US Strategy in the Middle East: Struggling to Avoid Failure (ARI)

US Strategy in the Middle East: Struggling to Avoid Failure (ARI)

Theme: Surveying US history, one is hard pressed to find presidential decisions as monumentally ill-informed and counter-productive as the 2003 decision to invade and occupy Iraq. The question of the hour is whether the US will compound its strategic blunder by attacking Iran.

Summary: The US faces looming challenges vis-à-vis Iran, as well as in Lebanon and in Palestine. The fate of the Bush Administration’s avowed but desiccated commitment to promote political reform and democracy in the Middle East also swings in the balance. In this essay, the US morass in Iraq is analysed as well as the developing US strategy towards Iran.

Analysis: It has been more than a quarter of a century since the US has faced a foreign policy failure in the Middle East on the scale that it potentially confronts today. The source of the earlier failure was the fall of the Shah of Iran, who was toppled from power by the self-styled Islamic revolution in 1979. US strategy was deeply invested in the Shah’s Iran. Just a little more than a year before the monarch left Tehran clutching a box of Iranian soil, President Jimmy Carter had toasted Iran as an “island of stability” in the turbulent Middle East. For years to come, arguably even to the present, US strategy in the Middle East has been responding to the challenge poised by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the successor regime to the Pahlavi regime.

To the extent that the Carter Administration was culpable for the fall of its ally, it was because they failed to recognise that the Shah was in deep trouble until very late in the day. The US was too complacent about the status quo.

The lurking failures of 2007 may not be ascribed to either complacency or an affection for the status quo. Instead, these are conditions that are largely the direct result of US attempts to create a new reality in the Middle East and to upset the status quo. In particular, the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and topple the Ba’athist regime was a watershed event that arguably equals the Iranian revolution in importance. The historical legacy of the Administration of President George W. Bush is very likely to turn on America’s success in bringing order to devastated Iraq and to containing the geopolitical reverberations that largely originated in the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 and its aftermath.

Victory in Iraq?
The Bush Administration persisted in painting an optimistic picture of the situation in Iraq deep into 2006. In November 2005, two and a half years after the US and the UK invaded Iraq and toppled the Ba‘athist regime led by Saddam Hussein, the Bush Administration offered its plan for “Victory in Iraq”.[1] The plan, issued at a time of growing doubts about policy in Iraq, envisaged steady progress towards the creation of a model state in the Middle East, as follows:

  • Short term: Iraq is making steady progress in fighting terrorists, meeting political milestones, building democratic institutions and building up the security forces.
  • Medium term: Iraq is in the lead defeating terrorists and providing its own security, with a fully constitutional government in place and on its way to achieving its economic potential.
  • Longer term: Iraq is peaceful, united, stable and secure, well integrated into the international community and a full partner in the global war on terrorism.

Unfortunately, Iraq is not on the course outlined in “Victory in Iraq” and probably was not when the plan was released. The government is also intent on preserving far cosier relations with neighbouring Iran than the US would like. The Kurds, enjoying great autonomy in northern Iraq, remain formally committed to a unified Iraq, but given the choice between an Iraqi chaos and an independent Kurdistan there is not much doubt about what popular sentiments prefer. Even the US Central Command, then led by General John Abizaid, noted in briefings in October 2006 that since February 2006 Iraq has been tipping incrementally towards chaos. While the government in Baghdad was democratically elected in January 2006, much of the real power in the country is not even in the hands of the government but under the control of militias and insurgent groups.

Sectarian loyalty is the coin of the realm in today’s Iraq –being the wrong sect in the wrong place is enough to have one’s throat cut– and the prospects for reconciliation in the foreseeable future are bleak.

Both the police and the national guard are recruited locally, meaning that two-thirds of all security forces are often simply expressions of sectarian sentiment and extensions of militia influence. The Iraqi police force is largely under the influence of Shi‘i militias and is known to have been heavily involved in political killings, kidnappings and massacres of Sunnis.

Only the army, which accounts for about one-third of all security forces, is recruited on a multisectarian basis. While progress has been made in training and equipping the army, almost all units remain heavily dependent on the US military for support.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vows that political reconciliation between Shi‘i and Sunni Muslims and Kurds is a central focus of his government, yet little substantial progress has been achieved. Indeed the gulf between Sunnis and Shi‘is has arguably widened, with rampant intersectarian violence. Criminality is widespread, and many Iraqis remain vulnerable to kidnapping, carjackings, burglaries and random violence. Even in the international or ‘green’ zone, the central government faces a tenuous security situation.

In today’s chaotic Iraq, the US and its dwindling numbers of partners in arms (only the UK, Australia and South Korea contribute 1,000 or more soldiers) confront four, often interwoven, conflicts in Iraq:

  • An insurgency
  • Extensive criminality
  • An inter-sectarian civil war
  • An inflammatory violence from al-Qaeda

Particularly after the bombing of the revered al-Askari Shi’i mosque in Samarra in February 2006, inter-sectarian killing and savagery has been extraordinarily difficult to contain, not to mention halt. Inter-sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi‘is has expanded at a frenzied pace, typically taking a toll of 50, even 100 deaths a day. In response to the sectarian violence, between 800,000 and 1.6 million Iraqis have taken refuge in neighbouring countries, including Jordan, Syria and Iran. Since February 2006, an estimated 234,000 Iraqis have fled their homes, usually to move out of mixed neighbourhoods or villages to join their ‘own kind’.

The Iraq Study Group (ISG)
The much heralded report by the ISG[2] was released on 6 December 2006. The ISG, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, was established with Congressional support in March 2006 with the task of taking a ‘fresh look’ at the deteriorating situation in Iraq. While the report does not use the word ‘failure’, it is impossible to read it without concluding that the US was failing in virtually all of its objectives in Iraq, whether as originally enunciated in 2003, or in the 2005 ‘Victory in Iraq’ plan referred to above.

The ISG offered a totally of 79 recommendations, which may be summarised as follows:

  • The United States should launch a new diplomatic initiative with the goal of attempting to seek an effective dialogue with and assistance from all of Iraq’s neighbours, including Syria and Iran. The explicit premise was that none of the neighbour states would be well served by chaos in Iraq.
  • While multilateral pressure to halt Iran’s apparent drive to develop a nuclear weapons capability should continue, it still might be feasible to develop a dialogue with Iran over Iraq.
  • In recognition that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a touchstone of regional politics, the ISG recommended a renewed effort to move towards peaceful settlements between Israel and neighbouring Syria and Lebanon, as well as to realise the President’s stated objective of a two-state solution to resolve the legitimate claims of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. In making this recommendation, the ISG was reversing the logic that the Bush Administration embraced when it invaded Iraq and presumed that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict would be made easier by a strategic success in Iraq, because the Arab belligerents would be more amenable to compromise. Instead, the ISG argued that serious movement to reconcile Arab-Israeli differences would facilitate Arab cooperation in Iraq, and also reduce the growing popular enmity towards the US, not only in the Arab world, but in the broader Muslim world.
  • While the ISG did not adopt an express timetable, it urged that the replacement of US troops by Iraqi troops should be accelerated, that increasing numbers of US troops should be ‘embedded’ with Iraq troops to hasten training and operational effectiveness, and that the US should emphasise the process of reconciliation. Without citing precise numbers, the report anticipated a significant reduction of US combat troops deployed in Iraq by the spring of 2008, although the report did anticipate that a brief increase in troop strength might be necessary to implement the recommendations.

The Bush Administration spurned the report and vividly rejected the idea that the US should conduct a planned withdrawal from Iraq. In short, the Administration rejected the notion that it had failed in Iraq. Even the shrewdly equivocal former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger (who regularly advised Bush) opined a few weeks before the ISG report was released that ‘you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that what we’re seeing now would be an odd appearance for a victory’.[3]

Bush, intent on preserving the possibility of a ‘victory’ in Iraq, adopted an option that has been received with great scepticism, including in the Pentagon and during the deliberations of the ISG, namely a ‘surge’ of more troops into Baghdad and al-Anbar province, where about two-thirds of all violence occurs in Iraq. The surge is to consist of an additional 21,500 soldiers and marines under the leadership of a talented US officer, Lt. General David H. Petraeus.

Simultaneously, the Bush Administration and its shrinking band of supporters derided the ISG suggestion that Iran and Syria should be engaged diplomatically to pursue a strategic dialogue on Iraq. In fact, it is now documented that the US pressured Israel to stop engaging Syria in a secret diplomatic dialogue that had been developing since 2004.[4]

The sad fact is that the prospects for a US ‘victory’ in Iraq are bleak. Moreover, the US military is ‘almost broken’,[5] as General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell observed in 2006. In other words, even if the political climate in the US would support a large troop increase in Iraq, there are simply few additional troops available beyond the new increment of 21,500. Indeed, the military is finding it a challenge to find those soldiers. Inevitably, this fact not only limits the chances for success in Iraq but it constrains US options vis-à-vis Iran.

Iran and Regional Destabilisation
The great beneficiary of US policy in the Middle East in recent years has obviously been Iran. In Afghanistan, the much despised Taliban regime has been displaced. In Iraq, the principal levers of power have been put into the hands of Shi’i Muslims, many of whom maintain close ties to Iran. And, of course, the Iranian enemy par excellence, Saddam Hussein, was toppled. Meanwhile, Iran is moving deliberately towards the capability of acquiring nuclear weapons, impeded less by externally imposed sanctions and threats than by its own limitations. This conclusion is confirmed in a restricted EU document of 7 February 2007 circulated to its member states.[6] 

In recent weeks, the Bush Administration has been dramatically enhancing its capacity for striking Iran. It is doubtful that a decision to go to war has yet been made, but attacking Iran will be described in the weeks ahead by officials and war advocates as both feasible and necessary, particularly if Iran persists in developing its isotopic enrichment programme. Even born-again critics of the Iraq war, notably Hillary Clinton, go to pains to emphasise that a nuclear-capable Iran is intolerable and that all options must be kept open to deal with it. Israel’s concerns weigh significantly in Washington’s decision-making as well, and the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity is understood to be an existential threat in Israel. Although a credible case may be made for deterring Iran, neither the Bush Administration nor the Israeli government has embraced that possibility.

It is apt to remember that in 1990-91 and in 2003 the very fact that the US assembled a formidable array of forces in the region became an argument for using those forces and launching wars. The US will soon have two carrier task forces on station, and perhaps a third carrier task force will be deployed soon, and it will be difficult for the US to step down from its combative perch without Iran embracing a fairly significant concession. While many leading Iranian officials fully understand the gravity of the situation, it is not too hard to imagine a series of real or contrived clashes that lead, perhaps unintentionally, albeit inexorably, to a serious air and naval campaign against Iran. Or, to put it simply, to yet another US war of choice.

There are four notable aspects to the present strategy vis-à-vis Iran:

(1)  As the deadline (21 February 2007) for Iran’s compliance with the latest Security Council resolution quickly approaches, the US assembles a credible capacity to strike Iran if it continues to stiff-arm the will of the UN Security Council.

(2)   The threat of Iran gaining hegemony over expanses of the region is used to bolster an alliance with ‘moderate’ Arab states. The subtext is that friendly Arab leaders, such as Husni Mubarak and the two Abdullah’s in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would be pleased to see Iran knocked down a peg or two.

(3)   Given evaporating domestic support for the US venture in Iraq, the Administration is working hard to change the subject and to blame (with some clumsiness) Iran for meddling and for facilitating anti-coalition violence. The recent charges involving Iran possibly supplying sophisticated explosive devices are somewhat hypocritical given the role of America’s armoury in enabling Israel’s war last summer in Lebanon, but that is impolitic to note.

(4)   Meantime, with Iran chastened, and with the tacit support of moderate Arab regimes, US forces dampen the worst ravages of civil war and convert the Iraq war from being a catastrophic disaster to a manageable mess for which the Iraqis are fundamentally responsible because they failed to capitalize on the ‘gift’ of liberation.

The idea that the US could attack Iran, bomb it ‘surgically’, gain Iranian compliance and then bolster the US power position in the Middle East is risky in the extreme. A US attack would undermine pragmatic voices in Iran, revive Iranian nationalism, provide incentives for Iran to make life extremely difficult for the US in Iraq and elsewhere and probably impede international commerce in petroleum.

Support for the US is already thin in the Iraqi Shi’i community. The idea that the US might align with a majority-Shi’a government in Baghdad and simultaneously attack Iran is delusional. If the US loses mass support among the Shi’i community of Iraq, then the movie is over.

Among friendly (but not always, as advertised, ‘moderate’) Arab regimes there is certainly some concern about Iran’s robust ambitions in the Middle East, and even about the prospect of Iran gaining nuclear weapons (although the Israeli nuclear arsenal is far more worrying in many Arab circles), but the idea that the US might capitalise on a Sunni-Shi’a fault-line is founded on a very facile reading of contemporary Arab societies.

The major concern in Arab capitals is about the destabilisation inherent in the Iraq situation. For instance, leaders such as Egypt’s Mubarak remember the violence wrought by ‘Arab Afghans’, the returning mujahideen from Afghanistan. The preferred course of action in capitals such as Cairo is the engagement of Iran to stabilise Iraq, rather than the provoking of Iran to make Iraq an even more dangerous threat to the region.

For its part, Iran has signalled that it understands the gravity of US threats, and it is also being pinched painfully by financial restrictions championed by the US and supported by Europe. In recent weeks, thoughtful Iranians, including Iran’s respected UN ambassador Javad Zarif, have signalled a readiness to engage the US diplomatically.[7] Moreover, President Ahmadinejad’s provocative and hateful remarks have clearly caused considerable discomfiture in Iran. As yet, however, serious diplomatic engagement between the US and Iran does not seem to be on the cards, so long as Iran is unwilling to make pre-emptive concessions that are most unlikely.

Conclusion: Surveying US history, one is hard pressed to find presidential decisions as monumentally ill-informed and counter-productive as the 2003 decision to invade and occupy Iraq. The question of the hour is whether the US will compound its strategic blunder by attacking Iran. Bush and his closer advisors are better understood as gamblers than strategists. When luck is running against them, gamblers have been known to go for ‘double or nothing’, which would be a very risky game in this instance.

Augustus Richard Norton

Professor of Anthropology and International Relations at Boston University. Advisor to the Iraq Study Group in 2006, which presented its recommendations in December.