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Waist deep and sinking in the Middle East: We're now at war with Iran

The question of war with Iran is now settled. With President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpStephen Miller: Trump to further crackdown on illegal immigration if he wins US records 97,000 new COVID-19 cases, shattering daily record Biden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll MORE’s decision to authorize the U.S. military to execute Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iranian forces throughout the Middle East, the United States is at war with Iran, whether the White House acknowledges it or not. It’s the equivalent of Iran killing the commander of U.S. Central Command.

Without a doubt, Iran will respond to the execution of Soleimani with deadly force. The question will be where and when?

The Iran-sponsored attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the military attack that killed Soleimani are acts of war that make the nature of the relationship no longer an issue. This war is not — and is unlikely to be in the future — a conventional war as American political and military authorities would prefer. It will continue to be internationally political, unconventional and asymmetric.

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In Iraq alone, the Trump administration will be fighting this war in a vulnerable position with 5,000 isolated American troops on the ground, supported by air and naval power in the region, and an embassy fortress in Baghdad surrounded by Iranian and other enemies. But that vulnerability does not mean the war will be centered in Baghdad.

Today, the U.S. is at war with a capable and difficult adversary that has options to attack Americans and U.S. interests in unexpected ways around the world. The United States is not tiptoeing into a Middle Eastern quagmire. It is waist deep and sinking.

The American entanglement in Iraq did not begin with Donald Trump, although he has made it significantly worse. In a historically catastrophic decision, the George W. Bush administration used a false rationale that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to invade Iraq in 2003. With this misguided adventure — promoted by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney as unfinished business from the first Gulf War — the U.S. immediately became bogged down in Iraq.

In giving military priority to the invasion and occupation of Iraq after the 2001 attacks on the United States, the Bush team neglected requirements in Afghanistan — where the 9/11 attacks were actually planned. The result was ongoing security disasters not only in Afghanistan but across the Middle East.

Later, the overconfident Bush team was shocked that pro-Iran Iraqis won U.S.-sponsored elections; it apparently failed to recognize that the population of Iraq was between 60-70 percent Shiite Muslim and therefore inclined to support Iranian interests.

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As a NATO official in 2007, I traveled to Baghdad when NATO agreed to help train Iraqi security forces. After landing at the airport, we flew in a helicopter in an evasive maneuver at treetop level to the Green Zone, a gigantic fortress in Baghdad where the U.S. activities were most concentrated. Likewise, in my last visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2008, security required that Americans and NATO officials also fly the mile or two from the civilian airport to the NATO secure area in the capital. The security of road travel in both cities could not be guaranteed following years of military and economic assistance.

Freedom of movement is the most critical factor in evaluating success in any conflict area. From my experience in Vietnam and elsewhere, the U.S. was losing badly in both Iraq and Afghanistan by 2008.

Since 2008, incoming U.S. administrations have struggled — without success — over how to withdraw from both countries.

What is lacking today from the Trump administration’s policy is any sign of a regional strategy for dealing with Iran and the growing American isolation in the Middle East. Now that this war is underway, how do he and his generals plan to fight and prevail against Iran? What are the political and military goals and objectives of American policy? How does this war end?

I cannot imagine how Trump can now achieve his avowed goal of withdrawing from endless wars in the Middle East. A far more likely scenario is that the U.S. military will ask for additional forces in the region to defend existing troops on the ground and to respond to future attacks.

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From the beginning, the Trump strategy in the region has been naïve and incompetent.

The plan to bring Iran back to the negotiation table on nuclear weapons is in tatters. The primary U.S. ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, is led by a murderous tyrant who is fighting a brutal and indecisive war in Yemen with American help. Given Trump’s hostility toward traditional allies in Europe and the general Muslim hostility toward American policy in the Middle East, the U.S. has virtually no possibility of international help in the region.

It is noteworthy that no significant Iraqi security forces showed up to defend the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad until the Shiite militants controlled by Iran withdrew from the area.

Meanwhile, Turkey pays little attention to Washington and cooperates with Russia to expand its influence in Syria. Refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq continue to present a significant international crisis as they build up in Turkey and the region.

Today, Trump is trapped in a situation that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon would well understand: Does the United States now fight and go deeper into the Middle East or withdraw under Iranian pressure? Given the foreign affairs and national security incompetence of this president, his disregard for professional knowledge and experience and his impulsive decisionmaking process, I have no confidence that this administration can handle the war they stimulated when they withdrew from the nuclear arms deal with Iran.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as deputy assistant secretary-general of NATO and is the author of "Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans."