U.S. troops to North Africa ... Fighting in Benghazi ... Scandal over the president's handling of crisis in the Middle East ...
These themes sound like they were lifted from the presidential foreign-policy debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. In fact, they are echoes of events that occurred 70 years ago next week, when American forces, along with their British allies, launched Operation Torch, the largest amphibious assault in history at the time and America's first foray into the uncertain terrain of the modern Arab world.
Circumstances were, of course, very different from what they are today. The world was at war and North Africa was a critical front in the global conflict. France, the region's main colonial power, held sway in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Its collaborationist Vichy government, headed by Marshal Philippe Petain, worked closely with Nazi Germany. To the east, Fascist Italy controlled Libya, where Benghazi was a key target of back-and-forth fighting between Italian and British troops.
Torch, an operation few recall today, was the beginning of the end of World War II. Until that point, the allies were on defense; Torch was the first major U.S.-led offensive operation of the war. U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided that the effort to defeat Adolf Hitler, smash the Axis, and free Europe would begin on North African shores that had not seen U.S. troops since the days of the Barbary Corsairs in the early 19th century. The result was that from November 1942 to May 1943, the most important territory in the European theater of war was in Arab lands. This is where hundreds of thousands of Americans -- led by generals named Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Clark -- had their first taste of real battle.
Today, there are few reminders left that American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines once crisscrossed the region. Moreover, today's Middle East politics -- the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood, the emergence of vast numbers of salafis, the spread of jihadist cells and the still unfinished conflicts between rulers and ruled -- owes little to that brief but pivotal moment of American dominance. Still, decision-makers looking for solutions to the problems that confound the United States in the Middle East today would be wise to consider these five lessons from an American military engagement in the Arab world that was both among our most consequential and our most fleeting.
The importance of strategy: To many people, it made little sense to attack Casablanca, Algiers, and Oran at a time when it appeared as though the real fight was with the Germans across the English Channel. But Roosevelt and Churchill had a grand strategy to win the war. They understood that sound tactical decisions often meant that the shortest distance between two points was not a straight line, and that expending blood and treasure in North Africa so that Allied troops could cross to Italy and attack the soft underbelly of Axis-controlled Europe might be the most effective way to achieve victory.
Today, the urgency of defining a global strategy -- and determining where the Middle East fits within it -- still applies. Despite all the talk about the need to tilt America's strategic attention to Asia, it is impossible to wish away the threats and dangers emanating from the Middle East.