It’s difficult, no matter your personal politics, to not have some sympathy for Jeb Bush and his efforts to articulate a plausible foreign policy approach for his presidential campaign. Given the wreckage his brother left him – and us – it’s a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallenda Family.
Bush’s stumbling attempts to get his arms around the issues, however, points out how dangerous things can be on that high wire. Still if he hopes to be president, Jeb will be forced to regularly and publicly struggle with brother George W’s legacy in the Middle East, while always trying to tip toe around the smoldering wreckage. No easy task.
Bush tried mightily this week to both avoid talking about the family mistakes and pin the continuing mess in Iraq and Syria on the current president and the former secretary of state. Even he must know its a stretch. Bush’s major foreign policy speech, delivered on the hallowed ground of the Reagan Library in California, was equal parts reinventing recent history and continuing the proclivity of many American politicians to work very hard to avoid confronting obvious, if difficult truths.
Grappling with the Facts and Lessons on History…
Across Europe this summer and last, the Brits, French, Germans and others have been marking both the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the centenary of the Great War that did not end all wars. British school children have taken field trips to the scenes of the carnage on the Somme in 1916 and near the tiny Belgian village of Passchendaele in 1917. But in reading about the various memorials and events, one gets the impression that something is missing from the history of this war – why did this catastrophe happen, this great war that destroyed empires, spawned an even more destructive second world war and gave us – apparently to the continuing astonishment of many current politicians – the map of the modern Middle East that was drawn during and after the war with little regard for facts on the ground?
The commemoration of the Great War and the end of the second war is, of course, entirely appropriate, but remembering the conflicts is not nearly enough. And some politicians – Japan’s prime minister, for example – would just prefer to move along, thinking; been there, done that. The anniversary of the Great War, for example, is only being quietly marked in Germany and the French continue to mostly ignore the their own troubled history during the second war.
Failing to heed the lessons from such vastly important events has consequences, including the repeating of old mistakes. We must, as the respected British military historian Sir Max Hastings said recently, probe and question, debate and discuss the meaning, the causes and the consequences of our wars.
Hastings argued in a 2014 interview with Euronews that it is a serious mistake to simply mark the horror of the Great War without a serious grappling with the issues and reasons behind the fighting. Hastings’ lessons about that war and about the importance of teaching its lessons to new generations is worthwhile viewing. One wishes the current crop of candidates took the time to listen and think about such big questions, particularly as they rush to define their foreign policy platforms in an area of the world that is still so very unfamiliar to us.
Cloudy Thinking, Shaky Facts, Bad History…
In terms of understanding issues like the U.S. role in Iraq and the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sometimes called ISIS – we can’t even agree what to call the movement) there is always a simple, concise explanation that is wrong, which leads me back to the allegedly “smarter” Bush – Jeb.
The essence of Bush’s recent foreign policy argument is that Iraq was “secure” in 2009 following the “surge” of American troops that was instituted by his brother. That strategy, temporarily at least, propped up the perfectly awful regime headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malicki.
Then, at least in Bush’s telling, President Obama with the support of Hillary Clinton let it all go to hell with the premature removal of American combat troops from Iraq. Therefore, under this logic and accepting Bush’s telling, Obama and Clinton “lost” Iraq and paved the ground for the rise of the spectacularly brutal ISIL. Bush’s analysis if, of course, mostly aimed at Clinton and is simple, concise and mostly wrong.
Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, one of the more astute analysts of the American experience in Iraq, says: “the Republican argument that a handful of American troops could have saved Iraq misses a larger point. The fundamental problem was American policy—in particular, the American policy of supporting and strengthening Maliki at all costs. Maliki was a militant sectarian his whole life, and the United States should not have been surprised when he continued to act that way once he became Prime Minister. As Emma Sky, who served as a senior adviser to the American military during the war in Iraq, put it, ‘The problem was the policy, and the policy was to give unconditional support to Nuri al-Maliki.’ (Sky’s book, The Unraveling, is the essential text on how everything fell apart.) When the Americans helped install him, in 2006, he was a colorless mediocrity with deeply sectarian views. By 2011, he was an unrivalled strongman with control over a vast military and security apparatus. Who enabled that?”
Filkins’ answer to the enabling question is that George W. Bush, Obama and Clinton all had a hand in creating the mess, but he also notes a fact that Jeb ignores – it was his brother who established the timeline for the troop withdrawal, a timeline that Obama was only too happy to implement since he had campaign to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Amending that agreement, as Bush said “everyone” thought would happen, was entirely contingent on the Iraqi government we had helped establish agreeing to U.S. troops remaining. Changing the Bush agreement, given the internal strife in the country, was never going to happen and, in fact, the Iraqi parliament refused to consider modifications of the troop withdrawal timeline.
As Filkins says, “at best, Jeb is faulting Obama for not amending the deal.”
Other commentators, including Paul Waldman, have observed that Jeb Bush, as well as other Republicans, continue to believe, against all evidence, that the United States could bend the internal politics of Iraq in a way that we might like. Remember the rhetoric about a western-style democracy taking root in the heart of the Middle East? It was a pipe dream and still is.
“And this is perhaps the most dangerous thing about Bush’s perspective on Iraq,” Waldman wrote recently in the Washington Post, “which can also be said of his primary opponents. They display absolutely no grasp of the internal politics of Iraq, now or in the past, not to mention the internal politics of other countries in the region, including Iran. Indeed, most Republicans don’t seem to even believe that these countries have internal politics that can shape what the countries choose to do and how they might react to our actions.”
As for Clinton, who of course is the real political target of Bush’s recent critique of past and present U.S. Middle East policy, Dexter Filkins says: “She played a supporting role in a disastrously managed withdrawal, which helped lay the groundwork for the catastrophe that followed. And that was preceded by the disastrously managed war itself, which was overseen by Jeb Bush’s brother. And that was preceded by the decision to go to war in the first place, on trumped-up intelligence, which was also made by Bush’s brother.
“All in all, when it comes to Iraq, Clinton doesn’t have a lot to brag about. But Jeb Bush might want to consider talking about something else.”
Let the Debate Continue…
Or would it be too much to just ask that Bush – other candidates, as well – grapple with the grubby details of the mess in the Middle East. It is a convenient sound bite to say, for example, that Obama and Clinton “allowed” the Islamic State to emerge amid all the sectarian violence that we could never have successfully controlled, even had we committed to U.S. boots on the ground for the next 50 years. Such thinking does little – nothing really – to help explain what has really happened in Iraq and why.
In a truly chilling article in the current New York Review of Books, an anonymous writer identified as a senior official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, provides some insight into all that we don’t know and can’t comprehend about the forces that have unleashed havoc in Iraq and Syria.
The latest ISIL outrage includes, according to the New York Times, a policy of rape and sex slavery, across a wide swath of the region. The sober and informed piece should be required reading for every candidate as a cautionary tale about how American policy, beginning with George W. Bush, has been a tragic failure. It is also a stark reminder of the real limits of what our military power can accomplish.
“I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the writer says in attempting to explain ISIL. “But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi [ultra-conservative Islamic] theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.
“We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”
If there is any good news amid the re-writing of our recent and often disastrous history in the Middle East it may be contained in the fact that Jeb Bush’s quest for the White House will mean that the American legacy in Iraq will continue to be debated. Smart politics might have dictated that Jeb leave the sleeping dogs of W’s policies lie, but that was never an option. The mess his brother made is still too raw and too important not to demand ongoing discussion, particularly from another Bush.
History will assign the blame for U.S. policy in the Middle East and I’m pretty confident how that will shake out. American voters, even given our short attention span and penchant to accept over simplification of enormously complex issues, should welcome the discussion that Jeb Bush’s speech has prompted. He may be, as Paul Waldman says, “shockingly obtuse” about the limits of American power and as misinformed as some of the people who led us down this rabbit hole, but we still need to force the debate and challenge the “theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination.”
Who knows, as Max Hastings suggests when considering the lasting lessons of the 100 year old Great War, we might actually learn something.