Shadow Government

Rethinking Intervention and the Ability to Create Knockoff Americas

With Iraq coming apart and American sacrifices in Fallujah and Ramadi seeming to have been in vain, it is worth asking the larger question of whether the United States sufficiently understood the Arab Middle East enough to put troops on the ground there and, more important for the future, whether it should ever do so again. The answer to the question about the past is clearly "no." Whatever we may have thought of Saddam Hussein, we had no real idea of the implications of occupying a state that was artificial from birth. Our desire to foster good governance in Iraq presupposed that good governance was even possible in a state whose citizens did not want to live alongside one another, unless they were forced to. Indeed, few such states have remained stable over the long run: Witness the seemingly never-ending wars in central Africa, whose constituent states are, like Iraq, the product of bureaucrats drawing maps that suited their own country's needs, not those of the people on the ground that those maps delineated.

Perhaps it is time Washington realized that it cannot mold other states in its own image. If America is truly exceptional, then, by definition, other states cannot be made into knockoff Americas. It is indeed ironic that President Barack Obama, who denies American exceptionalism, seems less inclined to intervene in other states than those for whom that exceptionalism is an article of faith. His motivations may be entirely misplaced, but his instincts may not be.

To argue that America should be far more cautious about intervening abroad is not to say that it should never intervene. The willingness to intervene in support of a beleaguered ally is a sine qua non for maintaining alliances. Without a credible willingness to do so, America will find it has no allies. But it was one thing to intervene on behalf of Kuwait when Iraq actually had invaded that small country, and quite another to invade Iraq when it not only had not taken any action against its neighbors, but had not even a mounted a credible threat to do so.

Again, it is one thing to attack a putative aggressor from the air or sea, as was the case with Libya in 1986 and again a quarter-century later, or, for that matter, in the 1990s, with the no-fly zones over Iraq, and quite another to deploy troops on the ground. It is the latter that provokes the greatest outrage among the largest number of people in the targeted country, in part because it is so much easier to insert troops into a country than to withdraw them. Put simply, while advocates of nation-building argue that most people want to live in a free society, it is even more the case that most people don't want foreigners telling them how to live, especially if those foreigners wear uniforms and carry guns down their streets and alleys.

It is easy in retrospect to regret the launching of Operation Iraqi Freedom, especially since it is arguable that Iraq is hardly free today. Still, the case for intervention at that time looked far more compelling than it does today, and caution is always recommended when applying hindsight to any situation. Nevertheless, it is undeniable (except for the most partisan administration supporters whose job it is to make silk purses out of sow's ears) that America's standing in the Middle East is nothing short of a disaster. Iraq is falling apart. Syria is falling apart. Libya is falling apart. Lebanon, ever fragile, may once again revert to civil war. Egypt has gone through multiple convulsions. American intervention in Iraq was not the sole or proximate cause of all these developments, but it surely was a contributory cause. Another American intervention in the region would only make matters worse.

Whatever one's view of whether America should or should not have invaded Iraq in 2003, there is no excuse for not learning the lesson of Iraq that should be clear to all today. It is a lesson first enunciated in a different Asian context by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and ignored ever since: The United States should not become enmeshed in a land war in Asia. What made sense in the late 1940s makes sense in the contemporary Middle East for the same reason: Ancient peoples, with ancient hatreds, will not pay much heed to well-intentioned Americans who come to tell them what to do with their polities; and sadly, all too often, they will shoot at them as well.

Photo: WISAM SAMI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Something for Everyone to Hate and Love in Gates's Blockbuster Memoir

There are just enough teasers out there to confirm that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's soon-to-be-released memoir offers something for everyone to love and to hate.

Defenders of President Barack Obama will love that Gates apparently defends some of the president's more controversial decisions, including the decision to undercut his Afghanistan surge by simultaneously issuing an arbitrary withdrawal timetable. Those same defenders will hate other sections more pleasing to the president's opponents, for instance when Gates confirms some of the sharpest critiques that outsiders have leveled against the president: the extent to which Obama and his team of advisors let partisan political considerations shape their perception of national security interests and the way they fostered distrust between civilian and military leaders.

Hawks will love the way Gates repeats their talking point about the success of the Iraq surge. But the neo-isolationist left and right will love that Gates repeats their talking point that "presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun."  And "moderates" will love that Gates repeats their talking point, reserving his most caustic comments for ideologues in Congress, most of which Gates regards as "uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country." (Come to think of it, given how low Congress rates in the approval ratings of the public, perhaps everyone will find something to like in that statement -- only they will privately exempt their side from that critique and believe that Gates must have only meant to damn their political opponents. Gates, for his part, seems to intend to damn all sides.)

For my part, I am looking forward to reading the book to see what it says about two areas I follow very closely: civil-military relations and the politics of national security. The teasers thus far confirm what is already obvious to any close observer: Obama has presided over very fractious civil-military relations, and Obama's first term was far more politicized than Bush's second term. Indeed, the most damaging revelation in all of the accounts I have seen thus far is when Gates reports that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confided to Obama that she opposed the Iraq surge primarily for short-term political advantage in the primaries -- and president Obama apparently acknowledged that his opposition to the Iraq surge was political as well. Because of the stakes involved, this can't be spun away as "gambling in the casino" -- the typical way that politicians seek political advantage from policy disputes. Gates has the two leading candidates for the out-party nomination admitting that they opposed a strategy designed to reverse the country's trajectory from failure to success not based on their assessment about the wisdom of that strategy but so as to outmaneuver each other in wooing the hard-left base of their party. This comes very close to Gates having Clinton and Obama admit that they preferred the political benefit that might come their way from the United States being defeated in Iraq than doing what was needed to win a war. In the teasers, Gates stops just short of making that charge, and for the sake of the country, I hope that the charge is not warranted. But the burden is now on both Clinton and Obama to prove a more benign interpretation.

Other revelations confirm my fears about the way the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan have corroded civil-military relations. Gates reports that Obama repeatedly questioned the motives of military leaders who offered professional advice with which he disagreed. And Gates talks about how the insularity and micromanagement of the White House contributed to a poisonous policymaking process. Gates acknowledges that it might be unfair to compare the more experienced Bush second-term team with the less-experienced Obama first-term team, but the contrast is striking nonetheless and helps explain the dominant pattern of the last five years: that Obama has enjoyed foreign-policy success mostly when he followed in Bush's footsteps and suffered foreign-policy setbacks when striking out in his own direction.

The book also raises other important meta-questions worth debating:

  • Should subordinates publish such critical memoirs while the president they served is still in office? While I think the public benefits from knowing Gates's critiques (and defenses) of the president, it is also the case that these memoirs poison the well for internal deliberations, driving administrations into ever-more insular bubbles. Since the Obama administration already suffers from an acute case of insularity, I worry about the pernicious effect of the timing of this memoir.
  • Should a secretary of defense have such an emotional bond with the troops, or does the nature of his job require more emotional distance? The nation would be ill-served by a secretary of defense who was callous and insensitive to the human costs of war. But the nation might also be ill-served if a secretary of defense became so haunted by those costs that he reflexively opposed military tools when they were needed.

I hope that reading the book with all these considerations in mind will help me answer the biggest question of all: Is Gates' ability to simultaneously please and displease so many people a sign of wisdom or of incoherence? Gates's celebrated record as secretary of defense gives him a strong presumption of wisdom, but it is a wisdom that does not neatly fit into existing categories.