Our president recently announced his plans to cut back on U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I’m sure this thrilled many Americans. But, truth known, our ground forces should probably have never been there in the first place, at least not in Iraq.
Over the last century or more Britain and France exercised almost colonial hegemony in the Middle East by playing a balance-of-power game. Basically tribal societies and cultures, Middle Eastern factions were skillfully played off against one another, which usually insured peace and control at a minimum cost to the European powers.
But the Europeans observed one cardinal rule; they would supply financing, military hardware and intelligence and even occasional air and naval support, but they would never commit their own ground forces in appreciable numbers, none of George W. Bush’s “boots on the ground” strategies. But we apparently learned nothing from their experience.
The national boundaries dividing Middle Eastern nations today seldom reflect the region’s geographic, ethnic or political realities. Instead, borders were drawn up and governments created by the British at the end of World Wars I and II primarily to facilitate the exploitation of the Mideast’s vast oil resources. At the end of the Second World War we also joined in this game because of our anticipated future dependency on Middle Eastern oil. But today we no longer get much oil from there and could probably do without it entirely.
The Middle Eastern Muslims conduct warfare by primitive but surprisingly effective guerilla hit-and-run tactics. They avoid open, prolonged confrontations with conventional forces where they would surely lose. To hold their own against such tactics western military experts generally agree they must maintain a 10-1 numerical superiority. These numbers would put a strain on military, financial and political resources few Americans would be willing to tolerate. But how did we get in this predicament in the first place?
Ignoring his father’s cool-headed strategies at the end of the first Gulf War, after defeating Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces in 2002, George W. barged headlong into Iraq and removed him from power with little forethought about the long-term consequences. There was also little strategy and planning toward restoring the Middle Eastern balance of power or governing Iraq once the shooting stopped. And after nearly two decades Iraq remains a confused situation that has spilled over into Syria and beyond. However, our decreasing dependency on Middle Eastern oil lessens any sense of urgency we might have to maintain order there. Then what would be the consequences if we were to completely pull out of Iraq?
Just as in the physical world, the political world doesn’t tolerate a vacuum for long. Both China and Putin’s Russia are probably licking their chops at Trump’s troop withdrawal announcement. This sudden reversal of policy was more than likely a Trumpian pre-election political stratagem. But in view of recent events in the Middle East and Washington, do we still have a dog in this fight?