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The Domino Theory Revived

The ancient city of Mosul is in ruins. Racca in Syria is next. Aleppo, Ramadi, Kobane, and a dozen other cities in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya have been destroyed. What a price the World has paid for the American decision that the 9.11 attack on the World Trade Towers sixteen years ago demanded a full military response! Think about it. Militarizing the fight against terrorism means believing large armies, non-stop aerial bombardment, invading Iraq, trillions in military spending is the best way to stop attacks by the likes of 19 Saudi hijackers, attackers of Paris theater crowds, and knife wielders in London.

Mosul made me think of the “Domino Theory.” I first heard about that theory in Viet Nam where I spent three years from 1965 to 1968 as a civilian “provincial advisor” in the Mekong Delta and then in Saigon. The more I came to understand Viet Nam’s history the more skeptical I became of America’s chance of succeeding no matter how long we stayed.

I should have learned much more from my three years in Viet Nam, and so should America’s policy makers. I should have learned from that experience and from World history that allegiances and hatreds last for generations and even millennia and that American leaders take great risks when they ignore this reality.

The policy makers who favored American intervention in Viet Nam didn’t think about that country’s history and the World paid for their failure to do so. Our foreign policy experts feared that “losing Viet Nam” would lead quickly to cascading losses elsewhere. This was the Domino Theory. “Losing” Viet Nam would lead to the fall of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Burma.

No such thing happened of course but the Domino Theory has been validated with a vengeance since 2003 in the “Middle East.” Our impetuous invasion of Iraq has undermined country after country in the region and some in Europe as well --- like a string of falling dominos. How did this happen and what can Americans finally learn from it?

The answer is that in 2001 President George W. Bush trusted two self-assured men, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to impose America’s will on the Middle East. The Bush administration was warned during the summer of 2001 by U.S. intelligence agents and hold-over Clinton experts in the White House about a possible terrorist attack in the U.S. There had been suspicious students at two American flight schools and possible terrorist planning meetings in Malaysia. The warnings were muffled but Cheney and Rumsfeld were not disposed to give terrorism high priority anyway.

Rumsfeld arrived at the Pentagon in 2001 intent on restructuring the American military. He and Cheney were cocksure men of action who gave short shrift to warnings about potential terror attacks from former Clinton administration operatives. So two hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Towers and another crashed into the Pentagon.

There was a brief debate within the Republican Administration after the terrorist attacks. People with a sense of history argued that terrorism, nasty as it is, was not a military threat and did not threaten the pillars of American strength. They called for managing our response patiently and economically through better policing and intelligence. Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neo-Conservatives instead set out to crush terrorism and its sponsors militarily with tens of thousands of troops, planes and drones, and a river of American blood and treasure.

Cheney famously believed that the mostly Saudi terrorists had “changed everything,” and that a cautious response would be seen as weakness. America had a hammer so it should use it. He, Rumsfeld and their coterie, therefore, engineered a proxy war to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan and a blitzkrieg invasion of Iraq.

At first both seemed to work. The Republican administration and President Bush in May 2003 hung a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” from the bridge of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately they didn’t know the history of Afghanistan or Iraq. They hadn’t read Rudyard Kipling’s poems and short stories about the irrepressible tribal borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, as Kipling described it, is a mountainous land of boulders with “low lean thorn between.” British -Indian armies had been ambushed and defeated in three wars there. Every Kurram Valley hut had a piece of British equipment on a wall as a trophy. More recently in the 1980s, the battle-hardened Afghan tribes and clans had sent the Russian military home licking its wounds.

There was similar ignorance about Iraq. Cheney and Rumsfeld seem not to have known that Iraq is a tribal society with a dozen historic peoples and sects that Saddam held together by intimidation and patronage. Cheney and Rumsfeld’s military adventure destroyed Saddam’s army and the secular Baathist infrastructure that was preventing the Iranian mullahs and the Iraqi and Syrian tribes, sects, and peoples from doing mischief. It reopened ancient battle lines and reignited ancient hostilities.

James Webb, the future Democratic Senator from Virginia, one-time Reagan Secretary of the Navy, author and historian opposed the impetuous invasion. He knew about the fissures in Iraqi society that we were about to reopen and therefore the risks of invading, which he described succinctly in a few paragraphs. Chaney and Rumsfeld had no patience for such sophistication. They had instead a dangerous appetite for risks that America did not need to take, risks that really did “change everything.”

The failure of the Republican administration in Afghanistan and Iraq spilled over in a Domino chain of other American failures. It led to the bloody sectarian wars in Iraq and Syria, the strengthening of the Iranian mullahs, the quick sand of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s sad de-democratization, the further rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the vicious proxy war in Yemen, the collapse of the pax-Qaddafi in Libya. Most recently it led to the destruction of 4,000 year old Mosul.

The domino theory was born in Viet Nam, but it is having its full flowering in the Middle East. America needs to learn from the 16 year history of “Cheney’s Folly.” The lesson is that massive militarized reactions to terrorism and feckless American support for alternatives to regimes we don’t like, does not work. It’s something we should have learned from our 57,000 dead in Viet Nam.

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