STEPHEN HOLMES (Project Syndicate)
Stephen Holmes is a professor at New York University School of Law and is the author, most recently, of The Matador’s Cape: America’s Reckless Response to Terror.
NEW YORK – The US Department of Defense’s decision to drop an 11-ton Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb over a remote Islamic State (ISIS) redoubt in Afghanistan does not reflect a coherent counterterrorism policy. As many commentators have pointed out, it was yet another case of tactics swallowing strategy – a mode of policymaking that was auditioned a week earlier in Syria and that could lead to catastrophe if tried on, say, the Korean Peninsula.
More specifically, the Afghan attack was an example of letting military means determine policy ends. Rather than identifying an urgent national-security threat and weighing the options for countering it, US military commanders seem to have perused America’s unused arsenal, happened upon the MOAB, and sought a place where its power could be put on display.
Naturally, they had to find a relatively civilian-free target, but not necessarily one posing a serious national-security threat, or serving as an important stronghold of the Afghan insurgency. The all-purpose rationale for dropping a MOAB in the Afghan mountains was that, after eight years of Barack Obama’s alleged weakness, using America’s largest nonnuclear bomb would “restore deterrence.” Never mind that a global, decentralized network of extremists will hardly be deterred by high-intensity detonations over remote badlands.
The Department of Defense is the one national-security bureaucracy that has been spared US President Donald Trump’s tempestuous outbursts. But while the military obviously has a crucial role to play in combating violent extremism, the Trump administration is wrong to give the Pentagon free rein.
This approach is dangerous for two reasons. First, Pentagon officials are professionally biased with respect to national-security threats. They tend to overestimate the efficacy of military means in eliminating threats, while underestimating the role of diplomacy, intelligence, or law enforcement.
The second reason is Trump himself. When asked about the decision to haul the MOAB out of storage, he dodged the question. “Everybody knows exactly what happened,” he said. “And what I do is I authorize my military. We have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done their job as usual. So, we have given them total authorization.”
Blank-check authorization by a geopolitically challenged commander-in-chief means that the Pentagon is now operating not just without oversight, but also with impunity. It should go without saying that outsourcing national-security policy to an adrenaline-fueled agency that will not be held accountable for its decisions to use force cannot end well.
To understand the risks, look no further than the response of former US Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Intent on responding to al-Qaeda’s attack with a demonstration of military might, they sought a battlefield where the military could strut its stuff.
The various urban locales where the 9/11 attackers had plotted and prepared – for example, Hamburg – were, to put it mildly, unsuitable for a “shock and awe” display of American military might. So the US targeted Iraq, which Cheney preposterously described as “the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.” Never mind that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, and that toppling a secular Arab dictator would do nothing to stop religiously minded non-state extremists.
The decisive role that the Iraq invasion played in the rise of ISIS, as well as in the ongoing collapse of the liberal international order, should have served as a warning to policymakers who would delegate America’s national security to politically unaccountable decision-makers. Apparently, it didn’t.
Indeed, not even Obama avoided the trap of allowing America’s military means to determine its foreign-policy ends. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine is mostly correct that Trump has thrown Obama’s caution to the wind. But, by resorting so extensively to drones as a counterterrorism instrument, Obama provided a pernicious precedent for the decision to drop the MOAB.
To be sure, Obama had some good reasons for relying on drones. Unlike ground troops making split-second decisions under live fire, drone operators are less vulnerable to the fear or rage that can lead to battlefield and civilian massacres. But Obama also used drones simply because he had them. The very existence of these weapons seems to have played some, albeit incalculable, role in the decision to deploy them.
Because drones all but eliminate the risk of American casualties, they can be used against targets that do not necessarily pose a direct and significant threat to US national security. That is exactly what happened under Obama: How America fights was allowed to determine where and why it fights. As the convenience of drones led to mission creep, his administration authorized kill-not-capture missions in areas of the world where the direct threat to US interests was negligible.
The same can be said of using a MOAB to obliterate a few dozen fanatically cruel but relatively insignificant fighters lurking in a tunnel complex in the Spin Ghar mountains. If the objective was to send a message that “America is back,” one can only wonder who, exactly, is receiving that message and what their reaction is likely to be.
One answer is the US media. As the 2016 presidential election made painfully clear, America’s “free press” functions less as a check on political power than as a conveyer belt for unprincipled deception and distraction. Following the MOAB strike, the US press fulfilled that role, providing duly sensational coverage.
Cable news channels, in particular – even those with a mythical “liberal bias” – cannot resist trumpeting Trump’s inane rants and absurd fabrications. But when Trump’s antics have lost their novelty, the administration will have to find new ways to divert our attention from his current and past scandals. Regrettably, the US military seems ready and willing to lead the way.
We can only hope that the next US military strike – whether in North Korea or in the Persian Gulf – won’t trigger a genuine national-security emergency. If it does, unfortunately, Trump’s under-staffed, over-militarized, and politically untouchable national-security apparatus will be frighteningly unprepared to meet the challenge.