New Perspectives Quarterly/, the website of which is*
[Martin van Creveld, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is
considered one of the world’s most eminent experts on military history
and strategy. His books include/ The Sword and the Olive: A Critical
History of the Israeli Defense Force/ (1998) and his widely influential/
The Transformation of War/ (1991). Van Creveld famously wrote that the
United States invasion of Iraq was “the most foolish war since Emperor
Augustus in 9b.c. sent his legions into Germany and lost them.”]
Jerusalem — Now that the American people have recognized that the
war in Iraq is hopeless, what comes next? The answer is, the US is going
to cut its losses and withdraw.
Withdrawing 140,000 soldiers with all their equipment is a very
complex operation. In 1945 and 1973, the US simply evacuated its troops,
leaving most of its equipment to its West European and South Vietnamese
This time, however, things are different. So precious is modern
defense equipment that not even the largest power on earth can afford to
abandon large quantities of it; in this respect, the model is the First
Gulf War, not Vietnam or World War II.
Second, whatever equipment is left in Iraq is very likely to fall
into the hands of America’s enemies. Thus the Pentagon will have no
choice but to evacuate millions of tons of war materiel the way it
came—in other words, back at least as far as Kuwait. Doing so will be
time-consuming and enormously expensive. Inevitably, it will also
involve casualties as the road-bound convoys making their way south are
shot up and bombed.
The Iraq that the American forces leave behind them has been
devastated. Its infrastructure has been wrecked; the oil industry, which
used to account for 90 percent of its income, is in ruins. A recent
estimate puts human losses at 150,000 dead. Worst of all, a government
that can master the situation is not in sight. In its absence, Shiites
and Sunnis are almost certainly going to fight each other for a long
time to come; in addition, some Shiites may also fight other Shiites.
The beneficiaries are going to be the Kurds. For some time now, they
have been quietly expelling the Arab population from Iraq’s northern
provinces, thus laying the foundation for their own future state.
A reunited Iraq will take a long time to rise, if it ever does. A
fragmented Iraq will greatly strengthen, indeed has already greatly
strengthened, the position of Iran. Iran will surely play a major role
in determining Iraq’s future, but just in what direction it will make
its influence felt and how great its impact is going to be nobody knows.
One thing, though, is absolutely certain. To make sure some future
American president does not get it into his or her head to attack Iran
as Iraq was attacked (essentially, for no reason at all), the Iranians
are going to press ahead as fast as they can in building nuclear weapons.
A powerful Iran presents a threat to the world’s oil supplies and
should therefore worry Washington. To deter Iran, US forces will have to
stay in the region for the indefinite future; most probably they will be
divided between Kuwait, much of which has already been turned into a
vast US base; Oman; and some other Gulf states. One can only hope that
the forces in question, and the political will behind them, will be
strong enough to deter Iran from engaging in adventures. If not, then
God help us all.
Some countries in the Middle East ought to be even more worried
about Iran than the US. While turning to the latter for protection,
several of them will almost certainly take a second look into the
possibility of starting their own nuclear programs. Each time a country
proliferates, its neighbors will ask whether they, too, need to do the
same. In time, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Syria may all end up with
nuclear arsenals. How this will affect the regional balance of power is
impossible to say.
A government-less Iraq that is in a state of chronic civil war will
present an ideal breeding ground for terrorists of every sort.
Presumably, most terrorists will merely want to participate in, and
profit from, the civil war itself, but some will no doubt have wider
objectives in mind. Most will probably operate within Iraq, but some
will almost certainly take on the regimes of neighboring Arab countries,
such as Jordan and Kuwait. Some may reach Lebanon, others Israel. Others
still will try to extend their activities into the West. Another Bin
Laden, setting up his headquarters somewhere in Iraq and directing his
operations from there, is a distinct possibility.
Before 2003, many people looked at the US as a colossus that was
bestriding the earth. Whatever else, the war has left the US with its
international position weakened; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may
bark, but she can hardly bite. So shattered and demoralized are the
armed forces that they can only fill their ranks by taking in
41-year-old grandmothers. Hence, the first task confronting Robert
Gates, nominated to be the new secretary of defense, and his eventual
successors must be to rebuild them to the point where they may again be
used if necessary.
Above all, the US must take a hard look at its foreign policy. What
role should the strongest power on earth play in the international
arena, and just what are the limits of that role? How can American power
be matched with its finite economic possibilities—the US balance of
payment gap and deficit are now huge—and under what circumstances should
it be used? If American power is used, what should its objectives be?
The answers to these questions are unlikely to emerge overnight; in
fact they may well have to wait until the 2008 presidential elections
sweep what remains of the Bush administration into the dustbin of history.