Objectives and End-Games in the Middle East

Presented to the Institute for Defense Analyses, incorporating remarks to the Rhode Island Yale Club on November 10, 2004.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I’d like to thank you for inviting me here this afternoon. I note, however, that Julian Nall and the other organizers of this event passed up a perfectly good opportunity to hear me talk about China, a mostly uplifting story of peace and development, laced with a titillating war jitter or two over the Taiwan issue, and instead asked me to speak about Emerging Trends in the Middle East, an altogether depressing set of exceedingly complex issues on which there is little, if anything, cheery to say.

I will open with some thoughts about why the United States perennially fails to translate military triumph into political victory. I will then briefly review the situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the so-called War on Terror and conclude with some thoughts about how to turn capitalize on success, mitigate failure, or reverse adverse trends. My views are my own. They do not represent those of the IDA Board, IDA management, the Middle East Policy Council, or any organization I am affiliated with. They are emphatically not the views of the Bush Administration, nor do they represent the views of its recently defeated opposition. They will very likely invite as much disagreement as agreement from those present. Nevertheless, I hope you find them stimulating. I will be brief in order to leave time for discussion.

William Tecumseh Sherman once succinctly observed that “the legitimate purpose of war is a more perfect peace.” It is the political results of war that translate battlefield successes into victory. And it is the defeated, not the victors, who decide when the war has ended. No war ends until the vanquished accept their defeat.

Therefore, “the first question anyone planning to start a war or to respond with force to an act of aggression should ask is not whether his nation’s force can prevail in battle, though that is indeed a vital question. He should ask what objectives, once achieved, would justify ending the war and why anyone on the other side should regard these changes in the status quo as either temporarily or permanently acceptable. How will the fighting be ended? On what terms? Negotiated by and with whom? What happens after the conflict is over? Will the seeds of future military actions be planted in the terms of the peace?”

As U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, I put these questions to the first Bush Administration before our liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s occupation. My cables were never answered. There was no war termination strategy. Generals Schwarzkopf and Khalid bin Sultan met their Iraqi counterparts at Safwan without political instructions. Saddam was never forced to accept the political consequences of his defeat. Therefore he remained in power. And the war never ended. It continued as low intensity conflict until our March 20, 2003 invasion and subsequent conquest of Iraq. The Gulf War thus failed General Sherman’s test; it did not produce a better peace.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand how a politico-military integration failure of this magnitude could have occurred. My first instinct was to blame the nature of coalition warfare. Coalitions harmonize objectives to the lowest common denominator; they are the enemies of clarity. But, on further reflection, I have come to the conclusion something more fundamental was at work, reflecting a basic flaw in the American way of war.

In the Asian tradition of Sunzi and the European tradition of Clausewitz, war is a means of accomplishing political objectives that cannot be achieved by less costly means. When the fighting ends, negotiations between victor and vanquished define the adjustments — in frontiers, territories, or behavior — necessary to make peace.

Long ago, for example, in our war for independence and the Mexican War Americans fought that way too. But, the ending of wars through negotiation has not been our formative experience. Our views of war have been shaped in existential struggles against enemies we demonized and whose continued existence we pronounced to be morally unacceptable. In our civil war, in World War I, and in World War II, as well as in the Cold War, we fought with the expectation of unconditional surrender and the subsequent reconstruction of our enemies. Not surprisingly, it is these experiences, rather than the awkward stalemate in Korea or dishonorable retreat from Indochina that inspire us when we go to war. The Spanish-American War, in which military success against enemy forces preceded any serious effort to concoct war aims, is also not a model, except perhaps in terms of encouraging us to believe that we can somehow sort out how to deal with the aftermath of war after we’ve destroyed the enemy’s combat power.

The American idea of war termination is the annihilation of the enemy’s forces and the temporary replacement of his sovereignty with our own. We seem to have no idea of how to settle for less than that. In this context, it is hardly surprising that we should have been unable to formulate a war termination strategy for the Gulf War, which was fought to repel aggression and restore a regional balance of power disturbed by the Iran-Iraq War. The failure to craft a sustainable post-war order for the Gulf and to assign Iraq an appropriate role in it meant that there was no post-war regional balance. This, in turn, left the United States to fill the power vacuum.

Many Americans were inclined to see anything less than the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq as an incomplete war, even if that had not been our original objective. The war was indeed incomplete, but this was not why. The sad fact is that Saddam’s military defeat was never translated into his political humiliation. Thus, our military triumph was never translated into a political victory over Iraq. Instead, we showed once again that one can win every battle and prevail in every military contest of strength and still lose politically. To lose politically, as we should have learned in Vietnam, is to be defeated.

This brings me to the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and with terrorists throughout the world today. To gain victory in these conflicts we must have clear and unwavering objectives. To consolidate victory in these conflicts we must think through how they should conclude. Where do we now stand? Let’s start with 9/11.

In the more than three years since America was cruelly maimed by terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the United States has disrupted the corporate headquarters of al-Qa`ida, killed much of its original leadership, and driven from power those who gave it safe haven in Afghanistan. In doing so, we more or less accomplished our original objectives of apprehending the perpetrators of 9/11 and punishing their Afghan hosts so as to deter other countries from sheltering al-Qa`ida or its like.

But al-Qa`ida has grown new leaders, reorganized, and expanded its operations internationally. It has, in short, metastasized, not collapsed or shrunk into irrelevance. The war in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is largely forgotten here, but it is far from over. It is an expensive war in every sense. 143 U.S. soldiers have died; 423 have been seriously injured.

But, as our war with Aghan insurgents continued, we have often seemed to forget that al-Qa`ida, not Afghans associated with the Taliban, did 9/11. Unlike al-Qa`ida, this should make the Taliban not an enemy to be annihilated but a politico-military problem to be managed as much by political means as by force of arms. We have slain 8,587 Afghan warriors and seriously wounded 25,761. More to the point, we have killed 3,485 Afghan civilians and seriously injured 6,273. In proportion to population, the Afghan dead are the equivalent of 85,000 dead and 250,000 gravely wounded American soldiers, and 34,000 dead American civilians, with another 62,000 seriously injured. As we seemed to turn our attention from capturing al-Qa`ida’s leadership to annihilating the Taliban, Afghan tolerance of our presence, not surprisingly, is beginning to wear thin.

Some 18,000 American troops remain engaged in combat with various terrorist and resistance forces in Afghanistan as we meet this afternoon. No one has told us — apparently no one can now say — what might constitute victory there or when our intervention can end. Afghanistan’s pro-American president needed American bodyguards to conduct his successful electoral campaign. The once-discredited Taliban seem to be regaining lost political ground.

Presumably, our central objective remains strategic denial of Afghanistan to al-Qa`ida and other terrorist enemies of the United States. This now depends, apparently, on maintaining a huge American pacification force there while looking the other way as contented Afghan farmers exercise their democratic right to harvest the largest opium crop in history.

A year and a half ago, in the second major development since 9/11, we invaded Iraq. We did so for a tangle of five or six theses and reasons that no one has yet been able convincingly to untangle. I will not attempt to do so this afternoon. I will simply note that our one indisputable achievement has been the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a very bad man whose fall from power few in Iraq and no one outside it laments.

But we invaded Iraq with a bunch of dogmas rather than a set of plans. So, as we removed the Iraqi regime, we inadvertently destroyed the Iraqi state. We replaced that state not with a new regime but with an overwhelmingly American military occupation. 137 Americans died during our invasion of Iraq. During the same period, we killed about 30,000 Iraqi troops and seriously wounded another 90,000. In terms of our population, these figures equate to about 349,000 American military dead, with 1,050,000 seriously injured. Not surprisingly, Iraqis had distinctly mixed feelings about our arrival from the outset.

Since the President declared our “mission accomplished” in May 2003, another 1,079 American military personnel have given their lives in Iraq. Our military no longer do body counts so it is hard to know how many Iraqi guerrillas or civilians have died under our occupation. Hospital-documented deaths add up to at least 15,000, with 26,000 seriously injured, while recent estimates in the British medical journal, the Lancet, suggest as many as 100,000 dead. Again, to imagine the impact on ordinary Iraqis of these figures, we must translate them into American terms. They equate to between 175,000 and 1,160,000 dead American civilians. The 6oo civilian deaths documented over the past week in Falluja alone are the equivalent of nearly 7,000 in America.

It’s hard to think of any occupation anywhere that has been welcomed or accepted as legitimate for long by those occupied. But, given our inability even to repair basic infrastructure, let alone reconstruct Iraq, and the figures I have just cited, our occupation is now so universally regarded as illegitimate that it invites resistance and taints any project and any person associated with it. Our aid workers and journalists are now essentially confined to fortified enclaves, military bases, or convoys escorted by our troops. The only thing keeping Iraqis from civil war is their unity in opposing our occupation.

In this increasingly hostile environment, we are nonetheless asking our military simultaneously to create a state and an army to back it while providing security for reconstruction and the installation through elections of a government with the legitimacy we and the interim authority we appointed lack. Apparently, we then plan to hang around in the 14 permanent military bases we are building, as a guarantee of Iraqi democracy and Kurdish autonomy. This is an ambitious, not to say preposterous, tasking to give the U.S. Army. Support of this kind from us is very likely the kiss of death for any new Iraqi government.

Under the circumstances, perhaps the best outcome we can hope for is that the January elections in Iraq come off and produce a government that asks us to leave. Declaring democracy and withdrawing may be our best option. But is that what we plan to do? And, if not, what do we plan to do?

Our vagueness — maybe it’s just honest confusion — about what we are trying to accomplish in Iraq and how and when we might leave carries a heavy cost, and not just to the American taxpayer. Increasingly, Iraqis, other Arabs, and Muslims around the globe see our presence there as part of a broad assault on the fifth of the human race that is Muslim. They connect our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq with our unconditional support, including generous subsidies, for the Israeli government and its policies in the Arab territories it occupies. They do not believe our president when he promises to resume a peacemaking role between Israelis and Palestinians. They see the United States as now so closely aligned with Israel as to be essentially indistinguishable from it in policy terms and to be disqualified as a mediator.

Identification with Israel remains a big plus in American politics. But it is no longer a plus elsewhere. Here too, it helps to consider the conflict statistics. Since Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on September 29, 2000, the intifada has taken the lives of 942 Israelis and seriously wounded perhaps another 4,500. Critics of Israel should take note! The ascendancy of the Israeli right wing is easier to understand when one considers that this is the equivalent of 44,715 dead and 215,000 wounded Americans. After all, 3,000 deaths on 9/11 were enough to send the United States into a sort of national nervous breakdown.

We focus on the Israeli dead and wounded. Arabs and Muslims are naturally more apt to focus on the comparable Palestinian statistics. Since September 29, 2000, 3,447 Palestinians have died, while another 40,000 or so have been seriously injured. In our terms, this would be 284,964 dead and 3.4 million wounded. As I said a moment ago, rightly or wrongly, Arabs and indeed Muslims globally see this bloodbath in the Holy Land as a direct result of U.S. policy. And they now connect it to lethal American actions against Arabs and Muslims elsewhere.

The decisive shift in foreign views of the United States is the third and most significant change in our situation since 9/11. Our allies and Islamic partners were with us in Afghanistan. Our invasion of Iraq separated most of them from us and set us against three-fourths of the member states of the United Nations. Abu Ghraib and the scofflaw behavior at Guantanamo now belatedly being set right by the federal judiciary subsequently erased much of the admiration the United States enjoyed when we stood unequivocally for a just world order based on the rule of law.

Most, though not all, of our allies and friends in Europe and Asia are now skeptical, even apprehensive, about us. The political burden of proof internationally is against any leader who proposes to follow our lead. Most notably, in Muslim countries, huge majorities have now concluded that the United States is an international predator and implacable enemy of their values. Osama bin Ladin and others of like mind see this not only as a boon to recruitment but as a major opportunity to build a transnational political movement to back their terrorist struggle. This is why Osama’s latest message has such a confident, even upbeat tone. He thinks he’s winning his war with us. If our measure of success is whether we kill more terrorists than we create, Osama may be right. In places like Falluja, to kill one so-called terrorist is to get five free. And Falluja is now connected to Gaza and Kandahar in the Muslim mind.

If we continue on course, we can expect the world to become ever less hospitable and safe for Americans. And we can expect others to continue to attempt to do to us what they perceive us to be doing to them. Our homeland remains highly vulnerable to attack or, as the terrorists would describe it, counterattack. As we deal with the irregular rhythms of our mounting conflict with the Muslim world, we will be hard pressed to deal with other issues of concern, like the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, or our precarious international financial standing. In fact, some of these issues have already been adversely affected by the various developments I have discussed tonight. Our invasion of Iraq, for example, caused both North Korea and Iran to accelerate their plans to acquire nuclear deterrent forces. The mounting costs of the war drive up our budget deficits and increase our dependence on purchases of our national debt by the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans. And so forth.

Which brings me back to the terrible challenges facing our president. We must hope that Kaiser Wilhelm was right when he claimed that “God watches over idiots, little children, and the United States of America.” Or that Winston Churchill was prescient when he observed that “one can always count on the United States to do the right thing, after it has exhausted all the alternatives.” We are getting somewhat short of alternatives, I sense. But what is the right thing to do in these circumstances?

As recently as two years ago, there was no real connection between Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Holy Land. As a result of our decisions and actions, they are now inextricably connected both to each other and to the future of al-Qa`ida and other Islamic extremist movements. As we deal with each of these issues, we must therefore weigh the extent to which our actions aid or impede resolution of the others.

The place to start is probably Afghanistan, where, I would argue, we have been guilty of “mission creep” — an unwitting and somewhat witless shifting of the goal posts. What are our goals in Afghanistan now that we have al-Qa`ida on the run and the Taliban out of office? Are there no alternatives to perpetual military intervention in Afghanistan and to uncontrolled production of the raw material for heroin to accomplish these goals, whatever they may be?

With a presidential election in Afghanistan behind us and parliamentary elections in sight, it is time to clarify and refocus our policy to substitute diplomacy and foreign aid for military intervention. If a fraction of the money we are spending on military operations in Afghanistan were made available to its government for army and nation-building activities, with a bit left over to fund a public school program in Pakistan to give kids in the border areas an alternative to the madrassas there, much might be accomplished. What’s more, I believe that such an effort could attract matching money and other help from allies, partners, and friends, not just in Europe, but in Asia and even the Arab world.

An approach like this would not represent an abandonment of Afghanistan but a recognition that, in the end, Afghans are likely to be more effective in excluding Islamist terrorists from their territory if the terrorists cannot pose as the resistance to an American-led occupation that is killing other Afghan Muslims. The Afghan government will need to be able to count on us, with other members of the international community, in its struggle to coopt regional warlords and end the Taliban insurgency. Our withdrawal must be orderly and phased. As we withdraw, we should do everything possible to help the Afghan government succeed, while ensuring that we retain the capacity to re-intervene in the unlikely event that a future Afghan government repeats the error of offering a home to terrorists with global reach.

Then there is Iraq. Here, too, policy clarification is urgently required. The biggest gift we could give to the Iraqi constituent assembly to be elected in January would be a clear statement that our first order of business with it will be to negotiate the terms of our orderly withdrawal from Iraq. We might add that we intend, as and after we withdraw, to channel a continuing flow of American and other international assistance to Iraqi reconstruction through the Iraqi government and Iraqi companies, not carpetbaggers from the United States. As part of our withdrawal plan, we should propose protective arrangements with Iraq’s neighbors.

The fledgling Iraqi state needs assurances of non-intervention from Iran, Syria, and Turkey. It needs help rather than opposition from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and it requires the cooperation of Jordan. Among Iraq’s neighbors, the most important in terms of capacity to intervene in Iraqi politics is Iran. As a neighbor of Afghanistan, Iran is important in that context too. If the Bush Administration can find a way to do business with Col. Qaddhafi’s wacky regime in Libya, where the stakes are much smaller, one may hope that it might have the political courage to deal with Iran.

This brings us to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is at the core of al-Qa`ida’s and other extremists’ hopes of uniting the Muslim world against the United States. There was, as far as I could tell, no difference at all between the presidential candidates on any issue touching on Israel and our relations with it. That is truly remarkable, because Israelis themselves are deeply divided and carry on a vigorous debate about these issues. American politicians now compete for the favor of whoever is Prime Minister in Israel, regardless of whether that Prime Minister pays any attention at all to American opinions or views. All this recalls the fact that it was the Middle East that first gave hypocrisy a bad name. It leads me to the conclusion that an answer to the question of how to secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians is more likely to originate with outspoken Israelis and Palestinians than it is among brain-dead and intimidated politicians here.

But here’s the rub. Well-intentioned American subsidies and pledges of unconditional support for Israel, regardless of its policies, mean not only that Israelis can act without regard to American interests and views. They also mean that Israelis don’t have to make the hard choices they would have to make if they were — or feared they might end up — on their own.

Confident of subsidies from the American taxpayer, Israelis are under little, if any, pressure to reform their inefficient, socialist economy, now one of the most statist in the world. Peace is not impossible, as the Geneva Accords negotiated between former Israeli and current Palestinian officials attest. Assured of military superiority and support against the Arabs, however, Israelis do not need to end their expansion into Palestinian lands or make the diplomatic compromises necessary to define their borders with a viable and therefore stable Palestinian state. Israelis could benefit from some tough love from their American backers.

Israel is the strongest power in the Middle East by a wide margin, even if its security were not guaranteed by the United States, as it is and will continue to be. The only thing that could now call Israel’s existence into question is a long-term failure on its part to make peace with its neighbors. Israel’s cold war with the Arabs has now emerged as a grave threat to U.S. interests as well as to those of the Jewish state. It is time, therefore, to use American leverage to help change the political context in Israel. We should be trying to help those within Israel who advocate policies intended to achieve peace rather than continued oppression of the Palestinians and expansion into Arab lands. American support for the existence of the state of Israel is and should be unquestionable. American support for particular policies of that state should not, however, be exempt from scrutiny and debate.

Let me conclude by noting, once again, that there are vastly cheerier topics to discuss than those I was assigned today. I do not, however, apologize for the grave tone of my remarks. Systematically thinking through what we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Arab-Israeli dispute is now an imperative for our country. So is developing strategies for the successful consolidation of victory in these conflicts on terms that advance our national interests. We cannot hope to end hatred and enmity toward the United States in the hearts of all, but we can reverse current trends that are causing that hatred and enmity to deepen and spread internationally. Terrorists represent a grave threat to our liberties as well as to our wealth and power as a nation. We are not winning our struggle with them at present. But I believe that, with clear objectives and well-defined end-games, with the right policies and actions, we can.

Thank you.

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

Alexandria, VA

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