Iraq and the consequences of an ill-conceived war

American troops are still in Iraq on the 15th anniversary of an invasion, the pretext for which was the entirely trumped-up claim that America’s iconic foe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The failure of the 2003 invasion and continuing presence of American troops illustrate the importance of aligning ends with means.

The stated objectives of the invasion were to end the Hussein regime; eliminate the weapons of mass destruction; drive out Islamist militants; secure Iraq’s petroleum infrastructure, which was to cover the cost of the war; and create a liberal, representative government that would spark a new age of freedom in the Middle East.

The invasion did change the region; it made things worse. It began on March 19, 2003 and the military campaign was quick and decisive. Baghdad fell on April 9.

But unlike in Las Vegas, what happened in Iraq did not stay in Iraq. The war opened a Pandora’s Box in the Middle East, releasing many demons.

The abrupt fall of Baghdad was accompanied by a full-scale collapse of public order and helped incubate and reinvigorate radical Islamist militants in the region. The invasion contributed to the civil war in Syria, helped create a vacuum that ISIS filled and caused massive refugee flows to Syria, Jordan, and Europe, other than that it was a complete success.

In retrospect, it is hard to overstate the damage the Iraq War did to America’s global prestige, badly damaging America’s Godzilla-like unipolar credentials, and offering the world a pitiless example of the limits to American power. The magnitude of this disaster can also be measured in lives and money.

From 2003 until the formal withdrawal of troops in 2011, the war took the lives of 4,500 Americans and over 150,000 Iraqi civilians. Its direct cost has been estimated to be almost $1.7 trillion, with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans.

The Ronald Reagan question is appropriate here: Is the Middle East better off today than it was before the Iraq war? Is the United States in a better place than before the invasion? In short, unintended consequences resulted in a shattered Iraq, an emboldened Iran, and a Middle East where many regional and international powers are engaged in a number of deadly conflicts.

Then there is the question of opportunity cost – the extent to which the war distracted America from a slew of other challenges, such as emerging nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, China flexing its muscles in East Asia, completing the Afghanistan operation and other global trouble spots.

Fundamentally, the cleavage between the invasion’s ambitious goals and its actual results boils down to the fact that President Bush and his hawkish advisors failed to establish a proper relationship between end and means in their prosecution of the war. The year before the invasion, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki made the point that American troops were already stretched too thin around the world. In February 2003, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would take “several hundred thousand soldiers” to secure and pacify Iraq.

Two days later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the post-war troop commitment would be less than the number of troops required to win the war, and the “idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces is far off the mark.” The Bush administration sent 150,000 American troops into Iraq.

Successful strategy in military affairs and business requires the proper alignment between potentially goals and resources. The Bush team aroused sky-high expectations without sufficient resources to meet them.

President Bush and his advisors failed to understand the words of Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz, who wrote, “Everything in war is very simple. But the simplest thing is difficult.” Even great powers operate in a world in which resources are not always sufficient to exploit all opportunities and neutralize all threats. There is never enough of anything to go around.

Originally Published: May 5, 2018



Mideast tensions are straining U.S.-Saudi ‘special  relationship’

To say that no one is very happy about American involvement in the sectarian political cauldron of the Middle East is to exaggerate very little. The public wants the United States to extricate itself from the Sunni vs. Shiite wars that plague the region and reliable allies are not plentiful as long-term alliances shift with the escalating chaos.

Take for instance America’s decades-old “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia. The alliance was first sealed when President Roosevelt met the first Saudi king, Abdul Aziz, in 1945 aboard the cruiser USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. They cut a simple deal: America would bring the Saudis under its security umbrella and the Saudis would supply oil.

For decades, the Saudi-American relationship largely worked well for both parties. After all, the Saudis were the world’s largest oil producer and sat on better than one-fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves, giving it great influence over global oil prices.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance may be an old one, but since the Arab Spring in 2011, the relationship has deteriorated. The latest fissure was sparked by the Saudi’s recent execution of a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, which prompted condemnation throughout the Middle East.

There are several reasons why the Saudis are upset with America. They bitterly opposed Washington’s support of pro-democracy protestors in Egypt during the Arab Spring and urged President Obama to use force to preserve President Hosni Mubrarak’s dictatorship. America’s accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood during their brief reign in Egypt further angered the Saudi monarchy.

Then Washington was critical of the military coup responsible for displacing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi, while Saudi Arabia pledged billions to the new Egyptian government. After this experience, the Saudis became paranoid that America would sell them up the river as they had Mubrarak.

As the Syrian civil war worsened in 2013, President Obama backed off his threat of military force against President Bashar al-Assad, who allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people while concurrently announcing a rhetorical pivot to Asia. The Saudis and other longtime American allies felt abandoned.

Since the overthrow of the Shah during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Saudi Arabia and Iran have what could mildly be described as a tense relationship. While the two Islamic countries are separated by only a few miles of Persian Gulf, the religious and political gap is much wider. Underlying Saudi concerns is the schism between Sunnis and Shias, who have been at each other’s throats for more than a millennium. Iran is mostly Shia Muslim and, like most of the countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni.

The two are currently engaged in proxy wars in Yemen and Syria that exemplify the Sunni/Shia divide. The Saudis were horrified when the U.S. recently entered into a nuclear deal with Iran. They consider the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran intolerable.

Finally, the United States’ continuing support for beleaguered Israel remains a point of contention. Joint opposition to the emergence of ISIS is the only recent development that reinforces the mutual interests of Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Despite the growing list of grievances, the two countries need each other. The U.S. retains a strong military presence in the Persian Gulf and cannot soon be replaced as the ultimate guarantor of Saudi security. In the midst of regional turmoil and with the ever-present threat of jihadist terrorism, the U.S. still relies heavily on the Saudis to help police the neighborhood.

Still further, the Saudis are a major buyer of U.S. weapons, having spent more than $46 billion on American arms since President Obama took office. The kingdom is also the largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries that controls about 40 percent of the world’s oil.

Since sectarian wars in the Middle East are likely to get worse before they get better, the relationship calls to mind the old English proverb: “With friends like this who needs enemies?”

originally published: January 23, 2016

Middle East violence is a reminder of the Thirty Years War

Mark Twain’s reputed quip that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” reminds us that historical analogies can sometimes provide a useful perspective on current events and even inform the future. The sectarian violence and bloodletting raging all over the Middle East have given rise to several historical comparisons, not least the hellish Thirty Years’ War that ravaged Europe in the first half of the 17th century.

With apologies to Dickens, it was the worst of times in Europe. This conflict among the Catholics, Calvinists, Lutherans, and Huguenots, involving multiple great powers, became a bloody, protracted struggle over the continent’s political and religious order.

Across the modern Middle East, Western foreign policy blunders have largely, though not entirely, contributed to a growing sense of instability. Many argue that the turmoil currently engulfing the region was born out of the catastrophic American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its failure to reconstitute an Iraqi state.6

The turmoil is fueled by the hatred between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam that has existed for centuries. Toppling Saddam Hussein unleashed the Shia in Iraq and strengthened Iran’s bid to be the region’s most important actor.

Just as with the Thirty Years’ War, the religious conflict is overlaid by a great rivalry between Iran, leading a Shiite coalition, and Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni central. Add to that the presence of the United States and Russia, which are fighting proxy wars in the region, and you have a precarious and highly flammable mix.

In 16th and 17th century Europe, the Protestant Reformation opened a Pandora’s Box of international and civil conflict culminating in the Thirty Years’ War, the greatest of the so-called wars of religion. Although the struggles that led to it erupted many years earlier, the war is conventionally held to start in 1618. It lasted through 1648, a seemingly endless and devastating conflict in which millions of

Europeans were killed, a scale unimaginable during the medieval era. It is estimated that more than 25 to 40 percent of the German population perished during the war.

The roots of both the Middle Eastern and European conflicts stretched back centuries and centered on unresolved questions of religious freedom and power politics. Not unlike the geopolitical and religious contest of will between Sunni and Shia, the Thirty Years’ war began as a conflict between Protestant nobles in Germany fighting to preserve their autonomy and faith against the Catholic Hapsburg Dynasty (the Holy Roman Empire).

On the political side, the Hapsburg Dynasty wanted to preserve its European hegemony. This triggered a conflict among a conga line of great powers such as France, Denmark and Sweden that was not unlike the modern power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Thirty Years’ War ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, referred to by contemporaries as the Peace of Exhaustion. It established a new political order that irrevocably changed the map of Europe. The Netherlands gained independence from Spain, Sweden gained control of the Baltic, the German Protestant nobles were able to determine the religion of their lands, France was acknowledged as the preeminent Western power ,  the Holy Roman Empire continued as an empty shell until it was dissolved 150  years later and the principle of state sovereignty emerged, creating the basis for the modern system of nation states.                  ·                                              ·

In the long run, mitigating the Middle East’s sectarian and geopolitical conflicts may partially center on implementing the Westphalian nation state concept. Some semblance of stability in the Middle East may be restored with the reestablishment of a state-based order. For starters, that may mean a three-state arrangement, redrawing the existing national boundaries to accommodate separate states for the Sunnis, the Shias, and Kurds.

But history teaches us that the West must best be prepared to wait a very long time for the latest conflict in the Middle East to subside and for anything that approaches a solution to take hold.

originally published: January 19, 2016

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