Lessons from America’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East
By Chas W. Freeman October 18, 2015
Twenty-six years ago, when the elder President Bush asked me to be his ambassador to Saudi Arabia, he assured me that “nothing much ever happens in Arabia.” That had been the case for quite a while. Now no one would refer to any part of the Middle East – even the Arabian Peninsula – as a zone of tranquility. It was a different world back then.
Mistakes made here in Washington had a great deal to do with why and how that relatively stable world disappeared.
In 1993, the United States unilaterally replaced reliance on the balance between Iraq and Iran with so-called “dual containment” of both directly by the U.S. armed forces. This created an unprecedented requirement for a large, long-term U.S. military presence in the Gulf. That, in turn, stimulated the birth of anti-American terrorism with global reach. One result: 9/11.
From 2003 to date, Americans have racked up $6 trillion in outlays and unfunded liabilities for two wars we have lost. That $6 trillion – much of it yet to be borrowed – might otherwise have been invested in America’s human and physical infrastructure. We live amidst the falling educational standards, collapsing bridges, man-eating potholes, transportation gridlock, and declining international competitiveness that are the consequences of our not spending that money here.
After 9/11/2001, in America’s zeal to track down and kill our enemies and terrorize their supporters, we embraced practices like kidnapping, torture, and political assassination. By doing so, we voluntarily surrendered the moral high ground the United States had long occupied in world affairs and forfeited our credentials as exemplars and advocates of human rights.
Since 2001, Washington has quixotically attempted to exclude both militant Islam and the Pashtun plurality from a significant role in governing Afghanistan, while making it safe for homegrown narcocrats. Afghanistan is now a political debacle, human rights disaster, terrorist training camp, or drug bust waiting to happen.
In 2003, the United States decapitated and destabilized Iraq, erasing inhibitions to sectarian strife there and, ultimately, in Syria as well. This fostered anarchy and religious extremist movements that have brought untold suffering to millions, driving them to seek refuge, first in neighboring countries, then beyond.
For almost five decades, the United States aided and abetted a fraudulent “peace process” and the institutionalization of intolerable injustice for the Arabs of the Holy Land. This enabled Israel to keep expanding but eroded the Jewish state’s democracy, alienated the majority of the world’s Jews from it, delegitimized it in the eyes of the international community, gravely damaged its prospects for domestic tranquility, and placed its long-term survival in doubt.
In 2011, Americans mistook mob rule in the streets of the Middle East for democracy and turned our back on leaders we had previously supported. This cost us our reputation as a reliable ally and helped install incompetent government in Egypt, state collapse and anarchy in Libya, and civil war in Yemen.
For most of the past twenty years, Washington demanded that Iran end its nuclear program but declined to speak with it. By the time American diplomats finally did sit down with the Iranians, their program had expanded and advanced. Despite some rollback, we ended up accepting Iranian nuclear capabilities much beyond what they had earlier offered.
Over the course of this decade, instead of a strategy to combat Islamist violence, the Obama administration executed a campaign plan involving the promiscuous use of drone warfare. This multiplied America’s enemies and spread terrorism to ever more parts of West Asia and North Africa. One result: the so-called “Islamic State” – Da’esh – now has more foreign recruits than it can induct or train.
Since 2011, Americans have put neither our military power nor our money where our mouths were in Syria. The continued mass death and dislocation there is in part a result of a uniquely American combination of policy overreach, operational hesitancy, and ideologically palsied diplomacy. The strife we helped kindle in Syria (and Iraq) continues to have unforeseen knock-on effects, like the incubation of Da’esh, the destabilization of the European Union by overwhelming refugee flows, and the reappearance of Russian power in the Middle East.
By now, the consequences of multiple U.S. missteps are obvious to all but the most determined American partisans of diplomacy-free foreign policy. Our many bruising encounters with the inconvenient realities of the Middle East should have taught us a lot about how to conduct – or not conduct – diplomacy and war, as well as the limitations of purely military solutions to political problems. But, for the most part, American politicians and pundits have been more comfortable reaffirming ideological preconceptions and tendentious partisan narratives than facing up to what the policies and actions they have advocated have actually produced and why they did so. Our continuing misadventures in the Middle East and much of the turmoil there are consequences of this evasion of any “after-action review” process. The misadventures began as we still affirmed our fidelity to the United Nations Charter and international law. They continue amidst our studied disregard of both.
It has been a quarter century since Saddam Hussein decided to celebrate the end of the Cold War and his American and Gulf Arab-supported assault on Iran by invading, looting, and annexing Kuwait. Iraq’s brazen aggression united the United Nations behind Western and Islamic coalitions that came to Kuwait’s rescue. The rescue took place in the name of defending the sovereignty and independence of the weak and their immunity from bullying or invasion by the strong. That’s what the UN Charter was meant to guarantee.
Since then, almost no one in American public office has referred to either the Charter or international law. When President Obama did so in the UN General Assembly at the end of September, there was stunned silence in the hall as other countries’ leaders marveled at his chutzpah. He was, after all, extolling principles Americans once upheld but now refuse to apply to ourselves or our friends. The president’s castigation of other great powers for their deviations from the Charter and international law simply reminded many present of U.S. actions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. These have marked the relapse to a state of international disorder in which the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. That was, of course, precisely what the war to liberate Kuwait was meant to prevent becoming the post Cold War norm.
What might we learn from our continuing misadventures in the Middle East?
One key conclusion is that, just as diplomacy without military backing is hamstrung, military power, however great, has limited utility–and can even be dangerously counterproductive–unless it is informed and accompanied by diplomacy. We have shown that force can remove regimes. We have seen that it cannot replace them or the political structures it destroys. Our armed forces can shock, awe, and vanquish their foes on the battlefield. But, we have learned the hard way in Afghanistan and Iraq that wars do not end until the defeated accept defeat and stand down their resistance.
Translating military outcomes into lasting adjustments in the behavior of those we have defeated is the job of diplomats, not warriors. For the most part, we have not called on our diplomats to do that job. Judging by the plague of incompetent campaign gerbils and carpetbaggers we appointed to manage Iraq and Afghanistan after we occupied them, our government lacks the diplomatic professionalism, expertise, and skills as well as the politico-military backing and resources needed to craft or sustain peace. We have no war termination strategies and no one who would know how to implement them if we did, so America’s wars never end.
We have also come to understand that threats to attack projects like Iran’s nuclear program are more likely to stiffen the backs of those we are trying to intimidate than to bring them to their knees. As the German proverb cautions: “the best enemies are those that make threats.” Threats offend the pride of their targets even as they menace their security. Warning that you plan to attack an adversary stimulates military countermeasures and efforts at deterrence on its part. It also promotes hatred and bravado, not thoughts of surrender. If you are serious about attacking a foreign adversary, better get on with it!
But we have learned from studying our options vis-à-vis Iran that bombing can destroy program infrastructure but probably not all of it. Assassination can murder key project personnel but most likely not all of them. Cyber attacks can cripple software and even destroy some equipment but they invite retaliation in kind. None of these aggressive measures can erase a society’s scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical skills. The competencies that created complex defense programs remain available to reconstitute them.
Short of occupation and pacification, the only way to eliminate or at least mitigate latent menaces like that of the Iranian nuclear program is through the negotiation of a binding framework of impartially verified undertakings to constrain them That is what we have finally worked out with Iran. But in negotiations, the perfect is often the enemy of the good and ripe moments soon rot away. In 2005, Iran offered a deal. We rejected it, refused to talk to Iran directly, and doubled down on sanctions. Ten years later, we settled for much less than what was originally offered. It’s important to know when time is on your side and when it isn’t. And it’s important to understand what sanctions can do and what they can’t.
A century ago, Woodrow Wilson declared that “a nation that is boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force.” We’ve spent a hundred years testing this alluring theory. It’s now clear that, when he articulated it, Wilson was out to lunch.
If sanctions are not linked to a diplomatic process aimed at dispute resolution, they entrench differences rather than bridge them. Our recent experience with Iran bears this out. So, by the way, do the results of sanctions against Mao’s China, Kim Il-sung’s north Korea, Castro’s Cuba, and Putin’s Russia. Sanctions make some people poor and others rich. But, on their own, they neither bring about regime change nor break the will of foreign nationalists.
Dean Acheson was right when he said: that “to determine the pattern of rulership in another country requires conquering it. . . . The idea of using commercial restrictions as a substitute for war in getting control over somebody else’s country is a persistent and mischievous superstition in the conduct of foreign affairs.”
Sanctions quite predictably did not suffice to bring about Saddam’s withdrawal from Kuwait. Air and ground attack were needed to achieve that. Nor could sanctions topple the regimes in Iraq and Libya. For that, the direct use of force was required. Syria has since underscored the reality that sanctions also come up short even when buttressed by covert action to foment and intensify rebellion. Despite tough sanctions, ostracism, and multiple foreign-supported insurgencies, President Asad is still the head of what passes for a national government in his country.
The case of Iran further buttresses Acheson’s point. Thirty years of escalating sanctions on Iran did nothing but reinforce its obduracy. Only after the reopening of direct diplomatic dialogue finally enabled hard bargaining were we able to trade sanctions relief for restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program. Ironically, it turns out, the only utility of sanctions in terms of changing behavior lies in their agreed removal. Imposing them doesn’t accomplish much and may even be counterproductive. Yet, as a political cheap shot, sanctions, combined with diatribe and ostracism, remain the preferred response of the United States to foreign defiance.
That’s because, as someone wise in the ways of Washington once pointed out, “sanctions always succeed in their principal objective, which is to make those who impose them feel good.” But gratifying as it may be to politicians trying to show how tough they are, the pain inflicted by sanctions is meaningless unless it leads to agreement by their target country to change its policies and practices. Agreed change can only be achieved through trade-offs. And these need to be arranged in negotiations focused on a “yes-able” proposition. Sanctions relief can be a useful part of the bargaining process. But sanctions that are imposed to give the appearance of changing behavior without bargaining with those on whom they are inflicted are diplomatic and military cowardice tarted up as moral outrage.
Which brings me to our recent experiences with the deployment and use of the U.S. military in the Middle East. These ought to have taught us a lot about strategy and the conduct of war as well as what is required to translate the results of war into a better peace. They have certainly demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that strategic incoherence invites punishment by the uncontrolled course of events.
A strategy is a plan for actions that can achieve a desired objective with minimal investment of effort, resources, and time. The objective must be clear and attainable. The operational concept must be realistic and simple enough to avoid tripping on itself. To promote efficiency, it should draw on the synergies of all relevant elements of national and international power — political, economic, informational, and military. For a strategy to succeed, the tactics by which it is implemented must be both feasible and flexible. The strategy must weigh the interests and changing perceptions of affected parties and consider how best to accommodate, counter, or correct these.
Since we became a world power seventy years ago, the United States has sought to sustain stability in the Persian Gulf. A related objective has been to preclude monopoly control of the region’s energy resources by a hostile power. We accomplished these tasks successfully for decades – without stationing significant forces in the region – by ensuring that Iraq and Iran balanced each other, by arming the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to buttress that balance, and by showing that if our friends in the GCC were threatened, we could arrive in time and with sufficient firepower to defend them. Our strategy protected the Arab societies of the Gulf at minimal cost, with a minimal U.S. troop presence, and minimal social or religious friction.
The 1990-1991 Gulf War validated this strategy. The United States led forces that joined with a Saudi-led coalition to liberate Kuwait and chastise Iraq. Together, Western and Islamic coalition air forces and armies reduced the military power of Iraq to levels that enabled it once again to balance Iran without threatening its other neighbors.
But in 1993, the Clinton administration abruptly abandoned the effort to use Iraq to balance Iran. With no prior consultation with either the U.S. military or our security partners in the Gulf, the White House suddenly proclaimed a policy of “dual containment,” under which the United States undertook unilaterally to balance both Baghdad and Tehran simultaneously. This made sense in terms of protecting Israel from either Iraq or Iran, but not otherwise. It deprived the Gulf Arabs of a role in determining a low-cost national security strategy for their region and required the creation of a long-term American military presence in the Gulf. The irritations that presence entailed gave birth to al Qa`eda and led to 9/11. The subsequent U.S. invasion and destruction of Iraq’s power and independence from Iran ensured that there was no way to sustain a stable balance of power in the Gulf that did not require the continuation of a huge, expensive, and locally burdensome American military presence there. So Americans garrison the Gulf, and there we will remain.
No one openly questions this situation but no one is comfortable with it. And with good reason. It is politically awkward for all concerned. It presupposes a degree of congruity in U.S. and Arab views that no longer exists. And, notwithstanding the Obama administration’s considerable efforts to allay Gulf Arab concerns, they suspect that the logic of events in the region could yet drive America toward rapprochement with Iran and strategic cooperation with it against Sunni Islamism.
In assessing American reliability, our partners in the Gulf cannot forget what happened to Hosni Mubarak. Not surprisingly, they want to reduce dependence on America for their protection as much as they can. This is leading to a lot of arms purchases and outreach by Saudi Arabia and other GCC members to countries in Europe as well as China, India, and Russia. It has also stimulated assertively independent foreign policies on their part.
But the capacity of the GCC countries for self-reliance is limited. No matter how heavily they arm themselves, they cannot match either the population or the potential for subversive trouble-making that their Iranian adversary and its fellow travelers possess. Sadly for the GCC, there is no great power other than the United States with power projection capabilities and an inclination to protect the Gulf Arab states from external challenges. So there is no escape from GCC reliance on America.
Meanwhile, however, the apparent contradictions between U.S. interests and policies and those of our GCC partners are widening. The United States now asserts objectives in the region that do not coincide with those of most GCC members. These include support of the Shi`ite-dominated Iraqi government against its Sunni opposition and assigning priority in Syria to the defeat of Da’esh over the ouster of President Asad. U.S. support for the Kurds disturbs our Arab friends as well as our Turkish ally. America supports the GCC’s military operations in Yemen less out of conviction than the perceived need to sustain solidarity with Saudi Arabia.
The United States and Gulf Arab governments have in effect agreed to disagree about the sources of instability in Bahrain and Egypt and how to cure them. Where a common ideology of anti-communism once united us or caused us to downplay our disagreements, passionate differences between Americans and Arabs over Salafism, Zionism, feminism, religious tolerance, sexual mores, and democratic vs. autocratic systems of governance now openly divide us. Neither side harbors the sympathy and affection for the other that it once did. Islamophobia in the United States is matched by disillusionment with America in the Gulf. But the ultimate sources of mutual discomfort are the strategic conundrums of what to do about Syria and how to deal with Iran.
Wishful thinking about the region’s strategic geometry and determination to exclude powerful governments and leaders from participation in the region’s politics have failed to curb endless warfare, mass flight to safe havens, and the promotion of extremist ideologies. Diplomatic processes that leave out those who must agree to an altered status quo or acquiesce in it for it to last are exercises in public relations flimflam, not serious attempts at problem solving. No party with proven strength on the ground, however odious, can be ignored. All parties, including what’s left of the Syrian government led by President Asad and its external backers, must sign on to a solution for it to take hold. Russia has just forcefully reinforced this point. President Putin, not President Obama, now holds the keys to a solution of Europe’s refugee crisis. As long as one or more of the external and internal parties in Syria is willing to fight to the last Syrian to get its way, the anarchy will continue. So will the refugee flows. Asad will remain in power in part of the country. And Da’esh and its like will flourish in the rest. This situation is and should be acceptable to no one.
It is almost certainly too late to put the Syrian Humpty Dumpty together again. The same is likely true of Iraq (as well as Libya). The future political geography of the Fertile Crescent now looks to be a mosaic of religiously and ethnically purified principalities, statelets, and thugdoms. If this is indeed what comes to pass in the region, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and great powers outside the area will all play destabilizing games aimed at dividing and ruling it. Conceivably, Da’esh could forge a viable Levantine “Sunnistan” that balances both Iran and Israel, but that is hard to imagine and would be unacceptable to all but the most religiously constipated Salafi Muslims. Even less plausibly, portions of Iraq and Syria could come together in some sort of federal structure that can play a regional balancing role.
With Turkey sidelined, Russia doubling down on support for the Asad government in Syria, and no potential Arab partner available to help balance Iran, the GCC states have been driven to deconflict some of their Iran policies clandestinely with Israel. But Israel’s treatment of its captive Arab population and neighbors makes it morally and politically anathema to other actors in the region. And Israel’s use of negotiations to deceive its negotiating partners and others interested in brokering peace for it with the Palestinians and other Arabs has gained it a worldwide reputation for diplomatic chicanery that it will not soon live down. As long as it continues to oppress its captive Arab population, Israel will disqualify itself as any country’s public partner in strategy and diplomacy in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, in Iraq and Syria, the attempt to use air power to stop Da’esh and training a ground force to oppose it without fixing the broken political environment in which extremism flourishes has failed. This should not be a surprise. Analogous Israeli campaigns against Hamas and Hezbullah had earlier failed. The Saudi-led GCC campaign in Yemen is unlikely to prove the exception to the rule that you can’t accomplish objectives you can’t define. Nor can you overthrow or install a regime from the air, even when you totally dominate the airspace. The Iran nuclear deal shows that diplomacy can solve problems that bombing cannot. Political problems, including those with a religious dimension to them, require political solutions. And political solutions depend on politico-military strategies that inform sound policies.
There is no such strategy or agreed policy for dealing with Iran now that its nuclear program has been constrained and sanctions will be lifted. The United States seems to have no clear idea of what it now wants from Iran, and Iran just wants America to go away. The GCC would like Iran isolated and contained, as it was before the United States helped install a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad and connived with Israel to propel Hezbullah to the commanding heights of Lebanese politics. But there is no GCC strategy with any prospect of achieving this result. Wars of religion, not strategy, are shaping the future of the Middle East.
As refugees overwhelm Europe and both Asad and Da’esh continue to hold their own against the forces arrayed against them, the world is moving toward the conclusion that any outcome in Syria – any outcome at all – that can stop the carnage is better than its continuation. The ongoing disintegration of the Fertile Crescent fuels extremism; empowers Iran; drives Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria together; weakens the strategic position of the GCC; vexes Turkey; and leaves the United States on a strategic treadmill. The region seems headed, after still more tragedy and bloodshed, toward an unwelcome inevitability – the eventual acknowledgment of Iran’s hegemony in Iraq and Syria and political influence in Bahrain, Gaza, Lebanon, and Yemen. That is not where Americans and our Gulf Arab friends imagined we would end up twenty-five years after liberating Kuwait from Iraqi aggression. But it is where protracted strategic incoherence has brought us. We can no longer avoid considering whether an opening to Iran is not the key to peace and stability in the Middle East.
Whatever our answer to that question, the seventy-year-old partnership between Americans and Gulf Arabs has never faced more or greater challenges than at present. We will not surmount these challenges if we do not both learn from our mistakes and work together to cope with the unpalatable realities they have created. Doing so will require intensified dialogue between us, imagination, and openness to novel strategic partnerships and alignments. There are new realities in the Middle East. It does no good to deny or rail against them. We must now adjust to them and strive to turn them to our advantage.