Learning From Failure: Formulating A New U.S. Middle East Foreign Policy

Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Image credit: 
Poster RU/SU 775, Poster Collection, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster RU/SU 775, Poster Collection, Hoover Institution Archives.

A commentator recently complained that President Trump does not have a “Syria strategy” and therefore awful Assad is winning. Countless Op-Ed writers before him likewise commented that President X “did not have a [insert the name of any country from Morocco to India] strategy,” and therefore awful Z was winning.

That sort of writing is still today considered honest work by Op-Ed editors, who studiously ignore what happened when US Presidents did have “a strategy”—and not just in 2003 when the awful Saddam Hussein was removed to allow the Iraqi people to advance towards democracy.

It was only upon entering the country that the absence of any actual Iraqis was discovered, as opposed to rival Shi’a, Kurdish, and Sunni factions, in none of which the leaders are chosen democratically, thereby making an Iraq-wide democracy impossible twice over, intra-factionally as well as inter-factionally.

Yet when I testified to that effect in a Senate Foreign Relations hearing before the 2003 invasion, the pro-Administration witness easily prevailed, by pointing out that I had just said that Iraqis were incapable of democracy, which was “racist” he said.  I immediately confessed that it was culturalist, but failed to note that anyone who is not is a total fool would not expect Neapolitans to behave like Japanese, or vice versa.

No strategy for any country can possibly succeed if intersectional American inhibitions preclude the acceptance of its simplest cultural realities, thereby allowing a country like Iraq to be confused with, say, Norway or Denmark, whose 1945 liberation was indeed followed by democratic elections.

Unfortunately, such confusions and even greater ones are the norm rather than the exception: Afghanistan, for example, was judged ripe for Scandinavian feminism when its constitution was drawn up: it mandates a higher quota of female parliamentarians than the proportion of female members in the U.S. Congress or the Canadian parliament. Naturally, they count for nothing in an assembly dominated by warlords and their lieges.

In another Afghan example, in June 2017 Secretary of Defense Mattis overcame strong resistance from President Trump to send out 4,000 more U.S. troops to serve as instructors for the Afghan Army, to enable it to resist the Taliban, which was winning, as it still is.

The mystery is why Afghan soldiers needed training from very expensive American NCOs no less, while the Taliban do not. But the answer of course is that individual skill levels have nothing to do with it: the Afghan Army cannot be trained to fight by definition, because it can only exist as a lucrative business for its bosses and as a form of welfare for their underlings, and not as a fighting army in the absence of an Afghan national identity on which cohesion can be built.

For much less money, the U.S. could have built up a formidable army of separate Tadjik, Uzbek, Hazara, Aimaq, and selected tribal-Pathan regiments that would have smashed the Taliban. But any such proposal would have horrified Secretary Mattis, who of course knows that ethnic regiments served the British in both Asia and Africa very well indeed (and a Gurkha regiment still does), but who evidently felt compelled by political correctness to scrupulously eschew even the most elementary of Afghan realities in framing his policies: the non-existence of an Afghan identity, except among some expatriates.

Science advances because erroneous theories are refuted, but in forming U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, nothing whatever has ever been learned even from total failures.

To cite an example that would have nefarious consequences for decades, in 1955 the United States did have a “strategy” for Israel and the Arabs, to finally end the war that had started in November 1947. It being a proper strategy, it had a codename, “Project Alpha,”1 and like all strategies that Op-Ed writers approve of, the U.S. did not pursue it alone but with an ally, the British Empire no less—it was still that, with dozens of colonies large and small. Indeed the plan was first unveiled on November 9, 1955 by Prime Minister Anthony Eden, Churchill’s erstwhile Foreign Secretary, who was himself an expert on the region: he had studied Arabic and Persian at Oxford, and like many “arabists” was much enamored with T. E. Lawrence-type camel-riding Arabs and robed potentates.

John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State and Eden’s partner in the venture, was not at all sentimental but certainly believed in Project Alpha, which was deemed eminently rational. To finally arrive at a peace that would keep the Soviet Union out of the Middle East, and facilitate building up the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), which was to be NATO’s counterpart, Israel was to hand over its larger southern portion, the Negev, to Egypt and Jordan thereby providing territorial contiguity for the Arabs from Morocco all the way to the Turkish border, once the brutal French would leave Algeria (yes, many in the U.S. as in Britain sided with the National Liberation Front (FLN) “freedom fighters” as the young Jack Kennedy defined them, thereby mistaking killers for budding democrats).

In formulating Project Alpha it was taken for granted that Egypt's new ruler, the young Abdul Gamal Nasser—an extremely promising “anti-Communist” according to the CIA—would be downright enthusiastic at the prospect of gaining more territory and direct access to Jordan and beyond, while reducing enemy Israel to an indefensible enclave. Jordan’s King Hussein for his part could hardly refuse the gift of part of the Negev, and in any case he was on the CIA’s monthly payroll.

As for the Jews—as Eden always called the Israelis—they would of course whine at the imminent loss of much of their already exiguous territory, and of their Red Sea port of Elat—but the latter was worthless anyway because of Egypt’s “irremovable” blockade of the straits. In any case Israel’s viewpoint was simply irrelevant: it was a mini-state of less than 1.5 million inhabitants with no oil, hardly any industry, a miserable economy, and a ragged little army equipped with variegated bits of war-surplus equipment. Eden refused to concede even a five-minute meeting to Israel’s ambassador, because the Jews would just have to do what they were told, with any diplomatic palavers nothing but a waste of time.

Everything was promising for the Project Alpha strategy, yet within twelve months every one of its premises had been utterly overturned. That is what happens to Middle East premises, as the Obama Administration discovered when it very warmly embraced Iran in the nuclear accord, only to see its Revolutionary Guards unleashed against U.S. interests everywhere.

In 1955 likewise, Nasser bitterly disappointed his CIA handlers by turning to Moscow for weapons, and then outraged Eden by nationalizing the Suez Canal, thereby forcing him to partner with the Israel he hated as well as with the France colonialists to reoccupy the Canal Zone, that still contained vast British military depots. When the fighting started in October 1956, Israel’s ragged soldiers swiftly conquered the Sinai, but the French paratroopers rearing to go from Cyprus were maddeningly held up by the British, who kept delaying H-hour to gather a vast amphibious armada, as if they were up against the Waffen SS. Yes, having known and despised Egyptian soldiers for generations, the British nevertheless allowed their Intelligence estimate to be dominated by the impressive numbers of newly delivered Soviet tanks and jet fighters in Egyptian hands.

That too is a constant: the overestimation of the region’s military forces, which keeps recurring whenever a war is imminent, and whose present expression are the gross overestimates of Turkey’s armed forces, notwithstanding their utter lack of combat experience, except against unarmed civilians of course, a form of war in which Arab armies also excel.

When British hesitation caused the collapse of the Suez Canal operation, John Foster Dulles moved on without pausing to contain the damage, Anthony Eden who had waited for two decades to become Prime Minister had to resign after a mere two years, and the Soviet Union was installed as Egypt’s military patron. There it stayed for years to come—until it made the fatal mistake of gifting enough weapons and training to really prepare the Egyptian army for war. Thus all failed in the end, the USSR included, just as the Russians will fail in their present attempt to convert Syria into a platform for Russian power across the region.

So yes there really is a “strategy” that will work successfully every single time, that every President should adopt and rigorously follow: when invited to intervene in the Middle East, don’t.


 1 Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955–1957, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1955, Volume XIV, 9. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, January 27, 1955.

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