non-interventionists whom claim that our entry into WWII was a mistake. As you recognize though, it isn’t a particularly popular position to hold.

          1. There is another big difference between the Axis powers and ISIS. They were nation-states and victory over them could be clearly defined. Surrender was an option for many in their leadership, and when it wasn’t, destroying the leadership could be counted on to end the war. Once the armies and governments of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were defeated, the rank and file could be expected to stop fighting. In other words, these were wars we could win.

            That doesn’t apply to ISIS. If recent history is any indicator, military intervention may actually make the threat worse than ignoring it. That doesn’t mean not intervening militarily is risk free, but it may very well constitute less of a risk than war.

            1. Good points

            2. ISIS is a state, de facto if not de jure. It is of course not as powerful a state as Nazi Germany but its means of attack are also less conventional than that of the Nazis and don’t require the resources of a state like Nazi Germany.

              I do agree that the comparison is hyperbolic at this point, but of course at one point they were also hyperbolic in describing any nation which became a Nazi-level threat to anyone’s existence.

              1. But it is not the type of state you can pacify. Germany, Japan, and Italy could all be pacified by destroying their war machines and evicting their leadership.

                Even if you take away ISIS’s control over large swaths of terroritory, it can still engage in the types of attacks you worry about, and it will have an easier time recruiting. It can always wait in the shadows and come back to reclaim territory once our combat role ends. Even if we succeed in destroying ISIS as an organization, this war will provide the motivation for the next terrorist group, at which point we’ll fight another war, which will prove the motivation for the next terrorist group….

                The price for being completely safe from terrorism (if that is even achievable, and I doubt it is) is far too high for me, and I suspect you as well. Fighting the terrorists over there only seems to make new terrorists. There is no end game to military intervention, or at least I haven’t heard a credible one. So maybe we should give military intervention a rest and at least see if the remaining is threat is one we can live with, and maybe even more easily manage.

            3. Also, anyone else remember how one of Bin Laden’s goals was to get the United States involved in long-term attempts at occupation and conflict so they would spend billions upon billions of dollars? The guy studied economics and business administration, he wasn’t stupid and I wouldn’t be surprised if Abu Bakr is willing to take a page from his book.

          1. Yes, and so did ISIS. That is exactly my point, thank you for making it for me.

            1. They’ve declared a Caliphate and an international jihad, but I don’t see a specific declaration of war against the United States as anywhere. Perhaps more regional powers, who have actively been threatened by their rising power base, deal with the problem?

    5. Hagel’s a dick.He want’s to hit any moving target,I’m sure the war on drugs is in his sights also.I have no problem using force in against real threats.He sees them every where.ISIS is a problem in the middle east,mostly for Arabs.Don’t see them wanting to screw with Israel or Turkey.Wonder why?Let the fuckers kill each other

    6. Think of the war on drug users. Someone who opposes the use of force against drug users is not saying that drugs are good and wonderful. They’re saying that it just makes things worse.

      When someone opposes dropping bombs on people in the Middle East, they’re not saying that it will make everything wonderful and nice. They’re saying that dropping bombs on people isn’t a good way to make friends.

    7. Since we only get peace when our enemies decide to give it to us,

      Since WWII, major U.S. military action has been not been in response to attacks on the U.S. The exception is Afghanistan. You can argue that there were still legitimate reasons for the U.S. to get involved, but it wasn’t because our enemies posed a threat to peace and tranquility in the United States.

      We get peace when we decide not to go to war, too.

    8. You see, in Red Tony’s world it’s perfectly acceptable (and the morally Christian thing to do) to kill people based upon actions that they haven’t yet committed.

      Hugh, you might kill Tony. There is a Seal Team on the way to your house.

      Almanian, you might rob a bank, it’s a drone for you.

      Anti, you might hold up a liquor store, JDAM inbound.

      Not too high a price to ensure Red Tony’s safety. I’m sure his god will understand.

      1. FdA, if Tony doesn’t think of the children… WHO WILL!?

  2. We’ve been mucking around in the Middle East for about 100 years now. But this time I’m sure the Right People? are in charge and everything will be totally cool if we just bomb the shit out of them a teeeeny bit more.

    1. “We’ve been mucking around in the Middle East for about 100 years now. But this time I’m sure the Right People? are in charge and everything will be totally cool if we just bomb the shit out of them a teeeeny bit more.”

      What are you Kristen, some kind of quitter?

  3. Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on just a second here. I could have sworn that the main reason why Obama made the republican Hagel his SecDef and Hagel was the rare republican that liberal democrats liked was because he was sort of “anti-war” (especially compared to your typical bloodthirsty maniacal republican), and was particularly critical of Bush and the Iraq War.

    Am I now to understand that none of this was ever really true?

    1. Maybe I should read other comments before I post.

      Naaaaaaah….

  4. Now, I gotta go back – cause I thought the knock on Hagel during confirmation was that he was too much of a pussy and pacifist. But now he’s a warbonering warbonerer.

    I haz a confyooz again…

    1. I thought the knock was that he was dumber than a bag of hammer,s and clearly unprepared for the job, as he so much admitted during his confirmation hearings…

      1. Is “the knock” some kind of regional slang for something?

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