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 myths shaped reality in World War I

Myths have an unfortunate tendency to cripple imaginations. This can lead to the worst kind of unintended consequences, especially when such myths are based on assumptions about how the world ought to be rather than how it actually is.

The bloodiest day in the history of the British Army is a real world example of what this can mean:

Shortly after 7:30 on the morning on July 1, 1916, some 100,000 British soldiers climbed out of their trenches in France’s Somme Valley, arrayed themselves in long lines against the morning sunlight, and began moving forward across No Man ‘s  Land towards the German trenches. They were fully confident they would achieve the long-sought breakthrough in the German lines that their officers assured them would be a piece of cake.

The commanding general of the British army in France was Sir Douglas Haig. He was a long-standing military professional, a member of a Scottish distilling family, and a Presbyterian fundamentalist who believed that he was in direct communication with God (an illusion that he shared with a surprising number of top military commanders throughout history).

In theory, Haig’s strategy should have worked. But there were problems.

Only 40 percent of the British artillery consisted of heavy guns. The rest were lightweight field pieces that could do little damage to trenches and barbed wire. Nearly one-third of the shells fired by the British heavy guns failed to explode because the British munitions industry had not yet come to terms with the need for quality control in shell production. In any case, the Germans housed most of their soldiers 30 feet below the trenches in elaborate dugouts that were impervious to even the heaviest artillery shells.

So when the largely ineffective artillery barrage finally ended at 7:20 that morning, German defenders emerged from the dugouts with ears ringing, but otherwise ready to withstand the British attack that the barrage had told them was coming. They quickly set up their machine guns, which fired .30-caliber bullets at the rate of 600 per minute for hours on end.

By the end of the day, the British army had suffered the greatest single-day calamity in its history. More than 19,000 of its men lay dead in No Man’s Land; over 38,000 had been wounded. Nearly three out of every five British soldiers who had gone over the top that morning had fallen victim to the myths on which Haig based his strategy (presumably after long conversations with God), with little to show for it in the way of captured German territory.

Today, the idea of deadlock sounds pretty good in Iraq. Sunni Muslim radicals who make the Taliban look tolerant are sweeping toward Baghdad in a way that reminds those of us of a certain age of the lightning-fast North Vietnamese drive toward Saigon in the spring of 1975.

We made the wrong call about invading Iraq in 2003 because of flawed intelligence about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction and because we assumed the Iraqi people would treat U.S. troops as liberators, rise up against their government and welcome us with open arms.

It may have been nearly a century later, but just as in the Battle of the Somme Valley, failure to raise basic questions about the assumptions underlying our decision to invade Iraq are once again yielding tragic results.

originally published: June 28, 2014