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Part II: The Next American War in the Middle East—Let’s Win This Time!

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1. Republicans Are Coming Back—For More

As noted in the first installment, Republican enthusiasm for direct American intervention in another war in the Middle East is surging once again. Virgil’s view is that yes, there are plenty of people in the Middle East who deserve killing, starting with ISIS and including a great many Iranians.   

Yet still, it’s necessary for Americans to be smart about how they proceed. Let’s remember that  “boots on the ground” didn’t go as planned in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Moreover, Republicans were badly defeated in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Indeed, the rise of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid is directly attributable to the backlash against George W. Bush’s war policies. So Republicans should hereby resolve: One Obama is enough. Let’s not get back in power, get in another war, and thus set the stage for another Obama in a few years. Instead, let’s learn some lessons—and apply them.  

In the last installment, we noted that many conservatives have shifted over the last decade, from pro-war, to anti-war, to pro-war again. National Review, for example, was a strong supporter of Operation Iraqi Freedom; in 2003, it even went so far as to feature a cover story denouncing conservative and liberarian opponents of the war as “unpatriotic.” Yet by 2013, the magazine had mostly turned against Bush: One writer declared that Bush’s war policies were “almost completely wrong.” But now, in 2015, the pendulum has swung yet again, and National Review is back to hawkishness: On February 28, the mag headlined, “Bring Back the Bush Doctrine—with One Addition.” And what’s that “one addition”? It’s no apologies for any US policies. In other words, we’re right and they’re wrong—period. Such an attitude is a great way to stick it to Obama, rhetorically, but it might not serve to get the job done, militarily.   

Of course, others on the neoconservative right have been steady in their hawkery: They have always supported “boots on the ground.” And now, they want more—a lot more. Bret Stephens, an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal, has a new book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Social Disorder, in which he flatly declares, yes, the U.S. should be the world’s policeman. As he puts it, the American mission should be “reassuring the good, deterring the tempted, punishing the wicked.” 

Stephens’ gung-ho enthusiasm for US intervention might seem like a tonic in the face of Obama-style war-without-a-name “leading from behind,” but we might ask ourselves: Do we really think such a world-policeman role is sustainable?  If the U.S. has barely more than a fifth of the world’s GDP—smaller than China’s—and less than five percent of the world’s population, how long can we throw our weight around, without getting thrown for a loss?  

In these resurgent-hawk times, few on the right have been willing to criticize Stephens, but others haven’t been shy. As Jessica T. Matthews, a moderate liberal, has observed:  

“Stephens urges a fantastic construct: a global hegemony in which two hundred–odd nations calmly accept both one country’s right to decide what is and isn’t acceptable behavior and to accumulate, unopposed, a sufficient margin of power to enforce its rulings. Nothing like it has ever existed—or ever will.”

Oh my, that’s rather emphatic in its denunciation of Stevens’ thesis. 

By all means, let’s have a debate on the right about these issues of American power, and how to use it. The U.S. Army has a formal Center for Army Lessons Learned; maybe we need one as well. Jeb Bush, for example, has said that he doesn’t want to “re-litigate” past wars, and from his point of view as an ambitious politician, that’s perfectly understandable—would you want to defend the Bush 43’s Iraq record?  And yet for everyone not named “Jeb Bush,” it’s obvious that if you don’t learn from the past, you are doomed to repeat it.  

And when we see that Jeb is now touting that he is receiving foreign policy input from Paul Wolfowitz, conservatives, as well as libertarians, might pause to wonder if we shouldn’t have a lessons-learned session—quick! A hypothetical President Bush 45, were he to follow a neo-Wolfowitzian policy, might quickly find himself, and his party, in a military and political quagmire once again.    

But at the same time, let’s emphasize that the Obama status quo in the Middle East is unacceptable. Today, on the one hand, ISIS is avidly murdering Christians and others and, on the other hand, Iranian officers are commanding Iraqi forces in the field. Indeed, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister says Iran is “taking over” Iraq. That’s not good.  

So at the risk of annoying the Bush family, let’s do a little re-litigating—and lesson-learning.   

2.  Learning Lessons

Let’s start with a quick review of what went wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq. What was said of the British Army, so tragically misused in World War One, could also be said of the American military in the last decade; the troops were lions, led by donkeys.  That is, great soldiers, bad leaders—and nowhere were they worse than in the political capital. 

In Afghanistan, after 9-11, we had a perfect right—and a perfect need—to launch a punitive expedition on Kabul to remove the Al Qaeda-harboring Taliban from power. Indeed, we should been far more aggressive, in the first few weeks of the fighting, about capturing or killing Osama Bin Laden. According to Bob Woodward, it was the same Wolfowitz, then Bush 43’s deputy secretary of defense, who counseled against chasing after Bin Laden—the real prize, he said, was Iraq.  

Then, to compound our errors in Afghanistan, the U.S. launched a hapless and hubristic “nation-building” effort. Needless to say, we crippled our effort with political correctness; our tragic attempts to put Afghan women into the police force, for example, will be remembered as just one of many red flags that we waved in front of the insurgents, male chauvinist pigs that they were. Once again, Virgil is all in favor of killing those who need to be killed, but he also favors America choosing its fights carefully. Overcoming sexism in Afghanistan is, shall we say, should be low priority.  

As for Iraq, we made the mistake of believing our own “we’ll be greeted as liberators” propaganda. And since we were the “liberators,” the thinking went, we should immediately dissolve Saddam’s army, thereby humiliating, and un-employing, a couple million trained military men. Moreover, we should immediately set about holding elections, because that’s what “liberators” do; never mind that Iraq was a gaggle of feudal tribes and rival sects—not really a country at all.   

The events in Iraq since 2003 have reminded us that a functioning democracy is no easy achievement. In fact, the establishment of civil society—including mediating institutions, common civic loyalty, and an overall sense of patriotism—must precede democracy. Otherwise, “free elections” are just pathways to sectarianism and chaos.    

If we had to pick one mega-lesson out of all the lessons learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom, it’s this: Americans are not particularly good at counter-insurgency. Killing, yes, counter-insurgency, no. Most obviously, counter-insurgency involves knowing the culture and language of the territory to be pacified; yet even today, it’s hard to find a native-born American in uniform who is fluent in Arabic. As a result, war-stories abound of GI’s being misled by their translators: Occasionally, trusting Yanks were walked into an ambush; more often, the translator sought to use American firepower to settle an old score against a local rival.  

The bottom line was frustration and failure.       

Come to think of it, lots of foreign armies have had a hard time pacifying Muslim areas. The French were pushed out of Algeria in the 60s, and the Russians were pushed out of Afghanistan in the 80s.   Even the Israelis, who are as smart and tough as any, were pushed out of Lebanon in the 80s; they gave up on part of the West Bank in the 90s and abandoned all of Gaza in the 00s.   Indeed, as University of Chicago professor Robert Pape described in his 2006 book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Muslims have figured out rather effective ways of letting foreigners know that they are not welcome.  

By the time we realized the full extent of our errors in Iraq, it was too late. Even the success of Gen. Petraeus’ “surge” in 2007 did not bring about the loyalty of the Iraqi government, nor did it prevent John McCain and many other Republicans from being blown out in the 2008 election. As we saw in the first installment, winning means not only defeating the enemy, but also not losing one’s own coalition. If you win the fighting overseas and lose the political struggle at home—you lose.    

Finally, nearly two centuries ago, the Duke of Wellington made an even deeper point about wars between big countries and little countries: As he put it, For a great power, there’s no such thing as a small war.  

In our case, that means that the moment American troops set down somewhere, the world is watching—and, most likely, rooting for the underdog. Yes, the world media, from the BBC to CNN to Al Jazeera to Twitter, is waiting for us to shoot an unarmed civilian as a pretext for the next protest march in London or New York.   

The-bigger-they-are-the-harder-they-fall syndrome poses a serious limitation for the U.S. To the extent that the fighting is a matter of optics and opinion, it’s hard, if not impossible, for American GIs to gain the upper hand. 

Indeed, this basic reality—we might call it Wellington’s Wisdom—puts a shadow on all American interventions. So long as we are a superpower, our direct military action is likely to provoke super-opposition.     

Of course, if it’s a matter of life and death for our country, we shouldn’t hesitate to act in our own defense, and world opinion be damned. But if it’s a “war of choice,” we might heed Wellington’s Wisdom and think harder about how else to achieve our objectives.  And in the meantime, we can skip past tortured arguments that attempt to explain how we shoulda-coulda done better in the recent fighting, if only. For example, Foreign Policy recently sought to explain “Why We Failed to Win a Decisive Victory in Afghanistan.” The answer, we are supposed to believe, is that we failed to split hairs between CT, or Counter-Terrorism, and COIN, or Counter-Insurgency.  

3. Putting Lessons to Good Use: Tactics

So now let’s apply some of these lessons learned to our future tactics, and strategy—both.

Chris Kyle was as brave and skilled a warrior as America has ever produced, and still the new movie American Sniper vividly depicts what he was up against; that is, he had to confront not only PC rules of engagement, but also an unrealistic mission as well. As the film shows us, Kyle had constantly to make careful choices about whom to aim at, knowing that if he shot the wrong target, he could end up in prison on war-crimes charges. And yet at the same time, Kyle and the other Americans routinely refer to the Iraqis as “savages.” Either way, American Sniper is not a film about winning “hearts and minds.”   

Yet our biggest tactical failure in Iraq, and Afghanistan, was not inside those countries at all—it was outside of them, on their borders. More precisely, it was our failure to secure the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan that guaranteed our ultimate failure.   

This is one lesson we should have learned by now. It can be summed up like this: If the superior force can seal the border and deny the insurgent force sanctuary in, and resupply from, a neighboring country, the superior force can win. But, if the superior force can’t seal the border, it will lose.  

We can illustrate both possible outcomes with recent examples. From 1948 to 1958, the British successfully battled a communist insurgency in Malaya (now Malaysia). Fortunately for the British, Malaya was on a peninsula, and so it was possible for the Brits to police Malaya’s narrow border with Thailand and choke off the insurgents’ sanctuary and supply. By contrast, from 1961 to 1973, the U.S. fought to stave off a communist insurgency in South Vietnam, and was constantly flummoxed by the communists’ ability to gain sanctuary and supply not only in North Vietnam, but also in Cambodia and Laos. 

In other words, the British success in Malaya, and the American failure in Vietnam, directly correlated to their ability to choke off sanctuary and resupply.   

We can see the same pattern in other conflicts, won and lost. In the 90s, we were able to isolate Serbia, and so we succeeded in whelping an independent Kosovo (assuming, of course, that creating more Muslim countries in Europe counts as success).    

Yet in the 2000s, we could not adequately see that the Taliban remnants in Afghanistan were being bolstered by Pakistan.  Indeed, even as we were giving Pakistan billions in foreign aid, the Pakistanis were sneakily channeling some of that money across their porous border to the Taliban—who were, after all, their fellow Pashtuns, fighting us in Afghanistan. In fact, to this day, we are still richly financing Pakistan, which in turn continues to aid the Taliban.     

As for Iraq in the 2000s, the situation was even more complicated: At various times, the U.S. was fighting both the Shia and the Sunni. The Shia insurgents were getting help from Iran; the two counties share a border of nearly 1000 miles, with millions of Shia “pilgrims” passing both ways every year. Meanwhile, the Sunni insurgents were getting financial help from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms, even as volunteer fighters poured in from around the vast Sunni Ummah. Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for example, finally killed by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2006, was from Jordan.   

In those days, the Bush administration could see full well that the Iranians were helping the Shia, but since the new Iraqi government—the one it had installed—was Shia, it felt limited in what it could do. Meanwhile, to this day, the U.S. has not figured out, at least not officially, that the Sunni Saudis have been playing us for chumps. (This willful blindness could have something to do with Saudi money.)  

4.  Putting Lessons to Good Use: Strategy 

As we move from tactics to strategy, we see an even larger reality about borders and counterinsurgency: If neighboring countries are helping the insurgents, the insurgents are likely to win.  

So the challenge to the country seeking to defeat the insurgency is to gain allies in the region. This might not be easy, of course, but if it can’t be done, then the counter-insurgency is not likely to succeed.  

The biggest mistake that President Lyndon B. Johnson made was thinking that the Vietnam War was just a war in Vietnam.   The real story of the war—the story of how little North Vietnam withstood the power of half-a-million American troops for more than a decade—was that Hanoi had lots of help, not only from China, but also from the Soviet Union. For their part, the communists in Beijing and Moscow were happy to see the Americans chewed up in the Vietnam meat grinder. And so long as the Americans didn’t seem to notice, the PRC and USSR could do bloody damage to the USA at relatively little cost to themselves. 

It took a new president, Richard Nixon, and a new top diplomat, Henry Kissinger, to see that a satisfactory solution to Vietnam could not be found on the battlefields of Vietnam. Nor would it be found in the Paris peace talks between the warring parties.  Instead, the answer would be found in the Forbidden City and the Kremlin; that is, Nixon and Kissinger would negotiate with the Chinese and the Russians for their help, or at least acquiescence, in achieving “peace with honor”—which finally came in 1973.  Yes, Kissinger deserved his Nobel Peace Prize, and for that matter, Nixon deserved one, too.   

Unfortunately, the Nixon-Kissinger solution to Vietnam came undone in 1975, the year after Nixon was driven from office by the Watergate scandal. As we know, the Democrats of that era couldn’t wait to pull the plug on South Vietnam; indeed, their shameful conduct anticipated Obama’s eagerness to bug out of Iraq in 2010.    

So now, looking ahead: If America finds itself returning to Iraq in a big way, let’s do it right this time.  The goal should be to be smarter: that is, not to send the 82nd Airborne chasing after ISIS in the desert, but, rather, to work with other powers—the responsible powers, and, yes, the irresponsible powers—to isolate ISIS, the better to finish it off once and for all.   

Much has been made of the fact that the Shia Iranians are now helping their fellow Shia in Iraq. And while Iranian penetration of Iraq is hardly in America’s interest, it’s hard to see how we could prevent it. The two countries are, after all, not only neighbors but mostly co-religionists.    

So it will do little good to lecture the Iraqis about getting help from the Iranians. Max Boot, a leading neoconservative champion of more intervention, has taken time to lecture Americans and Arabs, both, on how best to fight.  Boot’s words are all nice in theory, but, as we have learned, the Muslims have their own ways. As we shall see, Muslim bloodthirstiness, seen in its proper perspective, can be an asset.   

What’s unacceptable is that the Sunni aren’t doing more, not only to fight the extremists of ISIS, but also to oppose the far scarier threat of Iran, which bids to be the hegemon in the Middle East. This is not only unacceptable, but also ridiculous.  

Why is this ridiculous? Because the Sunni have the numbers on their side; they represent at least 87 percent of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims. In other words, the Sunni ought to be able to get their act together to defeat an enemy that they outnumber by 7:1. Yes, Shia Iran is a big country—but Sunni Egypt is a bigger country, Sunni Saudi Arabia is a richer country, Sunni Turkey is stronger militarily, and Sunni Pakistan is nuclear-armed. Together, the Sunni powers not only surround Iran, but they could also overpower it.   

In fact, there’s at least some evidence that this is happening, that the Sunni powers are forming a front: Here at Breitbart News, as Cicero observed recently, “No Thanks to Obama, the World is Finally Figuring Out How to Fight Isis.”  

Yes, despite the Americans, many Arab countries have made a good start. And if Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan need more help getting their collective act together, the U.S. could provide it. Instead, unfortunately, Obama and John Kerry are seeking to sign a forlorn and unenforceable nuclear deal with Iran, even as they inveigh against the phantom of “climate change.” 

So if Obama and Kerry won’t deign to rally the Sunni against ISIS and Iran, that’s bad news.  But the good news is that such rallying could be a great mission for the next Republican president. A smart GOPer could find a way to get this work done without replaying the mistakes of Bush 43.   

5. Tertius Gaudens: The Happy Third  

We are familiar with the ancient wisdom of the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu: The best battles are the ones you never fought. That is, not because you’re a peacenik, but because you found a better way to achieve your objective. 

And we can add a corollary to Sun: The best battles are the ones that someone else fought—against your enemy.   

The Latin phrase tertius gaudens—the happy third—goes back almost as far as Sun. That is, happy is the third person who watches as two of his enemies fight each other.   

Tertius gaudens, of course, is another way of saying “balance of power,” or “offshore balancing.” It’s what the British did for the better part of four centuries in Europe; at one time or another, Britain built or helped build ad hoc coalitions to thwart the Spanish, Dutch, French, Germans, and Russians.  

And the U.S. has done it, too: In the 70s, Nixon and Kissinger took advantage of the emerging split between China and Russia to play the two powers against each other, all for the benefit of the U.S.    

And in the 80s, the Reagan administration adroitly played balance-of-power politics in the Middle East. The U.S. had nothing to do with starting Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Iran in 1980, but once the fighting started, the U.S. managed to help each side to keep it going. 

Yes, in one of the most breathtaking displays of realpolitik in U.S. diplomatic history, the Reaganites guided America to play “happy third” in the Iraq-Iran war.  

To be sure, idealists, do-gooders, and other nitwits were duly horrified, but the results of that eight-year conflict, 1980 to 1988, speak for themselves: Casualty estimates vary, but most experts agree that total fatalities for the two sides numbered at least 500,000, and maybe as many as a million. And perhaps three-fourths of those fatalities were on the Iranian side—is that so bad? 

Here’s how a U.S. Army report described Iranian military operations back then:  

“They employed the human wave attack reminiscent of World War I. They sent in Basij volunteers as the lead element. These forces often consisted of old men and young children. The primary purpose of this initial wave was to clear mines, breach obstacles (often by laying on top of concertina wire), and to absorb enemy fire. Many of the Basij were found with plastic keys to heaven in their hands, or a note from the Ayatollah giving them permission to enter heaven.  Separated perhaps by a few hundred meters, waves and waves of under-trained conscripts would storm Iraqi defenses.”

Of course, if the Iranians were using human bodies to clear mines, to lie on top of barbed wire, and “to absorb enemy fire,” then perhaps they needed some help.  And they got it, from not only the Americans, but also the Israelis. Yes, the famed Iran-Contra “scandal” grew out of this highly successful policy of tertius gaudens. Virgil believes we need more of these kinds of “scandals”!  

So yes, by all means: Let’s get back to encouraging our enemies to kill each other. Do we want Iran taking over Iraq? Or Syria?  Of course not.  Nor do we want ISIS taking over Iraq or Syria. In the final analysis, the Iraqis, Iranians, and Syrians are not friends of ours, and so let’s have fewer of all three; let’s help all sides run up the body count.  It might take constant calibration to keep the combatants in the ring forever—but that should be the goal: Let our enemies be each others’ enemies, always.  

Okay, so this isn’t Bush 43-style “moral clarity.” Yet if today’s Republican presidential hopefuls want to have a happy time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they should view the Bush 43 presidency as a case study in what not to do. Instead, they should recall the wisdom of their earlier Republican forebears, Nixon and Reagan. If they do, they will think more about tertius gaudens and less about nation-building, more about annihilation and less about liberation.    

And the prospect of a Republican comeback in 2016 will look a lot less scary to many voters. 


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