As we witness almost daily the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, where with sickening regularity, we learn reports of another 60 innocent people being killed by terrorist bombings, one is prompted to reflect about how our government establishes its priorities for the defense of our country. Although the news from Afghanistan is not as disturbing, the prospect of American withdrawal and the continuation of civil war within that wretched country makes such reflection even more necessary.
Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan
As painful as it may be for some people to look back on the strategic decisions that were made to conduct the wars in those two places in the ways that we did, we must nevertheless confront a bitter truth – namely, that the political-strategic situation in both countries is not markedly better than when we first ousted Saddam Hussein from power and when we removed the Taliban from its ruling position in Afghanistan.
In both cases, we decided to embark on nation-building projects, which necessitated the prolonged presence of American forces. In both cases, we have attempted to implement radical political-cultural changes that have cut against the grain of long-established political arrangements.
In the case of Iraq, under the banner of bringing democracy to one of the most advanced Arab countries, we ousted the longtime Sunni Muslim governing class and effectively installed, under the aegis of a nationwide election, a Shia government that has been so mistrustful of the Sunnis that it has effectively frozen them out of meaningful influence within the country. This is nothing less than a social revolution that is a recipe for protracted civil war.
Our actions were based very much on assumptions that Iraqi culture was malleable, and that perhaps culture itself–with the habits, traditions, customs, mentality, and modes of thinking, formed over centuries–didn’t really exist.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, we have attempted to install a central government in a country where no serious central government has ever existed for any length of time. When there was a king, he regarded the country for what it was – a confederation of tribes whose autonomy he had to respect. In return, the tribes, accustomed to paying their respect to the inheritor of the monarchical charisma, retained some identity with the “nation” of Afghanistan, even though their principal identity was tribal.
In both cases, American foreign policy optimistically assumed not only the malleability of culture but an adaptability and perhaps even a perfectibility of human nature–an assumption that has long characterized left-wing ideologies which have attempted to build heaven on earth.
The cost of what I consider to be utopian nation-building adventures will come to $6-8 trillion in actuarial terms, when you calculate the lifetime of medical care for the thousands who have been wounded, both physically and mentally, in the course of the protracted occupations of these countries.
There was another way
There was another way. These extraordinary levels of blood and treasure need not have been spent. But what would have been required was a proper ordering of our national security priorities where vital national interests take priority over mere interests and where the allocation of resources is configured appropriately.
Saddam Hussein’s capture in December 2003 is when our involvement in Iraq might much more profitably have ended. Rather than embarking on nation-building, our intervention could have prompted a leadership change in Iraq, even if it remained Sunni Muslim and Baathist party-based. But the message would have reverberated throughout the country that if you massacre Shia and Kurds and play shell games with weapons of mass destruction, there are consequences.
Thomas Jefferson did not send Stephen Decatur, the Marine Corps, and American privateers to the shores of Tripoli to invade, occupy, and democratize the radical Islamists of his day–the Barbary pirates. He sent them on a behavior-modification operation. The result was freedom of navigation for international commerce.
It is more realistic to deter gross conduct than it is to change an entire culture.
In Afghanistan, I believe that the proposal made by several members of Congress, notably Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, to restore the king to his throne was much more likely to win a national consensus that would have preserved tribal autonomy and the confederative status of the country. If we needed forces which could help maintain some modicum of order nationwide, they could have been the very forces of the Northern Alliance, who, with our CIA and Special Forces, ousted the Taliban from power.
We could have made our country safer
Imagine if only a fraction of that $6-8 trillion had been spent. Imagine how it could have enabled us to maintain the Navy that our global commitments require. It is now under 300 ships, when it should be over 500, especially in light of the rapid development by China of its own blue water navy and its extraordinary muscle flexing and bellicosity in the South and East China Seas.
Today, our Army is being reduced to a bare-bones force where only two brigades are fully combat ready, according to General Ray Odierno, the Army’s Chief of Staff.
Our nuclear forces are in a very sad state of repair, and people in positions of senior responsibility are talking about a policy of minimum deterrence–maintaining a bare minimum of nuclear forces, when in fact, nothing could be less effective in deterring war, and not just nuclear war, than a skeletal strategic deterrent.
With just a few more resources, we could significantly enhance our missile defense. We could pay more serious attention to the massive Chinese espionage and theft of both our industrial and military secrets. We could even harden the transformers that are the hubs of our nationwide electrical grid to protect against the very real possibility of an electromagnetic pulse that could come either from solar activity or from a nuclear device detonated in the atmosphere above our country–a phenomenon that, according to the most serious scientific studies, would kill the vast majority of citizens in our country through the destruction of everything electrical, including our just-in-time delivery system the basic necessities of life.
As much as the sequester is being blamed for the budgetary strains that are plaguing our national defense posture, it was ill-conceived policy and strategic decisions made over the last decade that lie at the heart of one of our most critical national challenges.
One hopes that more Americans, and particularly our future leaders whom we are attempting to shape at IWP, will learn from such lessons of history.
This article by John Lenczowski is partially based on a speech delivered this fall to the Council for National Policy, and also appears on www.iwp.edu.