It will be a stunning development if Gen. David Petraeus’s September report on the Iraq War fails to argue that progress is being made, the surge should be given more time to work, and the United States can achieve a stable Iraq if it is willing to maintain a long-term military presence. The Bush administration will thus maintain that there is no need to reassess U.S. grand strategy in the Middle East because the current policy is working.
But the evidence argues otherwise. The American military presence in the region has fueled terrorism and caused Iran to self-defensively seek a nuclear-weapons capability. The surge may have somewhat reduced, though hardly ended the simmering civil war, but the Iraqis remain incapable of resolving their political differences. And all indicators suggest that it will be a long time—if ever—before Iraqi security forces are capable of maintaining any semblance of order without U.S. military support.
Still the administration, like a bad football team with a limited playbook, keeps falling back on the same argument: Iraq is the “central front” on the war on terror, and our enemies there are the same terrorists who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The latest spin on that old claim is to single out Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) as the primary troublemaker, grossly exaggerating the links between the insurgent group and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
Just as Bush engaged in threat inflation to justify invading Iraq in March 2003, he is now engaged in threat conflation to justify staying there. In his May 2007 commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy, he asserted: “Al-Qaeda is public enemy number one for Iraq’s young democracy, and al-Qaeda is public enemy number one for America as well. And that is why we must support our troops, we must support the Iraqi government, and must defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq.” But AQI only came into existence after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and, obviously, had nothing to do with 9/11. It is an indigenous Iraqi insurgent group only loosely affiliated with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
In addition to misunderstanding the enemy, the Bush administration has fundamentally misdiagnosed the causes of Islamic terrorism, stubbornly refusing to recognize the role American policies play in spurring it along. Since 9/11, the president has insisted that the U.S. was attacked because Islamic radicals “hate us for our freedom.” For sure, Islamic radicals hate America for cultural, religious, and ideological reasons. But that isn’t why they target us. Sept. 11 represented a violent counter-reaction to America’s drive to dominate the Middle East geopolitically and culturally. Far from being an “irrational” act of violence, as Bush has repeatedly claimed, the attacks were a textbook example of the Clausewitzian paradigm of war: force was used against the U.S. by its adversaries to advance their political objectives.
As Michael Scheurer—who headed the CIA analytical team monitoring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda—says, it is dangerous for the U.S. to base its strategy on the belief “that Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think rather than for what we do.” In a similar vein, in a 1998 article in Foreign Affairs, Columbia University professor Richard K. Betts observed, following the 1993 World Trade Center attack, “It is hardly likely that Middle Eastern radicals would be hatching schemes like the destruction of the World Trade Center if the United States had not been identified so long as the mainstay of Israel, the Shah of Iran, and conservative Arab regimes and the source of a cultural assault on Islam.” It is the United States’ attempt to impose its geopolitical primacy and policy preferences on the Middle East that fuels groups like al-Qaeda and fans Islamic radicalism.
The insights of Scheurer, Betts, and other experts have been validated by University of Chicago professor Robert Pape in his recent study of suicide terrorist groups. Pape found that “what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.” Al-Qaeda fits this pattern perfectly, and—because it reinforces the widespread perception in the Islamic world that the United States is pursuing a neo-colonial policy—Bush’s determination to maintain a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq is exactly the wrong policy to reduce America’s exposure to Islamic terrorism.
If policymakers are serious about reducing America’s exposure to the Islamic terrorist attacks, the way to do so is to adopt a new strategy that would lower the U.S. profile in the region—what security-studies scholars call “offshore balancing.” As Pape argues, offshore balancing “is America’s best strategy for the Persian Gulf” because the “mere presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the region is likely to fuel continued fear of foreign occupation that will fuel anti-American terrorism in the future.” Similarly, Harvard’s Stephen Walt, who also favors a U.S. offshore-balancing strategy in the Middle East, observes, “The U.S. does have important interests in the Middle East—including access to oil and the need to combat terrorism—but neither objective is well served by occupying the region with its own military forces.” Even Michael Lind, who is skeptical that offshore balancing is a good strategy for the United States to follow in Europe and East Asia, believes it is the best grand strategy option for the United States in the Middle East.
The administration, of course, maintains that the U.S. cannot leave Iraq because, if it does, “al-Qaeda”—that is AQI—will turn Iraq into a terrorist base. This argument doesn’t hold water. Because it uses some foreign jihadists for suicide attacks and because it targets civilians indiscriminately, AQI has an extremely ambivalent relationship with other indigenous Sunni insurgent groups. To the extent AQI and the Sunni insurgents collaborate, only their common hostility to the American occupation binds them.
Indeed, many U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts believe that if American troops were to withdraw, far from AQI taking control over vast swaths of Iraq, the most probable outcome is that the other Sunni insurgents would try to drive AQI out of Iraq. (One of the few successes that the American military can claim in Iraq is that in some localities it has been able to exploit the cleavage between AQI and other Sunni insurgent groups.)
The administration’s other main argument for staying in Iraq—that “al-Qaeda” will use bases in Iraq to attack the United States—borders on the absurd. As senior U.S. intelligence officials warned in July, both in a National Intelligence Estimate and in Congressional testimony, bin Laden and the real al-Qaeda do not need bases in Iraq because they already enjoy a sanctuary in the region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, where they are reconstituting their capabilities. The true central fronts of the war on terror are Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier. If the administration is really worried about al-Qaeda striking the United States, those places—not Iraq—are where its counterterrorist operations should be focused.
Adoption of an offshore balancing strategy would require overhauling U.S. strategy toward the entire Middle East, not just Iraq. With respect to Iran, an offshore balancing strategy would rule out war. While a nuclear-armed Iran hardly is desirable, neither is it, as Bush repeatedly has proclaimed, “intolerable,” because it could be contained and deterred successfully by the United States. Israel’s security with respect to Iran is guaranteed by its own formidable nuclear-deterrent capabilities—something hysterical neocons conveniently forget—and just as it did in Europe during the Cold War, the U.S. can extend its own deterrence umbrella to protect its other clients in the region. Given the overwhelming American advantage in both nuclear and conventional military capabilities, Iran is not going to risk national suicide by challenging America’s security commitments in the region.
Besides, U.S. attacks could at best only slow down Tehran’s nuclear program—not destroy it—and Iran has a number of retaliatory options. It can use Shi’ite militias to attack U.S. troops in Iraq. It can use Hamas and Hezbollah to cause trouble in Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon. It can damage the global economy by shutting off its oil exports and closing the vital Strait of Hormuz. The worst consequence of a U.S. attack on Iran, however, is that it would cause America’s political standing to collapse completely in the Middle East and possibly ignite a true clash of civilizations, pitting the United States against the entire Islamic world.
Access to oil, of course, is an important U.S. interest, and in some respects American military power plays an important role in keeping the oil flowing from the Gulf. But this does not require an on-the-ground American military presence in the Middle East. The overarching U.S. interest in the region is preventing the emergence of an “oil hegemon,” but the risk of such a development is low because the three largest states in the Gulf—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran—lack the military capability to conquer each other. Moreover, because of its overwhelming military capabilities compared to the big three Gulf powers, the United States could easily deter any of them from launching a war of conquest. And it can do so without triggering the kind of anti-American backlash that occurs when U.S. forces are visibly present in the region.
Similarly, although its closure is a low-probability event—unless the U.S. attacks Iran—the United States has an important interest in making sure the Strait of Hormuz remains open. But this is a task that can be accomplished by American naval power.
Finally, domestic instability in the Gulf’s oil-producing states is a risk, especially in Saudi Arabia. But America’s military power and its heavy-handed political influence are a recruiting boon for radical groups, which work against domestic stability.
In addition to reducing our footprint and formulating a viable long-term energy strategy that minimizes American vulnerability to the vicissitudes of this endemically turbulent region, as an offshore balancer, the United States would need to rethink its relationship with Israel.
As John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt argue in their new book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, in the post-Cold War world, Israel is no longer a strategic asset for the United States since its interests and ours frequently diverge. Because of the Bush administration’s decision to tilt toward Israel, the U.S. has forfeited its position as an honest broker that can help negotiate a resolution of Israel’s conflicts with the Palestinians and Syria. And, of course, for the U.S., the widespread perception in the Islamic world that it is indifferent to the fate of the Palestinians helps fuel the anti-American animus of radical Islamic groups like al-Qaeda.
The United States has a moral commitment to Israel’s existence that it must honor, but it has no obligation to support Israeli policies that undermine America’s regional interests. In its own interests, and as a good ally, Washington has an obligation to warn Jerusalem against pursuing self-defeating policies.
As Americans come to realize that the Bush administration’s strategy has made the U.S. less secure, they are becoming more receptive to the arguments for an offshore-balancing strategy. For example, a September 2006 public opinion survey by the Pew Charitable Trust found that “by a 45% to 32% margin, more Americans believe that the best way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the U.S. is to decrease, not increase, America’s military presence overseas.” The same survey also found that “An increasing number of Americans see nonmilitary approaches—such as decreasing U.S. dependence on Middle East oil and avoiding involvement with the problems of other countries” as effective strategies for reducing the terrorist threat to the United States. These results suggest that, unlike the administration and its neoconservative fellow travelers, the American people are drawing the correct lessons from the Iraq debacle.
One huge disaster is enough—more than enough—for any grand strategy. And if the U.S. continues to pursue this president’s policies, the strategic setbacks won’t end with Iraq.
Christopher Layne is professor and holder of the and Mary Julia and George R. Jordan Professorship of International Affairs at Texas A&M University. He is author of The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy Since 1940 and (with Bradley A. Thayer) American Empire: A Debate.