Opinion: In Middle East, the game remains the same
“The game has changed.”
So pronounced Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week, seemingly in the context of the attacks by Iranian-backed militias on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad but perhaps also with an intimation of the drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds force, the longtime and lethal agents of the Tehran regime.
Alas, the “game” in Iraq and in the Middle East more broadly has not changed. It is still a multi-sided struggle for power in the wake of the collapse of the post-colonial and “nationalist” governments established after World War II.
Donald Trump is not the first American president to want to wish away this “forever” conflict; Barack Obama’s attitude was that the Gulf states, and in particular Saudi Arabia, should get over it and learn to live with their revolutionary neighbors.
And the “fracking revolution” that has produced an American abundance of fossil fuels seemed to supply a rationale for Trump’s let-it-burn strategy. Nor is it likely that the Soleimani killing will change much in the administration’s approach. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been working the telephones to his foreign counterparts — be they allies like the British or adversaries like the Chinese — reassuring them that “The U.S. remains committed to de-escalation.” No doubt.
Thus, despite Trump’s transactional relation with truth-telling, it is sensible to believe that the administration had convincing intelligence about a continuation or escalation of militia attacks on the Baghdad embassy or other U.S. installations or personnel in Iraq, including the still-numerous private contractors who are the most exposed.
A Benghazi-like breech or substantial hostage-taking event would revive old neuralgias and nightmares, and are the Iranian version of “maximum pressure.” Trying to pre-empt such a maneuver is just the sort of thing to change Trump’s otherwise extremely conservative risk-reward calculations.
Indeed, it is something of a wonder that Soleimani survived as long as he did. For the commander of covert as well as overt operations, and a man who’s made it a priority to kill Americans, the Quds Force chief hid in very plain sight; this can hardly be the first time he was in U.S. sights. Trump pulled the trigger whereas the Bush and Obama administrations reckoned that Iran had more retaliatory options in any tit-for-tat exchanges.
Even more paralyzing has been the very narrow focus of American policy toward the region; we suffer from an extreme form of strategic monomania, from terminal whack-a-mole syndrome. This condition has steadily worsened since the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the hostage crisis that crippled the Carter presidency.
First we tilted toward Saddam Hussein in the catastrophe of the Iran-Iraq war, then spent 15 years regretting it while al-Qaida grew and Iran recovered. After 9/11, we went after not just the al-Qaida leadership and its Taliban hosts, but its global salafist allies, even unto the African Sahel. And then back to Mesopotamia. At the point of stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq, premature withdrawal opened the door to Iran and to the Islamic State, which not only exploited the void in Baghdad but in Syria as the Assad regime imploded.
This proved also the point of entry for Russia back into the region. Without a coherent definition of success, there can be no hope of a coherent strategy, and we are condemned to endless and repetitive raids, strikes and occasional and stillborn campaigns. Each president gets trophies — Saddam, Osama, Baghdadi, Soleimani – but a stable balance of power in the Middle East remains elusive.
Finally, it is unlikely that this will be a teachable moment. Realists who entertain hopes that Trump will embody their “offshore” posture principles are already conflating the Soleimani killing with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. “Goodbye, Donald Trump restrainer. Hello Donald Trump, neocon,” writes Jacob Heilbrunn in The National Interest. Trump does have Kaiser-like qualities, and Iran suffers from Hapsburg-esque weaknesses, but Heilbrunn’s analogy has the airworthiness of the Graf Zeppelin.
Democrats also are running true to form. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi harrumphed about the president’s failure to consult Congress before the strike. Their presidential candidates likewise ruffled their feathers without saying much of substance. Former Vice President Joe Biden, supposedly the voice of sagacious experience and grand hyperbole, opined that Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox” and that “we could be on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.” This from the architect of Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, which he predicted “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.”
Ironically, General Soleimani had the one talent we conspicuously lack: an ability to see the region in the round. Despite Iran’s very limited resources, he was the mastermind of Tehran’s efforts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the Levant, and charted a strategy whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts. In the Atlantic, former soldier and assistant defense secretary for the Middle East Andrew Exum correctly describes Soleimani as Iran’s “indispensable man.”
By contrast, even the best American commanders and diplomats in the Middle East have been found expendable. And thus the game remains the same.
Giselle Donnelly is a defense and national security fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.