Some principles of a Middle East Strategy. An American Legion?

View 844 Sunday, September 29, 2014

“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

President Barack Obama, January 31, 2009






The President famously announced last month that he did not have a strategy with regard to the organization that calls itself The Islamic State, is called regionally in Arabic Daash or Daesh (pronounced dahhsh”), and called by many “The Caliphate”. It is not clear that he has one now.

I was preparing this essay when the President decided to act and launched a vigorous onslaught of air raids on ISIS held territory, mostly in Syria. What he plans next is not clear.

I will discuss the current actions, but first the basics.

For well over a thousand years various Islamic factions have tried to establish a unified state which will be the secular ruler over all Islamic faithful. It will be ruled by the Caliph, the true steward of Muhammad, and in theory a true Caliph would be both General and High Priest.

When Muhammed died, many expected that Ali, his son in law and the first adult male convert to Islam, would become his successor. Instead the community of the faithful chose his father in law, Abu Bakr, as steward. Abu, on his death bed, chose yet another of Muhammed’s companions as Caliph. The fourth Caliph was Ali, Muhammed’s son in law, and the fifth was Husan, grandson of the prophet. Husan was opposed, rebellion and civil war broke out, and gave up the Caliphate. There has not been a universally recognized Caliph since. Husan died in 670 AD.

Within the two great factions of Islam there are many divisions. Some, like the Aliwites of Syria, claim to be the only true Muslims. Others, in particular the Druze, call themselves Unitarians and do not claim to be Muslims, although many Muslims, both Sunni (who accept the various successors to Husan as legitimate Caliphs) and Shia (who wait impatiently for the return of the true Caliph from the House of Muhammed) regard the Druze as an heretical sect of Islam. The Israelis often hire them as security guards, and Druze citizens of Israel are considered reliable. In Lebanon Druze are an important faction and have worked in cooperative governments there.

The Kurds are mostly Sunni, although it is widely said by other Sunni that “Kurds are Mohammedans compared to Infidels.” Kurds are not Arabs, being more closely related to the non-Arab Persians. Persians are Shiites. Persia and Iraq were conquered before 700 AD, by Arabs loyal to the early Caliphates before the Sunni/Shiite division solidified.


Perhaps that’s enough. It would take many pages just to list the potential factions, and outline their relations with each other, and it would be pointless because that changes from time to time.

The Middle East has enjoyed the joys of diversity for over a thousand years, and the result is that there are no stable republics or democracies there.

Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing … but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty


That should be enough to indicate that there never was a hope of establishing a liberal democracy in Iraq; the best we could have hoped for was a tolerant coalition government along the lines of the old Lebanon agreement, where the Marionites, Druze, Sunni, Shia, Orthodox Christians, and sometimes others shared power in a complex arrangement that allocated government offices – President, Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament, Minister of the Interior – to the various factions. Oddly enough it worked, and at one time Beirut was known as the Pearl of the Orient. That was all long ago upset by invading factions.

Attempts were made to stabilize Lebanon, but none worked very well. Eventually they kidnapped an American from the Embassy and killed him. Lebanese also kidnapped four Soviet diplomats in an attempt to get the USSR to put pressure on another faction. The KGB responded by discovering through serious questioning just who had taken their people, kidnapping a dozen relatives of the kidnappers, sending the faction leader his brother’s testicles, and indicating that more body parts would be forthcoming if their people were not released. It is reported that no other Soviet citizens were ever kidnapped, but of course the USSR ended in the early 1990’s.


The United States conquered Iraq and pacified much of that loose collection of former provinces of the Turkish Empire, trained and equipped an Iraqi army, and withdrew. Many of the weapons are now wielded by the soldiers of the Caliphate, and many ISIS recruits are Iraqi Sunni who prefer the Caliphate to the anti-Sunni government of Iraq. Of course Iraq is different now according to the President of the United States, but there does not seem to be strong confidence in either the stability or the tolerance of the New Iraq. We have tried to create an Iraqi army capable of defending the “nation”. The result has been that about a third of the country – a large part of Sunni Iraq — is in the hands of the Caliphate and armed with weapons America provided for the Iraqis to defend themselves with. It is not likely that any new attempt to build an Iraqi national army will be more successful than the last.

It is difficult to discern the goals of the latest America campaign. The main use of the military is to break things and kill people, but breaking things and killing people does not usually of itself lead to desirable results. What results we want other than dead Caliphate citizens – men, women, and children – has not been announced.

Yet the Caliphate is the enemy of Iraq, and could easily play the role that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq played in the last century. The Caliphate represents a long standing faction of the Middle East. They have beheaded Americans, but they are hardly the only ones to have done so. The KGB convinced many Lebanese factions that kidnapping Russians entailed quite high risks, and the lesson seems to have been learned. Retaliation by bombing is likely to be both bloodier and less effective than the KGB operations in Lebanon were.


Purely destructive military operations – bombarding an enemy seaport or other city or encampment as an example – are intended to accomplish a certain result: stop doing what you are doing, and stop other people from doing it, or more of this will happen to you. Roosevelt’s cable in the Pericaris Affair – This government expects Pericaris alive or Raisuli dead – was intended to convey that sentiment, and the seven US warships in the harbor gave some credence to the matter. Pericaris was restored to his wife and children and lived out his life in London, so there was no port bombardment or seizure of customs houses; the objective was achieved without that.

It’s not so clear in the present case. What does the Caliphate have that we want, and is bombing seemingly random targets in Iraq and Syria likely to achieve it?

And yet they do have something we want, and which used to be ours: large parts of Iraq with oil wells. They manage about six million dollars a day in profits from the oil they have seized. Moreover, many of those oil fields are claimed by the Kurds, who are, at the moment, the most reliable allies we have in that region.

Which ought to suggest a strategy.

There are a number of military “principles” taught to officer cadets. They vary from nation to nation, but they’re pretty much all the same. The 1952 Bugle Notes – the Handbook for incoming cadets at West Point – lists nine Principles of War.

The Principles of War

1. The Principle of the Objective

2. The Principle of the Offensive

3. The Principle of Mass

4. The Principle of Economy of Forces

5. The Principle of Maneuver

6. The Principle of Surprise

7. The Principle of Security

8. The Principle of Simplicity

9. The Principle of Unity of Command

USMA Handbook (1952)

There are other contenders for the title of Principle of War. Nearly every war college has a set. In nearly every case they begin with The Principle of the Objective. If you don’t know what your objective is, you aren’t going to win – how can you?

There appears to be no objective in the current campaign against the Caliphate. “Destruction of the Enemy” might be a stated objective: the Roman destruction of Carthage, with the slaughter of all the adult males, sale of all the women and children into slavery, pulling down and burning all the buildings of the city, and sowing its fields with salt was a pretty decisive victory, and Carthage was certainly never a problem for Rome after that. However, we are committed to do this with air power and perhaps a few forward observers, spotters and shot callers, and some training officers. We aren’t committing enough airplanes and weapons to kill all the ISIS citizens, and even if we did it is not a politically acceptable goal.

But there is an achievable objective: retaking every inch of land claimed by our Kurdish allies and held by the Caliphate. An American regimental combat team with a wing of good tactical ground support aircraft, supported by the Fleet with its air arm, could achieve that objective, and do so rather quickly. Having taken that land, we can turn it over to the Kurds. Much of the population will be Kurdish, although some of that land was formerly Kurdish but taken by Saddam Hussein to be distributed to non-Kurds as part of his Arabization program. One presumes the Kurds will deal with that situation, returning the land to its former owners, and expelling the current occupants, but we would take no part in that.

As to the oil fields, we keep them. Part of their revenue goes to us to pay for this operation. Some goes to the Kurds. The rest is a matter of negotiation us and what’s left of Iraq (Sunni and Shia).

At that point we have a decision to make. Do we need a long term expeditionary force in that area of the world? There are other factions, such as the Druze, who might make long term allies.  If so, we have the means for financing it – those oil wells – and a good source of recruits to an American Legion. Terms of service: Sign up for four years. At the end of that term, if we want you, you can sign up for a second four year term; if you don’t care to, or we don’t want you, we hand you something like $20,000 and a ticket to anywhere you want to go, but only a temporary US visa if you want to go there. Sign up for 4 more years – that makes 8 – and you leave with a better bonus and permanent residence in the US, with a path to citizenship. At the end of 8, if you want to re-up, it will be for 12 years, and you’ll get a pension, US citizenship, and decent severance pay. Obviously I’m making up the details, but the point is that if we’re going to have long term overseas forces we need to build them, not disrupt the lives of Americans. The notion of citizenship and a bonus after honorable military service is hardly new.


Whether we build an American Expeditionary Force – an American Foreign Legion – determines to some extent what our objectives in the Middle East must be. We can’t take land we don’t hold, and we can’t keep sending citizens there. Our voluntary military is the most effective military force in the history of the world, but it depends on the quality of the soldiers; and that means more than just the bleeding edge front line troops. If we are to remain a Republic we must have citizen soldiers. If we are to hold overseas territories we must have long term occupational troops.

Bombing the Caliphate without objectives is not a strategy. Intending to restore Kurdish Iraq to the Kurds is a feasible objective, and having made the restoration we can simply come home. If we intend to remain a power in the Middle East we will need an army capable of living there.

More another time.


: Paper Bear

But still with potency…

David Couvillon

Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired.; Former Governor of Wasit Province, Iraq; Righter of Wrongs; Wrong most of the time; Distinguished Expert, TV remote control; Chef de Hot Dog Excellance; Avoider of Yard Work

The Red Army had been purged to near impotence in 1940. It was able to revive and turn the course of the war at Stalingrad.  Napoleon was certain that the Russian Army could not oppose his Grand Armee.

Poster: Napoleon's March 



Dr. Pournelle,

Thanks for this morning’s post. You’ve often remarked on competency in empire, and illustrated other points of empire, but with this essay you’ve synthesized some of the parts of the principles of competency that I think had not been brought together before.

I know that you have probably said little that you think is new…Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, at the very least, were there before you…but you’ve certainly put proven practice in contemporary context.

It worries me greatly that there is no strategy for the Middle East. I remember then Senator Obama harangued General Patraeus about the failure of strategy in Iraq. I wonder on which side of history the CINC is now. Many members of the administration were quick to use the word quagmire up to the first election, but I haven’t heard it recently.


Destroying the enemies of our enemies without gaining anything in return for that is generally a poor strategy: we did that with Saddam Hussein, as I said at the time.  Wars should be fought for an objective.  We should enter wars from reason, not from passion. Passion is useful in winning battles, but it should have no part in planning new wars.  Napoleon learned that.

The Caliphate is our enemy, but the Caliphate detests Iran and Shiite Iraq.  See

Israel: ISIL Is Not A Problem In This Neighborhood




Some principles of a Middle East Strategy 

Dear Jerry,

It’s not so clear in the present case. What does the Caliphate have that we want, and is bombing seemingly random targets in Iraq and Syria likely to achieve it?

And yet they do have something we want, and which used to be ours: large parts of Iraq with oil wells. They manage about six million dollars a day in profits from the oil they have seized. Moreover, many of those oil fields are claimed by the Kurds, who are, at the moment, the most reliable allies we have in that region. Which ought to suggest a strategy.

The Caliphate also "has" a land passage from the stranded natural gas fields of the Arabian/Persian Gulf leading to the gas pipelines in Turkey that flow onward into southern Europe.

This list shows the immense potential natural gas competition for Putin’s Gazprom that is already proven to exist in the Middle East. Were any of several proposed pipelines to Turkey to be completed then Gazprom would lose its monopoly pricing power in southeastern and central Europe.

Keeping this entire region in a state of incipient war is therefore a clear strategic imperative for Vladimir Putin given his extreme dependence on high export prices for hydrocarbons. "Syria" can therefore be added to the list of "frozen conflicts" this ex-KGB thug turned international war criminal has been trying to manipulate. A similar motivation exists for Putin’s regular diplomatic interventions in Iranian affairs.

The converse is true for NATO, the EU and numerous Arabian/Persian Gulf states. The surest way to defeat Vladimir Putin and his cabal is to open up large new natural gas supply sources to Europe.

Stabilizing a land route for natural gas pipelines appears to require ground forces. The USA is the only candidate supplier of sufficient force. Meanwhile ISIS is proving to be a useful geopolitical magnet for US ground troops judging from many peoples’ statements. Exactly who has fomented ISIS and why is a fascinating question when considered from a cui bono viewpoint.

Best Wishes,



Dr Pournelle

An American Foreign Legion. Interesting concept.

The question is where should we build our Sidi bel Abbes. Iraq is not a good site, but the AFL should take and hold the oil fields in southern Iraq to pay for the Legion.

As much as I like the idea, that way lies empire. And we Americans have no one I would want for emperor. Not even you.

Perhaps if Bill Buckley were alive . . . . but he would not take the job.

Wait a minute. Do you think Prince Harry would take the job?

Live long and prosper

h lynn keith


Fortunately the Kurds claim and can hold a land pipeline path from the Iraqi oilfields to Turkey.  Of course the Kurds may need a bit of help: and that is the rub.  Holding land is primarily the business of those living on it, but holding it against foreign invaders armed and supplied by a major outside power – South Viet Nam comes to mind – requires some continuous assistance by another major power.  Sending American troops into that situation is neither politically acceptable nor long sustainable. It requires forces which understand that their lifetime career is as auxiliary forces assisting American allies.  Giving such soldiers an incentive to take such a thankless job is difficult but we are in a position to do so; there are plenty of potential recruits.  Moreover, Kurdish (former) Iraq can provide an American equivalent of Sidi bel Abbes with this advantage: Kurdistan is not an American colony, nor will it ever be.  The purpose of the Legion is to assist the Kurdish army, not to oppress it.  And when that is no longer needed, I make no doubt there are plenty of places in this world where long term forces who are not and cannot be colonists will be useful.  This is not Empire unless you wish it to be.  The French Foreign Legion existed throughout the entire Third Republic and never was a threat to it; indeed came to France for the first time in World War I.

We do not need forces who govern without the consent of the governed; but we cannot send Americans everywhere that our interests are threatened when it is known they will not stay long.



Syria: A Better Future

Next Article → AIR WEAPONS: Turkey Sticks It To Israel Again

September 19, 2014: Thanks to continued Russian logistical (spare parts) and technical (maintenance technicians and experts) help the Syrian Air Force continues to send up warplanes and armed helicopters every day to hit rebel targets. Currently the air force is concentrating on ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Assad forces are not bothered by civilian casualties, so the ISIL custom of using local women and children as human shields does not work in Syria. In any event the Assads want to kill pro-rebel civilians both to lessen their resolve and persuade some of them to leave the country. The fighting that began in 2011 has now killed about 200,000 in Syria and forced over 20 percent of the population (most of them rebel supporters) from the country. The Assads have encouraged this flight with attacks on pro-rebel civilians and leaving open escape routes to the borders.

The United States has declared that it will seek to destroy ISIL without putting any troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria. The U.S. also admits that this effort will likely go on for years. In part that is because the U.S. insists that no American troops will be sent in for offensive combat. By the end of the year there will be at least 5,000 American military personnel in Iraq and even more contractors. That number is expected to grow in 2015 is needed.  Meanwhile there will be American troops in combat. These will primarily be special operations troops from the army (Special Forces, Rangers), marines, navy (SEALs) and air force (para-rescue). There will be some similar special operations troops from American allies. Britain and Australia are already in and others are expected to join, including some Moslem special operations units that worked with NATO in Afghanistan. Some of these special operations troops will end up in eastern Syria. While ISIL knows a lot about avoiding smart bombs and missiles they also know that if they are to control their new “Islamic State” (eastern Syria and western Iraq) they have to use bases and concentrate gunmen to deal with armed opposition. There is no tactic that will make ISIL immune to smart bombs under those conditions, not if they still want to control territory. The U.S. has managed to get nine other countries (Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Poland, Denmark and Australia) to join an effort to destroy ISIL in Iraq and Syria. The coalition will provide more advisors, weapons, ammo and air power than the U.S. itself is currently providing. The Americans will probably continue to be the major contributor.

And yet Assad is tolerant of Christians and Druze at the same time that he is friendly with Iran; while the United States is pounding on ISIL, which is an enemy of Assad and Iran, and is tolerant of no one. We will not be sending in American troops, and we have no objectives, and if we did we have nothing with which to hold them if they were acquired.  This is not a strategy.





The Red Army had been purged to near impotence in 1940. It was able to revive and turn the course of the war at Stalingrad. Napoleon was certain that the Russian Army could not oppose his Grand Armee.


Due to these factors

1) Hitler insisted on this Stalingrad campaign – foolish.

2) Western Allied Strategic Bombing, which, if not crippling the German War effort, added an element of uncertainty.

3) Hitler ugly racial theories caused occupied countries to conduct Guerrilla warfare.

4) The USSR outnumbered Axis by about 3 to one.

5) The Axis was unprepared for the Russian Winter.

And other things, many of which were Axis Mistakes which they did not have permission to correct.


Some of those factors may not have played out as you think, but the point was that despite Stalin’s inept handling of the Red Army (which became the Army of the Soviet Union or the army of the glorious homeland during that war) it was able to slow the Wehrmacht and eventually bring it to a halt, recover, and march westward to Berlin.  Underestimating Russian patriotism is a mistake. Underestimating Russian capability when faced with danger to the homeland has historically been a disastrous mistake. Do not count Russia out, and do not underestimate the ingenuity of Russians when ingenuity is needed.


This President’s Latest Failure

Normally, when the policy makers are crying "intelligence failure", it’s actually a policy failure. Intelligence failures happen, but not as often as policy makers would like the general public to believe.

Remember Condi? "I believe the title was, Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States." But, they called it an "intelligence failure" and created more bureaucracy. Well, now we have this:


President Barack Obama’s intelligence briefings have provided him with specific information since before he won re-election in 2012 about the growing threat of the terror group now known alternatively as ISIS and ISIL, an administration insider told MailOnline on Monday.

‘Unless someone very senior has been shredding the president’s daily briefings and telling him that the dog ate them, highly accurate predictions about ISIL have been showing up in the Oval Office since before the 2012 election,’ said a national security staffer in the Obama administration who is familiar with the content of intelligence briefings.

The staffer declined to share anything specific about the content of those briefings, citing his need to maintain a security clearance.

But ‘it’s true,’ he said, ‘that the [intelligence] community was sending pretty specific intel up to us.’

‘We were seeing specific threat assessments and many of them have panned out exactly as we were told they would.’


The article also alleges this president takes his daily briefings in writing so that nobody can testify on having warned him about anything in person.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Most Respectfully,

Joshua Jordan, KSC

Percussa Resurgo

It is being said in Washington that the President doesn’t sit through the briefings nor read the intelligence reports daily. Apparently they bore him.  I can understand that, and it may be that he makes that up by having a weekly briefing that summarizes; still, he must have got the notion that ISIS was the “junior varsity” from someone.  I can’t think that it came from the Company, so who has been telling him that?  And of  course the Benghazi fiasco was a classic failure of intelligence and will.

This President seems so determined to have all the troops out of the Middle East or at least out of Iraq and Afghanistan (although Afghanistan is not really Middle East, but leave that) that he can think of nothing else and listens to nothing that might contradict it.

Determining a policy regarding the Caliphate is very difficult.  They want to establish themselves as a nation. We have no real alternatives, except in Kurdish Iraq; but there we do have an alternative.  It will take a full regimental combat team – say a Division to be sure – and a wing of really good ground support aircraft, but that should be more than sufficient to establish the Kurds in control of all of their area of Iraq.  What we do about the central Sunni section of Iraq is another story.  Ideally, that would go to Jordan, which should have had that section in the first place.  There is the old “United Arab Kingdom” agreement that may actually prove useful, if we are bold enough to think that way.  Sunni Iraq is not going to lie down and be run over by Shiite Iraq. A long “civil war” between Sunni and Shiite regions is possible, but again not in anyone’s interest.   For the moment, one attainable objective would be establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq.  It would be nominally Sunni (“Kurds are Muslims compared to infidels”) but not fanatically so.  It would be fairly wealthy; and judging by the record of the existing Kurdish areas since the fall of Saddam, fairly stable, not requiring any great commitment of American troops.  That is possible and attainable.

Other objectives would become possible once that was attained.

I doubt that our lack of coherent policy in Iraq is entirely or even mostly due to failure of our intelligence operations.




Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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