We’re already hearing the discussion: Who will blame whom for “losing Iraq”?

For political historians, these are echoes of – “Who lost China?” and “Who lost Vietnam?” It is more to the point to ask – “Who lost Iran?”

In late February this year, I outlined a series of “mistakes” that we in the West have made in the last 60 years or so. A condensed version follows. (for the “full monte”, go to the Blog Archive and scroll down to February 22, 2007).

The Erroneous Presumption: A Catalog of Western Mistakes

We would be wise not to ignore the new vision of the radical Islamists, that of a new “Imperial Islamostan”, an expansionary realm secured by a lock grip on the world’s primary oil supplies, exported through massive waves of ex-migration of an Islamic population particularly resistant to assimilation into the Western mainstream. Terrorists are being used to destabilize the West-friendly governments in the Middle East and distract us and intimidate us until their puppet masters govern sufficient territory and oil revenues to command nuclear weapons. That will start a new game entirely, one that will make the Cold War seem like a warm and fuzzy bedtime story

Who Screwed Up & When?

There is really no time in history when the well meaning people have not each failed to make serious miscalculations and other blunders with lasting consequences. In a sense, any particular moment of human history is one where the cumulative mistakes of the past live on to set the stage for new choices, a certain percentage of which will turn out well and the rest will end badly.

Mistake Three: The West’s acquiescence in oil facilities nationalization by interests that inevitably would misuse the revenues. Yes, this “mistake” was a failure to exercise paternalistic colonialism with sufficient intelligence. But the scholars are in substantial agreement: The net effect of giving rents and ultimately full unrestricted control of oil revenues to non-democratic rulers enabled them to buy the acquiescence and under-educated idleness of whole populations. Add the gasoline of militant Islam to the nationalism of the dispirited idle and you get jihad-as-therapy. What you don’t get is a viable economy or the growth of democratic institutions.

Comment: Who could have known? And how realistic is this hindsight, anyway? Point taken.

Mistake Four: The US’ engineered overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran and his replacement by the Shah in 1953.

This is a complicated story. Here I omit the details that were outlined in my February 22nd Post.

Mistake Five: President Carter’s decision to finally jettison the shah on moral grounds – the shah left Iran on January 16, 1979; and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed power. Mr. Carter might have expected gratitude. Instead, Iranians took over the American embassy in Tehran for a full year (an act of war), utterly humiliating the president and electing Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan. A rigid theocracy followed in Iran. The Shah, like a number of figures deposed in “popular” revolutions, is beginning to look good by contrast with his replacements.

Mistake Six: The Reagan administration continued to play balance of power politics in the Middle East, alternately arming the Iranians against the Iraqis and giving shoulder fired stinger missiles to the Islamist militants in Afghanistan who would later become the core soldiers of the Taliban.

Mistake Seven: When terrorists bombed US barracks in Lebanon on October 23, 1983 (essentially an act of war by their sponsors, Iran & Syria, backing Hezbollah), killing 220 US Marines, the Reagan administration did not retaliate; instead the US closed up shop and left town.

Mistake Eight: When Bush One led a brilliantly successful pan-Arab coalition to rescue Kuwait from invasion and occupation by Hussein’s Iraq, the massed forces (larger then than would be available 10 years later) stopped short of Baghdad, leaving the dictator in place for another decade. During this period and with the help of UN sanctions, this enabled Hussein to reduce the country (that at the time of the first invasion still had a highly educated subpopulation with a strong legal tradition) to an ungovernable shadowland of abused and brutalized citizens.

Mistakes Nine, Ten, Eleven and Twelve:

(Nine) The Clinton Administration, intent on spending a “peace dividend” presumably left at the end of the Cold War, reduced America’s combat readiness by more than two divisions. (Ten) In 1993, Islamist terrorists (al Qaeda with covert support from Iraq) bombed the world trade Center. The matter was handled as a law enforcement problem. (Eleven) In 1993, when Somali militia of Islamic extremists in Mogadishu set upon US Rangers in a downed helicopter (the mission was a humanitarian one in which Islamist radicals were blocking food shipments to starving people and the US was attempting to take out a warlord), the Clinton administration decided to cut US losses and withdrew. (Twelve) The USS Cole was bombed by al Qaeda operatives while in port at Yemen. The matter was “investigated” and there was no attempt at retaliation. This pattern was cited by Bin Laden as evidence for American weakness, leading to another fateful miscalculation (mistake fourteen below).

Mistake Thirteen: The new Bush Administration, its FBI, CIA and other security agencies, failed to connect the dots that might have led to an interception of the 9-11 attacks or their mitigation.

Mistake Fourteen: Al Qaeda and the militant Islamists committed a major strategic error when they launched the 9-11-01 attacks. The USA economy was not mortally wounded, a message to the world in itself; and the result was a fire storm of concerted countermeasures. The US security apparatus was essentially undamaged, awakened, and roused. The new administration suddenly realized that it was at war and began to act accordingly. But for this colossal blunder, the Islamist cause might have proceeded under the radar to change the nature of the Middle East while America and Europe continued to sleep. The Bush Doctrine (‘no terrorist sanctuary in any nation state”), the destruction of the Taliban government and the uprooting of hundreds of terror networks followed in the next two years.

Mistake Fifteen: Saddam Hussein, having evicted the UN inspectors and having bribed his way out of the worst of the UN sanctions, quietly “disposed” of his chemical weapons stockpiles and partially dismantled (or otherwise concealed) his bio weapons and his nascent nuclear weapons program — the first having been disrupted in Gulf War One. He only had to meekly comply with the UN, rely on the passage of time and then resume his programs when international attentions were diverted. Instead, he miscalculated badly. He thought that the rumored possession of WMD’s would deter this new administration. So Saddam promoted a misinformation campaign, letting his field commanders “leak” the information that invading forces would be met with potent chemical weapons. Instead, the invasion was made inevitable by Saddam’s own lies. One wonders whether this thought flickered through Saddam’s mind as he was about to be hanged; somehow I doubt it.

Mistake Sixteen: The Bush administration, having engineered the brilliantly successful “regime removal” invasion of Iraq, grossly underestimated the trouble that would follow the installation of a new government, the scale of the resources needed to contain and manage that trouble, and the immense partisan difficulties that would ensue when attempting to maintain support for the enterprise.

COMMENT: Each of the mistakes by the West represents the same pattern of reasonable errors, the kind that people of good will often make when forced by circumstances that present them with imperfect choices in a difficult, changing environment, crippled by imperfect intelligence.

The Erroneous Presumption That Drove These Mistakes

Liberals and conservatives, nationalists and internationalists, isolationists and interventionists are all prone to the same kind of error: The erroneous presumption of human rationality.

In Iraq, for example, it is still well within our capabilities (even at this late hour) to guide events toward an outcome that will advance the goal of arresting the trend toward militant, aggressive Islam in the region. This requires that Iraq achieves reasonable stability under a government that at a minimum fills the following three criteria: (a) Iraq is not under the domination of the fanatical mullahs who currently run Iran. (b) The Shiite government allows the Kurds semi-autonomy and a place at the table. (c) A mass exodus (or genocide) of the Sunni minority is prevented.

Getting to this outcome requires adaptability, patience and the continued presence of American troops (probably at a reduced level) well into the next Administration. Failing to do that will constitute MISTAKE SEVENTEEN.

The rational exercise of American foreign policy, especially in the post-colonial era, has been impaired by a kind of schizophrenic ambivalence in which policy makers on the left and right swing wildly between two poles: (A) the ruthless pursuit of our national interests; (B) an idealistic altruism devoted to making the world a better place. This often results in policy paralysis, especially when it gives the isolationists on left and right a chance to unite in a paroxysm of “I told you so!” hindsight. This is what is happening at the current crucial moment in American politics.

The achievement of policy unity in this political milieu tends to come about only when there is a visible and credible overlap between the altruistic “help the world” impulse and the “keep USA safe and well” impulse. The result is the politically correct war, an unwieldy effort that blends the half hearted pursuit of national self interest and the half brained pursuit of altruism. I haven’t given up on Iraq for a simple reason: The accomplishment of our national interest goal there is still very doable as long as we are willing to accept that the “collateral damage” to the Iraqi nation is self inflicted but curable once stability is achieved. The current American debate is a disgraceful descent into pointless kvetching, hand wringing, and scapegoating. What should be happening is the reassertion of the self confident and robust pursuit of American interests in the region. Guilt cannot be allowed to drive American policy.

In brief, here is what has happened:

Post 9-11, the administration awoke to the larger threat of militant Islam in the region and the futility of allowing nation states to harbor an anti-Western terror infrastructure without consequences. In the “old days” the reinstallation of “friendlier thugs” would have been the solution. Here the altruistic impulse and a promising long term strategy (based on the notion that democratically governed states in the region would ultimately be in our interests) moved the new Bush administration into the very “nation building” project that Bush-the-campaigner had eschewed. I’m reminded of Woodrow Wilson who campaigned as a peace candidate then led the nation into WWI. Conditions change. Minds change.

Move One in the project to remake the Middle East (after cleaning out the terrorist nests embedded in Afghanistan) was to select the most visible and vulnerable anti-American thug-leader for removal. This was to serve as an example.

Saddam was seen as the “low hanging” fruit, having already greatly irritated the region’s leaders by attempting to seize Kuwait’s oil industry by force of arms. Iraq was in fact the second largest oil reserve in the region and a potentially huge revenue stream to fund terrorists. It was a tempting target because of its proximity to Iran and (an important point to remember) far weaker and much more easily toppled.

There were major miscalculations by the Bush administration. But they did not include the “mistake” that Saddam had no WMD’s. Every major intelligence agency seemed to concur that he had them. No, the presence of immediately deliverable WMD’s was not the major concern. The invasion really was a chess move in a game to be played out over two administrations.

The really serious miscalculations consisted of these three:

(A) The military effort was under-resourced because the length of time needed to succeed was underestimated by a factor of three.

(B) The potential virulence of the internecine struggles was underestimated.

(C) The Really Big Mistake: Because the Bush administration really had selected a linchpin target (as corroborated by Libya’s disavowal of nukes and other ripple effects in 2003), the radical Islamists forces embedded in the region reacted as if this was to be the Final Battle. In other words, they behaved (from an American perspective) irrationally. It became apparent by late 2004, that a relatively minor military effort (measured by past conflicts like WW I, WW II, Korea and Vietnam) was being treated by anti-Western Islamist forces the focal struggle, the battle that must be won, lest the jihad wither away.

Regrettably, the administration had three problems, all of domestic origin:

(a) Having anticipated a small war that could be pushed into the background between election cycles, the Bush administration had done little to prepare popular opinion for what was about to happen.

(b) This problem was compounded by its attempt to operate within the confines of the “politically correct war”. When things began to go badly “for the Iraqis” the administration had lost its ability to credibly defend our national interest rationale for the exercise.

(c) Finally (and as a “Truman democrat” I write this reluctantly) there was no longer anything like a “loyal opposition” because the opposition party was primed to behave more like sharks in the political water than the Coast Guard.

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