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A Mission Without a Clear Goal

Posted by Brad McMillan, CFA®, CFP®

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This entry was posted on Sep 12, 2014 1:04:50 PM

and tagged In the News

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mission without a clear goalI got some thoughtful feedback on my post yesterday about the aftermath of 9/11, and what has been accomplished—or not accomplished—since then. I genuinely appreciate the comments, both for the thought and time that went into them and also as prompts for refining my own thinking.

What many took away from yesterday’s post is that I’m against committing troops. That is partially correct, in that I’m against committing troops without a clearly defined American interest in play, a plan to attain that interest, and an exit strategy thereafter. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that any commitment of lives actually have a specific goal.

“Destroy ISIS” is not a goal, insofar as it doesn’t address why ISIS is such a threat to the U.S. or why our involvement will make us safer or provide other advantages. As far as I can see, once we destroy this bunch of bad guys, another will promptly pop up. Whack-a-mole is not a goal.

It’s no longer all about oil

All of this begs the question of why the U.S. has been so committed in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf. The answer, historically, has been oil. Not as in the “blood for oil” trope, but in the “defender of the American population’s global interests” sense.

The Persian Gulf, particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, was too important as an energy supplier to the American people to allow it to fall under the control of Saddam Hussein. There was a clear objective in the first Gulf War, which was efficiently prosecuted; when the objective was met, the troops were withdrawn. This is what I would consider a classic example of the right form of military intervention.

Our interventions since then have suffered in comparison. Even Afghanistan, which initially met these goals, then turned into a nation-building exercise whose success you can judge for yourself.

Why now?

If the reason for U.S. troops in the Middle East was once oil in Kuwait, or crushing al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, we simply don’t have a similar motive to intervene now. We are becoming ever less dependent on Middle East oil. And we cannot bring peace there, as we have learned over and over again.

Looking at today’s front pages, our “allies” don’t even want us in the region. Turkey didn’t sign on and opposes letting us use air bases there. Germany won’t participate in airstrikes. Per the New York Times, “leading allies like Egypt, Jordan and Turkey [are] all finding ways . . . to avoid specific commitments.”

The other possible reason for U.S. involvement is our moral obligation to help. If that’s the case, we should also, no doubt, be sending troops to Sudan, Ukraine, and multiple other hot spots. We should be welcoming immigrants fleeing oppressive countries. And moral obligations don’t end with sending troops; we'd also need to expand foreign aid budgets to help countries after the troops leave.

Let’s focus on the problems that matter most

The U.S. is in an increasingly strong position economically, geographically, and politically. We have real challenges to contend with that directly affect the future of the country—a deficit that remains way too high, an economically crippled Europe, a rising China, an obstreperous Russia. Problems like these will demand every bit of resources and attention we can give them.

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