Mission Creep: The Danger for the US in the Middle East
It’s starting, just like it started in Vietnam
The United States, in its zeal to protect its client state Israel in the wake of the October 7 massacre by Hamas forces of civilians at the Kfar Aza and Be'eri kibbutzim, appears increasingly unlikely to heed the Pottery Barn doctrine of the late General Colin Powell, who said that if you break it, you own it. US planners currently have more than 45,000 troops on the ground in 11 countries throughout the Middle East. With US forces at outposts throughout the region exposed to missile and drone attacks, the US is more and more likely to be drawn deeper into a conflict generated by almost biblical Israeli imperatives for vengeance over its 1,200 dead, some of them killed in barbaric fashion. No US soldiers have been killed, but at least 21 have suffered what the defense department describes as minor injuries.
The map below, compiled by the news portal Axios, shows where US troops are, not counting the 15,000 men and women aboard two aircraft carrier battle groups – the USS Dwight Eisenhower and the USS Gerald Ford – and their accompanying vessels, which typically include two cruisers, three destroyers or frigates and auxiliary support, a tempting target for missiles and drones.
There is a growing certainty that troop engagements with hostile forces will increase. The US is exposed both on land and sea and with little evidence that planners are considering the potential consequences. Most recently, according to the US Central Command, the US Navy shot down 21 missiles and drones launched by Houthi rebels from Yemen in one of the largest encounters to take place in the Red Sea in recent months. On January 4, according to news services, the US and its allies issued what was called a “final warning” to Houthi rebels – which has been ignored – to cease their attacks on vessels in the Red Sea or face potential targeted military action.
If that sounds like the afternoon of August 4, 1964, when the American destroyer USS Turner Joy, on patrol in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam, reported that it had sighted torpedo wakes from small, high-speed surface craft, it should. The Turner Joy then went to flank speed, maneuvered radically to evade the alleged torpedoes, and began firing. According to official US records, over the next two and a half hours, the Turner Joy fired 220 five-inch shells at the marauding craft, while planes from the carrier USS Ticonderoga fired at them as well.
There is considerable controversy over whether that engagement took place. But it was the pretext for an expanded US presence in Vietnam. Eventually, as history and the Pentagon Papers will tell us, 2,709,918 US troops served on active duty in Vietnam starting on August 5, the day after the Turner Joy’s engagement, until March 28, 1973, when the bedraggled US military left amid reports of shattered discipline, widespread drug use, fraggings of commissioned officers by enlisted troops, up to 3 million dead Vietnamese military and civilians, 300,000-odd Cambodian and 50,000 or so Laotian dead and 58,220 US troops killed in action. According to the US Statistical Abstract, the war cost US$352 billion in 1973 dollars. Since 1970 – 54 years ago – the postwar benefits for veterans and families have cost $270 billion. It left American cities on fire and the country’s youth in rebellion.
In response, then-General Colin Powell, one of the most thoughtful of US military leaders, in the runup to the 1990–1991 Gulf War, created what became known as the Powell Doctrine, a list of eight questions that he said all must be answered before the US takes military action. Powell privately called it the Pottery Barn rule – you break it, you own it: Is a vital national security interest threatened? Is there a clear attainable objective? Have the risks been fully analyzed? Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted? Is there a plausible exit strategy? Have the consequences been fully considered? Do the American people support it? Is there genuine broad international support?
The Powell doctrine has been mostly ignored by the US military ever since, except for the first Gulf War in 1991, when Powell, under President George H.W. Bush, was the driving force behind Desert Shield, which handily destroyed the Iraqi army with half a million US troops, and then stopped at the Iraq border for good reason and allowed Saddam Hussein to live another day. The Powell doctrine was ignored by Bush’s son George W. Bush with disastrous results. It was also ignored in Afghanistan, where the US fought a fruitless 20-year war that ended in July of 2021 with 176,000 Afghans dead, including 46,319 civilians, 69,095 military and police, at least 52,893 opposition fighters, and 2,402 US servicemen and women when the last US Air Force C-17 Globemaster lifted off from Kabul Airport.
US planners would do well to try to remember the last time they clearly won a war, and why they haven’t been successful, and apply those lessons to the Middle East. The Houthi rebellion has been going on in Yemen since 2004 when the San’a government attempted to arrest a Houthi religious leader. As it has grown, it has become a proxy war between the Saudis, who backed the government, and the Iranians, whose Shiite government has been challenging Sunni governments throughout the Horn of Africa and the surrounding region. The Saudis have spent tens of billions of dollars fruitlessly working to quell the Houthi rebellion and to overthrow the Syrian regime headed by Bashir Assad, with considerable US money and military expertise, hence the US special forces sprinkled all over the region, as shown by Axios’s map. Despite 20 years of effort, the Saudis and their client state Yemen have been unable to quell the Houthi rebellion. It is hubris for the US military to think they can do it.
The troops being sent to the Middle East are not expected to serve in combat roles, the White House said. That is what John F. Kennedy said in May 1961 when he authorized sending 400 Special Forces troops and military advisers to assist the government of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. The Biden Administration, in support of an Israeli expedition that seems likely to refuse to stop until it has expelled or exterminated every last living person in the 365 sq. km of Gaza, has discussed the possibility of using military force if Lebanon-based Hezbollah opens a new front in the war, according to news reports. The White House is on record saying it would support such action.
This is a process known as mission creep, defined in Webster as “the gradual or incremental expansion of an intervention, project or mission, beyond its original scope, focus or goals, a ratchet effect spawned by initial success. Mission creep is usually considered undesirable due to how each success breeds more ambitious interventions until a final failure happens, stopping the intervention entirely.”
As Powell said: Is there a plausible exit strategy? Have the consequences been fully considered? Do the American people support it? Is there genuine broad international support? Those questions have to be asked.
The author was a correspondent in Vietnam at a time when US troop levels went from 115,000 to 550,000.