Failed Interventions and What They Teach

Remarks to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations

I feel honored to have been asked to open this conference on U.S.-Arab relations and America’s ties with the broader Middle East. But I confess that, as an American, the results of U.S. policies in the Middle East remind me of the T-shirt someone once gave me. It said: “Sinatra is dead. Elvis is dead. And me, I don’t feel so good.”

The Middle East is a constant reminder that a clear conscience is usually a sign of either a faulty memory or a severe case of arrogant amorality. It is not a badge of innocence. These days, we meticulously tally our own battlefield dead; we do not count the numbers of foreigners who perish at our hands or those of our allies. Yet each death is a tragedy that extinguishes one soul, wounds others, and diminishes the world. If we do not grieve for those we slay, we may justly be charged with inhumanity. If we cannot understand the consequences for ourselves of the manner in which they died, we are surely guilty of strategic ineptitude.

All that is required to be hated is to do something hateful. Apparent indifference to the pain and humiliation one has inflicted further outrages its victims, their families, and their friends. As the Golden Rule, which is common — in one phrasing or another — to all religions, implicitly warns, moral blindness is contagious. That is why warring parties engaged in tit for tat come in time to resemble each other rather than to sharpen their differences.

I want to speak to you today about three things. First, why militarized U.S. policies and the actions we are taking pursuant to them in the broader Middle East risk provoking terrorist retaliation against the United States and its citizens. Second, why our military and quasi-diplomatic interventions in the region have failed or are failing. And, third, how our current policy course is changing us for the worse without changing the Arab and Islamic worlds for the better. I will end with a thought or two on the prospects for changed policies that could produce better results.

War is not the spectator sport that the fans who watch it here on television imagine. Nor is it the “cakewalk” that its armchair advocates like to suggest it could be. War is traumatic for all its participants. Recent experience suggests that 30 percent of troops develop serious mental health problems that dog them after they leave the battlefield. But what of the peoples soldiers seek to punish or pacify? To understand the hatreds war unleashes and its lasting psychological and political consequences, one has only to translate foreign casualty figures into terms we Americans can relate to. You can do this by imagining that the same percentages of Americans might die or suffer injury as foreigners have. Then think about the impact that level of physical and moral insult would have on us.

Consider, for example, the two sides of the Israel-Palestine struggle. So far in this century — since September 29, 2000, when Ariel Sharon marched into Al Aqsa and ignited the Intifada of that name — about 850 Israeli Jews have died at the hands of Palestinians, 125 or so of them children. In proportion to population, that’s equivalent to 45,000 dead Americans, including about 6,800 children. It’s a level of mayhem we Americans cannot begin to understand. But, over the same period, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed 6,600 or so Palestinians, at least 1,315 of whom were children. In American terms, that’s equivalent to 460,000 U.S. dead, including 95,000 children. Meanwhile, the American equivalent of almost 500,000 Israelis and 2.9 million Palestinians have been injured. To put it mildly, the human experiences these figures enumerate are not conducive to peace or goodwill among men and women in the Holy Land or anywhere with emotional ties to them.

We all know that events in the Holy Land have an impact far beyond it. American sympathy for Israel and kinship with Jewish settlers assure that Jewish deaths there arouse anti-Arab and anti-Muslim passions here, even as the toll on Palestinians is seldom, if ever, mentioned. But, among the world’s 340 million Arabs and 1.6 billion Muslims, all eyes are on the resistance of Palestinians to continuing ethnic cleansing and the American subsidies and political support for Israel that facilitate their suffering. The chief planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, testified under oath that a primary purpose of that criminal assault on the United States was to focus “the American people . . . on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people . . . .” The occupation and attempted pacification of other Muslim lands like Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the shocking hate speech about Islam that now pervades American politics lend credence to deepening Muslim perception of an escalating U.S. crusade against Islam and its believers.

No one knows how many Iraqis have died as a direct or indirect result of the U.S. invasion and the anarchy that followed it. Estimates range between a low of something over 100,000 to a high of well over 1 million. Translated to American proportions, that equates to somewhere between 1 and 13 million dead Americans. Over 2.25 million Iraqis fled to neighboring countries to escape this bloodbath. Only 5 percent have returned. An equal number sought temporary refuge inside Iraq. Most of them also remain displaced. In our terms, this equals a flight to Canada and Mexico of 24 million Americans, with another 24 million still here but homeless. I think you will agree that, had this kind of thing happened to Americans, religious scruples would not deter many of us from seeking revenge and engaging in reprisal against whoever had done it to us.

The numbers in Afghanistan aren’t quite as frightful but they make the same point. We’re accumulating a critical mass of enemies with personal as well as religious and nationalistic reasons to seek retribution against us. As our violence against foreign civilians has escalated, our enemies have multiplied. The logic of this progression is best understood anecdotally.

I am grateful to Bruce Fein (whom some of you may know as a noted constitutional scholar here in Washington) for calling attention to the colloquy of convicted Times Square car bomber Faisal Shahzad with United States District Judge Miriam Cederbaum. She challenged Shahzad’s self-description as a ‘Muslim soldier’ because his contemplated violence targeted civilians,

“Did you look around to see who they were?,” she asked.

“Well, the people select the government,” Shahzad retorted. “We consider them all the same. The drones, when they hit …”

Judge Cedarbaum interrupted: “Including the children?”

Shahzad countered: “Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It’s a war, and in war, they kill people. They’re killing all Muslims.”

Later, he added: “I am part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people. And, on behalf of that, I’m avenging the attack. Living in the United States, Americans only care about their own people, but they don’t care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die.”

No amount of public diplomacy, no matter how cleverly conducted, can prevail over the bitterness of personal and collective experience. The only way to reverse trends supporting anti-American violence by the aggrieved is to reverse the policies that feed it.

We are now a nation with unmatched military capabilities. Perhaps that is why we are the only country in the world to have proclaimed that our conflict with terrorists is a “war” or to have dismissed civilian victims of our violence as “collateral damage.” Few allies joined us in Iraq. Those that joined us in Afghanistan did so to demonstrate their solidarity with us, not because they see the piecemeal pacification of the Muslim world as the answer to the extremist non-state actors in its midst. They seem to know, even if we do not, that terrorism is a tactic, not a cause against which one can wage war. Weapons are tools with which to change men’s minds, but the inappropriate use of them can entrench animosity and justify reprisal against the citizens of the nations that wield them. No other people has so powerful a military establishment that it could even begin to persuade itself, as many Americans have, that guns can cure grudges or missiles erase militancy.

If you view the world through a bombsight, everything looks like a target. Yet the lesson of 9/11 is that if you drop bombs on enough people — even peoples with no air forces — the most offended amongst them will do their best to bomb you back. Thus our destabilization of places remote from our shores has already blown back to challenge our own domestic tranquility. There is no reason to doubt that it could do so again. Then, too, one of the main lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan is that there are some problems for which invasion and occupation are inappropriate and ineffective responses. Far from demonstrating the irresistible might of the United States, as their neo-conservative champions intended, these wars have revealed the considerable limits of American power.

As a case in point, the use of force in Iraq has neither shaped that country to our will nor vindicated our values. We have so far given 4,500 American lives, suffered the maiming of 32,000 American bodies, accepted the disordering of the minds of tens of thousands of other young Americans, and spent at least $900 billion in Iraq. Our one clear achievement — the removal from power of Saddam Hussein — culminated in a tragicomic trial and execution that mocked rather than celebrated the rule of law. We will leave behind a traumatized society, brutalized by anarchy, sectarian violence, and terrorism spawned by resentment of foreign occupation. Iraq’s constitutional order, prospects for domestic tranquility, relations with its neighbors, and international orientation all remain in doubt.

The Iranian-influenced, Arab Shiite-dominated regime we brought to power in Baghdad is — for now, at least — at peace with Iraq’s Kurds. But this regime has not shown that it can coexist peacefully with the country’s Sunni Arab minority. More than half a year after national elections, no new government has been formed. Many in the region suspect that the army we Americans are training and equipping may in time emerge, like its predecessors, as the principal institution of government in Iraq as well as the violent enforcer of its national unity under Shiite Arab majority rule. Will Iraq once again balance Iran or will it collude with it? We do not know.

What does seem clear is that neither the Iraqi nor the American people will remember Iraq’s close encounter with the United States proudly or fondly. The years to come are more likely to produce intermittent reminders of Iraq’s agonies and America’s witlessness as this century began than to furnish reasons for nostalgia about shared experience. Nor is the U.S. record in Iraq of much value to the formulation of campaign plans for pacifying other countries.

The “surge” of more troops into Iraq is now presented by some as a model for plucking impasse from the maw of military disgrace in Afghanistan too. But that “success,” such as it was, cannot be translated to Afghanistan. The concentration of U.S. forces in Baghdad froze the pattern of sectarian urban enclaves that had emerged from four years of savage confessional cleansing. It allowed warring Iraqi religious groups to barricade the Baghdad neighborhoods into which they had retreated. This both reduced the level of mayhem and fixed sectarian divisions in place. But Afghanistan cannot be stabilized by such religious apartheid, which is irrelevant to it. Afghan divisions have always been primarily rural, ethnic, and regional, rather than confessional.

In parts of Iraq, a surge of U.S. cash helped Iraq’s conservative Sunni tribesmen to recognize the U.S. Marines as allies against the murderous, foreign jihadis in their midst. Tribes and localities in Afghanistan are also fond of cash, but the context is very different. The foreign jihadis who were in Afghanistan have withdrawn to neighboring Pakistan, and no one wants or expects them to return. The Taliban are Afghans and traditionalists, not foreigners or radicals.

Afghanistan has always defined itself as a confederation of tribes and localities that cooperate for limited purposes while resisting central or foreign control. The only alien presence in Afghanistan at present is U.S. and NATO forces and associated aid agencies and NGOs. But they are there to impose allegiance to Kabul and to challenge tribal customs, not to make common cause with the tribal and local authorities on these matters. Many at the local level see their presence as a nuisance that attracts unwanted attention from home-grown, not foreign guerrillas, and that disturbs, not preserves, the peace.

Counterinsurgency doctrine is an implausible answer to the situation in Afghanistan. It was developed to defend post-colonial governments in newly independent states modeled on those of their erstwhile colonial masters. It was never intended to emulate colonialism by building such states in traditional societies that lack and don’t much want them. It presumes that foreign forces are assisting a national government to defeat rebels attempting to overthrow it or secede from it. In Afghanistan, the national government is a barely established creature of foreign intervention that is attempting to extend central authority in unprecedented ways. The Karzai regime has been happy to leave the task of imposing its rule on the country at large to Americans and other foreigners, while profiting as best it can from our efforts. By all accounts, it hasn’t done at all badly at such profiteering.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth. Its nearly thirty million people have a GDP of about $10 billion. Over the past nine years, we have put $350 billion into making war there, and spent another $54 billion on developing the place. Not surprisingly, some Afghans, including not a few in positions of authority, have seen no reason to restrain their enthusiasm about the opportunities for rake-offs this level of spending sustains.

Nine years after it began, the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan has strayed far from its original objectives of suppressing al Qa`ida and punishing the Taliban to deter them from ever again accommodating anti-American “terrorists with global reach.” Our war now seems to be mostly about suppressing reactionary Islam and securing some measure of deference for feminist values. In practice, our primary enemy is no longer al Qa`ida but the Taliban and other Islamists — in both Afghanistan and adjacent areas of Pakistan. Pakistan remains very wary of long-standing Indian ties to the Northern Alliance from which the current Kabul regime emerged. For Islamabad, the war in Afghanistan has come to be as much about forestalling Indian encirclement and destabilization of Pakistan’s strategic rear as it is about appeasing the United States, controlling Pashtun and Baluchi nationalism, and preventing destabilization by Islamic militants. To Pakistanis, we now seem to be part of these problems, not part of their solutions.

Meanwhile, the growing U.S. focus on combating Muslim extremism, broadly defined, is drawing our covert warriors and armed forces into military operations in an ever-lengthening list of countries. The American “Dar al Harb” has already grown beyond Afghanistan, Iraq, south Lebanon, and Palestine to embrace Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Nowhere in the domain of Islam are we succeeding in dividing or reducing our enemies, still less diminishing the threat they represent to us and our homeland.

As if this were not enough, the very same people who neo-conned us into war with Iraq seven years ago are working hard to get the United States into yet another war — this one with Iran. Their reasoning mixes bluff with blackmail. They insist that the U.S. must risk regional or even global catastrophe by launching our own war with Iran. Otherwise, Israel will drag us into an even more catastrophic one. For their part, Israel’s military planners quite rationally worry about the limits the loss of their nuclear monopoly would place on their freedom of action against Arab neighbors like Lebanon and Syria. But they know there is nothing much they can do to prevent this. Military frustration plus popular hysteria about Iran in Israel produces repeated threats by Israeli politicians to bomb Iran. Their supporters here faithfully echo these threats. This, of course, increases Iran’s perceived need to develop a nuclear deterrent to such attack. And so it goes.

Ironically, the primary strategic effect of the policies these neo-conservative warmongers advocated in the past was to eliminate Iran’s enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq, while greatly enhancing Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine and cementing Iran’s alliance with Syria. As a result, while the United States remains focused on Iran’s nuclear program, it is becoming apparent to countries in the region that Iranian cooperation or acquiescence is essential to address a lengthening list of problems of concern to them. These include issues relating to Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as Palestine.

The self-defeating actions and statements of both sides over the course of the 30-year impasse in Iranian-American relations prove many basic rules of diplomacy. Unilateral suspensions of international law and comity (whether through hostage-taking or demands that rights conferred by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime be set aside) are quite naturally resented as inherently illegitimate by the affected side. Neither humiliation nor invective induce reflection; both inspire brooding about how to show unyielding determination, indirectly hurt the other side, or retaliate directly against it. Sanctions that are not in support of a negotiating process constitute mindless pressure rather than leverage and invite defiance rather than compromise. Offers of talks premised on the need to check the diplomatic box before proceeding to coercive measures understandably meet with rebuff. (As a case in point: why should Iran cooperate in legitimizing the use of force against it on the spurious grounds that measures short of war have been exhausted?) And so forth. (I’m tempted to go on, but this is not the occasion for a lecture on strategic self-frustration through diplomatic mis-maneuver.)

In sum, our military interventions in the greater Middle East have been both unproductive and counterproductive. And we have hardly tried diplomacy. That is no less true in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict than with other issues. The political pantomime on the Potomac known as the “peace process” bears the same relationship to diplomacy that Bernie Madoff’s operations did to wealth management. The hopes invested in the transaction alter neither its hollowness nor its cynical insincerity. It seems to serve the interests of its participants but does not lead to anything real — just more of the same. For Israel the so-called “peace process” provides cover for more land grabs. For the Palestinian Authority, it earns international aid to make up for the lack of legitimacy at home. For the United States, it gives the illusion of activism on behalf of peace while avoiding the politically costly decisions necessary actually to produce it.

Israel has yet to attempt an answer to the question Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asked Nahum Goldman in 1956. “Why should the Arabs make peace? If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been antisemitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?” We have no answer to that question either. But we need one. If no peaceful path to justice and dignity is available to Palestinians, they will see no reason not to return to violence. There is a mounting danger that many elsewhere will support them if they do so.

Americans seem to sense the growing risk of violent blowback from the Arab world and the broader Middle East. What else can explain our willingness to surrender the very values that have defined us as a society and that we claim to be defending? Our violent interaction with the Arab and Muslim worlds is clearly changing us much more than it is changing Arabs and Muslims. Our obsession with homeland security is corroding our values at home while increasing enmity and disregard for us abroad. If this makes us safer in the short term, it makes us both less free and less safe in the long term. It is also a prescription for diminished international prestige and support amidst continuing worsening of our country’s relations with Arabs and Muslims. It neither preserves our liberties nor advances our security.

The Founding Fathers knew that acceptance of a measure of risk is the prerequisite for freedom. The checks and balances of the American Constitution were instituted to prevent attempts by our government to make us less free in order to make us safer. Yet, not quite 210 years after we enacted the Bill of Rights, we Americans are setting aside the protections enshrined in it. In our pursuit of a zero-risk security environment, we are slowly but steadily substituting the elements of a garrison state for constitutionally ordained freedoms. Increasingly, we seek to achieve national security by impairing the security of individual Americans. Our citizens and foreign residents may take comfort from the thought that foreign terrorists are under American military pressure. But they can no longer feel secure from arbitrary and capricious actions by government agencies and officials here.

Let me be specific. The Fourth Amendment’s ban on searches and seizures of persons, houses, papers, and effects without probable cause has been vitiated by universal electronic eavesdropping, warrantless seizure of paper and electronic records at the border, and intrusive inspection of anything and everything in the possession of passengers using public transportation. The Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments” has yielded to the expediencies of torture and the officially contrived disappearances of “extraordinary rendition.”

The Fifth Amendment’s protections against deprivation “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” have not prevented the suspension of habeas corpus or executive branch assertions of a right to detain American citizens as well as foreigners indefinitely without charge or trial.

The Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right of anyone accused of a crime to be informed of the charges and confronted with the witnesses against him has given way to trials based on “secret evidence” and sequestered witnesses.

The president now claims the right to act as judge, jury, and executioner of anyone abroad, including Americans, whom he thinks may be aiding or abetting individuals or organizations our political process has listed as “terrorists.”

Meanwhile, talk itself is being criminalized. Advocacy of causes also espoused by so-called “terrorists” risks prosecution for conspiracy to abet terrorism. Lawyers who defend people charged with connections to allegedly terrorist movements can themselves be charged with aiding terrorism. And, as any American Muslim can attest, the neutrality of the government with respect to religion is everywhere under attack. Whatever happened to the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and religious belief or the Sixth Amendment’s right to be represented by a lawyer when detained or on trial?

These are the domestic effects of an approach to international affairs that is fundamentally at odds with the philosophy on which American constitutional practices and foreign policy were long based. Our original idea was that we could best secure our own sovereignty and freedom by respecting the sovereignty and diverse ways of life of other nations. This view was best stated by John Quincy Adams in his speech to the U.S. House of Representatives of July 4, 1821.

Adams said, with pride, that: “America . . . has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, [even] when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart . . . She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. . . . She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

In my view, Adams was right in both his prescription and his prognosis. We would be far better off, were we to return to the course he advocated. This is an appropriate time to ponder that possibility. Like it or not, the United States cannot avoid changing course in the Middle East.

We are at an unsustainable dead end with Iran. We are increasingly at cross purposes with Turkey. Our relations with Lebanon are strained. Ties with Syria are stalemated. We are leaving the shambles we made of Iraq without having crafted an approach to Persian Gulf security that deals with the consequences of either our intervention or our withdrawal. We are arming our friends in Gulf Cooperation Council countries but have yet to find strategic consensus with them.

Our efforts to promote a “two-state solution” in Palestine — such as they were — have lost all credibility. They cannot continue on the same basis. Israel is more isolated regionally and globally than ever before. Our relations with it are increasingly turbulent. I have spoken to previous gatherings here and elsewhere about the imperative of an Israeli-Palestinian peace for Israel, the Palestinians, and ourselves. I will not repeat myself today.

Most Americans now want out of Afghanistan. They yearn for an Afghan solution to Afghan problems that will allow us to exit gracefully from our frustratingly unsuccessful military intervention there. We do not know what to do about Pakistan’s surging anti-Americanism or its continuing use as a safe haven for terrorists with global reach.

And, looming over all of our foreign policies — and our exceedingly expensive reliance on the use of force rather than measures short of war for their execution — is the possibility of an American fiscal heart attack. Our fiscal difficulties promise — among other things — to force major retrenchment in the American military presence and operations abroad. The only question is whether this will happen abruptly or with all deliberate speed. The certainty of a forthcoming U.S. pullback from military adventurism abroad is illustrated by some simple math.

Our federal government’s revenue from all sources — like income, corporate, excise, social security, and medicare taxes — will total $2.2 trillion this year. Outlays for transfer payments to individuals for unemployment, social security, medicare, and the like will come to $2.4 trillion. We must borrow the $200 billion necessary to make up the shortfall. This is before we pay for all the other functions of government, none of which is now funded by tax revenue. We will borrow another $1.3 trillion to keep our government in business. We take in $2.2 trillion. We spend $3.9 trillion. We are running our government entirely on credit rollovers.

The roughly $1 trillion we spend on military and related activities in the budgets for defense, veterans affairs, intelligence, military assistance programs, homeland security, nuclear weapons and propulsion, and the like is two-thirds of government operations. It is all — every cent of it — borrowed from future taxpayers and current trading partners abroad. A lot of this escalating debt for military expenditures is attributable to the Middle East. Even if our military operations there were achieving their objectives — which they are not — they are fiscally unsustainable in the long term. As Herb Stein’s mother famously observed, “if something can’t go on forever, sooner or later it will stop.”

There’s a lot of unrealism out there that denies this. I wouldn’t be surprised if you heard a fair amount of it today and tomorrow. One way or another, however, change is coming to U.S. policies in the greater Middle East. If properly anticipated and correctly managed, change represents an opportunity, not a setback. This, I hope, not the straight-line projection of a spurious present into the future, will be the spirit with which attendees at this conference will address the many issues now before Americans and Arabs.

An end to military intervention abroad except for decisive action for precise purposes and over a limited time would go a long way toward curbing the further growth of the terrorist threat to our country. A serious effort by our government and public intellectuals to counter and reverse the bigotry of current discourse about Islam and the Arabs in this country could lay a basis for enhanced cooperation with Arab and Muslim governments against Islamist extremists who practice violent politics. After all, they are the enemies of Americans and Muslims alike.

Peace in the Holy Land is essential to secure the safety and prosperity of both Israelis and Palestinians. It is equally essential to the United States. It would eliminate a key driver of anti-American terrorism throughout the Muslim world. Measures short of war to mitigate or eliminate other points of tension between the United States and the peoples of the Middle East would further reduce this threat. A serious dialogue with our partners in the Persian Gulf region as well as Egypt and Turkey could help to identify more effective ways of dealing with the challenges Iran poses to regional security and stability.

In a less fearful atmosphere, Americans could restore civil liberties based on renewed respect for our constitutional traditions and the rule of law. This is the prerequisite for recovery of our status and reputation as a uniquely tolerant society, open to people and their ideas. It is the key to regaining the prestige and influence the United States formerly enjoyed in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is the essential condition for rebuilding relations of mutual trust and confidence with our Arab and Muslim allies and friends. It is the way to make America once again “the ruler of her own spirit.”

In hope that this conference will contribute to these ends, I wish it and all of you every success.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)

Washington, DC

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