Not Learning from Mideast Mistakes

Exclusive: The neocon strategy of “regime change” has proved financially costly and strategically disastrous setting almost the entire Middle East on fire but almost no lessons have been learned, no accountability assessed, and no relevant questions asked, writes ex-U.S. diplomat William R. Polk.

By William R. Polk

Apparently, the United States, perhaps Great Britain and almost certainly Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are on the brink of a major escalation of war in what we now can call “the former Iraq and Syria.” But is this rational? Are we drawing lessons from our interventions in the past? Is there a realistic post-intervention plan? How much will intervention cost? And, finally, will it accomplish the presumed objective of making the situation better with more security for them and for us?

These are questions we should be asking now not after the fact. Perhaps somewhere deep in government council rooms these questions are being asked. If so, those asking them are certainly not sharing their answers, if they have any, with us. And since we will be paying the bills for whatever decisions are adopted, we have what in government usage is called a “Need to Know.”

Barack Obama, then President-elect, and President George W. Bush at the White House during the 2008 transition.

Barack Obama, then President-elect, and President George W. Bush at the White House during the 2008 transition.

I have no access to the thinking of the inner circles of any of the relevant governments, and from the sketchy and undemanding accounts in the media, it does not appear that anyone else has better access than I do. What I do have is 69 years of observation and study of the Middle East of which four were spent as the Member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Council responsible for the Middle East.

This does not give me an up-to-the-minute “take” on events several journalists provide that much better than I could but perhaps my years of experience give me a framework in which to place current events. So let me sketch answers to the questions citizens should ask:

First, are we thinking rationally and not emotionally? As an old policy planner, that means to me, “are we weighing all the questions before jumping?” Unfortunately, the record demonstrates that we leap before we look.

In Libya, we didn’t like Muammar Gaddafi, who was not a very likeable fellow but did raise the living standards of his people dramatically and he mostly kept various tribes and political rivals from killing one another. After the U.S.-backed “regime change” in 2011, Gaddafi was killed but so too were the positive results of his rule. What replaced it? Chaos and more killing.

As the Prime Minister of Italy, whose government is now nearly overwhelmed by the flood of refugees, remarked, we should have thought about the consequences before we destroyed Libya’s government.

In Iraq, we didn’t like Saddam Hussein. He, too, was not a likeable fellow, but under his rule Iraq became one of the most advanced societies in Asia. Its citizens benefitted from free education, free health facilities and a high standard of living. Then, in 2003, the United States got rid of him, doing a very good job of destroying “his” Iraq but there has been nothing good to say about the leaders and institutions that took Saddam’s place.

And, in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush was angry because the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden as demanded, with no thought as to why they wouldn’t. The record shows that the Bush administration was hardly aware that Afghans had a cultural tradition with rules of their own regarding such matters.

Instead, the United States rushed in, took over Afghanistan and installed a group of people as rulers who said they were our kind of folks. We were delighted and never stopped to compare what they said with what they were doing. The policy? It was to throw money at the country, though little of it has stuck, except inside the pockets of corrupt officials.

Even the Afghan leader we installed as president, no piker himself when it came to making off with our money, complained that most of what the United States gave the country ended up in foreign bank accounts.

So, despite — or because of — whatever good the U.S. thought it was doing, Afghanistan fell apart; drug lords brutally oppressed the people in the countryside where opium cultivation and heroin production skyrocketed; even in downtown Kabul there was no law. There is not a single “secure” place in the country.

The human and financial costs of these interventions have been staggering. Hundreds of thousands dead with many more maimed; whole cities that took generations to build wrecked; perhaps $5 trillion of U.S. taxpayers’ money spent; and the whole area turned into a no man’s land. Aren’t those consequences something we should learn from?

Yet, I see no signs that any lessons have been learned. Far from the “best and the brightest” who made their own grievous mistakes in the Vietnam War America’s current leaders appear to be the “most determined and closed minded.” When one prescribed tactic fails, they loudly and repeatedly urge that it be implemented again in the next crisis.

In trying to find something positive to say about these adventures, all I can come up with is that there were moments of tactical success amidst the absence of strategy. We know how to destroy buildings, to find and kill insurgents, and to dole out vast sums of money. We just don’t know whether we should be doing any of these things or not.

We do them because we know how to and have the means to do so. But the outcomes are never as predicted. When the existing institutions are perverted or destroyed, insurgencies follow; all law and order breaks down; populations flee; and “collaterally” drug production and other criminal activities multiply.

U.S. taxpayers’ money is wasted on a colossal scale while those locals who are supposedly helping us either sit on their hands or make the problem worse. But Americans apparently don’t like to hear about failures and no one is held accountable for the staggering waste.

On July 1, the congressionally mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued another one of his astonishing reports on incompetence, waste and corruption, this one dealing with the disappearance of a relatively small amount, only $210 million, spent on facilities whose locations were described by bogus coordinates.

As the reporting officer said, “to prove meaningful oversight of these facilities, [we] need to know where they are.”  But “Thirteen coordinates were not located in Afghanistan, with one located in the Mediterranean Sea. Coordinates for 30 facilities were located in a province different from the one USAID reported. In 13 cases, USAID reported two different funded facilities at the same coordinates. 189 showed no physical structure within 400 feet of the reported coordinates, and a subset of 81, or just under half of these locations, showed no physical structure within a half mile of the reported coordinates. 154 coordinates did not clearly identify a specific building.”

The U.S. military command tried to shut down SIGAR’s disclosures by classifying the findings, so Americans would be kept from knowing what every peddler in the Kabul bazaar already knows, that U.S. aid is being plundered.

The hard truth is that U.S. officials had no feasible post-intervention plan in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya and the costs for those interventions now include unending warfare measured in the trillions of dollars. And, rather than making the American people safer, the “collateral” damages, I predict, will include attacks on America, Europe and Western assets abroad. Derivatives of these events will include the growth of fear, the decline of trust in one another, and the eroding of our civic culture.

Who could put a cost figure on all that? Yet, when the next foreign policy crisis arises, U.S. officials do the same destructive things all over again. In short, it would have been difficult to design policies more calculated to destroy our sense of well-being. After all, Americans got together as a nation-state in the late Eighteenth Century to, among other things, “secure The Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

As the first U.S. President, George Washington, warned us, “The peace often, sometimes perhaps the Liberty, of Nations has been the victim” of imprudent action. We should put his advice into a modern context and heed it.

William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.

15 comments for “Not Learning from Mideast Mistakes

  1. Rhana Bazzini
    July 10, 2015 at 16:48

    You’ve managed to depress me. All these comments are about how we’ve gone wrong but I see no ideas about solutions. Call me naive but last year at 81 I walked 440 miles in support of an amendment to the Constitution to overturn Citizens United. I did it in honor and memory of Doris Haddock, aka Granny D. There are some of us who think we can make a difference. We would love some of you who are most intelligent and perceptive to spend some of your time and energy working on solutions instead of displaying a superior, critical and aloof attitude. You just contribute to the problem.

    Rhana Bazzini

    • Uncle Sam's sister
      July 14, 2015 at 12:14

      Time to get tough Rhana,

      Your comment is basically saying the truth depresses you.

      Reality is what these comments are meant to change.

      Every informed American and world citizen should be depressed over what the US government represents and has become.

      To end your depression along with that of countless others, your best bet to constructively do that is to get informed and inform others until some event galvanizes all the various forces.

  2. Erik
    July 5, 2015 at 07:23

    Certainly those in control of the US do not learn from obvious mistakes because they do not consider them mistakes. There are several groups in addition to those who specifically want the devastation (Israel) and those whose profit depends upon destruction (the military and its industry). As Aristotle warned, the right wing (and the mass media) seek power primarily by creating foreign enemies so as to claim to be our protectors, and to denounce opponents as disloyal. They select enemies that generate campaign funds from those interest groups. They do not care in the least who suffers, because they are bully boys who feel aggrandized and legitimized by taking from others. They are supported by economic dependents in business, and those whom they intimidate or propagandize.

    The US population consists largely of these pathologies. It has no protection of elections and mass media from economic concentrations. Corrupt bully boys run most institutions. Their declarations of moral, religious, and legal principle are nothing but propaganda, and they neither seek nor tolerate truth, except in how to lie, cheat, and steal. There is no intention to do anything in accordance with any declared principle. Therefore there is nothing for them to learn but how better to lie, cheat, and steal. They seem to have got that down.

  3. July 5, 2015 at 01:46

    Lying mass murderers N.A.T.O./British Crown invade other peoples countries for rape and plunder. They learn from their actions how to increase the efficiency of lying, theft, rape and murder. There are no lessons to be learned by psychopaths that drink blood and eat human flesh. Jesus will forgive them when they get to heaven just like mommy and daddy and the preacher man told them. Moses was a mass murdering psychopath. Mass murdering liars are not holy men from god. Some assholes think they are.

  4. Peter Loeb
    July 4, 2015 at 05:36


    It is summer. When school is over for the summer we run out
    and celebrate, call the teacher names, and most condemn
    what was taught to oblivion. Of course most of this “lost”
    knowledge is “lost” on purpose (eg “manipulated consent”
    aka “enforced consensualism” (G. Kolko).

    Gabriel Kolko began one book as follows:

    “The United States from its inception has been a nation
    blind to itself—its past, its present and its future.
    Intellectually and culturally underdeveloped, it has
    left it to a handful of European commentators and
    rare alienated mavericks to produce some of the more
    penetrating assessments of American life and society.
    No industrialized people confronts reality so ill-prepared
    in terms of ideas and insights to cope with the
    problems before it.”
    first words of “Preface” to Gabriel Kolko’s
    HISTORY ( 1976, 1984)

    Your observations in this and other articles thus
    rub many “the wrong way”. They are not what they
    “want” (expect…are trained) to hear. They shut off,
    don’t want to be “bothered”. (eg with the deaths of
    Palestinians, the ill-deeds of the US or others in
    foreign policy etc.)

    (Ditto for the intelligent comments here.)

    Carry on!

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  5. Joe Tedesky
    July 3, 2015 at 20:39

    While reading Mr. Polk’s article, all I kept thinking about, was who all profits the most from all of this disaster. Over time, I have heard of how the CIA makes money by selling Afghanistan opium. We always hear of how the Military Industrial Complex profits selling weapons (to all sides). The revolving door for diplomats is enormously good for gainful promotion. Then there is the question of what all these Middle East wars mean for Israel. It would seem fairly simple to identify who is making out the most from all this tragedy, but who has the opposing financial balance to overcome all of this? The only ones who have no say are the very people who do suffer the terrible consequences from all this war. Where is the citizens messiah?

  6. Anonymous
    July 3, 2015 at 17:01

    Good article and good comments. I believe oil and the Yinnon plan were the real reason the USA invaded Iraq. As Saddam Husseins foreign secratary stated at the time, ” This is not about regime change, its about region change.” .General Wesley Clarks comments regarding the regime change plans in seven countries in the middle east and north africa confirm this notion.
    I submitt that as Polk has stated the policy wonks who hijacked the foregn policy apparatus to best serve Israel policy of regional supremacy and control foreign resources by use of the dollar control mechanism ( what Saudi Arabia is now stuck with ) did not understand the implications militarily. They confused Tactical superiority on the battlefield with a salient, modern strategy. As Ho chi Minh stated,” when the tactics are right, but the strategy is wrong battles may be won but the war will be lost.” Golly as the article states we are in a do loop as our manipulations of the controls fail and our state augurs in.

  7. F. G. Sanford
    July 3, 2015 at 16:06

    There’s a lot of ‘food for thought’ here, which I sense the author is attempting to serve up without actually giving away the recipe. Just about every Eleven Bang-bang who successfully completes infantry training can, with relative accuracy, provide grid coordinates for a point indicated on a terrain map. The Army takes that stuff pretty seriously. Some may recall an article by Phil Giraldi which explained the seemingly ludicrous paraphernalia in the possession of an American spy arrested in Russia. In addition to wigs and makeup, he was carrying a compass and a grid map. Pretty primitive stuff, unless you know how to use it. And, there’s a place called ‘The Basic School’ where they definitely learn how. So, when millions upon millions of dollars are funneled into agencies like USAID to fund various facilities, but nobody can locate those facilities on a map, the obvious conclusion must be that – OK, let me think – those well-intentioned ‘agents’ working for front groups like USAID must have been completely duped, conned, scammed and mislead by a bunch of semi-literate bedouin warlords and poppy farmers. Yep, in good faith, they just handed over millions upon millions of dollars to opium dealers and tribal elders on a handshake, and expected them to “do the right thing”. Instead of looking for grid points on a terrain map, they should probably be looking for bank accounts in Lichtenstein…or Israel. Either that or determine which ‘black budget’ assets got mysteriously fattened up. All these “good intentions” keep producing bad outcomes. Baffling, isn’t it? You’d think that if their intentions were good, there might have been at least one success story by now. Just sayin’…

    • Erik
      July 4, 2015 at 19:43

      I would look for political campaign funds that mysteriously fattened up, from donors with lots of funds to confuse. Odd that NSA & co. never seem to find such things by surveillance.

  8. Mark
    July 3, 2015 at 15:20

    Quoted from the article: “The hard truth is that U.S. officials had no feasible post-intervention plan in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya – and the costs for those interventions now include unending warfare measured in the trillions of dollars.”

    When the first part of the plan is to create chaos and strife to keep the Arabs fighting among themselves — as with Israel’s Yinon Plan — the plan is a success with chaos created — no post intervention plan needed. The second part of the plan is for Israel to go around and pick up the pieces — which we’ve not seen yet but regardless, phase one has been a smashing success, creating chaos by the death and destruction of various peoples and cultures for Israel’s sake.

    Has anyone noticed that the neocon vision for the future is parallel with Zionism’s where the M-E is concerned? If not a genuine dual citizen Zionist, any card carrying US neocon must certainly be pro-Zionist with Zionist goals being the primary consideration for US policy in the Mid-East regardless of the costs to US taxpayers and military service personnel. Of course neither Zionists or neocons would admit to that reality but they have gone along with all the lies and policies to manipulate the US public into accepting all of this as necessary under the guise of our own “security”. If you look at their actions since 9/11, without considering their words, the neocon Zionist Yinon Plan is in full swing creating chaos as ordered for Israel’s planned benefit.

    The Yinon plan in conjunction with PNAC’s ‘New Strategy for Securing the Realm’ plan, circa 1996, were, with 9/11 as the excuse to launch, what delivered the US into the planned disorderliness we created on behalf of AIPAC, the pro-Zionist “US” propaganda news media (that supports instead of questions neocon/Zionist lies), Israel itself, and all those cowardly and traitorous US politicians who rightly feared a political opponent would be funded by various pro-Israel forces if they refused to support Israel’s plans — even though Israel’s plan were and are contrary to the best interests of the USA and everyday American citizens, these politicians have a documented history of putting Israel’s interests before America’s.

    Welcome to PNAC’s New American Century!

    • Mark
      July 3, 2015 at 15:28

      If in doubt; to see how Zionist agents embedded in the Bush Jr. administration further infiltrated America’s defenses by having Middle East experts replaced by pro-Israel lobbyists to help manufacture propaganda for the American consumer:
      Search = (((The New Pentagon Papers))).

      • John B
        July 3, 2015 at 20:36

        Also see Pretext For War by Bamford

    • July 4, 2015 at 17:11

      Mark, sir, your brilliance is at a level with the estimable William R. Polk. Thank you for this essential comment.

    • Mark Thomason
      July 6, 2015 at 01:57

      Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the US really did try to create a new regime after destroying the old one.

      Clearly, we don’t know how. We failed, despite huge expense.

      We’ve tried many times, and as this author points out we keep doing it the same way. It never works.

      We don’t learn. Nothing.

      One might almost think that proves we don’t WANT to learn how to create an actual functioning government.

      So we seem to have disproved our assumption for the sake of argument. Or our government is really terminally stupid.

      • Mark
        July 6, 2015 at 12:04

        Mark, Because of their actions as recorded along with many self contradicting statements, I don’t really think the “deciders” tried or expected to create a new “working” governments — what is the definition of “working” in their own minds — a government that would be compliant to the deciders seemed all that really mattered to them — if not compliant it would be regime change all over again.

        It is asinine for anyone, or a group, to think they can go somewhere — anywhere — and create a new government structure, and favorable sentiment of their choice towards themselves — unless they plan on being dictators — which is what the plan was and is — “dictators by proxy”.

        They can buy the loyalty of dictatorial puppets at the expense of the people, and that is what they do — same as it is with corporate and special interests buying US politicians that stick it to the public right here in the USA and they use us to simultaneously stick it to anyone else they can in a nice neat cycle of war and profit.

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