The huzzahs over the capture of Tripoli have been almost as loud as those which greeted the entrance of American troops into Baghdad. The cheers and applause for President Obama's "leading from behind" have been greater than the response with which the dislodging of Mullah Omar and his odious Taliban government engendered. It has been, from all appearances, one more victory for the democrats of an oppressed people and those high minded foreign governments which supported them.
Anyone having a cursory acquaintanceship with military history knows there is nothing more misleading than a victory improperly appreciated--unless it is a defeat which passes without examination. When considering Iraq or Afghanistan or, now, Libya, it is rather important to determine whether or not the locals and their outside supporters actually achieved a victory or suffered a defeat not yet properly recognized.
Of the three wars, one--that against Taliban--was a war of necessity. The other two, Iraq and Libya, were clearly optional wars, "wars of choice," to use a newly coined formulation.
The invasion of Afghanistan in its opening phase was self-evidently one which was both justified (as retaliation against an act of unparalleled aggression) and necessary as a punitive measure intended to assure that Afghanistan would not be a source of attack at some future date. The decision made by the Bush/Cheney administration to engage in an exercise in nation-building transmogrified the war into one of choice. The expansion of the war from one of limited and achievable goals to one which was inherently both open ended and unwinnable in any meaningful sense turned a narrow victory into a wide defeat.
There is not and will not be any genuine victory in Afghanistan. That chance was unthinkingly flung into the ditch within weeks of the first American boot hitting Afghan soil. Ideology trumped national interest with results most baleful to the US, Afghanistan, and the world generally. The negative effects of ideologically driven decisions could not be reversed even after the US dedicated more assets to the war and employed those assets according to a superior operational and tactical doctrine. Sometimes (and Afghanistan is one of those) the courage and dedication of the troops at the sharp point even when backed by excellent warfighting doctrine and outstanding technology cannot and will not redeem a failed policy.
Iraq presents a more interesting case of presumed victory gone astray. Even more than the "mission leap" in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq represents the disastrous impact of ideology upon decision making. As has been clear since before the first American bombs and missiles plowed up Iraqi targets, the exercise in fostering democracy by armed means was the product of ideologues. More, it was the product of ideologues so blinded by the light of their beliefs that they warped intelligence, failed to consider the nature and character of the Iraqi human terrain, and perverted history.
Few would dissent from the proposition that Saddam Hussein was a most odious man running an equally odious regime. There is no argument that in a perfect world he not only deserved to be displaced but would have been to universal applause. But, this world is far closer to imperfection than its utopian opposite. Even if the American viceroy had refrained from the spectacular blunders such as that of disbanding the armed and police forces or the one of insisting on removing all Baathists from positions of authority, the results would not have been subsumed by the phrase "mission accomplished."
Woodrow Wilson discovered nearly a century ago at low cost in both money and lives, it is impossible to impose democracy--American style--at bayonet point. His lofty goal was to provide a civics lesson--to, in his words, "teach the Mexicans to elect good men." The lesson was taught by US Marines with due diligence and remarkable restraint. However the lesson was lost upon the Mexican population for the simple reason that the lesson were not "made in Mexico" but rather in the US.
The same dynamic applied in Iraq. The same dynamic to be sure but one which was fueled not only by nationalism but also by religion. Well, to err on the side of accuracy, the second fuel was religions, plural, while the first was nationalisms, again plural. The singular failure of the Bush/Cheney administration as well as their assorted minions in country was to understand that not only were there two religious communities sharing the same generic title--Islam, but that each considered the other to be apostate. The Deep Thinkers also apparently overlooked the fact that the concept "majority rules" would result in a zero sum game for the minority.
As if not seeing that particular T. rex in the bedroom was not sufficient, the same ideologically propelled Deep Thinkers managed to ignore the practical effect of three nations uneasily coexisting within a common international border. Among the impacts would be a search for external support on the part of at least one of the three nationalities. In this case, nationality was reinforced by religious confession.
As a result of these blind spots, a man emerged to undue importance. This man is Muqtada al-Sadr. He is a Shia cleric. He is an outstanding politician in the Iraqi context. He runs a very large and rather competent private militia. And, he is an exponent of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. When these factors are combined and taken in conjunction with the utterly dysfunctional Iraqi government, al-Sadr becomes the most powerful personality in the country.
The Maliki government exists because al-Sadr gave it his personal blessing. Al-Sadr blessings are rather like Catholic indulgences in the years before Martin Luther--they come only for a price. For Nouri al-Maliki the price was that of taking warm and tender regard for the policy desires of the ayatollahs in Tehran. Chew on that one for a moment, bucko.
The obvious implication is that the real winner of the American orchestrated invasion of Iraq has--or shortly will be--Iran. The US expended thousands of American lives and who really knows how many hundreds of billions of dollars to secure a political victory for the ultimate bad boys of the region--the dictatorial theocrats of Tehran.
A test of the Tehran wins hypothesis is coming soon. Al-Sadr has called upon his followers to engage in massive demonstrations against the Maliki government. The ostensible reason is the failure of the current regime to restore basic services to their pre-2003 level. The substantial reason is to demonstrate in an unmistakable way what will confront the government should it agree to a continued substantial American presence after 31 December 11.
The departure of the Americans will have two results. One will be a reignition of the violence which marked the mid-period of the US combat operations. The second will be an invitation to Tehran for assistance in providing domestic security.
Isn't that a fascinating prospect?
The possibility of Iraq becoming a "hollow state" where all the real power resides with Tehran and its Iraqi proxies is very real. The reality is underscored by the recent signs of Tehran retreating from unqualified support for the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad. Losing one outpost in the Arab states is acceptable if the loss of Syria can be offset by the gaining of a larger, far more oil rich and Shia majority Iraq.
President Ahmedinejad and his boss, the Guardian of the Revolution, may sound like utter fools or delusional maniacs to many in the West, but they are not. They, particularly the Grand Ayatollah, are careful and dedicated practitioners of regional realpolitik. Iraq is the better "ally," the better "hollow state" in all respects as compared with Syria.
Now, in looking at the latest "victory" for democracy, please recall that the governments of both Iran and Iraq came to power via the ballot box. Simply having elections does not guarantee an outcome compatible with the interests of the US, or the UK, or France. The many critics of the "NATO" campaign in Libya who focused on the many unknowns resident within the rebel forces and their Transitional National Council were well justified in their cautionary notes.
Libya is in a profound state of flux. It will remain that way even if Gaddafi and his sons are caught or killed. The many factions, the multitude of conflicting priorities and agendas, the rivalries which constitute the most important hallmark of the TNC alone assures the flux will go on, and on, and on. Also contributing to the ongoing lack of stability will be the simple fact that there currently exist in Libya a large number of very well armed young men who have discovered that it is not all that hard to push the cancel button on another human being and who have their own agendas as motivators.
So far the US is 0 for 2 in the victory department. While the final bell has not yet rung in Libya, there are few reasons to conclude the record will not soon be 0 for 3.
Makes you kind of wonder if Ron Paul and his message of neo-isolationism might not have something going for it. Doesn't it?