By Georgie Anne Geyer
Last week, while the specter of The New York Times’ “anonymous” editorial haunted the White House, and this week as we again mourned our losses 17 years ago on 9/11, I have been deep into watching the old documentary about Robert McNamara and how he led us to our national disaster in Vietnam. Perhaps it was because the title, “The Fog of War,” reminded me of our new fogs. But more likely it was because of McNamara’s last words. “But you don’t have hindsight available in the beginning,” he said, excusing himself with his accustomed self-regard.
Ah yes, hindsight. The “perception of the nature of an event after it has happened.” So, now I am thinking of hindsight — not instead of the anonymous resistance column about our strange presidency or even instead of 9/11, but BECAUSE of both of them.
I think it is high time we thought seriously about this current era and about our most recent military adventures: the seemingly endless wars in the Middle East that followed the attack on the Twin Towers.
Have you noticed, for instance, how little we hear or read about them? Yet they are very much there and, among foreign policy thinkers, they even have rather frightening new names: “forever wars,” “permanent wars.”
“To wage these wars,” Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a respected analyst of the Middle East wars, wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, “there are currently some 15,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, 10,000 in Qatar, 5,000 in Iraq, 4,000 in Bahrain, 2,000 each in Syria and Kuwait and more than 1,500 in Djibouti and Turkey.” And that is only in the Near East.
“These ‘overseas contingency operations’ cost more than $30 billion a year, on top of the $600 billion-plus core defense budget,” he continues. “It’s a huge, expensive effort, and there’s no end in sight.”
Let us consider first the Syrian civil war, now seven long years old. Last year, four de-escalation zones were designated by Russia, Iran and Turkey (the lone backer of the anti-government rebels) as “safety zones” for the remaining rebels. Only one, Idlib, remains in non-Damascus hands.
Now President Donald Trump’s friend, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, has moved 26 warships plus 36 planes off the Syrian coast and bombed that single “safe” area 70 times in the last few weeks. You can probably guess what will come next.
And the U. S.? In the beginning, we insisted that cruel Syrian President Bashar Assad must go. Now, thanks to a total lack of strategy on the part of Washington under both the Obama and Trump administrations, we play no role at all in the final decision-making. We’re just there.
Next, think of Afghanistan. More than 2,200 Americans have been killed in that unfortunate country, which historians have wisely called the “graveyard of empires,” and the U.S. has spent more than $840 billion fighting the Taliban and others — that’s more than the Marshall Plan cost!
American military officers repeatedly say that we cannot win in Afghanistan — but we also cannot appear to lose. So we just stay.
Finally, Iraq. You don’t hear or read much about Iraq these days, not with all the “fun” many are having with the endless dramas in Washington. But Iraq is becoming what the Financial Times calls a “dysfunctional state,” with devastating protests all over the country against the American-backed government in Baghdad.
In the 1970s and ’80s, I went to Basra twice, a once-beautiful, languid, semitropical southern city at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with an educated and thriving middle class. Wealthy Kuwaitis loved to drive north to enjoy summer villas on the river. It was enchanting.
Today, Basra is wracked by rival militia violence, and the foreign oil companies there mostly employ foreign workers.
The well-informed scholar Kenneth Pollack of the middle-ground conservative American Enterprise Institute wrote in a recent AEI paper that “the Iraqi government barely functions.” So we remain, in a war without resolution.
Meanwhile, there is a strange silence from our centers of power about “our wars.” But even stranger is the fact that our respected scholarly voices seem intellectually castrated.
Michael O’Hanlon concludes: “The U.S. has no realistic way out of its commitments in the Middle East … But as tragic as the continuing wars are for the people of the region and despite the sacrifices of our military personnel, we appear to have resigned ourselves to the forever wars … It’s probably the best we can do.”
So that’s where we are, fellow citizens. In the quicksand of the Middle East where anyone with any historical knowledge could have told us, “Beware! Stay out!” Our adversaries are active; we are static.
Hindsight — once again. Where are the Americans who will demand foresight?
Email Georgie Anne Geyer at email@example.com.
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