Belmont Club

The Big Cigar

Two articles, on in the World Affairs Journal by a former undersecretary for defense policy and another in the New York Times, describes how America can win the battles yet lose the war. Eric S. Edelman, “a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), served as under secretary of defense for policy in 2005–09” argues that America lost Lebanon through a lack of consistency and determination.

When Lebanon rose against Syria America had an opportunity to move in. But the first problem it faced was Washington was too slow. Everything in the US government, with the possible exception of the military, moved at a snail’s pace.

Hariri’s murder on February 14, 2005, catalyzed a majority of the Lebanese populace.  … Washington quickly recognized the significance of the so-called Cedar Revolution …  achieving the first goal—encouraging stable and accountable Lebanese government institutions—required disbursing substantial, appropriately directed resources in a timely manner. Such agile efficiency is difficult for the muscle-bound US government, but not for those who seek to counter it and who are not subject to broad, time-consuming interagency processes and have few, if any, checks and balances on their ability to provide resources to allies. …

There was, however, one dramatic moment when the system managed to defy expectations and serve its intended purpose: the 2007 battle of Nahr al-Bared. As the LAF waged its first battle since the civil war against a Sunni militia with questionable ties to Syria, Washington immediately grasped the significance of the moment. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had called any Lebanese military action against the militia, Fatah al-Islam, a “red line,” demonstrating how vital it was that the Lebanese state’s military not appear to have been intimidated by this threat. Using creative authorities and overwhelming effort, the US government managed to send more than forty C-130 planeloads of military assistance to Lebanon over a period of a few weeks. Without the quantity and quality of this aid, it is likely that the LAF—and with it, the Lebanese government—would not have succeeded in this critical battle.

Neverthless, the stars were right. By supporting the investigation into the Hariri murder and checkmating Damascus on the ground, America soon had Syria and Hezbollah on the ropes.  Just then of course, the State Department decided to use the advantages for bargaining leverage. Israel too, was nervous with what appeared to be a successful campaign of regime change — even when run behind the scenes by America. The diplomatic instinct for the known reasserted itself and it decided to cash in their chips to buy stability. The adage “when you’re ahead, deal; and don’t defeat your enemy or you’ll have no one to negotiate with” must be carved in stone in some diplomatic pantheon.

By the fall of 2005, the Assad government was getting the message. Damascus was still reeling from the international reaction to Hariri’s assassination, its humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon, and the UN Security Council’s condemnation of its behavior.  … This was the moment that might have completely changed the balance of power in the Levant. The Bush administration, however, was unable to capitalize on this new dynamic. Some figures in the administration, particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, believed that pressures for “regime change” would appear to be inconsistent with the Bush administration’s freedom agenda. At the same time, Israel expressed a different but reinforcing fear—fear of the unknown. For Israelis, the devil they knew was better than a roll of the dice that might lead to an Islamist takeover in Damascus, which they feared was the only alternative to the Alawite regime of Bashar Assad. Further, some US officials argued that the situation in Lebanon should be downplayed to gain Damascus’s support, which was needed to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

With Damascus reeling on the ropes, they let it off the hook. Ironically, the destabilization of Damascus that Israel — by the very Islamists that they feared — came anyway, courtesy of the Arab Spring. The ultimate irony of the Arab Spring is that it completed what the proponents of engagement wanted to avoid. Only this time,leaving them on the outside watching, not influencing events.

When the Obama administration took office, they continued to engage Damascus and completed the process of turning victory into defeat.

Within months, new leadership took power in Washington and the Obama administration, accepting the reigning conventional wisdom that pressure tactics had failed, entered office committed to a policy of outreach toward Syria. This emphasis on engagement pleased Damascus, but was met with much concern in Beirut, where memories of earlier American abandonment in 1984 echoed loudly. Further, the administration’s emphasis on Arab-Israeli peace process issues invariably lowered Lebanon on the administration’s list of priorities.

Turning from Lebanon to Iraq the New York Times writes that American troops are leaving Iraq with Shi’ite militias filling in the space behind them. American troops are having to hunker down under rocket attacks from Shi’ite forces near the Iranian border. America, which defeated all comers on the battlefield, may be undoing what it won at such cost.

The attacks on the Americans in Maysan Province, near the Iranian border, and elsewhere in southern Iraq provide one of the starkest examples of what officials call a reinvigorated threat posed by Shiite militants and followers of the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr during the American military’s waning days here.

These Shiite militias have emerged as perhaps the greatest threat to the 46,000 United States troops still in Iraq, military officials say. And a barrage of recent attacks — some of them deadly — has raised questions about the safety of Americans as the military withdraws troops and equipment in the months ahead.

“There are plenty of groups who will be paid to kill the last Americans on their way out,” said Col. Douglas Crissman, the military commander who oversees Maysan and three other southern provinces. …

Mr. Sadr himself makes no secret of his strategy. “Yes, we are still resisting and striking bases, troops and vehicles, as long as they are in Iraq,” he told the BBC Arabic service on Thursday. “And there is no doubt with that. It’s an honor for us.”

Southern Iraq is strategically important to the United States, even in the final days of the American deployment here. It is the point of entry for many of the weapons coming from Iran, particularly rockets and the shaped explosives used in improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, military commanders say, and thousands of departing troops and convoys will pass through the region as they head into Kuwait.

Last week, militants hit a United States military base in Basra from seven miles away, and in a single day about 10 rockets were fired at the Green Zone in Baghdad, home to the American Embassy and a sprawling American military base.

Washington’s habit of losing what is gained on the battlefield emerged as a distinct theme in Vietnam. For decades America’s enemies have known that that it is far easier to persuade politicians to withdraw or sell out their allies than it is to defeat the US military. The latter is nearly impossible but the former is as easy as pie. And so America’s foes do it, again and again and again. Mao Tse Tung described the process succinctly: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

This is widely recognized, but the question is why it is permitted to continue. One possible reason is that the short-term optima of bureaucracies and political figures is different from the long term interest of the nation. In the short run, bureaucracies and candidates can advance their interests at the expense of the nation and so they do it. It is the the principal-agent problem again. The same dynamic that created the deficit creates these foreign debacles. Candidates need to be elected; bureaucracies want to expand and dominate so they do whatever is required to achieve those goals. That is sometimes achieved by going for the short term gain — the photo-op, the Nobel Prize, the term of office — even if passes the cost to somebody else. When the whole thing blows up it happens on someone elses watch.

Think about it: Vietnam and the Subprime Disaster may have been defeats for America but they were victories for somebody in Washington.  The mistakes of the Bush administration and the blunders of the present one may not be felt in the very short run. Losing Lebanon, Iraq and the Arab Spring after they should have been in the bag is not something that will come home to roost immediately. Maybe not even by 2012. But the price must be paid someday. And on that day everyone responsible will be somewhere else, feet up, smoking the Big Cigar.

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