Vegas Debate: No-Fly Zones, Regime Change, and Other Shattered Illusions

There isn’t going to be any sort of interesting debate on national security from the Democrats.

Their front-runner is a willing accomplice to Barack Obama’s catastrophic failure, last heard prattling about a “360 degree security strategy” – which, taken literally, means Hillary Clinton intends to spin in a circle and then keep moving in the same direction. No thanks, Mrs. Clinton.

It’s intriguing that Clinton was a non-factor in the Las Vegas GOP debate, scarcely mentioned at all by either the moderators or candidates. The media has every reason in the world to keep Clinton off-stage – her poll numbers plummet when people see or hear her – which is why she and the rest of the Democrats’ comically awful 2016 slate are kept hidden in Saturday night debates nobody watches.  

The Republican candidates could have brought her into the conversation, but they didn’t. She’s yesterday’s news, and if she wins, it will be due to a brain-dead political machine dumping electoral votes in her lap, not because she won the American people over with her ideas.

The interesting discussion is all on the Republican side, and there were some strong exchanges in Las Vegas. Contrary to Chris Christie’s dismissal of the debate over surveillance between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as so much senatorial jibber-jabber, there are serious questions of liberty, security, and privacy to discuss. (Having said that, Governor Christie’s tone will probably appeal to voters who want strong leadership and decisive action on national security, as will Donald Trump’s.)

Since the national security discussion is getting serious, let’s shred some illusions once and for all, since they keep popping up in both Republican and Democrat discourse:

No-fly zones.  Chris Christie is just about the only candidate on either side of the aisle willing to bluntly state that imposing a no-fly zone in Syria could mean shooting down Russian planes which violate it. That is what a “no-fly zone” means, unless diplomatic means are employed to get Russia to halt its air campaign and withdraw its forces beforehand. The Russians are unlikely to do that, or agree to rules of engagement that strip the Syrian military of air power – which they abuse to bomb civilians, yes, but it’s also one of their few advantages against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

People keep chanting the phrase “no-fly zone” as if it’s a magic spell that will make Bashar Assad, ISIS, and al-Qaeda disappear, if repeated often enough. The Syrian civil war is a horror show that will not be solved by any quick and easy fix. Russia and Iran will not give up the influence gained through years of Obama weakness because they are asked politely, or even if they are asked firmly.

Regime change.  “Regime change hasn’t won. Toppling secular dictators in the Middle East has only led to chaos and the rise of radical Islam,” said Senator Rand Paul.  “I think if we want to defeat terrorism, I think if we truly are sincere about defeating terrorism, we need to quit arming the allies of ISIS.”

He’s right about the “regime change” concept, as envisioned by both parties, is a total bust. It’s never worked anywhere. Politicians are in love with the idea of using high-altitude, low-casualty weapons to pick off evil foreign leaders, at which point their oppressed people will rise up and become a peaceful democracy. Everyone who harbors this fantasy is willfully blind to the actual cultures of despotic nations, particularly in the Muslim Middle East. Obama’s disastrous “Arab Spring” delusion was a variation on the regime-change fantasy, in which we were all supposed to forget about the Muslim Brotherhood and assume that nasty old dictator Hosni Mubarak would be succeeded by a stable, pluralistic republic in Egypt, with comparable flower-child outcomes across the Middle East.

All of these pipe dreams flow from the same deliberate refusal to understand what Muslim Middle Eastern culture is really like, and what sort of bloody-minded Islamists are invariably waiting in the wings to take over after corrupt strongmen are toppled. The fantasy about wiping out ISIS by killing its “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, flows from a related misunderstanding about Islamist movements as cults of personality that will dissipate as soon as leaders like Baghdadi or Osama bin Laden are liquidated.  

Here’s a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that way: Baghdadi, bin Laden, and their ilk aren’t hypnotic supervillains who conjured bloody terrorist gangs out of thin air, through sheer force of will. The terrorists have an ideology – yes, a religious ideology – that will survive the death of any single leader. How much more evidence of that truth do we need?

White-hat Arab armies.  Senator Paul went on to say that “if we want to defeat terrorism, the boots on the ground need to be Arab boots on the ground.” Jeb Bush talked about the importance of engaging with the “Arab world.” John Kasich rhapsodized about the 34-nation Saudi-led Arab coalition itching to join the battle against terrorism.

The odds are better that a unicorn herd will charge across the fields of Syria and impale ISIS on their horns. There is no white-hat Arab army chomping at the bit to kick Islamic State ass. Every leader in the region makes cost/benefit calculations about going to battle with enemies like ISIS, and many of them see significant benefit in having the Islamic State around, even if they are its nominal enemies. Few of them are eager to send their forces into a bloody battle against a savage enemy more committed to victory than their own officers.  

Many of them are worried about jeopardizing their power at home by losing intense battles against the terror state, or provoking segments of their own Sunni population to insurrection. Some Arab leaders calculate that ISIS is useful as a check against other regional enemies, or the Western world. Donald Trump came closer to grasping the power dynamics when he exclaimed, “We can’t be fighting ISIS and fighting Assad.  Assad is fighting ISIS, he is fighting ISIS. Russia is now fighting ISIS, and Iran is fighting ISIS.”  

He’s got the right basic idea that knocking out the Islamic State without taking care of other business would likely produce outcomes unfavorable to American national interests, but he’s wrong about Russia fighting ISIS, and really even Assad isn’t aggressively seeking battle against them. Many players in the region are content for wait for Western powers to grow so infuriated with the Islamic State that they take it out with a shock-and-awe campaign.

Senator Marco Rubio got closest to the mark when he talked about actively choosing a side in the eternal Muslim sectarian war, specifically the Sunni side, after violently removing ISIS from the Sunni equation. That’s a real strategy, with defined allies and enemies, and Rubio is correct to say that potential allies must be convinced Uncle Sam will stand firmly behind them. With that kind of leadership, we might be able to bring significant Arab auxiliary forces into the battle, but let’s please stop wasting time with daydreams about a mighty pan-Arab army smashing ISIS like Rohan riding to the rescue of Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings.  

Victory through airpower.  Let’s also stop fantasizing about wiping out the Islamic State from the air. War doesn’t work that way, unless you’re willing to reduce major civilian areas to absolute rubble. There is no way to “liberate” the ISIS capital of Raqqa by dropping bombs on it. It is quite possible to destroy Raqqa from the air, but that is a very different proposition.

When Senator Ted Cruz talks about “carpet bombing” ISIS, his initiative is often interpreted as strategic bombing, along the lines of what Allied forces did to Dresden in World War II. If that’s what he has in mind, he should explicitly say it. Otherwise, it sounds like he’s talking about intensifying the air campaign against ISIS units in the field, with a higher tolerance for civilian casualties (i.e. bombing oil convoys without worrying too much about the fate of the truck drivers.)  

That would be a major step forward from Obama’s stupidly ineffective photo-op talking-point idea of war, in which the President is comfortable with the perpetual existence of ISIS provided it doesn’t make him look too bad in news headlines, but at the end of the day, there is simply no way to take and hold territory through air power alone.

Containment. Barack Obama has already made a sick joke out of the notion of “containment,” but for the benefit of anyone who still doesn’t get it, there is no way to “contain” ISIS or Islamism. Conventional armies can be cut off and encircled. Terrorist armies can find pockets of ideological sympathy in the Western world and launch bloody attacks against enlightened democracies with a far lower tolerance for militarism and fatalities. The notion of bottling up the horrors of Syria until the bad guys kill each other will go down as one of the most profound foreign-policy failures in the history of the Western world. The price of its failure will be much of Europe.

Nation-building. On paper, the idea of building up a strong, pluralistic Muslim democracy that would inspire the rest of the region to join the 21st Century was a bold strategy with a big payoff. It didn’t work, and it never will. That’s partly due to the nature of the region, not only because of Islam – which creates both an appetite for asymmetrical warfare, and cross-border power structures, such as Iran’s interference in post-war Iraq – but because it has so many factions that feel they can always kill their way back into the game.  It’s also a result of the Western world growing very poor at nation-building, especially because it no longer has the stomach to subjugate enemies before rebuilding them, as was done after World War II.

“There’s a real danger when people get distracted by peripheral issues,” Ted Cruz observed. “They get distracted by democracy building. They get distracted about military conflicts. We need to focus on defeating jihadism. ISIS and Iran have declared war on America, and we need a commander in chief who will do everything necessary to keep our children safe.”

War without collateral damage. There is no such thing, and pursuit of that illusion has put American service members at needless risk. It also gives us endless, grinding wars of slow attrition, which our enemies are much better suited to win than we are, by virtue of their inclination toward dictatorial control and wanton bloodshed.

War is always a contest of will, not of arms. The arms are a means of degrading the enemy’s will. In traditional warfare, a huge advantage of arms hands the outclassed enemy a string of defeats, his appetite for further conflict swiftly deteriorates, and he sues for peace, because he thinks further conflict is pointless.

Is there a single person left in America – aside from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and their useless circle of sycophants – who thinks ISIS is anywhere near concluding that further conflict is pointless?

In asymmetrical warfare against terrorist enemies, fought with a noble conviction to avoid collateral damage at all costs, villains have an advantage in the contest of will. Another popular misconception about terrorists is that they want us to be afraid, and we can beat them by defiantly refusing to display fear. Wrong. They want us to submit, and fear is a means toward that end. Weariness will also serve their ends. There are significant signs that Islamists are winning a contest of wills with the Western Left, including the American Democrat Party.

There is no way to turn that around without getting very, very rough with terrorists and their enablers. When that happens, the terrorists are going to hide behind as many civilian body shields as they can round up. The best way to minimize the carnage is to hit them hard and fast. The longer it takes to beat them, the closer their civilized adversaries come to defeating themselves, by losing the will for prolonged conflict.

Safety through surveillance. The battle between Rubio and Cruz (with substantial involvement by Rand Paul, who made the Surveillance State one of his signature issues) was illuminating, but there is another unpleasant truth lying beneath the details they discussed: there is no way for the Surveillance State to guarantee safety.

All that electronic snooping did nothing to stop Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who waltzed right past an Obama Administration blindfolded by political correctness. The mistakes of the Administration were clear enough (and should have filled the streets of Washington with rolling heads and pink slips, but of course that’s not the way this arrogant President works, so nobody will actually suffer for their failure.) But there’s no way to guarantee safety through any level of surveillance. The authorities have stopped a lot of terror plots over the past few years, but counter-terrorism officials keep telling Congress their resources are stretched to the breaking point.  

Even if we impose the sort of measures that would dramatically change the American lifestyle – and possibly transgress our Constitution – there is no way to manage the rising X factor from madcap immigration policies. Even if one disagrees with Donald Trump’s talk of absolute moratoriums on Muslim immigration, it is painfully obvious that we must shift to a security-first posture, including tighter controls on legal immigration, plus tough border security against the illegal kind. Our economy requires this as well.  

We need time to assimilate immigrant populations – socially, economically, and from a security standpoint, including both terrorism and conventional law enforcement. It’s time to stop talking about all the prices American citizens need to pay, and all the blood they must spill, in order to keep the borders open to suit elite tastes. And it’s time to stop pretending any level of surveillance can make all other concerns secondary.


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