National Security

The First Step

Why America needs to beat itself up a little more over the Iraq War.

Ten years ago this week the United States launched the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Ten years later we can and should say that the United States lost that war.

Recognizing that the United States lost (and why) is a bit like an alcoholic admitting that he has a problem -- it's the first step on the road to recovery and preventing such grievous errors from being repeated in the future.

Defining a wartime loss can be a tricky thing. Clearly, the United States does not look defeated in the way that, say, Japan looked at the end of World War II. But if one uses the Bush administration's criteria for what the war in Iraq was supposed to accomplish, it's a loss all the same.

The initial rationales used by President Bush to justify military action in Iraq revolved around two ideas: one, that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and the inclination to build more; and two, that Iraq had direct links to terrorist organizations that could use these weapons to attack the United States. As Bush said at the time, "We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater. In one year or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over." Removing Saddam Hussein -- one of the objectives that the United States did accomplish in Iraq -- was viewed as a key means for lessening these alleged threats.

But we now know that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, or even an active program to build them; it was not attempting to rebuild its nuclear program; it did not have links to al Qaeda; it was not working with international terrorist groups to attack the United States. Iraq was a neutered, battered, and marginalized nation, hemmed in by international sanctions and the enforcement of no-fly zones in the north and south of the country. Saddam was a threat to no one but his own people.

Acolytes of the Bush administration (and they are a small group) could argue that the United States was not fully aware of Iraq's vulnerable state, its lack of WMD, and its mythical links to terrorism. The problem, of course, is that one doesn't get a mulligan when it comes to invading and occupying a foreign country and squandering thousands of American lives (and some 100,000 Iraqi lives), as well as trillions of dollars. Even if the Bush administration was misled by CIA intelligence or had the best of intentions in Iraq, that's an explanation (and an unbelievably charitable one) -- not an excuse.

After all, containment of Iraq was working -- and was significantly strengthened in the run-up to the war. In May 2002, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a program of "smart sanctions," overcoming long-standing Russian opposition and renewing international support for keeping Saddam in his box. And a few months later, the Security Council again unanimously approved a resolution demanding Iraq allow U.N. inspectors back into the country -- which it did in January 2003. The initial IAEA and U.N. monitoring teams reported that they could find no evidence of WMD in Iraq, but that more inspections were needed. Perversely, this was viewed in Washington as evidence of continued Iraqi obfuscation and even more reason to invade the country. Even if one believes that the sanctions regime was wavering, the steps taken by the United Nations were compelling evidence that containment of Iraq could be maintained -- and that the allegedly urgent need for invasion and occupation was thoroughly overstated.

Of course, in the years after the invasion -- and after no WMD or links to terrorism were found -- the rationale for sustaining the U.S. presence in Iraq shifted: from removing Saddam as a threat to birthing liberty between the Tigris and the Euphrates. While putting Iraq on the road to stability and even democracy might be a laudatory goal, it was certainly never the war's primary objective.

Regardless, can anyone seriously argue that building a democracy in Iraq was worth the price tag? Whatever your priorities, the opportunity costs alone are stratospherically large. The $3 trillion spent by the United States in both direct and indirect costs could have balanced the budget (several times over), fixed the nation's crumbling infrastructure, ensured that every person with HIV had access to life-saving medications, or ended world hunger.

In the end, a war that was predicated on dubious suppositions, diverted trillions in resources, cost thousands of lives, and did not further U.S. security interests really only has one descriptor:  a loss.

So why does this matter? Does the United States really need to engage in self-flagellation over the war in Iraq? Actually, yes it does.

To be sure, accepting defeat in war is a rare thing. As Paul Fritz, a political science professor at Hofstra University said to me, "No one likes to label themselves a loser and most of the time will find ways to rationalize, deflect, or otherwise not accept the fact and consequences of a loss, implicitly or explicitly." History is replete with such examples. While the most vivid example is perhaps the stabbed-in-the-back meme that followed Germany's loss in WWI, even after the more total defeat of WWII, Germany initially saw itself as a victim and only years later accepted culpability for its actions during the war. In the case of Japan, penance was imposed by the United States and even to this day there has been little of the national soul-searching in which Germany eventually engaged.

In the United States, after Vietnam, while there was perhaps not an explicit recognition of defeat, there was an understanding that steps must be taken to avoid such a calamitous and ill-advised conflict in the future. That belief became the impetus for the so-called Weinberger Doctrine, which established clear criteria for the use of force: a vital national interest must be at stake; wars should be fought wholeheartedly; political and military objectives must be clear; those objectives and the size of the force engaged much be constantly reassessed and adjusted; the support of Congress and the American people is paramount; and, finally, force must be the last resort. Colin Powell later expanded on these tests with the inclusion of overwhelming military force and full consideration of the consequences of military action.

Across three administrations -- Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton -- civilian leaders largely abided by the spirit if not always the letter of the doctrine. While occasionally the definition of vital national interest was stretched very far, by and large military engagement was de-emphasized, the political impact of extended wars was given greater consideration, and when fought, wars were limited and were conducted on a grand scale (the first Gulf War). Allied support and a strong military force were also considered essential.

In the years since the Iraq War has wound down, there has been little of the same reflection. Rather, military and, in particular, civilian leaders took away from Iraq not the strategic mistakes and faulty assumption that underpinned the decision to go to war, but rather the tactical advances that allegedly salvaged the conflict in the 2007. This is, for lack of a better term, "surge triumphalism." It reflects the abiding belief among military leaders that the U.S. Army learned crucial lessons in waging counterinsurgency -- and is why they pushed for more troops in 2009 to wage the war in Afghanistan.

However, a proper appreciation of the lessons of Iraq -- not just by the military but also by civilian leaders -- should have led to different outcomes in Afghanistan. What is most startling about Afghanistan is the extent to which U.S. policymakers -- even from a new administration and a different party -- made so many of the same mistakes as their predecessors had made in 2003. No clear political objectives were established; options other than U.S. boots on the ground were rejected, including containment; the process of political development and governance was deeply misunderstood; the potential threats to U.S. national security from inaction were dramatically overstated; and there was once again a complete lack of appreciation for the limits of American diplomatic and military power. Hubris and strategic incoherence drove the United States to fight an ill-advised war in Iraq; it led to similar misjudgments six and a half years later in the decision to surge in Afghanistan.

During the Afghan surge debate in 2009, former British Army officer Rory Stewart recounted his experience meeting with U.S. officials about the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan: "‘It's like they're coming in and saying to you, I'm going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?' And you say, 'I don't think you should drive your car off the cliff.' And they say, 'No, no, that bit's already been decided -- the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.'" The problem on both Iraq and Afghanistan was that the decision to use force was made before the United States even figured out what it wanted or could accomplish -- and that useful criteria for thinking about the use of American military power were ignored.

Such mistakes cannot be made again in the future. But with policymakers from both sides of the political aisle rattling sabers with Iran, they very well could.

"Don't fight stupid wars" is perhaps the most enduring lesson of the past 10 years in American foreign policy -- and it's pretty good advice for the future. But refusing to fight dumb wars begins with understanding how the United States found itself fighting two of them back to back. It's not enough to simply recognize that Iraq was a strategic error; we must understand the many reasons why. And that begins with recognizing that America lost the war in Iraq before a single shot was ever fired.

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What Obama Must Do in Israel

It’s time to stop focusing on personalities and get down to the more important business of identifying common interests.

This week, when Air Force One lands in Tel Aviv, the newly reelected American president and the Israeli prime minister with a new government will turn the page on a new chapter in their relationship. And they will discuss how to manage the strategic challenges we both face in ways that protect our respective interests.

Much has been made and said about the personal relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. Some of it is even true: It has been far from tension-free, and is very much in need of a reboot. But I also think that too much has been said about it, as if the bilateral relationship could be reduced to their personal rapport -- as if the strategic dimension of the two countries' ties were either anecdotal or purely a function of personal chemistry.

We should leave aside some of that background noise and focus more on where the strategic relationship stands today, what challenges it faces, and how this visit can help overcome them.

First, it has been said before but bears repeating, for it is neither propaganda nor spin: Military and security cooperation between the two countries has never been stronger. That is a fact confirmed by both sides and witnessed in countless ways: intelligence sharing, joint military exercises, extraordinarily close consultation on questions like Iran and, of course, joint efforts on the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. That is far more important than whether the two leaders can be best friends.

Second, it is true that in some respects the two countries experience events in the Middle East somewhat differently. When Israelis look out their windows, virtually in any direction, what they see is far greater uncertainty, volatility, and even peril than ever before.

And so, it is only natural that, when the United States invests in negotiations with Iran, engages with the Muslim Brotherhood, supports democratic transitions, and urges progress in the peace process, some Israelis suspect it of misunderstanding the region or, worse, of naiveté. Yet my sense is that the president is anything but naïve. True, Israel lives in the region and we do not, and differences in outlook and different threat perceptions are inevitable byproducts of our respective locations.

But that doesn't necessarily translate into divergent strategic pursuits, nor should it. And a principal goal of this trip is to clarify that point. Take the issues one by one:

First, Iran. Both Obama and Netanyahu have made clear that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable and that they will act -- militarily if necessary -- to prevent it. Both men mean what they say. The task at hand is to manage the nuances in their approach in a way that protects their countries' respective interests.

The United States is convinced that the door for diplomacy has not yet closed. That is partly because, as Obama said again last week, he believes Iran is at least a year away from being able to acquire a bomb, and partly because the sanctions are taking a tremendous toll, which he believes might affect the Iranian leadership's strategic calculus. Chances are uncertain, but at the very least the administration believes the United States should allow the Islamic Republic to reflect on its economic predicament before closing the door on a negotiated settlement. The administration also believes that by going the extra mile diplomatically, it will be in a far better position to forge an international coalition for whatever is required should diplomacy fail. This is not naiveté. It is prudent statecraft.

And so, while Israel might be skeptical about the prospects for diplomacy, Netanyahu needs to give the president the time and space necessary to play this out. And Obama's challenge is to persuade the prime minister that the United States will act in a timely manner to ensure that Iran will not acquire a bomb. Granted, this is no easy thing for any leader in Israel -- a country that has learned not to rely on others for their survival. But it is essential given the considerable stakes.

Second, the issue of the Arab transition, notably Egypt and Syria. That things look gloomy and ominous from the Israelis' perspective is only natural, and who can blame them? The question is what to do about it. And the question is whether U.S. and Israeli interests are better served by keeping the Islamists at a distance or by engaging them.

As far as I can see, there are no real substantive differences between Israel's and America's interests in this regard. Take the case of Egypt: Both countries want the Camp David accords to survive and the Sinai to be stabilized, its jihadist elements curbed and arms trafficking halted. Each wants Cairo to take steps to shut down the tunnels leading into Gaza; wants Egypt's political leadership to engage more openly with its Israeli counterpart; and wants to avoid a collapse of the Egyptian economy that could have dangerous spillover effects while radicalizing its politics.

All of these interests are more easily pursued by engaging the elected Egyptian leadership -- albeit critically -- than by snubbing it. Regardless of what some Israelis might say publicly, they too recognize this: Last year, when war erupted between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, U.S. mediation with Cairo was instrumental in restoring calm; when security frays in Sinai, Israel urges the United States to press Egypt to crack down on terrorist cells; and Israel wants Obama to keep pressing President Mohammed Morsy's government to engage directly with its Israeli counterparts.

Of course the United States does not see eye to eye with Cairo on a whole range of issues. Obama should be clear about the principles he believes are essential in its domestic struggles - pluralism, inclusiveness, tolerance, rule of law. But America's policy of dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood is one on which the United States and Israel can agree. 

The same principle holds in Syria. Both Obama and Netanyahu are being pulled into the vortex of the Syrian crisis more than they would like. After extracting the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan, the president is hardly eager to become entangled in another Middle East conflict -- one with uncertain players on the ground, swirling sectarian cross-currents, and no clear-cut exit strategy. As it watches jihadi groups gain a foothold not just in Syria, but in the Golan itself, Israel too is hardly sanguine about the country's future after President Bashar al-Assad.

But neither country can escape the consequences of Syria's unraveling. More than a million refugees now pose a threat to the stability of Syria's neighbors, including Jordan and Lebanon, a prospect that spells more trouble for the region, the United States and Israel. Sectarian clashes in Syria are deepening sectarian battle lines in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. Islamic jihadists -- some of the best equipped and most capable fighters in Syria -- are establishing a strong position.

Syria's disintegration could unleash the Assad regime's stockpile of chemical and other weapons. Hezbollah, with the support of Iran, might shift rockets and other sophisticated weapons from Syria to Lebanon. And after years of a relatively stable border with Syria along the Golan Heights, Israel now faces growing jihadist threats there and a U.N. monitoring mission under pressure. 

The United States and Israel thus share the common goal of expediting Assad's departure in a way that minimizes risks to regional stability and of an imploding Syrian state. In his recent trip to the region, Secretary of State John Kerry -- building on the work done by his predecessor Hillary Clinton -- opened channels of direct aid (though still non-lethal) to the opposition and lent full public support to the assistance by others. The United States should do more to help shift the balance of forces on the ground -- to increase the pressure on Assad before a bloody battle over Damascus. U.S. agencies are gaining greater knowledge about the groups on the ground. The battle today over the ouster of Assad is the prelude to the battle over the future of Syria after Assad goes. The United States can't expect to have much influence on that future, nor much leverage on those who will decide it, if it is not working to strengthen more moderate groups now.

Finally, the third topic for Obama and Netanyahu is Israeli-Palestinian peace. This arguably is the one most fraught with disagreement: Whereas the United States sees this as an important issue that must be tackled with some urgency, many in Israel see things differently. They believe progress is highly unlikely, that concessions at a time of regional volatility are unwise, and that the world must first take care of Iran.

It is important from the outset to clarify a few points: The argument made by those in the United States on behalf of movement on the peace process is not -- nor has it ever been -- that resolving the conflict is the key to resolving all other regional issues. No, the argument made by those of us who advocate efforts on behalf of a two-state solution is different: It is that the status quo is not stable and does not serve U.S. interests, Israel's or those of moderate Palestinians.

In the West Bank, the combination of rising economic distress, anger at the Palestinian Authority -- which has problems paying salaries -- and loss of faith in negotiations, is combustible. Clashes between Palestinians and Israelis are increasing. Palestinian security cooperation with Israel is fraying, leading to an increase in incursions by the Israeli military. The danger of a misstep quickly escalating out of control is real.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas probably is the last Palestinian leader for some time with the authority and inclination to sign a peace agreement with Israel. What comes after him is uncertain at best; in particular, if Hamas's narrative of resistance dominates, there will be no prospect for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Israel rightly argues that the regional situation is bleak, and then often evokes this as a reason to be cautious on the Palestinian question. I would turn that around: Yes, the region is volatile. And, yes, there is very little Israel can do to mitigate the risks it faces in Egypt, Syria, and beyond. But there is one place where it can act to mitigate risks and take the initiative, and that is the West Bank. It is the place in the region where it possesses the greatest ability to protect itself, to change dynamics, to ensure that forces of moderation prevail.

Of course, the future of the peace process is far from being exclusively in Israel's hands. We would need to see far greater risk-taking on Abbas's part as well: willingness to compromise on core issues, end incitement, and move forward on the path to peace. But Israel, with U.S. military, diplomatic, and political support, can and should do its part to bend the arc of history where it can -- which could then have positive repercussions elsewhere.

The president has made clear that he is not carrying a peace plan, nor does he intend to launch a high-profile peace initiative when he is in Israel. That is the right posture for this trip. There is a new Israeli government and the groundwork has not been laid. The last thing that is needed now is a grand gesture that is an instant flop.

Instead, this visit is the beginning of a conversation intended to explain why the United States believes progress is important for Israel. No one benefits from negotiations for negotiations' sake. But Obama should make the case -- publicly and privately, both in Jerusalem and Ramallah -- that a two-state solution is the only path to durable peace and security, that time is running out, that all alternatives (a de facto one-state outcome, another Palestinian uprising, the triumph of Hamas's narrative) are far worse. Obama needs to signal that, if the parties are ready, he and Secretary Kerry are willing and able to invest time and energy into this effort.

Like a pendulum swing, many have gone from exuberant optimism about the region when the so-called Arab Spring first began, to extraordinary gloom and doom. The former was as premature as the latter is unjustified. There is absolutely no doubt that the collapse of state structures, rise of Islamist groups, and chaos present real challenges to U.S. and Israeli security.

But if the Arab uprisings taught us anything, it is that the future is not preordained. The region is writing its own history, and there are limits to how much it can be shaped from the outside. Still, our two countries can and should do what they can to bend it in a direction that best comports with our strategic interests. As Obama and Netanyahu sit together over the next few days, that is what they should be dealing with -- together.

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