Former US Presidential Candidate, Pat Buchanan has written, “the Middle East and world, have been awakened to the reality that, when Trump said he was ending everlasting commitments and bringing U.S. troops home from “endless wars,” he was not bluffing. The Saudis got the message when the U.S., in response to a missile and drone strike from Iran or Iranian-backed militias, which shut down half of Riyadh’s oil production, did nothing … thus, the Saudis have begun negotiating with the Houthi rebels, with whom they have been at war in Yemen since 2015. And they are seeking talks with Iran.” In other words, the paradigm has begun to shift.
The Trump decisions indeed, did send shock waves to the world. And in their wake, Twitter in the US has been ‘white hot’ with indignation and outrage.
That is one side of the Syria US forces withdrawal ‘coin’ – the outrage. The other, is that realistically, the US had been trying to achieve too many irreconcilable aims: ousting President Assad; enforcing ‘domain denial’ to both Russia and Iran; plus attempting to install an unpopular minority population (the Kurds are a minority – even in NE Syria) in a blatant nation-building ‘state-let’ project to rival Damascus. With such diverse aims, and with Russia and Iran opposing these aims, the US was achieving none.
In the same vein of an overdue dose of realism, (and as Edward Gibbons highlighted in his celebrated Decline and Fall in respect to Imperial Rome), once certain qualities are lost, decline and fall is fore-ordained. Saudi Arabia has long lost those original attributes that brought Ibn Saud power, and without which, decline follows inevitably (which Gibbons persuasively argued, is exactly what happened earlier, to Rome).
Saudi Arabia today, has not the least energy to rouse itself, and life is flaccid. The Houthis though, by contrast, exactly embody these Gibbons-esque vital qualities and virtues. The outcome to today’s Saudi-Yemeni conflict was foreshadowed in the character of its contestants – irrespective of all other disparities. The Pentagon, to be fair, saw this from the outset, but allowed the momentum of old US strategic alliances and enmities to override this key insight.
So why such hue and clamour in Washington over an overdue recognition of realities? The indignation is not so surprising – for it is not just the contrived hand-wringing over the Kurds that lies is behind such a fuss and bother; but rather, it is because Trump has taken a hammer to two (inter-connected) establishment shibboleths — and shattered them into pieces.
One strand here concerns Vietnam: it’s always there, lurking in the US backdrop. In that still formative US war experience, more than two decades of involvement and half a million American troops never managed to alter the basic weakness of a U.S. proxy that could never hold the line, without constant American support. It finally collapsed under the weight of a conventional North Vietnamese invasion, in April 1975. (Think Afghanistan today?).
Here is the point. Though a majority of historians subscribe to the basic contours of the above narrative, the vast majority of senior American military officers do not.
Petraeus, Mattis, McMaster, and others entered service, when military prestige was at a low ebb. They and their colleagues were taught that the Vietnam failure was due to political pusillanimity in Washington (or in the nation’s streets), or else due to a military high command that was too weak to assert its authority effectively.
But none of the military analysis done by this post-Vietnam war generation of officers ever addressed the basic question “about whether the Vietnam War was winnable, necessary, or advisable” from the first. (Think: Syria today).
No – in this view, the Vietnam war could, and should, have been won – if only the right approach had been pursued. Thus, the ‘forever war’ notion was born: It was designed, empirically to ‘prove’ the two major military theses of the war lacunae (no ‘Clausewitz’ or COIN): That is, if both these strategies had been fully implemented in Vietnam, instead of being neglected, they would assuredly have led to an American ‘win’. (Mattis echoed this thinking when he introduced 2018 Trump’s Defense and Nuclear Reviews: America, Mattis insisted, simply must “start winning” again).
This revisionist version of Vietnam war history began in 1986 with an article by David Petraeus, in the military journal Parameters, in which he argued that the US army was unprepared to fight low intensity conflicts (such as Vietnam); and that “what the country needed wasn’t fewer Vietnams; but better-fought ones”. The definitive COIN doctrine, Field Service Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency Operations, however, was overseen by David Petraeus, working with another officer, Lt General James Mattis (the former US Defense Secretary), who has this week been howling at Trump about the US withdrawal from Syria (the issue – prospective withdrawal – over which he resigned as then Defense Secretary).
Thus, Trump’s original team of ‘my generals’ were precisely those who had spent three administrations expanding COIN-influenced missions to approximately 70% of the world’s nations. In an interview in 2017, Petraeus described the Afghan conflict as “generational”. In short, Trump’s original most senior military advisers didn’t even pretend that the post-9/11 wars would ever end. Essentially, the Trump Administration’s National Strategy Statement put an ‘America First’ gloss on Bush’s 2002 NSS: that no rival would, or should, be permitted to challenge US political or financial primacy.
But this basic contradiction simply could not be sustained. Forever Wars were precisely those which Trump had campaigned as Candidate to end. And now, with Presidential elections again at hand, he has ditched the whole revisionist Vietnam meme.
Trump then, should be able to weather the criticism from this quarter quite easily. The US public is fed up with ‘forever wars’. And in any event, a new generation at the Pentagon now has shifted from COIN to ‘Great Power Competition’, and is intent on pivoting away from the Middle East, to China.
The other Shibboleth, still deeply embedded in certain strains of US thinking, but which now lies shattered by Trump too, is of a different order – and is far more perilous: It is the ‘Wolfowitz doctrine’, encapsulated in this 1991 exchange the then US Undersecretary for Defense had with General Wesley Clark. And for this act of iconoclasm, Trump can expect severe push-back.
Clark: “Mr. Secretary, you must be pretty happy with the performance of the troops in Desert Storm.”
Wolfowitz: “Yeah, but not really, because the truth is we should have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein, and we didn’t … But one thing we did learn is that we can use our military in the region — in the Middle East — and the Soviets won’t stop us. And we’ve got about 5 or 10 years to clean up those old Soviet client regimes — Syria, Iran, Iraq — before the next great superpower comes on, to challenge us.”
Wolfowitz’s thinking was then taken up more explicitly by David Wurmser in his 1996 document, Coping with Crumbling States (following on, from his contribution to the infamous Clean Break policy strategy paper written by Richard Pearle for Bibi Netanyahu earlier in the same year). The aim of both these seminal documents was to directly counter American ‘isolationist’ thinking.
Daniel Sanchez has noted: “Wurmser characterized regime change in Iraq and Syria (both ruled by Baathist regimes) as “expediting the chaotic collapse” of secular-Arab nationalism in general, and Baathism in particular. He [asserted that] “the phenomenon of Baathism,” was, from the very beginning, “an agent of foreign, namely Soviet policy”… [and therefore advised] the West to put this anachronistic adversary ‘out of its misery’ – and to press America’s Cold War victory on toward its final culmination”.
This tract, Coping with Crumbling States, which together with Clean Break was to have a major impact on Washington’s thinking during the GW Bush Administration (in which David Wurmser would serve). What aroused the deep-seated neo-con ire in respect to the secular-Arab nationalist states was not just that they were, in the neo-con view, crumbling relics of the ‘evil’ USSR, but that from 1953 onwards, Russia sided with these secular-nationalist states in all their conflicts regarding Israel. This was something the neo-cons could neither tolerate, nor forgive. Both Clean Break and the 1997 Project for the New American Century (PNAC) were exclusively premised on the wider US policy aim of securing Israel.
The point here is that whilst Wurmser stressed that demolishing Baathism must be the foremost priority in the region, he added: “Secular-Arab nationalism should be given no quarter – not even – he added, for the sake of stemming the tide of Islamic fundamentalism”. (Emphasis added)
There was, therefore, no other option: The point is that – on this premise – the US had no other choice but to ally with the Kings, Emirs and Rulers of the Middle East. It still is.
And in return, these States benefitted from the US security umbrella — until, that is, when Saudi Arabia lost half of its oil processing capacity with the strike on Aramco, and “Trump did nothing” (in Pat Buchanan’s words). The ‘umbrella’ guarantee expired.
It is in this context – the withdrawal of US security commitment – that Trump is at real political risk. Israel is in a panic. Israeli correspondents see these linked events as Trump’s death blow to Israel, with the “strategic balance of power shifting right before Israel’s eyes”. Israel is left alone: (Smadar Peri writing in Yediot Ahoronot (in Hebrew)): “Trump abandons allies without blinking, and Israel is liable to be next”. As Ben Caspit notes, “The shift in the region is forcing Israel to change its plans, rethink its concepts and prepare for scenarios that were shelved long ago. One of them is the possibility of fighting a war on more than one front in the very near future”.
Israeli commentator, Gilad Atzmon observes:
“Israel has seriously mismanaged its conflict with Iran. For over a decade, Israel has relentlessly threatened and sought to intimidate Iran. Iran’s response has been effective: slowly but surely Iran encircled the Jewish state. Israel doesn’t share a border with Iran but Iran is present on so many of Israel’s borders … The recent attack on Saudi oil facilities achieved an astonishing precision of less than one meter, despite the fact that it was launched from 650 miles away, and delivered with it a clear message to Israel. Iran can attack any target in Israel from Western Iraq with precision, and without being detected. It proved that Iranian technology is decades ahead of anything offered by Israel, America or the west.
It now seems totally unrealistic to expect America to act militarily against Iran on behalf of Israel. Trump’s always unpredictable actions have convinced the Israeli defense establishment that the country has been left alone to deal with the Iranian threat. The American administration is only willing to act against Iran through sanctions, and by now the Israelis have grasped that sanctions can easily boomerang. They nourish technological and strategic independence … As things stand, Israel used the billions of dollars it squeezed from American taxpayers to build an obsolete anti-missile system that at best, might be effective against 1940 era German V2 missiles. Once again Israel prepared for the wrong war”.
Here is the ‘rub’ for Trump: It is not just that Israel’s overwhelming influence in the US Congress and amongst the élites puts him in a risky political corner. It does do that, of course. But a bigger danger is that culturally, Israel cannot change course. Netanyahu’s tardy response to Aramco was that Israel must immediately ‘spend billions on defence’.
Rationally, one might expect Israel, in these new circumstances, to rethink its strategy in respect to Iran. But can it? Is it not too culturally committed to Iran as the cosmic evil? There is little difference here between Likud and the Blue and White coalition of Gantz. Will a panicked Israel rather try somehow to recover its earlier regional military ‘edge’? Will Trump be able to maintain America’s distance, if Israel does try?
Trump probably sees himself as having taken a courageous decision (and it was that — a huge break with conventional thinking) to free America from “endless wars”. But he will need to watch his back from the repercussions arising from the Israeli realisation Notes Ben Caspit, “after three years of being convinced that it was on the winning side, Israel is beginning to realise that it is on the one that’s losing; or at least [the side that] has been abandoned”. A cornered, and panicked Israel is a dangerous Israel.