Foreign Policy Blogs

"Eight years and eight divisions"

As you undoubtedly already know, last night Obama announced the end of combat operations in Iraq:

What did we accomplish?  Where are we going from here and what do we hope to continue to accomplish?  How is Iraq related to the geopolitical interests of the United States?  Many have taken the time to over the past day or so to try to answer these questions.  The editors of the National Review offer some unconvincing reasons that the Iraq War has been strategically beneficial:

For now, we have transformed Iraq from a hostile, terrorist-supporting dictatorship destabilizing the region into a ramshackle democracy that is an ally in the war on terror… [Iraq’s] success could still, over the long term, provide a model for the region: Any strategy for containing Iran makes no sense unless a stable, U.S-allied Iraq is a bulwark against it.

Actually, the region was much more stable and Iran was more successfully contained before the war.  Dual containment was relatively successful.  And in fact, to see how well dual containment worked, in comparison to regime change via military invasion, we can look at the arguments against dual containment.

F. Gregory Gause III, writing for Foreign Affairs in 1994, posited a nightmare scenario with which he did not believe dual containment could successfully grapple.  Noting that “[c]ontainment of Iran requires a relatively strong and unified Iraq on its long western border,” Gause warned that if Iraq is weak, “Iraq becomes an ideal area for Iran to try to break out of its regional isolation.”  Furthermore:

…if Saddam should fall, Iran would become a key player in the future of Iraq.  With its military resources and its relationship with Iraqi Shiite opposition groups like the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and al-Da wah, Iran could play a very destabilizing role in a post Saddam Iraq if it felt that its interests were being ignored or that a new Iraqi regime was being constructed by the United States as a means to intensify Iran’s isolation.

According to Gause, the collapse of Saddam’s regime, if it resulted in “a political vacuum in which a number of local groups and regional powers vie for influence,” would be “the worst case-scenario for American policy and the one dual containment is least able to address.”  In other words, the biggest problem with dual containment is that it could not deal with the situation that we wound up creating when we abandoned dual containment.  Looking back, it is as if America were an alcoholic who decided that in fact its problem was that it needed to drink more.

Douglas Feith, also writing for the National Review, asserts that “America is more secure” after the Iraq War, providing three reasons:

It removed a regime that threatened aggression throughout its region. It punished a regime that was hostile to the United States and contemptuous of the U.N. Security Council’s formal decisions on disarmament and peace. It demonstrated that a large price is sometimes imposed on regimes that support terrorism and pursue weapons of mass destruction.

On aggression, as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer argued in 2003, if Saddam’s two wars (against Iran and Kuwait) taught us anything, it’s that Saddam was a rationalist who could be deterred.  On the point about nuclear weapons, I’ll give Feith the benefit of the doubt that he was smoking crack when he wrote that, because Iraq wasn’t pursuing nuclear weapons.  On Feith’s second point, yes, I’ll concede that, yes, the U.S. punished a country that was hostile to it.  Unfortunately, though, since the war was immensely bungled, the lesson to the world is probably the opposite of what Feith insinuates: the U.S. is unlikely to undertake a similar venture in the near future.  Furthermore, as The New York Times notes:

It drained American credibility around the world, particularly after the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction proved false and after the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison. The specter of an American war on Islam, no matter how much it is denied by Washington, looms large in parts of the world.

But as I did yesterday, I turn again to George Friedman, from his book, The Next 100 Years:

An Islamic world in chaos, incapable of uniting, means that the United States has achieved its strategic goal… U.S. defeat or stalemate in Iraq and Afghanistan is the likely outcome, and both wars will appear to have ended badly for the United States.  There is no question that American execution of the war in Iraq has been clumsy, graceless, and in many ways unsophisticated.  The United States was, indeed, adolescent in its simplification of issues and in its use of power.  But on a broader, more strategic level, that does not matter.  So long as Muslims are fighting each other, the United States has won its war.

Perhaps that’s the truth peaking out from beneath the windrow dressing presented by National Review editorialists.  Regardless, according to The New York Times, in 2011, we will leave behind up to several hundred military officers “who would help the Iraqis purchase and field new American military equipment,” 2,400 State Department civilians protected by up to 7,000 security guards (who will “operate radars to warn of enemy rocket attacks, search for roadside bombs, fly reconnaissance drones and even staff quick reaction forces to aid civilians in distress”), 1,320 armored cars, 29 helicopters, 3 planes, the embassy in Baghdad, two consulates in Basra and Erbil, and two new embassy branch offices in Kirkuk and Mosul, all of which will cost $1 billion.

The National Review editors began their critique of Obama’s speech with a quote from General Petraeus – “Tell me how this ends” – which Petraeus uttered to Washington Post journalist Rick Atkinson in 2003.  However, the National Review omitted the next part of Petraeus’ statement.  From Atkinson’s article:

[Petraeus] hooked his thumbs into his flak vest and adjusted the weight on his shoulders. “Tell me how this ends,” he said. “Eight years and eight divisions?” The allusion was to advice supposedly given the White House in the early 1950s by a senior Army strategist upon being asked what it would take to prop up French forces in South Vietnam. Petraeus’s grin suggested the comment was more droll quip than historical assertion.

In Vietnam,  though we failed to achieve our strategic objectives, it turned out our strategic objectives were not, in fact, vital to U.S. national security.  Given the unconvincing strategic justifications now offered for the Iraq War, I wonder if history will repeat itself once again.