The Korean War is justly remembered as a valiant struggle. And yet the conflict could have been avoided but for a major blunder on the part of the Truman administration. The year before South Korea was attacked, the U.S. withdrew the forces it had left there in the wake of World War II. It was the ensuing vacuum of power that precipitated that terrible war.
The lesson has been lost on most Americans, starting with Barack Obama. Bent on withdrawing U.S. power from the Middle East, Obama removed the major counterweight to the competing extremist forces there. As a result, the conflicts smoldering beneath the surface have burst into a major conflagration in a region that is far more vital to U.S. interests than Korea was.
When the U.S. withdrew its forces from Korea in the spring of 1949 — against the advice of commanders on the ground — it left behind a lightly armed dictatorship in no condition to defend itself. And then, in January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered his famous “perimeter speech,” which pointedly left South Korea outside our postwar military perimeter along the Pacific Rim.
It was an irresistible invitation for the North to invade, and when Kim Il-sung accepted it in June 1950, he bulldozed over the South’s army and rapidly engulfed most of the country. The Truman administration reacted quickly, and American forces began pouring into the vanishing redoubt in Pusan, at the southeastern tip of the peninsula.
Somebody should have pointed out to Truman in 1949 that, having withdrawn the garrison and left South Korea a sitting duck, he had made a North Korean invasion much more likely. If the U.S. was prepared to fight in Korea, it should have left sufficient forces there to deter an attack in the first place. Bolstering a dictatorship like Syngman Rhee’s was hardly palatable, but we ended up having no choice.
U.S. forces in Korea eventually reached 330,000 troops. And, in a horrific irony, the number of U.S. soldiers killed or missing in action proved almost exactly the same as the number we withdrew in 1949. In many cases the Americans who died in Korea were the same soldiers we had withdrawn to Japan a year or two earlier. Little did they know that, by being withdrawn from Korea too soon, they were being sent to their graves.
The most basic reason to keep forces in Iraq after 2011 was not to continue the war — which was already over by the time Obama was sworn in as president — but rather so that we wouldn’t have to fight a major war in the Middle East again. Granted, U.S. forces had become necessary only as a result of the 2003 invasion and the toppling of Saddam. But simply ignoring that necessity and withdrawing the troops could not undo the Iraq War, any more than abandoning open-heart surgery midway can undo the initial incision.
The Obama administration makes the excuse that because Iraq’s National Assembly refused to pass a law granting immunity from local criminal prosecution for U.S. troops, we were forced to leave. This is preposterous, and the media should stop repeating it. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki offered to issue an executive order that would have satisfied U.S. concerns. Indeed, minimal U.S. forces are now back in Iraq under cover of just such an executive order. But the bigger point is that we had just won the war. We had defeated all the warring factions in Iraq. By 2009 virtually all the factions had some degree of dependency on the U.S., and they all understood that we were going to leave when we were good and ready.
Obama’s talking point that “no nation should be above another” is a fine principle of diplomatic protocol. But as grand strategy, as some sort of attempt to achieve a more “just” correlation of forces, it is a recipe for disaster. Just as the British presence was necessary in the Trucial States in the century before the creation of the United Arab Emirates, so today the two alternatives in the Middle East are a dominant U.S. presence and chaos.
The central position the U.S. had achieved in the Middle East by 2009 was not merely the result of victory in the Iraq War. It was a position carefully built up over decades. It started in the 1950s and 1960s with a de facto protectorate of the oil-producing Gulf Kingdoms. It was consolidated in the 1970s with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s success in gaining Jordan’s trust and turning Egypt away from the Soviet Union and toward peace with Israel. And it was further built up by both of the wars with Iraq.
The Persian Gulf War, in 1991, left the U.S. alliance in such a powerful position that dozens of states recognized Israel, and Arab leaders agreed, for the first time since “the three no’s of Khartoum” in 1967, to sit across from Israelis in direct negotiations. The Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” that started in Oslo in 1993 was made possible only by the shift in the regional balance of power in favor of the U.S. and away from the extremists.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed a proxy war between Iran’s Shiite extremists and the Sunni extremists of the Gulf Kingdoms, because we had taken down the dominant central power keeping that conflict at bay, namely Saddam. Al-Qaeda fighters from more backward parts of the Arab world streamed into Iraq through Syria and started murdering Shiites mercilessly. And when the reprisals came, all Sunnis were targeted — whether they were al-Qaeda or not, Iraqi or not. The Sunnis of Iraq, who are less prone to extremism than their brothers elsewhere, got caught in the crossfire.
But in 2007 and 2008, the U.S. decisively defeated all the forces that were actually fighting in this proxy war. By 2009, even Obama admitted that the U.S. had achieved a promising situation in Iraq. All the major political factions there overtly backed a long-term alliance with the United States. And the Sunni moderates in particular looked to America with desperate hope. We were the only force that could protect them from both al-Qaeda and the Shiite militias.
In short, we had assumed a role among Iraq’s factions similar to the central mediating role that the U.S. had achieved between Israel and Egypt during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Any peace agreement with the Arabs carries major risks for Israel — that is the essential problem in the Arab–Israeli conflict. It is also what makes the U.S. indispensable to any resolution. Only the U.S. can guarantee Israel’s security sufficiently to underwrite the risks of a peace agreement. Indeed, it is because we succeeded in that very role after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that Egypt and Israel made peace at Camp David — in the United States.
But Obama sees his mission in the Arab–Israeli conflict quite differently. He thinks his role is to be a fair and impartial arbiter. That alone doomed his “peace process” efforts from day one, just as it has doomed our position in Iraq. These are not mere border conflicts, which can be arbitrated well enough by technical experts under U.N. auspices. These are existential conflicts over nationhood. The proper U.S. role is not to arbitrate by being fair, but to mediate by protecting the vulnerable.
Just look at what has happened to the “peace process.” If we can’t convince the Israelis that we will stand by them, they won’t make major concessions for peace. And guess what? That makes us totally irrelevant to the Arab side also. To the Palestinians, Secretary of State John Kerry must have sounded like a pompous fool babbling about nothing. And as anyone could have predicted from the start, his initiatives went nowhere. The humiliation was well deserved, but it was Obama who had condemned Kerry to suffer it, by depriving U.S. diplomacy of leverage.
And just so in Iraq. Influence is a function of power. Commitments have to be backed by real resources. Otherwise, as Walter Lippmann argued, your foreign policy is bankrupt. Once the Iraq War was over, the key task facing the U.S. was to ensure the strength and stability of Iraq’s governing institutions long enough for them to be able to stand on their own. This required above all that the factions see their future in cooperation under a U.S. umbrella rather than conflict fueled by extremism — exactly as with Egypt and Israel in the 1970s.
The continued presence of U.S. forces empowered us to underwrite the risks of reconciliation for those factions, in particular the Sunnis. That’s what made us indispensable mediators. As long as U.S. forces were present, U.S. diplomats had powerful levers with which to continue pushing Iraq’s factions toward compromise. But with our forces gone, our diplomats suddenly can’t convince any Iraqi of anything. And because the conflict is internal, we can’t solve it by arming competing governments, as we did with Israel and Egypt. Our allies within Iraq — those who had fought on our side, and who are that country’s best hopes for the future — were left helpless before the competing forces in the proxy war between Iran and the Gulf Kingdoms.
Though it is often said that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a strategic windfall for Iran, in fact Iran achieved nearly nothing with the considerable effort it expended arming Shiite militias and manufacturing potent IEDs to kill U.S. forces. By 2009, the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq had been utterly defeated and marginalized, and, Maliki’s obsequiousness to Iran aside, even the Shiite political parties backed the U.S. over Iran.
It took Obama to turn the Iraq War into a strategic windfall for Iran. And what a windfall it has been. The alliance of Syria, Russia, and Iran is everywhere in the ascendant. Obama has thrown away not only a priceless strategic position in Iraq, but indeed the dominant U.S. position in the whole Middle East, on which the stability of the region depended — along with any hope for Israeli–Palestinian peace.
The Syrian civil war began in March 2011, with the status-of-forces agreement in Iraq set to expire at the end of the year. Once the fighting started in Syria, it should have been blazingly obvious to everyone in the national-security establishment that unless the U.S. was prepared to intervene in Syria, the civil war had to be decisively contained. The continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq was already necessary for the future of Iraq. The Syrian civil war made it necessary for the stability of the whole region. For the moment, Israel and Turkey could take care of themselves, but we had to make absolutely sure — at a minimum — that we had enough forces in Jordan and Iraq to protect those countries’ borders with Syria.
Once the Syrian civil war began, the best course of action would have been to organize and arm a coalition of pro-American resistance fighters, and make sure that it was powerful enough to defeat both Assad and the Sunni extremists fighting him. That would not have required U.S. ground forces, but to end the war quickly it would have been logical for the U.S. to bomb Assad’s airfields and blockade his ports, in order to cut him off from Iranian resupply. Such an intervention might have quickly turned the tide against Assad, and would in turn have given us a powerful hand at the negotiating table with Russia and Syria. A quick and favorable diplomatic end to the Syrian civil war might then have been possible, and Iran’s influence would have been dramatically diminished.
To be sure, selling a war-weary public on a new Mideast intervention would have been difficult for the most convincing of leaders. But Obama had no interest in trying to make the case, even when his advisers strongly recommended intervening, as they did after the August 2013 sarin gas attack. When Assad crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons, Obama at first fanned the hopes of the resistance. But he then betrayed them by implicitly legitimizing Assad with the chemical-weapons deal and handing the whole situation over to Russia and Iran.
The situations we see unfolding in Egypt, Israel–Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf Kingdoms — in other words, across the whole Middle East — have this in common: the indispensable need for the U.S. to establish a lasting protectorate over the Sunni Arabs until such time as they can defend themselves. Don’t be misled by the support ISIS seems to enjoy among the Sunni tribes of Iraq. Aside from the Christians, the Sunni tribes of Syria and Iraq are the most defenseless group of people in the whole Middle East, and have suffered more than any other. They are the principal victims of the Iranian–Wahhabi proxy war. The only force that can protect them from both Iran and ISIS is the United States.
But we can play that role only if we are in a dominant position — that is, in a position to overwhelm both sides in the proxy war simultaneously, as we did in the last years of the Bush administration. On a smaller scale, any exertion of U.S. force will serve neither U.S. interests nor those of the Sunni tribes. It can only help one group of extremists against another. That’s why Obama’s decision to send several hundred U.S. troops into Iraq now is not likely to fix anything. It will only put the U.S. in the position of subordinate ally to Syria, Russia, and Iran. Witness the calls for the U.S. to “coordinate” with Iran against ISIS. During the Iraq War, that would have meant “coordinating” our battle against Sunni extremists with the sponsors of those who were killing the most U.S. forces.
The Arab Spring began with great hope around the world. But the Arab Spring was no mere rebellion against authoritarian regimes. It was the crisis of legitimacy of the brittle Arab states that arose in the wake of decolonization. Whether it will leave behind something better or worse is a question on which the fate of the world in the 21st century greatly depends. Bush’s pro-democracy agenda to some extent anticipated the challenge for U.S. policy, propelled by a dark harbinger of things to come — the 9/11 attacks, which had revealed the ability of terrorist networks to wage war on a par with states. But the “Bush doctrine” seemed largely discredited by the time he left office, and Obama happily jettisoned it.
But he replaced it with nothing. The Syrian civil war has revealed the gaping lack of a consensus U.S. strategy to deal with the new global security environment. Even if Assad wins the war, it would not be a return to the status quo ante of a mass-torturing state-sponsor of terrorism. As Philip Bobbitt suggests in Terror and Consent (2009), the 21st century will replace the state-sponsor of terrorism with the terrorist-sponsor of states. In Lebanon, we have already witnessed the ascendancy of Hezbollah over the government. In Syria, as a result of the civil war, the Assad regime has become, and will continue to be, a pawn of Hezbollah and the Quds Force, which in turn increasingly dominates Iran.
In the Middle East we are witnessing a struggle between opposing terrorist networks for control of entire states. By withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, helping assure Assad’s victory in Syria, and failing to back Israel forcefully enough, Obama has empowered all the terrorist networks in the Middle East simultaneously.
If not forcefully halted and quickly reversed, this process will not take long to threaten the region’s other states. Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf Kingdoms could be next, dramatically escalating the threat to vital U.S. interests, and to Israel. Meanwhile, Obama’s minimal entry into the Iraq situation on the side of Assad, Russia, and Iran can only leave our remaining Arab allies wondering who will protect them. Under these circumstances, and with Iran on the verge of an internationally accepted nuclear-weapons program, how long will Saudi Arabia wait before it fills its part of the vacuum with nuclear weapons of its own? And how long can it be before the conflagration brings another major terrorist attack to our own shores?
Truman’s blunder before the Korean War was thankfully not characteristic of his strategy elsewhere. Truman moved quickly to lay the foundations for survival and ultimate victory in the Cold War, leaving substantial forces in Europe and Japan. And Eisenhower corrected Truman’s mistake by leaving forces in South Korea when the war ended.
The sad truth is that Americans from the White House on down seem to have lost any sense of what a competent foreign policy even looks like. Meanwhile, the Middle East keeps listing rudderless into a hurricane.
— Mario Loyola is former foreign and defense counsel to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.