Can you kill your way to victory? Yes, if you are engaged in a hot war against a conventional enemy. Yes, too, if you face homicidal extremists. Killing them may be the only option. Indeed, death is the essential dimension of warfare. But, in defense of State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf (who has been mocked for suggesting a jobs program is the way to defeat terrorism), killing is not a grand strategy. Killing is certainly not the way to win a cold war or a long war. Economics is.
“We're killing a lot of them, and we're going to keep killing more of them. ... But we cannot win this war by killing them,” Harf said during an MSNBC interview. “We need ... to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it's lack of opportunity for jobs…”
Harf is right. Although she made a “gross oversimplification” of strategic counterinsurgency, implicitly endorses a left-leaning economic bias that jobs can be created by governments, and seems to misunderstand the non-economic motivation of Jihad, her central premise is one we should be embracing and extending rather than mocking and dismissing. Tom Rogan, writing at National Review, agrees. “Ideology is not the only reason that ISIS has won a global following. Consider whom ISIS is targeting in its propaganda efforts: socially disaffected young men from across the world. It tempts them with visions of unrestrained excitement tied to an ordained purpose.”
The American approach to Islamic terrorism has been too narrowly targeted at negating the enemy. Frankly, President Obama has been as guilty of this as anyone –- his attitude was that U.S. troops could be disengaged from Iraq in 2012 because the terrorists had been defeated. Now it is 2014, and the administration has abandoned that grand strategy of negation, and they deserve credit for the change. What America needs now is a grand strategy of alliance maximization, with the goal of fostering a positive alternative to al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the demented theocratic promise.
Make no mistake, ISIS is in the process of discrediting itself as a governing model. They can’t police their streets or keep the utilities going. What Harf gets wrong is thinking that fixing “root causes” in war-torn Syria is something the United States has the power to change directly. That’s a liberal fantasy. People need to fix their own root causes. What the United States can do is help Jordan thrive economically, just as it helped South Korea thrive during the second half of the 20th century. Jordan should be the shining counter-model that will have so much security and prosperity that it shames the false prophets of terrorism.
Robert Kagan’s The World America Made summarizes the success of a positive grand strategy. After 1945, American troops were so widely deployed for so long in Europe and Asia that they put those regions’ aggressors “out of the aggression business.” As I explained in a recent essay in Commentary, forward engagement during the decades of the Cold War was ultimately successful not by killing Soviet spies and insurgents, but by fostering economic growth and human development. Kagan believes the projection of free markets, free trade, and democracy were hallmarks of the American World Order, institutions that are not instinctive to regional powers in any era.
Empirical evidence of a troops-growth changes the way we should think about international affairs, particularly because it upends the calculus of national self-interest. The instinct of experts is to assume and motivate policy action based on national interest, yet American sacrifices were made even when the costs outweighed the benefits. Call it promethean power.
Statistical analysis reveals that countries allied with the United States flourished while others did not. Countries hosting more American forces experienced faster economic growth. Moreover, countries with a greater U.S. troop presence experienced faster increases in life expectancy and faster decreases in children’s mortality. This was good, not profitable.