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Saddam’s Strategy Against ISIS

It does not take great powers of prophecy to discern the outcome of the latest U.S. intervention in Syria and Iraq. Soon, ground forces will become more directly involved. Fighting bravely and intelligently, those forces will win many victories, although at a high cost in battle casualties and terrorist outrages. Meanwhile, Islamic State forces only have to stay on the defensive until the patience of the U.S. public becomes exhausted, prompting another undignified American withdrawal in 2016 or 2020. Islamists will then regain power, just as the Taliban will almost certainly do in Afghanistan. Americans will be left scratching their heads seeking to explain another strategic failure.

Actually, American or other Western forces could win such wars very easily, obliterating their enemies to the point where they would never rise again. The problem is that they could do so only by adopting tactics that Americans would find utterly inconceivable and intolerable—in effect, the tactics of Saddam Hussein. Yet without these methods, the West is assuredly destined to lose each and every of its future military encounters in the region. I emphatically do not advocate these brutal methods. Rather, I ask why, if the U.S. does not plan to fight to win, does it become embroiled in these scenarios in the first place?

To illustrate the principles at work, think back to the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi in 2012. Ordinary Libyans were furious at the killing of an American diplomat they respected greatly, and they struck hard at the terror groups involved. With dauntless courage, they stormed the militia bases, evicting many well-armed Islamist fighters. Explaining his fanatical behavior under fire, one of the attackers was quoted as saying “What do I have to fear? I have five brothers!” As in most of the Muslim world, whether in the Middle East, North Africa, or South Asia, people operate from a powerful sense of family or clan loyalty, with an absolute faith that kinsmen will avenge your death or injury. That process of vendetta and escalating violence continues until the family ceases to exist. As a corollary, the guilt of one is the guilt of all. An individual cannot shame himself without harming his wider family.

Through the centuries, that basic fact of collective loyalty and shared responsibility has absolutely shaped the conduct of warfare in the region. It means, for instance, that governments disarmed rivals by taking members of their families as hostages for good behavior. Those hostages were treated decently and honorably, but their fate depended on the continued good conduct of their kinfolk. Governments kept order by deterrence, enforced by the ever-present threat of collective retaliation against the kin-group and the home community of any potential insurgents. As individuals scarcely matter except as components of the organic whole of family and community, nothing prevents avenging the misdeeds of one man on the body of one of his relatives or friends.

Everyone in the region understands the collective principle, which was powerfully in evidence during the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s. If a militia kidnapped one of your kinsmen or friends, you could only save his life if you very quickly grabbed a relative of one of the culprits, and thus began negotiations for a swap. If your kinsman was already dead, then further atrocities could only be pre-empted by swift retaliation against the kidnapper’s family. So you have five brothers? Well, we will track them all down, one by one.

Only slowly did local Beirut fighters realize that the Americans were actually naïve enough not to target the relatives of kidnappers, even when they knew perfectly well who the guilty men were. That insight—the knowledge that you could target those foreigners without risking your brothers or cousins—was what led to the hostage crisis of the Reagan years, which almost brought down the U.S. presidency. The Russians, by the way, enthusiastically played by local rules, retaliating savagely against the brothers and cousins of those who laid hands on one of their own. In consequence, the Russians suffered only one kidnap crisis, before establishing a successful balance of terror.

Once we understand that principle, even the seemingly intractable problem of deterring suicide attacks actually becomes simple. An individual—a Mohammed Atta in New York, a Mohammad Sidique Khan in London—might in his last moments dwell on nothing but the glories awaiting him in Paradise. Why should he hesitate to kill? Matters would be utterly different if he knew that his act would bring ruin to his family and neighbors, to the violent death of all his kinsmen and the extirpation of his bloodline.

A dictatorial regime like Saddam’s had not the slightest problem imposing such a group punishment, and extending it to every woman and child of that family. Western forces have always been far more principled, but even the colonial empires were quite prepared to inflict collective punishments on the towns or villages that produced notorious rebels. When Israeli soldiers today demolish the houses of terrorists’ relatives, they are treading in familiar British footsteps.

Today’s Islamic State pursues an extremist ideology in which there are literally no limits to cruel or outright evil behavior. The only enemy they have to fear is death, and they have been taught to welcome this. Short of introducing some mighty new deterrent factor, conventional military operations against them are wildly unlikely to succeed. Quite the contrary, endemic wars will generate ever more fanatics.

In theory, a recipe does exist for decisively ending the Islamists’ run of victories. Through means of collective and family punishment, which explicitly targets individuals who have done no wrong, governments and armies must introduce a brutal deterrent regime that will even outweigh the massive temptations of martyrdom and an instant road to Paradise.

No U.S. government would ever introduce such a policy, and if it did, it would cease to be anything like a democratic society. The U.S. could only adopt such avowedly terrorist methods following a wrenching national debate about issues of individual and group responsibility, and the targeting of the innocent. Could any U.S. government avowedly take hostages? We would be looking at a fundamental transformation of national character, to something new and hideous. But what other solutions could or would be possible?

Given that U.S. administrations are not going to fight the Islamic State by the only effective means available—and thankfully, they aren’t—why are they engaging in this combat in the first place?

Why start a war when you don’t plan to win it?

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and serves as Co-Director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

47 Comments (Open | Close)

47 Comments To "Saddam’s Strategy Against ISIS"

#1 Comment By Matt D. On September 29, 2014 @ 6:00 am

One question: If utter brutality is key, then why did we lose Vietnam?

Follow-up question: Given that we lost Vietnam, how can you be sure that a Vietnam-style commitment to utter brutality, applied to Iraq and Afghanistan, would yield victory? Does it not seem more likely that such a commitment would yield an even huger body-count, an even more atrocious and unholy mess, and also defeat, just like in Vietnam?

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc On September 29, 2014 @ 6:44 am

“Why start a war when you don’t plan to win it?”

I think that is one salient question. The other posit might be after wining a conflict ensure it’s maintenance, cost dependent.

I While I think the above is accurate, I think ‘s a narrow, Kidnapping or murderous retaliation is not the only means of negotiating a solution.

But one does have to fight a war by fighting the war. One has to target the enemy and defeat him. And so minus any of the peripheral concerns that plague contemporary use of force. Aside from a good number of ground forces knowing the language issues of culture have no meaning unless they are leverage for compliance.

#3 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 29, 2014 @ 8:43 am

Philip Jenkins gives this background:

In this region of the Middle East “governments disarmed rivals by taking members of their families as hostages for good behavior…their fate depended on the continued good conduct of their kinfolk. Governments kept order by deterrence, enforced by the ever-present threat of collective retaliation against the kin-group and the home community of any potential insurgents…Nothing prevents avenging the misdeeds of one man on the body of one of his relatives or friends.”

Then Mr. Jenkins claims:

“No U.S. government would ever introduce such a policy…the U.S. could only adopt such avowedly terrorist methods following a wrenching national debate about issues of individual and group responsibility, and the targeting of the innocent.”

On the contrary:

Since at least 2001 the U.S. government has carried out a policy of targeted killing from the air (often by drones) in which members of the family of the targeted individual – as well as other relatives, friends, and other innocent civilians in the target vicinity – have regularly been killed (thousands in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq among other countries).

In fact insurgent leaders from Lebanon to Pakistan have long assumed that the U.S. tracks their movements and carries out such an active policy of “collective retaliation against the kin-group and the home community of any potential insurgents.”

And the insurgent leaders remain undeterred.

#4 Comment By gmat On September 29, 2014 @ 9:23 am

@Matt D. “One question: If utter brutality is key, then why did we lose Vietnam?”
The premise is wrong.
The author isn’t saying utter brutality is the key, he’s saying a specific kind of brutality works with arabs, because of specific cultural reasons.
There’s no similarity between what the author describes and U.S. “strategy” in Vietnam

#5 Comment By HeartRight On September 29, 2014 @ 9:24 am

Matt D. says:
September 29, 2014 at 6:00 am

One question: If utter brutality is key, then why did we lose Vietnam?
Through not using utter brutality at all.

Follow-up question: Given that we lost Vietnam, how can you be sure that a Vietnam-style commitment to utter brutality, applied to Iraq and Afghanistan, would yield victory?
As Chaka Zulu said: never leave an enemy alive at all.

#6 Comment By Noah172 On September 29, 2014 @ 10:15 am

One question: If utter brutality is key, then why did we lose Vietnam?

You’re missing the point: as worthy of condemnation as American conduct in Vietnam may have been, it wasn’t what Jenkins is getting at in this essay. America couldn’t win in Vietnam precisely because we did not have the will to do what a more unashamedly imperialist power would have been willing to do.

What Jenkins is getting at here is more like the Soviets in Afghanistan, which, absent substantial outside intervention (American, Saudi, Pakistani), would have likely resulted in Soviet victory (meaning a stable Soviet satellite government), as indeed the Soviets were winning in the early years of the intervention before the foreign money spigots really opened up.

#7 Comment By The Wet One On September 29, 2014 @ 10:59 am

I think that dropping a tac nuke on someone’s town or village would be simpler and get a lot of people’s attention far more clearly. If that doesn’t work, go to strategic weapons on cities. If that doesn’t work, wipe out an entire country.

Sooner or later they’ll figure it out, or they’ll go extinct. Either result is acceptable in terms of achieving victory.

However, I suspect that Americans, nor the world for that matter, has the spine to not go all wobbly on such a strategy. Hell, I’d go pretty wobbly pretty damned fast on such a strategy.

But it would work. Not sure how many nukes it would take necessarily, maybe 3, maybe 20, but it would definitely work.

Alternatively, the U.S. could, as the author suggests, stay the hell out, but that seems to be a bridge too far as well (God knows why as it is not nearly as horrific a course of action as what I propose above, yet, once again, the U.S. is at war in the Middle East, so what is it that I’m missing?).

Ah well. I guess we’ll have fun with this little war against ISIS et. al. (because remember, not even 2 weeks in, we’re already fighting someone other than ISIS).

Canada’s along for the ride this time, so you’ve got that going for you. It won’t make a difference to the outcome, but maybe some Canucks will bleed out and die in the sand for the greater glory of the Empire or something. I’m so proud of us (that was sarc for the sarcasm detection impaired).

So it goes.

#8 Comment By The Wet One On September 29, 2014 @ 11:05 am

Hmmm…

From war crime to genocide in one paragraph. I’m on a roll today! Boo yaa!

#9 Comment By Matt D. On September 29, 2014 @ 11:24 am

@HeartRight: I think you might not be aware of exactly what the US was doing for all those years in Vietnam.

Anyway, the real problem is that the US never had the right kind of intelligence assets to implement a Saddam-style police state in Iraq. Theoretically we could have kept Saddam’s own assets, but that seems to have come off the table very early in the game, and after that this option was never really open to us. Trying to implement this level of repression (or “deterrence” as the author would have it) without very finely detailed human intelligence could have only produced a huge mess and a backlash way bigger than what our ground forces could deal with… which is probably partly what ended up happening anyway.

We did arrest, torture, and assassinate a very large number of people in Iraq, but many of them were the wrong people. We razed Ramadi and Fallujah, and singled out many other towns and neighborhoods for very rough “special treatment” that basically was the same thing as collective punishment. We pushed the envelope of what was acceptable to Iraqi public opinion. If we had razed too many other towns, or made an explicit policy of massacring tribesmen, we would have probably lost all our remaining local partners and been even more helpless than we were already.

#10 Comment By balconesfault On September 29, 2014 @ 11:34 am

The author is correct in the larger sense – we are playing in an arena where almost every leader (Saddam, Assad, Ibn Saud, Iran’s Ayatollahs, the Taliban, Mubarak, Qaddafi, the Bahrainis, etc, etc …) ALL have resorted to atrocities and torture that make our drone strikes and waterboarding seem tame.

That’s not to justify our drone strikes and waterboarding programs, mind you – but it just emphasizes a point that “winning” in the Middle East may well require something beyond the limits of what America is willing to justify.

We’ve tried the “winning hearts and minds” thing … and it’s been a dismal disaster. It appears that the tribalists in the Middle East will not accept leadership by someone of the opposing tribe, even if so determined by democratic processes … sort of like today’s GOP.

Go we can spend lots of money, drop lots of bombs, whisk away suspected terrorists to CIA black ops locations or Guantanamo, pour our young soldier’s blood on Middle Eastern soil … and it seems all we do is generate more hostility towards America while creating the conditions for some new group of fanatics to take power.

About time we quit digging … don’t you think?

#11 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 29, 2014 @ 11:48 am

“America couldn’t win in Vietnam precisely because we did not have the will to do what a more unashamedly imperialist power would have been willing to do.”

Yes, only 4.5 million dead Vietnamese, versus 58,000 Americans.

Someone’s idea that a nuclear conflagration would ensure peace: more likely, a nuclear war that would have immediate consequences to life on earth that only the insane advocating it can’t foresee. The “Sheldon Adelman” solution.

As a Baptist pastor once put it, “War is started to take what belongs to someone else.”

Whatever else they may be, the people American elites are choosing to start wars against are people of other lands now fighting against our forces in their lands. If not there to take what belongs to them, why else are our military there? Isn’t that the real “American interests?”

#12 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 29, 2014 @ 11:56 am

There is no evidence in history whatsoever that “a more unashamedly imperialist power” has ultimately succeeded. By the sheer tonnage of weaponry discharged, worldwide bases and military hegemony sought and claimed, with every self-righteous justification about being “the essential nation” and the only “indispensable” one, with the absolute right to “Full Spectrum Dominance” over all the earth, there has hardly been any more unashamedly imperial power than our own leaders’.

#13 Comment By Egypt Steve On September 29, 2014 @ 11:57 am

Re:

” An individual—a Mohammed Atta in New York, a Mohammad Sidique Khan in London—might in his last moments dwell on nothing but the glories awaiting him in Paradise. Why should he hesitate to kill? Matters would be utterly different if he knew that his act would bring ruin to his family and neighbors, to the violent death of all his kinsmen and the extirpation of his bloodline.”

The Israelis have been trying this for years, by demolishing the houses of suicide bombers’ families. It has never worked.

And let’s not forget the usual claim that Hamas is willing to base rockets in civilian neighborhoods in Gaza because they are indifferent to civilian casualties. Maybe they always choose neighborhoods in which their own peeps don’t live, but the people who do live there don’t seem inclined to launch vendettas against Hamas, which according to this theory they should be doing.

All that said, I do agree that we are probably not cut out to be the Roman Empire if we’re not willing to crucify all rebels and sell their women and children into slavery.

#14 Comment By Matt D. On September 29, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

Another small note: Some commenters here, and to a lesser extent the author, seem to be advocating massive escalation as the right response to every threat and provocation, as if that escalation will not then produce any subsequent response from our direct enemies, or local groups who were sitting on the fence, or our regional allies, or our global allies.

I think in most cases we resist escalation not because we are “weak-kneed”, but because those who are actually responsible for making decisions realize on some level that such escalation has costs and these costs might not be worth it.

#15 Comment By Loic On September 29, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

Hints of a strategy in America’s ‘long war’ in the Middle East and Near Asia?

“Both Sunni and Shia states are threatened by the IS. We must find a way, through imaginative and adept diplomacy, to so triangulate these relationships that both Iran and her clients, as well as Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states that feel threatened by Iran, come to rely on the power of out-of-area countries like the US and the UK to reassure them about each other and against their common foe.” [1]

And is this not precisely the crux of the matter and the meaning of the implication: the sustained reliance by the region on an external, ‘levitating’ organizing military power, perhaps one patterned on NATO but with, at least incipiently, Anglo-American (and perhaps later Israeli-Saudi as well) control and command? Will ISIS and the looming danger of yet unborn ISISes be the form taken by the path that leads to the market-statal, indeed supra-statal ‘domestication’ of the region for the global neoliberal order? Is ISIS, as is suggested by Australian General David Morrison’s reference to Clinton foreign policy strategist Philip Bobbitt’s concept of the ‘long war,’ a perhaps ‘teologically necessary’ phase and facet in the ultimate constitutional reorganization of the region along post-nationalist, market-statal, hegemonically supra-statal lines? [2]

#16 Comment By Barry On September 29, 2014 @ 1:17 pm

“What Jenkins is getting at here is more like the Soviets in Afghanistan, which, absent substantial outside intervention (American, Saudi, Pakistani), would have likely resulted in Soviet victory (meaning a stable Soviet satellite government), as indeed the Soviets were winning in the early years of the intervention before the foreign money spigots really opened up.”

Which is a counter-argument in itself – if a relatively small amount of money can counter the Soviet policy of terror, then that policy is weak.

#17 Comment By Barry On September 29, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

“We’ve tried the “winning hearts and minds” thing … and it’s been a dismal disaster. It appears that the tribalists in the Middle East will not accept leadership by someone of the opposing tribe, even if so determined by democratic processes … sort of like today’s GOP.”

No, we haven’t. We’ve had decades of backing a number of ‘our SOBs’, who did the things that the author describes.

#18 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 29, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

As always, kudos to Fran Macadam, who offers perspective, perspective, perspective!

And to balconesfault:

“So we can spend lots of money, drop lots of bombs, whisk away suspected terrorists to CIA black ops locations or Guantanamo, pour our young soldiers’ blood on Middle Eastern soil … and it seems all we do is generate more hostility towards America while creating the conditions for some new group of fanatics to take power.

“About time we quit digging … don’t you think?”

Again, for emphasis:

“About time we quit digging … don’t you think?”

#19 Comment By Rossbach On September 29, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

The wars that the US has fought in the Middle East are unrelated to the physical security of the American people. Terrorists only harm us if we allow them into our country (which, unfortunately, we do). The idea that these wars have kept all of the terrorists bottled up in the Middle East so that they can’t attack within in the US is patently absurd.

These conflicts are all fought for domestic political reasons. The importance of the war is not who wins or loses, but that the war continue as long as the public will tolerate it. The more successful the government is at keeping the people frightened of a foreign enemy (preferably a permanent enemy, such as “terrorism”), the easier it is to get them to hand over their tax dollars and what remains of their personal freedom.

Who wins these conflicts is less important than who profits economically and politically from them. There are good reasons for fighting these wars, just not the official reasons.

#20 Comment By Noah172 On September 29, 2014 @ 2:50 pm

Some commenters here, and to a lesser extent the author, seem to be advocating massive escalation as the right response to every threat and provocation

Not true. Jenkins clearly objects to blood vendetta warfare on moral and practical grounds; he just notes that such tactics would be necessary to achieve effective smothering of jihadist insurgency over the long term (and thus such smothering is not really possible for Western outsiders to achieve). As one of those commenters to whom you allude, I agree with Jenkins here: we cannot be Saddam Hussein, Bashar al Assad, or Vladimir Putin for that matter.

#21 Comment By The Wet One On September 29, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

Fran Macadam said:

“Someone’s idea that a nuclear conflagration would ensure peace: more likely, a nuclear war that would have immediate consequences to life on earth that only the insane advocating it can’t foresee.”

To which I reply with no ire, the peace of the dead is still peace. Like as not, that’s the only real peace that is ever possible amongst humans. Recorded history doesn’t seem to suggest otherwise. If the path I advocated lead to the peace of the dead, well, it is what it is. The real problem is if that nuclear conflageration didn’t lead to the peace of the dead. Then you really have a problem with going down that road. To have nuked so many and still not gotten peace!?!? A travesty of injustice without equal. But if the peace of the dead was achieved, it may well be worth the price.

#22 Comment By Noah172 On September 29, 2014 @ 3:17 pm

Which is a counter-argument in itself – if a relatively small amount of money can counter the Soviet policy of terror, then that policy is weak

“Relatively small” — but relative to what? The US and Saudi funding of the Afghan mujahideen was eventually not small relative to Soviet expenditures in that war — a fifth or a quarter or a third perhaps, and for the purchase of fairly sophisticated weaponry for illiterate guerrillas.

#23 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On September 29, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

When the US entered the Second World War it was with only one objective in mind: the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. And the we demonstrated the willingness to do whatever was necessary to achieve that objective to the point where we unleashed the most fearsome weapon in the history of mankind. Would we be willing to “do the necessary” to achieve victory in the Middle East? Not a chance!! Nor should we. So–WHAT THE HELL ARE WE DOING IN THERE????

#24 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 29, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

Seems a bit facile to me….the regimes and rebels in the Middle East use this kind of brutality (as opposed to the kind the US used in Vietnam, in the ME, and elsewhere) all the time. They target the families of those who target them, and their families. And yet the region is not exactly a model of peace, is it?

OK, so the folks who stormed the terrorist camp in Libya figured that, if they were killed, their relatives would avenge them. But is that a formula for peace, or victory? Both sides feel the same thing, both sides figure that if they, as an individual, are killed, their families will seek revenge.

“That process of vendetta and escalating violence continues until the family ceases to exist.”

Except what happens if neither family EVER ceases to exist? Then you get violence for generation after generation, without end, and without victory for either side.

Saddam is presented as the model. But for all of his alleged ruthlessness (which, in my view, has actually been grossly overstated, as it is the product of US and Western generally propaganda, aided and abetted by their wholly owned, phony “human rights” organizations), weren’t there rebellions under his rule? In Kurdistan, among the Sh’ia, among the “Marsh Arabs,” and elsewhere? Yeah, Saddam kept the lid on things, but he hardly presided over even the Carthaginian Peace that one would expect to follow the complete wiping out of one’s enemies.

I am not, by any means, endorsing current US policy. But I fail to see why, even theoretically, I should believe that the vendetta approach would be a better one.

#25 Comment By Jane On September 29, 2014 @ 9:25 pm

After all these years, it’s still not clear to me what America’s underlying quarrel is with the Islamic world. Brazil and Nepal, for example, aren’t involved in a decades-long conflict with the Islamic countries. It’s weird that no one can articulate and agree on a short, clear reason.

Brutality would be remembered forever, if not by the targeted group, then by someone else, maybe America’s own grandkids, who would probably feel somewhat cursed by having it on their historical conscience. I hope policy-makers consider it a matter of national honor not to engage in brutality.

Another thing America apparently doesn’t have the stomach for is simply letting Islamic fundamentalists implement their ideologies, and in so doing, discredit themselves. If left to create their own societies and nations, without busybody America constantly getting involved to thwart a bad outcome, it would seem that Islamic fundamentalists would create lasting examples in human history of how not to be, and in time, this would give birth to pluralism, tolerance, and peace. One can imagine in such circumstances Islamic fundamentalism being repudiated for a good long time, if not forever (whatever forever means).

But, who knows. Opinions on the Internet are a dime a dozen.

#26 Comment By Johann On September 29, 2014 @ 9:48 pm

Invasion of North Vietnam was off the table. So winning was off the table. The North Vietnamese knew they could always retreat and build up their forces again, and again, and again. Why do people always ignore this obvious fact when analyzing the Vietnam war? The Viet Cong did not win the war. The North Vietnamese won the war.

#27 Comment By Clive Robertsq On September 29, 2014 @ 10:17 pm

The West is destined for destruction if it continues to make military operations work by ‘police’ rules. The rules of engagement are usually so complex as to require a lawyer on the front line. But war is not like that. War is to eliminate the enemy, destroy his will and capability, not to be nice to them.

#28 Comment By HeartRight On September 30, 2014 @ 5:45 am

Matt D. says:
September 29, 2014 at 11:24 am

@HeartRight: I think you might not be aware of exactly what the US was doing for all those years in Vietnam.

Considering that the NVA pursued a People’s War strategy, utter brutality demands a straightforward solution of genocide, which the US never contemplated.

#29 Comment By Victoria Fontan On September 30, 2014 @ 8:59 am

This article does not take into account the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16 year old son by drone attack, nor the countless family members of al-Qaeda suspects killed in Obama’s dirty wars in both Yemen and Pakistan. The author looks at the tip of the iceberg, but there is another sinister reality underneath it all. Watch Jeremy Scahill’s documentary Dirty Wars for examples, or read on the US drone program worldwide. Interesting view though…

#30 Comment By Charlieford On September 30, 2014 @ 11:12 am

There’s a central analytic flaw to the author’s argument that makes the entire thing unravel:

Saddam was not in Iraq on a limited kinetic mission. He was there for the long haul, applying his brutal methods in war time and peacetime through a comprehensive domestic security force.

And necessarily so. As frustrating, slow, and incomplete as attempts to create security through restraint and building good-will are, brutality is even worse, not on sentimental or moral grounds, but in terms of efficiency. You simply keep making more enemies.

That’s a choice an indigenous leader might make, because it’s his soil, and he prefers to brook no dissent. But an intermittent occupier can’t operate that way–it doesn’t have the kind of fine-grained surveillance and control capabilities to replicate the tyrant in any way.

But if you want the whole Sunni world–and much of the rest of it–seething with hatred towards you, then, by all means, make a desert, and see if you get peace.

#31 Comment By Noah172 On September 30, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

After all these years, it’s still not clear to me what America’s underlying quarrel is with the Islamic world

Um, Israel?

#32 Comment By FranzLiebkind On September 30, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

To Matt D.:

At the risk of treading where I am inexpert, perhaps conflict is managed among Arab tribal societies than it is among Southeast Asian tribes. And perhaps the overlay of (Western-originated, in principal universalistic) Marxism had something to do with it.

Just educated guesses.

#33 Comment By Jane On September 30, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

Um, Israel?

That would be part of my question–what compels the US to have the kind of relationship it has had with Israel.

#34 Comment By Falconer On September 30, 2014 @ 8:29 pm

After all these years, it’s still not clear to me what America’s underlying quarrel is with the Islamic world

OIL.

The US doesn’t have problems with Tunisia or Morocco (Islamic countries with no Oil), but somehow has had nothing but problems with Libya (Islamic country floating on a small sea of Oil).

#35 Comment By Punctilious Man On September 30, 2014 @ 9:19 pm

Unscrupulous proxies are the key … Thrice removed and with lots of hand-wringing and condemnation of their actions while slipping well stuffed carpetbags of shekels under
the table.

#36 Comment By Jonathan On September 30, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

The geopolitical need to stabilize areas that produce petroleum has not been considered here. We should not forget that Iraq contains the fourth largest reserve for oil with the port of Basra as it principal point of embarkation for exporting it. Perhaps it would be wiser to simply fortify,together with the U.K., this port city and the surrounding oil fields leaving the rest of the country to its own devices. Ah, but that would make our involvement there rather transparent. Wouldn’t it? How long could Basra be protected and at what cost?

It seems the wiser alternative would be to exploit our own fossil fuel possibilities such as in the Gulf of Mexico, slant drilling and fracking in areas where its negative externalities are minimized, building and maintaining the Tar Sands pipeline, drilling in the Arctic tundra, etc. And all of this coupled with research and development of Renewable Energy Sources while minimizing their environmental impact. Where are our priorities?

#37 Comment By Winston On September 30, 2014 @ 10:53 pm

Why is Libya ignored after creating chaos there? Was the purpose to create chaos there?Is that what this is about?

#38 Comment By Barry On October 1, 2014 @ 8:00 am

What i’ve noticed is that the argument of the ‘brutalists’ is that we need ‘lavish’ brutality. When shown that we did use brutality beyond lavish, and did indeed pile up vast numbers of corpses, they say that we should have done more.

#39 Comment By HeartRight On October 1, 2014 @ 8:15 am

Noah172 says:
September 30, 2014 at 3:44 pm

After all these years, it’s still not clear to me what America’s underlying quarrel is with the Islamic world

Um, Israel?

Kindly do explain how the first Barbary War happened some 175 years before Israel was reborn.

#40 Comment By philadelphialawyer On October 1, 2014 @ 11:08 am

“Kindly do explain how the first Barbary War happened some 175 years before Israel was reborn.”

Yeah, and in those 175 years the US was constantly at war with the Islamic World…there was the War of 1812, when the US went to war against the Ottoman Empire, which had been impressing US sailors and refused to hand over forts on US territory. Then there was the Muslim War, when the Muslims wouldn’t let Texas go without a fight, and so we invaded them and took California and New Mexico and Arizona from them too, for good measure. Then, in 1898, we had the Islam-American War, in which the Caliphate was oppressing Cuba, and so the US joined in and “liberated” it, along with Puerto Rico, Guam, and the PI. Then came WWI, during which American efforts were clearly directed against the Turks, rather than their insignificant German and Austrian allies. WWII? The US was the victim of a sneak attack of disgruntled Palestinians, who sunk the Pacific fleet…

The question, HeartRight, is why has the US, since the establishment of Israel, been drawn into conflict after conflict in the ME, crossing the line into open warfare in the early 90’s, and now more or less constantly engaged in war there. That a long since vanished, pre modern, Muslim pirate enclave made trouble for US shipping more than two centuries ago is not really a good comeback.

#41 Comment By Falconer On October 1, 2014 @ 11:33 am

It seems the wiser alternative would be to exploit our own fossil fuel possibilities such as in the Gulf of Mexico, slant drilling and fracking in areas where its negative externalities are minimized, building and maintaining the Tar Sands pipeline, drilling in the Arctic tundra, etc.

[3]

Oilfields Estimated Production
/source Costs ($ 2008)
Mideast/N.Africa oilfields 6 – 28
Other conventional oilfields 6 – 39
CO2 enhanced oil recovery 30 – 80
Deep/ultra-deep-water oilfields 32 – 65
Enhanced oil recovery 32 – 82
Arctic oilfields 32 – 100
Heavy oil/bitumen 32 – 68
Oil shales 52 – 113
Gas to liquids 38 – 113
Coal to liquids 60 – 113

Source: International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook 2008

Middle Eastern Oil is so much cheaper than anything else that we are going to stay there until every drop of it has been drained, damn the consequences.

#42 Comment By HeartRight On October 1, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

The question, HeartRight, is why has the US, since the establishment of Israel, been drawn into conflict after conflict in the ME, crossing the line into open warfare in the early 90′s, and now more or less constantly engaged in war there.

Since you failed to mention it, it neatly coincides with Anglo-American interest in oil, doesn’t it? Since your contention fails to explain that mere coincidence too, your argument is a failure.

That a long since vanished, pre modern, Muslim pirate enclave made trouble for US shipping more than two centuries ago is not really a good comeback.

And lo and behold, there is a new muslim pirate enclave making the same trouble. So much then for vanished and pre-modern.

There has been entirely too much trouble with sunni muslims for centuries – and not just for the last few decades but for centuries.

Ergo, less bulldusting and more nice-focus on breaking the spine on every member of that bunch who objects to being docile subjects of whoever is ruling over them, regardless of whether those rulers are Shi’ites, Hindus, Jews, secularists, or little green men from Mars.

#43 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 2, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

I think history is fairly clear on issues. Pres. Hussein, ruled by one very simple rule. If you attempt disrupt my ambitions for the nation of Iraq and her future it could mean your death — period.

What I do know is that Christians, were welcomed and accepted as members of the government. Pres. Hussein was no more tyrannical than other leaders in the region. The invasion of Kuwait was no more than a long standing dispute by previous Iraqi leaders. It was precipitated by His full stop of the spread of the Islamic revolution for which, if the Kuwaitis had paid for some portion of their defence against, then invasion would not have occurred. Whether they should have paid or not is not mine to contend.

Attempting square Vietnam’s cold war support the for South Vietnamese continued independence with the recent events invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan is very tricky business, beyond a general reference, the two are wholly different, in intent and context/ strategic purposes and value.

Anyone who whines about Vietnam and applauds Iraq/Afghanistan and the return, has a serious internal logic and moral conundrum and should put out to pasture. For the support of returning to Iraq as with the initial makes your case wholly bankrupt.

As one who believes that people are entitled the government that have and support. I don’t much appreciate being called a ‘brutalist’. Leaders exert what force they believe necessary and given the context of their culture, and their history. I doubt the victims who survived carpet and ‘precision’ bombing would contend our method of warfare and use of force is in any manner gentile.

It was a mistake of no small order to remove Prwes. Hussein, it was another mistake to dismantle the structure minus having absolute control over rebuilding it again. It was a mistake to depart and having done should allow the parties fight it out — it is their country. It is their oil. They are not our children to with as we so please. And history would suggest that our interferences is making our own goals more difficult to achieve, unless of course our goal is destabilization.

#44 Comment By philadelphialawyer On October 2, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

HeartRight:

“Since you failed to mention it, it neatly coincides with Anglo-American interest in oil, doesn’t it? Since your contention fails to explain that mere coincidence too, your argument is a failure.”

Not really, but at least oil presents a plausible reason. In my view, oil is going to be exported from the region, whoever is in control. Indeed, ISIS is ALREADY selling oil, as are the Kurds. Neither with any clear “legal” right to do so, in terms of Iraqi national law.

But, of course, even if you are correct, oil knows no religion. And so if “oil” is your answer, then Islam, and the Barbary pirates of the late 18th/early 19th centuries have nothing to do with it.

“And lo and behold, there is a new muslim pirate enclave making the same trouble. So much then for vanished and pre-modern.”

Really? And where is that pirate enclave? I have yet to hear of ISIS boarding tankers and holding them hostage. Anyway, weren’t there once Christian pirates too? And aren’t there still pirates in, say, Asia, who are neither Christians, nor Muslims, nor any Abrahamic religion at all? Weren’t there pirates in the ancient world as well, when the Jews were more or less the only monotheists? Weren’t the Vikings pirates of a sort too, and weren’t they pagans?

Piracy and Islam have pretty much nothing to do with each other, if the notion is that one is necessarily implicated if the other is.

“There has been entirely too much trouble with sunni muslims for centuries – and not just for the last few decades but for centuries.”

“Trouble.” As if the Christian world, with its world wars, its wars of imperialism, its wars of European empire, its wars of religions, its dynastical wars, and so on, has been some bastion of peace for centuries. As it happens, the Ottomans actually provided a more or less peaceful Sunni empire for most of those same centuries.

“Ergo, less bulldusting and more nice-focus on breaking the spine on every member of that bunch who objects to being docile subjects of whoever is ruling over them, regardless of whether those rulers are Shi’ites, Hindus, Jews, secularists, or little green men from Mars.”

How about, instead, we stop trying to rule over them, and stop empowering others, eg Israelis, Sh ia Muslims, from ruling over them? Last time I checked, nobody, of whatever race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, language group, culture, whatever, took too kindly to other folks ruling over them. Why would Sunni Muslims be any different

#45 Comment By John Churchilly On October 3, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

In fact USA followed extreme violence against Arabs in Iraq. After the stupid invasion of 2003 resistance was fierce against invaders. The USA pushed its stooges embedded in Almahdi Militias to kill all the intelligentsia & middle class in Iraq. This was followed by raping, racketeering & kidnapping the Suni population. Arab Sunna couldn’t cope and joined US forces against al Qaida. They didn’t have choice either their families raped by American death squads & other clint militia or fight against Al Qaida. So this article is not inventing any new idea because the psychopathy was there with the US military. Saddam is an angel in comparison to methods of US in Iraq..

#46 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 6, 2014 @ 10:31 am

“Saddam is an angel in comparison to methods of US in Iraq..”

I don’t think your comment reflects most of the US enforcement in the country. We had just enough troops to occupy, not nearly enough to own and we would have needed to own Iraq, disbanding the former military was devastating to our purposes.

Further, the Us public’s will in these matters is fairly short lived, once there is any sign of trouble that looks like it will require deep work and pain. That is why Vietnam is instructive. An ignorant and soft public in fights that are less than straight up can easily fall into the “Vietnam, I have no clue, but killing is wrong and bad and ohh me ohh my. . .” mentality and withdraw far before whatever victories can be sealed. The complaint is secondary issue to policy and should be ignored or tackled head on calling it what it is. But public emotion ” me oh my . . .” on policy questions should viewed with a jaundiced eye.

#47 Comment By Ioni On November 20, 2015 @ 2:02 am

Small and insignificant (in terms of political/military/financial power) Sri Lanka fought a bloody terrorist war for 3 decades losing more 100,000 lives to suicide bombs and other attacks. The LTTE terrorists were ranked as the most brutal terror group by the FBI. The LTTE invented a whole lot of brutal methods of killing people (including the suicide vest) and even had their own rudimentary air force.
Then in 2009 a president willing to go the distance and take brutal decisions took the war to the terrorists and annihilated them. Civilians died, no denial there. Civilians die in every war. How many would have died when France and Russia dropped bombs on isis held territory last week? The issue is that terrorists fight using brutal methods with no qualms about who they kill or how much damage they cause. They do not reason. They can’t reason or think rationally, therefore we can’t reason with them. Ask Sri Lanka, ask Israel or any other country that has engaged with terrorists for decades. Terrorists do not make concessions and they do not think humanely. So, if we want to handle them with the kid gloves of decent and humane methods, we are going to lose the battle. America or any country fighting these terrorists should either fight a brutal war (civilians will die, they died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and last week due to French/Russian bombings too), or get out of these war zones and try to protect their own countries. How one can protect one’s own country from these extremists will be another issue.
I feel for the civilian who would be trapped in the middle (like in the final stages of the Sri Lankan war), I would not want to be in that position, so I understand the gravity of it. Yet, what other options are there?