America Has Misused Its Military Power in the Middle East
U.S. policy has created chaos throughout the region
by DANNY SJURSEN
The United States has already lost — its war for the Middle East, that is. Having taken my own crack at combat soldiering in both Iraq and Afghanistan, that couldn’t be clearer to me.
Unfortunately, it’s evidently still not clear in Washington. Bush’s neo-imperial triumphalism failed. Obama’s quiet shift to drones, special operations forces and clandestine executive actions didn’t turn the tide either.
For all President Trump’s bluster, boasting and threats, rest assured that, at best, he’ll barely move the needle and at worst — but why even go there?
At this point, it’s at least reasonable to look back and ask yet again, why the failure? Explanations abound, of course.
Perhaps Americans were simply never tough enough and still need to take off the kid gloves. Maybe there just weren’t ever enough troops — bring back the draft!
Lead from the front. Lead from behind. Surge yet again. The list goes on — and on and on.
And by now all of it, including Donald Trump’s recent tough talk, represents such a familiar set of tunes. But what if the problem is far deeper and more fundamental than any of that?
Here our nation stands, 15-plus years after 9/11, engaged militarily in half a dozen countries across the Greater Middle East, with no end in sight. Perhaps a more critical, factual reading of our recent past would illuminate the futility of America’s tragic, ongoing project to somehow “destroy” terrorism in the Muslim world.
The standard triumphalist version of the last 100 or so years of our history might go something like this, in the 20th century, the United States repeatedly intervened, just in the nick of time, to save the feeble Old World from militarism, fascism and then, in the Cold War, communism. It did indeed save the day in three global wars and might have lived happily ever after as the world’s “sole superpower” if not for the sudden emergence of a new menace.
Seemingly out of nowhere, “Islamo-fascists” shattered American complacence with a sneak attack reminiscent of Pearl Harbor. Collectively the people asked, why do they hate us?
Of course, there was no time to really reflect, so the government simply got to work, taking the fight to our new “medieval” enemies on their own turf. It’s admittedly been a long, hard slog, but what choice did our leaders have?
Better, after all, to fight them in Baghdad than Brooklyn.
What if, however, this foundational narrative is not just flawed but little short of delusional? Alternative accounts lead to wholly divergent conclusions and are more likely to inform prudent policy in the Middle East.
Let’s reconsider just two key years for the United States in that region, 1979 and 2003. America’s leadership learned all the wrong “lessons” from those pivotal moments and has intervened there ever since on the basis of some perverse version of them with results that have been little short of disastrous.
A more honest narrative of those moments would lead to a far more modest, minimalist approach to a messy and tragic region. The problem is that there seems to be something inherently un-American about entertaining such thoughts.
Through the first half of the Cold War, the Middle East remained a sideshow. In 1979, however, all that changed radically.
First, rising protests against the brutal police state of the American-backed Shah of Iran led to regime collapse, the return of dissident ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the declaration of an Islamic Republic. Then Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, holding 52 hostages for more than 400 days.
Of course, by then, few Americans remembered the CIA-instigated coup of 1953 that had toppled a democratically elected Iranian prime minister, preserved Western oil interests in that country and started both lands on this path — though Iranians clearly hadn’t forgotten. The shock and duration of the hostage crisis undoubtedly ensured that Jimmy Carter would be a one-term president and — to make matters worse — Soviet troops intervened in Afghanistan to shore up a communist government there.
It was quite a year.
The alarmist conventional narrative of these events went like this, the radical mullahs running Iran were irrational zealots with an inexplicable loathing for the American way of life. As if in a preview of 9/11, hearing those chants against “the Great Satan,” Americans promptly began asking with true puzzlement, why do they hate us?
The hostage crisis challenged world peace. Carter had to do something.
Worse yet, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan represented blatant conquest and spotlighted the possibility of Red Army hordes pushing through to Iran en route to the Persian Gulf’s vast oil reserves. It might prove the opening act of the long awaited Soviet scheme for world domination or a possible path to World War III.
Misinformed by such a tale that they repeatedly told themselves, Washington officials then made terrible choices in the Middle East. Let’s start with Iran.
They mistook a nationalist revolution and subsequent civil war within Islam for a singular attack on the United States. With little consideration of genuine Iranian gripes about the brutal U.S.-backed dynasty of the Shah or the slightest appreciation for the complexity of that country’s internal dynamics, they created a simple-minded, but convenient narrative in which the Iranians posed an existential threat to this country.
Little has changed in almost four decades.
Then, though few Americans could locate Afghanistan on a map, most accepted that it was indeed a country of vital strategic interest. Of course, with the opening of their archives, it’s clear enough now that the Soviets never sought the worldwide empire we imagined for them, especially not by 1979.
The Soviet leadership was, in fact, divided over the Afghan affair and intervened in Kabul in a spirit more defensive than aggressive. At best, its desire or even ability to drive towards the Persian Gulf was a fanciful American notion.
Nonetheless, American officials combined the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan into a tale of horror that would lead to the permanent militarization of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Remembered today as a dove-in-chief, in his 1980 State of the Union address Carter announced a decidedly hawkish new doctrine that would come to bear his name.
From then on, the United States would consider any threat to Persian Gulf oil supplies a direct threat to this country, he said. American troops would, if necessary, unilaterally intervene to secure the region.
The results will seem painfully familiar today. Almost immediately, Washington policymakers began to seek military solutions to virtually every problem in the Middle East.
Within a year, the administration of Pres. Ronald Reagan would, for instance, support Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s ruthless invasion of Iran, ignoring his more vicious antics and his proclivity for gassing his own people. Soon after, in 1983, the military created the U.S. Central Command — headquartered in Tampa, Florida — with specific responsibility for the Greater Middle East.
Its early war plans demonstrated just how wildly out of touch with reality American planners already were by then. Operational blueprints, for instance, focused on defeating Soviet armies in Iran before they could reach the Persian Gulf.
Planners imagined U.S. Army divisions crossing Iran, itself in the midst of a major war with Iraq, to face off against a Soviet armored juggernaut — just like the one the Pentagon always expected to burst through Europe’s Fulda Gap. That such an assault was never coming, or that the fiercely proud Iranians might object to the militaries of either superpower crossing their territories, figured little in such early plans that were monuments to American arrogance and naïveté.
From there, it was but a few short steps to the permanent “defensive” basing of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain or later the stationing of U.S. troops near the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi attack. Few asked how such forces in the heart of the Middle East would play on the Arab street or corroborate Islamist narratives of “crusader” imperialism.
Worse yet, in those same years, the CIA armed and financed a grab bag of Afghan insurgent groups, most of them extreme Islamists. Eager to turn Afghanistan into a Soviet “Vietnam,” no one in Washington bothered to ask whether such guerrilla outfits conformed to our purported principles or what the rebels would do if they won.
Of course, the victorious guerrillas contained foreign fighters and various Arab supporters, including one Osama bin Laden. Eventually, the excesses of the well-armed, but morally bankrupt insurgents and warlords in Afghanistan triggered the formation and ascension of the Taliban.
A new organization calling itself Al Qaeda also rose out from one of those guerrilla outfits. The rest, as they say, is history and thanks to Chalmers Johnson’s appropriation of a classic CIA term of spy craft, we now know it as blowback.
That was a major turning point for the U.S. military. Before 1979, few of its troops had served in the region.
In the ensuing decades, America bombed, invaded, raided, sent its drones to kill in or attacked Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq again — and again — Somalia — again and again — Libya again, Iraq once more and now Syria as well. Before 1979, few — if any — American military personnel died in the Greater Middle East.
Few have died anywhere else since.
2003 and after, fantasies and reality
Who wouldn’t agree that the 2003 invasion of Iraq signified a major turning point both in the history of the Greater Middle East and in our own? Nonetheless, its legacy remains highly contested.
The standard narrative goes like this, as the sole remaining superpower on the planet after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, our invincible military organized a swift and convincing defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the first Gulf War. After 9/11, that same military launched an inventive, swift and triumphant campaign in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden escaped, of course, but the United States shattered his Al Qaeda network and all but destroyed the Taliban.
Naturally, the threat of Islamic terror was never limited to the Hindu Kush, so Washington had to take its fight against terror global. Admittedly, the subsequent conquest of Iraq didn’t exactly turn out as planned and perhaps the Arabs weren’t quite ready for American-style democracy anyway.
Still, the United States was committed, had shed blood and had to stay the course, rather than cede momentum to the terrorists. Anything less would have dishonored the venerated dead.
Luckily, Pres. George W. Bush found an enlightened new commander, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, who, with his famed “surge,” snatched victory, or at least stability, from the jaws of defeat in Iraq. He had the insurgency all but whipped.
Then, just a few years later, “spineless” Pres. Barack Obama prematurelypulled American forces out of that country, an act of weakness that led directly to the rise of Islamic State and the current nightmare in the region. Only a strong, assertive successor to Obama could right such gross errors.
It’s a riveting tale, of course, even if it is misguided in nearly every way imaginable. At each turn, Washington learned the wrong lessons and drew perilous conclusions.
At least the first Gulf War — to Pres. George H.W. Bush’s credit — involved a large multinational coalition and checked actual Iraqi aggression. Instead of cheering Bush the Elder’s limited, prudent strategy, however, surging neoconservatives demanded to know why he had stopped short of taking the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
In these years — and for this we can certainly thank Bush, among others — Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, became enamored with military force and came to believe that it could solve just about any problem in that region, if not the world. This would prove a grotesque misunderstanding of what had happened.
The Gulf War had been an anomaly. Triumphalist conclusions about it rested on the shakiest of foundations.
Only if an enemy fought exactly as the U.S. military preferred it to do, as indeed Saddam’s forces did in 1991 — conventionally, in open desert, with outdated Soviet equipment — could the U.S. expect such success. Americans drew another conclusion entirely — that their military was unstoppable.
The same faulty assumptions flowed from Afghanistan in 2001. Information technology, special operations forces, CIA dollars — to Afghan warlords — and smart bombs triggered victory with the need for few conventional foot soldiers.
It seemed a forever formula and influenced both the hasty decision to invade Iraq and the irresponsibly undersized force structure deployed — not to speak of the complete lack of serious preparation for actually occupying that country. So powerful was the optimism and jingoism of invasion proponents that skeptics were painted as unpatriotic turncoats.
Then things turned ugly fast. This time around, Saddam’s army simply melted away, state institutions broke down, looting was rampant and the three major communities of Iraq — Sunni, Shia and Kurd — began to battle for power.
The invaders never received the jubilant welcome Bush administration officials and supportive neocons had predicted for them. What began as a Sunni-based insurgency to regain power morphed into a nationalist rebellion and then into an Islamist struggle against Westerners.
Nearly a century earlier, Britain had formed Iraq from three separate Ottoman imperial provinces — Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. The 2003 invasion blew up that synthetic state, held together first by British overlords and then by Saddam’s brutal dictatorship.
American policymakers seemed genuinely surprised by all this.
Those in Washington never adequately understood the essential conundrum of forced regime change in Iraq. “Democracy” there would inevitably result in Shia majority dominance of an artificial state.
Empowering the Shia drove the Sunni minority — long accustomed to power — into the embrace of armed, motivated Islamists. Often enough, when societies fracture as Iraq’s did, the worst among us rise to the occasion.
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” the poet William Butler Yeats so famously put it. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Furthermore, the invasion played directly into Osama bin Laden’s hands, fueling his narrative of an American “war on Islam.” In the process, the United States also destabilized Iraq’s neighbors and the region, spreading extremists to Syria and elsewhere.
That Petraeus’s surge “worked” is perhaps the greatest myth of all. It was true that the steps he took resulted in a decrease in violence after 2007, largely because he paid off the Sunni tribes, not because of the modest U.S. troop increase ordered from Washington.
By then, the Shia had already won the sectarian civil war for Baghdad, intensifying Sunni-Shia residential segregation there and so temporarily lessening the capacity for carnage.
That post-surge “calm” was, however, no more than a tactical pause in an ongoing regional sectarian war. No one had resolved the fundamental problems in post-Saddam Iraq, including the nearly impossible task of integrating Sunni and Kurdish minorities into a coherent national whole.
Instead, Washington had left a highly sectarian Shia strongman, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, in control of the government and internal security forces, unable to eradicate Al Qaeda in Iraq, AQI — a group nonexistent prior to the invasion. AQI’s leadership, further radicalized in U.S. Army prisons, bided its time, waiting for an opportunity to win back Sunni fealty.
Luckily for Al Qaeda’s franchise in the country, as soon as the U.S. military pulled out, Maliki promptly cracked down hard on peaceful Sunni protests. He even sentenced his Sunni vice president to death in absentia under the most questionable of circumstances.
Maliki’s ineptitude would prove an AQI godsend. Islamists, including AQI, also took advantage of events in Syria.
Autocrat Bashar Al Assad’s brutal repression of his own protesting Sunni majority gave them a perfect opening. Of course, the revolt there might never have occurred had not the invasion of Iraq destabilized the entire region.
In 2014, the former AQI leaders, having absorbed some of Saddam’s cashiered officers into their new forces, triumphantly took a series of Iraqi cities, including Mosul, sending the Iraqi army fleeing. They then declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Many Iraqi Sunnis naturally turned to the newly established “Islamic State” for protection.
It’s hardly controversial these days to point out that the 2003 invasion — aka Operation Iraqi Freedom — far from bringing freedom to that country, sowed chaos. Toppling Saddam’s brutal regime tore down the edifice of a regional system that had stood for nearly a century.
However inadvertently, the U.S. military lit the fire that burned down the old order. As it turned out, no matter the efforts of the globe’s greatest military, no easy foreign solution existed when it came to Iraq. It rarely does.
Unfortunately, few in Washington were willing to accept such realities. Think of that as the 21st century American Achilles’ heel, unwarranted optimism about the efficacy of U.S. power.
Policy in these years might best be summarized as “we” have to do something,. Military force is the best — perhaps the only — feasible option.
Has it worked? Is anybody, including Americans, safer?
Few in power even bother to ask such questions. But the data is there.
The State Department counted just 348 terrorist attacks worldwide in 2001 compared with 11,774 attacks in 2015. That’s right, at best, America’s 15-year “war on terror” failed to significantly reduce international terrorism. At worst, its actions helped make matters 30 times worse.
Recall the Hippocratic oath, “first do no harm.” And remember Osama bin Laden’s stated goal on 9/11, to draw conventional American forces into attritional campaigns in the heart of the Middle East.