Blowback as National Policy

April 6, 2015

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“Empires are lost when inadequate men become leaders and wage war for base reasons or no reason at all.”

– Sun Tzu


The chorus of hawks and neocons, for whom Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham serve as poster children, have rarely met an international issue that doesn’t require some American muscle. From Iraq to Syria, to Ukraine and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, they mistake the willingness to use force for sagacity on foreign policy. These gray hairs have been joined by younger voices in the Senate. Senator Ted Cruz recently terrorized a little girl during his visit to New Hampshire by talking about the world being “on fire” because Obama “leads from behind.” Then there is the rank newcomer, Senator Tom Cotton, whose infamous letter to Iran’s Ayatollah seeks to derail the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program by positing a choice between concessions from Iran that no one believes are attainable and the likelihood of another American war against a Muslim country. Senator Cotton first appeared in the New York Times as an Army lieutenant demanding the imprisonment of three journalists for violating espionage laws, but as of this writing has not stretched out his arms for handcuffs for possible violation of the Logan Act.

Simplistic Explanations and the Search for Simple Solutions

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich recently penned a Wall Street Journal essay entitled “Why we are losing to radical Islam,” which explicates this point of view. He disregards the possibility that much of the violence is a struggle within Islam itself, conflating Shia and Sunni together. The essay’s leitmotif, of course, is that the solution to a monolithic Islamic threat is American strength and willingness to use it. Gingrich ignores another interpretation: chaos in the Middle East stems from conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That the United States has been negotiating with Iran in Switzerland against the wishes of our ally Israel, while at odds with Iran in Syria and Yemen and cooperating with Iran in attacks against the Islamic State in Iraq, illustrates that simple interpretations are fatuous.

In the same essay the former Speaker includes a very interesting “fact”: America has been at war with Muslims since at least 1979 when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the American embassy and held our diplomats hostage. In the Gingrich and neoconservative worldview, Americans were just sitting peacefully in front of their TV sets watching football that day in November when suddenly Iranians turned violent for some unfathomable reason. Were they jealous of our freedom? Did they have something against football?

Gingrich further argues that the United States needs to have modern day equivalent of George Kennan’s “containment” of the Soviet Union, but this time aimed at radical Islam. In making this point Gingrich joins a long line of people who misinterpreted the Kennan legacy or as Nicholas Thompson has written in Foreign Affairs:

Kennan recognized that his arguments were often futile and that presidents would rarely heed his advice. Containment turned militaristic, and every new administration would strut into office with ambitions to reshape the world.

Kennan, of course, devised his theory of containment based on a deep understanding of the Soviet Union and its history. In other words, Kennan understood that context matters.

Historical Context

Scratch the surface of many current threats and you will find evidence of it being a reaction to our prior actions. In other words, foreign interventions stimulate rather than deter terrorist attacks on the United States.

Our issues with Iran cannot be understood in isolation from a litany of Iran’s perceived grievances. Resentment against the United States in Iran has existed since 1953 when the CIA instigated a revolt that led to the overthrow of Mossadegh’s democratically elected government. The United States then reinstalled the increasingly unpopular Shah who ruled the country with the support of SAVAK, the repressive state police. One of the tactics employed in Mossadegh’s ouster was to turn out fundamentalists who called for jihad against the leftist government, one of many times the United States has played with fire that later came back to burn. During the brutal war between Iran and Iraq (1980-88), the Reagan administration either turned a blind eye or possibly actively assisted Saddam Hussein in acquiring chemical weapons which he ultimately unleashed and then used the U.S. veto power to block condemnation of these acts in the Security Council. In 1986 the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down a commercial airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, headed to Dubai, killing all 290 passengers on board. Washington later gave commendations to the officers in charge in what Newsweek described as an attempt to whitewash an embarrassing incident and has to this day never issued a formal apology. In fact, the vice president of the United States very pointedly said in response to a question about the attack that, “ I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.”

After the September 11th terror attacks, the Iranian government cooperated through back channels with the United States in trying to pacify Afghanistan, only to be named months later as a member of an “Axis of Evil.” It would not take a genius to understand why the Iranian government might wish to possess nuclear weapons when shortly thereafter, Iraq, another member of the so-called Axis, was invaded and the government overturned. That Iraq did not possess nuclear weapons as a deterrent to attack by the United States was a lesson that would be confirmed years later when the western powers attacked and deposed Muammar Gaddafi after he had voluntarily given up his nuclear program.

Our crude attempts to use Saddam Hussein against Ayatollah Khomeini and foreign militants against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan both backfired. The First Gulf War cannot be understood without examining the alternating machinations of trying to use Iran and Iraq against one another in the 1970s and 1980s, a game which Christopher Hitchens brilliantly described in an article titled Why We Are Stuck in the Sand: Realpolitik in the Gulf, stating that, “A revised border with Kuwait was self-evidently part of the price that Washington had agreed to pay in its long-standing effort to make a pet of Saddam Hussein.” According to Hitchens, Washington had ignored similar abuses against his own people and Iran and that President Bush became incensed after August 2, 1990 only “because realpolitik has failed him.” Similarly, the attacks of September 11 cannot be understood without looking at the covert armament of the muhijadeen in Afghanistan and encouraging, when it suited our purposes, religious fanaticism. Most Americans would be surprised by the schoolbooks printed in the United States, at government expense, that encouraged, in very graphic terms, young Afghan Muslims to kill Russian soldiers in the name of jihad. The United States incited fanaticism against the military intrusion by a foreign power (the Soviets) when they intervened in Afghanistan in 1979, only to be dumbfounded when those same passions were directed at the United States after it intervened in Iraq and increased its permanent military presence after 1990.


Kennan bemoaned that his argument for using soft power to contain the Soviets was bastardized into a doctrine to support military adventurism across the globe since the end of the Second World War. This may help explain why Kennan, whose mantle Gingrich and other neoconservatives seek to grasp, was so wary of the Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz rush to “remake the Middle East” by invading Iraq in 2003. He warned, using prescient words, that:

War seldom ever leads to good results. War has a momentum of its own, and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.

Neoconservatives, in their desire to “lead from the front” and show “American resolve,” invaded Iraq anyway. The United States has wasted $6 trillion to destabilize the entire Middle East and to create a power vacuum filled by Iran. In fact, president of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass, a former Bush administration official, has written that for all practical purposes Baghdad and eastern Iraq are now essentially part of Iran. Moreover, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant cannot be understood without looking at Paul Bremer’s decisions to dissolve the Iraqi military and deprive large segments of the Sunni community of employment and security.

In 2011 Washington repeated all of the mistakes made in Iraq in attacking and destabilizing Libya only to find those who we backed fighting against our interests and many now seem hell-bent on doubling down by making all of those mistakes yet again in Syria. The current calls for putting boots back on the ground in Iraq or becoming enmeshed in Syria is ill-advised. These are struggles do not line up with the simplistic “good guys” versus “bad guys” mindset characteristic of Americans. The enemy of our enemy might well be our enemy and in ways we cannot even comprehend. In recalling the lessons learned from the 1984 Marine barracks bombing former Senator Jim Webb, who called the current situation in Syria “Beirut on Steroids,” has given the sage advice for the Middle East that America should never get involved in five sided arguments it does not understand.

America is exceptional. The bold promise to humanity represented by the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence make it so. But exceptional does not mean exemptional. The promise of America on the world stage is not to declare itself exempt from the ideals, principles and rules of law, the violation of which we are so quick to condemn in others. If America is to lead, if America is to help promote stability and security in the world, it has to stop intervening and meddling so much in other societies and instead lead by example. The United States needs a strong and flexible defense, but the word defense cannot mean a blank check for parlor room geostrategists to play with the lives of real people and societies as if foreign policy and diplomacy were a more grandiose version of the board game Risk and an excuse to get invited on Sunday talk shows to prescribe the same failed policies as the panaceas for the messes they have created.


David W. Wise, is retired business executive, who resides in Annapolis, Maryland. He holds a graduate degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army

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10 thoughts on “Blowback as National Policy

  1. Great article…but short of retracting to isolationism, is there really any way to prevent blowback? Hindsight is often 20/20 when looking back at these decisions. It’s usually quite difficult to predict what actors will do 20-30 years down the road, especially when using tactics we’re unaware of or unfamiliar with (i.e., Afghans using jihad against Coalition forces 30 years after we encouraged it against the Soviets.)

  2. If one can lay blame for Libya at Obama’s feet then certainly one can do the same for Iraq and Iran’s growing influence.

    Having been intimately involved in the 03 invasion of Iraq I now wish our forces had made a right turn at Baghdad and headed towards Tehran.

    Yes, mistakes were made by the US in the last 40 years (just look at the State Dept screw ups in 03 Iraq) , but which mistakes were the worst? The ones that led to conflict and death or those missed chances to back pro-individual freedom movements (Obama must have missed that 2am phone call)? Time will tell…we need to have leaders that pick the option with best chance for longterm benefit and return and not opt for scoring political points or a bullet on their resume.

    So, let’s look at present worldwide instability and truly assign foreign policy mistakes to who authored them. Hint hint: it’s not all Bush’s fault. If we can’t figure out what went wrong or identify the problem, how can we fix it? We just end up in a circular firing squad.

  3. If hindsight is in fact 20/20 than perhaps the blowback for everything involving Libya and that ugly dog Gaddafi should fall on Nixon and Kissinger as it was on their watch that that nut of colonel overthrew the octogenarian King Idris in September 1969 and ordered the withdrawal of all American personnel and assets from Wheeler Air Base which lay just 11 km from Tripoli.

    20/20 hindsight says the blowback for Lockerbie and 40 years of other crap falls in Nixon’s lap for not having Mad Dog Gaddafi conveniently ‘whacked’ in a decisive counter-coup.

    And blowback for Iran tarnishes Eisenhower’s stars. The US shouldn’t have been convinced to do the dirty work of a bankrupt Britain worried about the loss of revenue from the nationalized Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (renamed BP in 1954). Going against the Iranian people by forcing them to accept renewed rule of their despotic cretin of a king after they had overthrown the bastard and gone through all the trouble of forming a fledgling democracy and holding elections… those ill conceived actions have poisoned relations with the Iranian people for decades and yet fewer than one in a hundred Americans know that it ever happened…

  4. Right to the point. A recipe for disaster is going across town into someone else’s backyard convinced you know their neighborhood better than they do.

    What makes all the mis-steps possible is the idea that we are wealthy enough to completely disregard finances. I can’t think of a single person in Congress who has said one word about the cost of intervention when some new dire emergency thousands of miles from our shores arises. We are vastly overextended. Britain was plagued with the same delusion until it finally realized with the epic jolt of WW2 that empire was impossible because the piggy bank was empty.

  5. Yes, preemptive war, the supreme war crime as described in the Nuremberg trials is what the US excels at globally. I seem to remember a line about a “poisoned chalice”….

  6. It is not difficult to imagine why the last couple of generations of Iranians harbor great resentment towards the US. What is remarkable is that Iran has been able to move beyond those resentments to negotiate in good faith with the US government. I must admit that I have come to grudgingly admire that nation. Iran is obviously ruled by leaders who are coolly analytical with excellent risk/reward calculations. Unless it is absolutely required Iran does not commit its military. They have shown extreme caution in their response to ISIS, their historically reviled Sunni enemy. Contrary to popular opinion Iran seeks to avoid conflicts. Perhaps it is a lesson learned during the incredibly brutal 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war?

  7. Any idea where the Sun Tzu quote is from? A search of Google Books only results in this website, and a search of the quote only results in an article.

  8. Let’s not muddle together China, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East; a cure in one region will kill when applied in another.

    The reason why the United States has a global presence as a cross-domain power (diplomatic, economic, military) is because freedom of access to global commons for the purposes of free mobility of ideas, goods, and people is ESSENTIAL to US prosperity. If we pull back and allow regional powers to fill in gaps, we will lose access to global commons in those areas simply because the system in which we live favors us, not regional powers, and they will revise it accordingly. I’m not backing military adventurism – military force must be applied judiciously – but to dismiss foreign engagement, economic pressure, and military action as instantly illegitimate puts us on the fast track to accelerating our own decline.