Islamic State on the Road to Waterloo

In the late 18th Century, leaders across Europe wrestled with how to handle the upheaval that was taking place in neighboring France. The political environment in France was characterized by chaos, panic, and extremism, and it gave birth to a military leader that would revolutionize warfare and change the geopolitical landscape of the continent. While using the wrong analogy can be dangerous, one can’t help but see comparisons to the situation today in the Middle East.

As Williamson Murray highlighted in War, Strategy, and Military Effectiveness, Napoleon understood the need to mobilize his country’s entire populace to defeat the smaller professional (often mercenary) armies of competing European states. These armed forces were raised through the political will and finances of the crown and supporting lords, who were relatively loyal but did not have the “national zeal” that French forces would bring to the battlefield post-Revolution. Furthermore, by leveraging new logistics means and utilizing the levee en masse to pull from a large recruiting base, the French forces rapidly changed the logistics of 19th century war. Furthermore, volunteers flooded the Army as a means to change social status in opposition to other core European nations with officer commissions for sale and heavy mercenary forces. Waterloo marked the peak of Napoleon’s efforts to exert his power throughout Europe, grown out of the mass response to the effects of the industrial revolution on society.

The Arab Spring in many ways mirrors the French revolution in the Islamic world’s response to the globalization and digital (or cyber) revolution altering the dynamics of modern society. Currently, Western nations resemble the elites of pre-Napoleonic Europe; comfortable in our digital castles and, while more interconnected to the rest of the world than ever before, more politically isolated as a society from risks to our collective safety. On the other hand, we are currently witnessing a strategic overreach by IS that is similar to Napoleon’s overreach shortly before his final 100 days culminating in the Waterloo campaign. ISIL expanded too rapidly and threatened too many states’ national interests, generating a system-wide response to their rapid spread. If countered now, ISIL will likely retreat and resume the first several phases of Mao’s guerilla strategy preventing a transition to Phase III which ultimately leads to permanent governance.

The rank and file of Napoleon’s Army were graduates of the French Revolution, and though ISIL started as a terrorist group during the Iraq War, they grew in scope and power as alumni of the Arab spring.

While the U.S. military has demonstrated amazing capacity for continued conflict since 2001, many within civil society never cared to win. The limited war for limited means way of “waging war” post-WWII has permeated all facets of our National Security system. The United States and much of the West closely resembles the dynamics of pre-Napoleonic Europe. Modern War (unless unfortunately waged in the homeland) is conducted by the political elite and a very small minority of the population (under 5%) who make up a professional caste that includes the military, intelligence, and diplomatic communities.

The United States has several similarities to the British Empire circa 1800 without being imperial (though some would argue otherwise). Our dominant Navy and economy as well as isolated geographic position allows for a stand off from conflicts raged abroad (Continental Europe vs. Middle East). The U.S. has engaged in several guerilla conflicts over the past twenty years with dubious results but, content to maintain the borders, only significant events will bring this Leviathan across the waters. For 19th century Great Britain, it was the raging conflict on the continent upsetting the balance of powers and disturbing their global trade and governance. The rank and file of Napoleon’s Army were graduates of the French Revolution, and though ISIL started as a terrorist group during the Iraq War, they grew in scope and power as alumni of the Arab spring.

Taking a historical example of the final defeat of Napoleon into consideration, it is important to note the similarities on the U.S. role in the current conflict. Prior to the 7th Coalition of 1815, Britain never entered the land war in force. Content to utilize their significant naval power to fight the French at sea while depending on continental powers to fight on land. It was not until the British dedicated forces to the Peninsular conflict in force that they started to turn the tide in counter-guerilla actions on the Iberian Pennisula. Even with the considerable influence and destructive power of the Royal Navy, Great Britain was unable to defeat the French decisively until they entered the conflict with their land forces. Even with Great Britain’s efforts as part of the Sixth and Seventh Coalition Armies, the allied forces were unable to defeat Napoleon decisively prior to 1815.

The United States faces several conflicts competing for attention and with similar consequences of failure. Many historians will say the British Empire influence in victory was inconsequential and has been mostly a basis of myth; the same theory argues U.S. involvement on the Western Front in WWII had less to do with the victory over Nazism than did the Soviet onslaught on the Eastern front. Nonetheless, victory in both situations led to the possibility of peace and the likely deciding factor was application of force by a hegemonic nation.

The United States can gain significant political capital and mentor nations to assume regional leadership positions through the use of imposing our political will.

When elected, President Obama was uniquely situated to drive the type of consensus to systematically defeat extremist and terrorist ideologies that present a counter-theory for governance and leadership of the world. Unfortunately, weak foreign policy and politically-driven decisions have created a difficult but not unwinnable situation. We have an opportunity to learn from the painful lessons of the past such as the Concert of Europe, the Versailles debacle, and other efforts to secure longing peace.

President Obama’s administration has largely failed in implementing smart diplomatic solutions to deal with growing political rivalries ignited during the Arab Spring. As Great Britain learned two hundred years ago, sea power (air power, soft power, or information dominance) cannot subdue an enemy force. Eventually your infantrymen, Guards, Fusiliers, and Rifles will have to close with and impart the nation’s will on the enemy. Joint Multi-National operations with regional partners present unity of effort and provide credibility reinforcing our national security aims, just as Great Britain experienced with coalition armies 200 years ago.

Dean Jarmel argued in his article in The Bridge, the casus belli for an international conflict against ISIL certainly exists, but our previous policies have been insane and ineffectual. The US is not serving in a neo-imperialist role as Jarmel suggests, but has the responsibility to use its might for right and defend those unable to defend themselves. As a leading power, the United States is uniquely capable of stopping these atrocities. As a global society, we have to decide which rules cannot be broken and collectively punish those responsible for acting outside the bounds of acceptable behavior around the world. In Realist views, opposing forces that upset the global order and global economy must be dealt with accordingly.

The United States can gain significant political capital and mentor nations to assume regional leadership positions by imposing our political will. A failure to implement a strategy to defeat terrorists like ISIL now will result in continuing this long war to the far reaching corners of the Earth, but not before it impacts the daily lives of many more innocent people throughout the world. As Chad Pillai more eloquently stated in his article The Islamic World’s Westphalian Moment, “Unfortunately for the people of the region, the Islamic World needs to undergo this violent transformation. This fire needs to burn itself out until a single victor emerges or a recognition that an Islamic Westphalian peace needs to be attained.” Our partners in the Middle East can share this endeavor and provide the guidance to developing states to emerge stronger and peaceful, but only with the support of an exceptional international leader, and it can be the United States.

Mike Denny, a logistics and procurement manager and U.S. Army National Guard Officer. He is also an editor of the Red Team Journal. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.