Myths and Mess in the Middle East

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

Last week I discussed the first challenge the next president will face: al-Qaida and the terrorism of Islamic extremism. The second challenge will be Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The first recognition the next president must face is that these three countries contain the same problem for U.S foreign policy, albeit with differing geographies, histories and cultures: It is the problem of Islamic extremism. It is the attempted creation of the Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria and its recreation, from the Taliban, in Afghanistan.

“We will raise the flag of Allah in the White House” an Islamic State fighter declared. The practicality of this statement is irrelevant. The intent is what matters. The Islamic State group has a grand strategy and it follows a clear pathway: Take advantage of American inaction in Syria and manipulate the civil war there; exploit the dissatisfaction of Sunnis in Iraq and begin to carve out an “Islamic state;” push toward the capital of Iraq and Kurdistan while consolidating power in land already occupied; drive south into Saudi Arabia and Jordan; exterminate the Jews in Israel and activate numerous sympathizers and cells in the West.

Let us compare this to the current American grand strategy in the Middle East: Become angry at two regimes that don’t fit some contrived notion of politics and government after abandoning them (Egypt and Iraq); alienate our two most important allies in the region (Turkey and Israel); refuse repeated requests and ignore countless warnings about the rise of an Islamic extremist super-state. The United States had warnings of this since 2013, when the Islamic State group could have been stopped before it began if the U.S. had provided more assistance to those fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad. It could have been further stopped by using military intervention to assist the Iraqi government. Both of these would have been low cost in all respects.

The next president needs to come to terms with five myths, before he can move forward, regarding the grand issues in the Middle East:

Myth #1) Islamic extremists like the Islamic State group and al-Qaida were an outgrowth of the American invasion in 2003.

The Islamic extremists were in Iraq long before the invasion. The American intelligence community confirmed that, prior to the invasion, there were senior-level contacts between Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaida for a decade. Iraq was used as a safe haven and training ground for terrorists, allowing for the presence of al-Qaida in Iraq. Lastly, al-Qaida has attempted to gain weapons of mass destruction and obtained training in poison gas and bomb making in Iraq.

This myth is the most pernicious; it feeds the narratives that since we “broke” Iraq, we created the problem. The insanity of this argument is equaled only by its maliciousness. It is repeated so often that it has become gospel. Every CIA director under the last three presidents has confirmed that al-Qaida and other terrorist groups used Iraq and had worked with the Baath Party when convenient. It is interesting that one of the arguments recently used to suggest that the Baath Party would never work with the Islamic extremists has been muffled when reports now arise that they are working with the Islamic State group in its advance against the Iraqi government.

Myth #2) There were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the whole pretext for the invasion was false.

This is a subset of the first myth, and it is almost as arthritic as the first. I have spoken about this topic in front of many experts and audiences and have yet to find a counterpoint among the assemblage to the following: The same reports that indicated that Iraq had no stockpiles of WMD (the same reports repeated over and over again by the media) are the same reports that confirm that Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party had an organized plan to restart WMD research and production once the attention of the world had shifted and the United States was lulled into a sense of security (or change of administration). One cannot have firm belief in the ontological certitude of one part of the report and derisively dismiss the other.

Myth #3) The Iranians have a common enemy in this fight in Iraq.

Iran has pursued a Shiite, Persian-dominated empire for centuries and has reignited this since 1979. It is the number one sponsor of terrorism in the world and one of the worst offenders of using state terror at home against its own people. No state has killed more American soldiers in the 21st century than Iran through the funding, training and munitions of Shia terrorists and militias. No state has supported the Bashar Assad regime in Syria or the terrorists that inflict such pain and suffering on the Israelis more than Iran. If there was ever an evil regime, diametrically opposed to American core values in the contemporary world, it is Iran. Iran has no interest in an Islamic State group victory, but it has great interest in dominating the entire region. Cooperation with this regime would be a long-lasting disaster.

Myth #4) We handed the region to Iran.

This is a subset of the third myth. The logic is impossible to follow: We invaded Iraq to defeat the Baath Party, who were the enemies of Iran. This weakened Iraq, allowing Iran to fill the vacuum. It is great logic for a carnival. The invasion of Iraq was predicated on setting up an Arab, stable democracy. It meant staying in Iraq for decades, just as we had done in Japan and Germany following World War II. The tone was set for this by the Bush administration which planned on leaving a permanent force in Iraq to assist and train the Iraqi military. The Obama administration wanted desperately to leave Iraq and purposely fumbled the status-of-forces agreement to prevent this strategy. It replaced this strategy with a vacuum; it was at this stage that the Iranians took advantage of the situation and placed the Iraqi government in an impossible situation. The issues with the al-Maliki government in Iraq have been well documented, full of corruption including salaries for “ghost soldiers,” the selling of military equipment and vice. Many Iraqi military officers have argued that corruption is a bigger problem than terrorism. However, this could have been avoided with an American velvet glove outside a mailed fist.

Myth #5) There are no good options.

This is the best of the myths, because it translates into inaction and hope that the problem either goes away or is overshadowed by something else. However, there is a grain of truth to this myth, as our options have dwindled. The options stretch all the way back to Libya, where the Obama administration wanted to “lead from behind” instead of forcefully pushing an American strategic agenda. This decision resulted in the disaster at Benghazi. The roadshow then shifted to Syria, where the failure to push an American strategic agenda unleashed the twin scourges of chemical weapons and the Islamic State group. The United States made an active decision not to actively assist the moderates in Syria to overthrow Assad and defeat the Islamic extremists. The U.S. could have used special forces, naval power and air power to bring about an end to both. The scene shifts to Iraq, where the group the U.S. failed to stop in Syria moved into northern Iraq more than six months ago. The most recent developments have allowed Putin’s Russia to fill the vacuum created by America’s lack of action. This Russian issue will cast the longest shadow over the Middle East and has created a new geostrategic calculation.

Americans have a penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The debate over whether the United States should have invaded Iraq and Afghanistan is long over, and the focus should be on how to achieve victory. Iraq was stabilized and is at a fork in the road on whether it succeeds or fails, whether it stabilizes or descends into violence, whether it allies with the United States or Iran and whether American sacrifices were for triumph or tragedy. Iraq has already given a template to the Arabs that an Arab, Muslim democracy can be created; for the United States to back away now would be tantamount to betrayal of them and U.S. values. Iraq can and must be one of the linchpins in any future U.S. Middle East policy; its geostrategic value is immeasurable. There must be a permanent and lasting commitment to the Iraqi people that demonstrates that the United States will not tolerate Sunni terrorists, Shiite militias or the machinations of Iran.

Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan was predicated on greater European involvement, but the Europeans are extremely suspicious of this and have already followed the leader in announcing troop withdrawals in Afghanistan. The American surge was followed by the declaration of withdrawal. The United States, in classic Nixonian fashion, is ready to abandon another ally and let another region succumb to terror in order to satisfy a lack of geostrategic and historical understanding. The long-term strategic goal of the United States must be to destroy the Taliban, establish law and order and bring stability to Afghanistan. This will be the only way to ensure that American credibility is respected, and the al-Qaida–Taliban axis cannot use Afghanistan as a terrorist haven.

The issue of the Middle East can serve as grand merger of realist and liberal goals. Realists fully know that regional stability, the free flow of trade and the rule of law are necessary for American strategic and economic interests. Liberals have witnessed the incredible human rights tragedy and the torture of democratic experiments. A policy that enhances both our national and democratic interests, expressed openly, can play a unifying role. This could have been engaged during the Arab Spring, but the Obama administration failed to lead.

If America fails to lead now, the ramifications will be calamitous: Any hope of democracy, human rights and civil society could fail; the old or new dictators could take power; the revolutions could be overtaken by Islamic extremists; the region could descend into factionalism and chaos and other great powers could gain influence to threaten American interests. The United States must take the strategic lead and be seen to be the greatest supporter of these people.