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A U.S. Marine prepares to cover the face of a statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with a U.S. flag in Baghdad in this April 9, 2003, file photo (Reuters).

I supported the war in Iraq. It was an agonizing mistake. I made the mistake because I did something a serious foreign policy thinker should never do: I allowed my emotions to affect my thinking. My emotions were stirred by several visits to Iraq I had made as a reporter in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq with the machinal, totalitarian intensity employed by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. Iraq under Saddam was like a vast prison yard lit by high wattage lamps, in which everyone was watched all the time, and everyone lived in absolute fear. I had my American passport taken away from me by Saddam’s secret police for ten days in 1986 while I was reporting on the Kurds in the north of the country. I had tasted the fear with which Iraqis themselves lived.

I thus assumed for years thereafter that nothing could be worse than Saddam’s rule. Following 9/11, I did not want to forcibly spread democracy in the Arab world like others did; nor did I want to topple dictators per se. I wanted only one dictator gone – Saddam – because he was so much worse than a mere dictator. He was a tyrant straight out of Mesopotamian antiquity.

I was wrong.

I was wrong because of the following reasons:

- I did not adequately consider that even in the case of Iraq, things could be worse. Though, in 1994, I had written extensively and in depth about the dangers of anarchy in the Third World, I did not fully consider how dangerously close to anarchy Iraq actually was, and that Saddam was the Hobbesian nemesis keeping it at bay. Saddam was cruel beyond imagining because the ethnic and sectarian differences in Iraqi society were themselves cruel and bloodthirsty beyond imagining.

- I was insufficiently cold-blooded in my thinking. I did not fully consider whether it was in the American interest to remove this tyrant. After all, President Ronald Reagan had found Saddam useful in trying to contain neighboring Iran. Perhaps Saddam might still be useful in containing al-Qaida? That is how I should have been thinking.

“The supporters of robust military intervention [in Syria] are not sufficiently considering how things could become even worse after the demise of dictator Bashar al-Assad, with full-scale anarchy perhaps in the offing…” – Robert D. Kaplan, Stratfor

- I was thinking only two steps ahead, not the five or six steps ahead required of serious analysis when the question concerns going to war. I wanted to remove Saddam (step one) and replace him with another general (step two). As I said, I had serious misgivings, in print, back then about democracy in the Arab world. But I should have been thinking even more about the consequences of such a newly empowered general not gaining control of the Kurds in the north, or of the Shia in the south. I should have been thinking more of how Iran would intervene on the ground with its intelligence services. I should have been thinking more about how once Saddam were toppled, simply replacing him might be a very complex affair. I should have been overwhelmed by the complexities of a post-Saddam Iraq. I wasn’t sufficiently.

Shi'ite worshipers step on U.S. and British flags painted on a street during a parade in Basra in this November 14, 2007, file photo (Reuters).

Shi'ite worshipers step on U.S. and British flags painted on a street during a parade in Basra in this November 14, 2007, file photo (Reuters).

- I did not consider the appetite for war – or lack thereof – of the American public. The American public was in a patriotic frenzy following 9/11. I should have realized that such a frenzy simply could not last. I should have realized that there would be a time limit regarding how long public support could be sustained for having boots-on-the-ground in large numbers in the Middle East. World War I for the United States had lasted less than 20 months. World War II for the United States lasted little more than three-and-a-half years. Americans tired of the Korean War in about that same time-frame, and revolted against the Vietnam War when it went on longer. The fact that I was emotionally involved in toppling Saddam did not mean the public would be so.

- Finally, I did not consider the effect of a long-term commitment in Iraq (and Afghanistan) on other regional theaters. The top officials in any administration – the president, secretary of state, and so on – have only a limited amount of hours in a day, even if they work 70-hour weeks. And if they are spending most of those hours dealing with the Middle East, America’s influence in the Pacific, Latin America, and elsewhere must suffer. America, therefore, must be light and lethal, rarely getting bogged down anywhere: in fact, I wrote and published exactly this – but in mid-2003, after the invasion of Iraq had already commenced. I just did not foresee American forces getting bogged down as they did. That was a failure of critical thinking. For the truth is, nobody seeks a quagmire: a quagmire only occurs when people do not adequately consider in advance everything that might go wrong.

On its face, Syria resembles Iraq in much of the above. The supporters of robust military intervention are not sufficiently considering how things could become even worse after the demise of dictator Bashar al-Assad, with full-scale anarchy perhaps in the offing; how Assad might still serve a cold-blooded purpose by containing al-Qaida in the Levant; how four or five steps ahead the United States might find itself owning or partially owning the situation on the ground in an anarchic Syria; how the American public’s appetite for military intervention in Syria might be less than they think; and how a long-term commitment to Syria might impede American influence in other regional theaters. The Obama administration says it does not want a quagmire and will avoid one; but that was the intention of the younger Bush administration, too.

Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr burn a U.S. flag during a rally in Najaf in this April 9, 2010, file photo. Hanging in the background are effigies of U.S. officials. (Reuters)

Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr burn a U.S. flag during a rally in Najaf in this April 9, 2010, file photo. Hanging in the background are effigies of U.S. officials. (Reuters)

Of course, each war or intervention is different in a thousand ways than any other. So while I have listed some similarities in the ways we can think about these wars, Syria will unfold in its own unique manner. For example, it is entirely possible that the Obama administration will not get bogged down, and that its intervention, if it still ever comes to that, will pivotally affect the situation for the better by serving as a deus ex machina for a negotiated cease-fire of sorts. For the very threatened use of power can serve as its own dynamic, revealing, in this case, the limitations of Russia and Iran which were obscured as long as America did relatively little to affect the situation.

The problem, however, is that such a happy outcome in Syria usually requires a finely calibrated strategy from the beginning. The Bush administration did not have one in Iraq, evinced by the absence of post-invasion planning. And, at least as of this writing, the Obama administration seems to lack one as well. Instead, it appeared until recently to be backing into a military action that it itself only half-heartedly believes in. That, more than any of the factors I have mentioned above, is what ultimately gives me pause.

The analysis Why Syria Is Like Iraq is republished with the permission of Stratfor.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

Robert D. Kaplan

Robert D. Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC, and has been a foreign correspondent for The Atlantic for over 25 years.


  1. JKF2

    September 25, 2013

    Very good points; the other similarity, that both Iraq and Syria share is that they are nations formed artificially by European empires; in the made up borders many ancestral peoples were cleaved and jointed to others. Such bad conglomerates of diverse people are always a receipe for never ending conflicts. The big change in the overall geopolitical situation, in my view, will come about once US+ leave Afghanistan, potentially 10,000+ trained and experienced extremists will be available to carry on their jihad in Iraq and Syria. To prevent such a situation, the Syrian civil war needs to be brought to an end in the next ~6 months. The longer the civil war goes on, the more the probability that it will end up in the end of the Christians, Allowites and secular Sunni Muslims in Syria, with no real hope for a good stable country for many decades. A failed state is in the making in Syria.

  2. Leyla Maker

    September 20, 2013

    I am pleased to hear you talk about how ignoring the consequences of any action can have dramatic and long lasting devastation. With the same token (I am sure the west is not able to imagine it) if you compare removing Saddam would be like a hand bomb compared to supporting the Muslim Brotherhood which would have been like an atomic bomb (I am sure non of the west can imagine that), but unfortunately the west ignores a lot of history and cultures background and think of its goal without taking those elements into their consideration. The same mistake that when the west occupied Egypt and they wanted to have people to help them in their occupations, the Christians of Egypt were not cooperative with them being an occupying force, they were labelled "barbarian" that is before the discovery of the greatness of the Egyptian civilization and before the world knew that those what the west called "barbarians" were the heirs of one of the greatest civilization of the human race. In fact those "barbarians" conserved their Ancient Language in dictionaries that they called stairs which was the key to deciphering the hieroglyphic languages. The British
    worked with what we call political Islam (same like America was trying to do now), the first 500 Egyptian pounds that the Muslim Brotherhood received was a donation from the British Army. The rest is history, but the question now: why do the west keep repeating these mistakes that if you ask a middle east person in his thirties in countries that not as educated as the west, he will be able to answer. I hope that the west wakes up of this illusion because the human race in the middle east as well as in the west is paying the price. I should add Africa and Asia too are paying a price. The last incident when the Egyptians ousted Morsy, even if it was a military coup, it was executed based on popular demand, still the total ignorance of the western government and 90% of the western media was clear.


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