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Keynote Address, 2013 DACOR Annual Conference, September 27, 2013

by Thomas E. McNamara

Americans have gone through many foreign affairs pendulum swings in the past quarter-century. Following the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the USSR collapse and the Gulf War blitzkrieg in 1991, we euphorically anticipated an uninterrupted continuation of the American Century into the new one. Pundits and professors proclaimed the natural superiority of democracy and free markets, and some foresaw “the end of history” with a long, flat, broad, superhighway ahead for the sole superpower.The pendulum swung quickly. Disillusionment struck, as we hit multiple potholes and speed bumps on the highway. We faced new events demanding new thinking, new policies. The Gulf War was an early indication that major turmoil and violence, while less dangerous than the threat of nuclear annihilation, presented unexpected challenges. In the Balkans, Caucasus, Caribbean, Somalia, Central Africa, and elsewhere, the decade was peppered with the buckshot of small- and medium-gauge conflicts into which we were drawn willy-nilly. With few exceptions, we were hesitant, ill-prepared, and incapable of fundamentally changing outcomes.

Yet, by comparison with the decade that followed, the 1990s look like a model of stability. After 9/11 the pendulum swung towards bravado and uncritical certainty about our capabilities and policies. 12 years of war have made most Americans weary, confused, and uncertain. The Arab Spring aroused hopes, but produced turmoil and violence. We face crises with doubts and divisions, but no good solutions. Syria is the latest, not the last, where we find ourselves hesitant and divided.

I recently wrote about our post-Cold War national strategy vacuum and its negative consequences. For the first time, the end of a major foreign war, albeit “cold” war, we did not analyze, debate and decide a national strategy. The 1898-1904 debate of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism; the 1918-21 debate of Wilson’s New Diplomacy; or the 1946-52 debate of Containment had no parallel after 1991. An extraordinary lapse, given the profound revolution in global relationships, as one superpower disappeared and the world map was transformed. We naively expected a “peace dividend” and believed a “unipolar” world would follow our lead.

There was one important 1995 assessment (not a strategy) that analyzed our ability to sustain “simultaneously” two Major Regional Contingencies (MRCs).  Its conclusions, later ignored, stated that we could not “simultaneously” mount and sustain two MRCs. The best we could do was “near simultaneous” MRCs. If two occurred, one would have priority; the other would be on hold with residual resources until the first was concluded.

This planning document defined “Major” as much smaller than the MRCs launched after 9/11, and it did not address resources for “nation building.”  Unfortunately, we failed to do a parallel diplomatic study, complementing the MRC study.

We are still acting without having clarified this national confusion.  The longer we continue without an articulated strategy, the more uncertain and divided we are; the less influence we exercise; the weaker we and our allies become. In this post-9/11-War period, we must reexamine our strategy. With both political parties internally divided over foreign affairs we may have, ironically, the chance for non-partisan national security debates may be more possible.

Let me cite specifics about the failure of strategy by looking at two enterprises, Afghanistan and Iraq, which failed for different reasons but that demonstrate our strategic quandary.

Afghanistan and Counter Terrorism (CT)

Our immediate reaction to 9/11, a counterterrorism approach, was not wrong. Quite the contrary. It was in our interests, consistent with international law and norms, and had broad international support. But, we charged in without analyzing the complexities facing us. We spent six months preparing for the 1991 Gulf War and finished in three months.  We entered Afghanistan a month after 9/11 and created a 14-year quagmire.

The initial counterterrorism approach that expelled Taliban from Kabul, dislodged Al Qaeda and killed or captured many of its leaders succeeded. One year after arriving, however, counterterrorism (CT) ended and counter insurgency (COIN) and “nation building,” at which we are amateurs, began. But, insurgency is an Afghan specialty.

We, not Afghans, pursued Taliban into its homelands; set up a provisional government; and tried to stabilize the country — all by relying on military force. Yet, whether and how to do these were Afghan responsibilities, not ours. We should have promoted, as part of a reconciliation process, Afghan (admittedly, warlords) decisions on their future.  That has been the Afghan way for centuries, however messy and drawn out it is.

Our lead role should have focused on a framework for regional stability to allow a military drawdown. We could have led a conference of regional states, including Iran, to work to: a) support reconciliation; b) agree on Afghanistan as a neutral, buffer state; c) constrain Pakistan from training and arming Taliban fighters to make Afghanistan a Pakistani client state. This last, the real objective of our errant ally Pakistan, is at the heart of Afghan problems.

This more modest policy could possibly have been accomplished in 3-5 years with far less death, destruction, and resources.  Military disengagement, accompanied by political engagement, could have protected our true interests and reinforced a statement of policy along the lines of:

1. Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan would be a casus belli;
2. No threat of attack on us or allies, can come from Afghanistan;
3. If either occurs, we reserve the right to react in a time and manner of our choosing.

We had no moral or political responsibility — and as events demonstrated, no capability — to “nation build” in a country about whose society, culture, and politics we are ignorant, and whose history is replete with resistance to foreign presence and influence. There are problems that a superpower cannot resolve. Afghanistan is one such, as both superpowers have now shown.

This limited approach could not destroy Al Qaeda — which we failed to do anyway. But, a limited success may have further weakened Al Qaeda, lessening the spread of its ideology. A capabilities analysis and assessment of interests and limitations would have enabled us to better define our terms of engagement. We are moving to a more modest Afghan policy now, but it is very late.

We took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan by invading Iraq for reasons unrelated to terrorism.  Our “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) lasted as our top priority for only 18 months.

Iraq and Violent Transition, (aka, Regime Change)

We rushed into Iraq without prioritized objectives, or defined capabilities to achieve them. National strategy and battle plans are different. The former tells us if the latter are feasible. If we had had the former, it would have shown that our Afghan and Iraqi battle plans were competing, not complementary. Our strategic confusion was such that we never decided between GWOT and political transformation of the Mideast, our true goal in Iraq.

When our “slam dunk” in Iraq bounced off the rim, we changed priorities. The “great sucking sound” in Afghanistan was Iraq, which soaked up more troops, resources and time than planned. Iraq was more important because of oil, Israel, and Iran. Here, the 1995 MRC conclusions are very relevant. As predicted, two land wars “simultaneously” were one too many. We were overextended, and Iraq, in chaos, became our first priority.

The Iraq War was a stark contrast to the Gulf War. We must ask why 40+ nations supported us politically, militarily, and financially in 1991, but in 2003, only three non-regional partners and the Kurdish Peshmerga joined us. We initiated violent regime change with no significant support or resources except the UK’s and ours, which proved inadequate. Friends stayed away, believing we would destabilize the Gulf, disrupt oil supplies, and strengthen Iran. That is what we did.


Afghanistan was a reasonable, complex, strategic step. But, we invaded too soon, stayed too long, and attempted too much. Like Vietnam, it was a quagmire because we never defined limited, feasible objectives, linked to capabilities. Like Wall Street hedge fund managers, we were so intoxicated by power and over-confidence that we failed to do proper risk and outcome analyses.

Iraq should never have been invaded. We ignored John Quincy Adams’ wise admonition that the U.S. “… goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” The invasion was a rash, mismanaged attempt at regime change to remake the Mideast, once again, with little regard for history, politics, or culture. What got us into Iraq is seen best by quoting a deeply-felt, unscripted remark of George W. Bush at a meeting with state and local officials in the White House in November 2007.

“I changed all the old policies — all that! All my predecessors wanted — including my Dad — was stability. Stability and oil in the Middle East; that was the goal. I want freedom! Freedom is not a white man’s thing, not a Methodist thing. God wants everyone to be free. Freedom, not stability, is what I’m after.”*

A bloody decade later, there is neither freedom nor stability in the Middle East or Afghanistan. Our national PTSD, also known as post-Vietnam syndrome, has now reappeared. We are slogging through woods without a strategic compass; certainly not traveling a broad highway.

As we close the Post-9/11 Wars, we must open a chapter with a new, more mature, strategic outlook. Americans must understand our goals and objectives and how to achieve them, using all the instruments of national power. Above all, we must understand our limitations and how we can best exercise power. Syria is a good place to begin.

Syria: Some Observations and Lessons

  • Divisions over Syria are a consequence of Afghanistan and Iraq. They reflect our PTSD because we doubt — as do our friends — our ability to use power effectively. The public, sees Syria as another Iraq. It shies away from any involvement, believing it must lead to military action.  Diplomacy must be our first, and most persistent recourse in Syria and elsewhere.
  • Diplomacy, if successful (a huge “if”), may close a rogue chemical weapons program, and could significantly change Syria’s civil war. It is well worth trying.
  • Diplomacy alone did not get us to this point. I recall Kofi Annan after meeting with Saddam Hussain in 2003. Asked if diplomacy could work, he replied that it can, but that diplomacy backed by the threat of force works even better. Our threat to use force was one, but not the only, reason Russia and Syria might destroy those weapons. It should remain on the table.
  • Among Russia’s objectives are to seize an opportunity to become a Mideast power after a 40-year marginalization and to preserve its Syrian foothold in the Mideast. Putin will help or abandon Assad, depending on how either helps achieve these. Among Iran’s objectives are to eliminate sanctions, which are hurting Iran, by improving relations with the U.S., and to build a Shiite corridor from Teheran to the Mediterranean (Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut).
  • Lesson #1: Draw red lines very rarely and not unless we are certain we are ready, willing, and able to react when they are crossed.
  • Lesson #2: Threats, like red lines, should be used rarely and not unless we are certain we are ready, willing, and able to enforce them.
  • Lesson #3: Declaring regime change does no good. It limits our flexibility, drives the regime to dig in harder, increases repression, and raises false expectations among our partners and the regime’s opponents.  Don’t declare it; just do it, when necessary.

However Syria turns out, we need to get our policies, priorities, and capabilities in line, or the future will not be a good for us in the Mideast or elsewhere.End.

* From the author’s notes taken at a meeting of the launching of a National Information Sharing Strategy.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Thomas E. McNamara
Thomas E. McNamara

Thomas E. McNamara, a retired career Foreign Service officer, served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, ambassador to Colombia, ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism, and on the NSC staffs of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, among other senior assignments. He is Adjunct Professor at the The Elliott School of International Affairs of The George Washington University.


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