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Dethroning the Taliban and Saddam Hussein Were the Right Things to Do

by D.J. McGuire

As Peggy Noonan set off the latest round of arguments on the right between Never-Trumpers and anti-anti-Trumpers over recent political history, one critical part of Noonan’s argument has been ignored – her casual assertion that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were “a historic foreign-policy catastrophe.”

Most Never Trumpers who defended those wars have ignored or grudgingly accepted the premise of the accusation, especially where Iraq is concerned. Indeed, by my count, there may be only six of us left who still recognize that liberating Iraq from Ba’athism was the right thing to do (UPDATE: Hussain Haqqani – the former Pakistani Ambassador to the US cited below, makes it seven).

We’re still right, though, and in saying otherwise, my fellow Never Trump Conservatives risk ceding the field to Trump-apologists in foreign policy.

It’s easy to look at Iraq today – with its corruption-riddled government, inefficiencies, and precarious geopolitical position between the U.S. and Iran – and assume things must have been better when Saddam Hussein kept the country off the front pages … unless one remembers that Saddam Hussein did no such thing. He killed hundreds of thousands of his own people invading Iran. Those who survived the war had to deal with purges and state terror that took at least another quarter of a million lives. It was no accident that Ba’athist Iraq was called “The Republic of Fear.”

I’m not saying human rights abuses are itself a reason to liberate a nation by force. However, those who would make that argument ignore Saddam’s repeated support for terrorism and desire to arm himself with ever more dangerous weaponry.

While the WMD issue has crowded out our collective memory, we shouldn’t forget how Saddam’s regime was trying to build ties to al-Qaeda, posthumously subsidizing Palestinain suicide bombers, and Islamicizing itself to the point where its henchmen transitioned seemlessly to al Qaeda in Iraq and then ISIS. We’ve seen what ISIS has done over the last several years. Now imagine ISIS running all of Iraq, and with a $10 million North Korean missile assembly line (which Pyongyang never delivered only because of “too much American scrutiny” in the run-up to the liberation).

I would also note that within months of Saddam being knocked out of power, Libya openly renounced its WMD programs and even the mullahcracy of Iran hit pause on its own nuclear-weapons development. Quite the coincidence.

When Operation Iraqi Freedom was first launched, its critics (usually, but not exclusively, on the left) cited the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan as a reason that the Iraq war was a mistake. These days, they no longer hide behind the Afghan war, lumping them both together as errors. If anything, this should make it clear their arguments against both wars are wrong.

Afghan war critics these days try to separate the Taliban and al Qaeda, as if the former were as much a victim of the latter as the rest of us (Tulsi Gabbard most famously did this in a riposte to Tim Ryan during a Democratic presidential debate last year). For Afghans, however, this has been a distinction without a difference. As Javid Ahmad and Husain Haqqani noted last year:

The unvarnished reality on the ground is that al-Qaeda remains an important factor in the Taliban insurgency. The two terrorist groups are codependent allies, and their partnership endured for nearly 23 years. Currently, the Taliban serves as the primary partner for AQIS, al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate, and almost all other terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan.

The alliance is grounded in mutual cooperation, driven by common jihadist obligation, ideology and a shared hatred for the United States.

An estimated 300 al-Qaeda militants, embedded in Taliban units, target U.S. and Afghan forces and regard the Taliban emir as the true leader of the faithful. In many Taliban units, it is often difficult to distinguish Taliban commanders from al-Qaeda ones.

The two groups enjoy multiple layers of top-down linkages, where decision-making is centralized but military activities are mostly decentralized. The alliance is further tightened by intermarriages, and al-Qaeda members often serve as religious mentors and instructors to the Taliban fighters.

The idea that al-Qaeda died with Osama bin Laden – and with it our need to be in Afghanistan – is simply wrong. Leaving Afghanistan without the destruction of the Taliban and of al Qaeda is not “ending the war.” It is losing the war. It would also lead terrorists around the world to re-evaluate the strength of the United States. If committing a 9/11-style attack means little more than hiding out for a couple decades while America exhausts itself….

Ceding the rhetorical ground to Trump in Iraq and in Afghanistan is not only a policy mistake, but a political one as well.

One nearly universal problem Never Trump Conservatives have with Trump is his isolationism. It pervades everything he does; it is a cause and an effect of his personal ignorance of the world around him; it is a gift to enemies of freedom; and it fuels his white supremacism.

However, like all isolationists before him, he hides its darkness behind vague promises to stop “endless wars.” Any Republican or conservative critic of him (and more than a few Democratic ones) find their earlier support for liberating Iraq and/or Afghanistan thrown back in their faces.

Those of us who still believe those wars are just have some questions of our own for the president.

  • Does he still think the Taliban is worthy of an invitation to Camp David?
  • What leads him to think the Taliban and al Qaeda will cease attempting more 9/11-style attacks against us, given that you have shown them they can simply wait America out?
  • Is he hoping that his fealty to Vladimir Putin will lead him to hold back the Taliban, with whom the Kremlin has recently allied?
  • Is he saying we would be better off with an ISIS-like regime controlling all of Iraq?
  • What would he have done to prevent Saddam Hussein from underwriting suicide bombers in Israel and stockpiling missiles built with North Korean know-how?
  • What incentives would Gaddafi have had to end his own WMD ambitions without the Iraqi example?

Trump will likely respond to these questions with bluster and ignorance, but the American people deserve to have answers – or to know that the incumbent president asking for re-election doesn’t have any.

Trump’s critics have spent too long deflecting Trump’s rants about these conflicts. We should respond with a full-throated defense of our efforts to protect America, our allies, and oppressed peoples from tyrannical terrorists. It’s the right thing to do and the politically wise thing to do.

So You Really Want to Defeat the Iranian Regime?

by D.J. McGuire

“A strange game, the only winning move is not to play” – Joshua, War Games

Less than a week after Qasem Soleimani was killed in an American drone attack in Baghdad, the Iranian regime’s military has responded with a dozen-plus missile attacks on two American bases. Thankfully, as of early this morning, there appear to be no American or Iraqi casualties.

That the Khomeinist regime in Tehran is hostile to the United States is not news – and no, said hostility did not start in January 2017. Tehran has been subverting Iraq’s democracy for over a decade. It has played a critical role in Bashar Assad’s bloody repression of the popular uprising in Syria – spearheaded by Soleimani himself before he met his own well-deserved demise. It has continually, and successfully, waylaid attempts by the Lebanese people to escape its influence.

All of these have been swept under the rug by the projectile exchange – including a burgeoning anti-Tehran movement among Iraqi Shiites, as I noted last week. Tehran’s attempt to change the subject worked beautifully. Now, they’re hoping to reap the benefits by relying on outrage at “the Great Satan” to isolated domestic opponents and keep any of the aforementioned anti-Tehran movements from getting more oxygen.

At this moment, Trump can continue military action, or he can move to defeat Tehran in the region. Note, I said or, not and. America can (and should) deliver serious geopolitical defeats to Tehran, but they won’t be delivered via direct military force. What would it entail? As it happens, I provided some of that answer last week:

A broader strategy would have recognized and reached out to the Iraqi protestors (and their counterparts in Iran) and challenged the mullahcracy across all fronts – including Syria and Lebanon. It would go beyond the ridiculous yet stubborn false choice of nothing or full military force. It would work with regional and global allies to press the case for true democracy and the stability that comes with it. It would make clear that the Tehran regime itself is the problem, and that we recognize its behavior is but a feature of its tyranny and the anxiety that always comes from a lack of popular legitimacy.

Contrary to what Tehran would like us to believe, opposition to their influence in Iraq hasn’t gone away. Even as the Shiite parties in the Iraqi parliament voted to demand U.S. troops leave Iraq, the Sunni, Kurdish, and other non-sectarian Shiite parties refused to show up for the vote (Washington Post). Had six more Shiite MPs been unable to attend, the parliament would have lacked a quorum and been unable to vote on anything.

The largest of the parties that did vote for the demand that is led by Muqtada al-Sadr, whose anger at the U.S. is at least matched by his fury at Tehran’s influence in his country. The current Prime Minister there is already on his way out because of the anger of the anti-Tehran Shiite movement. An American president who understood the nuances of the situation would realize we could seriously damage Iran geopolitically without firing a shot.

Meanwhile, we do still have a military presence in eastern Syria, and thus still have an opportunity to build and support Syrians who reject the false choice of Assad or Wahhabism. Of course, that first requires a president who recognizes that to be a false choice. Again, a Syria without Assad would strike a major blow against the Khomeinist regime.

Finally, there is the matter of the dissidents within Iran itself. For all of Trump’s supposed toughness, he has repeatedly insisted he is not looking for regime change in Iran (CNBC). This continues to send the wrong message to the Iranian people – the regime’s first and longest suffering group of victims. Lest we forget, Ronald Reagan gave the Polish Communists fits by supporting the Solidarity movement with words, funds, and communications materials. The Communist regime fell in 1989 without a shot being fired.

The first two objectives, if achieved, would badly defeat the Khomeinist regime; the third would help the Iranian people end it entirely. The problems are these: direct military action against Iran is more likely to damage than to benefit efforts for all three, and Donald Trump has never shown an interest in any of them in the first place.

That is why I have been so critical of his policies in the region. That is why I came up short of three full cheers for the successful dispatching of Soleimani. That butcher’s death would have been very helpful at least regarding the Syria and Iraq objectives, but without said objectives, all we got was a president with a goosed-up ego and the business end of roughly a dozen missiles. That said, it’s not too late to shift gears and “go long” with the aforementioned objectives to actually defeat the Khomeinist regime.

D.J. McGuire – a self-described progressive conservative – has been part of the More Perfect Union Podcast since 2015. He is also a contributor to Bearing Drift.

A Tactical Success Does Not a Strategy Make

by D.J. McGuire

“So he was murdered. I have no problem with that; the man was a pig. But it was a decision we should have all made together.” – Viktor Slavin, as portrayed by Boris Lee Krutonog, The Hunt for Red October

The United States sent a message to the Middle East with the attack on Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani last night – but it’s not the message the president thinks is being sent. Instead of projecting strength and resolve, he has projected callousness and self-absorption. Only Donald Trump could make the death of the Iranian Quds Force boss a buzzkill, but here we are.

To understand why this tactical strike is far removed from an actual strategy – let alone a successful one – we have to remember what has been happening recently (and is still happening) in Iraq right now. Iraqis in Shiite-majority cities and in Baghdad have been protesting October, with two objectives: end corruption and end Iran’s heavy hand in their nation’s politics. This was reflective of the parliamentary election last year, when Shia Iraqis gave their votes to the most anti-Iranian leader they could find (bizarrely enough, that was Muqtada al-Sadr). Much like in 2010, however (when a broad-based anti-Tehran coalition initially won the election), Iran-allied parties used political machinations to maintain Tehran’s influence. Shia Iraq, watching their leaders fleece the country and lean on foreigners for strength, had enough.

For the mullahcracy in Tehran, this was a true crisis – the regime’s sole source of legitimacy is its supposed leadership of all Shia Islam – and after attempting to quell the protests with violence (Reuters), they tried changing the subject, sending one of their Iraqi-allied militia after American personnel (Politico). That worked, and American retaliation led to said militia violently harassing the US Embassy this week. That didn’t stop the Shia protests against Tehran (Al Jazeera), but it did get Trump’s attention – thus the attack on Soleimani.

In other words, the Trump Administration cares more about some embassy walls in the Green Zone than over 400 dead Iraqis. Iran-backed militias did both, but only the former roused the president. When the shock and euphoria of Soleimani’s death wears off, that will be noticed. Maddeningly, the Administration is broadcasting it even today, with Secretary of State Pompeo insisting America “remains committed to de-escalation” (WaPo).

That’s not the only thing that takes the bloom off the rose here. The continued emphasis on killing enemy leaders instead of defeating enemy forces has further distorted American policy. Al Qaeda has now survived Osama bin Laden by nearly a decade; al-Baghdadi’s death did not kill Daesh; and Soleimani’s death, while a welcome development per se, doesn’t mean Tehran is defeated.

A broader strategy would have recognized and reached out to the Iraqi protestors (and their counterparts in Iran) and challenged the mullahcracy across all fronts – including Syria and Lebanon. It would go beyond the ridiculous yet stubborn false choice of nothing or full military force. It would work with regional and global allies to press the case for true democracy and the stability that comes with it. It would make clear that the Tehran regime itself is the problem, and that we recognize its behavior is but a feature of its tyranny and the anxiety that always comes from a lack of popular legitimacy.

Much of this was present when George W. Bush announced the change in policy toward Iraq in 2007 (known as “the surge”). He made it clear he recognized the mullahcracy was an enemy of the American and Iraqi peoples. The latter certainly noticed, and helped turn the tide against both the Quds Force and al Qaeda in Iraq as a result (that realization was forgotten in the Obama Administration, but that’s for another day).

None of it has been on display this week, or we would have seen greater coordination with our allies and with the Iraqi people, and would be in a far better position to take advantage of this. Instead, we got a reaction to an embarrassing incident at our embassy and nothing more.

Trump and his Administration have no strategy. They have no real goal besides finding an excuse to pull out of the region. They have no real concern for the peoples of the Middle East. As these realizations dawn, our enemies will exploit them for their own gain. They may have lost the battle, but thanks to Trump’s ignorance and myopia, I fear they will win the war.

D.J. McGuire – a self-described progressive conservative – has been part of the More Perfect Union Podcast since 2015. He is also a contributor to Bearing Drift.

Another Premature Withdrawal Leads to Another Terrorist Rebound

by D.J. McGuire

“Stop us if this sounds familiar” – Ed Morrisey, Hot Air

That particular quote begins Morrisey’s examination of a new report from the lead inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve (the name for the anti-Daesh operation in the nations of Syria and Iraq). Here’s the rest of the opening paragraph.

The US declares victory and goes home after a massive victory against an insurgency, only to see it metastasize in the vacuum left by our departure. That’s how we got ISIS in the first place after Barack Obama’s pullout from Iraq in 2011, and according to a new Pentagon report, that’s how we’re getting them again.

In this case, “again” refers to Syria, where “(t)he reduction of US forces has decreased the support available for Syrian partner forces at a time when their forces need more training and equipping to respond to the ISIS resurgence” (Glenn Fine, Principal Deputy IG, via CNN).

In other words, while Trump was declaring victory (as late as last month) and continuing a withdrawal that was so wrong-headed it cost him Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense, Daesh “solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq, and was re-surging in Syria.”

Or, as Morrisey put it (emphasis in original): “There’s not much to say other than we told you so. (Or even more accurately, James Mattis told Trump so.)” For what it’s worth, similar sentiments came from yours truly back then.

Today, our allies in Syria are facing a “re-surging” Daesh and a triumphalists Ba’athist tyranny while Donald Trump pulls our forces out and pretends he’s won.

For those unaware, this was the issue that led me to vote for Clinton, the first – and to date, still only – vote for a Democratic presidential nominee I ever cast. I was convinced Trump would abandon the Syria people.

No one told me how bad being right would feel.

D.J. McGuire – a self-described progressive conservative – has been part of the More Perfect Union Podcast since 2015. He is also a contributor to Bearing Drift.

More Perfect, After Dark: War and Peace (Ep. 87)

This special “After-Dark” episode takes listeners behind the scenes to hear what the hosts talk about after the podcast ends. This week they discuss the North Korean nuclear threat and how it compares to past situations in Iraq and Syria, how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is handling his new role on the world stage, and whether President Trump is up to the task of international diplomacy.

Like what you heard? Subscribe on iTunes and don’t miss a podcast! 

And if you like talking politics, join us in our Facebook political debate group, OPEN FIRE, where you can discuss news and politics with D.J., Greg, Rebekah, Kevin, Cliff, Molly, Helena, and lots of other smart, fun people.