Southwest Asia has been with me for a long time. For over a decade, I was a small part of a fairly well-orchestrated U.S. strategy to maintain the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. When the Shah of Iran fell in 1979, we knew that the papier-mache kingdom of Saudi Arabia could not replace Iran as our “protector in the Gulf,” so we settled for the next best thing: a relatively stable balance between the Arabs of Iraq and the Persians of Iran. We had to work hard to maintain this balance.
The first serious challenge came in the mid-1980s when I was a joint-staff officer for the principal military force-provider for the region, U.S. Pacific Command. I helped plan the U.S. military’s response to defeat a push by the Soviets into Iran in search of warm-water ports. In 1979, Russia had already invaded Afghanistan and many predicted Iran was next. The Cold War’s strategy preempted everything else, but we still kept a wary eye on others in the Persian Gulf, particularly after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran.
When it looked as if the long and bloody war Hussein had started might eventually destroy the balance we sought and draw the Soviets into Gulf waters, the U.S. openly took Iraq’s side. We re-flagged and escorted Kuwaiti tankers, a U.S. warship absorbed two Iraqi Exocet missiles and almost sank, another of our warships struck an Iranian mine, we attacked Iran’s command-and-control assets, sunk one Iranian warship and badly damaged another, and then tragically shot down an Iranian civilian airliner with 290 people on board. It was this tragic act that many believe caused Ayatollah Khomeini to “drink the hemlock,” as he put it, and declare an end to the disastrous war Iraq had begun. The stability we sought was reestablished.
At the end of the 1980s, I became a special adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Having been thwarted in his attempt to conquer Iran, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and we immediately launched Operation Desert Shield to protect Saudi oil facilities and, some months later, Operation Desert Storm to kick the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait.
Desert Storm accomplished our strategic objective: restoring the balance in the Gulf. We did not march to Baghdad to unseat Saddam Hussein, because had we done so alone, we would have assumed the role of balancer and would have had to remain in that country indefinitely, something we wisely judged as not only untenable but extremely dangerous for long-term U.S. interests.
Through four presidents—Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton—the U.S. played an adroit strategic game in the Persian Gulf. As a member of the Marine Corps War College faculty from 1993-1997, I and my joint-force students studied, analyzed and evaluated this strategy. As a personal adviser to retired General Colin Powell from 1998-2000, I often discussed how Saddam was contained and the Gulf was stable. In short, we watched U.S. strategy work. It maintained stability in one of the most vital regions of the world and cheap oil flowed to Japan, to Europe and to us.
For over a decade, I was a small part of a U.S. strategy to maintain the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, however ignominiously to the purer hearts of the world. In 2003, George W. Bush and the neoconservatives destroyed that balance.
Imagine my utter surprise, then, when I returned to government in 2000 and began to hear talk of destroying that relative stability by invading Iraq and taking out Saddam Hussein. Had I stumbled into an administration of neophytes in national security policy, lunatics, power-mad zealots, or what?
Some would say the neoconservatives and hyper-nationalists who seemed to crawl out of the dark and advise or enter the Bush administration were all of these and more. But these descriptions omit an important element: the messianic and arrogant belief in American exceptionalism.
Many of the men and women I encountered in 2001-2005, or who are now speaking out loudly about America’s responsibilities toward Iraq, sincerely believed that their country has a mission in the world to evangelize its unbelievers. Theirs is a long tradition in U.S. foreign policy, loathed and despised by John Quincy Adams as wanting to go “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”
No matter how many times their beliefs are proven insane, destabilizing, immoral, dangerous, ruinous even—consider L. Paul Bremer’s disbanding of the Iraqi military, de-Baathification and refusal to establish an Iraqi government in 2003—they continue to advocate identical policies and actions. Regardless of previous decisions gone horribly awry, they push for similar decisions today. Despite clear proof that civil war cannot be safely managed by outside parties, they—the outside party—insist on intervening. Today, moreover, they insist on calling all opposition “terrorists,” even in Iraq where the most formidable forces opposing Nouri al-Maliki are the very Sunnis “awakened” by General David Patraeus in 2007.
Worse, because of a truly apathetic Congress, a largely ignorant or complicit media, a dramatically incompetent legal system, and those who enrich themselves on the anti-terrorist industrial complex, these neocons get away with this characterization.
From 1953 to 2000, we crafted and maintained a balance of power in the Persian Gulf, however ignominiously to the purer hearts of the world. In 2003, we destroyed that balance. We are now reaping the consequences. To thrust more military power into such a situation will only work if we remain indefinitely and massively deployed there—an extremely dangerous proposition. The only other solution is to craft a new balance of power. Iran just might be ready to assist.
UPDATE (August 8, 2014)
With the recent U.S. airstrikes near Irbil, President Obama has reentered the miasma that is Iraq.
In for a penny, in for a pound comes to mind. A couple of laser-guided bombs are the penny. The pound will come when air power, as usual, proves insufficient.
Compelling the U.S. to reenter the fray is precisely what the Islamic State (IS) desires: the ultimate tactical goal of every rabid terrorist spawned by Al Qaeda is to kill Americans. What IS does not want is Tehran and Washington working in concert.
The IS leadership knows no solution can be achieved—in Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon or Iraq—and no long-term security for Israel can be forged, and no peace can come to the region, unless Iran is a fully participating and cooperating party on the side of IS’s enemies.
This does not mean sectarian war; it means a war of both Sunnis and Shia, along with Christians and others—and of all those desirous of stability and peace—against the real terrorists. It also means that all religious groups, in Iraq and elsewhere, who join this struggle have to be treated with tolerance, respect, both during the struggle and after it’s won. There can be no Malikis any more than there can be new Saddam Husseins.
There has to be real and sustainable political change in Iraq—and it has to come now.
Lawrence Wilkerson is Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He was Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002-2005. He served 31 years in the U.S. Army.