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Winning Battles, Losing Wars: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Middle East

Winning Battles, Losing Wars: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Middle East

Michael Eisenstadt

February 1, 2017

Michael Eisenstadt is the Kahn Fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program. A specialist in Persian Gulf and Arab-Israeli security affairs, he has published widely on irregular and conventional warfare, and nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East.

Prior to joining the Institute in 1989, Mr. Eisenstadt worked as a military analyst with the U.S. government.

Mr. Eisenstadt served for twenty-six years as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve before retiring in 2010. His military service included active-duty stints in Iraq with the United States Forces-Iraq headquarters (2010) and the Human Terrain System Assessment Team (2008); in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan with the U.S. Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2008-2009); at U.S. Central Command headquarters and on the Joint Staff during Operation Enduring Freedom and the planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom (2001-2002); and in Turkey and Iraq during Operation Provide Comfort (1991).

He has also served in a civilian capacity on the Multinational Force-Iraq/U.S. Embassy Baghdad Joint Campaign Plan Assessment Team (2009) and as a consultant or advisor to the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group (2006), the Multinational Corps-Iraq Information Operations Task Force (2005-2006), and the State Department’s Future of Iraq defense policy working group (2002-2003). In 1992, he took a leave of absence from the Institute to work on the U.S. Air Force Gulf War Air Power Survey.

Transcript:

Robert R. Reilly:

It’s a great pleasure to introduce Michael Eisenstadt, who is the Kahn Fellow and Director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Military & Security Studies Program. A specialist in Persian Gulf and Arab-Israeli security affairs, he’s published widely on irregular and conventional warfare, as well as nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. Prior to joining the institute in 1989, Michael worked as a military analyst with the U.S. government. He served for 26 years as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve before retiring in 2010. His military service included active duty stints in Iraq with U.S. forces Iraq headquarters and the human terrain assessment team in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan with the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority at U.S. Central Command Headquarters, and Joint Staff during Operation Enduring Freedom and the planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom, which is, I believe, the time I was privileged to be his colleague for a short period. Without further ado, so he has more time to talk, let me ask you to join me in welcoming Michael Eisenstadt.

Michael Eisenstadt:

Thank you very much, Bob. Thank you very much for the invitation and for the warm welcome. It’s great to be here this evening. I’m going to be giving a talk that’s based on a monograph that I co-authored with Ambassador Jim Jeffrey at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy titled – and if you’ll forgive me for the plug here, “U.S. Military Engagement in the Broader Middle East.” Jim wrote the first section and I wrote the second section. My section was titled the same title as tonight’s talk, “Winning Battles, Losing Wars: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Middle East.”

Now, the reason that we wrote this monograph is that we wanted to make the case for continued U.S. military engagement with the region. Basically, you know, I think, you know, one of the things we said was that the U.S. still has vital interests in the region. Even though we are no longer dependent on Middle East oil like we used to [be], our allies are and our economy depends on them. The region is still of concern with regard to proliferation and I think most importantly, it’s a major exporter of violent extremism and terrorism, and we’ve learned that what happens in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East and conversely, if you don’t visit the Middle East, it will visit you. So we feel that because we still have vital interests, because of the problems of the region are bound to flow out of the region, we still need to maintain some kind of military role there.

The challenge is- I mean as a result of events since 9/11, it’s very clear that our military performance in that part of the world has been, to put it delicately, has been sub-optimal. We’ve made a number of major geopolitical mistakes that we are still paying for and I’m not sure we’ve really learned the lessons of the past sixteen or so years, so we wanted to write this piece in order to take a look at what went wrong, what did we do right, but where do we need to focus- since we are, at least from our point of view, doomed to- or at least our interests require that we remain engaged in this part of the world. How can we do it better if we are to remain engaged in this militarily?

I guess I would summarize my argument by paraphrasing the famous quote by Sun Tzu, “If you know yourself and know your enemy, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” And I think we have failed in both areas, so what I’m going to start off with is the failures of self-knowledge and they are many and I’m not even beginning to touch on many of these failures. I’ll give what I think are the most important ones. Rob mentioned- Bob mentioned before [that] we worked together at OSD, but I had previously been at CENTCOM headquarters for the planning of the War in Iraq and I have to say both at the time and with the benefit of hindsight, it became clear to me how little we understood ourselves and our own limitations and the blinders that we have and our inability to understand the region, which, to be fair, I mean, especially in the case of Iraq was- it was a hard target because it was a closed society. There were a lot of things going on below the surface that we couldn’t understand or couldn’t even see.

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