This week’s startling display of disloyalty by Robert Gates towards the commander in chief he formerly served should not be allowed to distract policymakers or pundits from the larger strategic issues in Southwest Asia. The reason Secretary Gates detected ambivalence on the President’s part about the war strategy the administration was pursuing was because Obama had to spend his entire first term trying to correct the consequences of stupid strategic choices made by his predecessor.
The United States invasion of Iraq was based on utterly false assumptions about that country’s policies and people, and once we were there the Bush Administration widened the scope of the U.S. mission to a degree that made victory impossible. In Afghanistan, eight years of counter-insurgency warfare prior to Mr. Obama’s arrival at the White House had proven how smart Osama bin Laden was in picking that godforsaken place as his sanctuary; no country in its right mind would want to conduct military operations there given a choice, much less try to reform its hopelessly corrupt political culture.
It is comical for Gates to criticize Vice President Biden’s approach to America’s involvement when it is so clear in retrospect that Biden was one of the few Washington insiders who saw the situation as it actually was. Biden advised that the U.S. forego nation-building in Afghanistan and focus its military efforts on destroying Al Qaeda — the only reason we had gone there in the first place. Biden understood that a country where illegal opiates are the main cash crop, most people can’t read, and the majority tribe views child molesting as an acceptable practice is not fertile ground for democracy. So he recommended rooting out the remnants of bin Laden’s band and then being done with the place.
Obama was not unsympathetic to this view, but as commander in chief he felt obliged to listen to military advisors who believed one final U.S. surge could stabilize the country after a decade of war. In essence, the President elected to do the right thing even though he knew nation-building in Afghanistan was a pointless undertaking and he detested the country’s incompetent leader, Hamid Karzai. Obama didn’t need to be told by Biden that America’s military would try to manipulate him into an excessive commitment of forces and funding, because that became all too obvious during the discussion of options. U.S. military leaders are products of the bureaucratic culture that begat them, but their grasp of other countries and cultures is seldom deep.
The simple truth is that Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t really nations at all in the Western sense. They are the places between other places, home to diverse peoples who lack a sense of shared purpose or identity. They can’t be fixed because their borders don’t align with the loyalties of those who live within them. Being politicians by training, Obama and Biden were better suited to seeing this than their generals were. They saw much the same thing in other places where America was encouraged to intervene, such as Libya and Syria. The reason they always seem so ambivalent is that they hate to stand idle while innocent people suffer, but they doubt there’s much America can do to fix the situation on the ground.
That disheartening assessment may be the closest thing to wisdom we have seen in Washington’s Middle East policies in two generations. Aside from the glorious interlude known as Desert Storm, America’s involvement in Southwest Asia and adjacent areas has been a continuous litany of tragedies from the Beirut barracks bombing in the 1980s to the Mogadishu retreat of the 1990s to the battle of Fallujah in the first decade of the new millennium. We can win the battles but we can’t create a lasting peace because the region is too divided, too backward and too corrupt. Now that we don’t need its oil the way we once did, it is time for America to pull back. President Obama deserves credit for seeing through the Pentagon’s sophistries and grasping the larger picture.
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