Uncle Sucker to the Rescue

Washington is making all its favorite mistakes in (another) Iraq war.

Photoillustration by FP
Photoillustration by FP

In case you hadn’t noticed, the new U.S. war in Iraq is not going well. The alliance we’ve been trying to assemble to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State (IS) is looking like a lot of other recent U.S.-led coalitions: Uncle Sucker takes the lead and does most of the work while our allies free-ride, engage in mostly symbolic military actions, or actively undermine the common effort. No wonder U.S. President Barack Obama was reluctant to get into this war, and why he keeps warning that it will take longer than the rest of his presidency.

What’s most worrisome to me is the extent to which the United States seems to be repeating many of the mistakes that helped derail our past misadventures in that part of the world. Now that we are several weeks in, here are what I see as the top five mistakes — so far — in the latest Iraq war.

Mistake No. 1: Exaggerating the Threat   

Ever since the first Gulf War, U.S. leaders have routinely exaggerated the threat that the United States faced in Iraq and/or Syria. Even though much of Iraq’s military power was destroyed in 1990 to 1991 and was never rebuilt, the Clinton administration continued to portray that country as a dangerous threat to vital U.S. interests. Hence the continuation of sanctions that may have killed as many as 500,000 Iraqis and the misguided strategy of "dual containment," which forced the United States to keep thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia and helped convince Osama bin Laden to order the 9/11 attacks. After 9/11, of course, the Bush administration ratcheted up the threat even more in order to justify a preventive war. Aided by mendacious or gullible journalists, they convinced the American people that Saddam had active WMD programs and was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden, even though neither claim was true. 

Today, U.S. officials from both parties have portrayed ISwhich is clearly a serious regional problemas if it posed a direct and serious threat to the United States itself. Yet at the same time, the public is being told that there won’t be any American "boots on the ground." This is troubling for three reasons. First, it is a lie, because U.S. special operations units are already there and it seems more than likely that the U.S. ground presence is going to increase (though how much awaits events). Second, if IS is dangerous enough to warrant military action, why doesn’t it warrant a more serious effort? (Answer: Trying to do more could make the problem worse, and the threat isn’t serious enough to justify a major commitment of ground forces.) Third, the idea that we can fix this problem at relatively low costs is all too reminiscent of the Bush administration’s earlier claim that the occupation of Iraq would pay for itself. Obama has tried to tell the American people that this campaign will take a long time, but he hasn’t ‘fessed up to the fact that it’s likely to involve real costs too.

Why is threat inflation a problem? When we exaggerate dangers in order to sell a military, we are more likely to do the wrong thing instead of taking the time to figure out if a) action is really necessary and b) what the best course of action might be. When a great power gets spooked by some grisly beheadings and decides it just has to "do something," the danger is that it will decide to do something unwise.

Threat inflation also conveys to others that we care more about this problem than they do. Which leads directly to Mistake No. 2.

Mistake No. 2: Squandering U.S. Leverage

A recurring problem in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been the insistence that no problem can be solved if Uncle Sam isn’t leading the charge. By portraying IS as a direct threat to America and by rushing to attack it, however, we are telling the Iraqis, Kurds, Turks, Saudis, and everybody else that the cavalry is on the way and that they don’t need to do much themselves. No wonder we can’t get the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to be less corrupt, more inclusive, and more effective; no wonder we can’t get Turkey to focus on IS instead of the Kurds; and no wonder we can’t get the Saudis to do more to stop the flow of money and poisonous ideas to extremist groups. Simple equation: The more Washington promises to do for them, the less our local partners will do for themselves.

A better approach would be to play hard to get. American power is still a valuable commodity, and others ought to be willing to do a lot for us to win it. Washington can indicate that it is willing — albeit reluctant — to help local actors deal with this problem, but if and only if they make a genuine, visible, and serious effort to address it too. And by "serious effort," I don’t mean flying a few symbolic sorties. 

This approach will require turning a deaf ear to the usual complaints from the locals about U.S. "credibility" and "reliability." Frankly, after all the resources we’ve poured into Iraq and Afghanistan, and the meager cooperation we got from our putative allies there, I would think America’s "staying power" wouldn’t really be an issue. Instead of pouring good money (and possibly U.S. lives) down that particular rat hole, I’d like to see the people who are most directly affected start fighting this one for themselves. Unless the Turks, Jordanians, Kurds, and other Iraqis are willing to get their acts together to contain these vicious extremists, even a protracted and costly U.S. effort will amount to little.

Mistake No. 3: Failure to Set Clear Priorities  

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the alleged purpose was to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring WMDs. But the neoconservatives in the Bush administration hoped that toppling Saddam would be the first step in a campaign to transform most of the region into a sea of pro-American democracies. Once it became clear that Iraq had no WMD program, the goal of spreading "liberty" throughout the region took on greater salience. This objective led U.S. officials to focus more attention on holding elections than on achieving genuine reconciliation or creating political institutions that actually worked. Plus, we had no idea what we were doing.

A similar problem afflicts our efforts in the region now. Is it more important to defeat IS, remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, or keep Iran isolated and halt its nuclear program forever? Because these goals are inherently contradictory — weakening IS helps Assad, cooperating with Iran against IS might require compromising more on the nuclear issue, etc. — it is almost impossible to pursue all three simultaneously. But I can’t tell which of these (and other) goals the Obama administration regards as most important. And if we keep trying to pursue all three, we probably won’t achieve any of them.

Mistake No. 4: Assuming Others Share Our Worldview and Our Interests 

A perennial failure of U.S. diplomacy is the tendency to think our interests and our worldview are unquestionably correct and that only our worst enemies are going to disagree with us. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice confessed that she had been baffled by French, German, and Russian opposition to the war. As she said afterwards, "I’ll just put it very bluntly: We simply didn’t understand it." It turned out that these states were just a lot smarter than she was: They could see a disaster looming, even if she couldn’t. 

Today, the Obama administration seems surprised that the Turkish government is more worried by Kurdish nationalism than by IS, and that many Sunnis in Anbar think Baghdad and various Shiite militias are a greater threat than IS is. The reality is that other states, tribes, sects, and groups have their own interests, and those interests don’t conveniently coincide with the prevailing orthodoxy in Washington, D.C. That doesn’t mean their view is right and that U.S. politicians are wrong, but successful diplomacy has to start by recognizing that no two states see things exactly the same way and others sometimes understand their own interests better than we do. Then, you have to work to find whatever common ground might exist. And if there isn’t enough common ground to make the strategy work, be ready to walk away.

Mistake No. 5: Overpromising and Underachieving

The final error — sadly, one all too typical of recent U.S. foreign policy — is that we are promising the moon and delivering moon pies. The Bush administration promised that the invasion of Iraq would be short, easy, and would pay for itself. Bush also told us the United States would eliminate all "terrorists of global reach." Trying to eliminate a particular tactic used by many diverse groups was a fool’s errand, especially when U.S. military intervention tends to reinforce the extremists’ narrative and helps them replenish their ranks with new recruits. The United States is still in Afghanistan today — and so are the Taliban — and it is congratulating itself on convincing the Afghan government to let us stay for a few more years. And now we are headed back into Iraq. Osama bin Laden may be dead and gone, but the endless war that he foresaw would sap U.S. strength and weaken existing Arab governments is still underway.

Indeed, the entire history of our prior involvement in Iraq has been colored by exaggerated claims of success. Remember that infamous banner that was raised on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003, proclaiming "Mission Accomplished"? How about the canard that "the surge worked," even though it never achieved its core strategic goal of political reconciliation? U.S. commanders also offered up lots of self-congratulatory claims about the improved quality of the Iraqi security forces that they had trained (i.e., the same forces that broke and ran as soon as IS showed up).

Similarly, Obama now promises to "degrade and destroy" IS. He is succumbing to the same tendency to overstate what U.S. military power can accomplish in this context. Air power alone cannot "destroy" IS, because it is too imprecise an instrument and because the extremists can blunt its effectiveness by dispersing its own forces and mingling with the local population, thereby producing an unacceptable risk of civilian casualties. We can try training the Iraqi army again and we can back various Iraqi tribes and militias, but our earlier training efforts clearly failed and our experience in Afghanistan suggests that this is more likely to lead to warlordism and renewed sectarian fighting than it is to produce a stable political order. 

Instead of repeating the same mistakes, wouldn’t it make more sense to try to learn from them? Here’s one big lesson we might draw from our past follies: Most people don’t like being told what to do and how to live by a well-armed and heavy-handed foreign invader, especially when that invader doesn’t speak their language, doesn’t understand their culture, and when its invasion has killed some of their relatives, disrupted their economy, and destroyed existing political institutions. Under these conditions, some of those angry people will organize resistance, and because it’s their country, they are likely to fight both fiercely and effectively, even if they are badly outgunned.

A second lesson: An armed force is a crude instrument that can destroy but not build, and it is no substitute for effective governance. The more the United States relies on it, the more it will create the conditions where extremism can thrive, and where those with a taste and talent for violence can rise to power. Instead of fooling ourselves into thinking the United States can solve this problem with laser-guided munitions or drones, we should admit that the only lasting solution to a problem like IS is the re-creation of effective political authority in the areas it now controls. This task is ultimately one that only local actors can perform; building effective governing institutions is simply not something the United States knows how to do in this context.  

Finally, if our primary concern is U.S. security, Washington ought to direct the billions we are currently spending on bombing IS to making sure its recruits can’t return home to cause trouble here. That’s actually an achievable goal — provided you don’t expect absolutely airtight, 100 percent security, of course — and it would make the American people a lot safer than our latest Middle East misadventure will.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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