General William Tecumseh Sherman burned the city of Atlanta in 1864. He warned: “I fear the world will jump to the wrong conclusion that because I am in Atlanta the work is done. Far from it. We must kill three hundred thousand I have told you of so often, and the further they run the harder for us to get them.” Add a zero to calibrate the problem in the Levant today. War in the Middle East is less a strategic than a demographic phenomenon, whose resolution will come with the exhaustion of the pool of potential fighters.
The Middle East has plunged into a new Thirty Years War, allows Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations. “It is a region wracked by religious struggle between competing traditions of the faith. But the conflict is also between militants and moderates, fueled by neighboring rulers seeking to defend their interests and increase their influence. Conflicts take place within and between states; civil wars and proxy wars become impossible to distinguish. Governments often forfeit control to smaller groups – militias and the like – operating within and across borders. The loss of life is devastating, and millions are rendered homeless,” he wrote on July 21.
Well and good: I predicted in 2006 that the George W Bush administration’s blunder would provoke another Thirty Years War in the region, and repeated the diagnosis many times since. But I doubt that Mr. Haass (or Walter Russell Mead, who cited the Haass article) has given sufficient thought to the implications.
How does one handle wars of this sort? In 2008 I argued for a “Richelovian” foreign policy, that is, emulation of the evil genius who guided France to victory at the conclusion of the Thirty Years War in 1648. Wars of this sort end when two generations of fighters are killed. They last for decades (as did the Peloponnesian War, the Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars of the 20th century) because one kills off the fathers die in the first half of the war, and the sons in the second.
This new Thirty Years War has its origins in a demographic peak and an economic trough. There are nearly 30 million young men aged 15 to 24 in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, a bulge generation produced by pre-modern fertility rates that prevailed a generation ago. But the region’s economies cannot support them. Syria does not have enough water to support an agricultural population, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of farmers into tent cities preceded its civil war. The West mistook the death spasms of a civilization for an “Arab Spring,” and its blunders channeled the youth bulge into a regional war.
The way to win such a war is by attrition, that is, by feeding into the meat-grinder a quarter to a third of the enemy’s available manpower. Once a sufficient number of who wish to fight to the death have had the opportunity to do so, the war stops because there are insufficient recruits to fill the ranks. That is how Generals Grant and Sherman fought the American Civil War, and that is the indicated strategy in the Middle East today.
It is a horrible business. It was not inevitable. It came about because of the ideological rigidity of the Bush Administration compounded by the strategic withdrawal of the Obama administration. It could have been avoided by the cheap and simple expedient of bombing Iran’s nuclear program and Revolutionary Guards bases, followed by an intensive subversion effort aimed at regime change in Teheran. Former Vice President Dick Cheney advocated this course of action, but then Secretary of State Condileeza Rice persuaded Bush that the Muslim world would never forgive America for an attack on another Muslim state.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, warned Bush that America’s occupation army in Iraq had become hostage to Iranian retaliation: if America bombed Iran, Iran could exact vengeance in American blood in the cities of Iraq. Then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen told Charlie Rose on March 16, 2009: “What I worry about in terms of an attack on Iran is, in addition to the immediate effect, the effect of the attack, it’s the unintended consequences. It’s the further destabilization in the region. It’s how they would respond. We have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat envelope right now [because of the] capability that Iran has across the Gulf. So, I worry about their responses and I worry about it escalating in ways that we couldn’t predict.”
The Bush Administration was too timid to take on Iran; the Obama administration views Iran as a prospective ally. Even Neville Chamberlain did not regard Hitler as prospective partner in European security. But that is what Barack Obama said in March to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg: “What I’ll say is that if you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits. And that isn’t to say that they aren’t a theocracy that embraces all kinds of ideas that I find abhorrent, but they’re not North Korea. They are a large, powerful country that sees itself as an important player on the world stage, and I do not think has a suicide wish, and can respond to incentives.” Bush may have been feckless, but Obama is mad.
With Iran neutralized, Syrian President Basher Assad would have had no choice but to come to terms with Syria’s Sunni majority; as it happens, he had the firepower to expel millions of them. Without the protection of Tehran, Iraq’s Shia would have had to compromise with Sunnis and Kurds. Iraqi Sunnis would not have allied with ISIS against the Iranian-backed regime in Baghdad. A million or more Iraqis would not have been displaced by the metastasizing Caliphate.
The occupation of Iraq in the pursuit of nation-building was colossally stupid. It wasted thousands of lives and disrupted millions, cost the better part of a trillion dollars, and demoralized the American public like no failure since Vietnam-most of all America’s young people. Not only did it fail to accomplish its objective, but it kept America stuck in a tar-baby trap, unable to take action against the region’s main malefactor. Worst of all: the methods America employed in order to give the Iraq war the temporary appearance of success set in motion the disaster we have today. I warned of this in a May 4, 2010 essay entitled, General Petraeus’ Thirty Years War (Asia Times Online, May 4, 2010).
The great field marshal of the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, Albrecht von Wallenstein, taught armies to live off the land, and succeeded so well that nearly half the people of Central Europe starved to death during the conflict. General David Petraeus, who heads America’s Central Command (CENTCOM), taught the land to live off him. Petraeus’ putative success in the Iraq “surge” of 2007-2008 is one of the weirder cases of Karl Marx’s quip of history repeating itself first as tragedy second as farce. The consequences will be similar, that is, hideous.
Wallenstein put 100,000 men into the field, an army of terrifying size for the times, by turning the imperial army into a parasite that consumed the livelihood of the empire’s home provinces. The Austrian Empire fired him in 1629 after five years of depredation, but pressed him back into service in 1631. Those who were left alive joined the army, in a self-feeding spiral of destruction on a scale not seen in Europe since the 8th century. Wallenstein’s power grew with the implosion of civil society, and the Austrian emperor had him murdered in 1634.
Petraeus accomplished the same thing with (literally) bags of money. Starting with Iraq, the American military has militarized large parts of the Middle East and Central Asia in the name of pacification. And now America is engaged in a grand strategic withdrawal from responsibility in the region, leaving behind men with weapons and excellent reason to use them.
There is no way to rewind the tape after the fragile ties of traditional society have been ripped to shreds by war. All of this was foreseeable; most of it might have been averted. But the sordid players in this tragicomedy had too much reputation at stake to reverse course when it still was possible. Now they will spend the declining years of their careers blaming each other.
Three million men will have to die before the butchery comes to an end. That is roughly the number of men who have nothing to go back to, and will fight to the death rather than surrender.
ISIS by itself is overrated. It is a horde enhanced by captured heavy weapons, but cannot fly warplanes in a region where close air support is the decisive factor in battle. The fighters of the Caliphate cannot hide under the jungle canopy like the North Vietnamese. They occupy terrain where aerial reconnaissance can identify every stray cat. The Saudi and Jordanian air forces are quite capable of defending their borders. Saudi Arabia has over 300 F-15’s and 72 Typhoons, and more than 80 Apache attack helicopters. Jordan has 60 F16’s as well as 25 Cobra attack helicopters. The putative Caliphate can be contained; it cannot break out into Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and it cannot advance far into the core Shia territory of Iraq. It can operate freely in Syria, in a war of attrition with the Iranian backed government army. The grim task of regional security policy is to channel the butchery into areas that do not threaten oil production or transport.
Ultimately, ISIS is a distraction. The problem is Iran. Without Iran, Hamas would have no capacity to strike Israel beyond a few dozen kilometers past the Gaza border. Iran now has GPS-guided missiles which are much harder to shoot down than ordinary ballistic missiles (an unguided missile has a trajectory that is easy to calculate after launch; guided missiles squirrel about seeking their targets). If Hamas acquires such rockets-and it will eventually if left to its own devices-Israel will have to strike further, harder and deeper to eliminate the threat. That confrontation will not come within a year, and possibly not within five years, but it looms over the present hostilities. The region’s security will hinge on the ultimate reckoning with Iran.