Iraq, Iran, Israel — and the importance of the US role

Middle East developments contain at least some promising signs, despite all the usual ongoing expressions of hostility punctuated by brutal violence. United States forces are concluding combat roles in Iraq, partially fulfilling candidate and President Barack  Obama’s promise to withdraw from that nation. The president has also just opened the first direct talks in two years between representatives of Israel and the Palestinians.

Obama announced the mission’s end of U.S. combat units in a formal address to the nation. Very appropriately and commendably, he devoted a substantial part of the speech to praising the American military for achieving relative stability in a very vexing, complex and alien security environment.

The U.S. military has been under enormous stress for years, beginning with the George W. Bush administration’s determination to carry out the invasions of Afghanistan as well as Iraq with very minimal forces, an approach that in hindsight clearly was cruel as well as impractical. The current high suicide rates among serving military personnel in part reflect this fundamental misjudgment.

Since 2007, our military has done an extraordinary job of recovering strategic position in Iraq, initially led by Gen. David Petraeus, now the Allied commander in Afghanistan. The surge of conventional forces in Iraq, made possible by President Bush’s decision to increase the total U.S. forces, was the result of Petraeus’ pressure as well as his persuasive planning.

While the surge received the headlines, covert operations also have been significant in improving security in Iraq. Two years ago, very credible and well-connected investigative reporter Bob Woodward brought out “The War Within,” his fourth book on the military engagements of the Bush administration.

A principal conclusion of the author is that covert operations have been key to improved Iraq security. Such tactics involve secret missions, including killing targeted individuals. Understandably, this side of military and intelligence work is rarely discussed in public.

Even before the First Gulf War in 1991, Prof. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago perceptively emphasized the extraordinarily poor quality of the Iraqi military, contrary to much of the informed opinion of that time. Nevertheless, revolutionary sentiments can create effective warriors, especially in response to foreign invasion. The U.S. military deserves great credit in fighting an insurgency that could have turned into a very widespread regional unconventional uprising.

Precedent persuades that U.S. leadership is essential. While President Jimmy Carter is regarded by many Israelis as weak and pro-Arab, the Camp David negotiations provide a worthy — indeed inspiring — example of success in the Middle East cauldron of hatred.

Through sheer determination, backed by formidable intellect, Carter was able to achieve a durable peace accord between Egypt and Israel. His books “Keeping Faith” and “The Blood of Abraham” provide insight.

Iran now looms over the rest of the region. Nearly a decade before the U.S. invaded Iraq, former President Richard Nixon wrote in his book “Beyond Peace” that permitting Saddam Hussein to provoke invasion would be a monumental blunder, which would reinforce the regional influence of Iran, a country of vital U.S. interest.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College.

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