Gary Johnson and the Case for Isolationism


Gary Johnson’s humiliation (“What is Aleppo?”) at the hands of Mike Lauer of NBC has gone viral. Johnson’s remarkable ignorance of foreign affairs is widely seen as disqualifying. This is not an unreasonable judgement but I will argue that it is mistaken. The knowledge and sophistication of the President herself is of secondary importance. What matters first and foremost is the nation’s grand strategy.

The Libertarians, including and especially Johnson (“No more policing the world”), are Isolationists. Because Isolationism has been demonized for decades Libertarian political entrepreneurs try very hard to avoid the label. But that is also mistaken. Isolationism is and will always remain a viable and attractive grand strategy for the United States.

A grand strategy is a state’s core formula for survival and security in a dangerous world. It serves as the organizing principle of foreign policy. Great Britain’s nineteenth century grand strategy was to maintain maritime primacy and act as an offshore balancer on the Continent. Bismarck’s grand strategy in the 1870s and 1880s was to ensure that Germany was always in a “party of three” among the five great powers. Both grand strategies were informed by the geopolitical positions of the state and were thus very effective.

The first fundamental fact about the United States’ geopolitical position is that vast oceans separate the United States from all other great powers. Because of ‘the stopping power of water,’ even if the United States were not the strongest state in the system it would continue to remain extraordinarily secure. The second fundamental fact about the US’ geopolitical position is that it has been the strongest state in the system for over a century.

Because of these fundamental geopolitical facts, the United States enjoys extraordinary leeway in choosing its grand strategy. Unlike any other great power in the system, the United States can choose its level of strategic engagement outside its home region. Different grand strategies correspond to different levels of strategic engagement. Put another way, the United States can choose to define its national interest more and less expansively and deploy its considerable power resources accordingly. There are five main grand strategies available to the United States which can be ordered by the level of engagement:

  • Pure Isolationism: US forces would be withdrawn to the US homeland. And the United States would strategically disengage from the rest of the world (incl. S. America) leaving it to other powers to sort it out. It would continue to interact with the rest of the world economically and culturally but not in the security sphere. Instead it would husband its own strength.
  • Hemispheric Isolationism: The US defense perimeter would be withdrawn to the middle of the Atlantic and the Pacific; thus strategically isolating the western hemisphere. The US would maintain preponderance in the hemisphere but avoid security interactions with Eurasia unless the western hemisphere is threatened.
  • Offshore Balancing: The US would maintain global maritime primacy and prevent other great powers from replicating its feat of achieving regional preponderance. In practice, this means that the US would strive to maintain a favourable balance of power in the two extremities of Eurasia. However, US forces would not be deployed on Eurasian land unless they were necessary for deterrence (as was the case in Europe during the bipolar era). It would also ignore weak states unless there was a clear threat.
  • Defensive Hegemonism: The United States would play the role of the global policeman. It would take it upon itself to defend the territorial order by the force of its arms; identifying its national interest with the stability and security of the international system. It would seek to contain near peers and grow its retinue of protectorates. US forces would be deployed across the world for deterrence and enforcement of rules multilaterally when it can and unilaterally when it must.
  • Offensive Hegemonism: The United States would play the role of the global policeman. But instead of simply defending the territorial status quo by the force of its arms it would seek to forge a more favourable international order. It would in effect act as a revisionist hegemon, seeking to “roll back” near peers instead of containing them, and conquering and reconfiguring weak confrontation states where possible.

In accordance with Parkinson’s law of international politics, the definition of US national interest has expanded along with its relative power. In the first century of its existence, the United States followed the strategy of Pure Isolationism. During the 1890s the US shifted to Hemispheric Isolationism. In the short twentieth century (1915-90), the United States deployed military forces in Eurasia to defeat and contain a sequence of potential regional hegemons (Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Soviet Union) and sought and achieved maritime primacy in accordance with Offshore Balancing. With the capitulation of Soviet Russia and the advent of the unipolar world, the United States has lurched back and forth between Defensive Hegemonism and Offensive Hegemonism.

Pure Isolationism is not a viable grand strategy for the United States; nor has it ever been entertained as such since the United States emerged as a great power. It would mean the end of the Monroe Doctrine; something that is unlikely to be on the table for a very long time. Offensive Hegemonism is also no longer on the table since it is widely seen to have been tried and failed. The lesson that US policy elites have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan is that the costs of stability operations are simply incommensurate with the expected gains. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it:

Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.

We are thus left with (Hemispheric) Isolationism, Offshore Balancing, and (Defensive) Hegemonism. Loosely speaking, Libertarians prefer Isolationism; Realists prefer Offshore Balancing; and Liberals (esp. beltway foreign policy wonks) prefer Hegemonism.

The Policy Tensor prefers Offshore Balancing but that is not because Isolationism is not viable. Isolationism has the virtue of being cheap. Bringing the boys home would allow the United States to cut its wasteful defense spending. More importantly, the United States would entirely avoid meddling in weak states (which is also true of Offshore Balancing). And perhaps most importantly, it would remove a major driver of friction with other great powers.

A key issue in the coming years is whether a rising China should be contained or accomodated. In particular, Whether, and if so when, the United States should surrender maritime primacy in the Western Pacific. Isolationists would argue that even if China were to become preponderant in Asia, it would not threaten the United States. And this is indeed the case if US national security interests are defined exclusively in terms of the defense of the homeland, which would remain protected even after the exit from unipolarity as a consequence of the insularity of the US homeland and strategic nuclear deterrence.

If however, continued prosperity and international influence are seen as vital US national interests, then Isolationism would likely fail to achieve it. In particular, US access to world markets and resources would be subject to the veto of other great powers who would take the place of the United States in the game of world power. The Isolationists would counter that the United States would not suffer very much at all even if China became the dominant power in Asia because the United States would remain a very attractive trading partner and source of technology and innovative ideas. That depends on the state of the world. If the United States poses no threat to other great powers, they may be willing to grant it access to world markets. If they see the United States as a potential threat, they may not. In either case, the United States could easily survive but it might be poorer and marginalized.

The fundamental issue then is whether global influence is a vital interest of the United States. Isolationists argue that global power and influence are unnecessary and probably immoral. I don’t agree with it but is a consistent and ethical position. And it should be up to the American people to choose. The American people have in fact long been denied this choice. I therefore hope that Gary Johnson makes it to the debates.




World Affairs

The Plot to Kill President George H.W. Bush

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Source: New Yorker

THE ROAD to the Iraq War began not with 9/11, nor with Bush’s election, nor even with the Project for the New American Century. It began instead with the capitulation of the Soviet Union.

Once it became clear that the Cold War adversary was going to knuckle under, the US military became extremely worried about the political sustainability of the military budget and the forward deployment of US forces around the world. For without the Communist threat, how was the US taxpayer to be persuaded to pay for garrisoning the planet? The solution that was hit upon—as early as 1988—was to inflate the threat posed by confrontation states. The idea began with talk about the “military sophistication of Third World dictators,” later morphing into the need to confront “outlaw states,” “backlash states,” and the one that really stuck: “rogue states.” The rogues’ gallery included Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba, and North Korea. But the poster child was unambiguously Iraq, in light of Saddam’s impressive record of military aggression, chemical weapons use, and human rights abuses.

For twelve years between the two wars, a considerable portion of US diplomatic and military muscle was deployed towards the containment of Iraq; featuring not only the most brutal trade embargo in history, but also the imposition of no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq and the de facto partition of the country; thousands of airstrikes and cruise missile strikes; and covert operations to topple Saddam Hussein. This low-intensity war on Iraq was supported by a bipartisan consensus in the United States on the threat posed by Saddam to US security interests. So when W looked to reconfigure the Middle East by force after 9/11, Iraq under Saddam offered the path of least resistance.

But the consensus did not emerge overnight. In fact, early in the Clinton administration there were significant moves towards a thaw in US-Iraq relations. The week before he took office, Clinton gave a wide-ranging interview on foreign policy in which he mused that he was not “obsessed” with Saddam.

REPORTER: But you don’t take the view that there can be no normal relations with this man or with Iraq as long as he is in power?

CLINTON: Based on the evidence that we have, the people of Iraq would be better off if they had a different leader. But my job is not to pick their rulers for them. I always tell everybody, “I’m a Baptist; I believe in deathbed conversions.” If he wants a different relationship with the United States and with the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior.

It was, of course, politically trecherous for a Democrat in the White House to back-off from confronting a brutal dictator that the men and women in uniform had fought not too long ago. The administration was not on the verge of bringing in Saddam from the cold, “if for no other reason,” opined Leslie H. Gleb in New York Times, than that “they know this would mean political suicide.” Still, signs of hope continued to flicker. The Pentagon said on February 3 that the Iraqis “had changed their behavior.” In mid-February, Saddam reached out to Clinton for a reset, and went out of his way to cooperate with UN inspectors. By the end of March, Clinton was saying he wanted to “depersonalize” the conflict with Iraq. New York Times reported on March 29, 1993, that

The United States and Britain have begun to move away from their insistence that the trade embargo against Iraq cannot be lifted while President Saddam Hussein remains in power.

But these early moves towards bringing Saddam back in from the cold came to naught when a plot to kill President George H.W. Bush, allegedly masterminded by Iraqi intelligence, came to light in May. The break in diplomatic momentum towards a thaw in relations was immediate and permanent. The plot therefore marked a decisive moment in the long road to the Iraq War.

THE ALLEGED Iraqi plot against Bush was in reality a fraud perpetrated by the Kuwaitis, who had been watching the emerging thaw in US-Iraq relations with increasing panic. Kuwait had arrested 17 drunk bootleggers near the Iraqi border for smuggling whiskey; a serious crime in Kuwait but a common enough practice along the Saudi-Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.

Four days later, one of the bootleggers suddenly confessed to a conspiracy to kill President H.W. Bush during the former president’s visit to Kuwait that was underway. The confession was later retracted in court and the defendant alleged that it was extracted under duress. As a consequence of the confession, the Kuwaiti police said they were able to locate a two-hundred-pound bomb in the suspect’s vehicle that had been in their custody for four days. The Kuwaiti foreign minister alleged that the defendant was a Iraqi intelligence officer and had been ordered by Saddam to assassinate President Bush.

But the Kuwaitis were not exactly known to be reliable. Kuwait had earlier moved the UNSC alleging a territorial violation by Saddam that turned out upon investigation to have been a violent dispute between smugglers. As for the foreign minister himself: His daughter had given an eloquent testimony to Iraqi crimes involving the killing of babies during the Iraqi occupation that later turned out to be fraudulent.

Still, in light of the serious nature of the allegations, the White House tasked the FBI and the CIA to investigate the matter. While some hawks in the White House, including Sandy Berger and Martin Indyk, were claiming that there was highly reliable evidence tying Iraq to the plot against Bush, official White House policy was to wait for the investigations to reach a conclusion. “We’re still in the middle of the investigation,” said George Stephanopoulos, the White House Communications Director. President Clinton himself was skeptical of the case; as was the Attorney General, Janet Reno.

But in May and June, a number of reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times, citing anonymous officials (probably Indyk), claimed that there was strong evidence pointing to Iraqi sponsorship of the assassination attempt. By late June, the President had lost all control of the media narrative. Finally, on June 24, the FBI report came out and provided what the White House considered to be sufficient evidence of Iraqi complicity. Clinton ordered a barrage of 23 cruise missile strikes on the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence—to near-universal applause in the media. On that day, any possibility of bringing Saddam in from the cold vanished into thin air.

Seymour Hersh’s report debunking the government’s evidence appeared in the November 1, 1993 issue of the New Yorker. A big part of the forensic evidence tying the bomb to those known to have been put together by Iraqi intelligence, outlined by Madeline Albright, was that the remote-control firing device found in the Kuwaiti car bomb has the same “signature” as previously recovered Iraqi bombs. Hersh spoke to a number of forensic bomb experts.

[All seven experts] told me essentially the same thing: The remote-control devices shown in the White House photographs were mass-produced items…

 The fact that the two devices were similar is simply not that significant, I was told by Donald L. Hansen, a twenty-eight-year veteran of the bomb squad of the San Francisco Police Department, who has served as the director of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators… and is widely considered to be one of the top forensics experts in the field. “They’re very generic devices… If these circuit boards are what they’re hanging their signature issue on, they’re really stretching the envelope.”

The FBI also concluded that the defendants were not coerced after their arrest, despite their testimony in court that they were indeed beaten and forced to confess. The only American reporter at the Kuwaiti trial, Miriam Amie, reporting for the German news agency DPA, told Hersh that the main suspect, Wali al-Ghazali, showed up on the first day of the trial with “a fresh scar on his forehead and a blackened nail on his thumb.” James E. Akins, former US Ambassador to the Saudi Arabia, told Hersh:

Either the investigators were idiots or they were lying. It boggles the imagination. There’s no way the Kuwaitis would not have tortured them. That’s the way the Kuwaitis are, as anyone who knows the Kuwaitis or the Middle East can tell you.

Meanwhile, back on May 23, 1993, Boston Globe reported that it had obtained a copy of the CIA Counter Terrorism Center’s report concluding that the alleged plot was a Kuwaiti fraud.

Kuwait, the report says, “has a clear incentive to play up the continuing Iraqi threat” to Western interests, and hence may have “cooked the books.”

To support this contention, it cites US diplomatic reports earlier this year that the Kuwaiti government was expressing “frustration” that the Western coalition was not taking a tougher line against Saddam Hussein and concern that the Clinton administration might abandon Kuwait in favor of better relations with Iraq.

Usually rabbit holes have a way of ending with Seymour Hersh’s reporting. Not this time. The FBI’s forensic investigation in the alleged Iraqi bomb plot was led by Frederic Whitehurst, a forensic chemist specializing in explosive residue analysis, described by the New York Times as the agency’s “top bomb-residue expert,” who provided expert testimony in the O.J. Simpson trial among many other high profile cases. He later became America’s first FBI whistleblower exposing extensive forensic fraud at the FBI crime lab.

During the investigation into alleged misconduct at the FBI crime lab it emerged that Whitehurst’s superior, J. Christopher Ronay, had misreported Whitehurst’s findings in the alleged Iraqi plot to kill Bush. The 1997 DOJ enquiry reported that,

Whitehurst alleges that he compared the explosive material in the main charge of the Bush device to explosive materials in known Iraqi devices and told Explosives Unit Chief J. Christopher Ronay that the explosives were different. Whitehurst claims that Ronay purposely misinterpreted these results in order to link the explosive material to Iraqi agents. Whitehurst further asserts that very possibly his results were changed to support the retaliatory missile strike by the United States.

Neil Gallagher, Chief of the FBI Counter Intelligence Section, told the DOJ that

The FBI could not connect these explosives chemically or say that they came from the same shipment, sources, or country.

Yet, the DOJ enquiry continues,

Subsequent reports on the matter tended to ignore such chemical differences. Moreover, even after the missile strike, the FBI and CIA continued to report simply that PE-4A plastic explosive had been identified in the Bush device and other Iraqi explosive devices, including those from Southeast Asia.

Thus: The FBI misreported the findings of the agency’s top bomb residue expert, mistook the congruence of mass-produced remote-control firing devices as the signature of a common Iraqi source, and took confessions extracted from suspects using torture at face value. Meanwhile, the CIA’s accurate conclusion that the plot was a Kuwaiti fraud was simply ignored. Hersh again:

When Clinton finally acted, on the afternoon of Saturday, June 26th, he was not leading the nation, as was widely assumed and reported, but merely following the path of least bureaucratic and political resistance.

World Affairs

A Confession of Sorts from Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has threatened the United States with grave consequences if lawmakers were to pass a bill revoking part of a 1976 law that gives foreign nations some immunity from lawsuits in American courts “in cases where nations are found culpable for terrorist attacks that kill Americans on United States soil.”

The Saudi threat amounts to a de-facto confession that Saudi officials or princes had ties to Al Qaeda at the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Why else would they panic and issue ultimatums? Even if it was not senior officials and just some energetic royals, they might have good reason to worry. US courts could be persuaded that senior princes are part of the Saudi monarchical state—there is surely legal precedent from the nineteenth century.

After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden met with King Fahd and offered to raise a mujahideen army to defend Saudi Arabia. The monarch rebuffed his offer and instead accepted a deployment of US forces (Operation Desert Shield). It was at this point that bin Laden turned on the Al Saud, against whom he raged for two years before being exiled to Sudan. But there is some evidence to show that Saudi intelligence continued to maintain contacts with Al Qaeda during the mid-1990s. The question is: Did this relationship last into 2001 and beyond?

A priori, it seems unlikely that there was active support for Al Qaeda at the official level and in the upper echelon of the Saudi royalty circa 2001. But then, why the panic?

On the related, broader question of support in Saudi moneyed circles for Al Qaeda, and more generally, salafist jihadism, there is no doubt whatsoever. It is very well-understood that the bulk of the money powering global jihadism originates in the gulf monarchies, in particular, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Global jihadism does not grow in a vaccum. It is intrinsically tied to salafism. Indeed, global jihadism is synonymous with salafist jihadism. And it is here that one finds the real challenge posed by Saudi Arabia. For the Kingdom is the principal propagator of salafi ideology worldwide.

The Saudi state has invested its vast oil wealth, and utilized its pivotal position as the host of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, to promote a vicious ideology that combines Sunni supremacism with puritanical fanaticism. The ideology demands a return to the version of Islam practiced under the first four caliphs. That is, it demands a return to the practice of the Jihad-State at Medina, before the caliphate moved to Damascus (and presumably got corrupted).

The innovation of the salafist jihadists is merely to point out the essential incompatibility between the Saudi state ideology and its de-facto alliances with the near, Zionist enemy and the far, Crusader enemy; and therefore to demand armed revolt instead of obedience to the Al Saud. This is an argument that the Al Saud are quite possibly rigged to lose. Indeed, if there is a state that is not already engulfed in a civil war that is at risk of being overrun by ISIS, it is Saudi Arabia. No one is more at risk; not even Pakistan.

As for the Saudi threat to sell their hoard of US Treasuries. First of all, Saudi Arabia does not have $750 billion as the paper of record alleges, it has slightly less than $600 billion in reserves. Second, if the Saudis were to dump all $600 billion in Tbills, it would not make much of an impression: It would amount to less than 1 per cent of total dollar credit outstanding (about $60 trillion). Even as a share of daily funding in the wholesale market (about $4 trillion onshore and an even larger amount offshore), it would be a drop in the bucket. At best, it would make for an interesting day in global money markets.

Third and lastly—and this one is the kicker—it would be outright beneficial to the global financial system which has had a structural shortage of Tbills for years! Indeed, it would bring down the premium now being paid for Tbills in Europe. Figure 1 shows euro/dollar cross-currency basis swap spreads which capture the liquidity premium. (When they fall below zero it implies that there is a shortage of Tbills.)


Figure 1: Euro/USD cross-currency basis swap spreads (Source: ECB).

The bigger issue at stake here is the future of the US-Saudi relationship. It is time to go back to basics: It is in the US interest to protect the Kingdom from external aggression. But it is not in the US interest to go along with the Al Saud’s regional adventures (re Yemen). And it is certainly not in the US interest to watch the Saudis propagate their vicious ideology worldwide. The United States needs to stand firm on these issues. To that end, Congress should pass the 9/11 bill and the Obama administration should shelve its ill-thought opposition to the same.

World Affairs

A Dangerous Inflection Point in the Syrian War

Tensions between Russia and Turkey have escalated dramatically in the past few weeks, so much so that direct military confrontation cannot be ruled out.

Under the cover of Russian air power, Assad’s forces have almost completely encircled Aleppo. Assad plans to repeat the siege-and-starve tactic he followed to regain control of Homs City is May, 2014. The coming siege has prompted some 150,000 residents to flee towards Turkey, which has closed its border to the refugees.

US-backed Syrian Kurds are hoping replicate the achievement of the Iraqi Kurds and forge a statelet along the Syro-Turkish border. YPG forces exploited the opportunity opened up by regime gains north of the city to seize territory held by Turkish-backed rebels near the border, including the Menagh Airbase. Ankara responded by shelling their positions; ignoring US calls for restraint. Moscow has been effectively supporting the YPG by conducting airstrikes on non-Kurdish rebels in the region.

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Aleppo City is held by a motley collection of some fifty odd Turkish, Saudi and Qatari-backed rebel groups. Most of these groups are no more than neighborhood militias with dozens or hundreds of fighters. The biggest is Turkish-backed salafist outfit Ahrar al-Sham, which has tens of thousands of fighters and controls the strategically important Bab al-Hawa crossing, the only remaining line of communication into Aleppo.

Ahrar competes with Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) for leadership of the Aleppo rebels. JN controls the main water and power plant in the city and enjoys a degree of leverage over other groups.  It has disarmed and absorbed at least three US-backed groups in the past year.

Both JN and Ahrar have a significant presence outside the city and are likely to survive and perhaps even make strategic gains as a result of the siege. Other US and Turkish-backed groups are at risk of annihilation and absorption by the big two. The same goes for the Saudi-backed Jabhat al-Shamiya and Jaysh al-Mujahideen.

That the loss of Aleppo would be a turning point in the proxy war is not lost on the Saudis. Mohammad bin Salman, the 30-year-old Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister, is “willing to take military, financial and political risks in order not to fall behind in regional politics,” according to German intelligence.

The Kingdom’s aggressive new foreign policy was on display in Yemen, where the Saudis rashly intervened to push the Houthis back to the hills and restore their man to the helm. It is on display again in Syria: Riyadh is deploying fighter jets to the southern Turkish airbase of Incirlik.

Turkey is considering a military intervention in northern Syria. This is not because Ankara has any illusions that it can put up a fight with Russia, with or without Saudi help. Turkey is counting on Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty which states that “an attack on one Ally shall be considered an attack on all Allies.” In other words, Turkey may be betting that the United States will deter Russia from directly attacking its Nato ally.

The situation is starkly similar to the July Crisis. Back then, German guarantees prompted Austria to attack Serbia, a Russian protectorate. Today, US guarantees may prompt Turkey to attack Syria, a Russian ally.

It is time to diffuse this dangerous confrontation. It would be extremely damaging to US credibility to back-off after the event. On the other hand, unlimited guarantees to Turkey could embroil the United States in a major military confrontation with Russia that would serve no conceivable US interest. The US needs to inform Turkey post-haste that the United States is not going to war to protect Turkish interests in Syria.


World Affairs

A Decade of War

The theme of the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of the semi-official periodical Foreign Affairs published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is the lessons that the United States ought to learn from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a supremely important exercise for America’s foreign policy elite. The result, unfortunately, is disappointing. In what follows, I will first describe what the five contributors argue. All of them, as well as the editors, agree that the wars have been unambiguous disasters. But none of them have tried to grapple with the bigger questions raised by this debacle. Why did the United States launch on such a misguided adventure in Iraq, a nightmare from which we are very far from waking? How did it come about that there was such widespread support—in the beltway and the foreign policy community—for such a fool’s errand? Why did the warnings of realists—not to speak of anti-war radicals—go completely unheeded in the rush to war? These fundamental questions are largely ignored in the issue.


In his essay, “More Small Wars: Counterinsurgency is here to stay,” Max Boot is still peddling his book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. Boot argues that whether it likes it or not, the United States will find itself in many more small wars or pacification campaigns in the decades to come. “Since Washington doesn’t have the luxury of simply avoiding insurgencies, then, the best strategy would be to fight them better.” He proceeds to recount the lessons that emerged from his study of the hundreds of small wars carried out by Britain and the United States over two centuries. These lessons are of the management literature type: plan for the peace, revaluate strategy, train forces for counterinsurgency missions, learn the language of the occupied, send a sufficient number of troops, have patience, and so on and so forth. One thing that he failed to consider in the book and which is also conspicuously absent in his essay is precisely how the United States stands to gain by fighting small wars at all.

Richard K. Betts is the most reasonable. His first-order lessons sit well with the present author, even though he mixes tactical questions with strategic ones:

First, the United States should fight wars less frequently but more decisively, erring, when combat is necessary, on the side of committing too many forces rather than too few. Second, the country should avoid fighting in places where victory depends on controlling the politics of chaotic countries, since local politicians will rarely do what Americans want when that differs from their own aims. And third, Washington should give priority to first-order challenges, focusing its military planning on fighting wars with great powers and focusing its diplomacy on preventing them.

Deterring aggression by other great powers is the biggest—if largely unacknowledged—achievement of US foreign policy since World War II. The United States prevented the Soviet Union from dominating Eurasia. It made sure that Germany and Japan were defanged, and threatened nobody. As China emerges as a powerful force in Asia, American protection has reassured China’s worried neighbours. On the other hand, America’s efforts to impose itself on minor powers and small states—from Indochina to the Middle East—have largely failed. This is because American power is well-suited for deterring great power adversaries and ill-suited for pacification campaigns. When Boot says the US military should focus on training for counterinsurgency operations, he is wrong. The United States cannot sacrifice combat effectiveness and divert scare resources away from preparing to fight great power adversaries. This is simply because maintaining a favourable balance of power is the United States’ primary strategic interest. As Betts puts it, “the United States needs to temper the ambitions unleashed by its post–Cold War dominance, not only in reaction to the setbacks it has experienced in small wars but also to prepare for bigger wars for bigger stakes against bigger powers.” If swatting flies in the muck is sapping the strength of the US military, the United States should simply stop patrolling the marshes.

Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro (“Homeward Bound?”) are not drawing any lessons from the wars. I have no clue why their essay is included in this section. Their concern is to evaluate the risk of radicalized Westerners now fighting for the Islamic State returning home and unleashing terror. They argue that this is a manageable threat (since it is quite easy to flag the returning jihadists) and there need be no panic about it.

Rick Brennan (“Withdrawal Symptoms”) complains about the Obama administration’s failure to reach a status-of-forces agreement with Baghdad. He points out that the reason why the negotiations failed was because the administration insisted on legal immunity for all US forces in Iraq, something that was politically impossible for any Iraqi government to accept after the Blackwater massacre. Brennan claims that Iraq’s descent into its current nightmare was foreseen with “eerie accuracy” by the military. Specifically, a 2010 internal assessment concluded that in the event of a American pullout, “the central government in Baghdad would become ever more corrupt, sectarian, and acquiescent to Tehran, setting the stage for a revival of the Sunni insurgency, a resurgence of AQI, and the end of the relative stability that the United States had worked so hard to foster.” The same thing, Brennan claims, is happening now in Afghanistan where the Obama administration is planning to pull out all American troops by 2016.


Peter Tomsen reviews three new books on the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan. The most interesting of these is Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy, wherein she documents Pakistan’s double game of “public support and private official assurances that Pakistan is allied with the United States and NATO, but clandestine ISI support for radical Islamist terrorism.” Citing an “inside source,” Gall goes so far as to claim that not only was Pakistani intelligence aware of bin Laden’s whereabouts, the ISI “ran a special desk” to handle bin Laden. [More on it when I’m done reading the book.] Tomsen shows that Afghanistan is headed towards calamity, with possibly a full-scale return of the Taliban when the US departs. He argues that it is high-time to arm-twist Pakistan. Specifically, the US should do three things:

The United States should designate the Afghan Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization, which would result in financial sanctions against banks and other institutions in Pakistan that the group relies on for funding. Then, Washington should make clear that U.S. military aid to Pakistan will end if Islamabad does not shut down the ISI’s terrorist proxies. Finally, Washington should warn Islamabad that if Pakistan continues its support for extremists in Afghanistan, the United States might designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism—a move that would produce severe economic, political, and diplomatic consequences for Pakistan.

Brennan’s assessment, shared by Tomsen—that US forces ought to stay till the dependent state can manage its own affairs—reinforces the case against small wars. If the United States cannot leave until the nascent state can survive by itself, this significantly increases the ex ante cost of pacification campaigns. But whether or not the United States should fight small wars is not a question of costs alone. The most important question raised by these failures is nowhere to be found on the pages of Foreign Affairs. When should the United States fight small wars? This is not rocket science—the answer is straightforward. America should only fight small wars when it has a vital interest at stake that cannot be achieved by any means short of war. Small states are of little consequence to America’s standing in world affairs. As a rule, small wars invariably sap the strength of great powers instead of enhancing their power position. Given the high costs and dubious gains of small wars, the United States is best off undertaking them only in the most extreme of circumstances. For instance, the Islamic State is arguably a case that requires the deployment of US ground forces. The threat to American security is unambiguous. Airstrikes are incapable of doing the job. And regional players are either incapable or unwilling to destroy the Islamic State. Even though there is little appetite in America for a ground war, the alternative—a salafi jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East—is even less appetizing.   

By spilling the blood of tens of thousands of Muslims, America’s Iraq debacle inflamed anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, thereby making it a fertile recruiting ground for Islamist radicals. Thousands of American troops have returned in coffins, and tens of thousands have been crippled. The war cost American taxpayers trillions of dollars. Yet, no vital American interest in Iraq had ever been identified. Moreover, even America’s military capability has suffered as a consequence. It is no longer in a position to fight in two regional campaigns simultaneously—the gold standard of the US military. Furthermore, American prestige has suffered a lasting damage. For instance, Iran no longer fears an American invasion aimed at regime change. Iranians know that America will not be landing a large land army in Eurasia any time soon. The threat of the use of force is considerably more useful than the use of force itself.

What this issue of Foreign Affairs shows is that the mandarins at the Council on Foreign Relations have failed to consider the most important questions raised by the decade of war. If there is any soul-searching in the foreign policy community, there is no sign of it. For the most fundamental question that arises in the aftermath of Iraq is this: How did the foreign policy community fail to see the obvious? Namely, that no conceivable US interest could be secured by removing Saddam and taking up the task of pacifying Iraq. Elsewhere, I have grappled with this question. The answer that emerges is not pretty. Basically, Saddam came to play a central role in the formulation and justification of a muscular US foreign policy—the “rogue states doctrine”—in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the twelve years between the Gulf War and the Iraq War, Saddam became a litmus test for beltway insiders and foreign policy elites to prove their cred. With the neocons firmly in the saddle, the United States launched an ill-considered policy to reconfigure the Middle East by force. When Bush went after Saddam he was following the path of least resistance in the domestic political economy of US foreign policy. The foreign policy elites offered little resistance because they had long-ago lost sight of realism.


World Affairs

A Terrible, Very Bad, No Good Idea

The United States is pursuing a strategy in Ukraine that it will come to regret. The White House has leaked a proposal to give precise, real-time locations of surface-to-air missiles in eastern Ukraine to the government in Kiev. Such an information pipeline has an extremely high military value to the government fighting Russian-backed rebels in the east. The rebels’ anti-air capabilities have been critical to holding back the central government’s advance. They have brought down a significant number of Ukrainian warplanes, including at least five in the past 10 days. That the government in Kiev is seeking ways to counter these capabilities is, thus, not surprising. What is surprising is that the United States is considering providing high-value, actionable military intelligence to it. It would constitute a major escalation in the proxy war. It is plain to demonstrate that Moscow would have no choice but to respond by escalating its own support for the rebellion. If push came to shove, Moscow will send in a military force to secure its perimeter. The West has simply no way to counter that. A more counter-productive policy is hard to imagine.

The Ukrainian government’s counter-offensive has achieved a moderate degree of success over the past few weeks. Government forces have recaptured a number of towns in recent fighting, including the city of Lysychansk. These developments prompted Russia to escalate the flow of arms to the rebels. Putin is acting out of fear of losing in eastern Ukraine; not out of inborn imperial ambitions, despite claims in a certain well-respected Western newspaper to the contrary. The demonization of Herr Putin in Western media is a bad sign. Not because Putin is a great guy. Whatever his personal qualities, he is simply trying to shore up Russia’s security, just as any responsible Russian leader would. The reason why it is a bad sign is because, while such a moralizing tone may be useful to mobilize Western public opinion, it is inconsistent with a dispassionate evaluation of realities that bear on actual decision-making.

Any serious analysis of the situation has to begin with the observation that Ukraine is squarely in Russia’s backyard. A Western-allied government in Ukraine is inconsistent with Russia’s security interests. The eastward expansion of Nato by the Clinton administration was ill-considered. It did not seem especially stupid in 1991-1998, when Russia was weak and the US could impose its will in Russia’s backyard. But it ought to have been foreseen that Russia would inevitably regain at least some of its former strength. And when that happened, the United States’ marginal interests in the region would undermine the credibility of its extended deterrence.

The US has continued to meddle in Russia’s backyard. This has predictably backfired. The first to crumble was the American penetration of the Caspian Sea region. The realignment of the region’s major polities was effected without violence in the mid-2000s. Russia managed to arm-twist the post-Soviet republics to scuttle plans for a pipeline to the EU that would bypass Russian territory. Georgia wasn’t so lucky. Believing that Washington had its back, the small state foolishly confronted the Kremlin over break-away provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian military intervention in 2008 ensured that the provinces would never return to Georgian control, and reestablished Russia as the regional hegemon in the Caucasus. There wasn’t much Washington could do about it except issue diplomatic protests. Washington’s meddling in the Ukraine eventually convinced a faction of Ukrainian oligarchs that the time was ripe to reorient the country to the west. US diplomats and intelligence services played a key role in destabilizing the Ukrainian polity. Just as in the Caspian Sea region and the Caucasus, Russia responded to the heightened threat aggressively.

A peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian crises is impossible without Western recognition of Russia’s security interests. While the United States can support and arm the western oriented central government in Kiev, it does not have sufficient interests at stake to militarily counter a Russian military intervention. The best it can do is create trouble for Russia. For now, Washington seems to have doubled down on its meddling. This is very bad news for the Ukrainian people. It is also a bad strategy for the United States. A much more conflictual relationship with Moscow precludes cooperation in Syria and Iraq, and over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Much more threateningly, it pushes Moscow closer to Beijing. If Russia bandwagons with China—as it will if Washington doesn’t stop meddling in Russia’s backyard—it will make balancing China considerably harder. In that scenario, China will not have to worry about its western perimeter, freeing up power resources to confront US primacy in the maritime zone. China is not the Soviet Union. It has the potential to be stronger than the United States. And the US has never before faced an opponent that was potentially stronger than itself. Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be, shall we? Washington can start on a much more prudent policy by scuttling the proposal to supply actionable military intelligence to Russia’s troubled neighbour.

World Affairs

“Saddam Must Go”



Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own?

George Orwell, 1984

The Bush administration’s public rationale for war was that: (a) Saddam had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons; (b) he was trying to acquire nuclear weapons; (c) he had ties to al Qa’ida; so that (d) there was a nontrivial probability that Saddam could supply WMDs to al Qa’ida. The Bush administration also hinted strongly that (e) Saddam was behind the attacks on September 11, 2001, with the result that, on the eve of the invasion, half the American public believed this particular bit of nonsense. All of the claims, (a)-(d), were wrong. At least (a) was plausible. The rest were simply fraudulent. These claims were meant to generate support for the Iraq war.  But why, precisely, did Bush want his war in the first place?

The only scholar to have seriously taken up this question is F. Gregory Gause, III.[i] Thorough and meticulous as always, Gause demonstrates unambiguously that the attacks of September 11, 2001 changed the risk calculus of the Bush administration. Before September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was divided between the neoconservatives who wanted to depose Saddam by the use of force—not necessarily by landing a major land army—and those who wanted to continue the existing policy of ‘containment.’ Until September 11, 2001, the status quo ante prevailed. Bush pushed for ‘smart sanctions’ to keep up the pressure on Saddam, but there were no plans to get rid of him by force. Writing about the incoming administration’s foreign policy in Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice compared the regime in Iraq to that of North Korea, saying “These regimes are living on borrowed time, so there need be no sense of panic about them.”[ii]

On September 12, 2001, Bush took aside Richard Clarke, the senior counterterrorism official in the White House, and told him to “look into Iraq, Saddam,” for links to the attacks on the previous day.[iii] This was the beginning of tremendous pressure from the White House on the intelligence community to generate evidence damming Saddam. The intelligence community’s analyzes regarding Saddam’s WMD capabilities and links to al Qa’ida did not change per se. What changed, Gause shows, was the degree of confidence they assigned to their findings.

Prior to September 11, 2001, there was a consensus that Saddam likely still had an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons—an erroneous, although not an unwarranted one. The United States and its Western allies had supplied him with dual use weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, and Saddam’s liberal use of these weapons against the Iranians, Kurds, and Shi’a rebels was quite well known. There were disagreements within the intelligence community about whether or not Saddam was seeking a nuclear deterrent, although there was a strong consensus that he was not even close to acquiring one. No agency claimed that Saddam had ties to al Qa’ida. After September 11, 2001, without any credible new intelligence—except for faulty reports which was quickly demonstrated to have been fabricated—US intelligence agencies upgraded their assessment that Saddam possessed  chemical and biological capabilities from “probably” to with “high confidence”; similarly, they now asserted with “moderate confidence” that Saddam was seeking a nuclear deterrent. Despite tremendous pressure from the White House, the American intelligence apparatus could not be brought to produce any reports tying Saddam to al Qa’ida.

Gause claims that in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, principals in the Bush administration convinced themselves that Saddam could supply chemical and biological weapons to Islamist extremists who had just demonstrated the capacity to strike the US homeland. The decision to go to war then followed from a strategy of security maximization captured precisely by Dick Cheney’s 1 per cent doctrine: “if there was a 1 per cent chance” of al Qa’ida gaining the capability to strike the US homeland with WMDs, then, “we would have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”[iv]

Claims that Saddam had ties to “Islamic terrorists” were pure fabrications—they rested on Iraq hosting an office of Hamas, like half-a-dozen other countries in the region, most of them American allies. Moreover, Saddam’s primary concern was regime security. Islamist militants posed a significant threat to his regime. He was simply not going to arm them, even with rifles. How, then, did Bush et al. fool themselves into thinking that Saddam posed a serious threat? Gause thinks that they did so due to a well-understood psychological bias—the tendency to look for evidence for confirmation of already held beliefs.

What Gause is essentially saying is that the Bush administration was predisposed to believe that Saddam posed a security threat to the United States. But why was the Bush administration so predisposed? After all, Saddam saw Islamists as a significant threat to his regime, especially armed extremists ones. Neither was Obama bin Laden favorably disposed towards Sadddam. In fact, al Qa’ida had emerged from the holy war in Afghanistan, wherein it had been bankrolled and armed by the CIA, the Saudis, and the ISI. Moreover, 11 of the 15 plotters of September 11, 2001, were known to be Saudis. Why would the Bush administration not suspect the Saudis or the Pakistanis of abetting the terrorists?[3] Why Saddam?

There would be nothing to explain if getting rid of Saddam was in the American interest in a straightforward realist sense. This was clearly not the case. Iraq was a regional power of some weight that went a long way towards balancing Iran, reducing the need for the United States to commit military and diplomatic resources in the gulf. The popular answer—that the US was interested in Iraqi oil—comes in three variants.

Hypothesis 1. Bush wanted American oil companies to take over Iraqi oil fields. All the major oil producers had nationalized their oil fields in the 1970s. There was no possibility of awarding ownership of the Iraqi oil fields to western companies. Moreover, this was understood by principals in the Bush administration, as well as by all security and energy analysts in the United States.

Hypothesis 2. Bush wanted the US to control access to Iraqi oil. This is a more sophisticated version. Controlling access to Iraqi oil could credibly provide the United States leverage against major importers in Europe and Asia. Still, United States’ veto over access to gulf energy resources depended on US military preponderance in the region—it could stop the flow to anyone as long as it controlled the sea lanes.[4] The exercise of this veto does not even require friendly regimes in the region, nor does it require military bases in any of the three major states. Indeed, US’ veto over gulf energy would be equally effective if it was following a policy of ‘triple containment.’[5] In any case, Saddam could’ve been brought in from the cold quite easily.

Hypothesis 3. Bush wanted to turn Iraq into a swing producer and thereby undermine the Saudis’ hold over the oil market. This version makes much more sense. The ‘oil for protection’ deal with the Saudis—whereby the Saudis maintain 2 million barrels a day of excess capacity to moderate the price of oil, and the United States protects the House of Saud—makes the United States, at least somewhat, dependent on its junior ally in the Persian Gulf. Whenever the Saudis have followed policies antithetical to American interests, US foreign policy elites have tried to figure a way of reducing US reliance on the House of Saud. The emergence of another swing producer would certainly end the Saudis’ stranglehold on the oil market. Due to the distribution of oil deposits, only Iran or Iraq could serve that role. A thaw with the Islamic regime in Iran being out of the question, Iraq was the only option.[6]

Again, however, there was always the considerably easier option of bringing Saddam in from the cold and developing Iraqi oil resources with the help of Western oil firms. Saddam could be expected to keep a lid on Kurdish and Shi’a nationalism, while serving as bulwark against Iran. If this was the real reason for Bush’s decision, whycome this alternative—one that was guaranteed to work—not even on the table??

I will show that the option of bringing Saddam in from the cold was simply never considered by US foreign policy elites. Relations with Iraq were ‘personalized’: any easing of economic sanctions  and military pressure was ruled out as long as Saddam remained in power. Moreover, US policymakers would not accept a transition to a more representative government in Iraq. They waited for twelve years for a coup d’état. With no coup forthcoming, they let “Iraq stew.” There was simply no coherent strategy to deal with the possibility that Saddam could stay in power indefinitely.

I will argue that US’ Iraq policy between August 2, 1990, and September 11, 2001, was inconsistent with foreign policy realism. It was not raison d’état that dictated US policy. Rather, Iraq came to play a central role in the domestic political economy of US foreign policy. The maintenance of near-Cold War era levels of military spending and forward deployment of US forces were now justified by the need to contain “rogue states,” with Iraq at the top of the list.  Iraq policy thereby became a litmus test for politicians and foreign policy advisors to prove their cred, supplementing the unwritten rule for aspirants to high office being “strong on Israel.” Given the discourse surrounding Saddam, principals in the Bush administration either bought the drivel, or found it to be the point of least resistance to launch a much more ambitious, and misguided, foreign policy agenda; probably both.

“Our kind of guy”

Westminster announced in 1968 that it would be ending British military presence east of Suez by 1971. In the process a string of small states in the gulf which had hitherto been British protectorates become independent. The three regional powers—Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia—immediately started jockeying for influence. The only question in the White House was whether the Shah should manage gulf affairs alone or the Saudis should get a say as well. The US settled on a “twin pillar” strategy: gulf affairs were to be managed by the Shah in consultation with the Saudis.[7] Saddam remained a Soviet client, although no threat to the Iranian dominated regional order during this period of moderation in the gulf.

The Islamic revolution in Iran at the end of the decade upended the regional order overnight. The revolutionary rhetoric emanating from Tehran made explicit the threat, already implicit, of a mass-based revolution in the region. The Saudis, the richest but militarily the weakest of the three poles, supported Saddam’s belligerence against the nascent Islamic republic. Instability in Iran briefly catapulted Iraq to the top of the regional military pecking order. Saddam seized this window of opportunity to invade the nascent Islamic republic. Washington, deeply worried about the revolutionary threat to the oil monarchies, quickly became Saddam’s primary patron and backer—supplying it with military hardware, munitions, and dual use chemicals.[8]

After the initial successes, the reverses came quickly and steadily. Given the distribution of war potential, Washington knew that the longer the war went on, the higher the likelihood of an outright defeat for Saddam. The United States escalated the flow of weapons and munitions, and turned a blind eye to Saddam’s liberal use of chemical weapons. Finally, American naval might had to be brought to bear—the tanker war of ’87-88—to persuade Iran to sue for peace. During the eighties, while Saddam was gassing the Kurds, the Shi’a, and the Iranians, he was “our kind of guy.”[9]

“What we say goes”

With his government’s coffers emptied by war and the collapse of oil prices, Saddam looked around frantically to shore up his position. He picked a dispute with Kuwait, accusing the Kuwaitis of exceeding their quota and driving down the price of crude. He demanded a $10 billion loan from the Kuwaiti emir and threatened to annex oil fields on the Kuwaiti side of the border. In one of the most curious incidents in American foreign affairs, when Saddam more or less informed the American Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie about his plans to invade Kuwait, she responded by stating that she “was not sure it would warrant a US response.” This, however, was not Glaspie’s mistake alone.

On July 24, 1990, the State Department clarified that the US did not have “any defense treaties with Kuwait, and there are no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.”[v] On July 25, 1990, the same day as the infamous Glaspie-Saddam meeting, the Ambassador-Designate to Kuwait, Edward Gnehm told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “Iraq was merely trying to intimidate a small country.” Two days before Saddam invaded Kuwait, John H. Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, informed Congress that the United States considered the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border dispute to be the two countries’ private affair. After the invasion, an unnamed senior administration official told the New York Times that the US government was expecting Saddam to seize a limited border area:[vi]

I can’t see the American public supporting the deployment of troops over a dispute over twenty miles of desert territory, and it is clear that the local countries would not have supported that kind of commitment. The basic principle is not to make threats that you can’t deliver on.

Saddam misunderstood the Boss’ green light and overran all of Kuwait; and, in effect, threatened Saudi Arabia—which, of course, he dared not invade for it was sure to invite a military response from the United States. He offered to serve as America’s chief ally in the gulf, promising the free flow of oil at $25 per barrel.[10] Saddam was offering himself as the gulf’s policeman.[11] Washington was not going to accept Iraqi hegemony in the gulf as a fait accompli. This was seen as gross insubordination. Bush quickly issued an ultimatum demanding that Saddam unconditionally withdraw all Iraqi forces from Kuwaiti territory or face the Boss’ wrath.

Saddam thought he was in a good position to negotiate, but he was miscalculating for the second time. He was about to discover the converse to the “basic principle”—once you threaten someone with the use of force, you have to deliver or risk losing your credibility.[12]  Washington quickly came around to the use of force to reverse Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. Saddam’s offer of withdrawal was ignored by the Bush administration, and suppressed in the American press. Here, finally, was a chance to kick the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ for good.[13] The war was meant to demonstrate the new freedom of action for the United States in a unipolar world, and establish the credibility of the American commitment to maintain the territorial order in the gulf by the force of its arms. Saddam had miscalculated his way into a war with a newly-minted hyperpower. Bush was not about to waste an opportunity to establish the most basic principle of the New World Order: “What we say goes.”[vii]

“Rise up against your dictator”

As Iraqi forces were getting hammered in Kuwait, the CIA-run radio station, The Voice of Free Iraq, exhorted the people of Iraq to rise up in revolt against their brutal dictator.[viii]

Rise to save your homeland form the clutches of dictatorship so that you can devote yourself to avoid the dangers of the continuation of the war and destruction. Honorable sons of the Tigris and the Euphrates, at these decisive moments of your life, and while facing the danger of death at the hands of foreign forces, you have no option in order to survive and defend the homeland but to put an end to the dictator and his criminal gang.

They did, in very large numbers. The intifada began with Iraqi troops returning from Kuwait. Saddam faced simultaneous mass uprisings from the Kurds in the north and the Shi’a in the south.[14] The central government lost control of half the country. Bush instructed the US military to not to chase the fleeing Iraqi forces all the way to Baghdad as they went about their turkey shoot in southern Iraq. Shi’a rebels groups reached out to American troops seeking weapons seized from Iraqi forces. But the Americans had been ordered to turn them down. Later, President Bush and National Security Advisor Scowcroft explained the logic of backing away from supporting the uprising: [ix]

While we hoped that a popular revolt or coup would topple Saddam, neither the United States nor the countries of the region wished to see the breakup of Iraq. We were concerned about the long-term balance of power at the head of the gulf.

Under the watchful gaze of General Schwarzkopf, Saddam put down the intifada with characteristic brutality; killing somewhere between 25,000 to 200,000; not that anyone counted the dead bodies.[15] After he was done putting down the intifada, Saddam moved to drain the marshes around the Shatt al Arab, were as many as 10,000 Shi’a insurgents had taken refuge; an act of environmental terrorism that all but destroyed the Marsh Arabs ancient way of life.[x] “The single most important reason for the failure of the Iraqi intifada,” in Gause’s impeccable analysis, “was the decision of the United States, which occupied considerable parts of southern Iraq as the rebellion was occurring, not to support it.”[xi]

“Iraqis will pay the price”

In the administration’s thinking, it was only a matter of time before there was a coup against Saddam.[16] New York Times’ chief foreign affairs correspondentThomas Friedman reported that Bush’s policy “is to allow President Hussein to restore the central government’s control over Iraq in the short run. Afterward, [officials] say, the United States can use an arms embargo and economic pressures built into the United Nations cease-fire resolution to encourage Iraqis to replace Mr. Hussein with a more mainstream figure.”[xii] But there was an obvious contradiction here: Saddam was destroying all domestic opposition to his rule; a contradiction that was immediately noticed. “It is rather anomalous to say that Saddam is going to fall in the long run, even if he is allowed to crush his opposition in the short run,” opined Peter W. Rodman, Henry Kissinger’s special assistant in 1969-1977, and until recently on Bush’s National Security Council.[xiii]

On May 21, 1991, President Bush declared “at this juncture, my view is we don’t want to lift these sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power,” echoing John Major’s May 11 statement that he would veto any lifting of sanctions as long as Saddam was in charge. In further clarification, the incoming Director of Central Intelligence, Robert M. Gates said, “All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone”; Iraq “will be nothing but a pariah state” as long as Mr. Hussein rules; and that “Iraqis will not participate in post-crisis political, economic and security arrangements until there is a change in regime.”[17] Adding, “Iraqis will pay the price while he is in power.”[xiv]

As the dog days approached, there was a growing sense in the administration that Saddam must go. By the end of September, Saddam was kicking out UN inspectors which he claimed—accurately—included CIA agents. The administration denounced these claims as “ludicrous.” President Bush threatened military action. Meanwhile, an administration official let the cat out of the bag:[xv]

True, [Saddam] won’t be a real military threat to anyone for years. But you have to think in the long term and base your policy on worst-case scenarios, even if you don’t believe they’re going to happen.

Coalition forces had completely destroyed Saddam’s offensive capabilities. American airstrikes had bombed Iraq’s infrastructure to the ground. The American assault had deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure. For instance, Iraqi electricity production had collapsed to a tenth of what it was before the war. The United States had delivered on its pre-war promise of bombing Iraq back to the preindustrial era. Iraq was now militarily the weakest of the gulf powers. Saddam was no longer a threat to anyone but the Iraqi populace.[18] Moreover, the erosion of Iraqi power had only just begun.

“It’s not personal”

Precisely a week before taking office, under prodding from reporters, Clinton mused that if Saddam “wants a different relationship” with the US, then “all he has to do is change his behavior.”[xvi] Adding that he is not “obsessed” with Saddam.[19] The backlash in the media the next day was entirely predictable. The administration was not about to bring in Saddam from the cold, “if for no other reason,” opined Leslie H. Gleb in the New York Times, “they know this would mean political suicide.”[xvii] Still, signs of hope continued to flicker. The Pentagon said on February 3 that the Iraqis “had changed their behavior.”[xviii] In mid-February, Saddam reached out to Clinton for a reset, and went out of his way to cooperate with UN inspectors. By the end of March, Clinton was saying he wanted to “depersonalize” the conflict with Iraq. The New York Times reported on March 29, 1993, that “The United States and Britain have begun to move away from their insistence that the trade embargo against Iraq cannot be lifted while President Saddam Hussein remains in power.”[xix]

These early moves towards bringing Saddam back in from the cold came to an end right quick after the infamous Iraqi plot to kill President George H.W. Bush came to light in May. There was no evidence of Saddam’s involvement, despite the administration’s claims. But the break in diplomatic momentum was immediate and permanent. US ships fired 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence in Baghdad. It was not the first time since 1990 that the US had punished Saddam with cruise missiles, nor would it be the last.

“Let Iraq stew”

US containment of Iraq had six elements, three authorized by the UN Security Council, and three illegally carried out by the United States and the United Kingdom. The multilateral effort consisted of weapons inspections, trade embargo, and asset freezes. Alongside, the United States and Britain imposed no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, conducted intermittent airstrikes and cruise missile strikes inside central Iraq, and engaged in covert efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The UN Special Commission for the Disarmament of Iraq (UNSCOM) was established to ensure that Saddam gave up chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons capabilities and missiles with ranges of more than 150 kilometers. Within three years, it had achieved considerable success, with UNSCOM inspectors reporting that Saddam had complied with all provisions.[20]

Under UN auspices, Iraq was subjected to the most onerous sanctions in history, whose lifting could be vetoed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The humanitarian consequences of these sanctions on the Iraqi populace would soon become evident. Already in 1991, a team of lawyers and health specialists from Harvard found that the 55,000 more children had died in the first four months of 1991 than in the comparable period the previous year.[xx] By 1996, UNICEF was estimating excess child mortality at half a million since the war. The vindictive nature of the sanctions is clear from the list of prohibited items that included pencils, sanitary towels, water purification chemicals, medical swabs, gauze, syringes, medical journals, surgical gloves, surgical instruments, dialysis equipment, toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper, nail polish, and lipstick. Dennis Halliday, the UN administrator for the oil-for-food program launched in 1996, resigned in horror, going so far as to use the g-word: [xxi]

Because Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programmed for years—it’s a deliberate ploy. For the British Government to say that the quantities involved for vaccinating kids are going to produce weapons of mass destruction, this is just nonsense. That’s why I’ve been using the word ‘genocide,’ because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq.

Still, the United States made it clear that would be no easing of sanctions as long as Saddam remained in power. In a speech given on March 26, 1997, the new Secretary of State Madeline Albright explained:

We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted. Our view, which is unshakable, is that Iraq must prove its peaceful intentions. It can only do that by complying with all of the Security Council Resolutions to which it is subject.

Is it possible to conceive of such a government under Saddam Hussein? When I was a professor, I taught that you have to consider all possibilities. As Secretary of State, I have to deal in the realm of reality and probability. And the evidence is over-whelming that Saddam Hussein’s intentions will never be peaceful.

The no-fly zones became an excuse for a continuing air war against Iraq that went largely unreported in Western newspapers.  On January 12, 1993, British and French warplanes operating from Saudi Arabia joined a much larger American fleet from the carrier Kittyhawk in attacking targets inside Iraq. This was followed by a volley of cruise missiles a week later. Soon after coming into office, Clinton fired another barrage of missiles in retaliation for the alleged Iraqi plot to kill George HW Bush. In October 1994, he ordered the deployment of 30,000 American troops into Kuwait when Iraq started amassing troops on the border. Intermittent airstrikes continued through the 1990s, culminating in a several months long secret air war in 1999. On August 13, 1999, the New York Times reported that American and British pilots had fired more than 1,100 missiles in the previous 8 months.[xxii]

While the arms inspectors were more or less successful in defanging Saddam and the sanctions bled Iraq to the bone, Anglo-American covert efforts and military pressure utterly failed to prompt a coup against Saddam.[21]

The policy consensus

The Council on Foreign Relations sponsored an independent task force in 1996 to evaluate US gulf policy of ‘dual containment,’ which filed its report in July 1997.[xxiii] It could see no reason to change policy:

Although there are real costs involved in maintaining Iraq’s pariah status, it is difficult to see how any policy in the military sphere other than continued containment can be adopted so long as Saddam remains in power.

They recognized that US relations with Iraq had always been personalized: “In practice, the administration made it clear that it had no intention of dealing with Saddam Hussein’s regime, and seemed content, for lack of a better alternative, to let Iraq stew indefinitely.” Instead of depersonalizing the policy, the task force recommended that the United States should “openly assert that it will not under any circumstances deal with the regime of Saddam Hussein.” In fact, there was never any coherent policy for the eventuality that Saddam could survive:

The unpleasant reality may be however, that Saddam remains in power indefinitely. The United States needs to formulate and articulate a coherent policy toward Iraq for thiseventuality. [Emphasis mine.]

The recommendation that the US formulate a policy for the possibility of Saddam’s continued survival betrayed the fatal flaw in the policy consensus. As far as the US foreign policy elites were concerned, Iraqi generals were responsible to get rid of Saddam. As long as they failed to launch a successful coup, the strangulation of Iraq would continue. Yet, what American interest was being served by this policy was never spelled out.[22] For good reason: it did not exist. As Iraq bled, Iran became relatively more powerful in the gulf. This meant that US forces had to be deployed permanently in the gulf to balance Iran, at the cost of $100 billion a year, according to an authoritative estimate by the RAND corporation.[xxiv] Moreover, the presence of US forces on the Arabian peninsula was undermining the stability of the oil monarchies. Indeed, it was precisely the presence of American troops that made al Qa’ida turn on the United States and the House of Saud. A more counterproductive gulf policy is hard to imagine. But sure enough, Bush Jr. would find it.

Why so vindictive, Uncle Sam?

During the Cold War, the domestic populace was sufficiently frightened to bankroll an enormous military apparatus and support the forward deployment of American forces in remote corners of the globe. Under the guise of containing the “ruthless conspiracy of the Kremlin,” the United States could project its power around the world in the interests of Western capital without much ado. As the Soviet Union began its precipitous decent from superpower status in the late-1980s, high officials in the American military began anticipating domestic pressures for curtailed military spending and calls to ‘bring the boys home.’

The idea was that since force reductions were inevitable, the military should take the initiative and propose to reduce active duty strength from 2.1 million to 1.6 million troops, and plan for a 25% cut in military spending. US global primacy required the maintenance of a military apparatus that could intimidate any state in the international system contemplating any challenge whatsoever. If Congress could only be persuaded to retain at least three-fourths strength, it would have to be suffice. Still, in the absence of any real threats, it was hard to see how US taxpayers could be persuaded to bankroll the required apparatus.

Powell was at a loss. “I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung,” wailed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The solution that was hit upon in the Pentagon was to inflate the threat posed from Third World tyrants against whom domestic public opinion could be mobilized relatively easily. Now that the threats could “no longer be laid at Kremlin’s door,” perhaps Americans could be frightened into paying by the “rogues’ gallery”? Bush was persuaded by Powell weeks before Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Officials quickly began talking about the threat posed by the “military sophistication of Third World states.” This was basically what would evolve into the ‘rogue states’ doctrine.

To serious security analysts it was always clear that there was no threat to the United States from these states. The combined GDP of these “rogue states”—Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Cuba—never exceeded that of California, Texas, or New York.[23] Even if they were to obtain nuclear weapons, they would not constitute a real threat to the US: nuclear deterrence applies a fortiori to countries that cannot guarantee the survival of their nuclear deterrent against a disarming counterforce strike.[24] But public opinion is not the same thing as serious analysis.

In the constellation of rogues conjured up to justify policy, Saddam played a special role. Having just attacked a powerless neighbor, with a human rights record remarkable even by regional standards and a history of chemical weapons use, and with a million men under arms to boot, Saddam was a PR wet dream for proponents of global primacy. When, in 1994, Anthony Lake spelled out the administration’s doctrine in Foreign Affairs, the focus was clearly on Iraq.[xxv] The essay articulated the administration’s “dual containment” policy in the gulf—the US would contain both Iraq and Iran instead of letting them balance each other—justified in terms of the rogue states doctrine, which had by then become the organizing principle of US foreign policy.

Domestic political considerations required that the debate be restricted to how best to contain these rogue states, not whether containment was called for at all. If some foreign policy analysts questioned the wisdom of the basic thrust of US policy, there is no evidence of it. Very many, of course, criticized the hyper-vindictive nature of the sanctions, and recommended that they be lifted. The position that there was, in fact, no threat from any rogue states to US interests was never articulated. Specifically, no mainstream analyst argued that it was in the US interest to bring Saddam in from the cold. Presumably, analysts who could contemplate such blasphemy had already been weeded out of the mainstream.

Although he could’ve hardly foreseen it, Saddam had walked into a perfect storm. The demonization of Saddam continued throughout the nineties, well after opposition started mounting among Western allies. By the mid-1990s, even the gulf monarchies began pressing for accommodation, recognizing that Saddam was no longer a threat and the suffering of Iraqis at the hands of their patron was undermining their own support base. What critics everywhere failed to recognize was the central role Saddam had come to play in the domestic political calculus of US foreign policymaking.

Thus, when George Bush went about “searching for monsters to destroy,” Saddam was the most tempting target.[25] That Saddam had played no role in the attacks on September 11, 2001, was not a major hindrance in an elite foreign policy culture that had long-ago lost sight of realism.[26] Iraq was chosen because it offered the path of least resistance. With the neocons firmly in the saddle, the United States launched on an ill-considered policy to reconfigure the Middle East by force. In their flights of fancy, the question was after heroically liberating Iraq, whether the US should turn left into Syria or right into Iran. In the end, the Bush revolution in foreign policy was an unambiguous failure for the United States, with the price, as usual, paid by the Iraqis.[xxvi]


“Saddam Must Go” was the cover of the November 17, 1997 issue of the Weekly Standard.


This essay will not consider the logic of the neoconservative agenda. 


We were to later find out that bin Laden himself was hiding all these years in a suburb of the city that hosts Pakistan’s military headquarters.


The strategic implications of the dependence on oil were clear before World War II. The oil weapon was deployed against Germany and Japan during the war. The veto now serves to keep China in line. Only two great powers, Russia and the US, had large oil deposits of their own, making them immune to an oil embargo.


This is hardly outlandish. For instance, if the Saudi monarchy had been deposed during the nineties and replaced by an anti-American theocracy, the US would almost certainly have followed a policy of triple containment. Although the absurdity of the enterprise would’ve become rapidly apparent, perhaps prompting a thaw with Saddam.


The geopolitical interests of the US and Iran are quite aligned. A thaw with the Islamic republic was out of the question unless the Iranians moderated their stance. This is happening as of writing. Consequently, a strategic realignment in the gulf may be in the offing.


The policy was designed to assuage Saudi fears. The Shah was unambiguously the gulf’s policeman until his overthrow, and the chief ally of the United States in the region.


Curiously, German firms supplied most of the dual use chemicals. See Hippler, Jochen. “Iraq’s Military Power: The German Connection.” Middle East Report 168 (1991): 27-31.


An expression used by President Reagan for General Suharto, another murderous thug and Washington’s client throughout his reign. Noam Chomsky uses it as short hand to describe Washington’s strong preference for pro-Western, pro-Business Third World dictators.


The price of crude was skirting single digits, so $25 a barrel was in no way a bargain.


Had Saddam learnt how to behave with the boss, he would’ve been a good replacement for the Shah as the gulf’s policeman. Of course, Saddam had long been posturing as the leader of the Arabs who could stand up to the West. His belligerence against Israel did not help matters in Washington either. In the event, all this could’ve been forgiven if Saddam had played his cards right. The emir of Kuwait had offered a $9 billion loan, and the Saudis had agreed to pony up $1 billion. The United States had made it clear that it would allow Saddam to annex a couple of islands—Warba and Bubiyan—in the gulf and a couple of oil fields on the Kuwaiti side of the border. Instead of taking what was on the table, Saddam recklessly overplayed his hand. There is no room for such blunders in world affairs.


Baloney, of course. Still, it continues to be a cardinal principle of US foreign policy. This is why foreign policy elites were so angry when Obama backed down from punishing Assad for using chemical weapons.


Bush had already celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall by invading Panama seven months earlier to get rid of Noriega; another thug who had been a US client for decades but dared to disobey the boss. Noriega was handled by Bush Sr. himself during his CIA days.


Shi’a soldiers had fought for Saddam against Shi’a Iran. Similarly, a significant number of Sunnis were involved in the rebellion. However, the central government never lost control of the predominantly Sunni parts of the country. Even though the rebellion itself wasn’t sectarian, the central government’s response certainly was. Saddam dispatched all-Sunni battalions to hunt down Shi’a insurgents in southern Iraq.


Robert Fisk gives a figure of 200,000. Human Rights Watch’s more conservative estimate was 25,000-100,000. By all accounts, Saddam had exceeded the achievements of the Butcher of Hama.


Administration officials believed, incorrectly, that Saddam could not survive politically after such a thorough military defeat. Regime security was always Saddam’s top priority. He had designed the security apparatus very deliberately to minimize the possibility of coups. Indeed, all Western machinations to engineer a coup came to naught. Every organization bankrolled by Washington was infiltrated by Saddam’s security agents.


Making for excellent credentials in Washington, of course. President Obama’s decision to retain Gates as the Defense Secretary was calculated to project the image that the President was “strong on defense.”


Recognizing that Saddam posed no threat to gulf security yet advocating an aggressive policy of containment required no small degree of double-think among security analysts.


Reporter: But you don’t take the view that there can be no normal relations with this man or with Iraq as long as he is in power? Clinton: Based on the evidence that we have, the people of Iraq would be better off if they had a different leader. But my job is not to pick their rulers for them. I always tell everybody, “I’m a Baptist; I believe in deathbed conversions.” If he wants a different relationship with the United States and with the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior.


In six years, UNSCOM inspectors had presided over the destruction of 40,000 chemical shells, 700 tons of chemical agents, 48 long-range missiles, an anthrax factory, a nuclear centrifuge program, and 30 warheads.


If this was indeed the goal of the intermittent air campaign against Iraq. The pretense was always that Saddam was not complying with UNSC provisions. But the Western allies were not being serious since they kept moving the goal post. In the end, Saddam realized that they would never be satisfied and threw out the arms inspectors for good. This is what prompted the secret air war in 1999.


That Saddam would survive indefinitely was the baseline scenario after he crushed the intifada.


Current GDP figures are: Iraq $210 billion, Iran $514 billion, North Korea $12 billion, and Cuba $61 billion, for a combined $797 billion for the rogue’s gallery; while those of the three biggest US states in 2009, when the US economy was in a deep recession, were: New York $1,093 billion, Texas $1,244 billion, and California $1,891 billion.


This is a big problem for states with small territories who cannot disperse their arsenals to thwart disarming counterforce strikes, thus undermining the effectiveness of their nuclear deterrent. In particular, it applies to Israel and Taiwan, two states that have threatening neighbors, yet cannot guarantee their survival even with nuclear weapons.


In 1821, John Quincy Adams had warned Americans against venturing abroad in search for monsters to destroy.


In an open letter, eight hundred security scholars warned against this adventure. The signatories included all the stars in the realist pantheon, from Kenneth Waltz to John J. Mearsheimer.




Gause, F. Gregory. The International Relations of the Persian Gulf. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010.


Condoleezza Rice. “Promoting the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 79, No. 1, (January/February 2000).


Clarke, Richard A. Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, p. 32. New York: Free, 2004.


Quoted in Suskind, Ron. The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11, p. 62. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.


Elaine Sciolino and Michael R. Gordon. “Confrontation in the Gulf; US Gave Iraq Little reason Not to Mount Kuwait Assault,” New York Times. September 23, 1990.




President George HW Bush. NBC Nightly News. February 2, 1991.


Quoted in Fisk, Robert. The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, p. 793. Harper Perennial, 2006.


Bush, George, and Brent Scowcroft. A World Transformed, p. 489. New York: Knopf, 1998.


Emma Nicholson. “Barbarity in Iraq’s Marshland,” New York Times. August 28, 1992.


Gause, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf, p. 117.


Thomas L. Friedman. “After the War; Decision Not to Help Iraqi Rebels Puts U.S. in an Awkward Position,” New York Times. April 4, 1991.




Patrick E. Tyler, “After the War; Bush Links End Of Trading Ban To Hussein Exit,” New York Times. May 21, 1991.


Andrew Rosenthal. “The Bush-Hussein Duel; U.S. Aides Admit Iraq Is No Armed Threat But Say That Control Must Be Established,”New York Times. September 26, 1991.


“The New Presidency; Excerpts From an Interview With Clinton After the Air Strikes,” New York Times. January 14, 1993.


Leslie H. Gleb. “Foreign Affairs; Iraq Balancing Iran?” New York Times. January 17, 1993.


Thomas L. Friedman. “U.S. Asserts Iraq Changed Behavior,” New York Times. February 3, 1993.


Paul Lewis. “U.S. and Britain Softening Emphasis on Ousting Iraqi,” New York Times. March 29, 1993.


Patrick E. Tyler. “Health Crisis Said to Grip Iraq In the Wake of War’s Destruction,” New York Times. May 22, 1991.


Edwards, David. “An Interview With Denis Halliday,” Media Lens. May 16, 2000. Web. Accessed June 28, 2014.


Steven Lee Myers. “In Intense But Little-Noticed Fight, Allies Have Bombed Iraq All Year,” New York Times. August 13, 1999.


“Differentiated Containment: U.S. Policy Toward Iran and Iraq,” Council on Foreign Relations. July 1, 1997.


Crane, Keith, et al. Imported Oil and US National Security. Rand Corporation, 2009.


Anthony Lake. “Confronting Backlash States,” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 73, No. 2, (March/April 1994).


Daalder, Ivo H., and James M. Lindsay. America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Brookings Institution Press, 2003.