The American recession and global financial crisis have largely displaced foreign policy in the U.S. presidential campaign. Regardless, President Obama or President McCain will inherit a Bush foreign policy that has 160,000 troops in Iraq and rising demand for NATO forces in Afghanistan. As the next president-elect assembles his team, he needs to be careful they are not mired in the past.
Most foreign policy elites of both parties are either stuck on September 11, 2001 or March 19, 2003.
For the 9/11 group, the absence of liberty in the world gave rise to groups like the Taliban, Abu Sayyaf, Jemmah Islamiyah, and al Qaeda. Left alone, these groups will proliferate and 9/11-style attacks will become commonplace. To ensure international security, 9/11ers think it’s essential to empower America’s allies (even illiberal countries) and sometimes fight for countries that lack the capabilities. This aggressive approach to security led to the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003 where the United States and its allies find themselves still engaged in war.
While accepting the importance of combating international terrorism, the other camp is stuck on March 19, 2003. For this group, the Iraq war was a mistake generated by bad policy (preemptive action against non-existent weapons of mass destruction), poor planning (not enough troops), poor decision-making (de-Baathication and disbanding the Iraqi Army) and overly ambitious goals (democratic transformation). The group laments President Bush’s re-election in 2004, but felt vindicated in 2006 when the congressional majority shifted to the Democratic Party. Partisans of this group declare the Iraq war is un-winnable, U.S. international credibility is irretrievably lost to history, and America’s inevitable decline has been hastened. This group wrongly assumes that January 20, 2009 will start American withdrawal from Iraq.
Neither group is fully right, but the veracity of their arguments undoubtedly leads to their persistence in the mainstream. 9/11ers seem to get it right after another al Qaeda-inspired attack in Europe, the Middle East, or South Asia. Their policy preference to aid willing allies like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or the Philippines is vindicated after major arrests or disrupted terrorist plots. While any sort of rationale to invade Iraq has been discredited, a 9/11er doesn’t regret the invasion of Iraq. Instead, there is now too much at stake to simply walk away. 9/11ers cast the conflict in the largest strategic context imaginable and predict catastrophic effects upon U.S. withdrawal from Iraq unless we have achieved victory.
Not surprisingly, 3/19ers disagree and only see the Iraq war weakening America’s international standing and ability to combat international terrorism. Four-and-a-half years of war in Iraq haven’t inspired liberal change in the Near East or resulted in a stable Iraq. Resources were diverted from Afghanistan with negative consequence. A 3/19er has come to terms with the fact that a superpower isn’t a superhero and sees grand ambitions of transforming the world as folly. Consequently, the United States should retreat (or “redeploy,” for the military savvy) from Iraq and work with allies in Afghanistan.
The problem with both camps is not necessarily the facts coming from Iraq. While fewer American military personnel are being killed or wounded and fewer Iraqi civilians are victimized by terrorism and sectarian violence over the last several months, commanders caution that the gains are still reversible. In Afghanistan, things have gotten worse necessitating change in strategy, policy, or resources. And neither group disputes that the Iraq war has served as a rally point for suicidal Arabs from across the region.
Unfortunately, neither group fully understand how Iraq and the world have changed. Only a minority of violence in Iraq can be attributed to al Qaeda wannabes. Most has been committed by Iraqis against Iraqis. U.S. tactics have been slow to respond to this reality, and 9/11ers find it difficult to move past doomsday scenarios. It is unlikely that U.S. withdrawal will be catastrophic for the region, but U.S. withdrawal would diminish its opportunity to shape the region and cede that to Turkey, Syria, and Iran. This possibility does not bode well in the long run for the region. The 3/19ers grasp this but don’t understand that the methods learned in Iraq have already been transplanted to other conflicts around the world. If the United States turns its back on Iraq, Iraqi insurgents and terrorists could breathe new life into failing insurgencies in other predominately Muslim countries where much counterterrorism progress has been made since 2001.
Most importantly, neither group understands the moral dimension of conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan. When the United States declared governments in Kabul and Baghdad illegitimate and dangerous, it assumed a responsibility for the future of Iraqis and Afghans. Ironically, it is up to the Iraqis and Afghans to solve their problems and the U.S. and NATO can only have marginal effect. Just because it is taking longer than World War II to create working political systems, competent military and police forces, and functioning economies doesn’t mean the war is lost. Instead, it means that thinking that war is the equivalent of a baseball game or political campaign is wrong-headed. It’s not a question of winning or losing; it’s a question of confronting adversity, even if it’s hard. It took Germans 44 years to reunify; it took South Koreans 36 years to democratize, and it took Vietnamese 25 years to rebuild their country. History suggests it will take Iraqis more than six and Afghans more than eight.
This reality will be waiting for the next president come January 20.
Derek S. Reveron is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. His views are his own.