The Delusions of American Strategy
America spent the last thirty years attacking illusory foes or defending purported friends in the Middle East, sacrificing blood and treasure, polarizing our polity and forfeiting influence. Our misadventures resemble a game of blindman’s buff, our record that of a perennial cellar-dwelling football team.
Consecutive American administrations turned the ball over several times without moving it downfield. We barge into Middle East conflicts like a drunken bar brawler. What induced this addiction?
Intervention by Analogy
We are sodden with chauvinist demagoguery and questionable analogies: “appeasement,” “terrorism,” “hostages,” “democracy,” “totalitarianism” and “mushroom clouds.” The invaders of Iraq never envisioned a clash of sects, of civilizations. We overthrew a “totalitarian dictator” with “weapons of mass destruction.” We had won hot and cold wars against totalitarian imperialists, so as losing commanders often do, we fought a past war.
The carnage today is religious and dynastic, what the Qur’an terms a fitna. This Qur’anic "discord" is not conducted by global imperialists, but by holy warriors, equipped by local states, dynasties and great powers. This mosaic bears a close resemblance to the Thirty Years’ War and the preceding century of godly disputes—a Christian fitna that lasted not thirty but 130 years.
The Thirty Years’ War and Today’s Fitna
The slaughter of 1618–48 actually began in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his theses to Wittenberg’s church. Protestants found support among rulers coveting unmitigated sovereignty, while backers of the Counter-Reformation included the Vatican, the Hapsburg Dynasty, Catholic monarchs and the decaying Holy Roman Empire.
Today's Islamic fitna commenced in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini installed a Shiite regime challenging equally theocratic Sunni Saudi Arabia for Islamic hegemony. 1979 closed with a Soviet intervention to salvage its "godless" Afghan satellite. Thereupon, along with other Sunni Arab rulers, the Kingdom exported its troublemakers for jihad against Soviets and Persians.
The Thirty Years’ War likewise was a clash of dynasties, not only of denominations. Protestant sects and states challenged Hapsburg Catholic rule. As in that war, along with sects and dynasties, likewise rudimentary nation-states clash in the greater Middle East with armies backed by outside powers. The flashpoints of this fitna were the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria’s “Arab Spring.” The West overthrew Libya’s dictator while, as in Iraq eight years earlier, lacking the faintest idea of what would follow. Qaddafi’s realm descended into tribal warfare. In each of these countries, the Islamic State (aka IS, ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) now thrives. Yet Al Qaeda affiliates wrestle with their Daesh soul mates in Syria and Lebanon, just as Calvinists turned on Lutherans, and the Catholic Bourbon dynasty betrayed the Hapsburgs. The clash of sects, dynasties, states and proxies in the Middle Eastern strife may last longer than Europe’s century of similar combustion.
Gulf oil greased the American alliance, but also funded and globalized jihad. After the 1973 OPEC bonanza, petrodollars spread Salafist mosques, bookstores, think tanks, publishing houses, seminars, colloquia and conferences from North Africa to Central Asia, and even among the alienated offspring of immigrant European Muslims. Soon, the Saudis were funding jihadis in Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Lebanon and Egypt. (An Egyptian jihadi is now Al Qaeda’s leader.)
The attacks of 9/11 offered the Bush administration a pretext to topple Iraq, which had replaced Iran as our Satan. Of course, Al Qaeda, which detested secular Iraq, was the actual culprit. The result was to strengthen Iran, now our newest demon.
The fitna soon spread to Syria, Lebanon and several Gulf states. Last year Saudi bombed a Yemeni Shia militia, an attack denounced by our other key “ally,” Shia Iraq, yet cheered by the American president. Previously another U.S. “ally,” Egypt, bombed IS in Libya and offered to oppose Daesh in Syria.
Daesh/The Islamic State
Daesh has proclaimed a Caliphate. Its establishment obliges “true” Muslims to migrate to a state where an antique version of sharia law severs the hands of thieves, beheads captives and stones adulterers while legalizing slavery and crucifixion. Women are turned into concubines and children as young as ten into soldiers.
Daesh and Al Qaeda, though equally Salafist-jihadi, are very different animals. In 2001, Al Qaeda funded terrorist projects and occasionally offered training and advice, as in 9/11. Its embryonic franchises are now guerrilla bands. IS, unlike Al Qaeda, enlists men and women directly into an army and “state” which focus on “the near enemy.”
Moreover, IS, unlike Al Qaeda, embraces takfir (that is, to pronounce another Muslim an apostate). For takfiris like Daesh, or the Algerian GIA (Armed Islamic Group), Muslims who shave their beards, sell alcohol or drugs, wear Western clothes or vote (even for a Islamist party like the Muslim Brotherhood) are “apostates,” not merely, as for Al Qaeda, sinners. For IS such Muslims are enemies to be enslaved, tortured and/or murdered like other “infidels.”
Graeme Wood has demonstrated in the Atlantic that Daesh was the direct descendant of the takfiri Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the ruthless late commander of Iraq’s terrorists before he perished in a 2006 U.S. bombing. Western media described Zarqawi as head of “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.” But he called his group The Islamic State of Iraq. In a 2004 article, I asked, “Are bin Laden and Zarqawi running competing terrorist organizations?” and ended by noting:
“Historically speaking, the dynamic of revolutionary movements favors the most radical faction--the Jacobins, not the Girondists, the Bolsheviks, not the Mensheviks. If this dynamic prevails in contemporary Sunni terrorism, Abu Musab al Zarqawi represents the future.”
Wood’s account confirmed that dismal surmise.
Zarqawi’s IS heirs regrouped and awaited the departure of U.S. troops demanded by the lamentable liege we installed in now Shia Iraq. Then along with abandoned US arms, funds from Sunni Gulf states enabled ISIS to acquire swathes of Syria and Iraq over which Daesh’s emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “Caliphate.”
As Wood noted,
“the caliphate and the expansion to contiguous lands are paramount. Baghdadi has said as much: [telling] his Saudi agents to ‘deal with the rafida [Shia] first… before the crusaders and their bases.’”
Thus “the near enemy” (e.g. Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Israel) and not Al Qaeda’s “far enemy” (the West) is the main target of the Islamic State. For millenarian IS, living the apocalypse, the Qur’an is observed with the literalism of those who believe the world was created in six days. By 2016, more than thirty-five thousand recruits had joined the caliphate, doubling IS in one year.
Europe’s jihadis burst back into the news last year, primarily thanks to ISIS’s adept use of social media. Over five thousand European post-immigrant youths have trained with the Islamic State. An estimated 10 percent of returnees are prepared to assault their parents’ adopted country.
IS explained its Parisian atrocities as retaliation for France’s air and sea assaults on Daesh in Syria—the most extensive Western intervention there. Despite cries from Washington politicians and pundits that those Paris assaults signify “a global terrorist threat,” IS’s focus remains on “the near enemy.”
The Islamic State recruits men and women, nurses and doctors, technocrats and schoolteachers. It presents IS-labeled backpacks to schoolchildren.
“Brand Caliphate” offers not merely jihad but an Islamic state, a utopia in the form of a dystopia. The IS utopian appeal is as potent today as was Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Fidel’s Cuba and Sandinista Nicaragua.
Our Next Middle East War?
Daesh’s penetration of Egypt was perhaps its most resounding achievement last year. That came shortly after the bloody overthrow of the elected—if incompetent, reckless and divided—Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi. In a well-engineered coup, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Morsi’s chosen Interior Minister, massacred peaceful protesters and jailed and tortured liberals, journalists, and tens of thousands of Brotherhood activists and alleged sympathizers. A former Muslim Brotherhood youth told Al-Monitor his fellow-prisoners’ craving to join Daesh had reached "IS fever."
Such recruits have extended the reach of IS beyond the lawless Sinai desert abutting Israel to the opposite desert, neighboring Libya, presently an IS redoubt. The worried Israeli Defense Forces now allow Sisi to deploy forces in the Sinai, beyond the Camp David Accords’ authorization.
IS has also infiltrated the neighboring Gaza Strip. Last June, Daesh militants declared on video from Aleppo: “We will uproot the state of the Jews and you [Hamas] and Fatah [the PLO]… will be overrun by our creeping multitudes.” Yet Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists the danger comes from the north, Iran, not the south. Should Daesh storm Israel, will American troops again find themselves in a Middle Eastern war?
Numerous Israeli security officials advised us not to invade Iraq in 2003. Henry Kissinger recently stated, "If I had known everything then that I know now, I probably would not have supported [the Iraq invasion].” He explained that what he didn’t know was “the extent of the cleavage between Shia and Sunni.” Prior to the invasion no one was better briefed or more persistently courted than Kissinger. So clearly, America’s preeminent diplomat was not alone in what he “didn’t know.” But our vice president and other neoconservative firebrands insisted: “The road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad.” Now it may lead through Cairo.
After 9/11, we embraced the wrong paradigm. Had it been understood then that the Shia-Sunni “clash of civilizations” structured the theater of action—not totalitarianism—we might have avoided an ongoing fifteen-year debacle. Western intervention has not and will not end this struggle but intensify and prolong it.
There is another option.
That is what Britain pursued since the reign of Elizabeth I, refraining from sending troops into the continental carnage. Even during its own sectarian war and long after, Britain maintained Elizabeth’s policy of “offshore balancing,” pursuing diplomacy and indirection to prevent any power, whether Bourbon France or Hapsburg Spain, Protestant or Catholic, from dominating Europe’s mainland. The Thirty Years’ War ended in exhaustion and the sparks of the Enlightenment. The best outcome for the United States, Israel and the greater Middle East today is an analogous deadlock and a Muslim Peace of Westphalia.
Forbearance permitted Britain to focus on nation building, to build unparalleled scientific, technological, financial, agronomical, manufacturing and military muscle. When the Thirty Years' War expired from mutual exhaustion, the Enlightenment occupied European terrain, yielding progress on all fronts—commercial, scientific, technological, philosophical and political—from unprecedented innovation and prosperity to the American Constitution.
Britain’s offshore balancing orchestrated the so-called “stately quadrille.” Europe’s great powers now regularly shifted partners in a diplomatic dance that averted continental hegemony. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain was the “the workshop of the world” and had long “ruled the seas.”
Conversely, American policymakers incite “indispensable” interventions. We allied with Saddam against Iran. After 9/11, we refused to declassify evidence of Saudi involvement and instead invaded Iraq. We declared Assad must go, and then we sought (inevitably fecklessly) to forge an unholy phantom alliance of Sunni governments against Assad’s main enemy, Sunni-Salafist Daesh. While Sunni princes finance IS by night, we quixotically imagine enlisting these monarchies as allies by day, as if Shia Iran were not the power most clearly interested in opposing Daesh. Our one constant is our romance with oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which opposed the “totalitarians” in Moscow and Tehran. So we inadvertently took sides in a sectarian war.
This confusion and ineptitude has two sources: vested interests and faulty paradigms.
9/11 begat a counterinsurgency Octopus, with a squishy head and several lucrative arms. These include more than three thousand private companies and federal agencies in over ten thousand locations, with a million employees specializing, often redundantly, in “homeland security” and “counterinsurgency.” The Octopus has blotched the Beltway with “complexes” that enjoy the square footage of three Pentagon Cities. Its cephalopod tentacles coil around cable news, whose ratings soar with each beheaded hostage and maimed soldier.
The Octopus gave us the squishy notion of a “Global War on Terrorism” without being able to distinguish enemies from allies, or to define our national interests in that global war. Convoying the Octopus is a school of droning pundits and warrior-politicians with high-flying rhetoric but dismal records on the ground.
If that weren't sufficiently distracting, we plunged into a dispute with Russia over Ukraine—a country politically, ethnically and religiously split for a millennium. Instead of preserving Ukraine as a bridge between Russia and the West, the democracy-everywhere-now chorus (another arm of the Octopus) helped to overthrow the latest of Ukraine’s corrupt oligarchical rulers (customarily thrown into prison after, or even before, completing their terms), converting a paltry passive geopolitical backwater into a neo–Cold War battlefield.
Our mischief in Ukraine followed a steady enlargement of NATO (whose purpose was to contain the Soviet threat), appending the western neighbors of a prostrate Russia, notwithstanding U.S. assurances to the contrary. Vladimir Putin could thus persuade his subjects they were being surrounded, exploit latent nationalism and thereby split his democratic opposition, buttress his decrepit and demoralized army, and move towards an alliance with a rising, ambitious China, boasting a world-class military and five times Russia's gross domestic product. Wishing to “pivot to Asia,” we created another distraction to accompany our Middle East obsession.
The Octopus disseminated a distorted view of the Middle East conflict. We have been trained to perceive countries seeking to democratize or “radical” opposing “moderate” states. A veteran observer, Anthony H. Cordesman, has stated on the front page of the New York Times that America had long restricted selling
“advanced weapons… to Arab nations… to ensure that Israel keeps a military advantage….
But because Israel and the Arab states are now in a de facto alliance against Iran, the Obama administration [allows] the sale of advanced weapons in the Persian Gulf, with few public objections from Israel.
…‘Israel’s strategic calculation is a simple one,’ said Anthony H. Cordesman… The gulf countries ‘do not represent a meaningful threat’ to Israel… ‘They do represent a meaningful counterbalance to Iran.’”
But the main threat to Israel comes not directly from “countries” but from “non-state actors” like Hamas, Al Qaeda and especially Daesh. Religious revivalism more than national ambitions animate this struggle.
We continue to identify “evildoers” by the utterances of monarchs and supreme leaders instead of by interests and actions. That has produced, not a “stately quadrille,” but a cacophonous jitterbug into which we insist on cutting in, breeding more fanatical enemies.
We have converted the world’s most powerful nation into a beguiled, bloodied and broke Don Quixote. If Americans are as deluded as he, it is not because they overdosed on obsolete tales of chivalry. Instead, they have misread the region through the outdated astigmatic spectacles of a sensationalist media.
In his seminal Public Opinion (1922), Walter Lippmann framed the term “system of stereotypes.” Because the modern world had become “too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance,” the public was snagged in a “pseudo-environment” based on "the news." Thus policymakers and policy takers, passive couch potatoes and pigheaded pundits, were now condemned to experience their epoch by proxy, ensnared in “systems of stereotypes” or what post-structuralists dub “paradigms.” Such spurious world pictures govern policy today far more than in Lippmann’s day.
Even delusions require a fact or two, and Iraq offered evidence that Saddam’s regime was totalitarian and expansionist. Yet paradigms serve only when treated as hypotheses, then tested and revised. That is the way of science, as opposed to conjecture.
Looking in Another Direction
Terrorism never presented an existential threat to any state, still less one as powerful and wealthy as America. The existential threat we face resides elsewhere. While the Middle East obsessed us, economic and geopolitical action shifted to the Pacific.
There is an alarming gap between the American view of China and that of its neighbors. The former sees “business opportunities,” the latter are terrified by China's military build-up and brazen territorial claims. The New York Times editorial board, not known for hawkish opinions, notes:
“China is investing in new systems, including submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles, that could be used to further intimidate neighbors or deny the United States access to Asian waters to defend its allies.”
The respected Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has compared Western inattention to China’s oceanic claims to the West’s failure to resist Hitler’s demands for Czech lands. Japan's Prime Minister alarmed the 2014 Davos meeting by observing that Germany and Britain went to World War One notwithstanding their close economic ties—such as those today between China and Japan (and America). Last year, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked observers by authoring, with visiting President Obama, an accusation against Beijing’s provocations in the South China Sea. Modi proposed a security compact among the United States, India, Japan and Australia.
Last November, China announced its first overseas outpost and a sweeping plan to make its military a force to project power. The outpost, in the East African nation of Djibouti on the Red Sea, across from Yemen, contradicted Beijing’s policy banning overseas bases. The sole U.S. military base in Africa is also located in Djibouti, employed as a staging ground for counterinsurgency operations. Some military analysts foresee a China-U.S. conflict in the region.
Notwithstanding the dangers posed by China at sea, Beijing’s real purpose may be to draw U.S. resources to the Pacific, while China focuses on the Eurasian landmass. Last year, President Xi Jinping announced construction of a road-rail-pipeline corridor to the port of Gwadar, Pakistan. Many China watchers consider this new “Silk Road” as but a single stride in a “long march” across Eurasia.
Alfred McCoy, the distinguished University of Wisconsin historian, contends that high-speed, high-volume railroads, capable of transporting not only commodities but soldiers and tanks, are part of Beijing’s plan to convert Eurasia into an empire “stretching 6,500 miles from Shanghai to Madrid.” McCoy (anything but a warmonger) contends Beijing would thus shift the locus of geopolitical power from the maritime periphery, dominated first by the British and then the American navy. The prospect of such a geopolitical revolution suggests we need to broker a deal to persuade Ukraine-obsessed Europeans to wake up. If Europe is distracted and Russia is allied with China, the latter will plow through Eurasia like a power running back.
As for “business opportunities,” China is promoting a mercantile import substitution policy in key industries such as software and semiconductors while subsidizing state-managed Chinese competitors. The policy discourages domestic companies from purchasing U.S. hardware, restricts American websites and apps, and engages in cyber-theft of codes, intellectual property and technology. Chinese hackers have stolen technology from private companies, four million U.S. government workers and more than twenty million Americans. Cyber attacks could cripple power stations, banking systems, cellphone networks and hospitals. In September, President Barack Obama warned of a cyberwar with China unless the latter curtails its activities.
China also aims to supplant the same international economic institutions that helped make Asia prosperous, the IMF and the World Bank. It has created an "Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank" and a "New Development Bank," neither observing the environmental, labor and procurement standards of traditional development banks. Furthermore, China is dangling financial and trade incentives to resurrect the old Silk Road trading route that once linked China and the Mediterranean. That could mean Pakistan and its neighbors will become Chinese vassals in the fallout of our Afghan war
Beijing, of course, is not without serious economic and social problems. But like other expansionist powers, it seeks to divert domestic dissatisfaction into external chauvinism. China watchers told us that China’s assertive new leader, Xi Jinping, would reduce domestic inequities and challenge Party corruption. However, his “anticorruption” campaign focuses chiefly on purging his rivals. Xi has emerged, Evan Osnos writes, “as the most authoritarian leader since Chairman Mao.” Xi is served by advisers (allegedly as corrupt as his opponents) who have tightened access to Western officials, and whose trademark is hostility to the United States. During Obama's visit last fall, Chinese state-controlled media banged out a drumbeat of anti-American conspiracy theories. All the while, its spies were reading State Department emails.
A “princeling,” Xi has vowed to “hold high the banner of Mao Zedong Thought forever.” Xi was both an activist in and a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where he learned to eschew its aberrations.
Both World Wars offer disturbing analogies. Before World War I, a rising Imperial Germany built a navy to rival Britain's. Before World War II, an one-party, totalitarian state portrayed itself as a victim of history, modernized its economy, stirred up nationalist grievances, covertly built an offensive military, made territorial claims against its neighbors and enforced them through blitzkrieg.
The Chinese leadership is far more nuanced and patient in seeking “lebensraum” than Nazi Germany, and today's world is more willing to accommodate a rising China than the Kaiser's Germany. Beijing’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back conduct suggests that its conjectured “protracted war” (Mao’s phrase) will, unlike that we have been examining, be subtle and deceptive if it is actualized. Michael Pillsbury recently documented that China sees its march to hegemony as a “marathon.” Can we afford to engage in two conflicts that promise to last for decades?
What Is to Be Done?
By the end of 2015, we had spent over $3 billion fighting Daesh, at the current rate of $9 million per day. Clearly we must shepherd our resources. Those will be precarious unless we build a dynamic twenty-first-century economy with a modern infrastructure, an efficient government and a thriving middle class instead of a privileged oligarchy and an army of indentured mercenaries. Equally, we need a coherent long-term strategy to stop being persistently polarized and despoiled of our blood and treasure.
Videos of burnings and beheadings are asymmetric weapons for recruitment and provocation. An American media “Reformation” would provide, on bandwidth belonging to the public, comprehensive and creative reporting instead of chorusing our age’s “yellow journalism.” Our politicians and pundits might refrain from calling this regional conflict a “threat to our freedom,” (noting that Daesh focuses on the “near enemy”) and discourage reflexive Islamophobia by elucidating the differences between Islam, Islamism and violent jihad. This violates our current pieties, but if we are to cope with our current challenges we must abandon them. The 1916 election campaign, as appalling as much of it is, might move us in that direction.
We ought modestly to concede that Islamic jihadis are not the first holy warriors, by reviewing the book of Joshua, the Crusades, the Catholic conquest of Latin America or the sectarian atrocities of Northern Ireland. We need the assistance of Muslims to detect IS wolf packs in Europe and the United States.
Instead, the Octopus has discredited agencies charged with protecting us. Our surveillance should focus on returning Western jihadis and current wannabees, instead of terrifying citizens into fancying they live under “Big Brother.”
Meanwhile, those who canonize the Founding Fathers might study those men of science and enlightenment. Our pious ignore the last words to his country of our preeminent founding father, who in his Farewell Address warned that
“…attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other….”
What would he and his republican comrades make of our oily attachment to Gulf autocrats?
American interests, however, will be not be served by isolationism. There is another way to proceed, suggested by the British policy we’ve reviewed. Instead of “spreading democracy,” even as we become a plutocracy, pursue "offshore balancing." Contain both Iran’s terrorist proxies and the Gulf’s, sometimes by playing one off against the other. For instance, renewing diplomatic relations with Iran would bolster American leverage as a balancer. Sanctions brought Iran to the bargaining table. Instead of arming despots, we should be sanctioning them. Offshore aircraft and missile carriers could supplement smart diplomacy.
Offshore balancing also could discourage Chinese adventurism, reassure Pacific allies, provide a trip wire, and forestall a Japanese overreaction. We must help Europe and Russia reach a détente, instead of encouraging their animosity. If China does intend to dominate the Eurasian landmass, Euro-Russian cooperation could hinder that.
In chapter 19, Don Quixote and his pragmatic squire descry, down a distant road below them, huge clusters approaching one another. The Don, always devising acts of chivalry from a bygone age, imagines that the nebulae are Christian and Muslim armies. Sancho Panza realizes that actually two herds of sheep are passing one another. The Man of La Mancha abjures such realism and slaughters several “Muslim” sheep before their shepherds knock his teeth out. The unbowed warrior insists that a sorcerer turned the armies to sheep to thwart his knightly errand.
Cervantes was not only mocking dated, if popular, chivalric romances, but also the scholastics who insisted, despite the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, that their obsolete view of the world remained intact. Our own mad knights similarly defend their ruinous missions and dream of new jousts against global "evildoers." Quixote damaged only himself, but today’s paladins jeopardize their country.
Will they chase a paradigm over a geopolitical cliff? Winston Churchill allegedly once said “Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else." Those who obsessively invoke Churchill have tried everything else. It is for our current and/or next president to do the right thing.
Worried about global jihadis and self-professed caliphates? Sanction entities that fund jihadis, pursue an international accord against ransoming hostage takers and prepare a counterterrorist unit (as Vice President Biden urged regarding Afghanistan in 2009) that could summon precise air strikes, but only against global terrorist training camps. Produce natural gas, wind, sun and even nuclear power. Rebuild our nation’s infrastructure. Pivot to Asia. Keep Moscow out Beijing’s grasp. Stay strong, but be wise.
Robert S. Leiken’s Europe’s Angry Muslims (Oxford University Press) is now appearing in paperback in a second revised edition.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Marines