In the Comedy Central television series South Park, the boys discover a cartel of gnomes who steal people’s underwear. Over the course of the episode it’s revealed that these seizures are part of their business plan which goes:
Step 1: Collect Underpants → Step 2: ? → Step 3: Profit
The punchline, of course, is that the underpants gnomes have set up this elaborate enterprise for stealing and stockpiling people’s unmentionables, but none of them have any idea how to leverage these resources in order to reach their aspiration (profits).
It is immediately obvious that step 2 may be the most important part of the entire plan: it tells you if there is a viable path from step 1 to step 3. If there isn’t, step 3 is irrelevant and step 1 is (at best) a waste of time and resources.
But Step 2 happens to be the least exciting part of the process, and the most difficult, complex, contentious—which explains why so many attempt to circumvent it. Instead they just keep repeating step one, at an ever-increasing scale, hoping that step 3 will somehow magically materialize in the process.
So it goes.
While this particular episode was meant to lampoon many aspects of the business world, it unfortunately seems just as reflective of U.S. national security policy. Consider:
Step 1: Sanctions →Step 2: ? →Step 3: regime change or substantial revision of regime policies
Step 1: Overthrow “rogue” government → Step 2: ? → Step 3: a democratic, secular and/or liberal state emerges in its stead (see: Iraq, Libya, and coming soon, Syria).
Step 1: Arm sub-state or non-state proxies → Step 2: ? → Step 3: American strategic interests successfully realized in the region
Step 1: Support dictators → Step 2: ? → Step 3: long-term stability in the Middle East; containment of radical ideologies antithetical to the prevailing order (see: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and coming soon, Libya).
Step 1: Bomb “militants” with drones or airstrikes → Step 2: ? → Step 3: Transnational/ supranational jihadist groups are defeated
Comedy, in the Aristotelian sense
This chronic failure to work out precisely how or if particular tactics can realize a specific strategic objectives before engaging would be bad enough on its own. But this is not even the worst part:
When these policies are obviously failing, or even generating severe blowback or 2nd order effects, policymakers still refuse to concede, or even consider, that their plan may be ill-conceived. Rather than rethinking their approach, the typical response is to double-down on the current strategy—even when there is exhaustive empirical evidence suggesting the maneuvers are ill-advised.
For instance, it is an inductive fact that sanctions rarely achieve their stated goals. They work at best partially, and even then under very specific circumstances. The overwhelming majority of the time, rather than undermining “rogue” actors, they actually hurt primarily the common people while empowering autocrats in various ways—even as they generate widespread hostility towards the nation(s) spearheading the sanctions (generally, the U.S.). Often this leads to even more provocative actions. And yet, the U.S. and E.U.’s reflexive response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine was sanctions. And the typical results have followed.
The track record for U.S. targeted killings–to include the (interrelated) high-value targeting and drone campaigns—is abysmal. The programs have radically destabilized the countries of operation, with profound adverse ripple effects across the entire MENA region—and yet even while Yemen has imploded in part because of these policies, the U.S continues its drone operations there.
The CIA’s own exhaustive investigation revealed that arming and training non-state/ sub-state proxies has virtually never successfully realized America’s strategic interests. Instead, these investments tend to prolong, deepen and spread conflicts, empower bad actors, and make crises more difficult to predict or control—often serving as a catalyst for deeper, and even more catastrophic, U.S. intervention down the line. Worse still, the very actors the U.S. empowered often take on an adversarial relationship with the West if and when they successfully seize power. And yet, what is the primary strategy to defeat ISIS? Arming and training thousands more fighters to be deployed into Syria, who will likely drag the U.S. into direct conflict with Assad rather than ISIS; also arming and training Sunni tribal militias in Iraq who will likely use these assets to launch a revolt against the Iraqi government even if ISIS is driven out, assuming they don’t simply join up with the extremists instead, as many of the previous generations of Iraqi and Syrian recruits have.
Another example: there is literally no reason to believe that a modern and viable liberal, secular or democratic nation state will self-organize out of anarchy; in fact, there can be no meaningful guarantee or assurance of rights, freedoms, or lasting reform in the absence of stability or security. Moreover, failed states and ungoverned zones tend to provide ideal havens for, often repressive and exploitative, sub-state and non-state actors. And yet the United States dismantled the government of Iraq, overthrew the government of Libya, and is seeking to do the same in Syria—in partnership with one of the world’s most noxious regimes–and under the auspices of spreading democracy and defending human rights!
Finally, it is well-established that terrorism enjoys a strong correlation with occupations and interventions by foreign actors. ISIS has been trying to provoke outside powers into their theater for just this reason. As if to grant their wish, the United States is gearing up to deepen its failing campaign against the “Islamic State”—even to the point of putting thousands more U.S. soldiers on the ground in the Iraqi and Syrian theaters.
Tragedy in every sense
Of course, one important disanalogy with South Park is that in the “real world,” this psychology is not silly or funny—it is horrific, with incalculable consequences for those affected.
Since 9/11, the so-called “War on Terror” has caused the deaths of more than 1.3 million people—mostly non-combatants—with many times this number maimed and traumatized. The infrastructure of several countries has been destroyed, whole generations have their futures in jeopardy.
Despite the ostensive purpose of the campaign being the protection of Americans and their way of life, there have been tens-of-thousands of U.S. casualties, a radical undermining of civil rights and liberties—and for all that, the problem of terrorism has grown worse, largely as a result of these inept policies.
And yet the primary criticism launched against President Obama is not that his administration is overly-wedded to these failed policies and lacks any vision for alternative ways to proceed. Instead the charge is that the U.S. needs to redouble their efforts, doing these same actions more, harder, and on a bigger scale than Obama has been willing to do.
And unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any other channels to choose from: re-runs of the most notorious episodes of the last 14 years are slated to begin effective January 2017.