A hundred years ago, the armies of World War I fought to a bloody stalemate on the Western Front and desperately searched for ways to break it and gain an edge. They field-tested tanks and poison gas, rolling barrages and storm-trooper tactics. Today, the United States is stuck in an analogous stalemate in the Middle East and Islamic world in general. And we are field-testing all manner of novelties, much like the great armies of Europe mired in the trenches: the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs and counterinsurgency, precision-guided munitions and unmanned aerial vehicles, not to mention such passing fancies as “overwhelming force,” “shock and awe,” and “air occupation.”
Yet as was the case a century ago, the introduction of some new battlefield technique does not necessarily signify progress. On the contrary, it only deepens the stalemate.
To reflect on this longest of American wars—why it goes on and on, and at such a cost of blood and treasure—is to confront two questions. First, why has the world’s mightiest military achieved so little even while absorbing very considerable losses and inflicting even greater damage on the subjects of America’s supposed beneficence? Second, why in the face of such unsatisfactory outcomes has the United States refused to chart a different course? In short, why can’t we win? And since we haven’t won, why can’t we get out?
The answer to these questions starts with questioning the premise. The tendency to see the region and Islamic world primarily as a problem that will yield to an American military solution is, in fact, precisely the problem. To an unseemly and ultimately self-destructive degree, we have endorsed the misguided militarization of U.S. foreign policy. As a consequence, we have allowed our country to be pulled into the impossible task of trying to “shape” the region through martial means.