The Second Time as Farce: the Obama Administration’s Replay of Iraq | By Nathan Pinkoski

For the past two years, all the world has wondered what the United States will do about Syria. It is of course not a novel feature of international relations that the world wonders in what way the major superpower will intervene in those conflicts that the course of human events occasionally throws forth. But what is novel here is that in addition to the world spending two years wondering what the U.S. shall do, the administration of the U.S. has also been spending two years wondering what to do. The past few weeks have thrust this wondering and this prolonged hand-wringing over what options are available into the public eye, prompting severe criticisms of how Obama has failed to take leadership over the Syrian crisis. Hamlet is back on the Potomac.

To these critics the administration has a firm retort: we learned from Iraq! We promised not to repeat disastrous wars in the Middle East, and we shall uphold that promise! There will be no more foreign policy blunders, no decline of America’s prestige on account of military adventurism, and no strategic commitments to wars with uncertain and unrealistic objectives. The great irony is that, for all the bluster about having learned from Iraq, the Obama administration is about to commit to a military operation. While it is not about to become an American ground war, it bears the signs of the sort of military adventurism and foreign policy blundering that made Iraq such a disaster to American prestige.

There were many lessons to learn from the invasion of Iraq. As the public image of the invasion went from “military operation” to “military adventure” all the way to “military and political fiasco”, the Bush administration was buried by one charge of incompetence after another. Media discussions tended to revolve around the calibre of intelligence used to justify the claim that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling and rebuilding his weapons of mass destruction. But to serious students of the war, the media’s focus on intelligence was a sideshow to the real problems of an unclear war plan that did not consider the full strategic ramifications of action.

Whatever one may think of their overall soundness, the Bush administration had a number of arguments for the invasion of Iraq, and by late 2002 it was clear that the Bush administration was set for a showdown with Saddam Hussein. In that light the administration, led principally by Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, debated extensively the possible military strategies for removing Saddam Hussein. Concerns about Saddam using chemical weapons on coalition forces or deploying his crack troops around central Iraq to create a “Fortress Baghdad” of nightmarish urban combat were carefully addressed. The plan that the military eventually deployed saw special forces seizing presumed chemical weapons stockpiles around the country in the first hours of the invasion, and saw divisions racing up to Baghdad to launch “thunder runs” of armoured columns that dashed down the freeways of Baghdad to smash apart Iraqi units before they had time to fortify.

All this was what the war plan called Phases I-III of the invasion of Iraq. But while there was much to admire, when one turned to Phase IV, the so-called “post-conflict phase,” the details were missing entirely and not thought through. For example, one plan suggested that the military could use the major communications stations to deliver orders to the Iraqi police—but several weeks before the invasion, a lower level analyst pointed out that these major communications stations were all targeted to be destroyed by coalition forces.

What the Bush administration discovered over 2003 was that having a clear and comprehensive military strategy was not the same as having a clear and comprehensive political strategy. Basic questions with respect to how to rebuild Iraq—what form of constitution, how to manage the Iraqi army and police, what to do about the Baathists in government, and what kind of transitional government– were all questions that analysts could have studied in late 2002 with a few fact books, some high-level committees, and some healthy debates. The administration knew, moreover, that any military operation that had as its goal the removal of Saddam Hussein would raise a host of political questions that could only be answered by a meticulous conversation in what the political strategy was for the building future of Iraq. But this was not discussed, partly because Rumsfeld was more interested in re-imagining American military strategy for the 21st century than considering questions of nation-building. One maxim of the Bush administration, stemming from criticisms of the foreign policy of the 1990s, was: “the U.S. military does not engage in nation-building.” But this maxim distorted the whole operation. One of the biggest failures was invading with a military force that while impressive in its celerity in knocking out Saddam, was too small to “nation-build” after Saddam fell. The question of what a U.S. military occupation of Iraq looked like was buried behind talk about shrinking the size of American ground forces in light of recent technological advances that could predict when and where the enemy would be. Thus the political strategy for the discussing the future of Iraq was subsumed into a military strategy for dislodging Saddam Hussein and distorted by an asserted maxim.

Yet this substitution of strategic military questions for strategic political questions is exactly what we now see happening over Syria. An entire industry of internet charts has sprung up over what units are available to strike Syria and what targets they will hit. The U.S. Congress presently formulates a number of points with respect to these concerns. But a conversation over how to hurt Assad does not engage with the dire need to develop the political strategy over the future of Syria that should determine the military strategy.

Given the time-period at stake (two years) in which the administration could have considered what would be an appropriate response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons as part of a broader political strategy for Syria, the prolongation of the President’s decision over the Syrian question has only showed that the administration’s view of the situation was clouded by a single maxim: “do not get involved in a domestically unpopular war in the Middle East.” But these considerations, much like Rumsfeld’s prejudice against nation-building, only distort the purpose governing the impending military involvement in Syria, since the operation could not but have some effect on the future of Syria.

Nevertheless, the administration seems to be trying to do what it can to avoid having any effect, shrinking the size of the operation to the point where one has to infer its purpose. It is not an attempt to remove directly Assad from power, having ruled out any ground involvement. It does not seem to be a serious attempt to help the rebels to victory as in Libya: in Libya, it took six months of protracted air strikes and logistical support to bring down a much weaker regime, and here, the strikes seem restricted to a 30-day or possibly 60-day period. There are a number of hopeful comparisons to NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign in Kosovo that brought the Serbs to accept peace agreements, but the situation then was dramatically different. But this is all speculation: the fact of the matter is that the administration does not even make clear if that is its intention. If the administration is really betting that they can repeat Kosovo and draw Assad into some kind of peace talks ushering in his removal from power, then they are just as naively optimistic as those who thought that Saddam’s fall in 2003 would see a healthy democratic replacement spring up.

The American intentions in Syria are now best described in terms of smoke and mirrors. This has its consequences amongst the usual American allies, in that there is a great deal of deliberation and confusion over what the strikes would accomplish. Part of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure to win support in Parliament rested upon the confusion over what kind of involvement was under discussion. So the Obama administration, despite its ostensible commitment to international cooperation as a prerequisite for any military operation, saw its coalition evaporate down to only one significant ally, France. It must have been a great embarrassment for an administration that had caricatured Bush’s Iraq expedition as “unilateralist” to find themselves acting in a much more unilateral way than Bush had ever attempted.

In comparison to Obama, it is remarkable how much effort Bush expended in order to build his coalition, and how despite the vocal opposition of a small number of countries and a horde of public intellectuals, he succeeded in producing a coalition of 39 states participating militarily, and many more that endorsed it politically. But this was because the Bush administration was at least clear about the first half of its objectives: the removal of Saddam Hussein. Countries knew to what they were committing, because the Bush administration could offer a definitive question: will you join us in removing the government of Saddam Hussein from Iraq?

Successful leadership in foreign policy is about presenting that kind of clarity of strategic intention. The successes of the Iraq coalition’s pre-operational strategy were because of that, and its post-operational failures were because of the lack of that. Yet the present administration cannot even claim to have a set out a successful pre-operational strategy. Its decision to push for strikes at the 11th hour, after a period of agonizing, after the allies drifted away, and in the absence of any effort on behalf of the President to outline the general strategy for the future of Syria shows that the ostensibly bright students of the administration still have a lot to learn from Iraq, and it should make one even more pessimistic about the post-operational situation than a careful few were in March 2003.

The probable outcome is that Assad, having spent the past few weeks preparing for the attacks, will protect his most valuable equipment, endure the next two months of bombardment, then continue on as before, while Russia and Iran quietly step up their support to supplement any deficiencies in Assad’s military. The civil war will rage on, the extremists in the Syrian rebels will grow stronger, and Assad will appear as a dictator who can defy and endure American raids, continuing to feed into discussions about the decline of American prestige. If Iraq made the United States look incompetent, Syria will just make them look ridiculous.

Photograph courtesy of Trevor McGoldrick on Flickr

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  • Charlie Bing

    Wow. Breathless stuff! But in his rant at Obama, Mr Pinkowski puts Bush on a undeserved pedestal, so he clearly wears his heart on his sleeve. How else can one explain the fact that he prefaces much of his argument by saying that “Whatever one may think of their overall soundness, the Bush administration had a number of arguments for the invasion of Iraq…”?

    Really? Such weasel words!

    I suspect that readers of The Wanderer would be better served by looking further afield for some other perspectives. Some of George Monbiot’s work from 2003, perhaps? Or even John Le Carré’s spectacular polemic “The United States of America Has Gone Mad” from January 2003.

    I am no fan of current US foreign policy, nor of current geopolitics, for that matter, but I am also no fan of a writer who, in his rush to tear down the current president, cannot resist building up his predecessor.

    • Nathan Pinkoski

      Despite efforts to diagnose me within a preconceived pro-Bush/anti-Obama paradigm, you would do well do consider that the entire article is predicated upon reading Iraq as a gross failure in strategic planning. That’s hardly putting the Bush administration on a pedestal. What it is doing is discomforting those who want to claim that Obama’s administration learned from Iraq and other foreign policy errors of the Bush administration.

      If readers of The Wanderer want other perspectives, they would do well to steer away from environmentalists and literary figures offering their two-cents on U.S. foreign policy, and try reading some people who actually study the field.

      For the Iraq War: “Fiasco” and “The Gamble,” by Thomas Ricks, and “Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq,” by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, would be excellent places to start.

  • John Smith

    Mr.Pinkoski has a very good point