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
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.
The contemporary Middle East analogue to Roosevelt and
Churchill's strategy of using North Africa as a gateway to eventual victory in
Europe is the Syria conflict and its link to the strategic competition against
Iran. Like snatching North Africa from the Axis, toppling President Bashar
al-Assad is likely to be an effective, if indirect, way to strike a blow
against the ayatollahs. Achieving that goal has strategic consequences for
which the United States should be willing to invest more assets -- and take
more risks - than it is doing today.
The certainty of unintended consequences: The allies
took less than four days to secure their objectives in Torch, quickly silencing
Vichy guns along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts and roaring overland
toward Tunisia. However, the North African campaign did not end with that swift
and decisive Allied victory. To the contrary, the Anglo-American success
convinced Hitler that he needed to stop the enemy advance before the Allies
could make the leap across the Mediterranean to southern Europe. The result was
the German invasion of Tunisia on Nov. 8, 1942. Within days, this led to a
full-fledged Nazi occupation -- including the dispatch of thousands of Jews to
forced labor camps -- and a grinding six-month battle between Allied and Axis
forces for control of that tiny country at the northern tip of the African
In today's Middle East, unintended consequences abound.
Success against "al Qaeda central" did not end the threat of violent Sunni
extremists, it only triggered a transformation that has seen al Qaeda affiliates
sprout up from Mali to Benghazi to Sinai. And the heady optimism of Tahrir
Square, praised by American leaders as an echo of the ideals of Gandhi and Martin
Luther King, Jr. was the prelude to the Islamization of Arab politics, not the
coming of a new Arab liberal age. The lesson -- which is not limited to the
Middle East, of course -- is that one celebrates the first signs of triumph at
one's peril. Real success takes time and persistence, and is often littered
with losses and setbacks along the way.
Prioritizing is messy and even sordid -- but essential:
Operation Torch had its own explosive political scandal -- the agreement ironed
out by U.S. commanders and diplomats with the ranking Vichy officer in Algeria,
Adm. Francois Darlan, to leave the pro-fascist, virulently anti-Semitic regime
in place in exchange for safe passage of Allied troops across North Africa.
Under this agreement, U.S. officers watched in silence as Vichy officers jailed
the leaders of the largely Jewish underground network in Algiers who had risked
their lives to make possible the allied entry into the city.
Roosevelt came under a barrage of criticism, especially from
within his own party, for cutting what was derisively termed the "Darlan Deal,"
but he stayed the course. The president said he would "walk with the devil" himself
to enable Allied troops to take the battle directly to the Germans in Tunisia,
thereby shortening the war and saving American lives.
Prioritizing competing interests -- which in practice often
means maintaining distasteful double standards -- is a fact of life for great powers,
especially in times of war and conflict, as is the case in the Middle East
today. While principle should define policy whenever possible, expediency is often
deemed necessary. The key is not to let expediency become the "new normal." After
Torch, it took a long, agonizing year, but Vichy's anti-Semitic laws were
finally repealed in North Africa. Roosevelt's Pentagon famously decided not to
bomb the railways to Auschwitz, but uneasiness with the Darlan Deal may have played
a role in the decision to seek unconditional surrender from Nazi Germany.
In today's Middle East, for example, the United States opposes
the spread of radical Sunni extremism. However, Washington still supports the
radical Sunni extremists who govern Saudi Arabia and Qatar because of our
larger interests in energy and the need to counter the threat of a hegemonic
Iran. A lesson from Torch is that this emphasis on security interests should
not forever trump the need to speak up loudly and forcefully on issues of principle,
such as the values of personal freedom, free speech, and religious tolerance.
America needs to find a time, a place, and a way to assert all its interests.
Gratitude will be fleeting, if it exists at all: Seventy
years ago, Allied troops roared through North Africa and ended the occupation
of local countries by the Vichy French, Nazi Germans and Fascist Italians. The
cost was thousands of American dead, including the 2,841 laid to rest in the
pristine grounds of the 27-acre U.S. military
cemetery near Carthage; the names of another 3,724 are chiseled in stone as "missing."
Some locals -- especially those who suffered personally under Axis rule
-- were grateful for this sacrifice. However, the views of most were summed up
by a Tunisian historian who I once asked to describe the scene in Tunis on the day
the city was liberated. "Liberated?" he asked caustically. "What liberation? We
went from German occupation back to French occupation."
Times haven't changed very much. U.S. forces saved Kuwait
from Saddam Hussein's stranglehold, but the desert emirate votes against the
United States at the United Nations about two-thirds of the time and has been
among the most miserly Arab states when it comes to responding to American
requests to support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Iraq today has a
chance to build a functioning democracy thanks to the United States, but it's
hard to find a pro-U.S. politician in Baghdad -- let alone a nice word for what
America did on behalf of the Iraqi people. And it is easier to find a ham
sandwich in Mecca than a "thank you" for the billions in development assistance
that the United States has provided Egypt over the past three decades.
But gratitude is not the metric of a wise policy. Americans
didn't make the greatest sacrifice 70 years ago to win the love of North
Africans, and that shouldn't be the goal of our policy in the Middle East
today. National interest -- not high poll numbers, warm embraces or polite
thank yous -- drove policy then, as it should now. Again, that doesn't mean
America should be indifferent to Arab goals and aspirations. To the contrary,
should Arab countries and their leaders succeed, with American help, at
developing well-functioning economies with representative, inclusive,
transparent systems of government, this is, in the long run, a big win for the
United States. We just shouldn't expect a thank-you note.
We came, we fought, we went: American troops raced
across North Africa in World War II as fast as they could because their goal
was to jump across the Strait of Sicily to begin the long march to Rome and,
eventually, Berlin. They had little
interest in transforming politics and society along the way and therefore set
up no post-conflict military governments, organized no U.S.-style elections,
and handpicked no local leaders to hand the reins of power. The Pottery Barn
rule -- "you break it, you buy it" -- did not apply; the first store didn't
open its doors until 1950, anyway.
Today, in contrast, the United States is deeply involved in
the political life of countries across the region -- sometimes because of our
direct presence, aid and support; sometimes because of the lure of our culture;
sometimes only because the conspiratorial nature of local political thinking
inflates the role we play into a phantom reality which takes on an absurd but
very real life of its own.
To be sure, there are places where the United States should
embrace this connection as an opportunity and other places where we can't run
from the responsibility even if we wanted to do so. But if there is a lesson to
be drawn from America's experience seven decades ago, it is that Washington
should, at times, be willing to hew more closely to the Torch-era model of defining
interests, achieving objectives, and then saying à bientôt.
In the "Arab spring" states of Egypt and Tunisia, for
example, new leaders have a sense of entitlement that America owes them
billions of dollars in assistance as compensation for our past support of
pro-U.S. autocrats. In turn, some in Washington appear to have a breathless passion
to "get on the right side of history" by rushing to "educate"
oppositionists-turned-politicians who spent a lifetime condemning America, and
to provide them with substantial support without a clear understanding of the quid
pro quos involved.
While the era may have passed when America could have the
strategic equivalent of a one-night stand -- close intimacy followed by a
swift, no-regrets farewell -- our standing in many countries is likely to
improve the more we expect local governments to win us over, not vice versa.
This means projecting less eagerness and enthusiasm and more restraint and
* * *
Learning from history has its limits: Torch and its
aftermath do not provide all the answers for the many facets of America's
current involvement in the broader Middle East. After all, the North African
campaign was essentially a two-dimensional military affair -- Allies versus
Axis -- whereas today's Middle East is characterized by a multiplicity of
actors in a complex and highly politicized environment. But the lessons this
forgotten chapter of American engagement in the Arab world does offer -- from
the importance of defining strategy to the prioritization of competing
interests to the most effective way to engage local actors -- continue to
resonate. Indeed, preventing the next American deaths in Benghazi could depend
on learning from the legacy of the 2,841 buried in Carthage.