AL UDEID, Qatar – I’ve been on the road since the Charlottesville killing. I am traveling around the Arab world and Afghanistan with the chief of the U.S. Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein; his civilian boss, the Air Force secretary, Heather Wilson; and their aides. We’re currently at the giant Al Udeid Air Base, from which America’s entire ISIS-Syria-Iraq-Afghanistan air war is run.
With all the news from Charlottesville, I was feeling in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then I looked around me here, and the connection with Charlottesville became obvious. Just one glance at our traveling party and the crews at this base and you realize immediately why we are the most powerful country in the world.
It’s not because we own F-22s. And it surely isn’t that we embrace white supremacy. It’s because we embrace pluralism. It’s because we can still make out of many, one.
I am a pluralism supremacist.
How could I not be? I look around me and see our Air Force chief, who is of Eastern European Jewish descent, reporting to a woman Air Force secretary, who was among the early women graduates of the Air Force Academy and whose senior aide is an African-American woman lieutenant colonel. The base commander here in Qatar, overseeing the whole air war, is of Armenian descent, and his top deputy is of Lebanese descent.
In the control center I’m introduced to the two Russian-speaking U.S. servicemen who 10 to 12 times a day get on the local “hotline” with the Russian command post in Syria to make sure Russian planes don’t collide with ours. One of the servicemen was born in Russia and the other left Kiev, Ukraine, just five years ago, in part, he told me, because he dreamed of joining the U.S. Air Force: “This is the country of opportunity.”
Then we get a briefing from the combat innovation team, which is designing a new algorithm for dynamic targeting with colleagues in Silicon Valley. I ask their commander about his last name – Ito – and he explains, “My dad is from Cuba and my mother is from Mexico.” The intelligence briefing was delivered by “Capt. Yang.”
The very reason America is the supreme power in this region is that the U.S. military can take all of those different people and make them into a fist. And the very reason we are stuck in this region and can’t get out is that so many of the nation-states and people here are fighting only for their exclusivist dreams of supremacy – Shiite supremacy, Sunni supremacy, Alawite supremacy, Taliban supremacy, Turkish supremacy and Persian supremacy.
With a few exceptions, they can’t generate self-sustaining power-sharing. Which is why we keep defeating the worst of them and they keep losing the peace, because the best of them can never share power long enough and deep enough to build lasting stability.
None of the U.S. military people here talk U.S. politics. But I do. As a citizen, I say they deserve a commander in chief who does not need three tries to grudgingly denounce violent white supremacists. Pluralism is our true source of strength at home and abroad. It has to be nurtured, celebrated and protected from its enemies everywhere and always.
Now that I got that off my chest, let’s talk strategy. We toured the command center here with its wallsize screens that take the data from satellites, drones, manned aircraft, cyber, sensors, human intelligence and aerial refueling tankers and meld them into a series of strategic targeting decisions. Watching the choreography of all this is both chilling and mesmerizing.
We are moving “from wars of attrition to wars of cognition,” explained Goldfein. These new integrated systems are simultaneously “state of the art, unparalleled – and too slow for the future.”
On one recent day you could look up at those screens and find a Syrian fighter jet preparing to drop bombs near U.S. Special Forces in Syria. The Syrian jet is about to be blown out of the sky by a U.S. fighter jet, while two Russian fighters watch from a higher altitude and a stealth U.S. F-22 watches the Russians watching the U.S. plane watching the Syrian.
While that is all happening, the coastal Syrian surface-to-air system lights up as Turkish, Jordanian and Israeli jets buzz in and out of theater. And almost daily an Iranian-made drone being directed from the back of an RV by Iranian Revolutionary Guards members in the desert of eastern Syria is hunting for U.S. Special Forces. We’ve shot down a couple of those, too.
If you tried to sell this very real drama to a video game company, it would be rejected as unrealistic.
Just one U.S. fighter jet over Syria – and we have them in the air now 24/7 – has to be aerially refueled eight or nine times during its eight-hour mission. Add in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on any given day the Air Force is coordinating as many as 60 KC-135 tankers (aerial gas stations) operating over these three countries.
Meanwhile, ISIS is buying drones from online shopping sites, jury-rigging them with GoPro cameras and grenades and dropping them on U.S. and Iraqi troops, or it’s armor-plating SUVs, loading them with explosives and a suicide bomber and turning them into Mad Max vehicles driven right into our troops or our allies.
The good news? ISIS, having been largely defeated in Iraq, will most likely be defeated in Syria, too, by Americans, Kurds, Russians, Syrians, Iranians and pro-Iranian militias. The bad news? There is a good chance that ISIS’ territory will ultimately fall under Iran’s sway.
Preventing that would require the Arab-Sunni Muslim world to get its act together, but it is as weak and divided as ever. That’s why Iran now indirectly controls four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Sanaa and Damascus. And what is really scary is that it controls them at a pretty cheap price through proxies.We can defeat ISIS extremism, with our pluralistic fighting machine, but the one thing we can’t do is create Sunni-Shiite pluralism and power-sharing to replace it. Which is why we keep getting dragged back – not to make things better but, as always, to prevent the bad from becoming the awful.
I wanted it to be otherwise, but it’s not. We tried. So, do we just keep trying? You can’t visit one of these huge U.S. bases built since 9/11, see the dedication of the young men and women, and the sophistication of the systems they have built, and not wonder: What if all of this talent and energy and idealism and pluralism were applied not to propping up a decrepit Arab state system against Iran, but instead fixing the worst neighborhoods of Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit?
We need to have a national discussion about this.