August 4, 2017
In the reproof of Chance
Lies the true proof of men
William Shakespeare (or, David Petraeus)
O to be self-balanced for contingencies,
To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do
Walt Whitman (or Barack Obama)
CONTINGENCY is part of the natural order of life. Things happen that we have no control over – or, at least, cannot determine. Things happen that are unexpected – that catch us unawares. It’s one reason why “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.” If your projects are something less than well planned, then you are in even bigger trouble. And if you were flying by the seat of your pants in the first place, then the risks and costs mount. That is what has been occurring to American foreign policy in the Middle East. The phenomenon pre-dates the arrival of the inchoate Trump administration. Barack Obama’s amateurish foreign policy team had its own feckless tendencies. Its Bush predecessor at least knew what they wanted to do but lacked a feasible scheme to reach its dubious goals.
There are features of how the United States makes and executes foreign policy that help to explain why Washington is repeatedly thrown into confusion by unforeseen developments. Most significant is a certain linearity of thinking and action. It takes literally the proposition that since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the most efficient approach to getting from where we are now to where we want to go is to set our bearings accordingly. What lies between points A and B will yield to American know-how, ingenuity and force of will. That’s how we fought World War II in Europe. It was close to being a lock-step operation – especially after the Battle of the Bulge when Eisenhower ordered that the allied armies should proceed along an even front lest the Germans exploit geographical discontinuities. We tried to follow a linear battle plan in Vietnam (or as close to one as circumstances permitted) and paid the price for it. Even in Gulf War I, Schwarzkopf’s initial plan called for a “bull rush” to Kuwait City.
Our interventions in the Greater Middle East over the past 15 years exhibit similar patterns.
In AFGHANISTAN, we set ourselves the audacious objective of cleansing the country of all Taliban presence or influence. In 2002 that is close to what happened – but not due mainly to what we did. The Taliban simply melted away as members returned to their towns and villages taking with them only such weapons as were considered ordinary household accoutrements. Only a few leaders took refuge across the border harboring vague hopes of doing something or other down the road – as all forlorn exiles always do.
Neither Central Command nor the civilian holy warriors fully appreciated the gift they were being given. It wasn’t recognized, in part, because it did not fit their conventional notion of how you defeat an enemy and the state he is in once defeated. Linear thinking could not grasp the nature of the Taliban or the nature of Afghan society. And they really did not want to. That required too much imagination and intellectual adjustment. Moreover, we wanted vengeance for 9/11 – that was the driving force then and in everything that we’ve done subsequently. So we set about resurrecting the Taliban: by draconian assault on whomever we vaguely suspected of having been the bad guys (most often based on faulty, planted Intelligence we had no means to winnow); a lot of breaking into compounds; the backing of warlords – big and small, old and new – who wormed their way into the good graces of the Americans nominally in charge; by making deals with heroin bosses like Haji Bashar in Kandahar who financed both Afghan sides in the war; and by recasting the mission as one of transforming Afghanistan into the “good society” which never again would spawn violent jihadis who hated America. This last fell within the mental grasp of policy-makers and public alike since it jived with American idealism and our successes 60 years earlier in Japan and Germany.
In an odd sense, Washington needed a revived Taliban and the Taliban leaders needed the Americans.
In short, none of the significant developments in Afghanistan since 2002 were expected. Therefore, we had no contingency plans. We still don’t. America is following that straight line drawn backwards from where we wanted to go to where we were. Linearity.
The brutal truth is that American leaders – civilian and military – have shown less behavioral adaptation in Afghanistan than one likely would see in a chimpanzee confronting analogous frustrating circumstances. The chimp would either try a divergent course or say the hell with it and go off to eat a banana, i.e. devalue the stakes.
IRAQ reveals the same pattern. It demonstrates with rare vividness the intrinsic flaw in linear strategy. The design was skewed from the outset by the designation of an array of interlocking objectives whose culmination would be a radical remaking of the Middle East’s entire political space. Each of the intermediate objectives were viewed as milestones on the road to Shangri-La. That vision posited a reconstituted Iraq whose thriving liberal democracy and vibrant economy would be a magnet for neighboring Arab/Islamic societies. The popular yearning to emulate the Iraqis’ bliss would lead to a spread of liberal institutions throughout the region. Discontents would fade away, the appeal of fundamentalist Islam would dry up, its militarism would dissipate, and a Kantian peace would prevail domestically and in inter-state relations. The cherry on the cake was to be resolution of the Palestinian question as Israel would be surrounded by benign neighbors and its own more beneficent sentiments would encourage the Palestinians to reciprocate. Peace on Earth to men of goodwill.
There were a number of steps along the way and a few obstacles to overcome. The plan for dealing with each of them was straightforward.
Militarily, Saddam’s forces were to be crushed and the dictator toppled. Secretary Rumsfeld and a compliant Joint Chiefs came up with a simple strategy to do the job expeditiously. It featured a relatively small force exploiting to the utmost the formidable American arsenal of high-tech weapons. Speed and mobility would be the key. Straight on to Baghdad. An occupation force? Not a problem. The Iraqi people would be overjoyed by our liberating them from a tyrannical yoke and would toss bouquets at any American they saw. Paris 1944.
Renovating the country’s political institutions along democratic lines? All that would be needed was a corps of experts from the United States who would provide tutoring and guidance to a grateful people. Organizations and structures would sprout in a process similar to spontaneous generation. Besides, there were those splendid expatriates like Ahmed Chalabi (the Pentagon’s favorite) and Ayad Alawi (the CIA’s favorite) who were ready to slip into leadership slots and exercise enlightened authority.
To jump-start the economy only three things were needed: privatization of all state assets; a stock market; and liquidity provided by billions of dollars in cash. Lashed to pallets, that were flown in on C-5As and placed in the grasping hands of provisional officials and aspiring entrepreneurs. Naïve? Not at all – this was the same method followed in Russia where shock therapy was self-evidently a signal “success” in the Washington mindset– even as it produced a de facto kleptocracy of the sort now putting down roots in the U.S.A.
The Iraq fiasco highlights two odd features of linear strategy. First, policy failures caused by contingent developments are not recognized as such – neither the negative outcome, nor the disruption of the original plan by unforeseen developments. Hence, nothing is learned. Linear method and such substantive actions as taken in accordance with it survive to fail the next time. The mentality remains intact.
Consequently, Afghan doesn’t inform strategy in Iraq and the two together do little to attune American policy-makers and analysts to the grave drawbacks of proceeding along linear lines elsewhere.
SYRIA obviously offers multiple examples of how linearity extracts a high price in unpreparedness for the contingencies that always arise. The most noteworthy is the Russian intervention. It altered everything. The military balance was reversed as the 2014-2015 jihadist offensive was first stymied and then the R+6 alliance gained the decisive upper-hand. The CIA organized campaign to use al-Nusra & Assoc/al-Qaeda as instruments for unseating Assad was broken. As a consequence, the masquerade of depicting the civil war as one between the tyrant Assad and well-disposed ‘moderate’ rebels was exposed for the deceit that it has been from the outset; the subordination of the American interest in combating terrorist groups to other objectives and other interests became clear to whomever had the nerve to look (those other interests being Israel’s aim to cripple any Arab state in the region, and the Saudi/Turkish/Qatari Sunni bloc’s aim to isolate Iran while weakening all Shi’ite political formations); the reentry of Russia as a major diplomatic player in the Middle East; and the embarrassment of being completely outmaneuvered by Putin every step of the way.
Strikingly, the Russian intervention itself came as a total surprise. This game-changing contingency not only was unanticipated, it never was even contemplated. At one level, this was a stunning failure of Intelligence *. A failure that makes a mockery of the fabled capabilities of an Intelligence Community that has spent close to a trillion dollars over the course of the “war on terror.” In another sense, the lack of any contingency planning conforms to the linear mindset. For that mindset operates with restricted vision – and still more restricted imagination. If strategy is predicated on a plan to follow a straight line to reach a predetermined goal, then the identification of possible obstacles concentrates on those lying along the plotted path. For recognizing the possibility of others out of view implicitly call into question the linear approach itself – to which they are addicted.
Washington never really had a plan in Syria. Linearity was there – but it was disjointed and tactical as opposed to strategic. Deliberations under Obama were exclusively on micro questions of how to get from (a) to (b) tomorrow rather than how the pieces might fit together in an intelligent design to achieve a feasible outcome. Even a simple-minded design was lacking. Moreover, each component of the country’s security apparatus had its own priorities and purposes. The CIA was intent on proving how cleverly it could link access to Libyan weapons stores, arms acquisitions on the world’s bazar and clandestine shipments to the rebels via Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon was stressed about getting involved in another expensive, pointless war (that is, under General Martin Dempsey) or, at other times, preoccupied with showing off the omni-competence of Special Forces and laying the foundation for securing permanent bases in Iraq and perhaps Syria. As for the State Department, Hillary Clinton and then John Kerry were fixed on eliminating the Assad regime as an end in itself. They gave little thought that what follows. Once Russia entered the fray, Kerry’s single-minded focus was on producing some achievement, however modest, worthy of his diplomatic skills. It was a futile enterprise given the dedication of the Pentagon and CIA to undercutting his efforts and President Obama’s aloofness.
To what strategic goals were these piecemeal actions directed? What American national interests did they serve? How did they relate to a plethora of other combustible issues in the Middle East? There were no answers – because the question had never been posed – by President Obama or anyone else. Therefore, in perspective, Syria differs from Afghanistan and Iraq insofar as there was no desired end-state from which to reason backwards. So what we have had is the coexistence of tactical linearity with near total strategic incoherence.
Linearity has side-effects that border on the pathological:
- Unforeseen impediments are treated not only as troublesome surprises, but as somehow illegitimate and offensive.Illegitimate as in labeling the Iraq insurrectionists “Anti-Iraqi Forces.” Or Yemen’s Houthis as Iranian pawns (Iran representing unalloyed evil). This from an invading power whose capital city is 6,000 miles distant. Yet, in this mentality, the AIF have no RIGHT to oppose us. Their shooting at Americans amounts to “terrorism;” hence, they shall be treated as terrorists, i.e. irregular combatant. The insult they have given us justifies the most extreme, even indiscriminate measures.
- Another reaction is “scape-goating.”Somebody had to have done something wrong for factor ‘X’ to have come out of the blue to gum up OUR plan. Blaming President Obama for the rise of ISIS is a perfect example; blaming him for Iran’s influence in Baghdad accompanies it (even leaving aside the partisan element). Here is an example from last Sunday’s New York Times. Tim Arango writesfrom Baghdad:
[A]fter the United States’ abrupt withdrawal of troops in 2011, American constancy is still in question here — a broad failure of American foreign policy [ensued].
The implicit assumption is that it was mistaken judgment in Washington that led to the withdrawal – and then that the withdrawal permitted the rise of ISIS and the extension of Iranian political influence among Iraqi elites. In fact, the Iraqi government of al-Maliki threw us out – much to the surprise of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker who had a bead on their objective while totally inattentive to the political surroundings. We did not have the option of staying. That was in December 2008 – three years before our “abrupt” withdrawal – and under President Bush. The entire tale as related by Arango is falsified history compounded of Trumpisms. In other words, nonsense.
- Of particular interest is thatdevelopments which are entirely natural and logical given the circumstances are pronounced are unnatural and surprisingbecause they disturb the linearity of American thinking. Anyone at all familiar with the situation in Iraq in 2008 realized that Iran would exercise the dominant external presence in the country. That reality, though, did not conform with the American road map composed of straight lines.
The United States’ intervention in Iraq created conditions that made its residual interests hostage to contingency. Would the al-Maliki government continue to sustain the tribal forces that had defeated al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia? Would it take steps to reconcile the Sunnis to Shi’ite rule? Could Maliki keep the Iraqi National Army from becoming just another corruption recycling mill? Who would emerge to exploit the anti-Assad revolt in neighboring Syria? What influence would be exerted by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar? None of this was in Washington’s control. That is the type of situation linear thinking is totally unprepared to cope with – nor is it able to respond to what it spawns when new factors pop up to bedevil us.
Now, Washington declares that it will remedy past errors by keeping a substantial military force in Iraq while establishing a network in of bases in Syria as well as Iraq. No mention is made of the elementary truth that these are sovereign countries that may not wish to have a permanent American military presence. (The internationally recognized Syrian government, which clearly will not be toppled, has said vehemently that the current American presence is illegitimate). In other words, the linear mindset blocks out all non-conforming realities in the present and those contingent elements which might arise in the future. Nor does it pay the slightest attention to how achievement of that objective, or some approximation to it, could provoke reactions that carry new dangers and new threats down the road.
In the same manner, the Iranian training of Shi’ite militia in Iraq who played a critical role in clearing ISIS from Tigris Valley towns is deemed illegitimate. This occurred at the behest of the Baghdad government; still, it is considered pernicious and worrying evidence of disruptive Iranian interference in Iraq affairs. Why? Because it thwarts American plans to make the country an American dependency and curbing Iran’s regional influence. When powerful Shi’ite politicians, supported by these militias, generate serious pressure on the Abadi government to resist American demands, that will come as a surprise, and their likely success a shock.
- Yet another tack taken by linear thinkersto avoid confronting the full implications of their limitations is the insistence on “another try.”Fail in Afghanistan? Go back time after time in the hope that persistence will pay off. That persistence has little to do with cool-header determination of the objective’s importance. Nor is it justified on the grounds that the fly in the ointment (monkey wrench in the gears) that doomed previous efforts has been identified and removed. Rather, it is an expression of a primitive belief in the ultimate triumph of the will. That is an attitude that fits well the deeply rooted American “can-do” spirit. And that failure is not an acceptable word in the American lexicon.
We have seen this repeatedly in the Greater Middle East over the past 15 years. Afghanistan is but one example. The pursuit of permanent bases in Iraq (again, for no obvious strategic purpose) is another. We can add the mind-numbing attempt at squaring the circle in Syria where we conjure phantom forces where the only alternatives are Assad or the Salafists. The same might be said about the endless gestures of appeasement toward the Saudi royal family. There, Washington has fixed in its uncritical mind that the Saudis are doing things that encourage and sustain terrorist organizations out of anxiety about America’s commitment to their security – although the postulated source of that threat shifts at their convenience – from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to the movements unleashed by the Arab Spring, to the Iranians.
The same could be said for American dealings with Israel – in spades.
- Segmentation is a valuable assist to the maintenance of linear policies – however self-defeating the consequences. For it narrows the range of concerns that might be affected by the repercussions from the rote strategy one is following – preventing their due consideration. Trump’s visit to Riyadh to give fervent blessings to the Sunni powers’ declaration of war on Shi’ism and Iran is the perfect illusion. Focusing solely on demonized Iran, Washington ‘strategists’ set a blinkered course for the U.S. and its allies. Trump was entrapped in a plot by the trio of conspirators’ skillful exploitation of his frat boy cravings – for pomp, for secret societies, for amplifying demagoguery. So, like the 3 Magi, General Sisi, the Saudi King Salman and President Trump hovered over the magical orbvowing devotion to the holy cause. None recalled that the Magi were Persians – very likely the soft power advance guard of Parthia.
Isolating of the Riyadh ceremony from other matters of import in the Middle East, the American’s overlooked the reaction in Shi’ite ruling circles – the government of Iraq, above all. In Baghdad, an exposed Haider Abadi already in the sights of Shi’ite political rivals felt betrayed. His immediate reaction was to give the green light to the Tehran sponsored Hashed militias to dash to the Syrian border where they linked up with SAA units to block the American move northwards. At stake has been the territorial links from Iran via Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to Hezbullah. So single-minded dedication to placating the Saudis by joining their Sunni anti-Shi’ite crusade wound up strengthening the other side. America’s declared interests in Syria (albeit dubious ones) were sabotaged by the fragmented, linear policies of the White House.
- The most extreme method utilized by the linear mindset to prevent constructive or ambiguous factors from disturbing their pre-set plans is to negate them – to ignore their existence.The outstanding example concerns Washington’s commitment to ensconcing itself in post-ISIS Iraq (and parts of Syria) militarily and politically. This is despite there being fierce opposition among important elements of the Shi’ite political elite. The outstanding figure is Muqtada al-Sadr. He is the most popular Shi’ite politician who could break Abadi’s governing majority in parliament. For fourteen years a thorn in the side of the Americans, he has declared repeatedly that the United States must leave. (Ayatollah Sistani, too, has voiced the same sentiments). Yet, no mention is made of al-Sadr’s threat to American plans as the Pentagon blithely moves ahead with its scheme for achieving now what it could not in 2008. No contingent plans have been made for the possible eventuality of Baghdad once again telling us: “Thanks, but no thanks.”
A variant of this particularly immature psychological ploy involves the disparaging the importance of unforeseen occurrences. Outstanding, is the Russian intervention. Hardly something that could be denied or ignored outright, it was derided by President Obama as of no consequence. Indeed, he took a condescending tone in taunting Putin that the result would another humiliation of Russia, like Afghanistan, that Russia would leave chastened – it’s tail between its legs:
An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire ..
The Assad regime and its ally Russia cannot slaughter its way to legitimacy. … The blood for these atrocities are on their hands ..
An attempt by Russia to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work ..
[Putin is] constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid. He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished. And the fact that he is…. trying to prop up Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player. ..
The Russians now have been there for several weeks, over a month, and I think fair-minded reporters who have looked at the situation would say that the situation hasn’t changed significantly. ..
Many others inside the administration, and outside it, imitated Obama in ridiculing the Kremlin’s move. Instead, it proved a striking success that turned the tide while making Russia a far more influential player in the Syrian drama than is the United States.
This childish display demonstrates how powerful are the impulses of the linear thinkers to avoid at all cost deviation from the simple plot lines that suit their temperaments and their minds.
*[Intelligence failures great and small have become the norm for America’s inflated and infirm Intelligence agencies. There is something absurd about institutions that can tell us Angela Merkel’s pizza topping preferences when she orders on her cell phone yet miss completely the planning, organization and movement of a multi-dimensional Russian force into a country that is the focus of U.S. attention. The full depth of the systemic problem is revealed by the fact that no-one laughs – no-one cries.
Surely, a paltry billion or so would suffice to entice some Ivan or Inessa to pass the word that his cousin Igor in the navy is thumbing his Arabic phrase-book in anticipation of a return visit to Syria and asking whether we’d like for him to bring back a box of dates – or, her Airforce brother-in-law Sergei can’t make it to dinner Friday because he’ll be working overtime directing the loading of a squadron of fighter planes recently painted in desert camouflage.
Whether more competent Intelligence agencies in Washington’s current strategic environment is a good thing is a separate issue.]
Posted by b on August 4, 2017 at 10:58 AM | Permalink