Blog No. 51. Eastern Europe and ISIS: While America Sleeps

On November 13, The New York Times published an article reporting on the hundreds of career Army officers being forced into early retirement as a result of the drastic reduction in the size of the Army:

For the first time since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the Army is shrinking. Faced with declining budgets, the Army, the largest of the services, cut its force this year to 508,000 soldiers from 530,000, with plans to trim an additional 20,000 troops next year. If funding cuts mandated by Congress continue, the Army could have fewer than 450,000 soldiers by 2019 — the smallest force since World War II.

The focus of the article was the personal hardships imposed on the soldiers and their families, hardships especially stinging in light of the many sacrifices made by the soldiers, often including multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. A further irony lay in the timing of the article, coming on the heels of Veterans Day on which Vice-President had expounded on our “sacred obligation” to veterans.

No one, of course, would argue that we should keep soldiers—officers or enlisted personnel—in uniform if they are not needed. But is it clear that these experienced and dedicated men and women are in fact not needed? Perhaps they will have made one final contribution to their country if they add some impetus to considering that very question: What kind and size of Army do we need? The evidence continues to accumulate that whatever the assessment might have been as recently as a year ago, circumstances today are very different.

Although it sometimes appears that we are saturated with news, it is a recurring phenomenon that the latest “breaking news” tends to push other events and issues out of the headlines   and perhaps nearly out of sight. The past few weeks have been taken up with the election (and endless analyses before and after), President Obama’s determination to take executive action on immigration and the agreement (albeit tentative) with China on climate change. In the meantime, the situations in Ukraine and Eastern Europe and Iraq and Syria have become more dangerous but less urgently discussed by the Administration or Congress.

Eastern Europe

The situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate. It has been widely observed and reported that the cease-fire in Eastern Ukraine fell apart some time ago. Yet neither Russia nor the West, each for their own reasons, appears willing to acknowledge that fact. As reported in The New York Times last week:

For President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine, acknowledging the failure of the cease-fire would have meant conceding his inability to exert control in the war zone. For Russia, it would have meant inviting new economic sanctions by Europe and the United States. And for Western officials it would have meant pressure to impose more sanctions, which are unpopular among business interests in their own countries.

Also reported in the Times, NATO’s has confirmed the movement of Russian troops and equipment into the area :

The NATO official, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the group’s top military commander, said he was “concerned about convoys of trucks taking artillery and supplies into east Ukraine from Russia.” He said there were increased numbers of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, training militants including in the use of sophisticated weaponry.”

 “Across the last two days we have seen the same thing that O.S.C.E. is reporting,” General Breedlove said at a news conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. “We have seen columns of Russian equipment, primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian combat troops entering into Ukraine.

We cannot know the extent of Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, and perhaps he does not know them himself, but there is evidence that they are not limited to Ukraine. According to reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Russia has undertaken aggressive air activity far beyond the borders of that country. Russian aircraft have been conducting maneuvers around Europe and extending over the Baltic Sea and Europe at a level of activity not seen since the end of the Cold War. As reported in The Los Angeles Times, the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced last week plans to conduct air operations “in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.”

Those far-flung maneuvers may be more political theater than military reality, but the implications for Europe are ominous. They begin, but do not necessarily end, with the Baltics: As a report published by the Brookings Institute observed:

The Kremlin claims a right to defend ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, regardless of their nationality or location. What does that mean for neighboring states with large ethnic Russian populations, such as Kazakhstan, Estonia, and Latvia, the latter two being NATO members? Putin, moreover, holds an intense antipathy toward NATO. The Alliance should consider about how it might respond if Russia were to challenge NATO, for example, by having little green men seize a government building in Estonia.

Roger Cohen, writing in The New York Times online, argued that “Poroshenko’s requests to Obama for substantial American military assistance should not have been rejected,” and concluded that “if Ukraine is lost, America’s promise to its NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe is not going to be viewed as credible.” We remain skeptical that there is a military solution to Ukraine’s problem or that attempting to provide the Ukrainian Army sufficient equipment to take on the Russian Army is feasible. On the other hand, we continue to believe that the credibility of our promises to our NATO allies can be sustained only by restoration of our military capacity.


If developments in Eastern Europe are cause for concern, the continuing challenge of ISIS (or ISIL) is no less so. It has become increasingly apparent that the goal announced by President Obama, to degrade and destroy ISIS, is not likely to be met by the constricted measures he has chosen to pursue it. Max Boot, a leading military historian and analyst, put it succinctly in The Washington Post on November 15:

President Obama’s strategy in Syria and Iraq is not working. The president is hoping that limited airstrikes,

combined with U.S. support for local proxies, will degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State. But while U.S. actions may have blunted the Islamic State’s expansion, they have not shaken the terrorist group’s control of an area the size of Britain. If the president is serious about dealing with the Islamic State, he will need to increase America’s commitment well beyond his recent decision to deploy 1,500 more advisers.

Boot urged a comprehensive “retooling” of our effort and detailed the specific steps that such a retooling would include: intensified airstrikes, lifting the prohibition against use of combat troops and increasing the size of our force, utilizing Special Operations teams, doing more to mobilize Sunni tribes, imposing a no-fly zone over part or all of Syria, and preparing for nation-building.

Boot’s assessment and prescriptions can usefully be appraised in the context of the appearance before the House Armed Services Committee on November 13, of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Although both gentlemen attempted to cast the situation in a more positive light, they foresaw a long and difficult struggle and nothing in their testimony provides a credible rebuttal of Boot’s pessimistic assessment . On one key issue, General Dempsey acknowledged that the United States effort might expand in the future to include a “modest” number of ground troops fighting along side Iraqi forces. On its face, Dempsey’s statement, low key and tentative, was unremarkable. On the other hand, placed along side the President’s repeated and unqualified assurances that ground troops will not be deployed, it gave a glimpse into the gulf that may separate the thinking of the President and his military leadership.

Three days previously in Beijing, President Obama had again emphasized that “It’s not our folks who are going to be doing the fighting. Iraqis ultimately have to fight [the Islamic State] and they have to determine their own security.” He added that America’s role will be “to help Iraqis help themselves.” In our view, his statements convey a subtle but important distortion of the fundamental reason for our presence in Iraq: we are not there primarily to help Iraq help itself. To be sure, helping Iraq to rebuild its Army once again, and helping it to govern in a way that yields a unified front, are vitally important steps. But such steps are not ends in themselves, but key ingredients in eliminating a serious threat to the United States.

If the situation in Iraq is challenging. It is even more dire once one crosses the porous border between Iraq and Syria. There our “ground partner” still exists largely in the hopes and imagination of the President. Secretary Hagel gamely testified that the main short-term goals in Syria were “isolating and destroying ISIS’s safe havens.” The long-term goal still depends on training and equipping moderate Syrian opposition. After that, Hagel said, “we are considering options for how U.S. and coalition forces can further support these forces once they are trained and equipped.” There is, however, little evidence that either the short-term or long-term goals are within our grasp given our current strategy and the resources that we have thus far committed.

Even faced with the grim realities in Iraq and Syria, Boot did not urge the deployment of a large number of ground troops, and he referred to a force in the range of 10,000 to 25,000. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that commitment of even a limited force (arguably “modest” to use General Dempsey’s term) would be opposed as putting the United States on a “slippery slope” to another ground war. Nevertheless, Boot argued that:

[W]hile this approach will undoubtedly incur greater financial cost and higher risk of casualties, the present minimalist strategy has scant chance of success and risks backfiring — the Islamic State’s prestige will be enhanced if it withstands half-heated U.S. airstrikes. Left unchecked, the Islamic State could expand into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, making a major ground war involving U.S. troops more likely. 

The relatively ambitious program Boot outlined may or may not be feasible politically and practically. And even if implemented, it might not be successful. Nevertheless, we suggest that it is the kind of program that should be thoroughly considered and debated sooner rather than later.

3 thoughts on “Blog No. 51. Eastern Europe and ISIS: While America Sleeps

  • The post raises two distinct issues, which relate, but are quite distinct. First, our national history, going back to the 1790’s (yes, 1790, that’s not a typo), has been to screw over the our military, once the flags have been furled and the trumpets and drums have been put away. Veterans’ bonuses, promised by the Congress in times of peril, drift off into the fog on legislative forgetfulness. The neglect of our veterans prevailed into the 1930’s as Bonus Marchers were violently turned out of their encampment on the Washington Mall by soldiers led by some of the same officers who led the Army in WW I. In my own history, I was a Active Ready Reservist during the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, and witnessed honorable men who served in WW II, most of whom had battlefield commissions, being broken in rank from Major and Lt. Colonel to their “permanent” rank of Sergeant as they neared their 20 year pension threshold. The Congressional budget-minders had no compunction to renege on implicit obligations, apparently when they never had to put their lives on the line for the Nation’s protection. So, screwing the veteran, or soon to be veteran, or even career military, is part of a national pattern that is as old as our “more perfect union.” As for limited armed intervention in the Middle East, or Ukraine, I’m reminded of that old saw that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. The Middle East conflagration is at bottom, a sectarian war. Our putative allies are the main funding support of the Islamic State. The adherents that are doing battle have been in bloody conflict since the 8th Century C.E. The stated goal of I. S. is a caliphate that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. Its recruitment efforts are international, their most effective mode of battle against a superior armed U.S. military would be asymmetrical warfare, shades of Viet Nam and Iraq. Our supply lines would stretch 10,000 miles. Really, is this where we want to draw a line in the sand? Ten years in Iraq cost 5,000 lives and 30,000 maimed. How long might we have to be engaged in a Holy War? Let’s institute a national draft and see how loud the war-hawks rant when their non-volunteering children are at risk. As for Ukraine, look at a map. Check out the logistics in support of a Russian vs. NATO (read U.S.) military action would entail, and then come back for a discussion as to what we should be doing.

  • I am not sure how I feel about The Ukraine nor ISIS but I tend to see both issues as lose lose for us no matter what we do or do not do.The support of non democratic rulers always ends in disaster . We proved that in Vietnam and again in Iraq and we never seem to learn, As to the Army that is a very different issue. As long as we do not have universal military service, as long as no one has any skin in the game we will continue to make short term decisions based on short term budget issues.

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