Why did the US fail in Iraq? Roots of American Overstretch

By William Polk | (Informed Comment) | – –

In The Financial Times of April 23, 2015, Philip Stephens begins a perceptive article with the obvious statement that “It is easier to say that Obama never gets it right than to come up with an alternative strategy.”

Of course it is. It was never easy to construct a coherent policy, but it was never impossible. The problem we face today is different. It is that for a long time we have not been presented by our leaders with any strategy. So the obvious question a citizen (and a tax payer) should demand be answered is why, despite all the effort, all the proclamations and all the lives and money we are spending, does almost every observer believe that we do not have a policy that we can afford and that accomplishes our minimal national objectives? . . .

One aspect of this problem is that the military, drawing on the prestige they gain as our defenders, are vastly over funded and catered to by both the Executive Branch and the Legislature. As Washington and Eisenhower feared, they have become a state within our nation. This is evident in almost every aspect of the comparison between the military and civilian parts of our government. Consider the contrast with the Civil Service. It is as sharp in America as in “tin pot” dictatorships in the Third World. When I served in government, I observed that any general and many colonels could summon up an Air Force plane for a junket whereas even the Under Secretary of State had to get special clearance from the President and then negotiate with the Pentagon for official trips; then there were and still are wildly disproportional side benefits given to the military and what amount to penalties assessed to the civilians. For example, roughly half of all ambassadorial appointments were removed from the Foreign Service and given to non-professionals. As Edward Luce wrote in the December 7, 2014 Financial Times, “imagine how [much] harder it would be…to recruit talented military officers if plum generalships were handed out to amateurs who had never worn a uniform.”

The transformation of America into a military culture has deep roots. Arguably it began long before the formation of the Republic in the settler wars with the native Americans. In the “young republic,” it was carried forward in the war of 1812, Andrew Jackson’s push into “the Floridas” and James K. Polk’s war with Mexico. Then, during and after the Civil war, Americans became truly a warring people. This legacy was carried forward in two world wars, hundreds of smaller military actions and a half century of Cold War.

Few Americans, I suspect, are fully aware — despite scores of books and hundreds of articles — of the dimensions of our country’s commitment to the military establishment and the “security” culture embedded in it. Eisenhower’s Military-Industrial Complex has grown not only in size but in spread. It is now shapes Congressional action, influences media reporting and convinces labor to cooperate in its projects. Indeed, it is built into the fabric of American society and economy to an extent that would have terrified the Founding Fathers.

Beyond the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Media-Labor Complex, as it has become, are three other powerful aspects of the “security state.” The first of these is the creation of a more or less autonomous elite army within the standing army which, itself, is apart from what the Founding Fathers thought of as our prime military force, the state militias. This Special Operations Force, according to the Congressional Research Service in 2013 (the latest available figures) was composed of some 67,000 troops and operated under a separate budget of about $7.5 billion. It has its own “think tank,” sources of intelligence, school and even its own magazine (Special Warfare) that prints favorable articles by journalists from all over the world on “politico-military” affairs.

The second aspect of the growth of the military is in overseas bases. They are believed to number over 1,000 and are located in about 63 countries. These figures do not include the “floating bases” on aircraft carriers, troopships and “insertion” vessels nor, for the most part, the bases jointly operated with other countries and special intelligence facilities.

The third aspect is the extension of the military into “security” and intelligence fields that are partly or wholly funded by the Department of Defense and often are commanded by serving military officers. According to a recent book, 1,074 new federal government organizations, the existence of which is “classified” and generally withheld from public knowledge, and nearly 2,000 private companies work out of at least 17,000 locations within the United States and an unknown number abroad.

More unsettling but not surprising is that with so much power behind them, some senior military commanders feel able to step outside of their statutory roles to pontificate on affairs beyond their competence and authority. One who this year frightened our European allies was US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, the head of NATO’s operational command. He was taken to task by the German Chancellor, as reported in the March 7, 2015 issue of the highly respected German weekly Der Spiegel, for “dangerous propaganda” in publicly recommending policies verging on warfare with Russia. The German Foreign Minister, Frank Walter Steinmeier. intervened personally with the NATO General Secretary because of Breedlove’s statements. Breedlove’s action was not unprecedented. General David Petraeus essentially ran American affairs in Afghanistan and Iraq while treating the statutory American authority, the ambassador, as a junior partner. Elsewhere also, senior military officers have frequently violated the word and the intent of the framers of the Constitution in forming and proclaiming policies. In the most famous case of assumption of such powers in the past, President Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur. That was long ago.

It isn’t only, as the American psychologist Abraham Maslow is quoted as saying, “if you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail,” but also that ambitious men naturally seek opportunities. In business, they seek money; in the military they seek promotion. Pursuing these goals is often admirable but unchecked it also creates dangers or harms the public interest. History writings are full of accounts of generals who destroyed civilian regimes and often destroyed republican liberty. A prudent people will insist that its government both use its military when necessary and always control it. Fear that the people would fail to do so animated the discussions of our Founding Fathers when they were writing our Constitution in 1787. Our first military leader warned us of the danger as I have quoted him above.

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So now consider what we have been doing on the two major American wars of the post-Vietnam years. Because I have written on them in detail elsewhere, I will only touch on those aspects that will flesh-out the skeleton I have sketched above or illustrate why we need to avoid tactical lunges and adopt strategic thinking.

I begin with Iraq. Iraq illustrates failure to understand the context in which we act, our propensity to jump before looking and our role in creating a security threat.

Consider first the context: Iraq was one of the many countries that evolved from the collapse of imperialism. Put together by the British at the end of the First World War from three provinces of the Ottoman Empire under an imported and British-controlled monarchy, it never found a secure political identity. To control the country, the British built a military organization that in comparison with other aspects of the regime and the society was strong. Consequently, Iraq suffered military coup after coup. Most incoming dictators were simply predatory, but the last in the sequence, Saddam Husain, made Iraq socially and economically one of the most advanced countries in Africa and Asia. Profiting from increasing oil wealth, he promoted the growth of a middle class, secularized the regime and provided the public with free health services and free education. Whereas in 1920, under the British, only 30 Iraqis were receiving secondary education (and the British thought that was too many), in 1985 the student population reached nearly one and a half million. The number of doctors went from 1:7,000 to 1:1,800 and life expectancy rose from 40 to 57 years. Schools, universities, hospitals, factories, theaters and museums proliferated. Saddam’s aim was power, and like many Third World leaders he was not an attractive person, but perhaps without meaning to do so, he set in motion events that would have forced Iraq to become a more democratic society. “Would have,” that is, had development not been short-circuited by war.

The first war began in September 1980 with an Iraqi attack on America’s enemy, the revolutionary Iranian government led by Ayatollah Khomeini, that had overthrown the government of America’s ally, the Shah. The American government took a short-sighted view of the war and assisted the Iraqis with provision of the most sophisticated intelligence then available (which enabled the outnumbered Iraqis to defeat the Iranians in crucial battles), but at the same time it supplied Iran with lethal military equipment (in the Iran-Contra affair). Both the Iraqis and the Iranians realized that America was playing a cynical game. Henry Kissinger summed it up by saying, “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.” It does not seem, in retrospect, that serious thought was given to how war would impact on both societies and on American interests. This is borne out by the extension of the war to Kuwait.

Kuwait was another of the legacies of imperialism. In the eyes of every Iraqi leader, including its British-installed and American-favored three kings, Kuwait was an Iraqi province. It was the British who had forced the Ottoman Empire to give it quasi-autonomous status in 1913 and in 1923 got both the puppet Iraqi government and the precursor of the Saudi state to recognize its frontiers. Initially, Britain was interested in using it to block any threat to its Indian empire. Following Indian independence in 1947, that interest was replaced by the special relationship under which newly oil-rich Kuwait invested heavily in cash-starved England. Additionally, both Britain and America were keen that it keep its separate status so that no one Middle Eastern power dominate oil production. Then, for reasons that are still obscure but certainly evinced a lack of strategic thinking, the American government gave the impression that it would not oppose the Iraqi attempt to take over Kuwait.

It happened like this: The war with Iran lasted eight years, killed tens of thousands Iraqis and cost about $15 billion yearly. (Proportionally, the Iraq-Iran war was more costly than the American war in Vietnam.) Saddam Husain proclaimed that he was fighting Iran on behalf of the Arabs and particularly of the Kuwaitis who had a deep fear of Iranian aggression.

Initially at least, the Kuwaitis (and other Arab leaders) agreed with him and supported his war effort. But as the fighting stalemated, they not only stopped their aid to Iraq but demanded repayment of what they had lent. Saddam had used up all of Iraq’s reserves. The price of oil fell below what could sustain his regime. He became desperate. He begged and pled but to no avail. A violent man, he decided to take what the Kuwaitis would not give, but, himself a crafty politician, Saddam sought American approval. He probably thought America “owed him one” for having fought its enemy, Iran. So he thought America might agree to his reclaiming Kuwait. When he met with American ambassador, she (on orders) told him that the US Government “took no position on Arab frontiers.” Saddam took this to be a “green light” — like President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger given to Indonesia’s General Suharto to reclaim East Timor — and invaded. The American ambassador told The New York Times that no one thought (with no sense of history and apparently no appreciation of Saddam’s desperation) the Iraqis would take “all of Kuwait!”

The Americans and others, including the Russians, reacted sharply. Kuwait’s assets were frozen out of Saddam’s reach The UN demanded an Iraqi withdrawal. And Saddam became even more desperate. Some in the American government apparently believed that the Iraqis might plunge into Saudi Arabia’s eastern province where its oil fields are located. So America put together a coalition, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, to chase the Iraqis out of Kuwait. It was successful. President George H.W. Bush ordered the invading forces to break Saddam’s army but not to occupy the country.

However, the war against Saddam was allowed to spill over into actions that were not then foreseen by American leaders and for which the United States and Iraq would pay a fearful price. The US acted in ways that increased Saddam’s desperation and increased his sense of humiliation. It also allowed or perhaps even condoned actions that promoted sectarian — Sunni-Shii — hostilities to a level not experienced in the Islamic world for centuries and, by giving the impression that it was hostile to all aspects of Islam shifted such previously anti-Saddam activists as Usama bin Ladin into leaders of a jihad against America. Little or no thought was given, apparently, to how the initial objective of getting the Iraqis out of Kuwait could be turned into a stable and constructive result.

Much worse, of course, was to follow a decade later in the George W. Bush administration. It was not caused by Saddam’s attack on Kuwait but was a deliberate act of aggression. It was justified to the American public by the allegation that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. That allegation was false and Bush must have known; he simply ordered his Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, to lie to the public and America’s allies. Whereas George Washington had warned in his Farewell Address that “The Nation [that is, the public], prompted by illwill and resentment sometime impels to War the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy,” George W. Bush’s Government deceived the Nation. Those who realized what was happening, as Washington had also warned, the “.Real Patriots…are liable to become suspected and odious; while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.”

Those interests included preservation of the lives of at least 4,500 soldiers who died and the several hundred thousand American soldiers who were wounded. Also of interest were the expenditure of c. $2 trillion in treasure and the opportunity cost of 2.6 million men and women whose labor could have contributed to the American economy. Less tangible but no less real was the goodwill that America had long enjoyed among all Iraqis and other peoples and a peace that has been lost in unending war. This was all predicted and much could have been avoided.

It is notable that even Bush’s strategist, David Kilcullen,who had been recruited by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and relied upon by General David Petraeus, was quoted as saying that “Perhaps the most stupid thing about Iraq was invading the country in the first place.”

To be continued

William R. Polk, MA (Oxford) PhD (Harvard) was teaching at Harvard when President Kennedy invited him to become a Member of the Policy Planning Council, responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia He served for 4 years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, During that time he was a member of the three-men Crisis Management Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis and head of the interdepartmental task force that helped to end the Franco-Algerian war. Later he was Professor of History at the University of Chicago, founding director of the Middle Eastern Studies Center and Founder and President of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. At the request of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, he negotiated with Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser the cease fire that ended Israeli-Egyptian fighting on the Suez Canal in 1970. He was called back into the White House by the President’s special representative, McGeorge Bundy, as his strategic adviser to write a possible treaty of peace. (He has written three — abortive –peace treaties.) He is the author of some 17 books on world affairs, including Backdrop to Tragedy: The Struggle for Palestine; The United States and the Arab World; The Elusive Peace, the Middle East in the Twentieth Century; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency and Terrorism; Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and numerous articles in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, Harpers, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Le Monde Diplomatique . He has lectured at many universities and at the Council on Foreign Relations, Chatham House, Sciences Po, the Soviet Academy of Sciences and has appeared frequently on NPR, the BBC, CBS and other networks. His most recent books, available on Amazon, are Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews from last week: “First hand video shows US air strikes target Mosul, Iraq”

3 Responses

  1. The US “failure to understand the context in which we act, our propensity to jump before looking and our role in creating a security threat” is due to the inherently poor policy making of executive and military agencies. These are top-down control organizations that know only a specific problem domain. Policy making requires human thought and study and debate, which originates in conflicting facts and hypotheses, and therefore requires an organization like democracy, that resolves high-level policies only by drawing upon the ideas and observations of an informed population, testing, evaluating, debating and comparing possible policies, before deciding upon modes of action.

    Policies made by a top-down organization like the Executive Branch or the military show a marked tendency to group-think, in which discordant, minority, or “enemy” views are excluded. This excludes the seed of reconciliation of differences, the premonition of disasters in the making, the alternative views that are the antidote to group-think, and therefore leads to major foreign policy blunders like those that have made US foreign policy a disaster since at least the middle of the Korean War. It also excludes any public interest from consideration: instead the preferences of military staff and industry, politicians, and the businesses that control them, are the beneficiaries of foreign policy.

    To stop this the US needs a new institution under the Constitution, a College of Policy Analysis doing thousands of studies for each region and functional area, studying the effects of every kind of change, and debating the effects of proposals. The divergent and “enemy” opinions must be rigorously protected and studied. It should be responsible only to Congress, and only indirectly, and must be structured to prevent takeovers by ideologues who limit the terms and direction of debate. Outside influence must be a criminal offense. Secret presidential wars, executive acts, and even legislation which are known by the College to be counterproductive should be punished as high crimes.

  2. Neoconservatives want to remake the Middle East starting with regime change in Iraq. Their plan obviously got off to a rough start AFTER Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz ridiculed Gen. Eric Shenseki’s estimate of “several hundred thousand” U.S. troops needed for long term occupation of Iraq. “Much too high” is what Wolfowitz said. Rummy just sent 150,000 troops and the rest is history but…..

    Neos NEVER give up as Bibi’s Netanyahu’s speech to Congress made clear. IRAN is next on their hit list. The Neos also have plans for Putin and all those BAD GUY Rooskies in Ukraine. Iraq was just a temporary setback.

  3. “General Breedlove” — too much! Where do these characters come from, the “Dr. Strangelove” deleted scenes?

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