‘ISIS Delenda Est’—What the Romans Knew About Winning a War

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I. The Roman Way

In writing about the Paris massacre in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan was blunt:

These primitive, ferocious young men will not stop until we stop them.  The question is how.  That’s the only discussion.

Okay, let’s take up Noonan’s challenge: How do we stop ISIS? Once and for all?

Let’s stipulate that President Obama, who has been waging a phony war against ISIS for over a year, is not the man for the job.  And let’s stipulate, also, that Islam is not “peace,” as George W. Bush so famously suggested back in 2001.

Islam is something different. Not all Muslims are terrorists, not by a long shot, but in its current form, Islam provides safe harbor for way-y-y too many Salafi jihadists, aka, terrorists.  Here at Breitbart, Pamela Geller provides a handy itemization; her list of Islamic terrorist groups runs a full 27 lines.

As the late Samuel Huntington wrote in his landmark 1998 book, The Clash of Civilizationsa work approvingly cited by Sen. Marco Rubio earlier this month—Islam has “bloody borders.”

History tells us that no attitude is permanent.  Yet for now, extremist elements within Muslim societies make it impossible for many Muslim states to get along with their neighbors, either near, in Eurasia, or far, in America.

So what should we do in the face of a relentless, and remorseless, enemy?  The Roman Empire had a good answer.  Yes, 2,000 years before Ronald Reagan summed up his Cold War strategy as, “We win, they lose,” the Romans had the same idea.

Rome’s dogged determination to prevail is perhaps best exemplified by its long struggle against the rival empire of Carthage, in what’s now Tunisia.

The Rome-Carthage conflict—the so-called Punic Wars, of which there were three—raged all over the Mediterranean littoral and lasted, on land and sea, for over a century, from 264 BC to 146 BC.  Interestingly, the single best general on either side was the Carthaginian, Hannibal.  His smashing pincer-movement victory over the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC is still studied at West Point and other military academies.

And yet the Romans were more organized and resourceful, as well as determined, and, over time, those qualities gave them the edge. For literally decades, the Roman senator Cato the Elder closed every speech to his colleagues with the ringing words, Carthago delenda est—“Carthage must be destroyed.”  And yet Cato, who died in 149 BC, didn’t actually live to see the final victory, which came three years later, when the Roman legionnaires besieged and and conquered the city of Carthage itself.

Appian of Alexandria described the final victory in his Historia Romana, written in the second century AD.  Here’s Appian describing Rome’s final military operations against Carthage; as we can see, under the leadership of General Scipio Africanus, the Roman legionarii were not nice:

Now Scipio hastened to the attack [on] the strongest part of the city, where the greater part of the inhabitants had taken refuge… All places were filled with groans, shrieks, shouts, and every kind of agony. Some were stabbed, others were hurled alive from the roofs to the pavement, some of them alighting on the heads of spears or other pointed weapons, or swords. . . . Then came new scenes of horror.  As the fire spread and carried everything down, the soldiers did not wait to destroy the buildings little by little, but all in a heap. So the crashing grew louder, and many corpses fell with the stones into the midst.  Others were seen still living, especially old men, women, and young children who had hidden in the inmost nooks of the houses, some of them wounded, some more or less burned, and uttering piteous cries.  Still others, thrust out and falling from such a height with the stones, timbers, and fire, were torn asunder in all shapes of horror, crushed and mangled.

You get the idea. Tough stuff, to be sure, but after Scipio’s triumph, Carthage was never again a problem for Rome.  In fact, the Romans not only razed the city but, for good measure, plowed the ground with salt to make sure that nothing would ever grow there.

The Roman historian Tacitus quoted a barbarian enemy to make an approving point about the Roman strategic approach: “And where they make a desert, they call it peace.”  Yes, when the Romans wanted to make a point—they made a point.  We might note that the Roman Empire endured for another 622 years after the fall of Carthage, all the way to 476 AD.

Of course, Americans would never do anything like obliterating Carthage, even if the few German survivors of the 1945 firebombing of Dresden, or the even fewer Japanese survivors of Hiroshima, later that same year, might beg to differ.  Still, we might pause to note that both Germany and Japan—two countries once both full of fight—haven’t so much as raised their fist at us even once in the last 70 years.

II. The Challenge in Our Time

Today, there’s an echo of the old Roman resolve in the voice of many Republicans.  As Sen. Ted Cruz, who frequently quotes Reagan’s we-win-they-lose maxim, declared the other day, “In a Cruz administration, we will say to militants, if you wage war against America, you are signing your death warrant.”

Needless to say, Cruz doesn’t speak for the intellectually fashionable, who preach a kind of defeatist sophistry.  Among the smart set, it is often said that we shouldn’t attack ISIS because that’s just what they want.   CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, for example, writing of possible US retaliation in the wake of the Paris raid, assures us that ISIS “wants all of this.”  And Sally Kohn, also of CNN, adds her voice: “Bombing terrorists feeds their ideology.”

And we have this dire headline from the lefties at Salon:

We’re already caving to ISIS: Bloodthirsty jingoism is precisely what the terrorists want: The chief goal of these terrorists is to launch a “cosmic war.” Bigotry and calls for invasion provide exactly that.

Well, maybe the leftists are correct: Maybe it would be a mistake for us if we defeated ISIS—but maybe not.  Indeed, it sure seems that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is doing his best to survive.  To be sure, he says he’s ready for martyrdom, but he’s not seeking it out.  If he really wanted to be dead, he already would be.

Yes, there’s something to be said for winning, not losing—for living, not dying.  As Osama bin Laden himself observed, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” And of course, it’s no accident that Al Qaeda went into eclipse after bin Laden was killed by US forces in 2011, to be replaced, alas, by ISIS.

To put the matter starkly, being killed suggests that maybe God is not on your side.  It’s perhaps glorious to die for a winning cause, but not so glorious to die for a losing cause.

So let’s hereby resolve that we will be on the winning side.  And let’s get right down to it, and name—yes, name—the central challenge of our time: Defeating the Salafi terrorists once and for all.

Michael Vickers, a counter-terrorism subcabinet official in the Obama and Bush administrations—and an operative with a record going back to the CIA campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan—is flatly declarative about what must be done; we must defeat ISIS, or ISIL, by depriving it of its territory.  By any name, they—including the remnants of Al Qaeda—need to be defeated and their home-base destroyed:

ISIL, as its name implies, is a de facto state. It holds territory, controls population, and funds its operations from resources that it exploits on territory it controls. If there’s one thing the American military knows how to do it is defeating an opposing force trying to hold ground.

So yes, we must defeat ISIS.  ISIS delenda est.  But yet there are more variables to consider: Unless we plan to do to the Jihadi Zone exactly what the Romans did to the Carthaginians—that is, kill them all—we need a plan for not only pacifying the area, but also for keeping it pacified.

III. Needed: A Grand Alliance

As we think about delenda est-ing ISIS, we need to realize that it won’t be easy—not because ISIS itself is strong, but because it has powerful friends, potentially.

In a nutshell, if we want to be victorious, and be able to keep our victory, we will need the largest possible alliance.

Why?  Because in history, if a small power can get help from bigger powers, then it becomes difficult to defeat that small power, at least at an acceptable cost.

And the US, mighty as it has been, has not been exempt from this rule.   We might recall the history of two frustrating wars in the second half of the last century, Korea and Vietnam.  In the Korean War, the Pyongyang regime could get help from China and the Soviet Union.  And in the Vietnam War, the Hanoi regime could also get help from the same pair of big countries.  In the strategic context of the times, it just wasn’t advisable for us to escalate either conflict and risk World War Three.   The result for America, of course, was a stalemate in Korea and outright defeat in Vietnam.

More recently, in Afghanistan, the insurgents have been getting overt help from Pakistan and covert help from Saudi Arabia and other rich oil states.  And the situation in Iraq was even more of a mess: The Sunni insurgents were getting help from Saudi Arabia, while the Shia insurgents were getting help from Iran.  And, ultimately, our enemies in both Afghanistan and Iraq were being backstopped by China and Russia.

To use the geopolitical jargon, our enemies in North Korea, North Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq all had strategic depth.

And if our opponents have strategic depth, we can fight all we want, and inflict lots of casualties—while suffering more than a few casualties ourselves—and yet still, we won’t win.

Thus the geopolitical lesson: If we want to win, we have to have the bad guys surrounded, cut off from their sources of supply.

That is, we must eliminate the foe’s strategic depth, and that can only be accomplished with diplomacy.  Up to now, as we have seen, American ambitions in the Middle East have been vexed, even thwarted, by deep-strategic enemies.  China and Russia have never wanted to see the US win in Iraq if it meant that Uncle Sam would gain total sway in the oil-rich region.  And so Beijing and Moscow were willing tacitly to support the Iranians, who, of course, hate us and oppose everything we do.  Bush 43 tried to ignore the reality of those countervailing powers, and, as a result, he failed.  Yes, Obama gave away everything in Iraq, but even before he took office in 2009, the Iranians had already effectively taken control of Baghdad.

We’re a strong country, to be sure, but not strong enough to go it alone, or without a carefully thought-through plan.   Yes, we can win battles in the short run, but if we have too many enemies, we can’t make those victories stick.

So we need a strategy—a strategy of alliance.  Yes, that’s the great goal: Build a Grand Alliance against ISIS.

Fortunately, the elements of an alliance are already in place, because, as noted, Islam has “bloody borders,” and that fact makes for many enemies.  Just in the past 15 years, Islamic terrorists have lashed out in every direction.  They have attacked not only Paris, but also London and Madrid.  Moreover, they have attacked India, Russia, China, and many countries in Africa.  And oh yes, the United StatesMore than once.   The cumulative death toll from Islamist terror reaches into the tens of thousands.

So with patient diplomacy, as well as overwhelming force, the opportunity exists to build a Grand Alliance against ISIS and other murderous extremists.  The big powers—the US, Russia, and China— might not agree on much, but they can agree on the mission of destroying a common foe.   And that’s the beginning of a fruitful alliance.

Moreover, there’s plenty of precedent for dealing even with the devil himself in pursuit of a higher objective.  During World War Two, we were in league with Josef Stalin, who was barely better than Hitler.  And yet Stalin, evil man that he was, proved to be a valuable ally in the fight against the Axis.  Some 80 percent of Nazi German casualties were suffered on the Eastern Front.  We might pause to reflect that if we had been forced to fight the Wehrmacht by ourselves, our losses would have been a lot more than the 213,000 dead that we suffered in the European Theater, and a lot closer to the 8.8 million that the Soviet Red Army lost as it bore the brunt of fighting the same opponent.

So now, today, another Russian, Vladimir Putin, is making the same offer: We will join with you in killing our common enemies.  If we could work together with Russia, ISIS would lose much of its potential strategic depth.  Yet today, plenty of Americans oppose cooperating with the Russians; the Center for Islamic Pluralism, for example, warns of  “the Putin trap,” and The Washington Post editorial page, bizarrely, described Secretary of State John Kerry’s critique of Russia as “rather elegant,” before going on to warn that an alliance with Russia would be “a dangerous false step for the United States.”

Yes, Putin is a nogoodnik, and yes, it would be nice, in some utopian world, if the US could avoid messy alliances and stay “clean.”

But here’s the point: Either we have the Russians on our side, or we have them as an enemy.  And if they are working against us on ISIS, we might not win.   Again, our poor track record in the Middle East reminds us that we can’t do everything on our own.

And the same need for cooperation holds true for China.  The People’s Republic contains some 50 million Muslims; Beijing, like Moscow, knows it has a severe internal problem with Islamic radicalism.

The same as Russia, China has openly said that it wants to work with other countries.  Indeed in the wake of the recent ISIS murder of one of its citizens, the government declared, “China will continue to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation with the international community to maintain peace and tranquillity in the world.”

And yet Western hostility to China, too, is deep.  For example, Reuters put sneer quotes around the word “terrorists” in a story about Chinese counter-terror, as a way of delegitimizing the Chinese effort.  Here’s the headline: “China says 28 foreign-led ‘terrorists’ killed after attack on mine.”

So once again we must say: If the overriding mission is destroying ISIS, then all other concerns have to be subordinated.  And that means working with all foes of ISIS, including Moscow and Beijing.  At that point, ISIS will have no hope.

Of course, we can’t expect victory right away.  As we know, President Obama is not in the least bit interested in defeating ISIS.  He is much more interested in smearing his fellow Americans as racists, and, of course, combating “climate change.”

But things will change in January 2017.  So we can say: If the next American president truly wants to win the war against ISIS, he or she will need to build that Grand Alliance.  So early on, the 45th president should trot the globe, visiting the bloodied and hallowed sites of Paris, Beslan, Mumbai, and some of the many other places around the world where the Salafist terrorists have struck, laying a wreath at each.

That’s how we can achieve ISIS delenda est, permanently.  This is not a call for the total annihilation of the enemy-harboring population; it is simply a plan for guaranteeing that the bad guys are isolated, receiving no help, as well as no quarter.

And of course, if and when we win, we will have to learn the lessons of the previous decade: no more of the dead end of attempted democratic nation-building.  We should be prepared to install a secular strong man atop the post-ISIS rubble of a partitioned Syria and Iraq—where’s Saddam Hussein when you need him?—and then be equally prepared to spend heavily on foreign aid.  And who knows: Perhaps we can even entice the rich Arab countries to help.

Perhaps there will always be Islamist terrorists.  But the more defeats they suffer, the less appeal they will have.  There used to be lots of militant anarchists and Marxists—but hey, young people aren’t attracted to loser causes.

So let’s make it utterly, totally, absolutely clear that Salafi terrorism is a loser cause.  This is how a great, and enduring, nation takes care of business.


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