In the comments section of "Daily Kos - Again", Amy Alkon asks:
"...as a sort of common-sense-loving moderate...I keep waiting for somebody to offer me a reasonable explanation of the following:
The US is attacked in the most major way ever on our shores, by Osama Bin Ladin and co. We respond, not by decimating Osama and his evil followers, but by waging war on...Iraq! ....Come on -- somebody answer me - not with defending the current administration in mind as you write every word - but by persuading me with the (supposed) common sense behind what we did."
That's an in-depth question, Amy, and it demands an in-depth answer. So let's look at the situation as if you were in charge back in 2002. Then tell me what you want to do instead....
Afghanistan's Taliban (really, al-Qaeda) government is gone, and al-Qaeda can no longer use it as a secure base. So, we did that. Most of the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists we faced in Afghanistan now live in Pakistan.
America went in with a small number of forces because going in with overwhelming numbers was impossible given the supply lines, and because it would just repeat the Soviet approach in Afghanistan. You'll recall how poorly that turned out. So we have bases with mobile forces that can appear to crush any groups of Taliban, and go out on sweeps, while maintaining a fairly low profile. It's not like we have lots of infrastructure to protect or anything.
The warlords are being dealt with by slow political maeuvering and a slow build-up of national Afghan institutions (incl. an Afghan Army) instead of major US military operations for the same reason - you don't want them uniting against you.
Sometimes, more gets you less. This would be true no matter who was in charge back in America.
On the other hand, Tora Bora proved that the Afghans can be unreliable allies, so we're trying to use more U.S. forces in critical engagements. NATO is pledged to help, and they are helping, but not as much as they promised and requests for more international troops never got us much action even though we're talking relatively small numbers. Even if we got that aid, though, it wouldn't really change our strategy.
Bottom line: What you see is about all you can expect in Afghanistan, though a bit more aid might be nice. The "Provincial Reconstruction Team" model of paramilitary aid teams is also worth following with interest.
Pakistan already has nukes. Their ISI's links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda are a matter of record, and large sections of its "lawless frontier" provinces feature widespread support for al-Qaeda. The government is reluctant to confront the jihadis too openly, as this is dangerous for them. Especially because when they do, jihadi infiltration of the military and intel apparatus results in the jihadis being tipped off in advance. You won't get much overt help there, or permission to operate in their territory.
You're the President. Your plan to decimate al-Qaeda there, ma'am?
"Yes, it's wonderful that we got rid of a murderous dictator -- and if that's our standard for waging war on a country, there's a long list of other murderous dictators in front of us. If it's WMD we're after, well Kimmy's sitting on a bunch of nukes over there in Korea, but we're not doing too much about that."
Ah, Korea... Given that the South Koreans prefer a policy of enablement (that's "enablement" in the friend-of-alcoholic sense) toward North Korea, we have very few options there. The only thing we do know is that negotiating any more "agreements" just pays Kim et. al. to go ahead and break them, and so makes no sense at all. Current efforts are focused on drawing in the Chinese, Russians, and Japanese, but especially the Chinese who may see several new nuclear powers in their backyard (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) if they don't find a way to put pressure on Kim. And there we sit, because it's a slow process.
If you have an idea that no-one else in the world has come up with, please share. Frankly, this one baffles everybody.
The Ideological/Financial Nexus & The Saudis
Now that you've got Afghanistan and Korea as under control as they're going to get, you have the larger problem to deal with of widespread support in the Islamic world for terrorism, an ideology of carefully cultivated hatred for West fostered by their regimes and institutions in order to distract attention from their massive societal failures, and the perception of same as a cost-free approach for regimes and other organizations that sponsor it.
If you refuse to grapple with these issues, then even destroying the Taliban will net you nothing, and the source of the decade-long war against America remains untouched. So, what do you do?
The Saudis' funding of religious extremism including al-Qaeda and many of the world-wide madrassas who teach ignorance and hate and recruit for AQ is a huge problem. Past experience with the Khobar Towers bombing and other incidents has shown that they really have no interest in dealing with this, or cooperating with America in any meaningful sense in this area. Indeed, there seems to be a quid-pro-quo deal that makes Saudi Arabia itself immune from attack in exchange for this funding and support, and the weakness of their regime means they won't give that deal up except under the most extreme pressure.
You can't isolate the Saudis because they have too much oil (they'll just buy other allies, and no sanctions will stick), and if you invade then the rallying cry of "save Mecca and Medina" will touch off an all-out war with most of the Islamic world. America would win that one, but you probably don't want to kill 100 million people or so unless you absolutely have to. Right?
Oh, and the USA has troops in Saudi Arabia, just in case Saddam decides to invade again. This is a major bone of contention in parts of the Islamic world, and as long as they're needed there your options for confronting the Saudis over their other behaviour are very limited.
Your plan for dealing with them?
Then there's the problem of a world in which a number of Islamic regimes, answerable to no-one but themselves and with clear state ties to Islamic terrorism, are developing chemical, biological, and nuclear capabilities. They explicitly support a mentality of suicide bombing, too, which kind of throws the concept of deterrence out the window.
Take Iran. The #1 world sponsor for terrorism, including terrorist atacks far beyond the mideast. Some of their client groups have openly vowed that chemical and biological attacks are part of their long term strategy. Rafsanjani, a major figure in Iran, has openly mused that even if it resulted in the nuclear destruction of Iran, taking out Israel would be acceptable because there are other Muslims elsewhere and so this would constitute victory. They have an active nuclear and chemical weapons program, plus they're building ballistic missiles. There's discontent over there, but it isn't at the rebellion stage. Furthermore, the nation still remembers the last war with Saddam in the 80s, and sees him as a problem if they ever become weak or divided. Add one more disincentive to revolution.
There's no way that any of your Gulf allies will provide bases for an attack on Iran, because they have large Shia populations. It might be possible for the Marines to land, set up a beachhead, then bring in other forces slowly by sea. But that would be very, very risky in military and political terms. Especially since the EU is very cosy with Iran's mullahs for business reasons.
What do you propose to do about this, Mme. President?
Syria is Iran's ally. Has WMD. Major supporter and sponsor of terrorism, including several major terrorist acts against Americans. Your only routes to Syria, however, are through Turkey, Israel, or Lebabon. Turkey almost certainly won't let you. Going through Israel has problems that are self-evident. And the LAST place you want to touch is the eternal quagmire of Lebanon. Plus, Syria is run by Alawites, who are only 10% of the population. Take their Ba'athist regime out, and you'll be trying to police the remnants of 2 utterly failed, anarchic states.
You could do it, Mme. President. Do you want to?
Technically, you're still at war - and Iraq has violated the ceasefire terms. It's also refusing to cooperate with efforts to keep tabs on its WMD program. You're getting intelligence that suggests possible links to the 1993 WTC bombings, an assassination attempt on a US President, and even al-Qaeda. Like all intelligence, it's uncertain - but what if it's true? Connections with some terrorist groups are certainly a known quantity, and Saddam has a long history of making disastrous miscalculations fed by overconfidence and underestimation of risk (Iran, Kuwait, etc.).
In the "Evil Mideast dictators club," this guy is in a class by himself. Torture, mass murder on a unique scale even in that part of the world, ecocide, you name it. Plus, there are real questions about the country's stability and succession - Saddam's sons are less rational than he is, and more brutal.
The Kurds have a quasi-state under protection of a no-fly zone that costs billions to maintain. That may prove helpful, as will your bases nearby in Kuwait. The souther Shi'as have risen in revolt at least once, so they're a wild card. And Saddam's conventional military is much weaker now. That's helpful. You're certainly in a better starting position here, if you want to start somewhere (or, you can rest on your laurels after Afghanistan - your call).
The Risks of Inaction
Less helpful is the fact that the sanctions that were supposed to keep Saddam bottled up are being undermined by the Russians and especially the French, and the UN is typically ineffective in enforcing them. Pretty soon, Saddam will have a free hand again. This will be seen, widely, as a major failure of U.S. policy, will and prestige in the region.
That's a dangerous outcome.
ALL parties already question the U.S. commitment to dealing with Islamic extremism (or indeed, any threat), since there's a general belief that the USA will not risk major efforts that may result in casualties. The operation in Afghanistan, while impressive, is still seen in many quarters as proof of that because of the way it was conducted. This belief stunts their cooperation with you. As a result, very few are inclined to take risks, or end the lack of civil freedoms coupled with quiet incitement against non-Muslims that forms much of the political culture of the Middle East.
So, don't expect a whole lot of cooperation in tracking or going after al-Qaeda within those countries. Especially if efforts to contain Saddam are seen to fail.
In fact, barring something to change the equation the understated non-cooperation from the Arab world that has characterized the past decade is your best prediction. Probably coupled with quiet suggestions to radical elements that they should go off and make trouble elsewhere. Problem is, YOU'RE the elsewhere.
Iraq: Action's Potential Gains
On the other hand...
- Iraq is very central.
- Coup attempts against Saddam have consistently failed. There have been several of them. Volunteers are now rather hard to find.
- Overthrowing Saddam would eliminate the dangers of Saddam's regime, currently a partly-known but dangerous variable.
- It would also end the need for troops in Saudi Arabia.
- In fact, overthrowing the regime and giving the Shi'ites there greater freedom would stir Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite population across the border to demand more rights of their own.
- This could force the Saudi rulership to confront their Wahhabi clerical establishment, who will oppose this, or face increasing Shi'ite unrest. Win-win situation if you think the Saudis aren't our friends.
- IF we can succeed in giving the Iraqi Shi'ites greater freedom. Or should we just pick a military strongman who won't give us trouble in future and isn't as brutal as Saddam? The State Department favours that latter option. Do you?
- Iraq back in full production makes the world less dependent on Saudi oil. (Note: you can also do this the French way, via a sweetheart deal for American oil firms linked to the lifting of all sactions. Do you try?)
- Syria and Iran would face a USA with a land bridge into their countries, and so much greater opportunity for military action or power they must respect, if you so choose.
- A successful Iraq - and it has a history of modernity and secularism - could be a magnet for a very different kind of trend in the Arab world, as opposed to other responses to modernity which have all been based on dictatorship (socialism, clan ruled dictatorships, Islamism). This could create an Arab society that's successful on its own terms, thus mitigating the overwhelming sense of societal failure and pointing toward a different option.
Iraq: Action's Potential Risks
Of course, you could also fail. That is always a possibility in statecraft.
- Iraq is very tribal. That will make things complex.
- Saddam's rule will have left deep scars. Can civil society be put back together, or is it a Humpty-Dumpty situation?
- Syria and Iran's regimes in particular will see your efforts as a life-or-death threat, and do all they can to ensure that you fail.
- Nor can you expect much support in the rest of the Arab world. They're less dangerous dictatorships, even tentative 'allies' at times, but still dictators with no interest in having a different model take root in the region. Their ideal is Saddam gone, followed by chaos in Iraq. That's perfect from their point of view - the threat gone, the West's attention focused on Iraq not them, and no alternative model.
- Europe would rather pay off dictators under the table. They won't be much on board either, especially the French who are openly bought.
Yes, you could definitely try and fail here.
So, I ask again... Mme. President, what do you want to do?