Book News: “America’s Misadventures in the Middle East” Excerpt

Published: December 11, 2010

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Editor’s Note:

Today we provide for your consideration an excerpt from Ambassador Chas Freeman’s new book, “America’s Misadventures in the Middle East,” to accompany our exclusive interview with him discussing the context and scope of the work. [Link].  Here’s how “Misadventures” is described on its page:

Chas W. Freeman is one of America’s most distinguished diplomats. In a government career spanning three decades, he negotiated on behalf of the United States with over 100 foreign governments. In America’s Misadventures, Freeman presents two dozen of his essays on the Middle East, all of them trenchant and many of them previously unpublished. The essays span the period from 1990 – when as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Freeman helped plan and implement the massive, U.S.-led effort to liberate Kuwait from occupation by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – through 2010, by which time he had developed many thoughtful and well-informed criticisms of the policies Washington had pursued toward the region throughout the past two decades. The book includes considerable new material on Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, much valuable information about the structure and politics of Saudi Arabia, and many trenchant essays in which Freeman applies his smart and wide-ranging “Realist” form of analysis both to defining America’s national interests in the Middle East and describing the often sad, confused, or counter-productive way in which it has sought to pursue them.

We thank Ambassador Freeman for sharing this insightful excerpt from his book with SUSRIS readers and for taking time to talk with us about the book. [Link]

America’s Misadventures in the Middle East” was published by Just World Books whose founder, Helena Cobban, notes on their web site that they bring a “range of discourse on the most important international issues of our day and offering a platform for some of the most overlooked (but smartest) authors writing on these matters.” She adds, “Just World Books brings these eloquent voices to print so that audiences in the U.S. and elsewhere who understand the gravity of these issues, yet feel under-informed about the true nature and roots of these crises, can have easier access to the wisdom, views, and insights of people with direct experience working on (and often in) these areas.”

For more information on Ambassador Freeman’s book, America’s Misadventures in the Middle East” and to order a copy you can visit


Amb Chas Freeman
Ambassador Chas Freeman was the opening speaker at the 2010 Arab U.S.-Policymakers Conference and talked about American "misadventures."


Chapter 2

Objectives and End Games in the Middle East

By early summer 1991, U.S. and other forces that had occupied southern Iraq as part of the campaign to liberate Kuwait had withdrawn. As I argued in the previous chapter, however, the failure to transform military victory into appropriate adjustments in relations with Iraq left the war with no closure. Saddam was able to parlay his survival in power into a political victory buttressed by his control of the distribution of essential resources to the Iraqi population. (As is often the case, the system of sanctions put in place by the international community inadvertently propped up its target. Only the Baghdad regime had the means to circumvent the sanctions. Meanwhile, the Oil-for-Food Program by which essential humanitarian supplies were allowed to penetrate the sanctions wall reinforced Saddam’s centrality in his country’s political life by increasing his patronage power. Only those who were prepared to appease him got reliable access to food and medical supplies.) Intermittent talk about removing Saddam from power was never translated into a serious U.S. policy.

Over the course of the 1990s, U.S. policy in the Gulf was essentially reactive—on autopilot, leaving the initiative to the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. When he needed to rally Iraqi nationalism or Arab sympathy to his side, he would goad the United States and United Kingdom into bombing Iraq. Meanwhile, while maintaining a public stance of defiance, he complied in practice with U.N. demands that he destroy his WMDs and end the programs by which he had developed them. His concealment of this compliance reflected his fear that it would be seen by Iraqi nationalists and other Arabs as a sign of weakness that could undermine his case for remaining in power and even lead to his overthrow. Ironically, he managed to convince the George W. Bush administration, if not Iraq’s neighbors, that he and his government remained a menace. On the night of March 19 to 20, 2003, after an absence of twelve years, U.S. forces reinvaded Iraq, this time with the objective of engineering regime change in Baghdad.

This American lurch into the strategic ambush of Iraq caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about how the short victorious war of 1990 to 1991 could have failed to preclude the long, ruinous misadventure that began in 2003. (As I write, this misadventure has yet to conclude.) I came in time to the conclusion that the botched interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq reflect a basic dysfunctionality in the American way of war that is deeply rooted in the exceptional geopolitical circumstances and historical experiences of the United States.

Later in this book, I present a series of personal snapshots of the Afghan and Iraq Wars as they unfolded. Suffice it to say here that, by late 2004, it was getting really hard to overlook the extent to which American policies and actions were linking trends and events in Palestine with those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf.


"America's Misadventures in the Middle East," by Chas Freeman
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Excerpts from a talk at the Institute for Defense Analyses

November 10, 2004

William Tecumseh Sherman once succinctly observed that “the legitimate purpose of war is a more perfect peace.”2 It is the political results of war that translate battlefield successes into victory. And it is the defeated, not the victors, who decide when the war has ended. No war ends until the vanquished accept their defeat.

Therefore, as I noted in my 1994 book The Diplomat’s Dictionary,

the first question anyone planning to start a war or to respond with force to an act of aggression should ask is not whether his nation’s force can prevail in battle, though that is indeed a vital question. He should ask what objectives, once achieved, would justify ending the war and why anyone on the other side should regard these changes in the status quo as either temporarily or permanently acceptable. How will the fighting be ended? On what terms? Negotiated by and with whom? What happens after the conflict is over? Will the seeds of future military actions be planted in the terms of the peace?3

As U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, I repeatedly put these questions to the first Bush administration before our liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s occupation. My cables were never answered. There was no war termination strategy. Generals Schwarzkopf and Khalid bin Sultan met their Iraqi counterparts at Safwan without political instructions. Saddam was never forced to accept the political consequences of his defeat. Therefore, he remained in power. And the war never ended. It continued as low-intensity conflict until our March 20, 2003, invasion and subsequent conquest of Iraq. The Gulf War thus failed General Sherman’s test; it did not produce a better peace. Iraq and Afghanistan do not seem likely to do better.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand how a politico-military integration failure of this magnitude could have occurred. My first instinct was to blame the nature of coalition warfare. Coalitions harmonize objectives to the lowest common denominator; they are the enemies of clarity. But, on further reflection, I have come to the conclusion something more fundamental was at work, reflecting a basic flaw in the American way of war.

In the Asian tradition of Sunzi and the European tradition of Clausewitz, war is a means of accomplishing political objectives that cannot be achieved by less costly means. When the fighting ends, negotiations between victor and vanquished define the adjustments—in frontiers, territories, or behavior—necessary to make peace.

Long ago, for example, in our war for independence and the Mexican War Americans fought that way too. But the ending of wars through negotiation has not been our formative experience. Our views of war have been shaped in existential struggles against enemies we demonized and whose continued existence we pronounced to be morally unacceptable. In our civil war, in World War I, and in World War II, as well as in the cold war, we fought with the expectation of unconditional surrender and the subsequent reconstruction of our enemies.

Not surprisingly, it is these experiences rather than the awkward stalemate in Korea or dishonorable retreat from Indochina that inspire us when we go to war. The Spanish-American War, in which military success against enemy forces preceded any serious effort to concoct war aims, is also not a model, except perhaps in terms of encouraging us to believe that we can somehow sort out how to deal with the aftermath of war after we’ve destroyed the enemy’s combat power.

The American idea of war termination is the annihilation of the enemy’s forces and the temporary replacement of his sovereignty with our own. We seem to have no notion of how to settle for less than that. In this context, it is hardly surprising that we should have been unable to formulate a war termination strategy for the Gulf War, which was fought to repel aggression and restore a regional balance of power disturbed by the Iran-Iraq War. The failure to craft a sustainable postwar order for the Gulf and to assign Iraq an appropriate role in it meant that there was no postwar regional balance. This, in turn, left the United States to fill the power vacuum.

Many Americans were inclined to see anything less than the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq as an incomplete war, even if that had not been our original objective. The war was indeed incomplete, but this was not why. The sad fact is that Saddam’s military defeat was never translated into his political humiliation. Thus, our military triumph never became a political victory over the Iraqi dictator, and humiliated and resentful Iraqi nationalists in Baghdad were not motivated to overthrow him. We showed, once again, that one can win every battle and prevail in every military contest of strength and still lose politically. To lose politically, as we should have learned in Vietnam, is to be defeated.

This brings me to the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and with terrorists throughout the world today. To gain victory in these conflicts, we must have clear and unwavering objectives. To consolidate victory in these conflicts we must think through how they should conclude. Where do we now stand? Let’s start with 9/11.

In the more than three years since America was cruelly maimed by terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the United States has disrupted the corporate headquarters of al-Qaeda, killed much of its original leadership, and driven from power those who gave it safe haven in Afghanistan. In doing so, we more or less accomplished our original objectives of apprehending the perpetrators of 9/11 and punishing their Afghan hosts so as to deter other countries from sheltering al-Qaeda or its like.

But al-Qaeda has grown new leaders, reorganized, and expanded its operations internationally. It has, in short, metastasized, not collapsed or shrunk into irrelevance. The war in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is largely forgotten here, but it is far from over. It is an expensive war in every sense: 143 U.S. soldiers have died; 423 have been seriously injured.

But, as our war with Afghan insurgents has continued, we have often seemed to forget that al-Qa`ida, not Afghans associated with the Taliban, did 9/11. Unlike al-Qaeda, this should make the Taliban not an enemy to be annihilated but a politico-military problem to be managed as much by political means as by force of arms. We have slain 8,587 Afghan warriors and seriously wounded 25,761. More to the point, we have killed 3,485 Afghan civilians and seriously injured 6,273. In proportion to population, the Afghan dead are the equivalent of 85,000 dead and 250,000 gravely wounded American soldiers, and 34,000 dead American civilians, with another 62,000 seriously injured. As we have turned our attention from capturing al-Qaeda’s leadership to annihilating the Taliban, Afghan tolerance of our presence, not surprisingly, has begun to wear thin.

As I speak, some 18,000 American troops remain engaged in combat with various terrorist and resistance forces in Afghanistan. No one has told us—apparently no one can now say—what might constitute victory there or when our intervention can end. Afghanistan’s pro-American president needed American bodyguards to conduct his successful electoral campaign. The once-discredited Taliban seems to be regaining lost political ground.

Presumably, our central objective remains strategic denial of Afghanistan to al-Qaeda and other terrorist enemies of the United States. This now depends, apparently, on maintaining a huge American pacification force there while looking the other way as contented Afghan farmers exercise their democratic right to harvest the largest opium crop in history.

A year and a half ago, in the second major development since 9/11, we invaded Iraq. We did so for a tangle of five or six theses and reasons that no one has yet been able convincingly to untangle. I will not attempt to do so this afternoon. I will simply note that our one indisputable achievement has been the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a very bad man whose fall from power few in Iraq and no one outside it laments.

But we invaded Iraq with a bunch of dogmas rather than a set of plans. So, as we removed the Iraqi regime, we inadvertently destroyed the Iraqi state. We replaced that state not with a new regime but with an overwhelmingly American military occupation; 137 Americans died during our invasion of Iraq. During the same period, we killed about 30,000 Iraqi troops and seriously wounded another 90,000. In terms of our population, these figures equate to about 349,000 American military dead, with 1,050,000 seriously injured. Not surprisingly, Iraqis had distinctly mixed feelings about our arrival from the outset.

Since the president declared our “mission accomplished” in May 2003, another 1,079 American military personnel have given their lives in Iraq. Our military no longer do body counts, so it is hard to know how many Iraqi guerrillas or civilians have died under our occupation. Hospital-documented deaths add up to at least 15,000, with 26,000 seriously injured, while recent estimates in the British medical journal, The Lancet, suggest as many as 100,000 died. Again, to imagine the impact on ordinary Iraqis of these figures, we must translate them into American terms. They equate to between 175,000 and 1,160,000 dead American civilians. The 600 civilian deaths documented over the past week in Fallujah alone are the equivalent of nearly 7,000 in America.

It’s hard to think of any occupation anywhere that has been welcomed or accepted as legitimate for long by those occupied. But, given our inability even to repair basic infrastructure, let alone reconstruct Iraq, and the figures I have just cited, our occupation is now so universally regarded as illegitimate that it invites resistance and taints any project and any person associated with it. Our aid workers and journalists are now essentially confined to fortified enclaves, military bases, or convoys escorted by our troops. The only thing keeping Iraqis from civil war is their unity in opposing our occupation.

In this increasingly hostile environment, we are nonetheless asking our military simultaneously to create a state and an army to back it while providing security for reconstruction and the installation through elections of a government with the legitimacy we and the interim authority we appointed lack. Apparently, we then plan to hang around in the 14 permanent military bases we are building, as a guarantee of Iraqi democracy and Kurdish autonomy. This is an ambitious, not to say preposterous, tasking to give the United States Army. Support of this kind from us is very likely the kiss of death for any new Iraqi government.

Under the circumstances, perhaps the best outcome we can hope for is that the January elections in Iraq come off and produce a government that asks us to leave. Declaring democracy and withdrawing may be our best option. But is that what we plan to do? And, if not, what do we plan to do?

Our vagueness—maybe it’s just honest confusion—about what we are trying to accomplish in Iraq and how and when we might leave carries a heavy cost, and not just to the American taxpayer. Increasingly, Iraqis, other Arabs, and Muslims around the globe see our presence there as part of a broad assault on the fifth of the human race that is Muslim. They connect our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq with our unconditional support, including generous subsidies, for the Israeli government and its policies in the Arab territories it occupies. They do not believe our president when he promises to resume a peacemaking role between Israelis and Palestinians. They see the United States as now so closely aligned with Israel as to be essentially indistinguishable from it in policy terms and to be disqualified as a mediator.

Identification with Israel remains a big plus in American politics. But it is no longer a plus elsewhere. Here too, it helps to consider the conflict statistics. Since Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on September 29, 2000, the intifada has taken the lives of 942 Israelis and seriously wounded perhaps another 4,500. Critics of Israel should take note! The ascendancy of the Israeli right wing is easier to understand when one considers that this is the equivalent of 44,715 dead and 215,000 wounded Americans. After all, 3,000 deaths on 9/11 were enough to send the United States into a sort of national nervous breakdown.

We focus on the Israeli dead and wounded. Arabs and Muslims are naturally more apt to focus on the comparable Palestinian statistics. Since September 29, 2000, 3,447 Palestinians have died, while another 40,000 or so have been seriously injured. In our terms, this would be 284,964 dead and 3.4 million wounded. As I said a moment ago, rightly or wrongly, Arabs and indeed Muslims globally see this bloodbath in the Holy Land as a direct result of U.S. policy. And they now connect it to lethal American actions against Arabs and Muslims elsewhere.

The decisive shift in foreign views of the United States is the third and most significant change in our situation since 9/11. Our allies and Islamic partners were with us in Afghanistan. Our invasion of Iraq separated most of them from us and set us against three-fourths of the member states of the United Nations. Abu Ghraib and the scofflaw behavior at Guantanamo now belatedly being set right by the federal judiciary subsequently erased much of the admiration the United States enjoyed when we stood unequivocally for a just world order based on the rule of law.

Most, though not all, of our allies and friends in Europe and Asia are now skeptical, even apprehensive, about us. The political burden of proof internationally is against any leader who proposes to follow our lead. Most notably, in Muslim countries, huge majorities have now concluded that the United States is an international predator and implacable enemy of their values. Osama bin Laden and others of like mind see this not only as a boon to recruitment but as a major opportunity to build a transnational political movement to back their terrorist struggle. This is why Osama’s latest message has such a confident, even upbeat tone. He thinks he’s winning his war with us. If our measure of success is whether we kill more terrorists than we create, Osama may be right. In places like Fallujah, to kill one so-called terrorist is to get five free. And Fallujah is now connected to Gaza and Kandahar in the Muslim mind.

If we continue on course, we can expect the world to become ever less hospitable and safe for Americans. And we can expect others to continue to attempt to do to us what they perceive us to be doing to them. Our homeland remains highly vulnerable to attack or, as the terrorists would describe it, counterattack. As we deal with the irregular rhythms of our mounting conflict with the Muslim world, we will be hard pressed to deal with other issues of concern, like the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, or our precarious international financial standing. In fact, some of these issues have already been adversely affected by the various developments I have discussed. Our invasion of Iraq, for example, caused both North Korea and Iran to accelerate their plans to acquire nuclear deterrent forces. The mounting costs of the war drive up our budget deficits and increase our dependence on purchases of our national debt by the Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and so forth.

Which brings me back to the terrible challenges facing our president. We must hope that Kaiser Wilhelm was right when he claimed that “God watches over idiots, little children, and the United States of America.” Or that Winston Churchill was prescient when he observed that “one can always count on the United States to do the right thing, after it has exhausted all the alternatives.” We are getting somewhat short of alternatives, I sense. But what is the right thing to do in these circumstances?

As recently as two years ago, there was no real connection between Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Holy Land. As a result of our decisions and actions, they are now inextricably connected both to each other and to the future of al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist movements. As we deal with each of these issues, we must therefore weigh the extent to which our actions aid or impede resolution of the others.

The place to start is probably Afghanistan, where, I would argue, we have been guilty of “mission creep”—an unwitting and somewhat witless shifting of the goal posts. What are our goals in Afghanistan now that we have al-Qaeda on the run and the Taliban out of office? Are there no alternatives to perpetual military intervention in Afghanistan and to uncontrolled production of the raw material for heroin to accomplish these goals, whatever they may be?

With a presidential election in Afghanistan behind us and parliamentary elections in sight, it is time to clarify and refocus our policy to substitute diplomacy and foreign aid for military intervention. If a fraction of the money we are spending on military operations in Afghanistan were made available to its government for army and nation-building activities, with a bit left over to fund a public school program in Pakistan to give kids in the border areas an alternative to the religiously reactionary madrasas there, much might be accomplished. What’s more, I believe that such an effort could attract matching money and other help from allies, partners, and friends, not just in Europe, but in Asia and even the Arab world.

An approach like this would not represent an abandonment of Afghanistan but a recognition that, in the end, Afghans are likely to be more effective in excluding Islamist terrorists from their territory if the terrorists cannot pose as the resistance to an American-led occupation that is killing other Afghan Muslims. The Afghan government will need to be able to count on us, with other members of the international community, in its struggle to co-opt regional warlords and end the Taliban insurgency. Our withdrawal must be orderly and phased. As we withdraw, we should do everything possible to help the Afghan government succeed, while ensuring that we retain the capacity to re-intervene in the unlikely event that a future Afghan government repeats the error of offering a home to terrorists with global reach.

Then there is Iraq. Here, too, policy clarification is urgently required. The biggest gift we could give to the Iraqi constituent assembly to be elected in January would be a clear statement that our first order of business with it will be to negotiate the terms of our orderly withdrawal from Iraq. We might add that we intend, as and after we withdraw, to channel a continuing flow of American and other international assistance to Iraqi reconstruction through the Iraqi government and Iraqi companies, not carpetbaggers from the United States. As part of our withdrawal plan, we should propose protective arrangements with Iraq’s neighbors.

The fledgling Iraqi state needs assurances of non-intervention from Iran, Syria, and Turkey. It needs help rather than opposition from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and it requires the cooperation of Jordan. Among Iraq’s neighbors, the most important in terms of capacity to intervene in Iraqi politics is Iran. As a neighbor of Afghanistan, Iran is important in that context too. If the Bush Administration can find a way to do business with Col. Qaddhafi’s wacky regime in Libya, where the stakes are much smaller, one may hope that it might have the political courage to deal with Iran.

This brings us to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is at the core of al-Qaeda’s and other extremists’ hopes of uniting the Muslim world against the United States. There was, as far as I could tell, no difference at all between the presidential candidates on any issue touching on Israel and our relations with it. That is truly remarkable because Israelis themselves are deeply divided and carry on a vigorous debate about these issues. American politicians now compete for the favor of whoever is prime minister in Israel, regardless of whether that prime minister pays any attention at all to American opinions or views. All this recalls the fact that it was the Middle East that first gave hypocrisy a bad name. It leads me to the conclusion that an answer to the question of how to secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians is more likely to originate with outspoken Israelis and Palestinians than it is among brain-dead and intimidated politicians here.

But here’s the rub. Well-intentioned American subsidies and pledges of unconditional support for Israel, regardless of its policies, mean not only that Israelis can act without regard to American interests and views. They also mean that Israelis don’t have to make the hard choices they would have to make if they were—or feared they might end up—on their own.

Confident of subsidies from the American taxpayer, Israelis are under little, if any, pressure to reform their inefficient, socialist economy, now one of the most statist in the world. Peace is not impossible, as the Geneva Accords negotiated between former Israeli and current Palestinian officials attest. Assured of military superiority and support against the Arabs, however, Israelis do not need to end their expansion into Palestinian lands or make the diplomatic compromises necessary to define their borders with a viable and therefore stable Palestinian state. Israelis could benefit from some tough love from their American backers.

Israel is the strongest power in the Middle East by a wide margin, even if its security were not guaranteed by the United States, as it is and will continue to be. The only thing that could now call Israel’s existence into question is a long-term failure on its part to make peace with its neighbors. Israel’s cold war with the Arabs has now emerged as a grave threat to U.S. interests as well as to those of the Jewish state. It is time, therefore, to use American leverage to help change the political context in Israel. We should be trying to help those within Israel who advocate policies intended to achieve peace rather than continued oppression of the Palestinians and expansion into Arab lands. American support for the existence of the state of Israel is and should be unquestionable. American support for particular policies of that state should not, however, be exempt from scrutiny and debate.

Let me conclude. I do not apologize for the grave tone of my remarks. Systematically thinking through what we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Arab-Israeli dispute is now an imperative for our country. So is developing strategies for the successful consolidation of victory in these conflicts on terms that advance our national interests. We cannot hope to end hatred and enmity toward the United States in the hearts of all, but we can reverse current trends that are causing that hatred and enmity to deepen and spread internationally. Terrorists represent a grave threat to our liberties as well as to our wealth and power as a nation. We are not winning our struggle with them at present. But I believe that, with clear objectives and well-defined end-games, with the right policies and actions, we can.

* * *

1 This text also incorporates remarks made to the Rhode Island Yale Club.
2 The Diplomat’s Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010), p. 245.
3 Ibid., p. 243.

Chas W. Freeman, Jr. – Chairman of the Board, Projects International, Inc., a Washington, DC-based development firm specializing in international joint ventures, acquisitions, and other business operations for its American and foreign clients; former President, Middle East Policy Council; former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (1993-94), earning the Department of Defense’s highest public service awards for his roles in designing a NATO-centered post-Cold War security system and in reestablishing defense and military relations with China; former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm); Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the U.S. mediation of Namibian independence from South Africa and Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola; and author of the newly published America’s Misadventures in the Middle East as well as The Diplomat’s Dictionary (Revised Edition) and Arts of Power: Statecraft and Diplomacy.


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