Trump is mostly hitting the mark as president, because his lodestar appears to be reversing every single thing undertaken by Barack Obama. Since the Obama Administration was steeped in an evil worldview—far-left radicalism—that means Trump’s policies, for the most part, have been salutary, agreeable, and sensible.
But there are times when such an instinct can lead one astray, and the broader Republican view of Iraq, Iran, and Middle East policy is one such example.
The conventional wisdom on the Right is that Obama was weak, and that weakness emboldened America’s enemies. There is much truth to this, as Obama was motivated to reduce America’s prestige and influence in the world. We saw this in his frequent digs directed at America’s past, his outreach to Cuba, and his revealing Cairo Speech.
In the Middle East, critics on the Right point to various failures, such as the Jihadist killing of an American ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, and Obama’s failure to follow through on a “red line” proclamation in Syria. But the centerpiece of that criticism is that that Obama lost Iraq.
This narrative suggests that Iraq was a worthwhile endeavor, but that it took some time for the United States to gain its bearings, which led to sectarian fighting that nearly destroyed the nascent Iraqi democracy. The Surge, by these lights, is understood to have been a great act of statesmanship, undertaken by President Bush after the 2006 midterm electoral losses, and through it Bush and his far-sighted lieutenant Petraeus snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Critics go further, and charge Obama with squandering these gains by withdrawing our forces in 2011, allowing the rise of ISIS and the empowerment of an unfriendly Iran.
Did the Surge Work?
This narrative is deeply problematic. As argued by Iraq veteran and West Point graduate, Daniel Sjursen, in his 2015 memoir, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, the mythology of the Surge does a disservice to the reality of Iraq’s sectarian violence, as well as the ambiguous end state of post-surge Iraq. For starters, Obama’s critics practically ignore the first act of this tragedy: the unnecessary and misguided 2003 Iraq invasion.
As documented by Sjursen, the Surge was, to some extent, coincidental with other facts that conspired to reduce violence in Iraq. The Sunni Awakening preceded the Surge by some months, occurring chiefly in the al Anbar province. It arose from increasing friction between local Sunnis and the Sunni foreign fighters who made up al Qaeda in Iraq (the embryonic force that later morphed into ISIS).
Our enemies, like us, sometimes make mistakes, and in this instance local tribal identity trumped religious identity. Al Qaeda, quite simply, acted like barbarians to their coreligionist hosts, so the hosts got sick of it and started cooperating with Americans to kick them out. At the same time, local Sunnis once opposed to the occupation apparently realized that the United States was a more honest broker than the chauvinistic Shia government. Like Catholics who initially welcomed British troops to Northern Ireland to protect them from their unrestrained Ulster Protestant neighbors, the Sunnis, including many former insurgents, began to cultivate an alliance with the Americans as early as 2006, months before the Surge.
Shortly thereafter, the Shia Mehdi Army (led by the paunchy Muqtada al Sadr) called for a truce during the early stages of the Surge. As documented by Sjursen, his resistance to American occupation was one of the most effective and dangerous, using high-tech shaped charge weapons to rip through MRAPs, Humvees, and even a few Abrams tanks. After detailing the heartbreaking loss of soldiers under his command, Sjursen noted, “it is hard to overstestimate the importance of this self-imposed armistice.”
Finally, the harsh effects of the sectarian fighting that preceded the Surge led to increased segregation between Sunni and Shia populations, both in Baghdad and beyond. As the American far right argues in other contexts, diversity plus proximity leads to war. Here, through appallingly brutal methods including the mass murder of civilians, the combatants were separated, many fled the country altogether, and the pretexts for localized fighting against one another had gone down. Thus, violence dropped considerably in 2008 and 2009, but was the Surge the primary cause, or did the sectarian war just burn itself out? And even if the Surge worked, could the stalemate achieved in this shattered country, in any sense, be called a decisive victory? The lackluster results of a similar Surge in Afghanistan suggests no.
Obama Did One Good Thing: Leaving Iraq
Obama’s decision to leave Iraq was probably for the best. The war was a disaster, its raison d’etre soon proved mistaken, and its cost in blood and treasure was considerable. The most predictable condition of the Middle East appears to be sectarian violence of one kind or another. Lebanon raged in the 80s, as did Iran and Iraq. Today, Shias and Sunnis are at war in Syria and Yemen, and they warred for the entirety of the U.S. occupation of Iraq with our forces, as well as against one another.
The United States, with its modestly-sized volunteer military, short public attention span, and lack of imperial ethos, is simply ill-equipped to engage in nation-building or long term occupations in the Middle East. Our mere presence, in fact, can create artificial national unity around a near universal hostility to foreign occupation.
Trump should learn one thing from the alternating Sunni and Shia enemies our forces faced in Iraq: that there are no obvious good guys or bad guys in this perennial Middle Eastern conflict. Trump’s decisive endorsement of Sunni dominance (the crux of our anti-Iran policy), while promoted through wild-eyed Israeli and Saudi rhetoric, does not stand up to scrutiny as being in the American interest. Our most persistent enemies, Al Qaeda and ISIS, after all, are Sunni.
In addition, far from proving the weakness of Obama and the beneficence of the Surge, the Iraq Campaign should teach something else: caution and humility. Whether in Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Yemen, regime change in the fractious Middle East has rarely turned out predictably or furthered America’s interests. By contrast, secular strongmen and moderate monarchies, like Mubarak of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan, King Mohammed of Morocco, appear to be, on balance, the most humanitarian and stable regimes, in a region little noted for either. At the same time, unfriendly secular regimes, like the Assad or Saddam Hussein regimes, are, at the very least, more stable and inimical to Jihadism than deliberately induced anarchy.
Today we read about an Israeli raid on Syria in the wake of America’s withdrawal from the flawed Iran Nuclear Deal. Such airstrikes have periodically targeted the (Shia) Syrian regime, while sparing (Sunni) al Nusra and ISIS forces, some of which are a stone’s throw from Israel in the Golan Heights. America has raised no objection; after all, Iran is in the crosshairs, and it is apparently considered worse than ISIS.
Obama, for reasons of his instinctual anti-Americanism, as well as his desire for a legacy achievement, coddled the Iranian regime in reaching the nuclear deal. But just because Obama was mostly wrong, Iran is a bad actor, and the deal was a bad deal, it does not follow that Iran’s Sunni rivals are much better. While Israel has its own reasons to cultivate alliances with Iran’s Saudi enemies, that does not necessarily mean the United States should do so. Our interests and orientation to the Middle East are different, not least because of our geographic distance.
As it stands, Trump’s Mideast Policy appears indistinguishable from what Marco Rubio, John McCain, or Jeb Bush would have authored. It is interventionist, pro-Israel, pro-Saudi Arabia, and requires the maintenance of a U.S. presence in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. What is missing from this approach is an end state that promotes American interests and a path to achieve such a state. For those of us who supported Trump in search of a reversal of the neoconservatives’ mania for interventionism, taking sides in these conflicts is increasingly worrisome. Conservatives have no reason to side with Sunnis or Shias in their quest for dominance; in fact, these quests distract both sides in those struggles from the “Great Satan” and their continuation is likely to our advantage.
The best American strategy for the Middle East is one of strategic disengagement, and the cultivation of stable, friendly, and secular regimes. In this regard, we have options that Israel and others fated to live in the Middle Eastern cauldron do not. As theorist William Lind advocated, “America’s grand strategy should seek to connect our country with as many centers and sources of order as possible, while isolating us from as many centers and sources of disorder as possible.” In other words, America First.
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