By Christopher Layne
FALL 2007– Even as the George W. Bush administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress are locked in a bitter fight about the future direction of Iraq, a potentially more portentous debate about who lost Iraq and why is gathering force. Its impetus comes, ironically, from the very architects of the invasion of Iraq. They now seek to pin the failure of America’s Iraq policy on the Bush administration’s “mistakes.”
The war’s ideological supporters are wrong. The United States is not failing in Iraq because “mistakes were made.” Rather, the decision to go to war was itself mistaken. From its inception, the invasion of Iraq was fated to be mission impossible, not mission accomplished, because the strategy was based on faulty assumptions and its objectives exceeded America’s grasp. The U.S. failure in Iraq should be a strong warning against provoking a military conflict with Iran, and the catalyst for a new regional strategy: offshore balancing.1 The key assumption underlying offshore balancing is that the most vital U.S. interests are preventing the emergence of an dominant power in Europe and East Asia—a “Eurasian hegemon”—and forestalling the emergence of a regional (“oil”) hegemon in the Middle East. Only a Eurasian hegemon could pose an existential threat to the United States. A regional hegemon in the Middle East could imperil the flow of oil upon which the U.S. economy and the economies of the advanced industrial states depend. As an offshore balancer, the U.S. would rely on the dynamics of the balance of power to thwart any states with hegemonic ambitions. An offshore balancing strategy would permit the United States to withdraw its ground forces from Eurasia (including the Middle East) and assume an over-the-horizon military posture. If—and only if—regional power balances crumbled would the United States re-insert its troops into Eurasia.
Who Lost Iraq and Why it Matters
Leading politicians of both parties now argue that we should avoid “re-litigating” the origins of the Iraq war, and focus instead on where the United States should go from here. This view is myopic. In the policy world, past decisions always cast a shadow on future ones. It is impossible to discuss U.S. strategy in Iraq—or the Middle East as a whole—without understanding how Washington got into its current predicament. Neoconservatives and their ideological allies believe that the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 was correct and, in the words of former Bush speechwriter (and neoconservative) David Frum, a “doable do.”2 They insist the United States could have won the war and subsequent insurgency—and attained its larger aims and regional ambitions of creating a new Middle East—had the Bush administration not bungled the occupation. It is also true that the administration was derelict in planning for the reconstruction of Iraq and made a multitude of mistakes— as recent books by Thomas Ricks, George Packer, and Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor make clear—the war’s supporters should not be allowed to get off the hook so easily. Although some have proclaimed that the “neoconservative moment” is over, this clearly is not the case. The neoconservatives are Wilsonians, and as such, very much in the foreign policy mainstream. The fact that Rudy Giuliani, the current frontrunner for 2008 GOP presidential nomination, is advised on foreign policy by Norman Podhoretz and other like-minded associates testify to the staying power of neoconservative ideas.
The neoconservative conclusion—that the key lesson learned from the Iraqi disaster is “next time do it right”—is fundamentally wrong. The United States still would have failed in Iraq even if American policy had been executed flawlessly. The correct lesson from Iraq is “next time, don’t do it.” U.S. policies of regime change and democracy promotion at the point of a bayonet almost never succeed.
The problems began with the real reasons that the administration went to war: pursuit of regime change and democratization in Iraq. Although the administration repeatedly claimed a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/113 and exaggerated and intentionally miscalculated the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), President Bush himself has made it clear he did not embark on war because of these imagined provocations. In a December 2005 speech, after conceding that prewar intelligence estimates about Iraqi WMD were “wrong,” Bush said that “it wasn’t a mistake to go into Iraq. It was the right decision to make…. We are in Iraq today because our goal has always been more than the removal of a brutal dictator; it is to leave a free and democratic Iraq in its place.”
Doubtless the United States and the world would be better off if brutish rulers like Saddam Hussein and the radical Islamic clerics who rule Iran were deposed and replaced by democratic governments. However, as former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft has observed, “in the process of trying to do it you can make the Middle East a lot worse.”4 Washington’s track record in democracy promotion and nation-building is not encouraging. Since the early 1990s, the United States has attempted to implant democracy—without any notable success—in Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. U.S. efforts to assist post-Soviet Russia’s democratization, a key American aim since the Cold War’s end, also have been disappointing.
The two cases where the United States did succeed, in Germany and Japan after World War II, highlight the unique circumstances required for a democratic transition under a foreign power’s military occupation. Both Axis powers were utterly defeated and surrendered unconditionally; both were occupied by an overwhelming number of American (and, in Germany’s case, Allied) troops; and both were incapable of resisting the occupying authorities. “Whereas warweary Germans and Japanese recognized the need for an occupation to help them rebuild,” observes Georgetown University professor David Edelstein “a significant portion of the Iraqi people have never welcomed the U.S.-led occupation as necessary.”
In fact, Iraq met none of the criteria transitologists (scholars who study the processes of transition from authoritarian or totalitarian rule to democracy) believe are required for a successful democratic transition: a modern market-based economy, absence of hostility between ethnic or religious groups, a political culture that is hospitable to democracy, and a vibrant civil society. As the RAND Corporation’s Andrew Rathmell (who served in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad) has observed, “Iraq was not a promising environment for achieving the goal of building a peaceful, democratic, free-market nation. Iraq had failed to develop into a cohesive nationstate; its state structures had the form but not the substance of a modern state; its economy was in poor shape; and its society had endured almost half a century of debilitating violence.”7 In these respects, Iraq was completely unlike Germany and Japan in 1945. The Bush administration should have known that it could not succeed in democratizing Iraq because of the plethora of authoritative prewar evidence that a U.S. invasion of Iraq was bound to result in geopolitical disaster.
Perhaps the most prescient study of the travails the United States would face was a study written in February 2003 by two analysts at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute:
Most Iraqis and most other Arabs will probably assume that the United States intervened in Iraq for its own reasons and not to liberate the population. Long-term gratitude is unlikely and suspicion of U.S. motives will increase as the occupation continues. A force initially viewed as liberators can rapidly be relegated to the status of invaders should an unwelcome occupation continue for a prolonged period of time.
The authors highlighted the probability that U.S. occupation forces would find themselves facing guerrilla and terrorist attacks or even a large-scale insurrection. The report also stressed that “the establishment of democracy or even some sort of rough pluralism in Iraq, where it has never really existed previously, will be a staggering challenge for any occupation force seeking to govern in a post-Saddam era.” Ethnic and sectarian tensions, the authors noted, not only would constitute a formidable obstacle to Iraq’s democratization, but also could lead to the break-up of a post-Saddam Iraq. The bottom line: “The possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace in Iraq is real and serious.”
The U.S. intelligence community also counseled the administration to refrain from going to war, and forecast that if it did invade, the United States would face a “messy aftermath in Iraq." The intelligence community also believed that a postwar Iraq “would not provide fertile ground for democracy; would witness a struggle for power between Sunnis and Shiites; and would require ‘a Marshall Plan-type effort’ to rebuild the nation’s economy.” Events have underscored the collective prescience of these—and other—prewar estimates.
The consequences of the administration’s policy are consistent with the broad historical pattern of U.S. attempts to foster regime change abroad, a pattern that long predates Iraq. Analyzing the history of such American efforts, Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent in Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe, observes that “it is clear that most of these operations actually weakened American security. They cast whole regions of the world into upheaval, creating whirlpools of instability from which undreamed-of threats arose years later.”
It was foreseeable that the regime change and democratization policy pushed by the administration and its supporters would further destabilize the already fragile Middle East. American attempts to promote democracy often backfire. As the political scientists Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder (who teach, respectively, at University of Pennsylvania and Columbia) have pointed out, “Pushing countries too soon into competitive electoral politics not only risks stoking war, sectarianism and terrorism, but it also makes the future consolidation of democracy more difficult.” Far from promoting peace in the Middle East, they noted, the U.S. policy of “unleashing Islamic mass opinion through sudden democratization might raise the likelihood of war.”
Thus, as Katarina Delacoura, a Middle East expert teaching at the London School of Economics has observed, it comes as no surprise that “democratization in the Arab world may have a number of outcomes unpalatable for the U.S.” The victory of radical Hamas in the February 2006 Palestinian elections and the strong showing of the fundamentalist Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections illustrate the point.
Similarly, the Bush administration hardly could be pleased with results of its democratization effort in Iraq. For example, during the summer 2006 conflict in Lebanon, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki denounced the United States and Israel, and tens of thousands of Shiites demonstrated in Baghdad in a show of support for Hezbollah. The administration would be similarly dismayed if it attained its declared objective of promoting democracy in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (which probably explains why Washington recently has backed away from its previous support for democratic reforms in those countries) The replacement of these regimes by popular Islamic democracies could have disastrous unintended geopolitical consequences.
Even as the U.S. effort in Iraq has foundered, the Bush administration has escalated tensions with Iran. Worryingly, the administration’s policy towards Tehran is based on the same assumptions that drove U.S. policy towards Iraq. Indeed, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iran is seen as a danger to U.S. allies in the region, especially to Israel. And Washington has strenuously sought to blame U.S. difficulties in Iraq on Iranian meddling. To deal with Iran, the administration prescribes the same remedy as for Iraq: regime change and democratization.
Bush included Tehran in the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, and the administration’s 2006 National Security Strategy took dead aim, declaring that the U.S. “may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.” The 2006 National Security Strategy also makes clear that Washington’s concerns about Iran go well beyond the nuclear issue, and states that those concerns can “ultimately be resolved only if the Iranian regime makes the strategic decision to change those policies, open up its political system, and afford freedom to its people. This is the ultimate goal of U.S. policy.” This is a simplistic and potentially dangerous view. Iranians have long memories of foreign—and especially American— interference in their nation’s internal affairs. Nothing could be better calculated to trigger a strong Iranian nationalist backlash against the United States than a serious attempt to orchestrate regime change in Tehran.
It can be argued that the administration’s rhetoric and actions are simply an exercise in coercive diplomacy: high-stakes brinkmanship designed to compel Tehran to abandon its nuclear program. However, there is every reason to believe that the administration may attack Iran sometime before it leaves office. Far from touching off a domestic political firestorm, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities probably would be broadly supported by Congress and public opinion (a late October 2007 Zogby poll found that 52 percent of Americans would support U.S. military action to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons). The three main contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards—all have echoed Bush in stating that the United States cannot accept a nuclear-armed Iran. Bush, Cheney, and other senior administration officials repeatedly have declared that a nuclear armed Iran is, in Bush’s words, “intolerable,” —a word that allows no ambiguity— and, recently have stated that it is equally unacceptable for Iran to possess even the knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons. Recurring reports that the U.S. is planning a strike against Iran suggest that the administration intends to match its words with action.
Since summer 2004, the United States has used both aerial surveillance, and on-the-ground special-forces teams to pinpoint nuclear installations and missile-launching sites inside Iran. There have been numerous reports, including a September 2006 cover story in Time, that the administration feverishly is planning a sustained military campaign against Iran. In a March 2007 article in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reported that a special planning group under the Joint Chiefs of Staff was developing a plan to bomb Iran that could be executed within 24 hours of a presidential “go” order, identifying targets that Tehran might be using to support Iraqi militants with smuggled weapons and covert operatives. The administration’s hard-line policy also reflected in the widespread speculation that Israel’s summer 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon was a proxy war against Tehran which Jerusalem launched in collaboration with the United States.
In his January 10 speech announcing the “surge” in Iraq, President Bush accused Iran (and Syria) of “allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq,” and alleged that “Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops.” He vowed to “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”
The administration has backed up its tough talk by attempting to demonstrate that the Iranians have supplied advanced weaponry to Iraqi militias—including roadside bombs capable of destroying U.S. armored vehicles.24 The United States also has arrested Iranian diplomatic personnel in Iraq suspected of carrying on covert activities, and authorized American forces to kill suspected Iranian operatives in Iraq. And recently, the administration has pushed for more restrictive sanctions on Iran and sought to designate Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards military force as a terrorist organization.
There also have been allegations that the United States is helping dissident ethnic groups in Iran—including Azeris, Kurds, and Sunnis—in an attempt to destabilize the government. Finally, to deter Iran from assisting Iraqi militants, the U.S. Air Force has stepped up patrols of the Iran-Iraq border. Taken together, the administration’s words and deeds suggest that it is laying the foundation for a military campaign against Iran, and, perhaps, even trying to provoke Iran into firing the first shot, thereby opening the floodgates for massive American air strikes.
There is thus compelling evidence that the Bush administration regards the conflict and the confrontation with Iran and Iraq as two theaters of the same war.
A New Strategy in the Middle East
The United States should revamp its overall regional grand strategy because the current strategy—not the tactics—is in shambles. Iraq remains convulsed by conflict. In Afghanistan, the insurgency led by the revitalized Taliban is spreading. The United States and Iran remain on a collision course. Moreover, the summer 2006 fighting in Lebanon enhanced Iran’s regional influence, intensifying anti-American public opinion and fueling a populist Islamic groundswell that threatens America’s key regional allies: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Thus, Iraq and Iran now form only part of a larger question: What grand strategy should the United States pursue in the Middle East?
In late 2006, there was speculation that the report of the Iraq Study Group—chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, and former Congressman Lee Hamilton (D-IN)—would provide the Bush administration with political cover for reducing U.S. troop levels in Iraq and disengaging from active combat operations. However, President Bush took precisely the opposite tack.
Instead of reducing U.S. troop levels, the administration ordered a “surge” to increase American forces in Iraq. Instead of disengaging from combat operations, the surge strategy has made the pacification of Baghdad (along with the suppression of insurgent operations in Diyala and Anbar provinces) the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq. And, instead of seeking rapprochement with Tehran and Damascus, the administration has turned up the heat.
The administration’s current policies will magnify difficulties in the Middle East. Rather than seeking regime change in Iran, Washington should attempt to reach a diplomatic modus vivendi with Tehran. In Iraq, the United States should disengage its troops from combat operations and withdraw all of its forces as expeditiously as logistical constraints permit. To the extent it is necessary to prevent foreign jihadists from entering Iraq, or pursue terrorist targets there, Washington should rely on airpower based over-the-horizon, not on ground troops. If the Democratic-controlled Congress and public opinion fail to force the
Bush administration to reverse its course the next administration must move swiftly to extricate the United States from Iraq.
On its own, however, withdrawal is not a sufficient prescription for U.S. policy. Iraq and Iran need to be integrated into a broader framework: a new regional U.S. strategy based on offshore balancing.
Deterrence and Diplomacy
Rather than confronting Iran militarily over its nuclear program and its regional ambitions, the United States might better follow a two-tracked strategy of deterrence and diplomacy. Diplomatically, the United States should try to negotiate a “grand bargain” with Iran that exchanges meaningful security guarantees, diplomatic recognition, and normal economic relations for a verifiable cessation of Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.
Given the deep mutual distrust between Washington and Tehran, and domestic political constraints in both the United States and Iran, it is unclear whether a grand bargain can be struck. If it cannot, however, rather than attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, the United States should be prepared to live with a nuclear-armed Iran—just as it did with China in the 1960s, when China was seen as far more dangerous a rogue state than Iran is today.
Even if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the worst-case scenarios—that there could be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East; that Iran might supply nuclear weapons to terrorists; and that Tehran could use its nuclear weapons aggressively or to blackmail other states in the region—are improbable. A nuclear Iran is unlikely to touch off a proliferation snowball in the Middle East. Israel already is a nuclear power. The other states that might be tempted to attain nuclear weapons capability—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—would be under strong pressure not to do so. (Saudi Arabia also lacks the industrial and engineering capabilities to develop nuclear weapons indigenously.) Despite the Bush administration’s hyperbolic rhetoric and Tehran’s close links to groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran is not likely to supply nuclear weapons to terrorists. If it did and the terrorists were to use these weapons against the United States or its allies, the weapons could be traced back to the donor state, which would be at risk of annihilation by an American retaliatory strike Even if one believes the administration’s claims that rogue state leaders are indifferent to the fate of their populations, they do care very much about the survival of their regimes.
For the same reason, Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons will not invest Tehran with options to attack, or intimidate its neighbors. Israel’s security with respect to Iran is guaranteed by its own formidable nuclear deterrent capabilities. By the same token, the United States can extend its own deterrence umbrella to protect its clients in the region—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Turkey—just as it did in Europe during the Cold War. American security guarantees not only will dissuade Iran from acting recklessly, but also restrain proliferation by negating the incentives for states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey to build their own nuclear weapons. Given the overwhelming U.S. advantage in both nuclear and conventional military capabilities, it is highly implausible that Iran would risk national suicide by challenging America’s security commitments in the region. In short, while a nuclear-armed Iran hardly is desirable, neither is it “intolerable,” because it could be contained and deterred successfully by the United States. Containment, deterrence, and diplomacy are a far wiser policy than attacking Iran.
The Iraqi Conundrum
The administration has advanced three major reasons why the United States cannot leave Iraq without first attaining “victory.” First, withdrawing from Iraq will increase the terrorist threat to the American homeland. Second, a U.S. defeat in Iraq will be a victory for Iran. Third, if the U.S. fails to stabilize Iraq, the chaos there could “spillover” and trigger a wider conflict in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. These arguments do not withstand close examination.
President Bush repeatedly has characterized Iraq as the “central front” in the so-called war on terror, and argued that “if we fail there, the enemy will follow us here.”31 In his view, the conflict in Iraq “is not civil war; it is pure evil.” Arguing that “we have an obligation to protect ourselves from that evil,” Bush says U.S. policy in Iraq boils down to one thing: “We’re after al Qaeda.” The administration’s claims, however, are disingenuous: American withdrawal from Iraq will not increase the terrorist threat to the American homeland.
Although the administration has overhyped the “threat” posed to the United States by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), this group has only tenuous links to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization (and AQI, the administration’s suggestions notwithstanding, had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks). Moreover, al Qaeda in Iraq has had an extremely ambivalent relationship with the indigenous Sunni insurgents, who have resented AQI both because it relies heavily on foreign jihadists, and has indiscriminately attacked civilian targets.
This explains why some Sunni insurgents (especially in Anbar province) have formed a temporary alliance of convenience with U.S. forces to oppose AQI. If U.S. troops were to withdraw, it is likely that the Sunni insurgents would try to drive al Qaeda in Iraq out of the country (while also contesting the Shiites for political supremacy). For these reasons, most U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts reject the argument that an American withdrawal would result in Iraq becoming a base for operations against the United States. Moreover, bin Laden’s al Qaeda does not need bases in Iraq in order to launch operations against the United States—it already has a sanctuary in the region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier that it is using to reconstitute its capabilities.34 If the administration really is worried about al Qaeda striking the United States, its efforts should be concentrated on defeating the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and pressuring Pakistan to crack-down on the Taliban and al Qaeda forces operating in Waziristan and the North West Frontier province.
The contention that American withdrawal from Iraq will enhance Iranian power in the Persian Gulf is true but misleading. Foreign policy experts widely agree that Iran is the biggest winner in the Iraq war. By invading Iraq and pursuing regime change, the administration upset the prevailing geopolitical equilibrium in the Persian Gulf that set the table for the expansion of Iran’s power and regional influence. Until March 2003, the balance of power between Iraq and Iran prevented either from establishing regional dominance, but in toppling Saddam Hussein the United States rendered Iraq incapable of acting as a viable counterpoise to Iranian power. The war also upset the domestic balance of power within Iraq—to Tehran’s benefit. The democratization policy adopted by the administration empowered Iraq’s long-suppressed Shiite majority. Predictably, the political ascendancy of Iraq’s Shiites worked to Iran’s advantage because of close personal relations between leading Shiite leaders and Iranian clerics, and the religious bonds between the Shiite populations in both countries.
Deepening economic ties between the two countries have also enabled Tehran to consolidate its influence in Iraq. Most American foreign policy analysts foresaw that Iran would be the main beneficiary of the administration’s Iraq policy. Only the administration and the neoconservatives were oblivious to the probable consequences of their policies. Now—short of war—it is too late to arrest Iran’s growing power in the region.
Obviously, the argument that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will result in wider regional instability cannot be dismissed out of hand (as recent tensions between Turkey and Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region demonstrate). Bad things indeed could happen: violence in Iraq could worsen and, in addition to the bloodshed, an increasing flow of Iraqi refugees could flee to neighboring countries with destabilizing consequences. Other nations in the region could be tempted to intervene in an intensified Iraqi civil war that might further fracture the country along ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Indeed, Saudi Arabia already has indicated that it would come to the aid of the Iraqi Sunnis. In short, the Middle East could become even bloodier and more unstable. It is by no means certain that this will be the outcome, however.
None of Iraq’s major neighbors—Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—want to see the Iraqi state disintegrate. Moreover, the United States has military, economic, and political leverage that it can use to dissuade Iraq’s neighbors from meddling in to Iraq’s civil war following an American pull-out. This is not to minimize the risks of increasing turbulence. Yet, even if the U.S. stays in Iraq there is no guarantee that this would prevent additional turmoil in the region.
Adopting an Offshore Balancing Strategy
Not only would an offshore balancing strategy break sharply with the current approach to the Middle East, but it would likely garner much needed domestic support as well. By adopting such a strategy, the United States would redefine its regional interests, revamp its military role, and adopt a new diplomatic posture. Offshore balancing must also incorporate a new approach to energy security. It would seek to dampen the terrorist threat by removing the on-the ground U.S. military presence in the region, and to quell rampant anti-Americanism in the Islamic world by pushing hard for a resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It would seek a diplomatic accommodation of its differences with Iran. Most importantly, the strategy would avoid further destabilization of the Middle East by abandoning the project of democratic transformation.
The primary U.S. security interest in the region is oil; specifically, preventing the emergence of an “oil hegemon”—a single state (Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Iraq) that controls most of the region’s oil. The chances that any of these three states could gain oil hegemony in the Persian Gulf are low, however, because each lacks the military capabilities to conquer the others. This was true even before the Gulf War, or the Iraq War. Thus, when Iraq went to war with Iran in September 1980, the conflict ended in a prolonged, bloody stalemate.
Similarly, from the end of the Gulf War in 1991 until the U.S. invasion in March 2003, Iraq posed no military threat to Saudi Arabia (or Iran). Because of its overwhelming military capabilities compared to the big three Gulf powers, the United States easily could deter any of them from using military force to become an oil hegemon. In 1990, for example, the U.S. successfully dissuaded Saddam Hussein from using Kuwait as a platform for conquering Saudi Arabia by inserting airpower, and a limited number of ground forces (as a tripwire) into Saudi Arabia, and by imposing an economic embargo on Iraq.
This policy of containment, and deterrence worked in 1990—and still was working in March 2003. To ensure no Gulf oil hegemon emerges in the future, Washington should make it clear that it would respond militarily to prevent a single power from gaining control over a majority of the region’s oil capacity. However, a deterrence strategy does not require an on-the-ground American military presence in the region, because the U.S. today (in contrast to 1990), can back-up its deterrent threat with long-range airpower, and sea-based cruise missiles.
Because the deployment of U.S. air and naval power would provide sufficient deterrent power to ensue that no oil hegemon emerges in the Persian Gulf, the United States could pull back its military forces from the Gulf, including Iraq, except for a naval presence in the Strait of Hormuz. This retraction of American forces from the Gulf would help greatly to reduce the terrorist threat to the United States.
Contrary to the administration, the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and the Middle East increases American vulnerability to terrorism by reinforcing the widespread perception in the Islamic world that Washington is pursuing a neo-colonial policy to further its own imperial ambitions. The huge U.S. politico-military footprint in the region, including Iraq, is the primary driver of Middle Eastern terrorism, and has garnered thousands of recruits for various radical terrorist groups. Contrary to the administration, Islamic radicals do not hate the United States because of its freedom; they hate the United States because of its policies. As University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape argues, offshore balancing “is America’s best strategy for the Persian Gulf ” because the “mere presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the region is likely to fuel continued fear of foreign occupation that will fuel anti-American terrorism in the future.” Similarly, Harvard’s Stephen Walt who also favors a U.S. offshore balancing strategy in the Middle East, observes, “The U.S. does have important interests in the Middle East—including access to oil and the need to combat terrorism— but neither objective is well served by occupying the region with its own military forces.” Indeed, maintaining American military dominance in the Persian Gulf and overthrowing nasty regimes in the Middle East are not effective policies to reduce the terrorist threat to the United States. Tactically speaking, terrorism is best combated through good intelligence (including collaboration with U.S. allies), covert operations, and strengthening America’s homeland defenses.
Moving further, the United States needs to reduce America’s dependence on imported oil. This reliance poses two risks. First, instability in the Persian Gulf can— as it has—impede the flow of reasonably priced oil. Second, the world appears to be approaching an inflection point at which increasing demand for oil could exceed production capacity. Owing to increased demand for energy by China and India in coming years, the scramble to obtain secure oil supplies could become a major cause of geopolitical friction. The first step toward breaking U.S. dependence on the Middle East is the imposition of a tax on imported oil high enough to provide a long-term economic incentive to reduce consumption and develop alternative energy sources.
Additionally, an offshore balancing strategy would abandon the current policy of promoting democratic transformation in the Middle East. The United States cannot successfully pick and chose winners in the region’s politics. Although Washington may hope that friendly regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan remain in power, it cannot ensure that they do. The tide of popular Islamism sweeping the region—which fuses religious radicalism, nationalism, and opposition to the West—imperils these regimes and inevitably will sweep some away. The United States should be prepared to let nature take its course. Indeed, in the Middle East, by identifying itself too closely with regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, the United States runs the double risk of becoming entrapped in potential domestic upheavals and thereby giving additional stimulus to radical Islamic terrorists who want to target the United States.
As an offshore balancer, the United States would also seek to reduce the widespread anti-Americanism in the Islamic world by taking an even-handed stance on relations between Israel and Palestine. Washington should support the creation of a viable Palestinian state, demand the removal of all Israeli settlements from the West Bank, and push for an international solution to the special problem of East Jerusalem. The United States has a moral commitment to Israel’s existence that it must honor. At the same time, the administration’s decision to “tilt” toward Israel, announced by President Bush in early 2001, serves neither U.S. nor Israeli interests. By the same token, it does not benefit Israel to be perceived as the proxy of the United States. And, for the United States, the widespread perception in the Islamic world that it is indifferent to the fate of the Palestinians helps fuel the anti- American animus of radical Islamic groups like al Qaeda.
Baghdad and Beyond
The Bush administration believes its “surge” strategy—based on the new counter-insurgency doctrine developed by Gen. David Petraeus—has turned the tide Iraq. This is wishful thinking. To be sure, there is some evidence that civilian casualties have declined (especially in Baghdad), the insurgency is less intense, and American troop loses are down. But, at best, these trends are far more qualified than the administration would have Americans believe, and even the limited, tactical successes attributable to the surge cannot hide the fact that the strategy has failed to advance the declared objective of establishing a peaceful, democratic in Iraq able to stand on its own without U.S. military support. Big states repeatedly lose small wars because, in counter-insurgencies, the deck is stacked against occupying powers.
It is important to place the administration’s claims of the surge’s success in perspective. First, all the surge has done has been to reduce the overall level of violence in Iraq to the level of late 2005–early 2006 (that is, before the Golden Mosque bombing)— a level which, at the time, was not considered to be acceptable by U.S. officials. Second, while the U.S. military’s monthly casualty totals have declined since the summer, overall, 2007 already has been the deadliest year for U.S. soldiers in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. Third, while civilian casualties in Iraq appear to be trending down, much of the decline is attributable to the fact that in Baghdad, “sectarian cleansing” has been successful.
Because there are fewer mixed Sunni/Shiite neighborhoods, fewer civilians are targets of violence. Another reason civilian casualties are down is because so many Iraqis have become refugees. Some 2 million Iraqis are believed to have fled the country, and in early November 2007 the Red Crescent reported that an additional 2.3 million Iraqis are internal refugees. The Red Crescent also reported that the number of internal refugees in 2007 to date has been five times greater than the figure for 2006. Similarly, while the surge has suppressed the insurgency, it has not defeated it. Although U.S. forces have (in part by employing tactics that cannot be sustained over the long term like building walls around neighborhoods and detaining some 24,000 “suspected insurgents”) quelled the level of insurgent violence, there is no evidence that Iraqi security forces will be able to hold the areas that American forces have cleared as U.S. troops are withdrawn as part of the surge’s winding-down. More ominously, much of the decline in insurgent activity has nothing to do with the surge. Both Sunni militias (especially in Anbar) and Shiite militias (especially Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army) appear to be lying low and avoiding confrontation with U.S. forces in order to conserve their strength for renewed civil war once the U.S. military presence in Iraq is reduced.
The most important ground for skepticism is that the surge has failed to achieve the objective that the administration set out in January 2007. In his speech to the nation announcing the surge strategy, President Bush said that its purpose was to buy time for the Iraqis to achieve political reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shiites. On this front, there has been no progress at all. The Shiites are unwilling to concede any real political power to Iraq’s Sunnis. Prime Minister al-Maliki has not followed through on his promises to oust corrupt or incompetent cabinet ministers. There is no prospect that the Iraqi parliament will enact legislation, either with respect to relaxing Baghdad’s “de-Baathification” policies, or to ensure equitable distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth. Iraq’s Shiite militias remain intact, and have sunk their tentacles deep into Iraq’s security forces. Iraqi politics remain starkly polarized along sectarian (and ethnic) lines. Measured by the Bush administration’s own metrics there has been no discernible progress toward a political settlement. As Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies—and a friendly critic of the administration’s policy—noted in early November 2007, “there are few signs that such accommodation is being achieved” and “there is every indication that the central government is wasting [the time bought by the surge], and its Shi’ite leaders are more interested in maintaining and expanding Shi’ite power than accommodation.” Cordesman is just restating the obvious: there is no military solution in Iraq.
Even the U.S. military purports to believe that there can only be a political solution in Iraq. But whether the military’s counter-insurgency doctrine is a realistic strategy to achieve that goal is doubtful. First, the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency doctrine developed by Petraeus his team requires 500,000 troops in Iraq to defeat the various insurgent groups and militias, and to maintain order over the long-haul. Second, when asked how long it will take to create an Iraqi government (and security forces) capable of taking over from the U.S. and maintaining stability without the help of American soldiers, a U.S. military planner answered “at least a generation.” Third, the new counter-insurgency doctrine rests on the assumption that, although not true at the time of the invasion, Iraq now is part of the so-called global war on terror—or as some prefer to call it, the “global insurgency.”
As such, as a U.S. military planner puts it, the new counter-insurgency is predicated on the assumption that a precipitate U.S. withdrawal would threaten to American national interests and the stability of the entire Middle East. Finally, the new strategy assumes that the global counter-insurgency may last as long as the Cold War, and will require a greater mobilization of national resources than has occurred to date. One U.S. military planner suggests that to prevail, the U.S. will need to devote at least an additional 2 percent of its gross national product to this “long war.”
The problem with the new strategy in Iraq is that, in the real world, none of these preconditions that military planners deem necessary for success can be fulfilled. Without resorting to conscription, the U.S. is unable to deploy anything near half a million troops to Iraq, and we know that America’s allies are not going to contribute additional combat forces to the effort in Iraq (indeed, most of the allies—including even Britain—have either withdrawn, or reduced, the number of their forces deployed in Iraq). Similarly, it is clear that there is little will to accept a military commitment to Iraq that lasts a generation or more. Finally, neither Congress nor the American people will accept ramping-up the commitment of American resources to the levels called for by those who believe the United States is engaged in a “long war” against a “global insurgency.”
The reason they will not is that Congress and the American people do not believe that the failure in Iraq will pose an existential threat to national America’s survival, imperil the United States’ security, or undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East beyond the damage that the Bush administration and neocons already have inflicted on those interests. Given that Iraq already has been engulfed by civil war, the argument that U.S. withdrawal will lead to civil war in Iraq makes no sense. Moreover, even if an American pull-out resulted in the worst-case scenario outcomes, it does not follow that the United States should remain engaged in Iraq. By the same token, even if, by staying, American forces could keep the lid on Iraq’s civil war and internecine power struggles over the short term, the underlying political fundamentals would remain unchanged.
Over the long term, it is these dynamics that will determine the outcome in Iraq. Contrary to what the American military’s counter-insurgency mavens desire, the United States is unlikely to stay in Iraq for a generation, and once U.S. forces begin to leave—as they inevitably will—the Hobbesian struggle for political control over Iraq will reach full boil. There is no realistic scenario for an American “victory” in Iraq. By remaining in Iraq militarily the United States cannot avoid defeat, it can only postpone it.
The Bush administration is not the first to presume that the United States could impose its will on the Middle East and initiate a modernizing transformation. As the historian Douglas Little has observed, “Wedded to the belief that economic development and westernization would bring political stability to pro-American regimes from Tehran to Tripoli, every administration from Eisenhower’s to Carter’s embraced a reformist agenda that had unintended revolutionary consequences.”44 In undertaking to impose a region-wide democratic transformation, beginning with Iraq, the administration embarked on by far the most ambitious American attempt to “modernize” the Middle East than anything previously attempted by the United States.
Like their predecessors, however, their attempt to sow the winds of change reaped a “whirlwind of revolution” as manifested in the Iraqi insurgency and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism region-wide. To avoid this outcome, the United States needs to redefine its interests in the Middle East, and adopt a more realistic and prudent regional strategy: offshore balancing.
Christopher Layne holds the Mary Julia and George R. Jordan professorship of international affairs at Texas A & M University’s George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. He is the author of The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present (Cornell University Press, 2006), and (with Bradley A. Thayer) American Empire: A Debate (Routledge, 2006), and is a contributing editor to the American Conservative.
Photos via U.S. Army