Obama rolls the dice in Iraq, as we hope for victory thru folly

Summary: The most fascinating aspect of our new round of wars in the Middle East is their endorsement by people who were wrong about the first round, and condemnation by those who were correct. Here’s a keen analysis by Michael Brenner about the folly of our new adventure in Iraq. Our strategy is little but a FAILure to learn. It will not end well for us. But we cannot say that we were not warned.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Obama dice

Obama rolls the dice in Iraq

By Michael Brenner
Reposted with his generous permission.

Introduction

Admittedly, it is difficult to visualize Barack Obama shooting craps in his impeccable $1,000 custom tailored suit. His debonair figure is better suited to an ultra chic Bavarian resort with hints of Casino Royale – although Angelo Merkel is an improbable femme fatale. Moreover, gambling is alien to an instinctively cautious man who naturally defers to established wisdom and established personages. Obama studiously avoids decisive action that leaves him vulnerable and whose unpredictable results are not susceptible to finesse. That explains the “kind of” in the title of this commentary.

Our newest war

Obama’s decision to launch a major new training cum advising project in Iraq to be augmented by up to 1,000 more American troops is revealing of how his administration’s thinking about Iraq/ISIL/Syria is oriented. Clearly, there remains no coherent strategy; clearly, the incongruities and contradictions among of the various bits and pieces of policy also remain unresolved. There are a few valuable insights to be garnered from this latest move, nonetheless.

Washington still is wedded to the idea that it can push back ISIL in Iraq without the cooperation of the Shi’ite militias. They receive no mention in the new-old plan. All the stress is placed on expanded recruiting and training for the Iraqi National Army and the arming of those Sunni tribal militias ready to fight ISIL. There are hints that Washington is considering by-passing the Iraqi government to arm the tribes directly although it publicly pledges not to. In addition, it intends to build a new base for operations in Anbar province despite the current low utilization rate for existing bases. Due emphasis is placed on airpower but no explanation is given for the minimal use of airstrikes to date.

By implication, Obama et al see the objective of containing Iranian influence in Iraq as on a par with the aim of stymying ISIL. This interlocks with its fostering of the Saudi-Israeli conception of the Middle East’s big strategic picture and corresponds with blanket support for the bombing of the Houthis in Yemen. In other words, the increase in influence of any Shi’ite group anywhere in the region is to be resisted. Whether Washington shares this view wholly, or is caught in the mind warp of giving precedence to placating Riyadh and Jerusalem on expedient grounds (themselves not clear), makes little practical difference since either interpretation leads to the same policy outcomes.

Fire failure

Much of Washington’s foreign policy Establishment never has abandoned the aspiration to “win” in Iraq. In today’s context, that means exercising more influence in Baghdad than does Iran, keeping in power a US-friendly leadership, and maintaining a network of bases manned by between 10,000 – 20,000 American troops supplemented by highly placed advisers in the INA and Defense Ministry.

This was the picture envisaged back in 2008 when the SOFA (Status Of Forces Agreement) was being negotiated with al-Maliki. Its rejection caught us by surprise as al-Maliki used the ploy of asking a recalcitrant parliament for permission to exempt American personnel from Iraqi law while knowing full well that they would reject it. Obama backed fully the goal of a strong residual American presence in Iraq, and withdrew US forces at the end of 2011 only because he legally had no choice.

Locating the new base in Anbar province between insurgent held Ramadi and Falluja conforms to this scheme. For that location makes sense only if the American troops there foresaw some kind of combat role. Training, in theory, could occur anywhere in the country. The new advisers will be stationed at Taqaddum, an Iraqi base near the city of Habbaniya. It will supplement the American teams operating at another nearby Anbar location, al-Asad.  This large air base already is in a vulnerable position being surrounded by ISIL controlled territory.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now has made explicit what was only implied in the original announcement. Dempsey delineated a strategy that entails a string of what he called “lily pads” — American military bases around the country designed to fragment and weaken ISIL forces. “You could see one in the corridor from Baghdad to Tikrit to Kirkuk to Mosul.” General Dempsey acknowledged that such sites would require many more troops than those already authorized.

This deployment mode increases the already high likelihood that the American forces soon will be shooting and being shot at. The most compelling argument for this shift to combat activities is the imperative to defend American lives. Let us recall that this was the original justification for the initial air strikes to protect American citizens threatened by ISIL near Kirkuk last summer – and the intense reaction to the beheading of James Foley.

Operation Iraqi Freedom

Such an arrangement, if viable in terms of Iraqi politics, means an open-ended American presence in Iraq engaged in an open-ended counter insurgency against ISIL. The Pentagon speaks of putting off a campaign to recapture Mosul until 2016; Raqqah in 2017? General Dempsey  gave the game away in admitting that if the “game changers” don’t come from the Iraqi government, Washington will “have to look for other avenues….and other partners.” Shi’ite militias seem to be ruled out. The only other available partner to the US Army is the US Marine Corps. Back to the future.

A number of things could derail this plan: the continued ineptitude of the INA; pressure on Prime Minister al-Abadi from those associated with and in political alliance with the Shi’ite militias and their Iranian backers; pressure from Tehran; a coup by shi’ite hard-liners. The latter will not accept a return to American domination of Mesopotamia lying down.

Other fronts in our Long War

This path parallels the one Obama has taken in Afghanistan almost exactly. There, all American combat troops were supposed to be gone by the end of 2014 (there was a formal ceremony on the White House lawn in December marking that phantom milestone). But: that date has been pushed back indefinitely, the mission has been redefined to include combat support and most recently Special Forces combat missions, goals are obscure, no measures of success have been stipulated, and “progress” is non-existent.

As to Syria, Obama’s reflections have yet to yield a strategy that links it to Iraq. It should be pretty obvious that a prominent variable in the long war against ISIL in Iraq is its strength next door in Syria. That does not appear obvious to the White House’s deep thinkers.  Within Syria, the administration looks to being slowly buying into that other Saudi-Israeli fictional narrative, i.e. that al-Nusra/Army of Conquest is a different sort of beast from ISIL. That means giving a silent benediction to the former’s lending its direct and indirect support and welcoming the ultimate collapse of the Assad regime.

The repercussions from that across the region do not seem to have gotten a hard look – at least, there is no sign as to how Obama would handle that eventuality as registered in Iraq and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the slow-motion training of “moderate” Syrian opposition forces in Jordan proceeds at a snail’s pace – a mute recognition that Syria’s post-Assad future will feature a power struggle between ISIL and al-Nusra.

As for Turkey, post- election, the big open question insofar as American interests are concerned is what the election results mean for Turkey’s role vis a vis ISIL and “The Army of Conquest” – aka al-Nusra & Assoc. Perusal of “expert” commentaries reveals a vague consensus that Erdogan’s dreams are now just vain fantasies.

Can we accept that facile conclusion, though? Erdogan personally seems to have invested so much of himself in the project to Ottomanize Syria, and seems to be so seriously unbalanced, that he likely will do all within his still considerable power to achieve his ambition. His self-aggrandizing plans abroad, indeed, may take on greater urgency in light of his domestic plans foundering. And doesn’t the high degree of control that he has established over Turkey’s security agencies and bureaucracies leave him in a position to prolong support for the Islamists he’s been backing regardless of political changes in Ankara (short of a second election producing an opposition government).

As to al-Nusra specifically, moreover, he is in a partnership with Saudi Arabia and the Gulfies – a partnership that has received some sort of approval from Obama. So he has substantial support and political coverage on that front and little disincentive to draw back. As to ISIL, since we know so little about the extent and modalities of Turkey’s connivance with them, it is much harder to assess the implications of the election. Still, circumstantial logic suggests caution before judging that much will change.

Dead End

Conclusions

The Obama White House has put us on a path to nowhere in a maze with no outlet.  The timing and sequence of its various disconnected moves matter little.

A closing note about our confidence in brute force

Among the many flaws in the prevailing American philosophy about exercising power is the excessive confidence that it places in kinetic action – i.e. military force. That is most evident in the several fronts of the GWOT where our approach invariably has been futile or counter-productive. Most have involved the use of force in one form or other to achieve regime change: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria and implicitly Iran.

The stated motive all these years has been to destroy al-Qaeda and to prevent the emergence of hospitable hosts for similar terrorist organizations. We have failed on all counts except for chasing classic al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.

Let’s consider an analogous case. China experiences a 9/11 type incident by a group of Uighurs based in Peru who have been welcomed by the Shining Path Group. Then try to imagine hundreds of thousands of PLA troops spending the next fifteen years rampaging around the Andes in hot pursuit, invading Chavez’s Venezuela, bombing groups in Bolivia and Equator and spending a couple of trillion in the process. Imagine an elite team of Chinese Dragons 6 crisscrossing Latin America cutting throats – and adopting as their signature weapon a Tang Dynasty crossbow. Imagine that in the 15th year of their campaign, the PLA launches a plan to construct a chain of lily-pad bases along the spine of the Andes from Lake Titicaca to Quito – Operation Eternal Llama – so as to ensure “full spectrum dominance” of the Alto Plano.

Ridiculous? Well, let’s look in the mirror. Instead, the Chinese in all likelihood would use the two trillion to continue gobbling up the mineral, agricultural and hydrocarbon resources of the continent – along with those of Africa and Central Asia as it now is doing. It would rely on police measures to deal with the Uighur terrorists.

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About the author

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. See his bio here. See his articles at the Huffington Post, and some of his books and monographs…

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9 thoughts on “Obama rolls the dice in Iraq, as we hope for victory thru folly

  1. Michael Brenner -chickenhawk. Maybe you should join the military and fight in this war you desire so much. The American people have had enough of it as well as those of us (USMC here) who fought and bled in it.
    Stupid comments about what type of suits Obama may or may not wear betray your obvious bias and motivations.

    1. Darwin,

      “Maybe you should join the military and fight in this war you desire so much.”

      It would help if you would reply to a quote, so we know what you’re talking about. Your comment reads like a gross misread of Brenner’s post. He concludes with “The Obama White House has put us on a path to nowhere in a maze with no outlet.” It’s not an endorsement of “this war.”

  2. Proponents of 4G warfare will recognize this tactic. The idea is not to win. For winning would mean withdrawal once victory was achieved. The idea is to extend the conflict so that the United States remains the indispensable nation. The lily pads suit this strategy very well: deploy 1/2 to one full battalion of American infantry embedded with one regiment/brigade of indigenous military, and you have a “strong point” which is nearly unassailable by lightly-armed ISIL, who would have to expose themselves -like Kobane in Syria- to US air strikes. This is just a variance of what French, British, and Spanish empires employed during their respective colonial eras.

    The designers and promoters of the Project for the New American Century had this tactic very much in mind when they pushed for the conquest and occupation of Iraq, Syria, and Iran.( By the way, the French and Americans both employed this strategy in Vietnam. The Americans had such a preponderance of air power, whereas the French did not. The siege of Khe Sanh -instead of becoming Dien Bien Phu- was broken and the North Vietnamese lost 25,00 men (5x what the Marines and Special Forces lost). But, since LBJ did not have the stomach for war to begin with, the opportunity to move the 101st Airborne and elements of the 3rd Marine divisions into Laos -thereby cutting off supply to all NVA in South Vietnam- was not pursued.) Just being there is what the “chicken hawk” Zionist Neocons want: permanent low-intensity warfare.

  3. So true, Fabius. Every conflict is full of “woulda – coulda – shoulda” reflections. Rather than being sadly dismissed as an untreatable malady, they should carefully considered by proponents of new military ventures. “What ifs” are not just for the fantasies of war gamers.

    I was not in Vietnam during Tet ’68. But the senior NCO of the A-Team, which I led in 1973, was one of two survivors of the NVA tank assualt on the Loc Ninh Special Forces base just southwest of Khe Sanh. He was (is, as I presume that he is still alive) a cool courageous and competent professional, who had the knack of making me laugh at even the tensest moments. I value his experience and insight much more than all the arm-chair generals and strategists who have written so much about those times and those struggles.

    1. Many years ago, I heard Mona Charen quote this remark while appearing on CNN. I tried to research the origin of this quote. The best that I could figure is that it can be attributed to the Confederate General A. P. Hill. But it could have been said by any veteran of a lost cause:

      “There is no end to the sorrows of a lost war.”

      Ms. Charen was referring to the Vietnam war, when she repeated Hill’s remarks. In my case, those words couldn’t be more true.

    2. Arthur,

      People, naturally enough, have difficulty reconciling themselves to the blood shed in lost wars. Wolfgang Schivelbusch describes how people construct false narratives as explanations, which then replace reality in their history. This seldom works well. Sometimes catastrophically, as in German’s “stabbed in the back” explanation for WWII. Sometimes tragically, as with Southern Whites narrative about the antebellum South — which justified and perpetuated their racism. And, of course, in the various Vietnam narratives which prevent America (and esp its military) from learning from Vietnam.

  4. Wait until the first US soldier or marine is dressed in an orange jumpsuit, put in a cage, doused in gasoline, and set ablaze.

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