When it comes to Syria, let Iraq be the lesson

How many times do people ask themselves “what if,” consciously considering what has happened and what might have been? What if you had taken a different job, or married someone else? These questions are a fundamental feature of the human condition.

They are also a good exercise in understanding the world and suggesting alternative approaches to identifying and achieving goals. In that sense, they can be applied to current events in the Middle East.

The fancy name for “what if’ questions is counterfactual thinking. For historians, this is a way of thinking about a past that did not happen. For the rest of us it is, among other things, one way to make sense of experiences and think about what to do differently in the future.

Popular culture likes counterfactuals as a conventional story telling device. For example, the current Amazon television series “Man in the High Castle,” an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, is essentially a counterfactual, imagining America had the Nazis won World War II.

Today the Middle East is in chaos and is the most active war zone in the world. But what if the United States had not invaded Iraq in 2003? We will never truly know, but let’s look at how things might be different.

Sure Saddam Hussein was a gruesome dictator who killed hundreds of thousands of people and started wars. But after spending much in American blood and treasure, is Iraq a stable functioning democracy, or did the invasion simply cause geopolitical chaos and a humanitarian tragedy?

Under Hussein, Iraq was a bulwark to contain Iran, which now exercises far greater influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the entire Middle East than it did before the invasion. After the United States packed up and left in 2011, Iran rushed into the power vacuum.

At the time of the Iraq invasion, Libya had been ruled by the same strongman for over 40 years, but it was stable. Policy makers in Washington decided to go along with France, the United Kingdom and others to topple Muammar Gadhafi’s regime, once again without a viable alternative in place to replace the old order. The result is a failed state and another humanitarian tragedy.

It can be argued that the invasion of Iraq diverted military and financial resources away from Afghanistan before the Taliban had been defeated. A greater focus on Afghanistan might also have kept Pakistan from engaging in mischief.

Perhaps it doesn’t make sense for the United States to simultaneously pursue ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while targeting ISIS and radical Islamists of all stripes in Syria. And would ousting Assad simply result in the same murderous chaos we have seen in Iraq and Libya?

The United States may be at a stage in the Middle East where is has to decide whether ISIS or keeping Assad in power with the support of Iran and Russia represents a greater national security threat. Perhaps it’s time for President Obama to get past his Putinphobia and cut a deal with him as the allies did with Stalin to defeat the Nazis in World War II. The current strategy isn’t working, so why not work with Russia and Iran to create an international solution?

There are no easy answers in the fight against radical Islamist terror groups, but when the President and others say they will destroy them, it is incumbent on them to explain a detailed strategy. It is not enough for world leaders to say that ISIS will be defeated. They need to describe what those words really mean. What will success look like, how do you measure it, and how long will it take?

Asking what might have been had the United States not invaded Iraq provides an interesting lens through which to view the Middle East. And perhaps it offers some insights into how to deal with that troubled region more than a decade after the invasion.

Originally Published: December 19, 2015

How Americans became soft targets

Americans can add concerns about their physical safety to a list of worries that already includes job insecurity, record economic inequality, and trust in government reaching an all-time low.

The San Bernardino shootings show that terror attacks on soft targets are not confined to Europe. The premeditated slaughter of innocent civilians by radical Islamic terrorists (dare I say the name) in Paris was followed by promises of similar attacks in other “crusader cities” including Washington, D.C. and New York City.

The most recent attacks are a reminder that American foreign policy blunders have caused chaos in the Middle East, where Islamic State outposts are gaining strength in Libya, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt. Americans understand you cannot underestimate ISIS, as President Obama did when he characterized them as a junior varsity team that has been contained as a local actor and did not represent a national security threat.

American troops exited Iraq at the end of 2011, completing a deployment that cost nearly 4,500 American lives, left more than 32,000 wounded and cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. The president said the US was leaving behind a “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant” Iraq.

Instead, the exit left the door open for the Islamic State’s land grab. All the gains made following the “surge” from 2007 to 2011 were washed away, with Islamic State terrorists taking territory and committing mass killings.

The President did not help matters in 2012, when he warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” Yet when Assad did just that in 2013, Obama did nothing. The inaction undermined America’s credibility and exasperated our allies.

The blunders did not start with President Obama. Common sense has gone on holiday among the worthies in Washington since 9/11, beginning with a feckless decision to invade Iraq that was a precipitating event in the unraveling of the Middle East and creation of one of the worst refugee crises since World War II.

The American-organized coalition invaded in 2003 because of Saddam Hussein’s alleged connections to terrorism and the potential threat posed by Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. It turned out that Iraq did not have WMDs; Hussein’s links to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups were equally illusory.

The invasion was also supposed to transform a country benighted by decades of dictatorship into a Western-style free-market democracy that would be a model for other Middle East nations. Instead it opened Pandora’s Box and promoted Iran’s metastasizing regional hegemony.

The abrupt fall of Baghdad was accompanied by massive civil disorder, including the looting of public and government buildings, as the country slipped into anarchy. There was no plan for what to do after the victory and little recognition given to religious, ethnic, and political complexities among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Dissolving the army put several hundred thousand armed Iraqis on the street with no jobs and firing government employees, mostly Sunnis linked to the Hussein regime, transformed the country into a breeding ground for the very terrorism the invasion was supposed to combat.

By the fall of 2003 these blunders and the lack of enough American troops to establish security for the Iraqi people contributed to the growth of insurgency.

America allowed the old order to topple without a viable alternative in place – a reckless act with no precedent in modern statecraft. Now we are faced with the monumental challenge of picking up the pieces.

Today you need a scorecard to keep track of what is happening in the Middle East. For example, the Kurds have been a strong American partner. But Turkey, an equivocal NATO ally, claims that the Syrian Kurds are a terrorist group and have been bombing America’s most reliable ally in Syria and Iraq while ISIS brokers black market oil in Turkey to fund itself.

Sadly, the effects of these blunders aren’t limited to the Middle East. Here in the United States, Americans now live in fear of their physical safety.

Originally Published: December 12, 2015