Belmont Club

Venezuela and the Washington Clock

Venezuela and the Washington Clock
Photo by Alvaro Fuente/NurPhoto/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

With speculation rampant over whether the Trump administration is going to invade Venezuela, it is useful to review the American experience in Iraq.  On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the strategic perceptions of Saddam and U.S. planners could not have been more divergent, according to a recently published 1,500-page, 2-volume Army War College survey of that conflict. (Links to volume 1 and volume 2.) America’s toppling of Saddam was an attempt to fix the chaos that resulted in 9/11 and challenged the global world order.  “The fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq or the Islamic State in Iraq was part of a broader campaign against al-Qaeda and its associated movements. Fighting in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and other locations was connected through a strategic framework―both ours and our enemies’―with the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan” (vol. 1, p. 35).

As late as 2003 the dominant American paradigm for fixing chaos abroad was WW2.  The Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC)’s operational plan was “named Cobra II after General Omar Bradley’s operation to liberate France in 1944” (vol. 1, p. 8) and the reconstruction and stabilization plan was “named Eclipse II after the Allied plan to occupy Germany in World War II” (vol. 1, p. 106). The grand strategic solution to the problem of terrorism from failing states that succeeded the challenge of the Soviet Union was “to bring democracy” to the Islamic world the same way America had brought it to the Axis powers. If it was a flawed conception, it was at least understandable.  In the 20th century America had fought real countries — Germany, Japan, China, North Korea, Vietnam — and thought it knew how to do it.

But in the 21st century it would fight an un-country. The view in 2003 Baghdad could not have been more different than Washington’s.  Saddam understood his state wasn’t a country in the Western sense.  His primary concern was “internal threats, both from disaffected segments of Iraqi society and from prospective insider coup attempts by Ba’ath Party rivals or the Iraqi military. Saddam’s secondary concern was regional threats, Iran and Israel foremost among them. The threat posed by an American-led coalition ranked only third on Saddam’s list of dangers to his rule” (vol. 1, p. 84).

As such there were actually two invasions of Iraq: the American and the Iranian.  “Documents captured from members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran operating in Iraq in the summer of 2003 revealed Iran’s detailed courses of action for military operations in Iraq in the event of an American invasion. The Iranians intended to use the Badr Corps—expanded from its original brigade size and directed by Iranian agents—to subvert American efforts to occupy Iraq successfully, with the subversion including military, political, and social means. In the months before the coalition invasion, Badr Corps units accompanied Iranian infantry and missile brigades as they moved into positions along the border. The Badr Corps also developed assassination lists of Sunni military personnel, Ba’athists, and others who collaborated with the regime that they intended to execute systematically once the opportunity presented itself” (vol. 1, p. 114).

Consequently there was a war-within-a-war that for political purposes (especially European ones) had to be downplayed. “By fall 2005, Colonel Kevin McDonnell, the commander of the 5th Special Forces Group and the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force–Arabian Peninsula (CJSOTF-AP), concluded that Iran was conducting a full-scale unconventional warfare campaign in Iraq ” (vol. 1, p. 538).  For political reasons this inner war could not be frankly acknowledged.

U.S. national policy toward Iranian meddling in Iraq had not yet been set, and Casey understood that he was to avoid a regional expansion of the conflict. … Despite the clarity of Iranian culpability in the deaths of Americans, the memorandum cautioned against the action, noting: “a sweeping hostile force declaration against the IRGC-QF could result in an increase in Iranian support to Iraqi insurgents and lead to open confrontation with Iran.”99 The memorandum also noted that most Qods Force members operated mainly in Multi-National Division–Southeast (MND-SE), and the British were not required to honor an American hostile force declaration. Getting British support for such a project undoubtedly would have been difficult. (Vol 1 p 539)

The Iranians were duly defeated, but the inability of Iraq to resurrect itself quickly doomed the enterprise. Western publics have a limited patience for war.  The British electorate threw out Winston Churchill after VE Day because they were “war weary” and attracted to the promises of Labour.  Harry Truman  knew that the U.S. willingness to take casualties was not unlimited and that may have pushed him to drop the atomic bomb. The second to the last paragraph of volume 2, p. 683 puts it succinctly.  America ran out of time:

The failure of the United States to attain its strategic objectives in Iraq was not inevitable. It came as a byproduct of a long series of decisions—acts of commission and omission—made by well-trained and intelligent leaders making what seemed to be reasonable decisions. At one point, in the waning days of the Surge, the change of strategy and the sacrifices of many thousands of Americans and Iraqis had finally tipped the scales enough to put the military campaign on a path towards a measure of success. However, it was not to be, as the compounding effect of earlier mistakes, combined with a series of decisions focused on war termination, ultimately doomed the fragile venture.

Obama, for good or ill, thought the whole enterprise was a waste of time and changed tack to persuading Iran with pallets of cash under the Iran Nuclear Deal. There is a “clock” in Washington that will sound whether a job is finished or not and it sets a natural limit on what American policy makers can do.  Eclipse II was simply unattainable.

Iraq’s improved situation provided sufficient justification to the Obama administration―elected on a platform of decreasing American involvement in the Middle East―to carry out that very platform. The “Washington and Baghdad clocks” to which General David Petraeus had often alluded had run out. What followed was tragic, but not unexpected. Maliki’s sectarianism and authoritarianism only increased as the U.S. presence decreased, and, following the complete withdrawal of forces in December 2011, his actions hollowed out the Iraqi security forces and alienated the Sunni community, leading some of its members to rejoin militant extremists in fighting the central government. Iraq’s civil war, which had been smoldering since the departure of U.S. forces, reignited. As Iraq’s security forces collapsed in the face of an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) offensive, U.S. forces returned less than 3 years after they had departed. (Vol 2 p 36)

That didn’t mean the end of the problem.  It simply meant that the challenges that resulted in 9/11 had to be solved differently.  The problem of terrorism from failing states has still not been solved. America is still in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan and to a lesser extent it is also in Yemen, Libya, and a number of other places.  The campaign is not over and the chaos continues, but the Washington clock for the moment is stopped.

But it will start again the instant a U.S. administration overtly intervenes in Venezuela. The Iraq experience shows the true system countdown begins when a dictator starts to wreck his country.  The Bolivarian destruction of human capital and infrastructure, the emptying of its coffers, and the proliferation of gangs and militias are all reminiscent Saddam’s Iraq in 2003. The fundamental intelligence failure in Iraq was not realizing there was nothing to save even before the invasion started.  No one is going to be eager to commit that mistake again in Venezuela.  Speaking of Iraq, the sanctions bosses recalled:

“We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that,” observed Denis J. Halliday, UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, on the effect of the sanctions in 1998.68 In retrospect, the sanctions appear to have increased Saddam’s power inside Iraq by making the population dependent on his distribution of increasingly limited basic services, as the standard of living of the Iraqi middle class collapsed. Due to these underappreciated economic and social effects, the nation the U.S. military would occupy in 2003 was far more destitute and ravaged than was generally understood.

How toxic it will be is really the $64 billion question.  Nobody knows for sure. Bolivarian socialism has done a depressingly thorough job on what was once Latin America’s richest country.  With its doctors, engineers, and middle class fleeing, Venezuela may, like Iraq, be thronged with “millions of poor, quasi-illiterate youth” (vol. 1, p. 58).

MENA strategy since the Obama administration appears to tolerate chaos so long as the Washington clock is not started.  Trump appears happy to do the same so long as turmoil is not weaponized by a Great Power adversary.  Although Venezuela has a long national history, the weakness that allowed Chavez to seize it casts doubt on their ability to recover unless by dint of effort they regain liberty largely by themselves.  While the administration probably hopes for the best, the legacy of Iraq probably means it will be hesitant to do more than help them oust Maduro essentially on their own. The U.S. can checkmate Cuba and Russia to make it even, but unless Great Powers present a direct threat the administration may respond to the collapse of yet another country abroad with a Wall.

No one knows the cure for failing states as yet unless somebody wants to try Eclipse III.

Follow Wretchard on Twitter

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
Tip Jar or Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the Belmont Club