Brookings Expert Michael O’Hanlon Thinks We’ve Won Our Recent Wars

Fresh off the call from his hero, David Petraeus, to cooperate with al Qaeda, Michael O’Hanlon suggests we should lower the standards for vetting of “moderate” rebels, so we can then partition Syria and pretend we haven’t just empowered al Qaeda.

But envisioning a federal arrangement offers the hope that a future peacekeeping force in Syria that could deploy largely along the lines of separation rather than throughout all the major populated areas. That would reduce its needed size and its likely casualty levels. There would surely be violence, and tests of the force — so Americans would have to be part of it, to give it backbone and credibility, but to the tune of perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 troops rather than the 100,000 or more that typified our peak efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, even this kind of deal would require the defeat or near-defeat of both the Islamic State and Assad, given how divisive and illegitimate each has become. So it would only be possible after moderate opposition forces had been strengthened and made much more military headway than they have so far.

This points a path forward. The United States and partners should expand their help for moderate factions, among other things by relaxing the vetting standards that have prevented us from working with anyone who wants to target Assad rather than just the Islamic State. Once somewhat larger moderate forces are available, and able to establish dependable toeholds within Syria, we should send in training teams to work with them in accelerating the recruiting and training of local forces. Such an approach would also allow the much better provisioning of humanitarian relief — an urgent priority recognized by all.

The plan itself is gibberish (and fails for the same reason his other options do: because the US won’t want to and cannot enforce this).

But it’s all premised on something else — that having an outside power intervene can end wars, including civil wars. To support that claim, he points to … America’s wars in the past 15 years.

A second potential war-ender is an intervention by some outside power, which could side with one party to win it. Beyond the U.S.-led wars of the last 15 years, good modern examples include Tanzania overthrowing Idi Amin in Uganda and the Vietnamese army defeating the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Last I checked, our intervention had reignited a long-simmering civil war in Afghanistan, and started ones in Iraq and Libya. In all those places, those civil wars continue to rage.

Yet those three examples of the US causing a civil war are Brookings expert Michael O’Hanlon’s idea of how to end a civil war.


25 replies
  1. galljdaj says:

    lil o’hanlon is onto something, he’s just picked the wrong country to partition!

    Annex wdc to virgina and partition the rest of the states into seven regions each with independent PM’s. And! charge the destruction of all nuclear weapons to tiny virginia dc.

    That’s a winner!

  2. What Constitution? says:

    O’Hanlon needs to take one more toke and crawl back under his rock. Did somebody actually ask him for his thoughts?

  3. wayoutwest says:

    This wonk generated chaff is certainly gibberish and people such as O’Hanlon must publish or perish but I doubt anyone important will do more than pat him on the head and send him back to the Brookings to scribble down some more delusions.

    I don’t think the US has ever had or will ever have any real control over events or forces in Syria any more than Turkey or the KSA have, they can supply and train but there are too many factions for anyone to control as a whole. It must be a bitter pill to swallow for the Turks and Saudis when some of the groups they supply are being led by al-Nusra an AQ affiliate and even the US gets a taste of this when the CIA delivered weapons are handed over to Jihadi groups.

    There is some small but important reality in O’Hanlon’s pipe dream and that is the only way for the West to affect events in Syria is to invade with massive forces which is a reality that few could support and it would only add to the mayhem.

  4. CTuttle says:

    It seems the truth finally comes out… Secret memos expose link between oil firms and invasion of Iraq

    “The papers, revealed here for the first time, raise new questions over Britain’s involvement in the war, which had divided Tony Blair’s cabinet and was voted through only after his claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

    The documents were not offered as evidence in the ongoing Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war. In March 2003, just before Britain went to war, Shell denounced reports that it had held talks with Downing Street about Iraqi oil as “highly inaccurate”. BP denied that it had any “strategic interest” in Iraq, while Tony Blair described “the oil conspiracy theory” as “the most absurd”.

  5. P J Evans says:

    The one civil war we had in the US ended when the losing side officially surrendered. They’re still trying to claim they won, 150 years later.

    • orionATL says:

      150 years is only a blink in time, p.j., for the collective unconscious :))

      my great- grandfather was born in 1855.

      that’s right ! only my great-grandfather – who umpired my father’s and his brothers’ baseball games when in his sixties.

      he herded cows during the war (so the story goes) way down south in dixie.

      people make of disaster what they will – some become wiser, some retain their ancestors affection for folly.

      i am confident arabs and jews, shia and sunni, druze and wahabi experience the same emotions and deal with them in the same varable way our people here do.

    • wayoutwest says:

      You must be one of those Yankee Devils, Suh, I doubt many Southerners think they won the War of Northern Aggression but there are some who still believe there was a time when they could have won.

      My great-grandfather was in the Civil War also and his side didn’t win, his letters are in the U of Texas Austin CW archives others in my family fought for the North. My grandfather was born in a Yankee POW camp in 1864.

  6. orionATL says:

    let’s see, where have i heard o’hanlon’s song and dance performance before:

    “pentagon contradicts general on iraq occupation force’s size”

    […Mr. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, opened a two-front war of words on Capitol Hill, calling the recent estimate by Gen. Eric K. Shinseki of the Army that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq, “wildly off the mark.” Pentagon officials have put the figure closer to 100,000 troops. Mr. Wolfowitz then dismissed articles in several newspapers this week asserting that Pentagon budget specialists put the cost of war and reconstruction at $60 billion to $95 billion in this fiscal year. He said it was impossible to predict accurately a war’s duration, its destruction and the extent of rebuilding afterward.

    “We have no idea what we will need until we get there on the ground,” Mr. Wolfowitz said at a hearing of the House Budget Committee. “Every time we get a briefing on the war plan, it immediately goes down six different branches to see what the scenarios look like. If we costed each and every one, the costs would range from $10 billion to $100 billion.” Mr. Wolfowitz’s refusal to be pinned down on the costs of war and peace in Iraq infuriated some committee Democrats, who noted that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the budget director, had briefed President Bush on just such estimates on Tuesday.

    “I think you’re deliberately keeping us in the dark,” said Representative James P. Moran, Democrat of Virginia. “We’re not so naí¯ve as to think that you don’t know more than you’re revealing.” Representative Darlene Hooley, an Oregon Democrat, also voiced exasperation with Mr. Wolfowitz: “I think you can do better than that.”

    Mr. Wolfowitz, with Dov S. Zakheim, the Pentagon comptroller, at his side, tried to mollify the Democratic lawmakers, promising to fill them in eventually on the administration’s internal cost estimates. “There will be an appropriate moment,” he said, when the Pentagon would provide Congress with cost ranges. “We’re not in a position to do that right now.” …]
    .- and then in retrospect:

    […Although Boots on the Ground is the most commonly cited measure of troop strength, that measure does not include over 100,000 other troops deployed in the region providing theaterwide support for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), the Afghan War, and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the Iraq War. Before the 9/11 attacks, the United States had deployed about 26,000 troops in the Central Command region, which includes Afghanistan and Iraq. Based on the most comprehensive DOD measure of troop strength, 294,000 troops were deployed for OEF and OIF as of December 2008, a tenfold increase since 2001.This more inclusive measure may more accurately capture the overall demand for troops. The Administration has not indicated how its plans would affect troops providing support in the region. Using five DOD sources, this report describes, analyzes, and estimates the number of troops deployed for each war from the 9/11 attacks to FY2012 to help Congress assess upcoming DOD war funding requests as well as the implications for the long-term U.S. presence in the region …]

    from congressional resesrch service pdf, a. belasco, 7/2/09.

    • orionATL says:

      oh, and partitioning ? o’hanlon has thought about that, too – before :

      […On July 9, 2007, O’Hanlon said during a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. that a “soft partition” of Iraq is already occurring that might break the country up into three autonomous regions – Kurdistan, “Shi’astan” and “Sunnistan”.

      Iraq is being ethnically segregated. Ethnic cleansing is on its way, it’s happening, and at least a couple million people have been displaced. It’s becoming Bosnia in some ways, he added.[11]
      In a July 30, 2007 op-ed piece in the New York Times O’Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack, just back from an 8-day DOD-scheduled itinerary in Iraq reported that:

      [A]s two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily ‘victory’ but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.[12]

      Controversy …

      Critics however, have called into question the veracity of O’Hanlon’s claim to have been a harsh critic of the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq, arguing that it was a deceitful assertion intended to lend the article increased credibility.[13] According to attorney and columnist Glenn Greenwald, O’Hanlon and Pollack “were not only among the biggest cheerleaders for the war, but repeatedly praised the Pentagon’s strategy in Iraq and continuously assured Americans things were going well”.[14]

      On August 25, 2007, he made an attempt to answer his critics in an Op-ed in Washington Post.[15] In response to the charge that he based his judgment on “dog-and-pony shows” in Baghdad, he claimed that his assessment was also informed by years of study of the situation through a large number of knowledgeable sources, including many that were reflected in the Iraq Index (and contributed to its sober message for much of the war).

      Writing in the National Interest in May 2008, O’Hanlon gave himself 7 marks out of 10 for his predictions about Iraq, although he acknowledged that among his incorrect positions was his initial support for the war – given the Bush administration’s poor preparations for the post-Saddam period.[16] …]

      from wikipedia –

  7. Don Bacon says:

    Partitioning Iraq and Syria has been the plan all along, ever since the US realized it had screwed the pooch with OIF and transformed Iraq from an Iran enemy to an Iran ally, and breaking up Syria just came naturally.
    This is what created ISIS, and is why the U.S. mounts no serious opposition to ISIS. Also the U.S. just loves the general idea of instability, wherever it might be instituted.
    The latest news is that U.S. ally Turkey has sent two battalions of troops and flown air sorties into northern Iraq against the PKK — the fighting Kurds — who are the only serious ground opposition to ISIS. This is an area just north of the key city of Mosul, which last February the U.S. trumpeted it would relieve of ISIS occupation. Never happen.
    Well, Petraeus said repeatedly that Iraq was fragile and reversible, and he certainly knew what he was talking about. In fact he helped instigate it. The guys he paid not to fight the U.S. during the “surge” are the same guys who form the military backbone of iSIS. Are they still on the U.S. payroll?

    • wayoutwest says:

      The US led coalition is performing about twenty bombing missions a day over Syria and Iraq against Islamic State targets, do you have a set number, higher than that, that will qualify as ‘serious opposition to the IS’ ?

        • wayoutwest says:

          You’re avoiding my question, Don. I don’t think you support troops on the ground to make the US appear ‘serious’ in the fight against the Islamic State and there doesn’t seem to be much support for that option so bombing is the only serious, especially to those bombed, tactic available.

          I hope you are not one of the people who claims that the US is actually supporting the Islamic State and that bombing them twenty times a day is really a diversion or somehow a cover for that mythical alliance.

  8. Don Bacon says:

    About Us – Brookings Doha Center
    Established in 2008, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) is an overseas center of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. As a hub for Brookings scholarship in the region, the BDC advances high-quality, independent research and policy analysis on the Middle East and North Africa.
    Qatar is also the home of both al-Qaeda and a major US air base. How convenient. Also Qatar reportedly has just sent a thousand troops to Yemen, to aid Saudi Arabia in its destruction of that country.
    But not to worry.
    Michael O’Hanlon Says Brookings Research not Influenced by Government of Qatar

  9. Evangelista says:

    “A … potential war-ender is an intervention by some outside power, which could side with one party to win it.”

    For three seconds (starting from a stunned stop) I thought I might have to look into a history book for an example instance to affirm this idea not pulled out of the air. But then I remembered that it is naught but barely seventy-two years since Mussolini steered this course, drawing in “some outside power” not so very far different then from the USA today, including in leadership self-assurance, xenophobia and national incarceration rate…

    I wonder how it will work out this time…

  10. orionATL says:

    it depends on how you want to count i suppose:

    By Michelle Tan

    Marine Corps Times
    December 18, 2009

    In the eight years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, American troops have deployed almost 3.3 million times to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Defense Department data.

    The numbers, as of October 2009, show that more than 2 million men and women have shouldered those deployments, with 793,000 of them deploying more than once.

    Here’s a look at how the numbers break down by service:

    • Army. More than 1 million soldiers have deployed since the beginning of the wars. These 1 million soldiers have completed 1.5 million deployment events, with 352,700 deploying more than once.

    In October, 172,800 soldiers were deployed to the war zones.

    • Navy. More than 367,900 sailors have deployed since the beginning of the wars, with 147,200 deploying more than once. In all, the sailors have logged 595,700 deployments.

    In October, 30,000 sailors were deployed.

    • Marine Corps. More than 251,800 Marines have deployed since the start of the wars, completing 392,900 tours. More than 106,400 have deployed more than once.

    In October, 20,900 Marines were deployed.

    • Air Force. More than 389,900 airmen have deployed since 2001, with 185,500 going more than once. In all, airmen have completed 771,400 deployment events.

    In October, 31,500 airmen were deployed.

    • Coast Guard. More than 4,370 Coast Guardsmen have deployed since 2001, with 650 deploying more than once. The Coast Guard has 5,333 deployments on file, and in October, 438 were deployed. …]

    this article is available from the archives of marine corps times, if you are a subscriber. i’m not :

  11. Don Bacon says:

    This by O’Hanlon is extremely amusing.

    But envisioning a federal arrangement offers the hope that a future peacekeeping force in Syria that could deploy largely along the lines of separation rather than throughout all the major populated areas. That would reduce its needed size and its likely casualty levels. There would surely be violence, and tests of the force — so Americans would have to be part of it, to give it backbone and credibility, but to the tune of perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 troops rather than the 100,000 or more that typified our peak efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Reducing likely casualty levels is a good thing, Michael, so how about just staying the hell out. Or tell you what, you go first, to give it backbone and credibility,

  12. Les says:

    Especially when they’re bombing Syrian infrastructure, the Kurds, Shia militias, and anything else that might be a threat to ISIS.

    I’ve viewed the aerial bombing videos and yet to be convinced they’re making a real effort. I see too many of them hitting what are obviously empty personnel carriers and empty Syrian government buildings.

    The Turkish military have been bombing the Kurds in northern Syria almost exclusively. Out of over 300 bombing raids, only 3 were attributable as ISIS targets.

    On the other side, John McCain had previously gone on record stating that 75% of the US coalition bombing over Iraq and Syria return with their full payload, never having dropped a bomb.

    In yet another article, the US government objects to bombing the 60+ ISIS training camps because they claim to fear civilian casualties.

    If one really follows the Syria/Iraq, it’s obvious that ISIS is an asset of the US-backed coaltion.

    • wayoutwest says:

      I know that this is a complicated and confusing conflict but the Turks have been bombing the PKK in northern ‘Iraq’ not Syria but they did shell some YPG positions in northern Syria. The Turks are now working with the Coalition against the IS but they have been fighting with the Kurds for over thirty years and they depend on the coalition for targeting their bombs and rockets aimed at the IS positions.

      I’m a little troubled by your apparent desire for the Coalition to drop their unused/ untargeted ordinance on civilians even if you believe the unlikely claim of 60+ visible IS training camps.

      The IS quickly adapted to air attacks and were already known to operate in small groups only joining into larger forces when necessary. One source estimated there were 150 IS fighters involved in the rout of Iraqi army forces in Ramadi but they also claim 140 IS fighters killed so the total may have been as low as 300 total.

  13. Les says:

    I know it may be hard to grasp for some people, but the Turks are saying one thing and doing another. That was the point of the previous post. The coalition uses ISIS as an excuse to mobilize special forces and air assaults, but the reports and the evidence contradict these supposed rationale.

    The only thing complicated about this conflict is there are many cooks in the coalition against the Syrian government, and the different governments have their own agendas, some competing.

    • wayoutwest says:

      I agree with you that the Turks have their own agendas and especially Erdogan with his desire to be Emperor of Turkey but the PKK/Kurds gave him the excuse to make these power plays by killing Turks after the alleged IS suicide bombing. They didn’t just murder Turk soldiers/police but murdered civilians they accused of IS sympathies. These were stupid acts that no one in their right mind could justify or support.

      The Kurd/Turkey conflict is old, deeply engrained and local with over 30,000 deaths and Ergogan is probably just as stupid and malicious for his overreaction but the IS is still a secondary threat and until recently a somewhat distant one. I’m sure the US knew exactly what they bargained for to get the use of the Turk air base.

      Look at it this way who would you bomb if you were the mad Erdogan, stationary PKK camps near your border loaded with arms and supplies of a powerful enemy army who was attacking you or the scattered vehicles and positions of small forces on your border already under attack by the most powerful air power in the world?

  14. P J Evans says:

    my great- grandfather was born in 1855.
    One of mine fought in the Civil War. He turned 21 a few days after Appomattox. (I’ve read his letters. And the letters and journal of his older brother.)

    • orionATL says:

      amazing isn’t it; only four generations, three of which could talk with each other at any one time.

      and we hope warring middle eastern religious factions will calm down and get all peaceable in quick time ?

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