In 1994, even Dick Cheney did not think it wise to go into Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein. However, after the 9-11, when a journalist famously asked Vice President Cheney about the US exist-strategy for Iraq, Cheney retorted: “What exit?”
Since 2009, despite a domestic political landslide within the United States, the factual parameters of engagement have not been altered or resolved adequately, to allow for even a modest discharge of the US forces from the Middle East (ME). On the contrary, it is becoming exceedingly clear that no matter who rules over the White House, the American military will maintain a forceful and indefinite presence in the ME. It behooves all the leaders in the region to make note of this central point of policy and adjust their conduct accordingly.
Here, the term Middle East is loosely used to encompass the region from and including Egypt to Pakistan, and Somalia to Georgia, despite the differing official definition by the US. This area is the most politically unstable region in the world and has not been without an active war, for the last 100 years. The four cornerstones of American political interests in the ME can be summarized as:
1. Access and utilization of the petroleum resources;
2. Safety and security of its allies;
3. Political “stability” of the region;
4. Fighting its enemies, the “terrorists”.
The oil and gas reserves of ME are estimated to last for another 90 years. Also, the American allies (Egypt, Israel, S. Arabia, etc) are not planning to vanish any time soon. In addition, the words political and stability do not go together in the ME; and finally, there has always been and most likely there will always be “terrorists” in the Middle East. Hence, the four pillars are here to stay.
The US Forces presence in the ME has increased from 10,000 to 200,000 in the last decade, which represents about half their foreign deployment. The other half has been deployed for the last 50-70 years, in the other unresolved US battlefields (North Korea, Central Europe and Latin America). That takes up a large portion of the total active-duty US troops (1.4 million), but seems to be what they consider as the cost-of-doing-business.
Why the direct presence, instead of a proxy one? The proxy option has been tried time and again, but has every time failed miserably. When in 1971, the British decided to vacate almost all their military bases in the region, President Nixon who was up-to-his-ears in Vietnam, mandated and aided Iran and S. Arabia, to maintain the law-and-order in ME. Both countries had fought for the Western sanctioned wars in the region (Iran in Zofar and S. Arabia in Yemen), and were apparently very stable and dependable friends. So much for that plan!
In 1979, Iran revolted into a staunch enemy of the West, and the Saudi’s performance has been uneven at best. In 1980’s, US tried to play Iraq against Iran, hoping that they would kill each other off, to the last man. That scheme only worked for 8 years, until the Persian Gulf oil shipments were threatened, and the US navy had to intervene for Iraq, and won the war for Mr. Hussein. For the thank-you, two years later, Saddam’s army invaded the tiny kingdom of Kuwait, which happens to contain one-third of the ME oil, and has been a main business hub for the American and European companies!
In 1991, the American policy aimed to beat Saddam back, but not to topple him and be left with the gruesome act of ruling Iraq (a country in war and turmoil ever since inception). That is the policy so clearly stated in Cheney’s 1994 interview. Basically, the evolution (or devolution) of US military policy in the ME from 1971 to 1991 was that, they should keep their allies strong, but be ready to go in there and beat someone up, on the as-need basis! Still the thinking was that, Pakistan was watching Afghanistan, Iraq was balanced by Iran, and the Saudis and the Egyptians could be trusted to orchestrate the Arab nations; therefore, no need for a strong US army presence. It was not a pretty picture, but it looked like a feasible solution at an affordable price.
Middle East never disappoints, in a small way! Between 1991 and 2001, Iraq turned into an aggressive enemy, bent on maintaining and concealing its chemical and microbial capabilities, and actively encouraging and supporting the Palestinian fighters against Israel (no. 1 US ally). Meanwhile, Pakistan and the Saudis organized an Islamist terror-state in Afghanistan, under the Taliban regime. To top it off, 19 Egyptian and Saudi nationals who were trained in Afghanistan and even had some links to the Iraqi intelligence, executed the 9-11. All of that, after the fall of Soviet Union (evil empire) and the supposed end of history , and the ushering of a new era of global competitive cooperation!
In 2001, going into Afghanistan to eradicate the Taliban, was a no-brainer. Heck, even Iran was ready and willing to assist! Then in 2003, somehow the US (with Israeli encouragement) came to the conclusion that, it was high-time to stop playing catch-up in the ME, to create a major enforcement base and to punish the Arabs for 9-11; all by toppling the most infamous murderer and torturer of the neighborhood – Mr. Saddam Hussein! In theory, this sounded so good that, even the British military joined the party and returned to the ME, after 42 years.
The fundamental mistake of the Iraq mission was not in its execution or tactics, but the strategic fact that no country in the ME had ever been stably governed, except by a strong militaristic rule! The abrupt removal of Saddam’s military meant that the US military had to play the part – complete with the suppressions, civilian casualties and even operation of Abu-Ghraib.
Throughout the 20th century, there have only been two types of countries in the Middle East: the military dictatorships and the failed-states. Most often, when a military dictatorship has collapsed beyond the point of replacement, a failed-state has emerged. Cases in example are Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately for the West, all those failed states have turned into terror bases, which cannot be ignored!
The US and NATO have had to spend an immense amount of time and money to establish a new military balance in Ethiopia, guard against the Somali pirates, fight a proxy war in Sudan, protect their allies in Lebanon, govern and pacify Iraq, and fight time and again in Afghanistan. However, none of those issues are even approaching closure in the short or even medium term, to allow a Western forces withdrawal!
Furthermore, two nuclear and very unstable nations of Iran and Pakistan will trouble the American policy makers for decades to come. The US spent billions of dollars on both of those countries to maintain a friendly status, with barely anything to show. Iran is currently on a collision course with the United States, over its nuclear ambitions, which are gaining an exceedingly more aggressive stance. Pakistan has been nuclear for a while, and has actually enabled Iran to go through with its own program.
Against the backdrop of all those troubles in the ME, it is inconceivable that any US President (Republican or Democrat) will in this century be able to disengage militarily, from its key client states. The pattern of contemporary US behavior shows that they will use any and all of the following tactics, for achieving their mission-critical political interests:
1. Aiding and arming their allies;
2. Conducting tactical missions against “terrorist” targets;
3. Occupying and maintaining large-scale army, naval and air force bases;
4. Conducting full-scale assaults at the times of trouble.
There is no beating around the bush, as who is perceived as the primary present-and-clear danger to the lives and livelihood of the Americans, in the Middle East. The leaders of Iran should take note of that perception, and the long term American military plans and objectives, when strategizing their own preparations and programs. Iran is currently the last nation in the world, to openly ask for the death and demise of the United States and her allies. Even stronger nations carrying less deadly goals and notions have long perished and failed, into a state of chaos and paralysis. The Iranian people do not deserve to suffer such a painful fate, again.