Best Defense

The Middle East: What Americans need to understand and generally don’t

A few months ago historian Geoffrey Wawro and I did a panel discussion together for a group of documentarians specializing in military history. He mentioned then that he had a new history of the American experience in the Middle East being published soon, and now it is out. It is called Quicksand. Yesterday I interviewed ...

A few months ago historian Geoffrey Wawro and I did a panel discussion together for a group of documentarians specializing in military history. He mentioned then that he had a new history of the American experience in the Middle East being published soon, and now it is out. It is called Quicksand.

Yesterday I interviewed him by e-mail.   

Best Defense: What are the essential facts that Americans don’t understand about the Middle East?

Geoffrey Wawro: Americans look at the Middle East through the lens of terrorism. This is analogous to the Cold War tendency to view the Middle East as a place under perpetual threat from Communism. In fact, most Middle Eastern peoples detest terrorism, and their security services are committed to its destruction. Unfortunately, states like Iran, Syria, Libya and Iraq under Saddam play a double game. Although frightened by terrorist extremism, they succor groups that they can wield tactically against their enemies, chiefly Israel. In the event of a U.S. war with Iran, those groups — like Hezbollah — would be unleashed against Americans and U.S. interests as well. What this means for Americans, is that we must proceed delicately. It is foolhardy to imagine we can “rid the world of terrorism,” if only because terror attacks are an asymmetric weapon wielded by weaker states against stronger ones. Syria is certainly a “terrorist state” in the sense that it gives cover to anti-Israeli terrorist groups — which Damascus regards as no more objectionable than Israeli F-16s — but it is also a country that we can do business with, solidifying gains in Iraq, managing Lebanon and the Kurds, and fighting al-Qaeda. This complexity, with its strong odor of amorality, exasperates Americans, but is an ineradicable piece of the Middle Eastern landscape, of the “quicksand” I describe in my new book.

BD: What do you think of the Obama Administration’s handling of the Iran situation?

GW: This is a tough one. Iran may well be on track to have a nuclear weapon before the end of Obama’s first term. We’ve known about this program for seven years, yet both Bush 43 and Obama have failed to strangle it with hard sanctions, owing to the reluctance of Russia and China to get tough. On the one hand, Obama is trying to distance himself from the “axis of evil” rhetoric, and make a good faith effort to understand Iran better. On the other hand, he deplores the bloodthirsty irresponsible chatter coming out of Iran: the holocaust denials and the bluster about actually using nukes. But the recently leaked Robert Gates (January) memo about the absence of military options for Iran gets to the heart of the problem. How does the U.S. fight a war, or even an air campaign, against Iran today? Can we afford it? Can we afford the disruption in oil flows? Can we afford the inevitable explosion of Iranian wrath in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf? Can Israel deal with concurrent explosions from Iranian clients in Gaza and Lebanon? The question that recurs to me is why are the Russians and Chinese — who have their own problems with Islamist extremism and proliferation — not taking this threat seriously? Neither one of them wants to credit an American right to interfere in the internal affairs of another nation, but at some point THEY need to take this threat seriously. Obama should have traded the anti-missile sites in East Central Europe for Russian sanctions on Iran.

BD: Why do you think President Bush decided to invade Iraq?

GW: We have a pretty good sense of that from the memoirs, journalism and leaks that have issued from the Bush 43 administration, as well as your own extensive research in Fiasco. The decision for war mingled realpolitik and overeager idealism. My favorite quote on this comes from Barton Gellman, who traced much of the foundering in Operation Iraqi Freedom to “the ambiguity of purpose at the heart of the war.” Bush calculated “like Don Quixote, Cheney like Jack in Lord of the Flies,” and that basic dissonance “would do much to explain its undoing.” Bush linked Iraq to 9/11, falsely, but was also committed to a “forward strategy of freedom” and a Bush Doctrine that would topple dictatorships, eradicate terrorism and implant democracy.

Bush was also under the spell of Ariel Sharon, who — along with other Israeli grandees (all detailed in my book) — pressed the administration to strengthen Israel for the long haul by removing Saddam and the Baathists. Cheney and Rumsfeld saw other opportunities. They wanted the war — quick and cheap — to have a demonstrative effect on other countries like Iran, North Korea, and probably Russia and China as well. “Look what we can do with minimal force” against a heavily-armed police state, they might have said. Cheney, CEO of Halliburton in the interregnum between the Bush 41 and Bush 43 administrations, had chaired the secretive Energy Task Force in 2001 — and was focused on the need, expressed in his report, to eke out “an additional 50 million barrels of oil a day by 2010″ to fuel the thirsty global economy. Iraq’s 300 billion barrels of reserves were too vital to ignore, and so Cheney doubtless saw oil as a war aim too: not to annex the wells, but to place them in the friendly, pliable hands of a Chalabi-type regime.

BD: Do you think Israel will exist 100 years from now? Why, or why not?

GW: A lot of Israelis are anxiously asking this question. Inside Israel, the Arab minority is younger and growing faster than the Jewish majority. In the occupied territories, Arafat always said that Israeli bombs would be defeated by Palestinian wombs, and the demographics certainly do not favor the Israelis there either, hence the busy settlement construction for Orthodox settlers, who can be counted on to have six or seven children. Historically, “the demographic bomb” has always been a concern of the Jewish state. That’s why the Israelis coldly expelled the Palestinian population in 1948-49, and have doggedly refused to readmit the refugees ever since. There was lively debate in Israel at the time of the Six Day War about the wisdom of taking over the occupied territories. That decision effectively re-annexed Arab populations that the Israelis had driven out twenty years earlier, and intensified the demographic problem. Israel’s abandonment of Gaza in 2005 — dressed up as a concession — was really an act of surrender to Palestinian fertility and mayhem.

I was interested to hear Israeli Defense Minister and Labour Party chief Ehud Barak’s recent announcement — on Israel’s April 2010 Memorial Day — that Tel Aviv must recognize and empower a Palestinian state. Barak knows that not to do so will lumber Israel indefinitely with the occupation, refugee and demographic problems, and further strain its relations with key allies like the U.S., to say nothing of the Muslim world. Bibi Netanyahu is an old reactionary; like the Bourbons, he “has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” He is also crippled by his right-wing coalition partners, who press settlements on him. Israel will not go on like this much longer. Men like Ehud Barak will make the necessary concessions, manage the risks, and ensure the survival of Israel.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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