The Surge and the Sub-State
As U.S. lawmakers enjoy their annual summer recess, the eyes of the country's politicos and beat reporters turn to the increasingly contentious -- and at times absurd -- 2016 presidential election. And while the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party fights to fend off indictment, her opponents across the political aisle have shifted their attention to foreign policy.
Amid continued violence and unrest across the Middle East, GOP contenders are taking the opportunity to laud the success of the so-called surge in Iraq. But The Week's Michael Brendan Dougherty isn't having it:
"The very possibility of asserting U.S. leadership in this region is hampered by our failures in the surge. ISIS has proven itself very effective in punishing and killing Sunni tribal leaders who were known to have collaborated with U.S. forces during the Sunni ‘Awakening' of 2007. The calculation on the ground in 2015 may be that finding some accommodation with the radicals of ISIS is a safer bet than trusting that the U.S. military won't leave them to be slaughtered in the near future."
U.S. officials will naturally lean on the 2007 surge because it provided a cursory comfort in a part of the world that few have been able to figure out. If applying excess U.S. force to a problem, coupled with local cooperation, worked before, why wouldn't it work again?
The surge, however, was never intended to be the end, but merely the means.
"The surge was meant to have military success create a space for political reconciliation because only political reconciliation between Iraq's Sunni and Shia could ultimately bring the fighting in Iraq to an end. And that political reconciliation never happened," said Peter Beinart in an interview with NPR.
And it won't, so long as Washington continues to find itself at cross-purposes in the Mideast. Desiring both the defeat of Sunni radicalism and the curtailment of Iranian power in the region, the United States hopes to simultaneously contain two contradictory forces without begetting gain for either of them. Both are embedded, however, across multiple countries, in what geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan refers to as the "sub-state."
"Civilizations represent a thick depository of language, culture, and values. The sub-state represents a dynamic solidarity group. Put the two together, as they are in revolutionary Iran, and you have a formidable adversary to ossifying Arab states," writes Kaplan.
Add to that the jihadist sub-state found across large swaths of the Sunni heartland in Iraq and Syria, and you get an explosive combination. Moreover, the Middle East is more divided, more sectarian, and less stable than the Middle East that America invaded more than 12 years ago. And the surge, as Dougherty notes, only enabled the long-term vitality of the Mideast sub-states.
It's a difficult challenge for U.S. policymakers moving forward, and it leaves the country's next chief executive in an unenviable position.