Learning from the Summer Wars of 2014

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

*Note: This essay is based on remarks to be delivered on Tuesday, 19 August 2014, at the Defense & Strategic Studies War Council event, “Summer Wars: ISIS, Ukraine, and Gaza.”

The Oxford historian Margaret McMillan recently related a story taken from the opening scenes of World War I: 

“The leading newspaper editor in Berlin took his family to Belgium on July 27, 1914. Before he went, he checked with the German Foreign Secretary.  He asked, ‘There’s a bit of a crisis developing – do you think it’s safe to take my family to Belgium?’  The German Foreign Secretary responded: ‘oh yes, don’t worry, it’ll all be over by next week.'”

Unfortunately, we can see the same complacency today. The New York Times recently described an analysis of campaign advertisements from July 2014. Of the 1,155 ads, only 49, or about 4%, were about any subject even remotely resembling foreign policy.  Despite all that is happening in Iraq and Syria, Ukraine, and in Gaza – on some broad level – what happens beyond the water’s edge is for someone else to care about. 

Thankfully, anyone reading this essay is cut from a slightly different bolt of cloth.  There’s interest in what goes on overseas, or, in seeing the world as it is.  Any reader on War Council is naturally inclined to study the use of force, particularly warm and hot battlefields.  Like storm chasers, often, the closer you get the better you’ll understand the wind patterns and trends.   However, if you can’t get to the precise center (or vortex), what follows are some things I think you might deem important to consider in your observations of Iraq (and Syria/ISIS), Ukraine, and Gaza from afar – so you can better understand the environment we live (and may fight) in.

IRAQ

With respect to Iraq, did the U.S. “win” or “lose” there?  Does that even matter?  Consider the complexity, the many sides, which I’ve referred to previously as a Rubik’s cube war.  ISIS defies definition.  I’ve heard former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell refer to the group as a “terrorist army,” typically a contradiction in terms.   

Some suggest that airpower is the solution to stopping ISIS.  But we should start by asking what airpower can do.  Simply put, airpower is great at engagement, but provides no sustained commitment – as Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins has put it, airpower is kind of a one-night stand in that respect.  Moreover, one should ask: when is airpower effective?  Since November 1911, when an Italian pilot dropped three hand grenades out of his monoplane at some Turks in Libya, there have been two general conditions for success in airpower:

            1. If the enemy moves in open terrain; no cover or concealment (i.e. desert).

            2. If the enemy has no air force or useful anti-aircraft weapons to speak of.

Reasonable military judgment would conclude from this basic analysis that we cannot compel ISIS to victory through airpower as they will (for now) be able to take shelter in cities like Mosul.  They can still find sanctuary through the cover that cities and populations provide.  However, airpower can deny them open traffickability and supply routes in between the cities they hold – and that’s very valuable. That forces adaptation in their behavior.  In car racing, there’s an old adage that “you win in the turns.”  Similarly we might be able to break something loose if ISIS handles this strategic adjustment poorly.

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