Lee Smith strikes again

A few months ago, I posted some excerpts from an interview with Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.  From my understanding, the basic argument of the book is that the US must be prepared to protect its friends and harm its enemies rather than try to “engage” them, because people in the Middle East (or much of the rest of the world) won’t want to support a country that doesn’t do these things.

Recently, Totten posted Smith’s response to criticism of his book by Andrew Exum, an Afghanistan and Iraq veteran now at the Center for a New American Security (champions of the counterinsurgency [COIN] doctrine and an influential national security think tank with the Obama administration).  Exum argues that the strong horse is not just an Arab phenomenon and that Smith doesn’t realize that US force is limited in its effectiveness to create political change.

In his response to Exum, Smith again offered the strikingly different perspective that made me link to him last time.  He was pretty scathing about counterinsurgency and the US objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He argues that Iran can still exercise control over violence against our soldiers in Iraq, and that we have deterred ourselves and Israel from attacking Iran.  Therefore, we can’t protect our own troops or our allies (Israel and the Gulf states).  This, Smith says, is not victory when we measure it on an objective scale.

Here is his scathing conclusion, directed at the American conception of foreign policy in general rather than a certain administration or party (he tends to look at the problem as the way the system works rather than connected to just one group):

So how did we get here? Or how is it that an American military tasked by COIN doctrine to protect Iraqi and Afghani populations is, according to American leadership, incapable of protecting itself in Iraq and Afghanistan? How long can a nation sustain a military that its leaders perceive of as an army of hostages? Since we do not believe our armed forces are capable of defending themselves, US civilians and interests cannot be defended either, except by tailoring our strategy to suit the exigencies of a reality determined by our enemies.

If you are wondering how the US’s position in the Gulf will be ruined if the Iranians get a nuclear bomb, here is your answer: the rulers of the Gulf Arab states where we have basing rights will tell us that because we do not think we can protect ourselves, obviously we cannot protect them either. Since all our bases in the Gulf do is draw the baleful attention of Tehran, and since we did not prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon that allows them to dictate such terms to the Arabs, it is best we leave, immediately — as the Iranians have dictated to the Arabs. Expect similar arrangements, or rather the cessation of arrangements, to follow in Central Asia and everywhere else in the world where the US Dept of Defense reckons our military strategy not merely in terms of troops and weapons, but also bases — how many bases we have, where they are located, which allies, friendly rivals or outright enemies do they abut or encircle, etc. If our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely targets of Iranian retaliation then all of our bases around the world are not forts manned by soldiers trained and equipped to defend their country and, obviously, their own persons; but are in reality large, international hostels where we deposit US servicemen to serve as hostages for failed political strategies.

How did this come to pass? How did it happen that adversaries like Iran and Syria are able to shape US strategy, so that we have failed to win in Iraq and will fail in Afghanistan and have deterred ourselves from taking action against the Iranian nuclear program, and have jammed up our strategic alliance with Israel? It is because American leadership of the last two administrations failed to act against those states that have attacked our troops, allies and interests. We did we not win in Iraq because states like Syria and Iran did not pay a price for the acts of force they used to shape political effects to their own advantage; when we failed to do so we abandoned our Middle East policy to the mercy of our enemies, who, as we are repeatedly told, can ruin Iraq and Afghanistan whenever they decide to take off their gloves. We did not win because our leadership, abetted by Washington policy intellectuals, is more interested in political effects in Washington than strategic victories in the Middle East. Seen in this light, the only American victory in the region is a pyrrhic one, the bitter harvest of which we may well be reaping for many years to come.

Again, I’m still trying to figure out a coherent way to look at all this, but Smith seems to have a perspective on this that at least raises some good points.  Smith and Exum are both regarded as smart guys, so it’s good to see some interaction between their points of view.



  1. Smith’s general principles make sense (help friends, hurt enemies) and I agree that the US should be more clear and decisive in doing that, but a naive implementation of it could lead to the escalation of every conflict. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Smith’s defining example is the Victory Day of a World War.

    Smith seems to define “victory” by total submission rather than by the more common metric of achieving specific goals. But even on VE Day, the USSR was able to shape US regional strategy; does that mean the US did not attain “victory”?

    The problem is not our failure to attain total submission, rather the problem lies in setting goals that are not reasonably attainable. Unfortunately, broad, nuanced, and fine grained goals appeal to our consciences, even at the cost of feasibility and (perhaps counter-intuitively) moral clarity. By extension, that also motivates our government to legislate and grow domestically and internationally.

    So, I think intelligence and clear, readily achievable goals must increase, even as the US sacrifices finer moral control over the consequences of its actions.

    I also think it’s important that when the US does hurt its enemies, it should not be arbitrary but rather the direct result of enemy action and functional position. I don’t think Smith’s Syrian example meets this requirement. It’s not “you bombed us, so we’ll bomb you”; it’s “you bombed us, so we’ll eliminate your ability to harm us and the key leadership that chose to bomb us”. Granted, they can look similar in practice, but the distinction is morally and tactically significant.

    btw, your link to Smith’s response to Exum is broken due to an extra “http://” prefix.

  2. I think that your VE day thoughts are good, although there are probably two necessary points: 1) the USSR wasn’t the enemy in WWII, so victory over them was not really possible, and Germany and Japan weren’t really able to affect our actions (although we did have to rebuild them!) and 2) the USSR wasn’t actively attacking us.

    I’m concerned about the risk of escalation as well. And you could argue that his zeal for retaliation in a sense lets the most unsavory regimes in the Middle East dictate our policies and will further enmesh us in the region.

    I think that you’re right about setting proper goals. We do tend to think that if we just have the right policies things will turn out just right. But we can’t predict the future.

  3. (1) Iran wasn’t the enemy in the Iraq war, either. It’s like Smith baited and switched enemies there (which is an easy trap to fall into when the goals are so broad and intractable). Sure, Iran can influence US foreign policy, but the US hasn’t actually been to war with Iran yet.

    (2) Good point. Iran has more actively opposed the US, though it does seem that they do it indirectly in order to skirt the line that, if crossed, would result in serious retaliation.

    Great observation about the US enmeshing with unsavory regimes in order to fight other (hopefully worse) unsavory regimes. It is highly problematic.

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