Why are Americans surprised when allies don’t always do what we tell them to do?
By John Haas Best Defense guest columnist It was, by any standard, a humiliating moment for the United States of America. Intent on getting an agreement with a Middle Eastern nation with which it had a long history and upon which it had lavished much aid and attention, an agreement that should have been a ...
By John Haas
By John Haas
Best Defense guest columnist
It was, by any standard, a humiliating moment for the United States of America. Intent on getting an agreement with a Middle Eastern nation with which it had a long history and upon which it had lavished much aid and attention, an agreement that should have been a cakewalk, the United States was rebuffed. Despite the fact that the negotiations in question were taking place at a critical time even by Middle Eastern standards, despite the United States’ evident urgency in sealing the deal, despite the fact that agreeing to the deal would redound to this Middle Eastern nation’s long-term security, and despite the fact that a public rejection would inevitably complicate relations with the United States in the future, America found itself on the receiving end of a mortifying repudiation.
That narrative probably strikes most readers as describing the Obama administration’s failure to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would allow a continuing American troop presence in Iraq past Dec. 2011. Obama’s conservative critics have been making this charge for years, as one would expect, but they’ve recently been joined by Michael Gordon and retired General Bernard Trainor and even former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
But the narrative applies equally well to George W. Bush’s 2008 negotiations of the agreement the Obama administration was forced to honor in 2011. It applies to serial failures by U.S. administrations to restrain Israeli settlements in the West Bank over the years.
And it applies to the now almost forgotten, but very instructive, failure of the Bush administration in Jan. 2003 to secure an agreement with our NATO partner Turkey that would allow the United States to use that nation as a launching platform for the invasion of Iraq, a failure that threw our planning of Operation Iraqi Freedom into disarray.
Bush’s 2003 failure to secure Turkey’s cooperation mirrors his subsequent failure to extract an adequate SOFA from Iraq, and the Obama administration’s similar failure three years later, in one very important respect. In all three cases, the leadership the United States was negotiating with was amenable to, even desirous of, the agreements in question, but progress was stymied by the internal dynamics of these nations. Put more colorfully, agreement was shipwrecked on the reefs of democracy.
America does quite well securing agreements in nations — such as, for example, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — where it only has to negotiate with a handful of elites.
But Turkey is not such a nation. While its elites wanted the agreement, by 2002 Turkey, as Doug Penhallegon writes, had "fully evolved as a representative democracy." And that was the most decisive factor in the failed negotiations of 2003, since the "Turkish people were almost unanimously opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq."
Similarly in Iraq, both in 2008 and 2011. Obama’s critics have attributed his failure to retain US troops in Iraq in 2011 to his diffidence about the Iraq War and, in some cases, his general lack of confidence in America as a force for good in the world. But as Yochi Dreazen‘s excellent, on-the-ground reporting from Baghdad showed, the dynamics were in fact just what they had been in Turkey: Nervous elites eager to cooperate with the United States, but hemmed in by the weight of a public opinion now newly efficacious (thanks to U.S. nation-building efforts), and far from united behind what they saw as a continuation of the much-resented American ihtilal, or occupation.
But aren’t there examples of democracies gladly submitting to U.S. occupation for decades? What about West Germany, Japan, and South Korea, to name a few? Fair enough as far as those examples go, but it should be noted that neither West Germany, Japan, nor South Korea are in the Middle East. Attitudes toward the United States differ significantly, depending on the region, and nation, you are operating in. Most importantly, as political scientist David M. Edelstein has argued in his brilliant comparative study of twenty-six cases, occupations are most likely to be welcomed when the occupier and the occupied face a significant third-party threat, as the US, West Germany, Japan, and South Korea did during the Cold War.
No such similar dynamic obtained with regard to Iraq in 2008 or 2011 — though arguably things have changed with the rise of the Islamic State. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Iraq has as a consequence of that development modified its attitude toward a Western military presence.
The lessons here should be obvious. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama nor any future president has the unlimited power to compel other nations to submit to America’s will. That, as Clausewitz has taught us, is what war is for. Short of that, you negotiate, but negotiations sometimes fail. It’s as simple as that.
What isn’t simple is facing up to the causes of that failure. "Why are we so unpopular in the region?" is not a question many Americans wish to hear the answer to. But it’s one that bears reflecting upon.
John H. Haas, associate professor of history at Bethel College, Indiana, is spending the semester writing about the frustrations of war, thanks to the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
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