Spreading Bad American Policy from Iraq to Syria…and Back Again

The World Post (a partnership of Huffington Post and the Berggruen Institute on Governance) has published our latest op-ed, “Don’t Compound the Damage Already Done in Iraq by Doubling Down in Syria.”  To read the piece online, click here; we’ve also appended the text below.  As always, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc. both on this site and on The World Post Web site.

 Don’t Compound the Damage Already Done in Iraq by Doubling Down in Syria

The debate over America’s Middle East policy has reached a new level of surreality.  In the wake of President Obama’s West Point commencement address last month—in which he pledged to “ramp up” U.S. support for Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad—Washington elites are exhorting the Obama administration to do much more.  Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford urges intensified training and more advanced weapons for “moderate” opposition fighters; others argue for direct U.S. military involvement.  At the same time, Washington has been stunned by the success of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and several other strategic targets, and is drawing close to Baghdad.

Washington elites are effectively compartmentalizing these stories—but, in fact, they are intimately related, and policymakers need to understand the connection to avoid another disaster in the heart of the Middle East.

In Iraq, the resurgence of sectarian violence stems not from the 2011 American withdrawal.  It is, rather, the fruit of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the subsequent U.S. occupation, and the much vaunted “surge” of 2007-2008.  The U.S. invasion and occupation destroyed the Iraqi state and ignited tensions among Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic communities.  The surge sought to empower certain Sunni militias while paying them (temporarily) not to kill American soldiers; this ended up giving Sunni militants the means to press their grievances through escalating violence once U.S. forces were no longer around.

Unfortunately, Washington seems determined to compound its appalling policy choices in Iraq with equally grievous choices regarding Syria.  For over three years, America has provided Syrian oppositionists with “nonlethalaid, trained opposition fighters, coordinated with others openly providing lethal aid for U.S.-vetted recipients, and extended high-level political backing to the anti-Assad campaign—including serially reiterated public demands from Obama that Assad “must go.”  Yet, from the conflict’s start it has been clear that opposition fighters would not dislodge Assad, no matter how much external help they received—because, from the beginning, the constituencies supporting Assad and his government have added up to well over half of Syrian society.

Objective measures of public opinion in Syria are not as robust as any serious analyst would like.  Nevertheless, for over three years, every piece of relevant data—including multiple polls, participation in the February 2012 constitutional referendum and the May 2012 parliamentary elections, participation in this month’s presidential election (including by thousands of refugees), and other evidence—indicates that a majority of Syrians continues to back Assad.  Conversely, there is not a scrap of objective evidence suggesting that anywhere close to a majority of Syrians wants Assad replaced by some part of the opposition.

These realities were readily observable in spring 2011; we have been writing and speaking about them for over three years.  Yet the Obama administration decided, within weeks after the outbreak unrest in parts of Syria in March 2011, to support oppositionists seeking to overthrow Assad.  It did so—as administration officials told the New York Times in April 2011—because it calculated that destabilizing Assad’s government would undermine Iran’s regional position.

This was a colossally irresponsible exercise in policymaking-by-wishful-thinking, for two reasons.  First, outside support for opposition fighters—a sizable percentage of whom are not even Syrian—has taken what began as small-scale, indigenously generated protests over particular grievances and turned them into a heavily militarized insurgency that could sustain high levels of violence but could not actually win.  The Obama administration prides itself on overthrowing Libya’s Muammar al-Qadhafi in 2011 without putting U.S. boots on the ground (though the results are comparable to those in Iraq:  the destruction of a functioning state and the arming of militias that kill with impunity—including the U.S. ambassador in 2012).  Assad is a vastly tougher target.  Stepped up support for anti-Assad fighters will not accomplish anything positive strategically; it will, however, perpetuate conditions in which even more Syrians die.

Second, it was utterly foreseeable that backing an armed challenge to Assad would worsen the threat of jihadi militancy—in Syria, in neighboring countries like Iraq, and beyond.  Well before March 2011, it was evident that, among Syria’s Sunni Islamist constituencies, the Muslim Brotherhood—whose Syrian branch was historically more radical than most Brotherhood cells—was being displaced by more extreme, al Qaeda-like groups.  External support for anti-Assad forces after March 2011 accelerated the trend and reinforced it with an infusion of foreign fighters, including organ-eating extremists.  Many of these jihadis, according to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, are now working not just to bring down Assad but also to mount attacks against the United States.

The Obama administration’s transformation of Syria into a magnet-cum-training ground for transnational jihadi fighters has directly fed the resurgence of jihadi extremism we are witnessing in Iraq.  Three years ago, at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the Islamic State of Iraq—formed in 2006 from Abu Musab Az-Zarqawi’s “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” movement—was on the ropes.  Reinvigorated through the creation of an externally supported insurgency in Syria by the United States and America’s European and regional partners, it rebranded itself in 2013 as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and, like the Taliban in Afghanistan before 9/11, has taken over swaths of both Syria and Iraq with lightning speed.

Washington has only itself and its collaborators in the anti-Assad crusade to blame for such an outcome.  As ISIS captures more cities and territory in Iraq, it is also capturing stockpiles of weapons and military equipment that America supplied to the post-Saddam government—weapons and equipment that will enable further gains by ISIS fighters.  Against this backdrop, calls to increase the flow of weapons into neighboring Syria are a case study in Einstein’s (apocryphal) definition of insanity—“doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  Calls for the United States to “go back” to Iraq, to undo the horrific damage it has already done there, are equally delusional.

The Syrian conflict will ultimately end with negotiated power-sharing between the Syrian government, still headed by President Assad, and those elements of the opposition with some popular base inside Syria.  This can happen relatively sooner, if America begins basing its Syria policy in on-the-ground reality.  Or the process can be protracted by open-ended external backing for opposition fighters with no meaningful popular base.  Neither the interests of ordinary Syrians and Iraqis nor the interests of ordinary Americans will be served by Washington doubling down on its ill-considered arming of brutal and unrepresentative militias.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Critiquing America’s Brain-Dead Foreign Policy “Debate”

Yesterday, Harvard’s Steve Walt posted an amusingly sharp piece on what’s wrong with America’s so-called foreign policy “debate.”  Steve’s piece, titled “Take 2 Ambien and Call Me When It’s Over:  I’d Rather Spoon My Own Eye Out Than Sit Through This Year’s Think-Tank-a-Palooza,” see here, appears on his blog at Foreign Policy; we also highlight key excerpts below.  The piece includes a nice reference to us; more importantly, it aptly encapsulates the brain-dead quality of most mainstream discussion in the United States about America’s role in and engagement with the wider world and dares to suggest what a more serious discussion would look like.

Steve opens by noting the widespread and mounting dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy:

“Nobody seems to be happy with U.S. foreign policy these days.  It’s not hard to see why.  Relations with Russia are frosty and could get worse.  China is throwing sharp elbows and looking for opportunities to shift the status quo in Asia.  The NSA is out of control.  Afghanistan and Iraq were failures.  Libya is a mess, Syria is worse, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s quixotic effort at Middle East peacemaking was a farce.  Al Qaeda keeps spreading and morphing no matter how many leaders our drones and Special Forces kill.  With criticism mounting, U.S. President Barack Obama defended his basic approach at West Point and hardly anyone came away feeling any better.  And now we are having a pointless squabble over repatriated POW Bowe Bergdahl.

With nearly everyone—from Afghanistan War veterans to former envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to former Ambassador Robert Ford to MoveOn.org—upset about how things are going, it’s time for our premier foreign-policy institutions to step up with some outside-the-box thinking on how the United States could do better.  Surely well-informed experts can offer fresh thinking on how the United States can deal with a world that seems to spin more out of control each month.”

But, of course, that’s not what America’s premier foreign-policy institutions do—at least not deliberately.  On this point, Steve reviews the programs for three annual conferences “on the state of the world and America’s role in it,” convened by three prominent think tanks—the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for a New American Security, and the “once-iconoclastic” New America Foundation.  And after reviewing the three conference programs, Steve writes,

“my first impulse is to yawn.  Instead of a diverse array of speakers offering fresh ideas, or a clash of divergent world-views and policy prescriptions, the programs for all these events are heavily populated by the usual suspects:  prominent foreign-policy practitioners, policy wonks, and public figures whose views are already familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the travails of U.S. foreign policy.”

[Note—representative speakers at the conferences include John MCCain, featured speakers at the conferences include John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Nick Burns, Robert Zoellick, Steve Hadley, and Dennis Ross.]

Steve acknowledges that “it’s easy to understand why conference organizers stick with familiar faces.”  Nevertheless, he writes, “given the widespread dissatisfaction with the state of U.S. foreign policy, is this really the best we can do?  Wouldn’t it be more interesting, and more importantly, more useful for these organizations to cast the net more widely, and include people whose ideas on foreign policy were serious, well-informed, yet outside the current consensus?”

Steve follows up this challenge with some concrete suggestions for participants at conferences on American foreign policy that aimed to be truly useful:

“How about inviting a serious critic of American over-commitment to speak at one of these internationalist gatherings?  What about Andrew Bacevich from Boston University or Barry Posen from MIT?  Both have impeccable credentials and Posen has a new book out on U.S. grand strategy that deserves wide exposure.  If you wanted to generate some interest and edify the audience, put Posen on a panel with Robert Kagan, who recently defended the neoconservatives’ failed approach to U.S. grand strategy in The New Republic and let them debate the issue of U.S. military engagement at length.  Ohio State Professor John Mueller has written some terrific books and articles challenging the alarmist tendencies in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and he’s an entertaining speaker as well.  If you’re looking for a different perspective on terrorism, for example, send him an invitation.

Similarly, it’s hard to think of anyone who has had more impact on debates about U.S. national security policy in the past year than Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, or Laura Poitras.  Even if you disagree completely with their views, all three have shown themselves to be knowledgeable and thoughtful critics of our overly energetic surveillance regime.  So where’s the panel discussion on secrecy and national security policy, pitting Greenwald against a representative from the intelligence community like Michael Hayden, Mike Morell, or Paul Pillar…

Instead of playing it safe, I wish organizations like these had the imagination and courage to be bold.  By all means keep some of the current insiders, but bring in Rashid Khalidi and Chas Freeman on the Middle East, Flynt and Hillary Leverett on U.S. policy toward Iran and Syria, Stephen Cohen on Ukraine, and Robert Kaplan and Australian Hugh White on Sino-American relations.  I’m not saying that these people are necessarily right; my point is that an audience interested in being challenged and educated should hear a wider range of views than they typically get at these meetings.  Pair them up with other people who are inclined to challenge the conventional wisdom and let a hundred flowers bloom; the resulting exchanges would edify the audience and the speakers might even learn something from each other.

If American foreign policy were going swimmingly, it would be easy to shrug off my proposal and say ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’  But that’s hardly the case:  we’ve had twenty-plus years of foreign policy fiascoes, yet we continue to turn to the architects and supporters of these failures for advice on what to do next.  This makes no sense; we need to rethink how we do business.

One of the strengths of U.S. democracy is supposed to be its openness to fresh ideas, and to arguments that challenge deeply embedded beliefs…Since the end of the Cold War, however, establishment thinking about foreign policy has been defined by an alliance of liberal hawks and even more hawkish neoconservatives, with disappointing results for sure.  There’s no time like the present for a more wide-open discussion.”

We couldn’t agree more with Steve’s assessment of the urgent need for “more wide-open discussion.”  We tend to think that a significant and growing part of the American public is ready for it.  Unfortunately, it seems that America’s political class is lagging well behind the curve.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


The “Shale Revolution” and “Energy Independence”—Myths, Realities, and America’s Strategic Delusions

Graphic from the Energy Tribune

Graphic from the Energy Tribune

The World Financial Review has published our latest piece, “America’s Shale Revolution and the Dangerous Myth of Energy Independence.”

 –In this article, we explain that the burgeoning wave of discourse among American elites about how the “shale revolution” will let the United States achieve “energy independence” is fundamentally detached from physical and economic reality.

–We also underscore a critical strategic point flowing from this assessment:  the proposition that attaining a mythical-yet-still-enthusiastically-sought condition of energy independence will let the United States become even more assertive toward countries determined to preserve and enhance their strategic independence—whether they are major energy exporters like Russia and Iran or major energy consumers like China—is dangerously delusional.

To read the article, click here; we’ve also appended the text (with links) below.

America’s Shale Revolution and the

Dangerous Myth of Energy Independence   

Proponents of energy independence enshrine America’s so-called “shale revolution” as a geopolitical game changer, enabling the United States to leverage its prospective exports of shale oil and gas to weaken uncooperative hydrocarbon powers.  Below, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett argue that the shale revolution will not give the United States anything close to meaningful energy independence—something America shouldn’t seek anyway.  The authors suggest that embracing the mythology of energy independence reinforces official Washington’s aversion to serious diplomacy with strategic rivals, thereby exacerbating America’s self-damaging and unnecessary confrontations with countries like Russia and Iran.

American elites have talked about “energy independence” for forty years—since the United States became a net oil importer in the early 1970s, around the time of the first major oil crisis.  While they have rarely been precise or analytically rigorous in using the term, it seems to mean, in its most ambitious formulation, that the United States would never again have to import hydrocarbon molecules, in liquid or gaseous form.  In a more restrained (but still pretty ambitious) version, U.S. demand for oil and gas imports would drop to levels satisfiable with supplies from “friendly” neighbors, rather than countries geopolitically at odds with Washington.

But, in either form, the notion of energy independence is a myth, and a dangerous one.  It is a myth because it ignores the realities of today’s international oil and gas markets; it is dangerous because it conditions ill-advised foreign policy choices.

Shifting Visions

For much of the past forty years, American elites have talked about energy independence largely in terms of replacing hydrocarbons with alternative energy sources and/or in terms of managing demand.  This vision treats the world’s reliance on hydrocarbons for over eighty percent of its energy as pathological—as an “addiction” needing treatment.  In fact, the world’s reliance on hydrocarbons is highly rational.  Hydrocarbons are high density, efficient fuels; especially in their liquid form, they are cheaper to transport and store than other kinds of fuel.  Moreover, hydrocarbons themselves are cheap: a barrel of oil (even priced over $100) is cheaper than equal volumes of any other liquid on the planet—milk, Diet Coke, shampoo, even water.  This makes it very hard to displace crude oil and other hydrocarbons—and explains why demand-based visions of energy independence have had no strategically meaningful impact on the global energy balance.

In recent years, discourse on energy independence has shifted from a demand-based narrative to a supply-based one, positing that America can produce enough oil and gas to obviate the need to import hydrocarbons.  Key to this has been the “shale revolution,” wrought by applying hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in U.S. oil and gas production.  Supply-driven visions of energy independence hold that shale will not just enhance America’s energy security, but will revive its global primacy by increasing oil and gas supplies and lowering energy prices, in turn sparking a U.S. economic renaissance while undermining uncooperative hydrocarbon powers by taking market share from them and cutting their export revenues.

Shale Game  

To be sure, the shale revolution has had a significant impact on U.S. energy production.  As recently as 2007, shale accounted for just five percent of U.S. natural gas production; by 2012, it accounted for thirty-five percent of U.S. gas production, and that figure looks set to rise further.  Many hold that shale will make America self-sufficient and then some in gas for years to come.

Conventional oil production in the United States—production from conventional reservoirs without fracking—peaked in 1970 at 9.7 million barrels per day (bpd) and then declined, reaching a low of 5 million bpd in2008.  But with shale coming on line, the United States rose to 7.5 million bpd of crude oil in 2013, making it the world’s third-largest producer (after Saudi Arabia and Russia); add in natural gas liquids and condensates, and U.S. liquid fuel production topped 11 million bpd.  That is reducing U.S. demand for imported oil—in 2005, imports amounted to 60 percent of U.S. liquid fuel demand; by 2011, this figure had dropped to 45 percent; preliminary data for 2013 suggest it may now be down to 35 percent.

What Revolution?

This is all good news, as far as it goes.  Over the last decade or so, energy imports have accounted for roughly half of America’s massive trade deficit.  To the extent America has to import less oil and gas, it is clearly positive for the U.S. balance of payments.  There are also measures of GDP and job growth associated with shale production.  Still, there are strong reasons for skepticism as to the shale revolution’s scope and sustainability—and whether supply-based energy independence will be as strategically empowering for Washington as some say.

Certainly, the idea that the United States will ever export enough shale gas in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG) at sufficiently low prices to undercut the enormous built-in advantages that an established major gas producer like Russia enjoys in gas export markets in Eurasia seems highly fanciful.  The U.S. government has so far approved five applications for LNG export projects, with another nineteen pending.  But it is far from clear how much U.S. gas will actually be available for export in coming years.

Companies have gotten very good at producing U.S. shale gas—and, in the process, have driven North American gas prices so low as to weaken the case for more investment in new production.  (Big energy companies that followed smaller independents into U.S. shale gas are now losing money on their plays.)  And for those who think the United States could be exporting gas to Europe and the former Soviet Union within months, if Washington would just issue more licenses, developing a LNG train takes, literally, years.

It is also dauntingly expensive.  By the time the first of the LNG trains to which the U.S. government has given export licenses comes on line next year, it will have cost at least $10 billion; costs for future trains will be at least that high.  High upfront costs mean that investors only finance projects for which there are customers committed to buy the off take, for twenty or twenty-five years—which is why most of the LNG trains for which export licenses have been sought will never be built.  (Some producers apply to boost low North American gas prices by fostering perceptions of overseas demand.)

Even if several trains come on line, their production will be a fraction of Russia’s gas exports to Europe.  And, while European gas prices are higher than North American prices, it is virtually certain that most U.S. LNG will go to Asia, where prices are even higher than in Europe.

There are similarly serious questions about America’s shale oil boom.  The International Energy Agency projects that U.S shale oil production will peak by 2020, plateau for a few years, then decline.  U.S. conventional oil production continues declining, as does Gulf of Mexico production.  This means that the cannibalisation of shale to replace lost production in other arenas will accelerate; after a decade or so, shale oil won’t keep overall U.S. oil production from peaking—and declining—again.  Thus, the IEA expects that the world will continue looking to the Middle East for incremental oil production over the long term.

Dangerous Delusions

Pursuing energy independence, in defiance of reality in today’s oil and gas markets, is not just quixotic—it is counterproductive for America’s standing and influence.  It is counterproductive most immediately because it reinforces official Washington’s longstanding conviction that the United States doesn’t have to engage in real diplomacy with strategic rivals—that is, diplomacy which recognises and accommodates their legitimate national interests (e.g., Russia’s interest in not having the West turn other post-Soviet states into anti-Russian platforms, or Iran’s interest in developing safeguarded but indigenously managed nuclear fuel cycle capabilities).

More broadly, American political and policy elites should understand that the opposite of energy independence is not energy dependence—it is energy interdependence.  Since World War II, the stabilisation of energy interdependence has been a critical element in America’s standing as a great power.

For decades, America’s interest in stabilising energy interdependence has been embodied in its commitment to defend the free flow of Persian Gulf hydrocarbons to international markets.  But the U.S. interest in Persian Gulf oil, from its origins in World War II, has never been primarily about America’s own energy needs.

The United States came out of World War II self-sufficient and then some in oil production—it was, by the definitions laid out above, energy independent.  It would not become a net oil importer until the early 1970s, more than a quarter century after the war’s end.  And even after becoming a net importer, America has never met that high a percentage of its own oil demand with Middle Eastern imports.  America’s interest in the Persian Gulf has never been about Persian Gulf oil to satisfy its own energy demand—it is about the ability to control who gets access to Persian Gulf oil.

Coming out of World War II, America wanted to guarantee Persian Gulf oil flows to Western Europe and Japan, because it judged (well before the Cold War) that providing secure and cheap energy supplies to these states would be essential to their postwar recovery—and their recovery was deemed essential to America’s own long-term economic prospects.  In wider perspective, U.S.-provided energy security would lock Europe and Japan into long-term economic and security partnerships with the United States.  For nearly seventy years—even after the OPEC revolution of the 1970s ended the West’s ability to control energy prices—this has remained the real foundation of America’s interest in maintaining determinative influence over the production and marketing of Persian Gulf hydrocarbons:  to bolster its strategic standing in other important parts of the world.

The perceived need to dominate Persian Gulf hydrocarbon flows has also prompted Washington to try assiduously to suppress the emergence of independent power centers in the region (e.g., the CIA’s 1953 coup that brought down a democratically elected nationalist government in Iran).  Since the Cold War’s end, the United States has unwisely doubled down on this approach, seeking a level of hegemonic supremacy in the Persian Gulf it was constrained from seeking during the Cold War.  Hegemonic aspiration has led U.S. administrations to pursue policies that have actually decreased the security of Persian Gulf hydrocarbon flows to international markets—e.g., keeping substantial military forces on the ground in the region after the first Persian Gulf War, maintaining international sanctions on Iraq that killed over a million Iraqis (half of them children), invading Iraq in 2003 and occupying it for years, and threatening to impose extraterritorial (hence illegal) sanctions on third-country entities transacting with Iran.

As such policies have worked against global energy security, they have also damaged America’s international position.  But the negative impact of these policies doesn’t mean that achieving a (mythical) condition of energy independence would make the United States stronger.  It would actually reduce the tools available to U.S. policymakers to promote America’s standing and influence around the world.

The flip side of the claim that the shale revolution will enable America to undermine uncooperative hydrocarbon powers is the assertion that supply-based energy independence will let the United States wash its hands of the Middle East and its challenges.  This is misguided; even if the most optimistic projections of shale gas and shale oil production in the United States are realised, U.S. shale producers will still be operating in a global market, especially for oil.  Therefore, the United States is still going to have to care what happens in the Persian Gulf—because what happens there has a big effect on energy prices.

More fundamentally, those who say that the shale revolution will enable the United States to become less interested in the Middle East are basically saying that the United States should remove itself from the great power business.  In reality, the United States needs to abandon post-Cold War delusions of hegemony, and get serious about being a great power—by engaging in strategically grounded, balance of power diplomacy with other important global and regional states, and by working with others in a genuinely cooperative way to secure the global public good of energy security.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett