America’s strategies for victory and defeat

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The Battle of Iraq is nearly over. And the Americans have nearly won. Their enemies are on the run. Al-Qaida forces have lost or are losing their bases of operations. Its fighters are being killed and captured in ever increasing numbers. Iraq's Sunni citizens, who, until recently, refused to take any part in the post-Saddam regime, are joining the army and citizens' watch groups by the thousands.


Local sheikhs in Baghdad, following the example set earlier by Sunni sheikhs in Anbar province, are ordering their people to fight with the Americans against al-Qaida. For their part, the Shi'ite militias know that they are next in line for defeat. As a result, Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his Shi'ite militiamen to cease their attacks.


The numbers speak for themselves. Over the past month, some 46,000 Iraqi refugees returned home. Since May, the number of civilian casualties has decreased by 75 percent. US military casualties have also dropped precipitously after the death rate rose in recent months of hard fighting. Neighborhoods in Baghdad that had ceased to function under al-Qaida's reign of terror have come back to life.


Businesses are reopening. People are rebuilding their homes. Even churches are reopening their doors. This is what victory looks like.


Yet the promise of Baghdad is a lone ray of light in an otherwise darkened field of failed US policies. As President George W. Bush prepares to enter his last year in office, America's international standing is at a low point. The forces of jihad, while being defeated in Iraq, are rising everywhere else. The price of oil races toward the once inconceivable price of $100 a barrel. New jihadist mosques open daily throughout the world. Pakistan is a disaster. Iran is closing in on the bomb.


TO UNDERSTAND America's manifold failures, it makes sense to begin with a look at why Iraq is different. For the new, successful American strategy in Iraq is not only different from what preceded it there. It is also different from the US strategy that is failing everywhere else.


The new American strategy in Iraq is based on a fairly simple assumption: The US goal in Iraq is to defeat its enemies, and to defeat its enemies the US must target them with the aim of defeating them. This is a strategy based on common sense.


Unfortunately, common sense seems to be the rarest of commodities in US foreign policy circles today. Outside of Iraq, and until recently in Iraq as well, the US has based its policies on the notion that it can bend its adversaries to its will by on the one hand signaling them in a threatening way, and on the other hand by trying to appease them where possible. And this is the heart of the failure.


In the lead-up to Iraq, it was clear to US strategic planners that of the three states – Iraq, Iran and North Korea – that Bush labeled as members of the "Axis of Evil," Iraq was the least dangerous. It sponsored terror less than Iran. Its weapons of mass destruction programs were less developed that those of Iran and North Korea.


As a result, there were some voices – particularly in Israel – which suggested that given that the US was uninterested in targeting more than one country in addition to Afghanistan, the US should direct its fire at Iran rather than Iraq. But for their own reasons – among them the collapse of the UN sanctions regime on Iraq, the fact that Iraq alone was under UN Security Council authority, and Iraq's relative weakness – the Americans chose to go after Saddam.


They assumed that the invasion itself would strengthen America's deterrent capability and so work to America's advantage in its dealings with Iran and North Korea. Here, then, we see that the decision to invade Iraq was based in part on a continued American reliance on a strategy of signaling rather than confronting Iran and North Korea. If this hadn't been the case, Iraq probably would have been cast to the side.


Initially, the American strategy met with stunning success. Iran, North Korea, Syria and indeed the Arab world as a whole were terrified by the victorious American assault on Saddam. Unfortunately, rather than build on their momentum, the Americans did everything they could to assure these states that they had no reason to worry that a similar fate would befall them. Rather than maintain the offensive – by sealing Iraq's borders and then going after insurgents' bases in Iran and Syria – the US went on the defensive. And so it allowed Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia to support and direct the insurgency. As a result of America's show of weakness, the lesson that its enemies took from its campaign in Iraq was that to deter the Americans, they should intensify their support for terror and their weapons of mass destruction programs.


Once deterrence collapsed, the Americans chose a mix of appeasement and threats that had no expiration date. Last year's North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests, the war in Lebanon, the Hamas takeover of Gaza and Iran's intensification of its nuclear program are all the result of the failure of this model of US foreign policy making.


These policies are of a piece with the US's general posture toward its adversaries. And that posture is unfortunately based on a hugely inflated view of America's deterrent capabilities and Washington's failure to craft policies that are suited to its interests and goals.


TODAY, THE most glaring example of this state of affairs is Pakistan. America has two primary goals there. First, it seeks to prevent Pakistan's nuclear weapons and technologies from proliferating or falling under the control of jihadists. Second, it seeks to defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban.


After September 11, the Americans gave Pakistan's military dictator a choice: he could help them defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan or he could lose power. That was a good start, but then the Americans began losing track of their priorities. After Gen. Pervez Musharraf agreed to Washington's ultimatum, the Americans put all their eggs in his basket. And they thereby lost their ability to deter him and so influence his behavior.


Certain of unconditional American backing, Musharraf played a double game. He helped the US in Afghanistan and then allowed the Taliban and al-Qaida to escape and re-base in Pakistan.

Musharraf also failed to be forthcoming on nuclear issues. He barred American investigators from interrogating Pakistan's chief nuclear proliferator, A.Q. Khan, and so denied them key intelligence on other countries' Pakistani-supported nuclear programs. Yet having based their Pakistan policy on their assumption that Musharraf was irreplaceable, the Americans pretended nothing was wrong.


And now they are confronted with a disastrous situation. On the one hand, thanks to Musharraf's hospitality, al-Qaida and the Taliban control large swathes of Pakistan and have declared jihad against their host, thus placing Pakistan's nuclear arsenals in greater danger. At the same time, they use their Pakistani bases to intensify their insurgency in Afghanistan.


On the other hand, as has been his consistent policy since seizing power in 1998, Musharraf continues to ignore the seriousness of the Taliban-al Qaida threat. The purpose of his recent declaration of martial law and suspension of the Pakistani constitution was not to enable him to better fight the jihadists. It was to break his liberal political opposition whose members demand democracy and an end to his military rule.


And in the midst of this, the Americans find themselves with no leverage over the still irreplaceable Musharraf.


A similar situation exists in Saudi Arabia. There, too, the US squandered the leverage it gained after the September 11 attacks by giving unconditional support to the Saudi royal family. The Saudis immediately understood
that the best way to ensure continued American support was to extend their support for terrorism and funding of radical, pro-jihad mosques while raising the price of oil. As in Pakistan, the worse the situation became, the more the Americans supported them.


AND THEN of course there are the Palestinians. Here American policy has been a double failure. First of all, it has destroyed American deterrence toward the Arab world.


To divert American attention away from their support for jihadist terrorism, the leaders of the Arab world sought to convince the Americans that the only way to end their support for terror and jihad was by resolving the Palestinian conflict with Israel.


Rather than stop to question the validity of the Arabs' strange assertion, the Americans believed them. Over time, this belief led them to neglect their actual goals – ending the Arab world's support for terror; preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and maintaining oil prices at around $30 a barrel – in favor of a secondary and unrelated issue.


Aside from that, it bears noting that it is largely because of the strengthening of jihadist forces in the Arab world that there is no possibility of achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Rather than understand this, the Americans have allowed the Arabs to send them on a wild goose chase that will never end.


The very fact that this week US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thought that it was more important to come to Israel for the ninth time this year than to deal with the crisis in Pakistan shows clearly just how deeply the Americans have internalized this Arab fiction.


Then there are the Palestinians themselves. As Bush announced in 2002, the US's main goal regarding the Palestinians is to force them to stop engaging in terror and jihad. All other American policies regarding the Palestinians were supposed to be conditioned on the accomplishment of this goal. Yet as in Pakistan, over time the Americans neglected this goal in favor of an easier one – supporting Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah. To strengthen Abbas and Fatah, the Americans have cast aside their goal of ending Palestinian terror. As a result, today they have no leverage over Abbas.



As with Musharraf in Pakistan, strengthening Abbas is the only policy the Americans have toward the Palestinians, and increasingly, toward Israel. And as in Pakistan, the threatening reality on the ground is a consequence of the fact that their policy ignores their actual goals.


Two conclusions can be drawn from contrasting America's victory in Iraq with its failures in so many other theaters. First, the only way to successfully fight your enemies is to actually fight them. And second, basing policies on pretending to deter leaders who are not deterred is a recipe for failure. Until the Americans accept these lessons, Iraq aside, the international environment will grow ever more threatening.



Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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1 Comment

  • jeff flota 11/25/2007 at 16:49

    I’m thinking that the reason the Bush administration is so hostile toward Israel at this juncture is manifold reasons, like, their
    illusory desire to form a coalition against Iran and Syria, legacy concerns, and most intriguing, C. Rice delusional perception that
    the Palestinians are like blacks under Jim Crow in the 1950’s south. This last point, this possibility, is especially depressing because she seems like an intelligent women, and for her to see a group that has an ideology that’s a toxic cocktail of Nazi ideology and Islamic supremacy to be like blacks in the 1950’s means she has suspended her critical faculties and lapsed into the fantasy of the absurd, endangering Israel and the U.S. for a pathetic personal crusade.
    But there must be a question here, like, can one of the Kadema parties in the parliament withdraw after the conference enabling special elections to be held, bringing Likud into power? That is the only hope I can see on the horizon! jeff Flota


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