Winning Battles, Losing Wars: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Middle East

Winning Battles, Losing Wars: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Middle East
(Michael Eisenstadt, February 1, 2017)

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About the speaker

Michael Eisenstadt is the Kahn Fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program. A specialist in Persian Gulf and Arab-Israeli security affairs, he has published widely on irregular and conventional warfare, and nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East.

Prior to joining the Institute in 1989, Mr. Eisenstadt worked as a military analyst with the U.S. government.

Mr. Eisenstadt served for twenty-six years as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve before retiring in 2010. His military service included active-duty stints in Iraq with the United States Forces-Iraq headquarters (2010) and the Human Terrain System Assessment Team (2008); in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan with the U.S. Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2008-2009); at U.S. Central Command headquarters and on the Joint Staff during Operation Enduring Freedom and the planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom (2001-2002); and in Turkey and Iraq during Operation Provide Comfort (1991).

He has also served in a civilian capacity on the Multinational Force-Iraq/U.S. Embassy Baghdad Joint Campaign Plan Assessment Team (2009) and as a consultant or advisor to the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group (2006), the Multinational Corps-Iraq Information Operations Task Force (2005-2006), and the State Department’s Future of Iraq defense policy working group (2002-2003). In 1992, he took a leave of absence from the Institute to work on the U.S. Air Force Gulf War Air Power Survey.


Robert R. Reilly:

It’s a great pleasure to introduce Michael Eisenstadt, who is the Kahn Fellow and Director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Military & Security Studies Program. A specialist in Persian Gulf and Arab-Israeli security affairs, he’s published widely on irregular and conventional warfare, as well as nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East.

Prior to joining the institute in 1989, Michael worked as a military analyst with the U.S. government. He served for 26 years as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve before retiring in 2010. His military service included active duty stints in Iraq with U.S. forces Iraq headquarters and the human terrain assessment team in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan with the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority at U.S. Central Command Headquarters, and Joint Staff during Operation Enduring Freedom and the planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom, which is, I believe, the time I was privileged to be his colleague for a short period. Without further ado, so he has more time to talk, let me ask you to join me in welcoming Michael Eisenstadt.

Michael Eisenstadt:

Thank you very much, Bob. Thank you very much for the invitation and for the warm welcome. It’s great to be here this evening. I’m going to be giving a talk that’s based on a monograph that I co-authored with Ambassador Jim Jeffrey at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy titled – and if you’ll forgive me for the plug here, “U.S. Military Engagement in the Broader Middle East.” Jim wrote the first section and I wrote the second section. My section was titled the same title as tonight’s talk, “Winning Battles, Losing Wars: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Middle East.”

Now, the reason that we wrote this monograph is that we wanted to make the case for continued U.S. military engagement with the region. Basically, you know, I think, you know, one of the things we said was that the U.S. still has vital interests in the region. Even though we are no longer dependent on Middle East oil like we used to [be], our allies are and our economy depends on them.

The region is still of concern with regard to proliferation and I think most importantly, it’s a major exporter of violent extremism and terrorism, and we’ve learned that what happens in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East and conversely, if you don’t visit the Middle East, it will visit you. So we feel that because we still have vital interests, because of the problems of the region are bound to flow out of the region, we still need to maintain some kind of military role there.

The challenge is, I mean as a result of events since 9/11, it’s very clear that our military performance in that part of the world has been, to put it delicately, has been sub-optimal. We’ve made a number of major geopolitical mistakes that we are still paying for and I’m not sure we’ve really learned the lessons of the past sixteen or so years, so we wanted to write this piece in order to take a look at what went wrong, what did we do right, but where do we need to focus- since we are, at least from our point of view, doomed to- or at least our interests require that we remain engaged in this part of the world. How can we do it better if we are to remain engaged in this militarily?

I guess I would summarize my argument by paraphrasing the famous quote by Sun Tzu, “If you know yourself and know your enemy, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” And I think we have failed in both areas, so what I’m going to start off with is the failures of self-knowledge and they are many and I’m not even beginning to touch on many of these failures. I’ll give what I think are the most important ones.

Bob mentioned before [that] we worked together at OSD, but I had previously been at CENTCOM headquarters for the planning of the War in Iraq and I have to say both at the time and with the benefit of hindsight, it became clear to me how little we understood ourselves and our own limitations and the blinders that we have and our inability to understand the region, which, to be fair, I mean, especially in the case of Iraq, it was a hard target because it was a closed society.

There were a lot of things going on below the surface that we didn’t understand or couldn’t even see, and to be fair, many people in the region, you know, people always say is I’m a Middle East area expert by training, you have to listen to the people of the region, which I think we absolutely have to do. Anybody who’s an area specialist worth his or her salt has to listen to the people of the region. But they are also prone to the same kind of foibles and blindspots that we often are or that we have shown that we are vulnerable to.

And so we’ve made a lot of mistakes, so let me just start off with what I consider to be the main errors of self-knowledge. And part of it has to do with who we are as Americans and some uniquely American perspectives and ways of looking at the world. The first is we have as Americans an ingrained tendency to project our values on our adversaries and most importantly to believe that every problem has a solution, and I call this solutions, which is a term that’s been used in other contexts but I put it in the policy context, especially with the Middle East, our efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, to remake Iraq and Afghanistan in our own image.

And I think part of it is because we live in a society that is relatively well regulated. We have mechanisms. I mean democracy is in many ways a conflict resolution mechanism. And we have at least until recently in that regard been a pretty successful society, and because we have a well regulated society where we are able to solve problems, you can go to court, you could sue someone, you could seek arbitration, political parties can seek to resolve their differences, we kind of assume that this is a norm that can be implemented everywhere, and in principal maybe that is something which all human beings can aspire to and some day live in accordance with that ethos. But in the Middle East we see a region that is plagued by intractable conflicts and we’ve sometimes ignored that and at our own peril.

Now, this tendency, this preference for solutionism is especially problematic when you’re dealing with insurgencies and dispersed, distributed terror networks, which are by their very nature very resilient. And when you’re dealing with governments whose zero-sum, winner-take-all form of governance or style of governance and scorched earth way of war in dealing with opposition groups, which is actually an extension of their form of governance, I mean the way they fight their wars is really an extension in may ways of the way they govern, which is, kind of, you know, zero-sum, winner-takes-all approach. This way of governance, a way of war, often replicates the very problems they are trying to resolve. And this is a problem which I’ll discuss a little more in a moment.

Secondly, as Americans we worship at the altar of technology. We all have our iPhones. In our approach to solutionism we often tend to rely on technology as an enabler. And, you know, all around town I can’t even count how many events there are at think tanks and various places about DOD’s Third Offset Strategy, which is important. Technological advances are important in warfare, no argument. But I think the focus on technology has come at the expense of or has resulted in an underdeveloped kind of geopolitical instinct. I find very few American politicians or foreign policy specialists who really have a good kind of geopolitical feel. You know you have Henry Kissinger and Richard Haas who are both excellent but this is especially among our political class this is geopolitical kind of savvy and instinct, something which is found wanting, and I’ll discuss this a little more in a moment.

And as a result, in the Middle East we’ve made geopolitical mistakes. And let me just say, when you make a geopolitical mistake, its impact is often very broad and very deep. What we did in Iraq and the mistakes we made there contributed to the emergence of what we’re seeing now, which is a regional kind of struggle and it already was there, it was nascent. But we exacerbated some of the preexisting problems with regard to sectarianism and the like.

And now we have this regional wide struggle between Iran and its proxies and Saudi Arabia and its proxies and the Emiratis and also the Qataris are involved. We often try to use tactical virtuosity and high tech or high tech advantage to work our way out of the problems we’ve gotten ourselves into because of our geopolitical mistakes. I think we’re overdeveloped when it comes to our technological prowess, but I think our geopolitical skills have been found wanting in the Middle East and probably elsewhere.

And I’ll give an example, whether it be our call for elections in Gaza in 2005 when the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority said this is not the time and it happened. Hamas won the elections. It eventually resulted in the Hamas takeover in Gaza. So what do we do? We helped the Israelis develop the Iron Dome system and military technologies to deal with the problem. What you have as a result is three wars. Three very, very destructive and painful wars as a result.

In Syria, our inaction since 2011 has had consequences for the region and for Europe and I would even argue for the United States and for our politics, which are very far reaching. And likewise in Iraq, our inaction after 2011 with the return of AQI, Al Qaeda in Iraq, in the form of the Islamic State also had tremendous consequences for Iraq, Syria, and then the spread of Islamic State to Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere in the region.

Third, the U.S. has a stunted conception of warfare that is defined by several factors. First of all, a tendency towards binary thinking in terms of war or peace, regular vs irregular conflicts, or victory or defeat. As Americans we often have trouble grappling with ambiguous circumstances and outcomes or kind of dealing on multiple tracks. In the Middle East, everybody’s got two or three track game they’re playing and they’re operating on several tracks and sometimes they’re mutually incompatible or apparently contradictory.

We’re very binary. And we saw this in the negotiations with Iran. If we’re trying to seek a breakthrough in a nuclear deal with Iran, we’ve got to be careful with what we do in Syria lest we undercut by supporting the opposition against Assad, we might undercut the potential for a nuclear agreement. Well, Iran was playing at the same time a two track game at least with us, while negotiating, seeking advantage in Syria and elsewhere in the region. This ends up hobbling us by our inability to think and play multiple games at the same time because we’re very binary in our approach. You also saw this in President Obama’s statement of our military operations in Syria and basically he said it’s either go in 160,000 boots on the ground or basically, you do very little. You try to support the opposition but in a small, limited way.

And getting back to the whole solutionism theme I mentioned before, and I’ll quote him here, and thanks to Kendall, my RA, for finding this for me today. I’ll quote, this is from the President in April 2016, although he said it many times in the years before, “In order for us to solve the longterm problems in Syria, a military solution alone is not going to bring that about.” Now, first of all, I would just say we have to acknowledge maybe this problem isn’t solvable but we have interests there that we need to tend to. Why not engage by supporting the opposition – I did not want us to be involved directly – but support the opposition to see what kind of options it creates. Maybe it would be a disaster or maybe it enables us to put pressure on the Assad regime to bring about a diplomatic settlement.

But the bottomline is we had vital interests there that I think required our involvement. We weren’t going to solve the problem but that doesn’t mean you don’t get involved, okay, again, because we had vital interests and we’ve seen what’s happened with the refugee crisis, how that’s affected the politics of Europe. And if right-leaning parties in Europe come to power, these parties by and large see Putin as a more natural ally than the United States, although under our current president maybe that will change, we’ll see. But again, not being able to solve the problem doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get involved, but again, there’s different ways of getting involved that don’t involve either all in or not in at all. I think I understand why the president didn’t want to get involved, but I think we paid a high price for that.

We also have a general preference for brute strength and overwhelming force rather than ambiguity, guile, and indirection in our ways of doing things. That goes back in a way to the Weinberger and Powell doctrines. If you go in, go in to win. Candidate Trump, now President Trump, when talking about ISIS he talked about bombing the hell out of them. And I will touch on this in a moment, but sometimes more force is not better. Actually, sometimes more is less, and I will explain why in a moment.

But again, going in big is not the only way to do things. We always as Americans, and this is embedded in our military doctrine, we always talked about decisive battles. That is the Clausewitzian tradition. You seek phase three decisive operations. Now we call it, I think, ‘dominate.’ That is one way of doing it, but sometimes our adversaries instead of seeking rapid decision, they protract conflict over time in order to seek incremental gains through attrition and wearing out the enemy, and outlasting them.

Of course, our form of government does not really allow that because we have elections every four years and really, a president only has two-and-a-half years before he has to start campaigning again if he wants to run again, and if he does not have results to show after two-and-a-half years for a campaign, it is very easy for his adversaries to claim that the campaign is not working. So our form of government does not allow us to very often play the long game, but there are other ways sometimes of seeking victory, and our form of government forces us down a certain path in how we use the military instrument, which is not always the best one.

And also, by the way, with regard to seeking decisive results and rapid outcomes, even though since 9/11 we have been saying this is a generational struggle, this is a long war, what did we do in Iraq and Afghanistan? We did surges, twelve-to-eighteen-month surges, so while we are talking about long wars, we try to turn them around quickly, so again, there is this contradiction in our way of war and how we think about things.

This is not original on my part. I will give credit to Antulio Echevarria, who is a professor at the Army War College. He is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel. I am not sure if he coined this exactly, but he has written about this, and his work is really worth reading. We have a way of battle rather than a war of war in that we tend to focus on seeking battlefield victory, and as a result, we are not very good at transforming military victories to sustainable political outcomes.

Now, part of it again, in the Middle East is the way we think about warfare, and part of it is the operational environment that I will explain a little bit more in a minute, but when you think about how President Obama defined our goals, I think it was September 10, 2014 when he defined the goals of the war, [and] he said our goal is to degrade and ultimately destroy [the] Islamic State.

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