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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Let’s be honest. In international affairs, beneath clichés of “strength” versus “weakness” there are hard, inescapable military realities. It is these realities – not political rhetoric – that define what America actually can and cannot do

This item by James Vega was first published on July 21, 2009.
The continuing Republican criticisms of Obama as being “weak” and “apologizing to everybody” instead of being “strong” and “resolute” present these kinds of dichotomies as if they were abstract moral options between which Obama – and America – were completely free to choose. But the reality is that behind the abstract political rhetoric of terms like “strength” and “weakness” there is always the more practical level of military reality and the military strategies that can be based on it.
All of George Bush’s goals, threats, promises, language and rhetoric regarding the Arab-Persian world, for example, were not simply expressions of certain abstract moral values in which he just happened to believe but were firmly rooted in a very specific military analysis and strategy – a strategy that had been developed in the 1990s after the first invasion of Iraq. The basic premise of this strategy was that with the extraordinary military technology America had developed – known under the general rubric of the “Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)” — America – in alliance with Israel — could militarily dominate the Middle East.
Looking at maps after the 1991 invasion of Iraq and considering the weak defense Saddam had mounted (US tanks had come within 70 miles of Bagdad, after all) these strategists concluded that by invading Iraq, converting it into a pro-US ally and setting up major military bases there we could obtain a central and decisive strategic position in the region. An invasion and pacification of Iraq would allow us to establish major American air, armor and infantry forces directly on Iran’s border and simultaneously threaten Syria and Jordan from the rear. This would severely weaken the main lines of communication and supply from Iran to the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the occupied territories. In a domino effect, Israel would then find both Hezbollah and Hamas much more isolated and easier to control. Taken together, this would result in a combined US-Israeli military dominance of the region so powerful that it would allow us to then profoundly intimidate Iran and any other anti-US forces.
Two major corollaries followed from this basic military strategy. First, America had no real need for European or international allies (other than as window dressing) and second, America did not need to seek popular support in Muslim world. Military force by itself would be sufficient to achieve all our objectives. A massive network of U.S. air and land force bases in Iraq would serve as a permanent staging area for the fast and overwhelming projection of US military power and influence across the region while the dramatic success of the political and economic system we would install in Iraq would inspire Muslims to follow the U.S. example.
9/11 provided the opportunity to put this strategy into effect. From that time all of the rhetorical and political stances Bush took – and which Republicans continue to advocate today – were based on this underlying military analysis and military strategy.
Unfortunately, as all Americans are now painfully aware, from a purely military point of view, this strategy simply did not work.


Iraq sank into a bitter, unpredicted civil war that bogged down virtually all available U.S. combat troops in counterinsurgency operations inside the country. Even when the surge reduced the level of violence there was still no way our available forces could plausibly threaten to mount any major military action against Iran. Even worse, far from the government of Iraq endorsing (or, more realistically, tacitly supporting) our implied threats of military action against Iran, Maliki had to demand that the U.S. formally agree to withdraw all our forces from the country and to explicitly disavow any hostile intentions toward Iran in order to maintain his hold on power. The U.S. may be able to negotiate retaining a residual force in Iraq – although even this is beginning to appear unlikely — but, in an increasingly nationalistic country with a Shia-dominated government, there is no realistic possibility that we will be permitted to permanently maintain the kind of massive airpower, tank and armored infantry forces that could pose a credible military threat to Iran or other countries in the region.
At the same time, in the eastern sector of the Arab-Persian region, even overwhelmingly superior Israel military forces proved unable to crush Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 or Hamas in Gaza last fall. Nor were they able to decisively weaken these groups’ political support. The best the Israeli operations could achieve was a continuation of the preexisting stalemate.
It is therefore necessary to face a cold, simple and unavoidable fact – in purely military terms the US-Israeli alliance was unable to achieve the basic objectives that the Bush/neoconservative military strategy had defined for it. Iraq was indeed transformed from a Sunni-dominated dictatorship to a Shia-dominated country that is now precariously hovering between democracy and authoritarianism, but U.S. military power was not able to dominate or transform the Arab-Persian world.
The basic truth is that to a large degree Obama is simply reacting to this fundamental military reality. Despite the absolutely mind-boggling new technology that now exists in every area of U.S. military operations, the United States still cannot act like Britain and France did in the 1920’s and militarily dominate the major countries of the Middle East. U.S. forces may possibly be able to stabilize Afghanistan and act as background guarantors of stability in Iraq, but that is more or less the limit of our current capabilities in the region. This is not an result of Obama or the Democrats lacking “resolution” , “conviction” , “courage”, “bravery”, “valor”, “martial virtue”, “determination”, “gumption”, “true grit”, “guts”, “balls” ,“intestinal fortitude” ,“real American virtue”, “warrior spirit” , “never say die spirit ” ,“gung-ho spirit ” ,“can-do spirit” or ideological fervor. Rather, it is simply a fact about military reality. Even if Obama genuinely wanted to continue Bush’s military strategy, he simply could not do it.
As with Bush’s strategy, this new reality also has corollaries – it necessitates a new approach to the Muslim world and a new set of relationships with the countries of the Arab-Persian region – relationships that are not predicated upon U.S. military dominance of the region or the complete alignment of U.S. with Israeli policy. Obama’s Cairo speech laid out the main lines of this revised policy, one which is consistent with the military realities America faces in the region.
Republicans and conservatives argue, in effect, that Obama’s approach is fundamentally wrong and that we should rather continue the policies and rhetoric of George W. Bush’s two administrations. But with the basic military strategy that underlay this approach having failed, Republicans need to also propose a new military strategy that somehow validates this approach if they are to be taken seriously. Proposing to continue the policies of the Bush Administration without any realistic military strategy to undergird them may be politically convenient, but it is an exercise in rhetoric, not statesmanship.
The Republicans, of course, are in opposition. As such, they have the luxury of being able to promise the unrealistic and demand the impossible. Obama, on the other hand, has to deal with the world as it actually is. Fortunately, opinion polls indicate that the American people are able to tell the difference.

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