Historical amnesia and looking for redemption in the Middle East


When Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s strongman, died in 1980, the country started on a path to dissolution. Formed after World War I by the conglomeration of disparate ethnic groups, Yugoslavia needed a ruthless leader like Tito to hold it together.

The year 1980 wasn’t that long ago, and we seemingly noted Yugoslavia’s experience for a while. Some in the know will tell you that we left Saddam Hussein in power in 1991 to prevent the disintegration of Iraq and check the emergence of Iran.

{mosads}Then historical amnesia set in. We subverted Afghanistan to get al Qaeda. We got rid of Hussein and provided air power to help overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Most likely, Iraq and Libya have permanently lost the tenuous cohesion that made them identifiable as countries. Who knows where Afghanistan, probably never a real country in the first place, will end up?

Libya was a small intervention, and we haven’t the remotest idea as to what to do about it, so we ignore it, other than to wheel out the Benghazi catastrophe whenever politically expedient. But Iraq and Afghanistan are different. Some compare our experiences in these countries to Vietnam. Whether true strategically or politically, one fact is indisputable: We had skin in the game. Forget the trillions of dollars. We took tens of thousands of casualties, we are still taking them, and the painful legacy of these wars will be with us for decades, all because we ignored the Tito lesson.

And then the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) falls into our lap. Just when we needed a powerful reason to clean up the mess we made in the Middle East, along comes the modern equivalent of a Hitlerite scourge that compels us to reengage. We can always find missions for our supremely effective military, and if we can beat these guys, we redeem ourselves and vindicate the loss of thousands of Americans who fought to maintain an Iraqi government that used to take month-long summer vacations while Marines were dying in Fallujah. How much more satisfying than some tepid pivot to Asia.

What to do? There are those in the U.S. Senate, like John McCain (R) and Lindsey Graham (R), who maintain the absurd idea that we had the war in Iraq won after the Surge in 2007, and that Gen. David Petraeus was touched by divine genius. Since we did it once, we can do it again. Just get American troops back into Iraq in sufficient numbers, and everything will revert to — what? The truths: the Surge won nothing, and merely proved that the U.S. military can always beat the snot out of anyone it chooses; Petraeus repeatedly overstated to Congress progress in the wars and the degree of success in training troops (both easily corroborated by troops in the field), all the while pushing a delusional counterinsurgency strategy; and the lives of American troops were repeatedly jeopardized through rules of engagement that overemphasized the safety of local civilians. Nonetheless, the evil of ISIS is sufficient to make the idea of introducing U.S. troops worthy of consideration, but before we press this possibility, let’s look at two issues.

First, no one who advocates introduction of troops has described an endpoint. Does anyone in his right mind think that things end with the destruction of ISIS? Historically, ISIS is no worse than any of the many barbarians (e.g., the Mongols of Genghis Khan, the Khmer Rouge) who have filled vacuums left by the disappearance of other ruling entities. If we beat ISIS, someone else, probable equally reprehensible, will pop up in relatively short order. We have neither the assets nor the money to undertake a long-term occupation of Iraq. Besides, the locals won’t want us there.

Second, our airpower campaign has been anemic. Our drone campaign kills fungible leaders we dramatize as critical to ISIS success. ISIS is already slaughtering civilian populations and destroying antiquities while we worry about collateral damage. Of course, the sooner ISIS is crushed, the sooner the local populations can attempt to rebuild. If the price is higher civilian casualty counts in the short term, maybe this needs to be weighed and area bombing considered. In addition, why aren’t dozens of A-10 ground attack aircraft flying support missions every day? Is it because the Air Force wants to get rid of these valuable airplanes? We need to do more extensive bombing before we commit ground forces.

Redemption will not be gained by indiscriminately committing U.S. troops to Iraq. Yeah, we can kill the bad guys. But then what? For once, we need the kind of plan that recognizes local conditions and realities and has an endpoint before we commit our ground forces. In the meantime, if we want real redemption, we should be adequately helping the tens of thousands of veterans from the last go-round.

Blady, M.D., is a former program officer for the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and senior analyst for the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan War al Qaeda David Petraeus Iraq Iraq War ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

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