William R. Polk on American Grand Strategy for Iraq, Syria, and the Region

"We win each battle, but the battles keep happening. And to our chagrin, we don't seem to be winning the wars. By almost any criterion, we are less 'victorious' today than half a century ago."

The diplomat and scholar William R. Polk (right) first wrote about the Middle East in The Atlantic back in 1958, in an article called "The Lesson of Iraq." Repeat after me: "The past is never dead..." In the past few years, I've quoted his updated analyses many times, for instance on U.S. prospects in Afghanistan and on the tragedy in Syria

Now he is back with an assessment of how the United States ended up in the situation it now confronts throughout the Middle East, and what if anything it might do to improve—or at least avoid worsening—its and the region's prospects. Whether or not you agree with all details of his analysis, I hope you will find it useful and clarifying, as I have, in showing the connections among the crises throughout the region, and in suggesting guidelines for U.S. response. I am posting this in full, with his permission and at his request. Now, over to William Polk:

The Mental Block and The Broadside

by William R. Polk

Analysis of foreign affairs problems often ends in a mental block.  As we have seen in each of our recent crises—Somalia, Mali, Libya, Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine and Iran—"practical" men of affairs want quick answers:  they say in effect, 'don't bother us with talk about how we got here; this is where we are; so what do we do now?'  The result, predictably, is a sort of nervous tick in the body politic:  we lurch from one emergency to the next in an unending sequence.

This is not new.  We all have heard the quip:  "ready, fire, aim."  In fact those words were not just a joke.  For centuries after infantry soldier were given the rifle, they were ordered not to take the time to aim; rather, they were instructed just to point in the general direction of the enemy and fire.  Their commanders believed that it was the mass impact, the "broadside," that won the day.

Our leaders still believe it.  They think that our "shock and awe," our marvelous technology measured in stealth bombers, drones, all-knowing intelligence, our massed and highly mobile troops and our money constitute a devastating broadside.   All we have to do is to point in the right direction and shoot. 

So we shoot and then shoot again and again.  We win each battle, but the battles keep happening.  And to our chagrin, we don't seem to be winning the wars.  By almost any criterion, we are less "victorious" today than half a century ago. [continued]

Professionally, I find it disturbing to keep repeating such simple observations. Like some of my colleagues, I had hoped that the "lesson" of Vietnam would be learned. It was not. Indeed, the guru of the neoconservatives, Sam Huntington, memorably proclaimed that there was no lesson that could be drawn from Vietnam. He led the way, but today he has had many acolytes.  They are still acting as guides of our government and the media. 

So what do they tell us? Like Huntington they say that we have nothing to learn from the expenditure of our blood, sweat and tears—not to quibble about the trillions of dollars. As each crisis explodes, our guides told us that it is unique, has no usefully analyzed background, is not to be seen in a sequence of events and decisions. It just is. So it requires immediate action of the kind we know how to take—a broadside. 

Also never-mind what motivates the "other-side." What they think might be of interest to ivory-tower historians or a few curious members of the chattering class, but in the real world they do not command attention. Real men just act!

Examples abound. Take Somalia: those wretched people are just a bunch of terrorists living in a failed state—the pirates of the modern world. Simple. We knew what to do about them! That "appreciation," as they say in the intelligence trade, was reached some years ago , and we are still doing "our thing." 

As a few of us pointed out, "our thing" did not stop out-of-work, hungry and able men from doing "their thing." When fishermen found their fishing sites virtually destroyed by industrial-scale fleets, armed with sonar, radar and mile-long drag nets and, unable to catch fish and they faced starvation, they discovered piracy. Since they already had boats, were good sailors and were near a major cargo-shipping lane, transition to that new trade was easy. We knew the answer: military force. However, we have seen that sending the Navy is expensive and it did not stop desperate men. No one considered stopping the overfishing before the fishermen turned pirate.

Also, in Somalia, we smugly talk about the "failed state." But, as the Somalis see themselves, they are not a state at all; rather, they are a collection of separate societies living under a shared cultural-religious system. That, in fact, is how all our ancestors lived until the nation-state system evolved in Europe. Now most of us find it almost inconceivable that the Somalis do not adopt our system. Why are they so backward? If they would just shape up, piracy would end and peace would come. So we try to attach our institutions to their social organization. But, when the Somalis stubbornly try to retain their system, we try our best to modernize, reform, subvert or destroy it. We are still trying each of these or all of them together.

Variations on the Somali theme can be witnessed around the world as we jump from one crisis to the next. We prove to be good tacticians but not strategists, shooters but not aimers, and, above all, loud talkers but poor listeners.

In Syria also we see exemplified our penchant to rely on force, for leaping before we look. From almost the first days that it emerged from under an oppressive French rule (that included artillery barrages on its capital), we have been engaged in subversive actions designed to overthrow its inexperienced leaders and the fragile institutions they represented. Only recently have our actions been documented for us, but, having been affected by them, the Syrians have long known about them. Cumulatively, over more than half a century, our actions have created a record of threats and subversive acts of which we are largely oblivious but which is common knowledge to them. Consequently, it is the rare Syrian of any political or religious persuasion who believes that our aims are benevolent. 

Thus, when Syria suffered four years of devastating droughts that created conditions like the American "dust bowl" of the 1930s, and we turned down their request for emergency food aid, many Syrians read into our action a sinister purpose. Our public proclamations substantiated their interpretation. And not only proclamations. We and our allies trained, supplied and financed forces, about which we knew practically nothing, to overthrow their government. And we came within hours of a military strike that would have gotten us into another messy, illegal, ill-conceived and probably unwinnable war. That danger appears to have subsided (temporarily?) but we are still engaged in the actions we began in 1949, trying to overthrow the Syrian state.

Let us be clear: the Syrian state is not an attractive organization. Few states are. All states, even democracies, are to one degree or another coercive. We do not let this bother us when we deal with those states that are important or valuable to us and, truth be told, we apply the criterion of freedom rather loosely to our own actions. America's domestic record in civil rights is hardly unblemished, our dealings with the Native Americans constituted genocide and what we did in the Philippines would today be regarded as a war crime. We have engaged in over 200 military actions against foreigners—an average of one a year since we became a state. But, even if we put legality and morality aside, the fact is that we have never managed to find ways to reform other peoples in the idealized image we have of ourselves. So we keep proclaiming the image while acting as our interests appear to demand.

What are those interests? I think that most Americans would today define them largely if not almost exclusively in terms of security. We don't want to live in fear, and we believe that the danger is foreign. The irony, as one of the authors of our Constitution already put it over 200 years ago, is that our principal danger is ourselves. Of course, he could not have guessed the extent: we murdered almost 200,000 of our fellow citizens in the first decade of this century. (That was with guns and knives; we killed about twice that many in the same period with our most dangerous weapon, the automobile.) The number of Americans killed by foreign terrorists in America was less than 3,000. The odds of an American being killed by a terrorist were said to be about 1:20,000,000. But, the number of Americans killed in foreign wars (not counting Vietnam) is approaching 10,000 and the number with long-term disabilities caused by wounds several times as high as the total of all these figures (including Vietnam). 

Logically, we should ask why we are willing to pay all the costs especially since they have not accomplished our aim of becoming more secure. I find three answers: first, some of us make money from our "military-industrial complex;" second, politicians find that they win elections by catering to our fascination with war and the arms industry has cleverly parceled out production so that virtually every congressional district contains one supplier and many workers whose jobs depend on it. More directly, lobbyists rent their services by giving them large scale donations. Thus, they have added "congressional" to Eisenhower's identification of the military-industrial complex. And, third, the lesson our military drew from the Vietnam war was to keep those of us who counted politically, the white, still-relatively prosperous middle class, from getting hurt. A large part of those deployed in harms way today are not "us" but politically and economically marginal members of our society or even foreigners. 

Now, as we watch day-by-day in the media, we can see that we are on the brink of a replay of our last failure: Iraq. So, at the risk of exposing myself to the charge that I am an ivory-tower historian, allow me a minute or so of "chatter" on how we got where we are and speculate on what might happen.

First, the sequence: like Syria, Iraq had a relatively short time to develop its governing institutions. When I lived there in 1952, it was "technically" independent but, as everyone knew, the British ruled the country though their proxies. The proxies were allowed to enrich themselves. In return, they raised no problems about the issue that was really important to the British, exporting at minimal cost Iraq's oil. Then, the proxies and the British then made a serious mistake. They allowed increasing numbers of Iraqis to get educated. Worse, those Iraqis began to copy their British and American teachers: they bit into the "apple" of nationalism. Iraq's expulsion from the British-ruled Eden was just a matter of time. And not much of that. When it happened, it was sudden. In 1958, the army made a coup d’état.

Coups d’état are not unusual. We have promoted many and not just in the Middle East but also in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Those that are successful are usually carried out by the single effective organ of weak states, the security forces. They alone are unified, armed and mobile. Those states most susceptible to coups rarely have functioning civil institutions that can balance the military. Iraq had none. So the country fell under the rule of successive dictators. 

However we felt in principle about the dictators, in practice we either found them useful or at least did not object to their activities. Iraq was our ally against Iran; so we supplied Saddam with the weapons of war, particularly our satellite intelligence, and even with the stocks to manufacture poison gas. It was only when we thought we no longer needed him and he blundered into Kuwait (and seemed about to invade Saudi Arabia where we had the truly strategic interest of oil) that we decided to get rid of him. That was not a difficult task. Saddam's army was battle worn; its equipment was obsolescent; his treasury was empty; he had many enemies and few friends—even Hafez al-Assad's Syrian regime was on our side. 

So the war looked easy. Wars often do to those who want to start them. But as Clausewitz warned, warfare is always unpredictable. Moreover, it changes those who fight: once the "dogs of war" are unleashed, they often turn rabid.  They attack the good and the bad, the adults and the children, the people and their organizations. Thus, chaos almost always follows. We see this clearly in Iraq. Saddam was a ruthless dictator who refused to share political power and did some terrible things; however, in some spheres his regime functioned constructively. He used much of the increase of Iraq's income that resulted from the removal of British control of oil to fund economic and social development. Schools, universities, hospitals, factories, theaters and museums proliferated; education became free and nearly universal; the citizens benefited from the one of the best public health systems then in operation; employment became so "full" that a plan was developed to siphon off some of Egypt's vast peasant class to work Iraq's fields. Iraq became a secular state in which women were freer than in most of the world. True, Saddam suppressed the Kurds and the Shiis, but we don't object much to the practice of similar policies against minorities in Asia, Africa and parts of Europe and Latin America. 

Saddam's sin was not what he did in Iraq but that he thwarted us on two issues America would not tolerate his interference: oil in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and Israel's relation with the Palestinians and its regional dominance. War could have been avoided by adroit diplomacy but it was avidly embraced in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration and its neoconservative guides. Their policy convinced the Iraqis that nothing they could do would stop it. They were right. We fired the broadside.

In the broadside we destroyed not only Saddam's regime. Inevitably; we killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, our use of depleted uranium artillery shells is believed to have caused a seven-fold rise in cancer among survivors; our bombs, shells and the nearly 1,000 cruise missiles we fired destroyed much of the country's infrastructure and caused millions of people to lose their homes, their jobs and their access to education and public health care. And, most important, in the chaos that followed the invasion, the fragile "social contract" that had linked together the inhabitants was voided. Terror set the rules. Hope disappeared in misery. Whole neighborhoods were emptied as violent and newly empowered armed men "ethnically cleansed" them. Former neighbors became deadly enemies. The government we installed made Saddam's regime appear in contrast as civil libertarian.

A whirlwind, as the Old Testament warns us, is the inevitable reaction to the sowing of the wind of war. That is what we are seeing today in Iraq. Now, it seems, President Obama has decided to try whistling in the wind.

Whistling in the wind is the least dangerous interpretation of Mr. Obama's decision to put 300 "advisors" into Iraq—where have we heard of such a move before! Those of us who are old enough will remember that President Kennedy began in the same way. Arguably he was a bit more realistic, sending initially about six times that many "Special Forces" (then called "Green Berets") initially to Vietnam. Both Kennedy and Obama swore not to send ground troops, but Obama can at least claim credit for being more honest: our "advisors" are to be "combat ready."

So instead of "security," or even an approximation of what that word might mean, and certainly no reasonably clear strategy on how to attain it, we find ourselves in the following disarray:

Starting in the west and moving east: in Libya, having destroyed the Qaddafi regime, we unleashed forces that have virtually torn Libya apart and have spilled over into Central Africa, opening a new area of instability. In Egypt, the "non-coup-coup" of General Sisi has produced no ideas on what to do to help the Egyptian people except to execute large numbers of their religious leaders; he has also made clear his suspicion of and opposition to us. In occupied Palestine, the Israeli state is reducing the population to misery and driving it to rage while, in Washington, its extreme right-wing government is thumbing its nose at its benefactor, America. Our relations have never been worse. In Syria, we are engaged in arming, training and funding essentially the same people whom the new Egyptian regime is about to hang and whom we are considering bombing in Iraq. In Iraq, we are about to become engaged in supporting the regime we installed and which is the close ally of the Syrian and Iranian regimes that we have been trying for years to destroy; yet in Iran, we appear to be on the point of reversing our policy of destroying its government and seeking its help to defeat the insurgents in Iraq. And on and on.

Admittedly, in my day in planning American policy in the Middle East, we never had to find our ways out of such a disarray. My tasks were comparatively easy. So, perhaps, our actions are aspects of a shrewd, nimble and skillful policy that I am simply not clever enough to understand. I certainly hope so.

But, even if they are, what is the "bottom line," as businessmen like to say, in terms of our objective of being "secure?" 

Allow me a personal answer. When I first traveled through the deserts, farm lands, villages and cities of Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, unfailingly, I was welcomed, invited into homes, fed and cared for. Today, I would risk being shot into any of the areas most affected by American policy.

Get the broadside ready. But in which direction should we point it?

                                                            ***

William R. Polk was a Member of the Policy Planning Council, responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia, for 4 years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, He was a member of the three-men Crisis Management Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later he was Professor of History at the University of Chicago, founding director of the Middle Eastern Studies Center and President of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of some 17 books on world affairs, including The United States and the Arab World; The Elusive Peace, the Middle East in the Twentieth Century; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency and Terrorism; Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and numerous articles in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, Harpers, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Le Monde Diplomatique. He has lectured at many universities and at the Council on Foreign Relations, Chatham House, Sciences Po, the Soviet Academy of Sciences and has appeared frequently on NPR, the BBC, CBS and other networks. His most recent books, both available on Amazon, are Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change and Blind Man’s Buff, a Novel.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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