The Coming Of Gulf War III
Even If We Leave Now, We'll Be Back
Strategic redeployment. Phased drawdown. Exit strategy. However one phrases it, Washington seems to be turning a page in the story of Iraq. The midterm elections, the subsequent resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the release of the Iraq Study Group's report last week all suggest that the transformational objectives that led U.S. forces into Iraq are being supplanted by an unmistakable and bipartisan desire to bring troops home, end this mess and move on.
That impulse, while understandable, reflects the national narcissism that dogs much of U.S. foreign policy. We think Iraq is about us. We made it happen and we can undo it. But one-sided solutions for ending the Iraq war are as unrealistic as the one-sided impulses that started it. Even as we seek to remake history, it is remaking us.
The economic and political forces that drew the United States into Iraq -- quite different from the reasons the Bush administration gave for the invasion -- remain powerful, exerting a pull that will be hard to resist. Oil, of course, is foremost among them. But also important are the threats and tensions linked to oil: Washington's decades-old rivalry with Iran, the growing dangers posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the fear that the Middle East's simmering conflicts will erupt into a broader, bloodier and far more costly war.
To its credit, the Iraq Study Group recognized many of these dimensions. But, however we may try to extricate ourselves from Iraq today, the best we can hope for is an end to only this latest chapter of U.S. military involvement in the region. There is no getting out of the Middle East. Even if we leave now, we'll be back.
In future history books, this war may be known as the Second Gulf War, or perhaps this period will be remembered as the era of The Gulf Wars. Just as today we look back on extended and episodic conflicts such as the Thirty Years' War or the Hundred Years' War, historians may regard today's clash as only another battle in a much longer war. U.S. actions in this Gulf war have dramatically increased the likelihood of future conflicts. We have inflamed tensions in the Middle East, undercut our regional influence and eroded the nation's political will to remain actively engaged in this critical part of the world.
The forces pulling us back are so strong that it doesn't matter which party controls Congress or occupies the White House. In fact, given the political shifts that this increasingly unpopular conflict has triggered, it seems quite possible that a Democratic president may be the one compelled to wage the Third Gulf War.
The United States's interests in the Middle East date to the post-World War I years, around the time when the British redrew the Middle East map and created nation-states, such as Iraq, cobbled together from disparate Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish pieces. A rising industrial power, the United States could not ignore the promise of oil identified in the Persian Gulf in the 1920s. With the drilling contracts awarded to Standard Oil of California and Texaco in 1933 and 1936, respectively, the United States in effect committed itself to an ever growing involvement in (and dependence on) this region.
But it was after World War II, when an energy-hungry United States took on the task of forging a new global order, that the Middle East became a central priority for U.S. foreign policy. Not only did the demand for oil grow precipitously, but Washington was entering a Cold War against a Soviet adversary that also coveted the Middle East's energy resources. Immediately after the war, the Russians refused to leave Iran as they had promised at the Yalta Conference in 1945; it took action by the U.N. Security Council to force their withdrawal. This ultimately led the United States to seek a reliable ally in Tehran, in turn leading presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter to embrace the shah.
At the same time, the situation in the region was immeasurably complicated by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and President Harry S. Truman's support for the new entity. This new U.S.-Israeli bond created an instant tension with the countries upon which the United States depended for oil, thus defining a balancing act that to this day remains the trickiest in U.S. foreign policy.
Over time, this picture grew even more complex, as much the result of the United States' victories as its fumbles and defeats. The abuses of the shah's regime led to popular rebellion in Iran and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini's theocracy -- a geopolitical defeat compounded by a humiliating hostage crisis. And after the Soviet Union pushed into Afghanistan in 1979, the United States responded on two fronts: It attempted to push back against Soviet forces in Afghanistan by supporting mujaheddin resistance fighters led by the likes of Osama bin Laden, and sought to offset Iran's influence by supporting the leadership bid of Iraqi military strongman Saddam Hussein. In both cases, the results would prove haunting.
The fall of the Soviet enemy eliminated a certain coherence and organizing principle to U.S. interests in the Middle East, one that had seemed above and beyond mere oil interests. But then that former U.S. ally, Hussein, apparently estimating that Washington needed him more than he needed Washington, invaded Kuwait in 1990, threatening U.S. allies in the Gulf region. With Saudi cooperation, the administration of President George H.W. Bush and its allies turned him back. But Bush resisted marching on Baghdad to depose him, perhaps fearing a new power vacuum in the Middle East, one that could have been filled by Iran, which had supplanted the Soviet Union as the United States's chief regional rival. As one prominent Arab political scientist observed to me, "The secret most Americans won't admit is that this most recent war is not about terrorism. It is part of a quarter-century-old geopolitical tug of war with Iran for regional hegemony."
Today, as King Abdullah of Jordan has observed, the region is verging on three civil wars -- in Iraq, in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories -- all of which somehow involve Iran, the United States or their proxies. Embroiled in Gulf War II, the United States faces a growing roster of additional threats: Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons technology; a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan; increasing anti-American radicalism across the Muslim world and the threat that such passions pose to moderate leaders atop potentially fragile regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; and Washington's growing alienation from allies who would normally share U.S. interests. Sadly, the invasion of Iraq in this most recent Gulf war has only exacerbated these situations.
What plausible scenarios could draw even a war-weary United States back into the Middle East, into a Gulf War III?
Clearly, the confrontation with Iran -- over its regional policies, support of terrorists and desire to acquire nuclear weapons -- tops the list. One need only recall the prewar debate over Iraq to understand that the international community considers the proliferation of WMD an acceptable justification for war. The Iranian threat is magnified because it could trigger an arms race for a "Sunni bomb" to offset the "Shiite bomb." Meanwhile, Israel is unlikely to long tolerate a nuclear capability in a government that has called for its destruction, and in the Arab world, any action by Israel would be regarded as an action on behalf of the United States.
As the Iraq Study Group has recommended, this or a future administration might seek to stabilize Iraq by reaching out to regional players such as Iran and Syria -- two nations traditionally hostile to Israel. In so doing, Washington might also push for an accelerated transfer of the Golan Heights or the accelerated establishment of a sustainable Palestinian state, as the commission's report also suggests. While such diplomatic overtures may prove sensible, they could also be interpreted as a weakening of U.S. support for Israel. This could tempt more radical elements, such as the military wing of Hamas or Hezbollah, to push harder against Israel in an attempt to win further concessions or test the viability of an Israeli government operating with a less supportive U.S. ally. In all such scenarios, Washington must avoid the appearance of weakness or the perception that it has wavered from its core commitments in the region; any concessions by the United States or its allies must always be perceived as flowing from positions of strength.
Other developments in the Middle East could elicit a U.S. military response, even if a reluctant one. What if Jordan, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia fell into fundamentalist hands? The perception of the threat, the impact on world energy prices, the reaction of regional rivals -- these elements could quickly put the U.S. military on alert, especially if U.S. troops, citizens or bases in the region came under threat. Or what if Iranian troops entered Iraq? Or if another terrorist attack against the American homeland (or U.S. assets anywhere in the world) could be traced to forces in the region? The response probably would not be a Rumsfeldian "shock and awe" affair. Instead, given the scope and interconnectedness of these threats and the desire to avoid the mistakes made this time around, a Third Gulf War probably would be larger, in terms of troop commitments, than the second.
Now, as Gulf War II enters a new phase, the Vietnam War offers an important lesson, as well as an important distinction. The lesson is that leaving a country is often much more complicated than entering it. After the U.S. election of 1968 confirmed the public's desire to withdraw from Vietnam, the war dragged on for seven more years and claimed as many lives as it had during the period of escalation. The distinction, however, is that even leaving Vietnam probably will prove much simpler than leaving Iraq or the surrounding region.
The Middle East today is infinitely more dangerous than at the start of Gulf War II. Now, the Bush administration must do what it did not do before invading Iraq: Plan for the likely and possible futures, not just the one it hopes to face. While a long-term U.S. military presence in the region may further stoke anti-American passions, it may also make good and prudent strategic sense. The American people will need to assess such options based on the country's overarching interests -- which include reducing the likelihood of yet another war in the region -- rather than the short-term, feel-good option of bringing the troops home and retreating into a state of semi-isolationism.
Only the Iraqis can resolve their political troubles and sectarian violence. The United States can help by empowering Iraqi soldiers and police -- not with weapons that may one day be used against U.S. troops, but with body armor, transport vehicles, crowd-control tools, information technology, training and the other assets that can help them assume greater responsibility for their own security in the months ahead. The United States must also restore its own hollowed-out military and determine how a war such as the one in Iraq could ever have stretched U.S. forces so thin.
Over the long-term, one reasonable approach in the Middle East could be called "parallel containment:" The United States must contain the complex threats it faces in the region, and at the same time try to limit our vital interests there. On the first score, Hezbollah and Hamas must know that the United States is present and stands ready to take action. Iran must know that it will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, period. Moderates in the region must know that we will stand by them, with economic aid and political support, helping to restore U.S. moral authority in the Middle East. And everyone must know that an attack against Israel will always be considered an attack against America. On the second score, we must embark on the long-term but critical task of reducing our energy dependence on the Middle East. No strategy in any Gulf war could produce more lasting change in the region than a prolonged fall in oil prices. The only dependable formula for ultimate victory in the Gulf wars will come through innovation and conservation right here at home.
David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and author of "Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power" (Public Affairs).