Lt. Gen. MacFarland: ‘Identity Politics’ in Military and Society is a ‘Cancer’

Dimitri Simes | March 20, 2019 | 1:04pm EDT
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Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland (ret.).
(Khalid Mohammed-Pool/Getty)

( -- Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland (ret.), the former commander of the coalition against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, called for the United States to remain militarily involved in the Middle East for “the foreseeable future” and described identity politics – in the military and in U.S. society -- as “a cancer.”

MacFarland made these remarks at a panel discussion entitled “Building Better Arab Armed Forces” at the American Enterprise Institute on Monday. During the Q&A, Michael Gordon of the Wall Street Journal asked the three-star general about the United States’s challenges in training the Iraqi and Afghani militaries to be self-sufficient.

(Martyn Aim/Getty Images)

“Looking at the American performance in training indigenous forces what do you think the United States could do differently in training these foreign armies or is it simply the case that these forces can’t stand on their own – that the U.S. needs to accept that if we intervene we have to stay there indefinitely?” said Gordon.

MacFarland responded by stating that he saw no viable path for U.S. military withdrawal from the Middle East.

“Taking the second part of the question first, whether or not there’s an exit strategy, I would say that is at this point unclear,” replied MacFarland. “I would say that for the foreseeable future we need to stay engaged – that’s no guarantee of victory, but not to be engaged is tantamount to a guarantee of failure.”

“I do think as long as we are providing aid to a country we need to have a proportional presence, otherwise we’re not going to recognize much of a [return on investment],” said the general.

However, MacFarland asserted that creating competent armies in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan is an achievable goal.

(Martyn Aim/Getty Images)

“We don’t have to train Arab armies to be as good as we are,” he said, “we just have to train them to be relatively better than the threat that they face. With Iraq, we did not train them to be better than the threat they were going from to face from ISIS.”

Later, Garrett Mitchell of The Mitchell Report asked MacFarland about the impact of rising partisanship in the United States and its effect on the military’s cohesion.

“I really do wonder whether or not a combination of getting our politics at the top wrong, the polarization at the foot solider level, is something that the armed forces should be concerned about and whether there is something that can be done in training or should be in training to keep us on track,” said Mitchell.

In his response, MacFarland echoed Mitchell’s concerns and attacked identity politics as destructive.

“Is it getting harder in the U.S. military to assimilate everybody and get everyone playing for the same team?” he said.  “Yeah, it is. Identity politics is a cancer – and an army is a reflection of a society.”

“We have seen what balkanization looks like – I’ve been in the Balkans multiple times, and in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “It’s a dangerous path we’re moving along and eventually it’s going be too hard for us to fix.”

(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland served as the commanding general of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in Syria and Iraq from September 2015 to August 2016. Before that, he was one of the top American commanders of the Iraq War, leading U.S, forces during the 2006 Battle of Ramadi.

MacFarland is currently a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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