In this edition of The Dialectic, Atul Singh and Glenn Carle follow up their previous discussion of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) with a deep dive into the consequences of GWOT.
The US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were both spectacular tactical successes, but the strategy was muddy. President George W. Bush had no intention of committing the US to nation-building. However, he made it all but impossible to avoid nation-building by destroying existing power structures. The US found itself in a situation where withdrawal would have led to a power vacuum that bad actors could have occupied again, defeating the raison d’être of the invasions.
An idiotic ideological policy
The US followed a fanatical policy of de-Ba’athification. Ideological American neoconservatives excluded all Ba’ath Party members from public roles. This removed not only party elites but also rank-and-file civil servants such as policemen, firefighters and teachers. Note that they were not ideological Baathists but had become members of the party to make their lives easier in an authoritarian society. This extremely unwise de-Ba’athification policy led to social chaos and sectarian violence ensued.
After decades of persecution, Shias exacted brutal revenge on Sunnis. Their numbers had always been greater but Sunnis had been the dominant minority under Saddam Hussein. With Hussein gone, the Iran-backed Shias now had their chance. Shia dominance led to a push back and the Islamic State emerged on the back of Sunni resentment.
Iraqis were far from nostalgic for good old Saddam. Yet they could not forgive the US for the new Shia-Sunni bloodbath and Hobbesian anarchy that claimed thousands of lives and ruined the economy. An insurgency against evil Uncle Sam became inevitable.
The trouble with insurgencies
Insurgencies are nearly impossible to suppress with an army of any size. Britain, an experienced imperial power, found putting down insurgency in Northern Ireland hard enough. The US is institutionally unsuited for and inexperienced in running an empire. Trying to put down an insurgency in a much larger country on the other side of the world was a task beyond Washington, DC.
Although the events unfolding were unambiguously an insurgency, the Bush administration insisted to the public that what was going on was a war against terrorists. Al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq was proffered as evidence for GWOT. In reality, al-Qaeda was there because the US had created the vacuum for it to flourish. Al-Qaeda saw the insurgency as an opportunity to kill American soldiers and continue waging jihad.
In 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded the even more extremist “al-Qaeda in Iraq.” The central al-Qaeda leadership’s control over this group was tenuous. It was unable to prevent Zarqawi from conducting brutal killings, not of “infidel” Americans, but of Iraqi citizens. This morphed into the Islamic State and swept not only across Sunni Iraq but also Sunni Syria, which was ruled by the Shia Assad clan.
The US was unprepared to deal with this unraveling of the tapestry of the Middle East. Eventually, the insurgency in Iraq took a toll on the US and sapped its will to continue the good fight in the sands of the region.
Torture and the soul of America
Despite the horrors of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the US was geographically separated from them. However, the GWOT had a profoundly corrosive influence on American democracy itself.
Americans have long had a horror of torture. They prohibited it in their founding documents and vigorously prosecuted the crime after World War II. During the GWOT, US personnel tortured prisoners for information. They had orders to use “any means necessary” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” became a euphemism for torture.
As torture became normalized, it seeped into the wider culture. Unsettlingly, a majority of Americans under the age of 35—those who came of age during the war—now find torture acceptable. For earlier generations of Americans, it was and is unthinkable.
Disaster can make nations turn against even their most cherished principles. After the Romans saw their army annihilated by Hannibal at Cannae, they turned to human sacrifice out of desperation. The 9/11 attacks had much the same psychological effect on Americans. Their country had been attacked, and Americans were ready to do anything in response.
Glenn had the mortifying experience of seeing his fellow CIA officers carry out orders from the president which they knew were against the law. What they were doing was not merely immoral and illegal, but it represented the breakdown of the rule of law. In the US, it is the law, instituted by the people, that rules—not the whims of individual men. This principle was violated repeatedly during the war with officers choosing to obey illegal orders rather than refusing them.
Laws are meaningless unless there is a culture of respect for them. Torture had created a culture in which political loyalty mattered more than the law. One can trace a direct line from the erosion of the values of democracy and legality during the Bush years to the notorious attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
A hit to America’s international influence
American neoconservative hawks had hoped that invading Iraq would cow down Iran. This revolutionary Shia power would be less disruptive and aggressive in the region. The mullahs of Tehran would learn the consequences of going too far.
Sadly, this strategy could not have backfired more spectacularly. Today, Iran’s power extends across the region. Now that Saddam, Iran’s Sunni archrival, is gone, Iran has little to stop it from building and extending its network of Shia allies. Not only have Tehran’s mullahs now expanded their influence in Iraq, but they have also strengthened ties with Lebanon’s Shia militant group Hezbollah, Assad’s Syria and even Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Syria itself is a casualty of the Iraq war. Sunni insurgent groups based in Iraq destabilized the country, attempting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. In the eyes of fanatical Sunnis, Assad is a Shia Alawite and hence an infidel. Weakened by soaring temperatures, prolonged droughts and failed harvests, Syria was already fragile. The uneasy coexistence of its religious and ethnic minorities shattered when the Islamic State rose, precipitating a bloody civil war.
Assad committed numerous human rights excesses to stay in power. He has clung on to office in Damascus thanks to Iran and Russia. Now, he is being invited back to the table by other Arab autocrats. Israel, with Lebanon and Syria on its northern borders, has been sounding alarm bells for a while. Clearly, US power in the Middle East stands weakened.
In Europe, both the 2003 Iraq War and the GWOT went down very poorly. Europeans saw this US-led war without UN-approval as overreach by hubristic superpower. Emerging powers such as Brazil, India and China were uncomfortable with this invasion as well. In brief, the US attracted the ire not only of much of the Muslim world but also a majority of the world. In retrospect, the Iraq War was a historic blunder.
Eye off the ball
As an intelligence officer, Glenn studied al-Qaeda in much detail. This shadowy organization was not a worldwide empire, but a loose coalition of a few hundred people. There are no more than a few thousand jihadi terrorists in the world at any time. They are a real and present danger, but not one that should consume the majority of the forces and public attention of the world’s largest power. Counterterrorism should be the domain of highly skilled professionals, who can eliminate or capture terrorists with minimal fanfare.
The US armed forces, the largest military apparatus that humanity has ever seen, spent 20 years molding itself as a counterterrorism force while ignoring the elephant in the room: China. In a world where America is once again faced with a peer rival, it has no business spending this amount of attention on smaller issues, dangerous though they may be. Glenn takes the view that only after President Joseph Biden has now finally cut Afghanistan loose will the military be able to reshape itself for an intense conventional war.
During the GWOT, the CIA, too, was reshaped into a counterterrorism tool. It spent two decades integrating with special forces. However, the CIA was never supposed to be a paramilitary organization. It is an intelligence organization. The CIA’s mission is to detect and predict threats, not merely to assist the military for counterterrorism operations. The Agency’s institutional culture must recover this focus if it is to continue to carry out that mission effectively.
Even on the counterterrorism front, the GWOT created unbalanced priorities. Glenn argues that the Bush administration ignored the intelligence community’s repeated warnings about the magnitude of the threat posed by domestic, white nationalists. They insisted that Islamist terrorism was to be considered the top threat. The focus on Islamic terrorism likewise diverted the necessary attention and resources from the growing cyber threats, a vulnerability which either lone or state-sponsored actors could exploit.
On top of all of this, the myopia about terrorism and the politicization of threat assessments has prevented Republican administrations from taking adequate steps to address the dangers of climate change, which poses a much more credible threat to the US homeland than any enemy army.
All of this comes on top of a profound restructuring of the Republican party. The party has always had a strong isolationist faction, but this was controlled by an internationalist establishment that has been mostly defenestrated. The Iraq War discredited the neoconservatives and created a culture of lawlessness, paving the way for the ascendancy of the brash, populist and frankly authoritarian faction in dominance today.
The Iraq War and the GWOT have conspired to produce a situation in which America has largely been caught with its pants down in the Pacific. China has been building up while the US has been distracted and divided. Thankfully, Washington is waking up to reality now, but the situation may be much more manageable if the US had reacted earlier and with greater vigor.
[Anton Schauble wrote the first draft of this piece.]
The views expressed in this article/podcast are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.