Hillary Clinton’s flapping of her hawkish wings only intensifies the pressure on President Barack Obama to escalate US military involvement in the sectarian wars of Iraq and Syria. Domestic political considerations already are a major factor in forcing Obama to “do something” to save the Yazidis, avert “another Benghazi” and double down in the undeclared Long War against Islamic fundamentalism.
Clinton certainly was correct in arguing that Obama’s statement “don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle of US foreign policy. Instead of offering a new foreign policy, based for example on democracy, economic development and renewable energy, however, Clinton lapsed into the very Cold War thinking she once questioned in the sixties. America’s long war on jihadi terrorism should be modeled on the earlier Cold War against communism, Clinton said. We made “mistakes,” supported many “nasty guys,” did “some things we’re not proud of,” but the Cold War ended in American triumph with “the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism.”
Ignoring the new cold wars with Russia and China, Clinton’s nostalgic vision is sure to be widely accepted among Americans, including many Democrats. She ignores, or may not even be familiar with, the actual Long War doctrine quietly promulgated during the past eight years by national security gurus like David Kilcullen, the top counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. Put simply, the Long War theorists have projected an eighty-year military conflict with militant Islam over an “arc of crisis” spanning multiple Muslim countries. Starting with 9/11, the Long War would continue through twenty presidential terms. In Kilcullen’s thesis, Iraq is only a “small war” within a larger one. Since a war of such duration could never be declared officially, the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) stands as its feeble underlying justification.
Obama has made cautious attempts to separate himself from the Long War doctrine and even seeks to narrow or revisit the AUMF. But Obama has never named and or criticized the doctrine, presumably for fear of being accused of going soft in the “War on Terrorism.” Obama’s true foreign policy leaning is revealed in his repeated desire to “do some nation building here at home,” which many hawks view as a retreat from America’s imperial role. They prefer, in Clinton’s words, the posture of “aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward” rather than being “down on yourself.”
While expanding US drone attacks, intervening in Libya and Yemen, and now escalating again in Iraq, Obama has emphasized another foreign policy direction that is disturbing to hawks. Obama repeatedly argues that “there is no military solution” to the very wars he has engaged in, or tried to disengage from. That rational observation apparently is too “radical” for a government with the largest military in the world.
Clinton thinks the better approach is a little more muscular intervention—arming the Syrian rebels, for example—combined with some “soft power” on the ground. Thus far she hasn’t had to address the issue faced by President John Kennedy, that a little escalation is like the first drink to an alcoholic who inevitably wants another. Nor has she addressed the failures of “soft power” from the Phoenix Program in South Vietnam to the counterinsurgency projects in Afghanistan. Does anyone even remember Gen. McChrystal wowing the press with his promise to drop a “government in a box” into Helmand Province after clearing the place of Taliban fighters?
Few progressive intellectuals and writers have framed the current crisis as the Long War in motion, for reasons that are unclear. One of the few is Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor, Vietnam veteran and father of a fallen US soldier in Iraq (see Bacevich, ed., The Long War, 2007). When a doctrine isn’t publicly proclaimed, like the Cold War in Winston Churchill’s 1946 Fulton, Missouri, speech, its implementation can be carried out quietly without public debate.
On the American left, the framing of Iraq and Afghanistan has been largely about oil, nationalism versus imperialism and often the role of the neoconservatives and the Israel Lobby. But in the absence of a Long War understanding, the underlying struggle is impossible to frame. Perhaps the pacifist heritage of the peace movement precludes a deep study of military strategy and tactics.
But the Long War doctrine must be challenged just as forcefully as when a few dissenting Americans challenged the Cold War in the sixties when it was our dominant paradigm. Once the chilling fear of being considered “soft” is set aside, the similar weaknesses in the two doctrines become apparent. First, the concepts of the “enemy” are overly monolithic. The naming of a unified conspiratorial communist menace simply ignored the rival nationalisms and culture of the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and Arab nationalists from Egypt’s Nasser to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Second, when you cut off an insurgent organization by military means, the insurgency tends simply to multiply. US secret operations now are deeply involved in combating at least a dozen jihadist groups that have proliferated since the killing of Osama bin Ladin in 2012. Third, when you are threatened by the political agenda of an Islamic movement—for example, by the prospect of nationalized oil fields—closing their political options only channels the struggle back to the battlefield.
Defeating a projected “international jihadist conspiracy” isn’t possible when that enemy doesn’t exist except on websites. But in pursuing such a phantom enemy, US policies can conjure the demons into existence just long enough for the Long War doctrine to be justified. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq, for example, until after the US invasion of 2003. The effect of that occupation, in the words of the Naval War College expert Ahmed Hashim, was a traumatizing “identity disenfranchisement” among the Sunnis who previously dominated the Iraqi army, professional and business sectors. The 2003 insurgency arose from that disenfranchisement in Anbar Province and soon spread nationwide, even attracting Shiites who were Iraqi nationalists. Al Qaeda was formed later, and ISIS after that.
Lawrence of Arabia described the process in 1921 when he led Arab insurgents against the Ottoman Empire. The insurgency, he wrote, was powered by “an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, driving about like gas. [Conventional a]rmies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be like a vapour, blowing where we listed.” Years later, Saddam Hussein compared the 2003 resistance to “rust devouring steel.” Neocon thinker Ken Adelman, on the other hand, said it would be a “cakewalk,” and Gen. John Keane admitted later that “we didn’t see it coming.”
Clinton, leaders of both parties and even Obama today claim that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was worth it. It’s difficult politically for peace advocates to argue otherwise, although the case for deterring instead of overthrowing Saddam remains trenchant. But even Obama, in his interview with Thomas Friedman, traces the beginning of the current crisis to the abrupt dismantling of Saddam’s national armed forces, plunging hundreds of thousands of Sunni males into unemployment compounded by identity disenfranchisement. Some of those Iraqis, and many of their sons, are fighting today alongside ISIS in Iraq. Many were lured into an alliance with the US military for a “surge” against the predecessor of ISIS, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, in 2007. Their differences then were as plain as now: the Iraqi insurgents were nationalists combatting a Shiite regime backed by the United States, while Al Qaeda in Iraq—like ISIS now—was a more extremist movement imposing brutal Sharia law and fighting to establish a utopian caliphate of Sunnis across borders.
We’ll never know, but Clinton could be right that the United States should have armed the Syrian Sunni rebels against the Assad regime in Damascus. She doesn’t have to spell out the possible consequences. Obama glosses over that question by describing the Syrian rebels as only a disorganized, ineffective array of doctors, pharmacists, farmers “and so forth” who could never beat an Assad backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Obama certainly was right in believing that US weapons would fall into the hands of Syrian jihadi extremists, which Clinton ignores in her account. In his detached observation, Obama indicates an astute grasp of the perils of military escalation:
“What we have [now] is a disaffected Sunni minority in the case of Iraq, a majority in the case of Syria, stretching essentially from Baghdad to Damascus…. Unless we give them a formula that speaks to the aspirations of that population, we are inevitably going to have problems.… ISIS is) filling a vacuum, and the question for us has to be not simply how we counteract them militarily but how we are going to speak to a Sunni majority in that area.”
Clinton and the hawks would fill that “vacuum” with war on behalf of the Assad regime.
But what Obama doesn’t acknowledge is that the United States might have done far more in support of the Sunnis, instead of tolerating or backing two allies of Iran—Assad and al-Malik—both of whom treated the Sunnis with brutal force and without any hope of peaceful political progress. As for Syria, Obama often criticized the Assad regime, it is true, but hardly with the kind of pressure the United States has brought to bear on Cuba for fifty years. Assad was seen as a lesser evil who was impossible to defeat because of his geopolitical support. But in the case of Iraq, the United States was involved directly with the empowerment of al-Maliki and his repressive Shiite colleagues during two American administrations. Why exactly the Bush and Obama teams accepted al-Maliki is beyond comprehension at this point in history. It might simply have been that al-Maliki was “our guy,” or that US “experts” believed that a fair power-sharing process was gradually underway after a shaky start. Instead, al-Maliki built up his sectarian special forces, army and police, and implemented brutal ethnic cleansing against the Sunnis. By the end of 2006, Baghdad was cleansed of its 40 percent Sunni population, the remaining Sunni enclaves “withering into abandoned ghettos, starved of government services.”(1) With the awareness of American advisers, Shiite authorities began operating as many as ten secret prisons, rounding up Sunnis, and according to a State Department memo, engaging in “threats intimidation, beatings and suspension by the arms and legs, as well as the reported use of electrical drills and cords and the application of electric shocks.”(2)
The repression and exclusion never ended, al-Maliki guessing that the United States would never pull the plug. He even arrested and threatened Sunni political figures in Baghdad, including the country’s vice-president, who fled to Kurdistan.
The United States stood by as the crisis unfolded. As ISIS began to gain ground in Syria, it formed a vast rear base that protected the Sunnis of Iraq who fled over the border, led by the former detainee Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, who would become the self-proclaimed commander and emir of the growing Islamic Caliphate. ISIS, having secured a vast stronghold in southeastern Syria, soon took their offensive into northern Iraq, supplying cash, weapons and experienced fighters to the anti-Shiite insurrection that continued in the Sunni provinces of Anbar, Nineveh, Diyala and Salaheddin. The Caliphate al-Baghdadi is presently implementing has no space for Shiites or “infidels” or “takfiris” who must either be converted or exterminated. Women are returned to the Middle Ages. An armed theocracy replaces the failed nation-state.
Several years too late, the understating Obama now says that the US-backed Shiite regime in Baghdad “squandered an opportunity” to share power with Sunnis and Kurds. The fact is that US policy enabled al-Maliki to do so, and now is reaping the Sunni whirlwind.
At stake are the fortunes of peace activism in the United States. The McCain Republicans and the Clinton Democrats are pushing Obama farther by the day towards the military solutions which he says are not the answer. The humanitarian plight of the Yazidi tribes is both genuine and a pretext for intervention. The confrontation around Erbil might become “another Benghazi” as well as a threat to Western oil interests. Doing nothing is not an option for Obama, while doing something is a slippery slope, as Phyllis Bennis and others point out.
This is how America will drift back into the dead end of the Cold War paradigm. No wonder William Kristol of the neocon tribe is happily congratulating Hillary Clinton. The neocons are back in the saddle with her as their temporary horse, only a few years after their discrediting and fall.
There are few options ahead for Obama. The removal of al-Maliki is a heavy lift but only the beginning. The Humpty-Dumpty regime in Baghdad cannot be restored by lifting a few restrictions on the Sunnis. Iraq’s Sunnis, now in revolt, will have to be respected as having independent rights in a federated Iraq, including their own security force, a proper share of oil revenues and budgets, and a veto power within a new tripartite governing arrangement. That’s what it will take to persuade them to place nationalist interests over those of a borderless jihad. The US military did this once before, in 2007, by paying the Anbar tribes to fight alongside the American forces against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Then those same Sunnis were abandoned to al-Maliki’s brutal policies of exclusion.
For another model, the US could look to Northern Ireland, where a thirty-year war was channeled into a cold peace instead of a cold war. The key was the empowerment of the 45 percent Irish Catholic nationalist minority in a transitional arrangement that includes mutual veto powers with their Loyalist Protestant adversaries. Hillary Clinton might try to remember her husband’s role in that process, which she extols as the greatest foreign policy achievement of the Clinton era.
Half-measures will not suffice. It may be too late. If so, the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria will remain loosely united within ISIS as its fighters move south. Obama may be forced to escalate, even knowing that there is no way at present to fill the political vacuum in which ISIS arose. ISIS may assault Baghdad, widening a sectarian civil war or even the collapse and dismemberment of the Iraqi state. Whatever scenario occurs, Obama will be the subject of unrelenting attack. “Who lost Iraq?” will be the battle cry of American politics.
After the often-forgotten debacle in Vietnam there came a moment when most Americans drew the lesson that there should be “no more Vietnams,” without ever defining an alternative to that Cold War. It took many years before the first Iraq War (1990–91) allowed the first President Bush to declare that he had “defeated the Vietnam Syndrome,” as if too many Americans were infected with an anti-war fever.
Now the danger to the neocons and hawks is that too many Americans again are “fatigued” by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, another medical metaphor for peace sentiment. That sentiment, so vital in restraining military aggression, can fade away if Americans adopt the Clinton model of the Long War, which Dexter Filkins calls “the forever war.” If ISIS rips apart Baghdad, Obama’s circle might face impotence or impeachment.
It is shocking that both Obama and the Congress are on vacation during this new military crisis. The likelihood of the current US bombing during this congressional break was predicted by Representative Jim McGovern, the main architect of a War Powers resolution that passed by 370 House votes just one week before the August recess. What the House and Senate do after their break ends in September could be either a green light or an important barrier to escalation. One hundred and eighty Republicans voted for the measure, reflecting the strength of the Ron Paul libertarians.
Even if Congress checks the US military escalation, that will not address the underlying disenfranchisement of the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria. There Obama’s choice will be to escalate his “limited” counteroffensive using US weapons, advisers and Special Forces, or sending a definitive signal that the United States is not interested in intervening in sectarian wars that we can neither win nor afford.
It may be enough to argue that the American public has “no appetite” for another war, but that sentiment may well turn into anger at Obama (and Bush) if Iraq is dismembered. Therefore, Democrats need to offer a better narrative than Clinton’s recycling of the Cold War. If she wants an “alternative story,” as she says in the Goldberg interview, it should include these chapter headings:
—Repeatedly telling the American people that the Long War is an actual doctrine promoting eighty years of unending war, with neither public consent or congressional approval, is the place to begin, starting with debating the AUMF.
—Fighting secret wars without real congressional oversight is another.
—Cutting off taxpayer assistance and American blood to undemocratic sectarian dictatorships is yet another.
—Accepting instead of stifling Arab nationalism, whether in Egypt or Palestine, is the only alternative to violence.
—Starting a real revolution towards renewable energy instead of defending Persian Gulf oil is the final alternative.
The peace, justice and climate change movements should unite where possible around such an alternative vision.
In the term used by historian Stephen Cohen, these are the “lost alternatives” in American policy that only a serious social movement can rescue.