How to Lose the Next War in the Middle East
Posted on Apr 21, 2017
By Danny Sjursen / TomDispatch
Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Make no mistake: after 15 years of losing wars, spreading terror movements, and multiplying failed states across the Greater Middle East, America will fight the next versions of our ongoing wars. Not that we ever really stopped. Sure, Washington traded in George W. Bush’s expansive, almost messianic attitude toward his Global War on Terror for Barack Obama’s more precise, deliberate, even cautious approach to an unnamed version of the same war for hegemony in the Greater Middle East. Sure, in the process kitted-up 19 year-olds from Iowa became less ubiquitous features on Baghdad’s and Kabul’s busy boulevards, even if that distinction was lost on the real-life targets of America’s wars—and the bystanders (call them “collateral damage”) scurrying across digital drone display screens.
It’s hardly a brilliant observation to point out that, more than 15 years later, the entire region is a remarkable mess. So much worse off than Washington found it, even if all of that mess can’t simply be blamed on the United States—at least not directly. It’s too late now, as the Trump administration is discovering, to retreat behind two oceans and cover our collective eyes. And yet, acts that might still do some modest amount of good (resettling refugees, sending aid, brokering truces, anything within reason to limit suffering) don’t seem to be on any American agenda.
Square, Site wide
As a start, you would drop an enlarged, conventional army into Iraq and/or Syria. This would offer a giant red, white, and blue target for all those angry, young radicalized men just dying (pardon the pun) to extinguish some new “crusader” force. It would serve as an effective religious-nationalist rallying cry (and target) throughout the region.
Then you would create a news-magnet of a ban (or at least the appearance of one) on immigrants and visitors of every sort from predominantly Muslim countries coming to the United States. It’s hardly an accident that ISIS has taken to calling the president’s proposed executive order to do just that “the blessed ban” and praising Donald Trump as the “best caller to Islam.” Such actions only confirm the extremist narrative: that Muslims are unwelcome in and incompatible with the West, that liberal plurality is a neo-imperial scam.
Finally, you would feed the common perception in the region that Washington’s support for Israel and assorted Arab autocrats is unconditional. To do so, you would go out of your way to hold fawning public meetings with military strongmen like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and suggest that, when it came to Israel, you were considering changing American policy when it comes to a two-state solution and the illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine. Such policies would feed another ISIS narrative: U.S. support for illiberal despots and the failure of the Arab Spring is proof that practicing Muslims and peaceful Islamists will never successfully gain power through the democratic process.
Key to such a losing strategy would be doing anything you could to reinforce ISIS’s twisted narrative of an end-of-days battle between Islam and Christendom, a virtuous East versus a depraved West, an authentic Caliphate against hypocritical democracies. In what amounts to a war of ideas, pursuing such policies would all but hand victory to ISIS and other jihadi extremist groups. And so you would have successfully created a strategy for losing eternally in the Greater Middle East. And if that was the desired outcome in Washington, well, congratulations all around, but of course we all know that it wasn’t.
Let’s take these three points in such a losing strategy one by one. (Of course “losing” is itself a contested term, but for our purposes, consider the U.S. to have lost as long as its military spins its wheels in a never-ending quagmire, while gradually empowering various local “adversaries.”)
Just a Few Thousand More Troops Will Get It Done ...
There are already thousands of American soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Syria, to say nothing of the even more numerous troops and sailors stationed on bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, and other states ringing America’s Middle Eastern battlefields. Still, if you want to mainline into the fastest way to lose the next phase of the war on terror, just blindly acquiesce in the inevitable requests of your commanders for yet more troops and planes needed to finish the job in Syria ( and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Yemen, and so on).
Let’s play this out. First, the worst (and most plausible) case: U.S. ground forces get sucked into an ever more complex, multi-faceted civil war—deeper and deeper still, until one day they wake up in a world that looks like Baghdad, 2007, all over again.
Or, lest we be accused of defeatism, consider the best case: those endlessly fortified and reinforced American forces wipe the floor with ISIS and just maybe manage to engineer the toppling of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime as well. It’s V-Day in the Middle East! And then what? What happens the day after? When and to whom do American troops turn over power?
● The Kurds? That’s a nonstarter for Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, all countries with significant Kurdish minorities.
● The Saudis? Don’t count on it. They’re busy bombing Houthi Shias in Yemen (with U.S.-supplied ordnance) and grappling with the diversification of their oil-based economy in a world in which fossil fuels are struggling.
● Russia? Fat chance. Bombing “terrorists”? Yes. Propping up an autocratic client to secure basing rights? Sure. Temporary transactional alliances of convenience in the region? Absolutely. But long-term nation-building in the heart of the Middle East? It’s just not the style of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a country with its own shaky petro-economy.
● So maybe leave Assad in power and turn the country back over to what’s left of his minority, Alawite-dominated regime? That, undoubtedly, is the road to hell. After all, it was his murderous, barrel-bombing, child-gassing acts that all but caused the civil war in the first place. You can be sure that, sooner or later, Syria’s majority Sunni population and its separatist Kurds would simply rebel again, while (as the last 15 years should have taught us) an even uglier set of extremists rose to the surface.
Keep in mind as well that, when it comes to the U.S. military, the Iraqi and Afghan “surges” of 2007 and 2009 offered proof positive that more ground troops aren’t a cure-all in such situations. They are a formula for expending prodigious amounts of money and significant amounts of blood, while only further alienating local populations. Meanwhile, unleashing manned and drone aircraft strikes, which occasionally kill large numbers of civilians, only add to the ISIS narrative.
Every mass casualty civilian bombing or drone strike incident just detracts further from American regional credibility. While both air strikes and artillery barrages may hasten the offensive progress of America’s Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian allies, that benefit needs to be weighed against the moral and propaganda costs of those dead women and children. For proof, see the errant bombing strike on an apartment building in Mosul last month. After all, those hundred-plus civilians are just as dead as Assad’s recent victims and just as many angry, grieving family members and friends have been left behind.
In other words, any of the familiar U.S. strategies, including focusing all efforts on ISIS or toppling Assad, or a bit of both, won’t add up to a real policy for the region. No matter how the Syrian civil war shakes out, Washington will need a genuine “what next” plan. Unfortunately, if the chosen course predictably relies heavily on the military lever to shape Syria’s shattered society, America’s presence and actions will only (as in the past) aggravate the crisis and help rejuvenate its many adversaries.
“The Blessed Ban”
The Trump administration’s proposed “travel ban” quickly became fodder for left-versus-right vitriol in the U.S. Here’s a rundown on what it’s likely to mean when it comes to foreign policy and the “next” war. First, soaring domestic fears over jihadi terror attacks in this country and the possible role of migrants and refugees in stoking them represent a potentially catastrophic over-reaction to a modest threat. Annually, from 2005 to 2015, terrorists killed an average of just seven Americans on U.S. soil. You are approximately 18,000 times more likely to die in some sort of accident than from such an attack. In addition, according to a study by the conservative Cato Institute, from 1975 to 2015 citizens of the countries included in Trump’s first ban (including Iraq and Syria) killed precisely zero people in the United States. Nor has any refugee conducted a fatal domestic attack here. Finally, despite candidate and President Trump’s calls for “extreme vetting” of Muslim refugees, the government already has a complex, two-year vetting process for such refugees which is remarkably “extreme.”
Those are the facts. What truly matters, however, is the effect of such a ban on the war of ideas in the Middle East. In short, it’s manna from heaven for ISIS’s storyline in which Americans are alleged to hate all Muslims. It tells you everything you need to know that, within days of the administration’s announcement of its first ban, ISIS had taken to labeling it “blessed,” just as al-Qaeda once extolled George W. Bush’s 2003 “blessed invasion” of Iraq. Even Senator John McCain, a well-known hawk, worried that Trump’s executive order would “probably give ISIS some more propaganda.”
Remember, while ISIS loves to claim responsibility for every attack in the West perpetrated by lost, disenfranchised, identity-seeking extremist youths, that doesn’t mean the organization actually directs them. The vast majority of these killers are self-radicalized citizens, not refugees or immigrants. One of the most effective—and tragic—ways to lose this war is to prove the jihadis right.
New and Improved Comments
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
Right Internal Skyscraper, Site wide