Ned Barnett © 2008
This column was written for my "Barnett on PR and Politics" blog, but it applies so well to history that I'm cross-posting it here. In it - rather than looking at a particular political PR tactic and examining the strategy behind it - looks at the so-called "war" in Iraq, and examine what may be the real strategy behind America's continued presence in the Middle East.
Is it a "War" We're In, In Iraq?
First, before we answer that perennial rock-and-roll question, we have to ask, are we at war? We call it a war on terrorism, but we also refer to efforts to stop the massive import of illicit drugs into the US “the war on drugs” – and that’s clearly not a war (and not particularly effective, either).
Frankly, as a life-long military historian, I don't consider what we've got in Iraq or Afghanistan a "war" - or even much of a skirmish. More Americans in the same age cohorts as our uniformed and deployed soldiers die in domestic auto accidents each year than die in the Middle East. This suggests (oddly, but factually) that it's safer to be in uniform in the so-called “war zone” than it is to be out of uniform here in the US (and since I lost a military-aged son to a traffic accident you can be assured that I've checked those stats carefully).
What we have is an occupation, not a war – a damned expensive occupation, to be sure, but an occupation. It has more in common with our presence in Korea since 1953 than it does with any active combat America has seen since the period from 1781 (when we defeated the British at Yorktown) and 1783 (when the peace treaty was finally signed, sealed and delivered). Our Middle East presence today has a fair amount in common with the low-level of military activity that characterized the Pax Brittanica during the latter half of Queen Victoria’s reign (excepting that we don’t have an empire and aren’t trying to create one) – it’s an armed peace, rather than a real war.
Why Are We Still There?
However, we generally perceive it as a war, if only because such a high percentage of our uniformed military is on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates). But there's one glaring fact that most Americans – and apparently most of the American media – don't seem to realize (or if they appreciate it, to embrace the implications of this glaring fact). In recent discussion with uniformed reserve unit commanders, I have confirmed that a numerical majority of our deployed forces are serving in this “war zone” in non-combat roles - primarily "hearts-and-minds" kinds of activities, rather than in the combat roles most Americans assume they’re involved with.
While (as a personal note) I think this kind of civil affairs activities – rebuilding schools and bridges, digging wells, providing medical services, even training local police and militia forces – could all be accomplished more easily by hired civilians than by our uniformed soldiers, I don’t think this will happen. To be sure, such a transition would free our soldiers for military activities and dramatically reduce our military “footprint” in this part of the world. However, these civil affairs activities are carried out – and will continued to be carried out – by the military, in part because these civil affairs “hearts-and-minds” kinds of activities get budgeted out as "war" expenses. Which is nonsense, but it is nonetheless politically-expedient for both sides, so the charade will continue.
War opponents want to keeps soldiers performing civil affairs activities because the larger military presence this requires creates a larger target – they can cite the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and other uniformed personnel “in-country,” as well as the hundreds of billions of dollars required to keep them there, as reasons for opposing our continued presence. A small, economical military force made up solely of war-fighters would be a much smaller, much less significant target.
Why are We Really There?
On the other side, the pro-war leadership wants to keep the largest American footprint possible in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if the uniformed troopers are performing non-combat and even non-military functions. Why? Because their presence there provides for regional stability by keeping Syria’s President Bashar Al-Asad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from exercising their stated desire to destroy Israel … and in the process, our armed forces in the Middle East prevent a nuclear exchange the world can ill-afford.
Sound far-fetched? Well, listen more closely. With Ahmadinejad busily crafting nukes – or at least the capability for quickly creating and deploying nukes – and with his frequent and public threats against Israel, our forces in the Middle East are the best single means of defense against a nuclear exchange. Ahmadinejad knows that if he uses nuclear weapons in an area where the US has deployed forces, he’s inviting a massive nuclear retaliation – that has always been the US policy when facing WMDs, and it’s not likely to change regardless of who’s President.
If America dismantles our “buffer” presence and leaves the Middle East, and if Ahmadinejad gets strong enough, Israel – if it wants to continue to exist – will feel compelled to pull a 1967-like preemptive war or a 1981-style preemptive strike. Remember, it was on June 7, 1981 that Israel warplanes struck at Saddam Hussain’s Osirak nuclear facility – preventing that dictator from creating nuclear weapons and sparing the world from a regional nuclear war in the 20th century.
At that time, Iraq had but a single nuclear facility and Israel had attack aircraft and conventional weapons with enough range and striking power to take that facility out. Today, Iran has more than 50 nuclear program-related sites, some buried below the level that any conventional weapon can reach. If America abandons this region, all that Israel will have with which to take out Ahmadinejad’s nuclear capability are their own (unacknowledged – but nonetheless real) nuclear weapons.
President Bush knows this, though of course – after his failure to turn up WMDs in Iraq – he’s not going to trumpet it publicly. Hillary Clinton knows this – when Bill was President they faced the same issue, though with Saddam Hussain instead of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and reacted by instituting periodic air attacks that kept Saddam destabilized and relatively impotent. Retired warrior John McCain has surely figured this out – it’s a latter-day example of nuclear brinksmanship that constituted our military strategy when he was in the service.
Barack Obama could be forgiven for not having made the connection – as a very junior Senator, he wouldn’t have access to the inside strategy, and as someone primarily focused on domestic politics, he may not have looked behind the curtain to see what the Wizard was really up to. However, as America gears up for its next election – with Iraq as a potentially decisive issue – all the candidates need to consider the regional and strategic “real reason” why are troops are there, nation-building in the Middle East and maintaining a “force in being” deterrent to a devastating regional nuclear war.
These candidates – as well as the media and the voting public – should keep in mind that, as expensive as is our current presence is in the Middle East, whatever the stated PR reasons for our presence, we are really there (or at least also there) to prevent the world’s first nuclear exchange since 1945. Considering Middle Eastern oil and its role in the world economy, this is one nuclear exchange that the world really can't afford – but (absent our presence) it is also one nuclear exchange that the world can't stop. We, alone, have the strength of arms and – at least for the present – the strength of will to remain in a buffer position in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as we have served for 55 years along the DMZ in Korea.
Here’s the bottom line: Whatever our stated intent, we prevent a real nuclear war between Iran and Israel just by being there.
Remember, you heard it here first.