Into the Abyss

Martin van Creveld

Martin van Creveld lives and teaches in Jerusalem.  He has written several books that have influenced modern military theory, including Fighting Power, Command in War, and most significantly, The Transformation of War.

Copyright 2004, Martin van Creveld    Published with permission of the author.

As some people predicted even before it all started, the American War against Iraq proved so easy as to make one wonder why it had to be fought at all. As other people also predicted before it all started, the really hard part only got under way after President Bush declared “major combat operations” at an end. Since that day Iraqi resistance has only become stiffer as terrorism picked up. As a result, more American soldiers have died trying to safeguard the “victory” than were killed in achieving it in the first place; nor does it look as if there is anything the U.S. can do to change the trend.

The fact that Saddam has been captured makes no difference. The U.S. will lose, in fact already has lost, the War. The Americans will leave the country in the same way as the Soviets left Afghanistan; that, is, with the Iraqi guerrillas jeering at them. The only question is how long it will take and how much prestige can still be saved from the ruins. That, and that alone, is the issue that still faces Mr. Bush who is up for re-election and must somehow put this issue behind him before Americans go to the polls.

What will happen to Iraq once the Americans have left is anybody’s guess. That an American-appointed government can sustain itself seems unlikely—at the moment, any member of the so-called Governing Council who so much as shows his or her nose outside the compound where they are cooped up will be killed on the spot. Iraq will probably disintegrate into three parts, i.e. a Shi`ite South, a Sunni Center, and a Kurdish North. Judging by the fact that the last-named has never been able to overcome its tribal divisions, none of the three is likely to develop into a proper, centrally-ruled, state. The most likely outcome is three mini-Afghanistans that will serve as havens for terrorist activities throughout the Middle East.

Around Iraq, the States that have most to fear from an American collapse are Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Each in its own way, all three depend on American support. All suffer under severe social strain, whether against an ethnic background—as in Jordan where Bedouin and Palestinians clash—or a religious one as is mainly the case in the other two. As unrest spreads from Iraq probably not all three will see their regimes overthrown, but one or two might well undergo this fate. Jordan being a small and weak country, its fate will be of concern mainly to its immediate neighbors such as Syria—which, if it tries to intervene, will have Israel to reckon with—Israel, and Saudi Arabia. By contrast, the collapse of Saudi Arabia, or a situation whereby Egypt turns into an Islamic republic and abrogates its peace treaty with Israel, would have world-wide economic and strategic implications that are hard to foresee.

In the short run, the greatest beneficiary of the war is Israel. The destruction of Iraq has created a situation where, for the first time since the State was founded in 1948, it has no real conventional enemy left within about 600 miles of its borders. If Sharon had any sense he would use this window of opportunity to come to some kind of arrangement with the Palestinians. Whether he will do so, though, remains to be seen.

In the longer run, the greatest beneficiary is likely to be Iran which, without having to lift a finger, has seen its most dangerous enemy ground into the dust. Even before President Bush launched his war against Iraq, the Iranians, feeling surrounded by nuclear-capable American forces on three sides (Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics, the Persian Gulf), were working as hard as they could to acquire nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles to match. Now that the U.S. has proved it is prepared to fight anybody for no reason at all, they should be forgiven if they redouble their efforts.

Even if the Islamic Republic is overthrown, as some hope, the new government in Tehran will surely follow the same nationalist line as its predecessor did. A nuclear Iran is likely to be followed by a nuclear Turkey. Next will come a nuclear Greece, a nuclear Saudi Arabia (assuming the country can survive as a single political unit), and a nuclear Egypt. Welcome to the Brave New World, Mr. Bush.

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