Was It Worth It: America’s Presence in the Middle East

With the release of the CIA torture report this week, America is once again getting nothing but bad press about our involvement in the Middle East.

But what would historians say 100 years from now, once outside of the immediate politics and partisanship of the issues. Would they think that the wars in the Middle East were worth it?

Probably the most logical place to begin is deciding whether or not the initial objectives of each action were met, but not the objectives as they evolved to justify continued involvement.

First Iraq War and Peacekeeping Mission

The first Iraq war and peacekeeping mission began in 1990 with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The peacekeeping mission itself was enforcing two no-fly-zones in Iraq, which served to protect ethnic minorities and limit the strike capability of Iraqi air power. This was coupled with economic sanctions.

It ended in 2002 with the beginning of the second Iraq war, with the military objectives usually seen as being met:

  • Kuwait was liberated.
  • Iraq did not attempt to invade another sovereign power.
  • Iraq did not commit continued widespread acts of genocide.
  • Effectiveness of Iraqi air power was greatly diminished.

The economic sanctions are generally given much more scrutiny:

  • They created a crumbling infrastructure;
  • Caused widespread hunger;
  • Fueled resentment against western powers;
  • Cut off Iraq from the international community; and
  • Forced Iraq to seek help from Russia–who was willing to ignore many of the U.N. sanctions.

The idea behind the economic sanctions was two-fold. First, it would eliminate much of the regime’s funding. Second, it would serve as a motivation for the population to force political change.

In reality, the economic sanctions did neither, and yet did more than the military involvement from 1990-1991. The sanctions set the stage for the second Iraq War.

War on Terror: Afghanistan

While there is definitely considerable variation of interpreting the results of the war in Afghanistan, it definitely fares the best in public opinion polls as a necessary war.

Prior to 9/11, al-Qaeda operated with impunity throughout the Middle East. Americans had been targeted at least four times by al-Qaeda, including:

  • Unsuccessful attacks on hotels in Yemen targeting American soldiers in 1992;
  • A car bombing in Saudi Arabia killing 5 Americans in 1995;
  • Truck bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing 224 and injuring more than 4,000 in 1998; and
  • The bombing of the USS Cole in shallow waters at port in Yemen, killing 17 American sailors and injuring 39 in 2000.

Early successes, as well as limited response and retaliation, gave al-Qaeda the opportunity to refine strategies.
Early successes, as well as limited response and retaliation, gave al-Qaeda the opportunity to refine strategies and increase destructive power with each attack.

The attack on the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and U.S. Capitol building (failed attempt) by four airline jets remains the single largest act of terrorism, both in lives lost (2,996) and property damage ($7-20B estimated).

And while a history review might seem unnecessary, it was the fact that al-Qaeda sought and successfully attacked larger, higher profile targets that drove the initial response.

In the months following 9/11, there was an imminent fear of some sort of “shock and awe” type weapon of mass destruction attack from al-Qaeda.

This drove the underlying strategy for attacking Afghanistan:

  • End the ability of the Taliban regime to harbor terrorists within their borders;
  • Disrupt al-Qaeda to the point of ineffectiveness;
  • Destroy training camps and safe havens; and
  • Capture and/or kill top leaders, including bin Laden.

Most of the military objectives were achieved very quickly, with the notable exceptions being top Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership fleeing into Pakistan.

In particular, al-Qaeda as an organization had been damaged badly enough that there were no follow-up large profile attacks to the 9/11 attack.

Was it Worth it?

Future articles will highlight the objectives of the second Iraq war, but there are many subtle nuances to the war in Afghanistan that we just don’t normally include in our political discourse. The next article will significantly narrow its focus to only the issue of delaying the capture of bin Laden in favor of an earlier Iraq invasion, including the long-term damage to diplomatic relationships abroad because of the delay.

But up to this point, was our involvement up through Afghanistan worth it? Militarily: Definitely yes. Nation building: Definitely no.

Probably the single biggest foreign policy mistake America has consistently made in our dealing with the Middle East has been the belief that the ordinary, average people of Iraq and Afghanistan would welcome us with open arms after liberating them — that they would be our partners in rebuilding nations that would take their place among the international community.

Make no mistake, the military operations of the first Iraq war and Afghanistan were almost complete successes — other than catching bin Laden (and other high-profile targets), our military succeeded in its objectives.

The problem became that we weren’t seen as liberators; we were seen as an occupying force.

The economic sanctions put into place in the 1990s against Iraq fueled widespread hatred against American policy. The people bore most of the suffering, not the leadership.

Afghanistan devolved quickly into four factions vying for power in addition to the Taliban and al-Qaeda resuming their role as an insurgency force against a better equipped, more powerful army.

For the past 25 years, America has been presented with a string of “either-or” scenarios in the Middle East. The problem with this is that life seldom exists on an either-or basis, and many more options should have been discussed.

This, coupled with our fascination with a Marshall Plan-style nation-building project at the end of each military action, has created a foreign policy in dealing with the Middle East that is both short-sighted and narrow-minded.

We need to look at our failures in the Middle East, because our involvement there is far from over. We need to assess what did and what didn’t work, along with assessing viable alternatives to a military model of breaking things followed by nation building.

Because at some point, we need to own up to our failures if we don’t want to be doomed to repeat them again.

Author’s note: This article is the first in a series that will examine American involvement in the Middle East, from the perspective of “Was it worth it?” There is no right or wrong answer to some of the questions or points; some would indicate that it was definitely worth it, while others would indicate that it definitely wasn’t.  But one thing is for certain, there are many aspects and subtle nuances to America’s involvement for the past 25 years, points that largely go unnoticed by the mainstream media and undiscussed in Congress. The truth is, we don’t have a real foreign policy discussion in Washington. 

Photo Credit: Alexander Smulskiy / shutterstock.com