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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

The Next Step In Iraq? Call Tehran

Originally posted at The Washington Spectator

Southwest Asia has been with me for a long time. For over a decade, I was a small part of a fairly well-orchestrated U.S. strategy to maintain the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. When the Shah of Iran fell in 1979, we knew that the papier-mache kingdom of Saudi Arabia could not replace Iran as our “protector in the Gulf,” so we settled for the next best thing: a relatively stable balance between the Arabs of Iraq and the Persians of Iran. We had to work hard to maintain this balance.

The first serious challenge came in the mid-1980s when I was a joint-staff officer for the principal military force-provider for the region, U.S. Pacific Command. I helped plan the U.S. military’s response to defeat a push by the Soviets into Iran in search of warm-water ports. In 1979, Russia had already invaded Afghanistan and many predicted Iran was next. The Cold War’s strategy preempted everything else, but we still kept a wary eye on others in the Persian Gulf, particularly after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran.

When it looked as if the long and bloody war Hussein had started might eventually destroy the balance we sought and draw the Soviets into Gulf waters, the U.S. openly took Iraq’s side. We re-flagged and escorted Kuwaiti tankers, a U.S. warship absorbed two Iraqi Exocet missiles and almost sank, another of our warships struck an Iranian mine, we attacked Iran’s command-and-control assets, sank one Iranian warship and badly damaged another, and then tragically shot down an Iranian civilian airliner with 290 people on board. It was this tragic act that many believe caused Ayatollah Khomeini to “drink the hemlock,” as he put it, and declare an end to the disastrous war Iraq had begun. The stability we sought was reestablished.

At the end of the 1980s, I became a special advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Having been thwarted in his attempt to conquer Iran, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and we immediately launched Operation Desert Shield to protect Saudi oil facilities and, some months later, Operation Desert Storm to kick the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait.

Desert Storm accomplished our strategic objective: restoring the balance in the Gulf. We did not march to Baghdad to unseat Saddam Hussein, because had we done so alone, we would have assumed the role of balancer and would have had to remain in that country indefinitely, something we wisely judged as not only untenable but extremely dangerous for long-term U.S. interests.

Through four presidents — Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton — the U.S. played an adroit strategic game in the Persian Gulf. As a member of the Marine Corps War College faculty from 1993-1997, I and my joint-force students studied, analyzed and evaluated this strategy. As a personal advisor to retired General Colin Powell from 1998-2000, I often discussed how Saddam was contained and the Gulf was stable. In short, we watched U.S. strategy work. It maintained stability in one of the most vital regions of the world and cheap oil flowed to Japan, to Europe and to us.

Imagine my utter surprise, then, when I returned to government in 2000 and began to hear talk of destroying that relative stability by invading Iraq and taking out Saddam Hussein. Had I stumbled into an administration of neophytes in national security policy, lunatics, power-mad zealots, or what?

Some would say the neoconservatives and hyper-nationalists who seemed to crawl out of the dark and advise or enter the Bush administration were all of these and more. But these descriptions omit an important element: the messianic and arrogant belief in American exceptionalism.

Many of the men and women I encountered in 2001-2005, or who are now speaking out loudly about America’s responsibilities toward Iraq, sincerely believed that their country has a mission in the world to evangelize its unbelievers. Theirs is a long tradition in U.S. foreign policy, loathed and despised by John Quincy Adams as wanting to go “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

No matter how many times their beliefs are proven insane, destabilizing, immoral, dangerous, ruinous even — consider L. Paul Bremer’s disbanding of the Iraqi military, de-Baathification and refusal to establish an Iraqi government in 2003 — they continue to advocate identical policies and actions. Regardless of previous decisions gone horribly awry, they push for similar decisions today. Despite clear proof that civil war cannot be safely managed by outside parties, they — the outside party — insist on intervening. Today, moreover, they insist on calling all opposition “terrorists,” even in Iraq where the most formidable forces opposing Nouri al-Maliki are the very Sunnis “awakened” by General David Petraeus in 2007.

Worse, because of a truly apathetic Congress, a largely ignorant or complicit media, a dramatically incompetent legal system, and those who enrich themselves on the anti-terrorist industrial complex, these neocons get away with this characterization.

From 1953 to 2000, we crafted and maintained a balance of power in the Persian Gulf, however ignominiously to the purer hearts of the world. In 2003, we destroyed that balance. We are now reaping the consequences. To thrust more military power into such a situation will only work if we remain indefinitely and massively deployed there — an extremely dangerous proposition. The only other solution is to craft a new balance of power. Iran just might be ready to assist.


With the recent U.S. airstrikes near Irbil, President Obama has re-entered the miasma that is Iraq.

In for a penny, in for a pound comes to mind. A couple of laser-guided bombs are the penny. The pound will come when air power, as usual, proves insufficient.

Compelling the U.S. to re-enter the fray is precisely what the Islamic State (IS) desires: The ultimate tactical goal of every rabid terrorist spawned by al Qaeda is to kill Americans. What IS does not want is Tehran and Washington working in concert.

The IS leadership knows no solution can be achieved — in Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon or Iraq — and no long-term security for Israel can be forged, and no peace can come to the region, unless Iran is a fully participating and cooperating party on the side of IS’s enemies.

This does not mean sectarian war; it means a war of both Sunnis and Shia, along with Christians and others — and of all those desirous of stability and peace — against the real terrorists. It also means that all religious groups, in Iraq and elsewhere, who join this struggle have to be treated with tolerance, respect, both during the struggle and after it’s won. There can be no Malikis any more than there can be new Saddam Husseins.

There has to be real and sustainable political change in Iraq — and it has to come now.

Lawrence Wilkerson is Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. He was Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002-2005. He served 31 years in the U.S. Army.

AFP Photo

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The Choice On Iran: Inspectors On The Ground, Or Boots On The Ground

By Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

With nuclear negotiations with Iran being extended, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the U.S. experience with Iraq in 2002 and 2003. While most of us would prefer not to revisit or re-debate the run-up to the invasion, the more responsible path is to look at the parallels and learn where we can. At a minimum, we owe that to the men and women who served in the Iraq war.

In that tense prewar time, enormous pressure was being put on Iraq to allow for intrusive international inspections of their alleged nuclear weapons program. Among other things, it was a process driven by artificial timelines. The United Nations inspections team led by Hans Blix requested more time, but the Bush administration had its own timetable. Those calls for further deliberation were rejected, and the public was provided with a steady stream of alarmist messages describing the looming threat that Iraq posed. The words of caution from many of our leading allies were dismissed.

This history is critical to our present deliberations for one simple reason: What we’re doing now is exactly what we should have done instead of invading Iraq.

Without a doubt, an Iranian nuclear program is an issue to take very seriously. The U.S. and Iran have been in conflict since 1979, the Iranians have been a leading state sponsor of terrorism, and the regime in Tehran has willfully misled the world regarding its intentions in the past.

At the same time, there are only two ways to definitively control Iran’s nuclear program. The first is by establishing a rigorous program of on-site inspections supported by the international community and confirming that significant portions of Iran’s program have been dismantled and rolled back. The second is by launching a ground invasion of Iran and literally taking control of the sites in question.

In short, the choice at hand is inspectors on the ground or boots on the ground.

At this point our negotiating team, working closely with Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, has led tough negotiations that have yielded real results. Since the negotiations began, Iran’s nuclear program has been frozen and their program has been rolled back. A final deal will include a verifiable limit on the number of Iranian centrifuges. It will limit Iran’s uranium enrichment to reactor grade (5 percent) and limit Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium to commercial needs. It will modify their Arak reactor to limit its ability to produce plutonium and it will definitively lengthen the amount of time it would take Iran to develop a weapon.

In the past six months the international community has made more progress containing Iran’s nuclear program than in the preceding ten years. This is a strong argument in favor of continuing the negotiations.

Perhaps most importantly, a final deal will put in place a highly intrusive inspections and monitoring regime with global support. Based on Iran’s prior behavior the international negotiating team is insisting on very stringent inspections. The negotiated outcome will likely be best characterized as “all verify and no trust.”

Congress has played a role as well. The sanctions that they passed have helped bring Iran to the table. And despite the efforts of some in Congress, they ultimately gave our diplomatic team the room they needed to maneuver.

Unfortunately, there are also efforts afoot to sabotage the deal. Some in Congress are working to move the goalposts and add new sanctions on Iran or push for concessions that they know perfectly well Iran will never agree to. This is a bad idea. To be sure, there are other issues to pursue with Iran such as their appalling human rights record and their missile program, but these can and should be handled separately. They should not be used to scuttle the progress that has been made. It will not benefit America’s national security interest if we make every outcome other than war impossible.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson served as Gen. Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002-2005. He is now a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary. Readers may send him email at

AFP Photo/Kazem Ghane

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