I thought neocons were gone, but the most bombastic of them all has Trump’s ear. Let’s learn from Iraq mistakes and avoid a devastating war with Iran.
(March 7, 2019) — I was surprised to see my commanding general in the conference room that December 2001 day. Almost immediately following 9/11, he had been in Kuwait at Camp Doha overseeing the logistics of the Afghanistan War efforts alongside my direct commander and a small team from our Theater Support Command. Now, a mere two months later, he was back.
I became even more surprised when he sent word to finish the Operations Plan for Central Command, a project we had been developing and honing for several years. This plan was essentially the go-to-war strategy for the United States against Iraq. Although we were only weeks removed from the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, we knew the anti-U.S. terrorists involved were in Afghanistan, not Iraq. We also knew that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.
I wasn’t sure what invading Iraq had to do with our Global War on Terror. It did not seem to be about national security; after all, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been successfully contained for more than a decade. However, I was just an Army captain. If our two-star commanding general said that’s what we were doing, then that’s what we were doing.
We now know the truth behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It had very little if anything to do with the 9/11 attacks and everything to do with the hubris of men. In the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney, Undersecretary of State John Bolton and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz were three of the leading neoconservative architects in the late 1990s. What they cared about was spreading their vision of a new world order. These delusions of grandeur were their personal goals, and they were guiding our nation’s strategic policies.
I heard echoes of that era during the recent Middle East Conference in Warsaw. Remarks by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton sounded eerily similar to the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. And I have the same uneasy feeling now that I had then.
Bolton was a driving force in 2002, when he was undersecretary of State for arms control. He insisted on access to raw intelligence data before it had been evaluated, and he also insisted that it confirmed Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. “The end of the story is clear here,” he said in a BBC debate. “And if Saddam Hussein does not cooperate, we have made it clear this is the last chance for him.”
Neocons Are Back and Making the Same Mistakes
These same statements and patterns are in front of our eyes today. One could hear the sound of Bolton’s new war drum in 2007 when he said, “Ultimately, the only thing that will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons is regime change in Tehran.”
That clamor has only intensified. “President Trump told me that if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid,” Bolton said last July. During the Warsaw event, he released a short video with a not-so-veiled threat to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei: “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.”
Until recently, I believed that the neocons had become a footnote in America’s history — that the multiple threats to our national security that arose as a result of failed foreign policy had shown our nation and our leaders the errors of the neocon approach. I was wrong.
But Bolton, the most bombastic of that group, is now whispering in President Donald Trump’s ear, and the United States is heading down a familiar path. In Trump, Bolton has found someone focused not on national security but on dismantling presidential actions that preceded his term. Trump is not interested in the nation of Iran, the Iranian people or any Iranian threat. He merely abhors former President Barack Obama and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iranian nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated.
Bolton is trying to repeat his 2003 role as a worldview maker, and in Trump he has a receptive commander in chief. The difference this time, however, is that there is no 9/11 for political cover. And even more troubling, Iraq is no Iran.
Learn from History, Don’t Repeat It
In geographic and demographics consideration, Iraq has just more than 40 millioncitizens; Iran has more than 80 million. Iraq is close to 169,000 square miles, a bit larger than California. Iran is almost four times that size. Iraq has struggled with decades of internal sectarian strife between the Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects. In Iran, up to 95 percent of its citizens are Shiite, which translates to minimal internal distraction.
Experts estimate that Iraq’s army, 1 million troops strong during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, was down to about 40 percent of that total, or 400,000, in 2003. Iran now has about 550,000 active military personnel and is armed with newer and better weapons. The U.S. military was fresh and itching for a fight in 2003. Now, after 18 years of war since 9/11, our readiness levels are ill-equipped to handle anything more than a protracted skirmish in a new region. Plus, where the Bush administration developed a coalition of international support for invading Iraq, the Trump administration has spent two years intentionally fracturing our relationships across the world.
From Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” to Carl von Clausewitz’s “On War,” decision-makers have been taught that they need “the will of the people” to go to war. Currently, the political and societal environment of Iran meets this requirement. In the United States, there is none.
These differences between Iraq and Iran are not minor; the United States would be fighting not a single house cat but a pride of mountain lions. It is imperative that those in Washington who understand national security thwart this absurd direction in which John Bolton is trying to steer President Trump and America. We should learn from our mistakes, not willingly repeat them.
Michael Morford, a former Army captain, is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He is also president of VertiPrime Aerospace Manufacturing, a service disabled veteran-owned small business. The views expressed here are his own.