John Brady Kiesling
U.S. Foreign Service Veteran
Monday, May 10, 2004; 11:00 AM
On the eve of the Iraq war, John Brady Kiesling, a 20-year veteran of
the U.S. Foreign Service, resigned in protest over U.S. policy. His
eloquent letter of resignation was widely printed, including in the pages
of the Washington Post's Outlook section. In this Sunday's Outlook section,
Kiesling assesses where the United States stands now in the war in Iraq and
comes up with this novel insight: To achieve its vital war aims, America must abandon its dream of victory and accept the appearance of defeat. To Win the Peace, We Must 'Lose the War
Kiesling explains that the deadliest illusion about warfare is that the
aim of war is military victory. The true aim of war is to accomplish the
political, economic or security goals for which it was fought. In a war
competently waged for rational ends, one could rationally expect that
America's aims would best be achieved through dominance on the battlefield
followed by the dignified establishment of a new and better order. But in a
war like the one in Iraq, which is based on a chain of assumptions since
proven false, we cannot win by being victorious.
Kiesling, who is currently a visiting professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School and Hellenic Studies Program, answered questions about his piece on Monday, May 10 at 11 a.m. ET.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
What do you base your hope that all Iraqis from Shiia, Sunni and Kurd grouping can agree on one common leader? There are hundreds of years of mistrust and hatred between these groups. How can that be overcome thru just one successful struggle against the U.S.? For one, the Kurds would be a major loser if the U.S. forces left.
John Brady Kiesling: Good morning! I'm happy to be on line, and thanks for all the good questions (and some very thoughtful personal emails as well).
Langley VA poses a fundamental question. It's a mistake to talk about "hundreds of years of mistrust and hatred." History is reinvented every generation, and in fact there have been periods where the populations of the Middle East lived in uneasy but adequate coexistence. Kurdish nationalism is now so strong that I don't believe Northern Iraq will ever return to being fully integrated in an Iraqi state. But Iraqi nationalism is real enough that there is some basis for building a center of political gravity in Baghdad based on Sunnis and Shia united by success in reestablishing post-Saddam independence from foreign rule.
1. Doesn't your strategy of accepting defeat require more subtlety and political finesse than this administration, and maybe any other electable administration, can muster?
2. Won't a U.S. "defeat" in Iraq -- which, let's face it, by now is all but inevitable in one form or another -- even if managed with all the adroitness in the world, turn out to be an enormous disaster for the US by tearing to shreds any credibility we may have had in the Islamic world and by shattering the image of invincibility we've enjoyed since the end of the cold war?
John Brady Kiesling: Dear Springfield,
This is the least sophisticated U.S. administration in decades -- or rather, the world has changed in 30 years and our leadership team missed it. You are probably right that they are not brave and subtle enough to put America's interests ahead of short-term political survival. But the American people shouldn't give up. They should demand a braver, more realistic president.
In the Middle East we have so little credibility left to lose that we can afford to take chances. We are very badly tainted by our inconsistency and (apparently) crude self-interest there. The Islamic world resents us not for having power but for appearing to use it in the service of injustice rather than justice. Our long-term goal is for our Muslim partners to recognize that the U.S. is indeed a force for peace, stability, prosperity and (yes, indeed) democracy, and invite us back. But it should be their invitation.
I checked this morning's French Newspaper Le Monde on the Internet. It had a 10 page extract describing the treatment of prisoners in Iraq. Lot more details than the American press is presenting.
This points out the need for Americans to learn other language in order to get a "Fair and Balanced View" of world events.
John Brady Kiesling: Journalists are just like politicians, bureaucrats, and academics, with a strong herd instinct. The U.S. media disgraced itself in the run-up to the war, and is now doing a much better job. But not good enough. We don't inculcate in our professionals the historical baseline needed to read world events in any but the most simplistic terms. When Le Monde publishes such damning (but well-researched) material, it serves a particular French narrative of world events. I'm hoping that the Post's own narrative is getting more sophisticated, a plausible counterweight based on recognition that most of the planet has lost faith in the "real" (I still think and hope...) America. We learned from Vietnam and we'll learn from Iraq. Meanwhile, a curious person should use the internet to read what the foreigners are reading about us. It's a sobering but necessary lesson.
For a digest of world press coverage of the Iraq war: World Opinion Roundup
From a military assessment, doesn't the knowledge of the abuses of detainees mean that those fighting us are both more likely to gain in recruitment and that they are more likely to fight to the death rather than to surrender, as they may fear imprisonment now more than death?
John Brady Kiesling: Human psychology is odd. In a crisis situation, people don't have time to think rationally about death versus surrender, and in urban warfare against U.S. firepower the choice often doesn't exist. But yes, militarily the release of those photographs was a terrible setback. Assume that Iraqis are just as proud as we are, but with stronger taboos about being naked in the locker room. Like Americans, they are also heavily armed. And they are occupied by foreigners. A deadly combination.
I opposed the war as much as anyone, and would be just as happy to see us extricate ourselves from that country as anyone. But, with all due respect, the plan you put forward in Sunday's Post reads to me like the script of a reality TV show or maybe a Sequel to the Bill Murray film "Stripes." I simply can't imagine the U.S. choosing a favorite "successor warlord" then coordinating a series of apparent military defeats and retreats that are carried out in such a way that only our chosen warlord has the opportunity and means to fill the void created by our exit.
Has anything like that ever been succesfully pulled off in the history of armed conflict?
John Brady Kiesling: It's not quite as difficult as it looks. It's more a matter of doing what we did in Falluja but not so obviously. We gradually reduce the pressure on one local figure, a fighting retreat, while being slower to retreat against the others. The Germans in Greece and Yugoslavia during WWII basically did exactly that, favoring the right-wing resistance groups over the communists and (in effect) buying safe passage out of the country. It was ugly when the Germans did it, and it didn't (I admit) prevent civil war in Greece after they left. Fortunately, outside encouragement of Iraqi civil war is more limited than it was in Greece in 1946. No exact historical parallels, but close enough...
What is the biggest drawback/downside to "balkanizing" Iraq? If people do not want to cooperate in a relatively recently created political entity, why make them?
John Brady Kiesling: Iraq may indeed end up being partitioned. It won't be by us, since we have neither the legal right nor the moral right to impose such a solution. Nor is it in the interest of our Turkish allies, not to mention Iraq's other neighbors. Loyalty to our close allies, and commitment to international legality, are values America shouldn't lightly give up. If there is partition, it will be most likely be at the hands of the Iraqis themselves, after a civil war that leaves thousands of heaped bodies of men, women, and children in the streets. My Balkan experience suggests that the international community will have the right and duty to intervene to stop the slaughter by ratifying such a partition, but only after thousands of people have died. I would like the US to prevent as many of those deaths as possible. We have an obligation to the people of Iraq to leave them better off than they were under Saddam, and that implies keeping them alive. If I could see another solution to achieve this goal, one better than allowing them to defeat us, I would instantly propose it.
"The true aim of war is to accomplish the political, economic or security goals for which it was fought."
In your opinion, what actual documents have directly informed the principles of these goals?
Are you refering to the goals of think tanks such as the Project for the New American Century, American Enterprise Institute et al?
Some of think tanks envision the USA being in a state of perpetual war: Do you think Americans know of the "real" foreign policy being enacted under the aegis of the war on terror?
John Brady Kiesling: America doesn't have a "real" foreign policy. We have lots of competing interests and competing bureaucracies, normally kept in balance by a strong President. A crisis forces a temporary unity, but 9-11 unfortunately occurred under a President not knowledgeable or principled enough to maintain a balance in the Cabinet. Rumsfeld's tactical alliance with the neocons at AEI brought him the greatest bureaucratic slam-dunk over the State Dept in post-WWII history, but it wasn't sustainable because it was based on a ludicrously stupid understanding of the planet we live on (e.g., the Project for the New American Century," which has cost American security dearly). The doctrine of permanent war is good for think tanks but very hard on the American people. Economically, we cannot sustain it without going onto a war footing and making major sacrifices elsewhere. But the quest for more credible enemies must continue, if we are to sustain in peacetime the largest security apparatus the planet has ever seen.
It seems to me that one critical -- but overlooked -- variable in the Iraq situation is our refusal to cultivate closer ties with Iran.
President Bush presented force as the only option when he addressed the American people last year. But, if we had played our diplomatic hand more skillfully, it seems to me that we would been to use Sadaam's neighbors -- particularly Iran -- to isolate and neutralize him.
John Brady Kiesling: A very important point! Iran should be our best ally -- they desperately want in Iraq most of the same things we desperately want, and the price they will ask -- no permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq -- is something we'll end up paying whether we work with the Iranians or not.
Our desperate need to preserve an axis of evil is one of the most perverse parts of our foreign policy. We cannot be friendly with Iran, for their domestic political reasons and ours, but we can be business partners.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield and Wolfowitz for botching up the occupation of Iraq with so many grave errors that the world is now a much more dangerous place. They claimed the invasion was part of an effort to fight the war on terror. It can be argued that with their incredible incompetence, we have lost the war on terror as the Arab and Muslim world will hate us forever. Do you agree or do you see things that we can do to make up for this mess that we have created?
John Brady Kiesling: Actually, the small group of terrorists waging war on the U.S. is motivated not so much by blind hatred of the U.S. as it is by a political agenda much closer to home. The U.S. presence in the Middle East is used (mostly misused) to explain every injustice and imperfection in the region. Our invasion added to the level of instability, but most Muslims are happy enough to watch us being miserable in Iraq. Our victory there would actually be more dangerous for us than our defeat, because it would confirm the Islamic world in its powerlessness and humiliation.
On that point, U.S. "public diplomacy" is doomed from the start. Even when we speak the absolute truth from the best of motives, it seems to most Muslims their patriotic duty to refuse to believe us. Irrational but very real.
You say the "real" America. Well, quite frankly, the torture and abuse of Iraqis is the "real" America. We have radio talk show hosts spewing hate and venom every day, including dehumanizing anyone that is not "just like them." We have a porn movie industry that generates more money than any other. We have woman being marginalized and objectified on TV every day all day. We have guns in every home and murders and rapes in every city in America that far outpaces any other "civilized" country. We reward men dribbling balls or hitting balls or doing whatever with balls with huge multimillion dollar contracts while women are working two low wage jobs to make ends meet and support their families that the men have walked out on since the woman can't live up to the porn fantacies they secretly view all day on their laptops. Wrapping the president and ourselves in the flag and declaring over and over again how wonderful America is and how wonderful Americans are does not begin to cover the underlying rot that is Truly America.
John Brady Kiesling: I disagree. American democracy works, eventually. Fight for it.
Jochiwon, South Korea:
I have a fear about our alternative this November. John Kerry seems to be missing a chance at somewhat righting this wrong in Iraq. His solution is putting "more boots on the ground."
Certainly news of the abuses was getting out in Iraq, and certainly it is fueling the insurgency. It seems that one way of pacifying this war is to have a clear anti-war candidate. Condemning the abuses and calling for Rumsfeld's resignation seems to fall flat when it is alongside a statement to raise the number of troops.
Thanks so much.
John Brady Kiesling: Kerry is in a very difficult situation here. I would love to help him defeat Bush, not because I was ever very partisan but because this Administration has flushed down the toilet fifty years of often noble U.S. diplomacy. But I fear that small, crucial group of wavering voters want to rally around the perception of strength, even when that strength is pure illusion.
Look at Nixon, who one a huge second term victory by sacrificing 30,000 extra Americans in Vietnam and 100 times that number of Vietnamese. He knew Vietnam was lost, but was not brave and decent enough to admit defeat.
So I would be the last person to criticize Kerry's public posture, though I hope (and even expect, given his Vietnam War record) that he will be braver and more realistic than his campaign speeches indicate.
Isn't too late already for what you propose? Isn't Sadr the victor already? Who else in the Shiite community is fighing the occupation? Sistani is just sitting there like he did for 30 years under Sadaaam doing nothing, while Sadr's entire family was killed. We have already marginalized Sistani, have we not?
John Brady Kiesling: Sadr is still small enough, I think, and most Iraqis don't want a young, callow theocrat.
Since the very presence of American troops in Iraq is now a provocation, can the issue be turned over to an international peace-keeping force composed primarily of non-American troops?
John Brady Kiesling: I think it is too late for international peacekeepers at this point. They will be shot at as our surrogates. In any case the U.S. troops will not serve under them, and without our force projection capabilities, an international force cannot be sustained militarily. The American refusal to serve under UN command is one of our most consistent and wrong military doctrines. We need a stronger UN, not a weaker one.
Potsdam, Germany (until recently, Arlington, Va.):
I wish to offer kudos for your willingness to publicly state your position on Iraq and to resign in protest. This was an honest and honorable action, and I was very moved (and pained) by the letter you wrote a year ago.
Your decision stands in stark contrast to the passive stance of so many who chose to wait till now to voice their objections to an ill conceived and illegal war. If only the Sec of State had had as much integrity, perhaps 1000s of persons, Iraqi and American, women and men and children, would now be alive. It remains, sadly, to be seen, how many more will die because those in power lost their voice.
John Brady Kiesling: Thanks. I do think Powell should resign, though I didn't until the latest Sharon visit. Powell is a fine man who has done much good for America, but since April there is no longer a U.S. foreign policy, only domestic pre-election pandering. By resigning now, he could write a better place for himself in the history books, and speak out about the folly of a foreign policy driven by domestic ideologues.
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