TCS Daily

Will America Stand By While Chaos Swirls?

By Robert Haddick - July 9, 2007 12:00 AM

It now seems inevitable that the United States will soon begin withdrawing its military forces from Iraq. Leading Republican members of Congress have lost patience with the Bush administration's strategy there. In September, General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, will give an assessment of his military strategy. Others will grade the performance of the Iraqi government and consider the state of Iraqi society. A bipartisan majority in the U.S. Congress will very likely use these September reports as an opportunity to force the Bush administration to reduce the U.S. commitment in Iraq.

Although most Americans will express relief at the idea of disengaging from Iraq, few seem to realize what a profound change this will mean to a fundamental basis of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, U.S. foreign policy, and the employment of U.S. military power, has been guided most principally by the goal of bringing stability to chaotic situations. When the U.S. begins to withdraw from Iraq, it will do so after making the assumption that the chaos there will increase. Once the drawdown is underway, U.S. soldiers will necessarily be under orders from their civilian policymaking superiors to watch and do nothing while chaos rages in view. This situation will be a dramatic and unnerving departure from the aspirations of previous U.S. presidents, both Republican and Democrat.

U.S. Military Interventions Since Vietnam

Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the U.S. has used its military power on almost every continent and against a wide variety of opponents. Yet virtually all of these interventions were motivated by one common goal: to bring order to a chaotic situation. Let us review some of the history:

  • In 1982, President Reagan ordered the U.S. Marines to Lebanon. Lebanon's civil war had already raged for years and Israel's invasion in 1982 added to the chaos. The U.S. government hoped that the U.S. military presence near Beirut would bolster the authority of the Lebanese government and thus end Lebanon's factional fighting.
  • Political instability and an internal rebellion in Grenada in 1983 resulted in a hostage situation at the island's medical school. President Reagan sent in the Marines and the Army's Rangers.
  • Chaos created by the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war spilled into the Persian Gulf in the mid-1980s, when Iranian sea mines and anti-ship missiles threatened shipping traffic. President Reagan sent in the U.S. Navy to restore freedom of navigation.
  • The Noriega regime in Panama was a drug-smuggling operation and assaulted foreign nationals in Panama. In 1989, President Bush ordered the U.S. military to remove the Noriega regime.
  • In 1990, Iraq invaded and seized Kuwait. The U.S. led an international coalition that restored the status quo ante bellum.
  • Mass starvation in Somalia, created by lawless banditry, was displayed on television screens worldwide in 1992. President Bush sent in the Marines.
  • In 1994, President Clinton ordered Marines and paratroopers to Haiti to restore order and stop refugee flows.
  • In 1995, President Clinton ordered the American army in Europe into Bosnia to end a civil war and ethnic cleansing.
  • In 1999, President Clinton repeated this procedure in Kosovo.
  • The NATO military mission in Afghanistan persists after almost six years, in order to prevent the return of tribal conflict there.
  • After quickly removing Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in 2003, the U.S. military has remained in the country for another four years in order to prevent open civil war and mass ethnic cleansing.

A Heavy Price and a Painful Lesson

The list of U.S. military missions designed to bring order to chaos continued to grow as long as the price of these missions remained low. Costly ambushes caused President Reagan to retreat from Lebanon and President Clinton to back away from Somalia. Since neither place was particularly important to U.S. interests and the U.S. commitments were small, the U.S. could get away from Lebanon and Somalia with relatively little loss of prestige. Most important, future U.S. Presidents would not be deterred from additional "anti-chaos" interventions.

The Iraq War Changes the Rules

The high and visible cost of the Iraq war is likely to change the pattern of the past twenty years. The necessity of cutting America's losses in Iraq will now overwhelm the previous impulse to do something about chaos whenever it is prominently displayed by the global media.

Drawing down the American presence in Iraq is likely to be especially painful to watch. Al Qaeda and America's other enemies in Iraq have been notably skillful at using visual media to propagate their actions. And the global mainstream media, friends of neither the Bush administration nor the United States in general, will relish the opportunity to show the chaos left behind as the American army retreats.

Thus, the symbiotic relationship between the terrorists in Iraq and the global mainstream media will lead to an increase in violence in Iraq as the American presence recedes. But the fundamental revolution for both America's policymakers and for the American public will be the need to look on at the chaos and consciously do nothing about it. This will be a traumatic experience for policymakers of both parties.

Ghastly media images from around Iraq will run alongside images of American military convoys driving south to Kuwait or of American soldiers nonchalantly watching television or eating meals inside the barriers of their bases in Iraq. These contrasting images will create pressure for the U.S. to reenter the war on Iraq's streets.

The End of Idealism

Assuming that the decision to disengage from Iraq survives the emotional challenges it will face, U.S. society will emerge from the ordeal with a changed character. The notion of idealism in foreign policy will be diminished. Events will have demonstrated to most Americans that the sacrifices to help Iraq form a modern society were naïve and misguided. America won't be in a mood to try that experiment again any time soon.

American policymakers will have also gone through the experience of ordering U.S. troops to repeatedly stand by, coldly aloof, while mayhem occurs within their sight. This too, in its own way, will be a learning experience.

Accepting Chaos, Then Using It

The traditional mission of U.S. foreign policy will thus be transformed from suppressing chaos to accepting it. After this transformation has taken hold, after U.S. policymakers no longer feel the compulsion to react to any chaos displayed on the world's television screens, the next logical step will be to use chaos as a foreign policy tool. I will save that discussion for another day. For now, it is enough to ponder how the retreat from Iraq will change us.

The author was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry company commander and staff officer. He was the global research director for a large private investment firm and is now a private investor. His blog is Westhawk. He is a TCS contributing writer.


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